Burgess Skips Town Again

Now he’s in Europe. First postcard: ‘Christian Train Camp’.

By Steve Burgess 17 May 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Paging Julie Delpy

It’s axiomatic that trains are wonderful and romantic, whereas jets are cold and sterile. True, I guess. But planes have advantages. For one, if you travel in a jumbo jet you really don’t have to call the folks when you arrive safely, since if you didn’t it would be breaking news on CNN.

Plus, planes are quick—lots of extra time to spend at your intended destination. Trains are supposed to be friendlier. You meet people, often Julie Delpy or Ethan Hawke (it used to be Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint), and have grand romances with wistful or tragic endings. Also, you can see trees and lonely-looking barns.

Jet lag is the real killer. On one of my first trans-Atlantic jaunts I landed in Rome. For three days I was convinced that I hated the place. When I opened my shaving kit the nozzle on the shaving cream can went berserk and became a little shaving cream Vesuvius, spewing the stuff everywhere. Somebody sold me a pair of socks that turned out to be the wrong size and I sat in my crummy hotel room seething, thinking how I would go into that shop and throw those socks in that bastard’s face and scream that I wasn’t the tourist schmuck he obviously took me for.

Three days later the can was working just fine. The guy at the store was very gracious and exchanged the socks. Rome was great.

Bowels of Paris

Stuff always happens when you’re jet lagged. It’s like tornados and trailer parks. This trip I landed in Paris in the morning, facing that requisite task of staying up all day to re-adjust the sleep cycle. The day went pretty smooth, despite that numbing, buzzing fatigue that drains the colour from everything you see, touch, or taste. Walking home in the evening, alertness task completed, I began to feel nature’s call in a serious way. Fancying myself an old Paris hand, I overestimated my navigational skills—odd, because I have none and never did.

Now I was remembering a hard lesson: Paris, that peerless walking city, is only a great walking city if you’re not going anywhere specific. If you’re desperate to find your hotel and then your room and then your key and then the bathroom, Paris morphs from a great walking city into a cruel prank. You find your route on a map and start walking. But suddenly the sidewalk narrows to a vanishing point, then explodes into a spray of islands and wedges at a multi-spoked intersection. The path that looked so simple on the map is now one choice among many, like an array of cards spread by a magician (a bad one with a pointy goatee). You cross and continue in the same direction, but two blocks later you find you are on a different street. You picked the wrong card. Your bowels are beginning to ache.

Or maybe that’s just me. Folks, I was in pain. Every corner I turned showed only the face of the crazy, laughing clown that always appears onscreen when somebody’s all lost and bug-eyed with their hair sticking to their foreheads. It was jet lag syndrome, all right.

Whether I made it to my hotel room in time or not, you wouldn’t want a blow-by-blow description anyway. So I’ll skip to the train trip out of town. This trip I’ve decided to do the Eurailpass thing and meet Julie Delpy. Less efficiency, less expense, more romance.

A real sleeper

The first part kicked in as soon as I made my reservation. Somewhat sheepishly I asked the clerk if the sleeper cabins, which cost plenty extra, have showers. Yes they do, he said. Great! I ponied up 100 Euros for a double cabin—a single would have been another 50 Euros and I figured that was too much.

So now I’m on the train, an overnighter to Madrid, connection to Seville in the morning. Mighty small cabin. I try to open the bathroom door—it’s locked. I try again, and again . Finally it opens from the other side to reveal an Australian couple sitting in the next compartment. “Figured you were gonna be doing that all night if we didn’t say hi,” said the Aussie gent.

So—no private bathroom. And the train clerk must have thought the shower thing was a real scream. No, the only benefit offered by the 100 Euros was to spare me two extra roommates—one of whom might have been Julie Delpy.

At 9PM the conductor came in to drop the beds. This caused the two seats in the cabin to disappear into the wall. I roamed up and down the train searching for Julie or even a place to read, but there were no day coaches at all—just compartments for four or two. The bar car was in fact a bar with a row of stools, all occupied by yappy drinkers. As of now, there was nothing to do but go to bed. It was like Christian Train Camp.

Instant comrades

Next morning the sun was rising over a landscape of green, rolling hills dotted with rocky outcroppings and perfectly formed dwarf trees. On a distant hill, modern windmills waiting to receive the tilts of some modern Quixote. I wanted to stop the train and run through it all. (That’s always a travel issue—how do you go there when there’s no there? How do you arrange to run through a stretch of countryside outside your train window?)

At Madrid’s Chamartin station I met two high school students from Barrie, Ontario wandering around the platform. Like me, they were connecting to Seville. And like me, no one told them that the station we arrived at was not the same station we would depart from. Or that our connecting train departed five minutes after we arrived.

Well, it’s nice to have compatriots to scramble with. My new friends offered lots of perspective, too—high school grads on a three-month tour with scant Euros between them, scrambling to get to Portugal where friends and desperately-needed free beds awaited them. Private train-car bathroom facilities were not an issue. I quietly decided not to bitch.

We caught another connector to Madrid Atocha station and ran around like fools looking for our fast-departing Seville train. Made it with minutes to spare, after which I discovered that the Paris train clerk who fibbed about the shower and neglected to mention the Madrid station shuffle had also failed to validate my Eurail pass, which resulted in a cluster of concerned conductors surrounding me and making clucking noises.

They decided to sign off on the pass and let me go. Once more your schemes are thwarted, Paris Train Clerk Man. And now I will seek Spaniards with whom to tilt.

Steve Burgess is a ramblin’ man who writes about television, film and other stuff for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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