(james benedict brown) on the road

Lights down low

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 12 March, 2007

I have a very clear memory of a train journey back to Winchester (where I was at school at the time) one Sunday night almost ten years ago. The old intercity train I was riding on from Reading had a problem with the electricity supply from the burbling diesel locomotive, and at least one of the carriages had no lights for the duration of the journey. It being well after sunset, it was pretty dark in there, but it was also one of the most tranquil carriages on the train. The passengers who weren’t sleeping were enjoying a rare opportunity to see the moonlit countryside roll past – the view which is normally obscured by the bright interior lights of a train. No-one was talking, children were silent, and for once there really was a ‘quiet coach’ on the train.

Tonight I returned to Strasbourg after a few days back in England. I was in Sheffield to tie up a few academic strings and to attend the SUAS ball (more on that and my first attempts at cross-dressing later). I did the whole trip by train, and sandwiched the two days in Sheffield with a night before and after in London. After seven hours of stress and problem free travel from London, my train was almost in Strasbourg. I’d caught train number 263 from Paris gare de l’est; on my printed ticket this appeared to just be another Corail service, but during my transfer from the Eurostar to gare de l’est, I realised it was in fact part of the Orient Express – the original surviving daily overnight train from Paris to Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Munich, Salzburg and Vienna. A rake of French carriages are hooked onto the end of the train as far as Mulhouse, about an hour south of Strasbourg, before the front part of the train continues into Germany and Austria. Altogether it makes a nineteen carriage train (if the car numbers and my counting is to be trusted), and I was seated at the very back of the very last car.

After passing the four hours from Paris to Strasbourg in a peaceful state of meditative travelling (my grand plans to read or work on the train always give way to the seductive state of deep and refreshing nothingness that long journeys nurture) I got up a few minutes early to gather my bags together and be ready to get off the train. Being at the back of the train, the vestibule nearest to me had (locked) glass doors that looked back onto the tracks we had just rushed along. As we slowed into Strasbourg, I watched the sodium-lit ballast of the train tracks blur past, as the odd freight or passenger train roared past on a parallel track.

Then, just a few minutes before we pulled into the station, all the lights went out. The entire train was pitched into darkness. After a few muttered curses from passengers who were trying to locate bags or things they’d lost between the seats, my carriage became quiet. The loss of bright lights inside the car opened up the windows to reveal the suburbs of the city in much greater detail. In that typical pre-arrival state of confusion, every passenger in the car was caught standing up with nowhere to go, but all with a new nocturnal view on the city that many were coming home to on this Sunday night.

The Orient Express slid into Strasbourg, occupying the complete length of the longest platform. I stepped down onto the very extremity of platform one, and weaved my way through a hundred whirring wheeled suitcases.

POST SCRIPTUM… as you might be aware, the Orient Express I rode tonight is but a dim shadow of its once grand self, covering only a portion of the original route from London to Istanbul. Sadly, it’s about to get even dimmer, as from 9 June 2007 the train will be cut from it’s westernmost portion, and will originate and terminate here in Strasbourg rather than Paris. This is because the SNCF follows a strict policy of suspending all trains as they superceded by faster TGV routes. I’ve been idly thinking of riding the train to Vienna, but the necessary special fares are thin on the ground. Watch this space for another whimsical adventure, if I ever find a cheap ticket…

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One Response

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  1. ryn said, on 14 March, 2007 at 16:38

    well mr. brown, i enjoyed the commentary of your first drag experience and will heed your advice if ever the opportunity arises. i just finished watching the last episode of peep show and am sad to see it finished. i am constantly impressed by your nation’s creative and unique out-put. cheers to great britannia. i have to admit there were more than a few moments when i was standing up, screaming at the television, i.e., don’t piss in the desk. many cringe worthy moments. missing your presence.
    love ryn


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