Travelling across Europe by train in the time of Covid-19

My friend Jayne is relentlessly cheerful – after weeks of ‘lockdown’ in Italy Jayne is determined to focus on the normal things in our chaotic pandemic world. She says that we have to appreciate the little things in life. I think Jayne is quite right. Today I escaped London and embarked on a train journey across Europe that will take me eventually to Venice. I’m curious to know how travel will feel in our new ‘corona virus’ world. I’ll try to convey my feelings and emotions, as honestly as possible, along the way.

LONDON – I arrived at St Pancras Station by taxi. The taxi driver was friendly and funny as most London cabbies are, he informed me that I was very lucky that my husband allowed me to go on European journeys alone. I don’t think he saw me rolling my eyes in the back of the cab, or my rather inelegant snort of derision. Anyhow my mind was elsewhere, I was too busy rummaging through my bag to find my recently made mask which I’d have to put on as soon as I got to the station. Back in March when I was wringing my hands with despair as I watched my travel business gallop over the horizon ‘to infinity and beyond’ I’d bought some rather lovely lawn cotton fabric from Liberty and made up a couple of dozen masks, ready for the time when face coverings would become mandatory. Once my mask was firmly in place and the cabbie had departed with a cheery wave, I headed into the hallowed halls of the station.

St Pancras, London - 22 June 2020 - waiting room for Eurostar, London to Brussels
St Pancras, London – 22 June 2020 – waiting room for Eurostar, London to Brussels

ST PANCRAS was strangely quiet and full of echoes. The shops were all closed. I trotted along meekly, like a mask-wearing sheep, to the automatic check-in barriers where you scan the barcode on your e-ticket and on you go. A quick whizz through security; masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, nod of the head, no words. All very impersonal and very, very isolating. Find a place in the waiting room, must be 2 metres apart, not that chair, no not that one either, what about over there, too close to someone else? Finally locate an empty corner, I’ve struck gold, two metres in both directions, I’m in my own bubble, I’ve got at least 4 square meters just for me. Sit and gaze round, feeling hot. That’s one thing I’ve noticed immediately, wearing a mask makes you feel hot. Wearing a mask and latex gloves makes you feel very hot. The occupants of the waiting room glance surreptitiously at one another, checking out each other’s masks; bought at Boots, made by mother, made by me – winner! Ridiculous isn’t it, how competitive we humans are, even in the most bizarre circumstances. Truth number one!

AS we board the train, there seems to be a huge crowd of people, but actually the train has fifteen carriages and I’d estimate it was only about 10% full. In fact my carriage, towards the front of the train, has only about three people, maybe four in the entire carriage. Once I’m seated I wonder if i can take my mask off – but no I can’t – constant recorded messages coming from the train’s PA system tell us that we must wear masks and by the way there’s no catering, no drinks, nothing. They then go on to explain that ‘because of Covid-19′ there’s no wifi either. Now I thought about this, I scratched my head, and I thought again. I can’t for the life of me work out why or how wifi provision is related to a nasty, virus, circulating in the air and lurking on occasional surfaces. Seriously how can that influence if there is wifi or not? I might message Eurostar for an explanation on that one, if I can be bothered.

TRAIN - Travel and journeys are in the blood, Eurostar London to Brussels www.educated-traveller.com
TRAIN – Travel and journeys are in the blood, Eurostar London to Brussels http://www.educated-traveller.com

WASH YOUR HANDS, wash your hands, wash your hands. That’s the new mantra. That and ‘as a result of covid-19’ we regret to inform you that…….for example, there are no longer seats on the train, instead you must stand. Alternatively and even more bizarrely, if you are on a flight you will have to ask to use the toilets to prevent queuing and therefore proximity to other passengers in the aisle of the plane. So what about the proximity to the next passenger when you are seated – literally four inches from you? What about the risk of contagion in that situation? All this change and drama is exhausting, I think I’ll go and get a coffee, then I remember, no coffee, no catering, no wifi. I’ll have to have a sip of water instead. Truth number two – the new ‘normal’ is annoying.

THE EUROSTAR train closed its doors and started to move out of the station, in minutes we were progressing briskly through the British countryside. The smartly dressed staff who would normally serve drinks and sell refreshments had absolutely nothing to do, they loitered in the canteen area, which was all closed up and shuttered. They chatted and picked their nails. One of them complimented me on my jumper, a recent purchase in Milan, when life was still normal. I was pleased to receive the nice comment. At the mention of ‘when life was still normal’ we both rolled our eyes, above our masks. Truth number three – I like receiving compliments and have no problem accepting them!

SPEED – The great thing about train travel in Europe is the speed, within an hour I glimpsed the chalky white cliffs of the south coast of England, followed by half an hour of blackness as we proceeded through the Channel Tunnel. The tunnel marked a rare co-operation between France and the UK. After years of bickering and disagreement a joint Anglo-French or is it Franco-British company was set up to develop a fast transport link between the British Isles and Continental Europe. It means a train journey from London to Paris or London to Brussels takes about two and a half hours. A perfect example of the ‘entente cordiale’ in action. Truth number four – I like to impress the reader with my erudite knowledge and smattering of foreign languages.

The fields of Northern France roll across the horizon, green, yellow, grey. Wind turbines rotate lazily in the breeze. Next there’s graffiti, run down buildings, and warehouses with broken windows. We are on the outskirts of Brussels. An improbable metal sculpture of Tintin and Snowy brighten up the miserably grey skyline. The train judders to a halt. It’s the end of the line – quite literally. Everybody off. Outside the station there’s a cobbled area with trees and benches. In the fresh air and at a distance of 2 metres I can take my mask off – thank goodness. I breathe in the fresh Belgian air, I can smell waffles, truthfully I can. There are cafes open and life seems a little more ‘normal’. Although an old lady begging is having a grim time, none of the socially distanced travellers want anything to do with an old lady within their two metre zone. Times are bad for the homeless, generosity has gone out of the window as we all focus on survival. Verdict on this type of behaviour and not giving to the homeless person – embarrassing. Note to self – next time will have money ready in pocket and will give. But not today.

ANTWERP – an hour later I’m on a regional intercity train from Brussels to Antwerp. The train isn’t full. The sun has started to shine and the fields of Belgium are manicured. I even spot a few sheep. Jayne said it’s important to appreciate the normal things in life, so I sit back in my chair and watch the countryside unfold before me. Early summer is here and the trees are leafy and verdant. Ahead of me is the city of Antwerp, an important city for trade and lace-making in the past. As we pull into the station I’m struck by the splendour of the building. It reminds me of Paris. I amuse myself with a memory of Mr Bean ordering ‘fruits de mer’ at Le Train Bleu, the famous restaurant in the Gare du Lyon station. When the platter of seafood arrives, including a whole lobster, Mr Bean has no idea how to tackle the food, he ends up putting some of it in the handbag of the smart Parisian woman sat next to him. Very amusing – typical British humour. Truth number five – very important to see the comedy in life – especially in these ‘new normal’ times.

Antwerp's elegant 19th century station is grand and impressive
Antwerp’s elegant 19th century station is grand and impressive

From Antwerp I’ve got two more trains to go, Antwerp to Breda and then Breda to Den Haag (The Hague). Both these trains are empty, again no food and drink. Fortunately I’ve got a sandwich, a hard boiled egg and a small bottle of water, I’m like Dinah in the ‘Famous Five’ books that I devoured as a kid. I’m just missing a twist of salt in brown paper and a big slice of seed cake. Next time. This time I’m in an old fashioned compartment with six seats, three on either side of the door. I’m immediately transported to ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. I wonder if Hercule Poirot will appear and interview me about the recent murder. Actually there’s a sub-conscious connection there. In England we have a joke about naming three famous and interesting Belgians, the answer is Tintin (mentioned earlier) and his creator Herve, Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective) and then, the joke is, and I can’t remember the third one. Not a great joke, but that’s the joke. My mind is wandering, I have this mask and I need a conversation with a real person. Truth number six – feeling a bit sad.

I accidentally get off the train at Den Haag Holland Spoor, the station before Den Haag Centraal. But a nice conductor tells me to get back on again, which I do, ten minutes later I’m in The Hague. As a I come out of the train station I gleefully remove my mask and spot an Italian cafe where I can finally buy something nice. I buy a bag of cannoli that claims to be straight from Sicily. I doubt it but I don’t care. As I step into the fresh air and feel the warm sun on my face I inhale the simple pleasures of life, blue sky, a summer’s day, a gentle breeze. Jayne you are so right, our challenge now is to focus on the positive and appreciate the normal, the everyday. As any mindfulness teacher will tell you, we only have the now, the present moment, so it’s vitally important to appreciate that moment because it is the only one you have……………..

Discovering train travel in the time of Covid-19 - mask, gloves, social distancing. www.educated-traveller.com
Discovering train travel in the time of Covid-19 – mask, gloves, social distancing. http://www.educated-traveller.com

NOTES:

  • Disclaimer – I didn’t really have to wear the latex gloves, but I’ve always fancied putting them on with a flourish, the way medics do on the TV.
  • Overall the journey experience was fine – however I do think in the words of Rudyard Kipling, it’s very important to ‘keep your head, when all around you are losing theirs’
  • Whilst Covid-19 is an extremely unpleasant and potentially lethal virus, perhaps it’s time to come to terms with our own mortality and to appreciate what we’ve got rather than what we haven’t got.
  • I think we also need to work together to keep our great leaders at arm’s length. They all seem to regard themselves as modern day heroes in the form of Napoleon, Churchill or even Stalin. No prizes for guessing who is who. I’d like to invite them all politely to disappear from my field of vision with immediate effect. In other words to please ‘sod right off’.
Brussels Station, Herge - Tintin illustration c. 1930s www.educated-traveller.com
Brussels Station, Herge – Tintin illustration c. 1930s http://www.educated-traveller.com

With special thanks to Jayne – who was the inspiration for this article and the way I thought about my journey. Thank you Jayne. She’s also a superb wedding planner – if you feel the need! http://www.casacollinaevents.co.uk/

Wedding planner Jayne, DJ & Lighting wizard Marco and Janet (myself) the wedding planner's assistant. Cipriani Hotel, Venice - June 2019
Wedding planner Jayne, DJ & Lighting wizard Marco and Janet (myself) the wedding planner’s assistant. Cipriani Hotel, Venice – June 2019

My journey continues tomorrow when I travel from Holland to Germany and on to Austria. I’ll be reporting back in due course.

Have a good day and keep reading!

23rd June, 2020

9 thoughts on “Travelling across Europe by train in the time of Covid-19

  1. Brilliant post, Janet. Honest and insightful. And you made me laugh out loud even though you were feeling sad at times. You expressed thoughts that I think I would have had if I had been on the same train journey! Love your references to Mr. Bean, Hercules Poirot and even the smell of waffles. Can’t wait to read about the continuation of your trip! Sadly I’m still only traveling vicariously at this point. Hopefully this does not become the “new normal.” Stay well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A direct report from the ‘New Normal’ – it’s going to be fascinating to see how long all this lasts and what impact it has on travelling. To be honest, I’m not desperately keen to start taking train journeys under these circumstances, even if you do end up in lovely Venice! Funnily enough, I’ve spent lockdown writing a book about a train adventure in Europe last summer – and all the stuff I loved about that trip (dining cars, drunk Slovenians, overnight sleepers, bustling stations, random encounters) will be far harder to recreate in the New Normal. But let’s see I guess!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest Jules having created and sold travel dreams to customers for years – I felt that I needed to challenge myself and see what was now possible. I don’t think many people feel inclined to travel just now – you are not alone. Certainly the mask wearing is very isolating – it creates a physical barrier between us and it also provokes distrust (in my opinion). I felt I had to get out to Venice to our rented house that we haven’t set foot in since late February. There were no flights – so here I am on the train. From the outset I was certain that the travel industry would be in the doldrums well into 2021 – it will be interesting to see how things are in Italy when I get there…..

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Janet
    Just to endorse the rave reviews from Sandra and Mary Lou, and to congratulate you on a really interesting and all-embracing account of the first leg of your journey; I look forwrad to reading parts 2 and 3. Thank you for a great read (See truth no.3 !).
    By the way, surely the little twisted packets of salt were blue, bot brown? (At least they were in Smith’s Crisps !)
    Otherwise 10 out of 10!

    Liked by 1 person

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