For some people, a favorite travel memory is a good meal, a stunning piece of architecture or a glass of full-bodied wine at sunset. Me? I’m fond of mild panic.
Picture me sitting under a clacking departure sign at the Gare du Nord. I’ve just stepped off the Eurostar after my first jaunt through the Chunnel (until now as an adult, I’ve only ever flown into Paris) and I’m transfixed by the station’s dizzying mixture of order and chaos.
Everyone seems to know where they’re going – but why oh why do those stairs go up, loop round and come back down without appearing to do anything *but* that? It’s relentlessly open-plan, giving an exciting, exhausting air to every view. But I’m quite happy, gazing this way and that, watching people, watching errant sparrows, testing my French against the super-animated chatter around me. I feel smugly content. Everything is perfectly under control.
Why? Because my ticket tells me than in a little over 90 minutes, my train would be leaving from the platform I’m sat opposite, heading for the Italian border and beyond – a sleeper train, crossing overnight to Bologna where I would scramble off in the wee hours and make my connection with Trenitalia’s service south, to Bari.
But here I am, in Paris. An hour and a half to kill, in one of the most fascinating cities in Europe. Frustrating. I *could* drag my suitcase out the main entrance and go for a rumble to see what I could see, but the rain is hissing down and I’d rather not fog up my shared sleeper-car as I dried out. Time to sit tight and get my novel out.
My bookmark is the booking confirmation for the ticket I’d be using to board the Italy-bound train. I glance idly at it – and a good job too.
You see, there is no train service from the Gare du Nord to Bologna. The train I needed was departing from Paris Bercy, in almost exactly an hour and a half – and Paris Bercy was on the other side of Paris.
Shouting at myself like a crazy person, I leap to my feet and clatter across to the entrance to the Metro, suitcase windmilling frantically behind me.
So why is this a fond memory? Because over the following 90 panic-laced minutes dashing hither and thither across Paris, clumsily asking for directions, getting laughed at by Metro officials, up one set of steps and onto the street and round a corner WOAH (damn French kids and their mopeds!) and down more steps, getting jammed in a luggage barrier and sitting in a subway carriage trundling at an agonizingly slow pace through Paris’s underground with the clock ticking like the countdown to the end of the world…my awareness of the city was honed, heightened to an almost supernatural degree.
The sights and smells of overland and underground Paris sunk deep: glimpses, snippets, snapshots between buildings, cameos of passengers, silhouettes of skylines. Paris is a rich experience, and when you’re hurtling through it with your heart racing, it’s truly intoxicating.
I make my sleeper train with seconds to spare. And I think that was the day Paris really got under my skin. That was when we truly bonded, the city and I, and our relationship has deepened since that self-imposed bout of travel lunacy.
Although if I’d missed my connection, maybe I’d feel somewhat different…
Mike Sowden is a freelance travel-writer and blogger. He writes for his own site Fevered Mutterings.