The Overnight Train to Paris

Molly Schoen, 1/18/2012

The overnight train from Nice to Paris was, in my mind, the most romantic means of travel imaginable. I’d watch the palm trees give way to conifers and open fields. The fiery evening sky would dissolve into a soft, dark twilight before plunging into starry blackness.

I’d sip wine, eat chocolates, read someone’s left behind newspaper, and eventually, doze off. Waking fresh and rested the next morning, I’d watch as Paris, backlit by sunrise, came closer into view.

I had boarded the train without trouble. Feeling lucky already as I’d been given a seat with extra legroom in the front row of the car, I was even more fortunate to discover there was no one sitting next to me.

Before I got too comfortable, though, I turned around to survey the other passengers, noting there was not one baby, toddler, or cell phone-talker on board. Excellent.

But within minutes of departure, just as I had become settled, having designated Joni Mitchell’s Blue album as the perfect accompaniment for the journey, my ears were sharply drawn away from my headphones. I heard the only thing more annoying and possibly higher-pitched than an infant’s cry: the shrill squawking and shrieking that ruthlessly multiplies from a pack of American College Girls.

At first, I tried to ignore it. I myself had been among their ranks just four years earlier, when studying abroad in London. Back then, riding on the Tube, I’m not sure the other passengers shared in our sentiments that the name ‘Cockfosters’ was so endlessly amusing, yet that didn’t stop my classmates and I from loudly giggling every time the stop was announced, repeating the name in phony British accents.

Molly Schoen, 18/1/2012

The girls’ chatter, punctuated with jarring squeals, wore out my nerves before long. A drink, I thought, would help me tune them out. I got up to search for the dining car, but there wasn’t one. Never mind that it was to be an eleven-hour train ride.

My mood darkened as I passed by the quartet of college girls, who were set up for their own little sleepover: scrunchies in their hair, sweatpants and Ugg boots on, and no less than three bottles of wine between them. I resigned myself back to my seat and pulled out a book of Sudoku, watching parking lots and warehouses pass by in a blur.

Probably the one thing relaxation and concentration have in common is that it is impossible to do either when you’re barraged with the sounds of other people having fun. The only thing you can do is to fantasize the offending party somehow catching acute laryngitis, and to count how much time you’ve spent not sleeping.

You can try to summon the nerve to ask them to quiet down, imagining the rest of the passengers bursting into applause for your efforts, but the fear of being seen as a shushing old loser will stop you from this.

Well after midnight, the waves of their tittering screeches had yet to disperse. For the past hour, I had been trying to convince myself that as long as my eyes were closed, I’d eventually fall asleep.

I tried listening to the mellowest music on my iPod. But Beethoven’s piano trios are hardly relaxing when blared at the maximum volume, and it still did nothing to drown out the college girls behind me.

The wine must have caught up with them eventually because, hours later, the girls fell quiet. Somehow I managed to doze in spurts, no thanks to the rigid armrest between the seats, and the overstuffed knob of a headrest that served as my pillow.

Gare d'Austerlitz

Somewhere among the hazy layers in and out of sleep, I looked out to see the train finally pulling into the Gare d’Austerlitz.

The first thing that came into focus was beefed-up men in camouflage gear, automatic rifles wielded across their chests as they walked up and down the platforms. This was something I hadn’t read about in the guidebooks. I wondered if a bomb threat or an escaped convict had forced the station into lockdown, but everyone seemed to be proceeding as normal.

Pulling my suitcase from the overhead rack, I glanced over my shoulder, keen on giving the girls a haughty look. (Passive aggressive? Perhaps. Marginally satisfying? Definitely.) They were fumbling to collect their belongings, moving so slowly they appeared to be underwater. I reconsidered. The look of their bloodshot eyes, framed with caked mascara, was almost enough to make me feel bad for them. Almost.

I stepped off the train with tingly legs and a fuzzy mind. But the clear air and chilly sunshine revived me in a snap. I was in Paris!

Image credits:
1 & 2. Courtesy of Molly Schoen.
3. Gare d’Austerlitz by Amerune via Flickr.

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Molly Schoen

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  1. Julie Chamand Feb 2, 2012 at 2:49 PM - Reply

    I used to be a daily commuter between Paris and Seine-et-Marne (that’b be 30 minutes in the train if there was no problem). I hated it. There were never such noisy people, but sometimes I had to stay standing for the whole trip. In the end, you don’t even want to go to Paris for a stroll. I only really knew Paris as the place I needed to go to study. But this… This is completely different. I would like to go more often to Paris with the feeling that I’m actually going to experience the city.

  2. Molly Schoen Mar 2, 2012 at 8:32 AM - Reply

    It’s not at all practical to travel by rail in America, so riding the train was always exciting for me. Seemed so much more relaxing than going by car, and less of a hassle than flying. But I guess any mode of transport becomes a drag when it’s just part of a commute!

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