I Stand on a Big Dog’s Ear

Paris to Turin – April 2007
We take a train from Paris
8am from Gare de Lyon, we have a civilised coffee and croissant and then go to find the train, only to discover that it’s leaving from a different part of the station, so we’re now in a hurry. Run, run, we get to it in time and find our booked seats and they are, as with the Eurostar London-Paris the day before, by a window-post so we can’t see out. Could this be because we paid so little, or is it just stupid coincidence? We decide it’s probably the latter. But once the train moves out people change seats; a couple, possibly business colleagues, move to seats with a table, so we move into theirs, where we can see out of the window. The business couple start by looking at spreadsheets but soon change to a motoring magazine for him, and Der Spiegel in German for her, which is rather surprising since they both look and sound entirely French.
The train whizzes along
The train winds through the Paris suburbs past high-density estates which look sterile and deserted, past shopping complexes already completed or under construction, and eventually out into the countryside, where we stay almost until reaching Chambery, miles and miles and miles of farmland, with barely a habitation in sight, this seems to be a newish TGV line, which doesn’t go through anywhere, and the train whizzes along unimpeded.
The ticket collectors find a man in the lavatory
The ticket collectors come round, two of them, a young one in a French military-style cap, circular with upright sides and a peak. A De Gaulle hat. The other ticket collector is older and looks a scruff with no tie and probably not even in uniform. But they’re thorough, and they decide that someone is hiding in the lavatory. And so this turns out to be. Eventually, a dark-skinned man wearing the regulation long- and curved-peaked baseball cap is made to appear, shoulders hunched, from the toilet, and at this point a Sikh gets up from his seat and starts intervening on the man’s behalf, in English. Sikh, fare-avoider and ticket collectors move into the vestibule and spend some long time in discussion. At length, the Sikh and the baseball cap reappear, the Sikh looking proud and satisfied, the baseball cap still looking hunched and sullen, and curling himself up into a seat. Quite how they got that resolved we don’t know. So much we don’t know.
I dream we’re a century ago
Some way short of Chambery the TGV line finishes, and we are then onto a winding single-line track through the mountains, where we can see the front of the train through the windows, so twisty is the track, and I can imagine the Parisians in the old days travelling this line in their steam-hauled carriages, off for a trip to the mountains, and by the time the train got here they will be beginning to feel relieved at almost having arrived, for it will have been a long trip, rather different from the less-than three hours it has taken us.
The train has to wait at passing loops for trains coming in the other direction. At the longest-wait of these, we’re blocking a level crossing, but the people in their cars wait patiently. Presumably they’re used to it.
The world gets on our train
The line winds and curves and the train moves quite slowly until at last we come into Chambery station. Here, to our surprise, the train fills up. We’re not in our booked seats, though the people whose seats we are in have got off at Chambery so there’ll be someone getting on to replace them. Much to-ing and fro-ing and throwing of people out of seats that they’ve moved to since leaving Paris and are now claimed by someone, and it transpires that the seats we’re currently in are booked by a young woman with a large rucksack and two dogs, one very large and the other small.
A grubby young woman with two dogs
The young woman says we can stay where we are and she’ll sit in our seats as to her it is ‘pareil’, and it seems that she must have booked two seats, one for herself and the one next to it, in effect, for her larger dog, though she puts her rucksack on the second seat and the dog tries to make himself comfortable under it. So large is he, however, that he tends to spill out into the gangway, and people have to step over him. The other dog, the smaller one, makes himself comfortable under our seat. Clearly these dogs are used to travelling by train.
The woman herself is pleasant-looking, quite smiley, but grubby. Her three-quarter-length tracksuit trousers are stained and dirty, her trainers scuffed, and she has thin plaits in her long brown hair, which look rather greasy and long-since washed. She immediately puts on the headphones of her personal stereo which she then proceeds to play too loud, and like most people who do this, then closes her eyes and makes to be asleep, so that the only person in the carriage who is unaware of the rubbish she is playing on the stereo, is her. To better aid her comfort and oblivion, she leaned over onto the rucksack to reveal her equally none-too-clean underwear and midriff poking out over her grubby trousers. Should we say anything, about the too-loud headphones? And the dog under our seat? But she’s been so kind and smiley and helpful. We didn’t.
Border town and French police in baggy trousers
The train wound its way slowly along the valley leading to the Fréjus tunnel, stopping at a couple of stations on the way. It stopped for a long time at Modane, waiting for the train from the other direction to clear the tunnel. Modane is the border town, so French police in above-ankle boots with the trousers of their blue overall uniforms tucked in and overhanging were standing about in groups, for no obvious reason other than that it’s supposed to be a border town. We watched the ticket collectors walking down the platform with the driver, as at Modane the crew changes from Frenchmen in De Gaulle hats, to small Italians in sagging green uniforms hung with leather bags.
The Fréjus tunnel
Eventually the train moves slowly away, slowly, slowly through the long, single-track Fréjus tunnel, that is due for an upgrade if and when the Italians decide they can afford it, but it’s got to happen even if the new Val de Susa TAV (treno alta velocità) line goes ahead. Quite how they do the work on the Fréjus – presumably build a second tunnel but it’s a long hole to dig.
Pop! We’re in Italy
And out at the other end into Italy. At which point, something extraordinary happened. All the Italians on the train, of which there were a fair number, suddenly started talking very loudly, and got their lunch out and munched noisily on crisps – the railway travellers jaws harp – why is it only me who is aware of this crisp menace? And out come the mobiles and into them is said, ‘Mama, sono a Bardonecchia’. Bardonecchia is where the Italian army learned to ski in the First World War, according to Emilio Lussu. It’s the first station after the train has left the tunnel.
Suddenly, with the same people on the same train, we were no longer in France, where everything is rather ordered and sombre, but Italy, where everyone makes a noise, constantly. Yet it’s the same people on the same train, and this line from Bardonecchia down to Turin doesn’t look particularly like Italy, it looks rather grey, barren and Alpine. But Italy, by some subconscious miracle, was somehow in the air.
Torino per il pranzo
We’d booked through to Milan but decided to get off at Turin, in order to get some lunch, for the train wasn’t due in Milan until ten to three and it was already running twenty minutes late – time lost since Modane it seems – so when Torino Porta Susa station was announced by the conductor we got up and went towards the end of the carriage, but as the train pulled into the station it became clear that the platform would be on the other side from the one at Chambery, which presented a bit of a problem at the side of the vestibule where we’d need to get off the doors were blocked with a mounatin of large suitcases. So we turned to get out at the other end of the carriage, as did most other people who were hoping to get off at Turin, and as we were queuing in the gangway I felt the girl in grubby trousers stroking my leg. Oh, no, she isn’t stroking my leg, she’s trying to lift my leg, for I am standing in my walking boots on her big dog’s ear. The dog didn’t yelp, just looked rather indignant a made a grumbling growling sound, and the girl in grubby trousers was most jolly about it, and apologised for her dog getting in the way.
And so ended our journey from Paris to Turin, as we got down from the train onto the narrow and crowded island platform, and made our way to the sottopassagio.

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