IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 30 > Tournai - Lille - Paris - Rouen - Dieppe - Newhaven - Hove

Tournai - Lille

My mad dashes to the toilet began in earnest around 4am, as the bottle of wine hit a no entry sign otherwise known as my bladder. My intestines had already sent a courier to the bladder manager warning of alcoholic intruders in the vicinity, and it had shut up shop early, forcing everything to go back the way it came. At least it was a relatively quick affair, over and done with in two visits, and I still had three hours of sleep available. Ultimately though, one of life's smallest visible creatures was to inflict misery upon me during this window of rest, keeping me awake until sunshine beamed in through the uncovered skylight and cooked me out of bed.

I had no idea what this thing was, but it was unlike anything else I'd seen or heard. Each time my head hit the pillow, I could guarantee all of two minutes' rest before a persistent little insect began taking kamikaze flights into my ear. It made a menacing little whining sound which would become louder and louder, until it had circled my head a few times and mistaken my lugholes for Heathrow. Each time I would flinch and erupt from my bedcovers in a giant spasm, feeling grateful there were no others sharing my dormitory, although if there had been they would have at least provided some alternative airstrips for the little blighter. I put the light on and tried to search for the culprit, but it was near invisible. All that could be seen around the room were two tiny, lightweight and decidedly innocent looking winged sticks on the opposite wall. A swipe in the general direction of one of them confirmed that they emitted no noise in flight.

After repeated infiltrations by this mystery invader each time I tried to lie down, I began to question my own sanity, and I considered the empty bottle of wine resting in the bin. The small but never under-active part of my brain set aside for paranoid delusions began to reason with the idea that MI5 had planted a breakthrough hi-tech gadget in my room in order to observe me. A nanotechnologically powered micro-helicopter with a spy-cam on board was trying to extract information about my identity. I never actually found the creature. Perhaps it was a mosquito, or perhaps it was just a good job that I was returning home today.

In my determination to conquer the wine last night, I had forgotten to set my watch alarm for the correct time, and I mistimed my morning routine completely. I dashed downstairs for breakfast with only minutes of the dining period to spare, gobbled some bread and jam, downed a tepid coffee and found myself with only five minutes remaining to pack my bag and get out of the hostel without incurring another night's charges. It hadn't given me the best start for the long day of travelling which lay ahead.

My walk to Tournai train station had to be brisk, and it involved navigating Dog Turd Boulevard. The road running direct from the station into the city centre was awash with canine deposits, as if the townsfolk were preparing a special welcome for a despised tourist industry. I watched as a man in front allowed his Alsatian to coil a double 99 with a flake slap bang in the middle of the pavement, like a homage to Mr Whippy's evil counterpart. I could imagine the years of training sessions which must have taken place on this very street, with owners instructing their pets, 'Bonzo, here boy, park yourself down on this major thoroughfare and provide a nice little welcome for our town's guests.......well done Bonzo!' Tournai was otherwise a splendid little place, but the temporary faecal art installations lining this avenue were its one down side, and brown side.

I made it to the station unscathed, although it would have been the final insult for my trainers had they fallen foul of any of the piles of mess. It was immensely satisfying to know that these dear old soles had lasted the trip through to the end, and I was proud that I had proved some kind of point - a fairly pointless one but it pleased me all the same. The train took me across the border into France, and I was now only a short distance from its northern coast and the opposing shores of England. However, the line from Lille across to Dieppe was an obscure rural route with a punishing schedule, and part of it was closed and subject to replacement bus services. My only option was to go all the way south to Paris and bounce back out again.

Lille - Paris

The only time I had travelled through Lille previously was on the Eurostar service to Brussels, which dived underground into a giant elongated ditch and emerged at the futuristic, semi-submerged Euro-Lille station. This time I was arriving at Lille Flandres, a more traditional arched-roof terminal where every other train parked inside was a double-decker. I had seen plenty of two-storey trains during my journeys, but all my life I was yet to travel on one. There could surely be nothing particularly exciting anymore to a thirty-year-old man about sitting upstairs, but I was a big kid at heart who longed to try it at least once. My connecting service rolled in an hour later, and I was almost dismayed to see that it was just a bog standard, single deck TGV. This was the fastest train in the world, about to take me down a section of route built specially as a high speed line for achieving upwards of 200 miles per hour. But I wanted to go upstairs, it just wasn't fair.

We flew like a bullet across the plains of Pas-de-Calais, and the calm of the people around me as we sailed serenely through the landscape was palpable. So much so, that a man who sat at the table on the opposite side of the aisle was peeling carrots. It was all in a regular day's work for him, as he happily prepared a stream of fruit and vegetables during the ride, and proceeded to chomp each of them raw. He made the rest of us feel wholly inadequate for failing to bring our own pocket potato peelers, and demonstrated an obvious bright idea that nobody else had thought of. There we all were, sat with our overpriced, unhealthy snacks bought from the station whilst he had the simple vision to acquire - at a significant cost saving - two carrots, two tomatoes, a banana, an orange and an avocado which he clearly satisfied himself with, but at the expense of causing the two travelling girls sat opposite to have fits of laughter each time he produced a new item from his bag.

After an hour inside, I exited the greengrocers at Paris Gare du Nord, pleased to discover that I still had two travel tickets remaining from the carnet I had purchased during my earlier visit to the capital. One of these would be sufficient to get me across the city to Gare St. Lazare, and much as I loved the Paris Metro - apart from its horrible announcement jingles - I decided to see a few sights and take a bus instead.

This could have proved to be a fatal error, as I chose a bus driven by an escaped nutcase who careered through the streets with a degree of lunacy normally reserved for James Bond speedboat stuntmen. He was in charge of a folding bus, of double length and with a squelchy accordion in the middle perfectly suited to giant French folk musicians. The journey between the two stations was far longer than I had expected, and many of the streets en route were narrow thoroughfares blocked by double-parked vans. He blasted his way through and seemed intent to stop at nothing, somehow managing to avoid collision with umpteen cars at the roadside. In fairness, his driving was impeccable. The gaps on each side were often an inch wide and he took both portions of the bus through at forty miles per hour. Forget Disneyland Paris, just bring the kids here. I was bracing myself for doing a loop-the-loop at any moment.

Paris - Rouen

After navigating dozens of almost identical, characteristic French boulevards with grand cream-coloured apartments lining the sides, I stepped off the bus at Saint Lazare and found a huge, extortionately priced baguette for my lunch. During my stay in Biarritz, the American guy who I met at the hostel implored me to visit the Paris catacombs, a ghoulish visitor attraction located at the site of a transplanted cemetery. I had almost given it a look-in during my first stay in the city one month ago, and I had really hoped to find time for a visit before my return home, which would have provided a fitting symmetry to my trip by exploring death in Paris at either end of the journey. Sadly though I would have to omit it again, since the Saturday rail timetable only provided one option for reaching Dieppe in time for my ferry check-in, and my train was due to depart shortly.

Once again I was condemned to a single deck train, whilst all those which passed by on the journey to Rouen were equipped with two. At least I had secured a window seat for the first time today, and with that I would always be happy. Whether I travelled on a plane, a train or a boat, I could never bear to sit in an aisle or be far from a window. Even when there was nothing to look at but acres of plain grey seas, I felt compelled to go out on deck and watch all the nothingness drift past. I had always been a dreamer, and travelling provided many opportunities for staring into space, imagining alternative lives and experiences.

Just as I had become comfortable on the train, admiring our second crossing of the River Seine, the man in the neighbouring seat asked if his wife could swap places with me so that they could be together. He enquired at sufficient volume for the whole carriage to be in anticipation of the Englishman's answer, and I could only be as civil as everybody else seemed to be in France, and grant his request. I now found myself sat next to a large man beside a thick window pillar, travelling backwards, with the sun in my eyes, in the aisle. Perfect.

Rouen - Dieppe

I made a quick changeover at Rouen, onto an old regional train which would take me on my final rail journey of the month-long trip. I had been provided with a booklet which accompanied my Interrail pass, for jotting down the start and end points of each journey. I was required to fill it in, in advance of boarding each train, although very rarely did any ticket inspector examine it. There was a tinge of sadness as I penned the final entry, but I felt that I had got my money's worth from the pass and had covered a respectable distance in my circuit of western Europe.

The weather had brightened up today and it was almost back to the high temperatures which defined my first three weeks of travels, only stifled by odd patches of cloud and a light breeze. The carriage was hot and passengers opened the windows to cool down. It made me think about the many weeks of summer which lay ahead, and the thousands more rail travellers who were only just setting off on their own adventures. What was in store for them? Would I miss out on any fantastic events? My weeks abroad had seemed to pass quite slowly, but now I suddenly felt astonished that the experience was almost over, as I spotted some familiar sights from my first day away around the outskirts of Dieppe. I did appreciate going home again and having a break from the often exhausting travelling routines, but money providing, I would have happily jumped straight back on a train and spent another two months seeing the rest of Europe. I had dreamt of an Interrail adventure and all the things it might behold since my teenage years, and now it was already over before I had time to really think about it.

There had been no rushed railway romances aboard any of my trains, unless the two teenage girls spying on my visit to the toilet in the Sierra Nevada could be counted as some kind of perverted fling. However, as I sat next to a middle-aged couple on the way to Dieppe, I couldn't escape the misty-eyed gaze of a young girl further down the carriage. She was only about fifteen years old and was clearly discussing my worthiness with her two girlfriends. I smiled coyly but focused my eyes elsewhere to avoid embarrassment.

As we pulled into Dieppe station, the girl placed her hand on the back of mine as I queued to get off the train. She gave it a gentle squeeze and quickly withdrew when I turned around. She shyly looked away and seemed slightly nervous, but as I shuffled forwards and began to step down to the platform I felt her stroke my arm, and then in a final desperate attempt to attract my attention she pinched my backside. It was a sweet action on her part, and I saw it as a sort of blessing to end my adventures, but she was so young that I couldn't even begin to consider creating a flirtatious dialogue.

I immediately felt guilty for not just acknowledging her or saying hello, but by the time I looked back she had gone. I couldn't understand what I had done to earn the attentions of so many under-age girls flaunting themselves at me during my travels. This particular girl was very cute, and I wished that I could have advanced time by a few years in her life and twirled it a few years back in my own. Right place, right person, wrong time zone. Bugger. One of the three magic elements always eluded me.

With the skies hazing over again I set off on foot for the ferry terminal, passing another Renault 4 on the way down from the station (right). It was one of so many slightly battered models in average condition that I'd spotted, and it was to be the last one I would see abroad. A Renault 4 parked down the road from Dieppe railway station

I had arrived in Dieppe considerably early, and my ferry was not due to sail for another three hours or more, but had I taken the next two possible trains out of Paris I would have arrived with only fifteen minutes to spare until the sailing, which was less than the required check-in time. So I was quite peeved to find that the boat's departure had been put back by about an hour from the original estimation, meaning I could have explored the catacombs after all. It barely mattered though, since I had always expected my final day to incorporate nothing more than a long journey home. The ferry terminal was lifeless, so I walked back into Dieppe's centre to find some cheap food with my last 5 Euro note.

This wasn't going to buy me much in the way of luxury, and having trekked the length of the main shopping street I gave up on the idea, settling for a pear sorbet from an ice-cream stall instead. With any luck, dinners would be available on the boat, although if the number of passengers matched the paltry figure from my outbound voyage four weeks earlier, I couldn't expect the on-board chef to be inspired to knock up anything more than a bag of dolly mixture.

The town was heaving with English weekend tourists, and I could hear their voices everywhere. It was quite strange to be surrounded by people who spoke my language again, and almost unpleasant, since many of the voices I heard came from brash, foul-mouthed duty-free trippers. With my feet suffering for one last time, I made my way back to the ferry terminal, coming to a halt at the swing bridge in the harbour as it opened to allow a sailing-boat through. Though only a small and rather unimpressive vessel, it obviously had some historic status and was connected with the weekend's Armada events in Rouen. It was also manned by a larger crew than I expected to find on my big ferry.

The Transmanche terminal was again eerily quiet, in contrast to the stampede at the building next door where droves of homeward-bound Brits were boarding the Seacat. Once they set off, however, there were clearly some stranded fools who had quite literally missed the boat, and who had no option remaining but to take the same big French vessel as myself. So over the next hour, a crowd of about thirty foot passengers assembled, which was quite an impressive tally by the company's standards of a month ago.

Sadly, many of the gathered travellers were drunk idiots, returning from a day-trip spent collecting as much duty-free booze as they could manage, and consuming half of it before leaving France. They behaved like cretins, and I had sympathy for the staff at the terminal who doubtless had to put up with their sorts on a regular basis. I felt ashamed to be English in their presence, as they slurred utter drivel and goaded each other aggressively. Every few minutes there would be a xenophobic remark directed lazily at a member of staff or a reference made to the French in general, usually followed up by a thoughtful conclusion of 'bleedin frog', 'kick is ed in' or 'I'd give er one'. They imposed their pathetic views and low-level humour on all those around, and reminded me of some of the things I hated most about my own country. After all the travelling I had done, all the great people I had met and the generally intelligent conversations I had overheard from all the Europeans, it was so reassuringly miserable to have to witness and listen to these morons.

There were, nevertheless, some moments of amusement to be gained from watching their antics. In the terminal there was a machine full of soft toys, operated by a large metal claw famed for dropping things at inopportune final moments. But it was coated in endless messages - all written in French - stating 'Ceci est un distributeur', and 'Un cadeau chaque fois', explaining that it gave a prize every time and was not in fact a gaming machine but a cunning sales kiosk. For the sum of 2 Euros one could continue buying as many cuddly animals as desired, knowing that each toy probably cost a pittance to purchase anywhere else. But the drunk Brits couldn't fathom this out, with all of them unable to comprehend a word of French. They thought they were being exceptionally clever, repeatedly congratulating each other as they successfully guided the claw to the dropping zone and emptied the machine of its overpriced merchandise. They were wasting precious pounds on it, whilst simultaneously boasting about the great deals they had found on multipacks of lager, so thereby cancelling out their savings when the ferry fare and the cost of their parade of soft bears was taken into consideration. The French were looking quietly smug at the profits they were making out of their neighbours' ignorance.

Dieppe - Newhaven

Once the ferry was finally ready to depart, it was more than an hour overdue from the time originally stated. I didn't really mind, as the company were clearly struggling to operate a profitable service during the summer months whilst the Seacat competed with them. For the lower price they offered to foot passengers, I would grin and bear the delays, because it would be a shame to see the large ferry service withdrawn altogether like it had been before. In holding off a while longer, there had now built up a respectable number of lorries queueing for position too. Saturdays were boom time for Transmanche, they had nearly sixty passengers! This was a sufficient enough number for a full dinner service to be offered, and I tucked into my last holiday meal as we left Dieppe harbour and kissed goodbye to mainland Europe.

There was little to see out on deck and it became very blustery as night fell, but there was even less to do downstairs, with perhaps the only place of interest - the bar - being occupied by the English louts. Unfulfilled by the unchanged free magazines which I had exhausted on the outbound crossing, I restlessly made circuits of the decks, eventually deciding to stay outside on the top with my hood up despite the cold and forceful winds.

During the last forty minutes of the four-hour crossing, England homed into view, with the lighthouse of Beachy Head providing flashes of life to the east, and the coastline of Brighton and its remaining pier clearly visible to the west. Straight ahead though, were the cliffs, and it wasn't until the very last minute that the ferry diverted course and took a swing eastwards into the harbour at Newhaven.

The town of Newhaven seemed to cling on to the ferry service as its lifeline. Aside from a fantastic fort built into the cliffs, it had little of great interest for travellers and tourists, and as our large ferry gently and carefully chugged through the narrow waters of the dock, I stood waving back at people in bars a long way below who all gathered around the windows and balconies in excitement at the ship's arrival. They cheered and waved to the small party on board, as the ship towered incongruously above them and I looked down from its highest platform.

On the opposite side lay the dark wastelands around the ferry terminal, and there, stood outside alone I could see my father. He had conveniently just finished his shift at work and had driven out to Newhaven to give me a lift. As I joined a queue of passengers descending the several flights of stairs on the boat, an intoxicated yob picked a fight with the guy in front of me, and staggered down the steps shouting and swearing. The other man had nothing to do with it, there had been no provocation and it could well have been me on the receiving end. This country couldn't have changed much whilst I was gone, since I wasn't even able to set foot on it before the first brawl broke out. Welcome to Britain. Just another Saturday night.

Newhaven - Hove

I fully expected to be interrogated by customs officers, because my previous experiences of returning to Britain had often required a session of bag-rummaging with some miserable officials. But the one man checking passports in the Transmanche terminal greeted me with a smile and bid me goodnight - what a star! I met my father outside and he ushered me into the car like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, only without the fez hat.

I found myself back in the bedroom of my home, after a twenty-five minute ride through the dark hills of the South Downs, a familiar sight even when pitch black. I downed my rucksack and made a cup of midnight cocoa, my head spinning with a hundred small stories, most of them irrelevant, some of them having a personal poignance which ensured they would last in my mind forever more. Perhaps, in a few days, I would write a report on the whole adventure. It needn't be much, just a few short pages. My first month of life on the line, and thirty days of Interrail tales was finally at an end.

Well, nearly.

HOSTEL REPORT: My own bed, home.
What more needs to be said? Score: 9/10 (there were a few dog hairs on the sheets)

My belated thirtieth birthday cake, featuring an edible photo of my second Renault 4, named Nicole The day after arriving home, a small belated birthday celebration was held in my honour by my family. They presented me with a cake which had an edible picture of a Renault 4 on it (left). It was my own Renault 4 named Nicole, the blue and yellow wonder-car which had sat faithfully outside my home whilst I was away visiting its long lost relations.

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