What follows is an excerpt from my upcoming travelogue, whose working title is The Great American Basset Hound. No basset hounds were harmed, or have even at this point been involved in the writing of this excerpt, or indeed any other part of the upcoming volume. Enjoy!
Friday 8 April 2016 came about two hours later than the previous day, as my alarm was set for the much more leisurely hour of eight rather than its far more rushed predecessor of six. I breakfasted with Kristiina in the empty hotel dining room, as the majority of our group had already left for their first meeting of the day at the International Crisis Group. Kristiina had chosen to not attend that particular talk, as she wanted to get some rest and get the most out of the main event of the day, a visit to the European Parliament. We had a quiet breakfast of waffles, frankfurters, and croissants, passing the time with small talk, the very nature of which seemed to be our way of avoiding thinking about our respective journeys that day: hers to London in the afternoon and mine to Annecy just before eleven.
I had everything well planned, and at the chosen time was ready to leave our hotel at Place de Sainte-Catherine for the journey across Brussels to Zuidstation/Gare du Midi. At around 09:45 I said goodbye to Kristiina, turned in my room key, and headed out the door, pulling my suitcase with briefcase mounted atop behind me, as the cobblestones did not work well with all four wheels. I felt a sense of excitement, a sense of anticipatory joy at seeing my parents again for the first time in four months. This was the longest stretch of time that I had been away from them in my life, the longest since we had hugged, or sat together, or ate together. Yet also I felt a pang in my heart, a longing for my friends who would be returning to London that afternoon. Perhaps the perfect possibility would have been if both my parents and my friends could be together, but at least in this instance that was not to be.
I walked through Place de Sainte-Catherine towards De Brouckère metro station, where I descended down the steps quite clumsily with my suitcase, briefcase, and umbrella in hand. At first I tried to use the fancy larger ticket gates, which are intended for those who have luggage and the handicapped, but I could not figure out how to make them work. Instead, I turned to the normal gates, and passed through fairly easily into the station proper. I was quite surprised to not see any soldiers in De Brouckère station that day, as there had always been at least two or three on patrol there every other time I had gone through that particular station. Soon though I was faced with a problem, as I had forgotten which metro line was the one to take to Zuidstation/Gare du Midi. Remembering that I had taken a direct train going to De Brouckère the day prior, I knew that I would find the proper train eventually, but still I was faced with a bit of an odd conundrum. Eventually though I came upon a bit of luck, and was soon on the T3 prémetro tram heading southbound.
To digress briefly, the public transport system in Brussels is a good model for what my city, Kansas City, could do. A system made up in part of trams (streetcars in American English), but equally reliant on buses and commuter rail could do wonders for Kansas City, bringing more people and business into the city itself, and quite possibly reducing the need for parking in places like downtown. The prémetro idea, namely having the trams move underground for part of their route and operate as a part of the metro alongside the subway lines is a smart way to better connect one’s varying modes of public transport, while saving money by allowing the local transport authority to avoid having to pay for heavy rail services like a subway. This will also reduce the need for private cars along the tram routes, equally leading to both more pedestrians and lower rates of road congestion within the city.
I quickly descended on the escalator, and went down a further set of stairs onto the platform, where the Tram 3 arrived about three minutes later. Boarding, I soon found myself hoping beyond hope that no one else would board and try to sit around me, as my bags were so big that I feared they would only cause trouble between my fellow passengers and I. Thankfully for me, that did not happen, and in large part due to the recent terror attacks in Brussels, the three stations (Bourse, Anneessens, and Lemonnier) between De Brouckère and Gare du Midi were closed. As a result, the journey only took a mere eight minutes, and as we passed along the single track between the darkened platforms at Lemonnier, I began to prepare myself mentally and physically for the journey up from the metro and into Gare du Midi. Then a sudden lurch came as the tram suddenly, and forcefully stopped in its tracks in the tunnel, whose darkness penetrated the hearts of all on-board, leaving everyone still, fearful of what was to come to pass. After a minute we started on our way again, with no reason given to what I assumed must have been some sort of animal moving across the tracks in front of the tram’s headlights, startling the driver into his sudden cessation of travel and apparent use of the emergency brake.
About two minutes later we arrived at Gare du Midi. I stood as the tram entered the station, taking my suitcase, briefcase, and umbrella firmly in hand, nearly falling over in the process as we came to a halt and the doors opened. I passed the people on the platform waiting to get on-board and walked up a short flight of stairs towards an escalator which took me into the shopping centre attached to Gare du Midi. I was surprised to find the ticket gates open, and anticipating that this crevice might merely be temporary, I slipped through, removing myself from the Brussels Metro into, as P.T. Barnum put it “The Land of Egress.” Having egressed into the mainline railway station, I began searching for a signboard which would tell me which platform I needed to go to to catch my first train, a Thalys train to Paris Gare du Nord, which was due to depart in about thirty minutes at 10:43.
Soon I found a screen hanging just above a large doorway leading onto the main concourse, which showed my train as departing from Platform 5B. Looking around, I found another sign, which pointed towards the international ticket office and Eurostar security lines as the site of the otherwise elusive Platform 5B. I walked down another long, dark corridor, which seemed to have been built with an antagonistic spirit towards the Sun above, yet hidden by the thick concrete of the platforms above. As I walked along my way I saw one final police checkpoint with two armed officers standing guard on the platforms above. My mind began to plan ahead, considering that it was entirely possible they would ask for my papers, thus I reminded myself where my passport and ticket were. In front of me was a man carrying two oversized suitcases, which attracted the attention, though only slightly, of the guards. However after a couple words they let the man pass, and it was my turn to step forward. To my surprise they completely ignored me, and I walked swiftly and smoothly through the checkpoint, heading up the ramp to the platform above.
The architecture of Brussels-Midi is quite interesting, different from some of the grand old railway stations in London and Paris, but truly a hub of activity for the railways of Belgium, the Netherlands, northwestern Germany, and northeastern France. Rather than have a grand long arched glass roof that is suspended between the two side walls of the platforms, the glass roof at this particular station is more like that at Kansas City’s Union Station, one which is made up of many smaller arches, thus giving the station ceiling more of a wave-like feel. The station itself does not necessarily have the charm of Paddington or Gare de Lyon, but it does have the practicality and methodical feel of much of post-war Brussels. At 10:23 on the dot my train arrived, its deep red paint matching the equally luxurious opera red interiors. I was surprised to see the train already filled with passengers, having not realised that Brussels was not the first stop on its route. Rather, this particular train had started in Cologne, then travelled through Aachen and Liège before arriving in the Belgian capital.
Initially I was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Geneva, meeting my parents in at the Swiss airport only two hours after their own flight from London had arrived at that lakeshore alpine city. However on Holy Tuesday, the 22nd of March, I awoke to some of the worst news one can ever wake up to. Two nail bombs had gone off at Brussels Airport in the departures hall, while a third bomb was detonated in Maelbeek metro station in the European Quarter of the city. In total, thirty-two people were killed by the ruthless barbarity of these extremists. As I readied myself for that day’s class, I kept a close eye on my TV, watching as more and more information arrived in London from the Belgian capital. Immediately, I began to reconsider my route from Brussels to Annecy, knowing that if the airport itself was bombed then the odds were pretty high that I would not be able to fly through that same airport two weeks later.
As it turned out, my intended flight did go out of Brussels, however I was not on it, and my ticket was cancelled. I did not want to step foot in that same hall where a mere two weeks prior such violence and sorrow was wrought. I did not want to walk amongst those ghosts of people who by right should still be warm to the touch, still laughing and smiling, playing and singing. I did not want to stand there and take in the macabre spectacle. I chose a different road to France, one with less sadness, with less pain.
After allowing for those passengers getting off in Brussels to do so, I boarded the train and took my place: Car 26, Seat 76. The seats on Thalys are perhaps the most comfortable seats on any train that I have yet travelled on, and I was in second class. At 10:43 on the dot our train began to move out of Brussels, heading south at high speed towards Paris. I spent the hour and twenty-two minutes that it took for us to arrive at Paris Gare du Nord writing the second half of my account of my previous two days in the Belgian capital, finishing the majority of the work in about an hour and ten minutes, thus giving me ample time to be ready to jump off the train and run to the metro station beneath Gare du Nord.
While I greatly appreciate the excellent service provided by SNCF, the French national railway company, I spent the better part of the next hour in a panicked rush. I had a mere forty-five minutes to transfer between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon. While this would not have been much of an issue had I been using one of the normal metro lines to get from A to B, I had to take the RER D line, a double-decker suburban line that only runs through Gare du Nord about once every twenty minutes. In short, I made it to my train on Platform 7 at Gare de Lyon with two minutes to spare, having just barely gotten on board the train before they closed the doors.
I had requested a seat on the upper level of the train, wanting to have a good view of the French countryside as I traversed that country from the plains around Paris in the north to the Alps in the south. I soon found my seat, No. 105 in Car 7, and soon met the gentleman sitting in No. 104. I figured he had a reservation for that seat, and forgetting my French, I somehow convinced him to get up and move to another seat about two rows back; though I have a feeling he simply wanted a row to himself. I quickly set my briefcase down on the seat next to mine, took out my iPad, portable keyboard, and headphones, and ticket, before removing my overcoat and placing it, my umbrella, and briefcase in the racks above my seat. As I sat down I realised my huge mistake, as I had originally intended to drop off my suitcase in the luggage racks at the end of the car, then drop off my briefcase, overcoat, and umbrella above my seat, then without taking anything out of my briefcase walk up to the café car and get lunch. However, with my iPad, keyboard, and headphones out in the open I figured I had might as well just bring them with.
I first walked towards the front of the train, but soon found myself at a dead end. Turning around, I walked through Cars 6, 5, and 4 before coming upon the Café in Car 3. By this point we were ten minutes out of Paris, and the line in the Café were at least ten people long with only one person working behind the counter. I took my place at the back of the line and waited for a good thirty minutes before ordering a Croque Monsieur and a bottle of Vittel water. Now walking back towards the front of the train, my sandwich on its plate balanced atop my electronics, the bottle and plastic cup in my right hand, whose fingers also had the highly important job of opening all of the doors between my seat and the café, I was stopped by a conductor who asked to see my ticket. “Il est à ma place,” I said, still slightly shaky on remembering my French.
“Comment?” he replied.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked, accepting linguistic defeat. He nodded. “My ticket?” He nodded again. “It’s at my seat. voiture sept, place cent-cinq,” I said, switching back to French for the bit that I knew for certain how to say in that moment of intense hunger and mindlessness caused by the anxiety of my fast transfer.
“Ah, d’accord,” he said nodding and moving onto the next person. I breathed a sigh of relief and moved on through the three cars that were between my seat and I, at last returning to that place I sought out most of all at that point in time: my seat, where I enjoyed a delicious sandwich and watched three hours of a new BBC documentary on the House of Stuart’s time on the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Seventeenth Century. It was at this point that I suddenly remembered that it was Friday, a day when I usually decline to eat meat, partially out of religious observance, partially out of consideration of my usually meat-filled diet and an attempt at improving my health. By this point I had had a frankfurter at breakfast, and a Croque Monsieur, which includes ham, for lunch. In that minute of realisation I thought of a new interpretation of the argument which I had used the Friday prior, that because it was the Liturgical Season of Easter, I could rejoice the Resurrection by eating meat on a Friday. Recognising the fact that this was quite a stretch of reasoning, I moved on and spent the next three hours moving my eyes back and forth between the documentary on my iPad and the fields, hills, and mountains that the TGV flew by at 300 kph (186 mph).
At 16:29 I at long last arrived in Annecy, a city, which to me appeared to still be in the Waterloo of its winter. I left my seat ten minutes prior to our arrival, and was down at the train door, ready and waiting our arrival at the platform when we at long last came to a halt and the door opened. I jumped out of the train, letting my suitcase and briefcase go ahead of me. Then rushing along the platform with the crowd, I soon saw my Mom’s red hair and my Dad’s old Cubs hat in the distance, standing behind a pillar out of the wind. I rushed up to them with a huge, broad smile on my face, and at long last was able to give them that much needed hug, that long sought-after embrace. Our Alpine Reunion had come. I was with my parents again.