Strangers on a Train

26-27 March 2011

Alyson and I have had a long history with interesting train trips. Back in 2008, we had toured Italy by train, with the most interesting leg being between Naples and Palermo. We had learned that booking a bunk was not optional.

So on our overnight trip from Paris to Lisbon, we were delighted to learn that a first class ticket from Paris to Irun, Spain was about the same as coach and that onwards from Irun to Lisbon, we would be placed in bunks in a four bed room. Seeing how few people actually knew that this line existed, we were fairly confident we would have the room to ourselves.

The ride along the west coast of France was uneventful. Sadly, the first class on this train was not half as nice as the first class on the EuroStar train I’d taken from Amsterdam to Paris in 2007. On that train, I got complimentary snacks while sitting in first class that included everything from tea sandwiches to pastries. (Although I did learn that the Dutch porters were much nicer than the French one, who refused to speak to me in French and insisted I take a lot of the complimentary Cote d’Ivoire chocolate as being an American, I “would not know good chocolate.”)

In this first class, we had to sit at a table that had seats that were locked into a backwards position at a 120 degree angle. There was barely enough room for Alyson and myself, let alone the two French gay men sitting across from us. They were extremely polite, though, never complaining about the lack of leg room or our incessant chattering in English.
 
We pulled into the final stop around 11pm. Everyone emptied the train, so Alyson and I grabbed our suitcases. “I think we’re in Hendaye,” I said, “It’s the French side of the border. I guess we get the train here?”
 
We’d had a nightmare experience trying to book the tickets since the American website was going to charge double, the British one said the trip was booked, and the Spanish one wouldn’t let us continue booking until we agreed to say how many bicycles we were taking onboard. We eventually got the French one to work after a two hour phonecall over Skype, Alyson and I each trying to figure out the website from our respective continents. However, the one confusing detail was that the French website said we switched in Hendaye, while the others said Irun.
 
We looked around the dark station, people moving into the dark distance. “Do you think this is it?” asked Alyson.
 
“I don’t know. Maybe we should get back on and ask the conductor,” I suggested.
 
So we hopped back on the train, just as it started to pull away. There were some Mexican tourists standing on the train, just as confused as we were. The train moved cautiously out of the station into another one. A sign read “IRUN.” 
 
If we thought Hendaye looked desolute, Irun looked like it had been abandoned years before. We got off the train with the few remaining people, mostly British tourists, and stood in mass confusion.
 
Two thuggish looking guys in denim jackets approached us and started yelling. Some British lady loudly asked what he wanted in English.
 
PASSEPORT, he said.
 
They held out badges. They were undercover police officers. I got out my passport and showed it to one, but he barely looked at it and told me to continue on. Alyson and I went into the station. “Maybe we can get some coffee here,” I said. But the sign that advertised a lounge was falling off the wall. We looked around the corner, but there was nothing.
 
We looked around to find our train, but the board was confusing, listing trains from earlier that day. Lisbon wasn’t listed. It was an old-fashioned ticker-style board and some of the letters seemed to be stuck.
 
Everyone else had formed a line in the station. But Alyson and I were wary: she confirmed that the stereotypes of the British loving queues so much that they often formed them without knowing why was accurate.
 
She checked around the corner and told me the train was in the station and that there was yellow tape preventing people from getting on. So we waited in line, marveling at the strange language underneath the Spanish signs.
 
“There’s so many x’s in the words,” said Alyson. “It’s almost like a Cyrillic languague all those weird combinations.”
 
“Do you think it’s Basque?” I asked.
 
“Must be,” she replied.
 
A guard had come up to the line and started instructing people to put their baggage on a machine that looked more like a zamboni than an x-ray machine. Turns out it was a portable x-ray.
 
We finally got on the train, wondering what the pretense of security was. Was it to convince us tourists that the Spanish had effective policing against Basque terrorists? The French side was so picturesque and charming in comparison.
 
“That was like a war zone,” Alyson said.
 
“It’s how I imagine Spain would look during the Civil War,” I replied. “You know, like in a Hemingway novel.”
 
We settled into our bunk, hoping no one else would join us. The conductor collected our tickets and said he would give them back to us in the morning. He seemed overly surly.
 
“You have the receit right?” I asked Alyson, after we had handed them over. “I’ve never had to give my entire ticket away.”
 
“Yeah, that was odd,” she said., “The Portuguese are usually really nice,” commenting on his rude demeanor.
 
We tried to put our stuff away, but the room was so small, we couldn’t fit our suitcases under the bed. The room was drab, decorated in dark greens and beige. Alyson told me that Italy often bought trains from other countries when they decided to upgrade theirs. Maybe it was the same with Portugal, since this seemed to be a Portuguese operated train.
 
We could barely sit up on our bunks and standing up was even more impossible. There was barely enough room to fit between the two sets of bunks. I’d have a hard time imagining a fat American here. Or even a really tall one.

Alyson outside our bunks.


We decided to go to the dining car, check out our food options. But the lounge car was full of Portuguese men getting drunk. It also didn’t have much in the way of food. We went into the dining car and ordered some wine, cheese and meat.

In the Dining Car

 
“I feel like I’m in an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” I said. “The old train and the bizarre groupings of tourists. Was it one of his movies where the lady sees a murder while looking out her window as two trains pass each other in the station?”
 
“Hmm, I don’t think so. That might be another noir film.”

Passing another train

 
The guy at the table next to us started talking to us. He was German and heading to a small beach town outside of Lisbon for a surfing holiday. He invited us to join him at his table “only if we wanted to,” otherwise he would stop bothering us and go back to his room.
 
Sure, why not? we both thought and headed over. It was hard to tell how old he was, with his blond hair cut cut like the 90s tv character, Zach, from Saved by the Bell and his heavy black-rimmed glasses. He could be a German hipster, or just someone stuck in another fashion era. His wrinkles were confusing.
 
We could see the train staff glaring us as we chatted. We couldn’t tell what we were interrupting. They had forgotten our cheese plate and hadn’t brought the bill.
 
The German guy continued. He had been to Portugal once before as a kid in the early 90s. He had loved Lisbon and now thought he’d go back. He worked in software, but said the trains reminded him of the ones he took while in the military. Neither Alyson and I could remember if Germany had mandatory military service. He lived in Hamburg and had taken a train from there to Paris and now onwards to Lisbon. Did we need a ride somewhere once we got off the train? He was renting a car from the airport to get to his destination.
 
He was either used to traveling alone, not being afraid of talking to strangers, or tired of being by himself. He kept saying he hoped he wasn’t bothering us. After about 45 minutes, he said he was tired and going to go to bed. He would see us for breakfast in the morning?
 
We went back to our cabin and found a girl in her 20s reading in one of the other beds. She did not say anything to us. We tried to be quiet. She just rolled over and went to sleep with the lights on.
 
Being on the lower bunk, I could feel every bump on the tracks. It was going to be a long night.
 
We woke up to the conductor knocking on the door. I opened the door, wondering if Portuguese girls wore red flannel pajamas with Scottie dogs on them. If they were anything like French girls, definitely not.
 
Alyson and I got dressed, bought an espresso each, and watched the rolling countryside go by. The best part of overnight travel, we agreed, was waking up to find an entirely new world outside. We saw the German guy in the hallway animatedly talking to the middle-aged British tourists from Irun.
 
We watched the city slowly appear.
 
We were now in Portugal.
 

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