The Romance of Trains


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Photo by Chris Card Fuller 2008

If you asked me where the most romantic place was in Paris, I would have to say the train station, especially on a Sunday night. Unlike travel by plane where travelers are separated from their loved ones either at a curbside drop-off or in a dismal parking lot, in Paris, couples cling to one another until the last possible moment. It’s impossible not to be touched by the electric sparks of passion that transform an otherwise grayish, impersonal train station such as Montparnasse into a veritable sighing, pulsating embrace.

We were accompanying our friend Huguette who would catch her train back to Rennes after her weekend with us in Paris. The fun part of accompanying a friend to the train station is being able to imagine that we’re also part of the trip even if we only go as far as helping Huguette get situated in her compartment – and wave to her from the platform.

Just by joining in the throng, one absorbs some of the emotions, the regrets of a weekend that passed too quickly, the anxiety of going back to the classroom, back to a job that is less than fulfilling, back to the responsibilities of maintaining a home – the leaky faucets, the garden that needs attention, back to less than understanding parents, or a sloppy roommate. One can weave a zillion stories around trains. They are a vestige of a romantic era – invented in the 19th-century, all but obliterated by cars and planes in some parts of the world, but still the ideal solution for intercity travel in France and elsewhere in Europe.

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With Huguette, we lamented some of the lost traditions of rural France such as the veill√©, simply explained as a gathering of neighbors during the winter months over a glass of hot cider or mulled wine to pass a winter’s night.

“Well, television’s changed all that,” Huguette said. And now, finally, France’s push to stimulate consumerism has won the right to keep shops open on Sundays. From a tourist’s point of view, that might make good sense, but Sunday for decades upon decades has been the one day out of the week reserved for families. A day of rest, not a day to shop. A day for grandparents and grandchildren to establish bonds that will last throughout their lifetime. A day for a hearty home-cooked meal.

Thanks to invitations from school friends at the Paris university, I came to love those Sunday meals – and the tradition also was upheld back in Rochester where my Italian American roommate’s grandmother insisted we stop by Sundays for spaghetti and meatballs. Dani’s grandmother would chide us for not wearing bras “You look like cows!” she’d scold – and we’d laugh and ignore her well-intentioned advice.

The truth is money, speed and technology finish by separating people. So, when you are feeling alone and isolated from friends and family, maybe it’s time to slow down, park the car, and take the train instead of the plane.

Train travel in France is easy. Most train stations in France have automatic train ticket vending machines. You can reserve your seats with a credit card (be sure to know your four-digit code).
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Before boarding a train, be sure to stamp your train ticket at one of the yellow ticket-stampers. The expression is ‘composter le billet’ or ‘stamp your ticket’.


2 thoughts on “The Romance of Trains

  • Mary

    I related to this post. Train travel is relaxing, and oh so sane. I hadn’t thought of the door-to-door goodbyes, but certainly a plus.

    I grew up when nothing was opened on Sundays – a day reserved for friends and family, good meals, a nap, time to think or read or talk. Lovely. As a youngster though, I didn’t appreciate Sundays; they were much too dull and boring. Ah, how we change!

  • Parisgirl Post author

    We’ve had this conversations with French families also – and it’s true that a lot of teenagers would prefer spending their time with peers. As it is, for those old enough for clubbing, Saturday nights blend into Sunday morning and Sunday brunch, so Sundays don’t necessarily have to be strictly family. You can still have a good time without going to the mall/or the Champs Elysees passages.

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