I’m on the TGV, le train à grande vitesse, on my way to La Rochelle from Paris. It is almost eight-thirty on a Friday night in May, and an opal daylight still lights up the countryside. I love the way high-speed trains transport me through a landscape; I feel like I’m floating, disconnected from the land but still close to it, which makes the sensation of speed all the more thrilling. When I was little and dreamt of flying I was always skimming the ground, just barely high enough to jump fences or maybe hurdle over the buckeye tree in my backyard. I could truly feel I was flying, the sensation was so palpable, which left me confused and elated when I woke up. Traveling in the TGV feels just like that.
This morning, on the other hand, I felt quite tied to the ground, dragging my suitcase from bus to commuter train and finally to the office. I’m too old for this, or too out of practice, I thought. My suitcase was stuffed and heavy, and I also carried a backpack with two laptops, my purse, and a shoulder bag with the random perishables I’d salvaged from our refrigerator for my lunch and dinner. I left the house after checking five times at least that the stove was off and the windows were closed, my bed neatly made and most crumbs cleared from the kitchen counter. I was alone, the kids and my husband had left for La Rochelle days before me. When I leave for more than twenty-four hours, my OCD acts up, and I become certain that either I or my apartment will disappear while I’m gone.
In the afternoon I left the office promptly. RER, Métro, Gare Montparnasse. Only in Paris – maybe in London? – do the public transportation powers-that-be inflict so many stairs on the traveler dragging a rolling suitcase. I gave thanks for having working limbs and no toddler to mind.
I love train stations, with their high glass-and-steel ceilings that bound the heavens with a roof of progress and a 19th-century idea of modernity. In major Paris train stations there’s a big old-fashioned sign hung from the ceiling with letters that clack loudly when they are updated. As I watch the sign in Montparnasse, I appreciate that in this age of Twitter feeds something ‘real-time’ still takes a few seconds of well-regulated anticipation to update while I stand and watch. ‘La Rochelle’ disappears, the cities above it whir and regroup, and then ‘La Rochelle’ reappears and coalesces into something legible and reassuring. Train 8393: platform 4.
While I’m watching this I shout into my cell phone over the surrounding din. My husband and mother-in-law had called to make sure that I would make my train. Le Petit jumped into the conversation and told me about his afternoon the beach, the fossils he collected with his new rake, and the hole he dug into the center of the earth with his new shovel. He was audibly reassured when I told him my train had been assigned a platform.
A quirk of French trains is that you have to cancel your ticket before you board by sticking it in a special machine at the train station; this indispensable step is called composter. I do this, I find my car and my seat, I hoist my suitcase overhead, and sit down with my pile of magazines. I’m in a daze as we leave the Paris suburbs, as we disappear in and out of tunnels. I barely glance outside as we pass blocks of sad gray apartment buildings and warehouses. I later note distractedly that we’ve left the city and are somewhere in the flat agricultural plains to the southeast of Paris, which at this time of year are green and mustard-yellow with young wheat and flowering colza. I don’t find this part of France picturesque. My eyes drop back to the page I’m reading.
Gentle hills and trees started to roll by eventually, and I started to look out the window more attentively. My idea of Paris – and my city-dweller’s apathy -- was starting to fade, when I saw a spring green field, a herd of cows, a copse of trees and behind them, a low stone building. And I stopped and stared.
I’m not sure what it is that works its spell when you see a place, somewhere, and it works something inside you, and you recognize it. I saw those cows in that field and for some reason, I said to myself, this! And this was my France and this was my escape from everything which has been weighing on me these past months. A revelation. A get-out-of-jail-free-card.
I don’t remember, but I think the cows stared fixedly at the train that raced by, as cows usually do.
I got out my laptop and began to write.
Poitiers. First stop. The train rolls into the station in the steep valley below the town, and on one side of the tracks there are houses built at the foot of the cliffs, with facades and abbreviated rooftops that jut out from caves hidden behind. They look rather conventional for structures married to the natural; they share the dusty brown and grays of the stone behind them, but their windows are square and their tiles regular. There’s a sign for a car garage and three air conditioning units stuck onto the rock.
They still blow a whistle on the train platform right before the doors close, just like in films, and it doesn’t take much to imagine that a plume of steam also announces our departure. Outside of Poitiers there’s open country again, and just at the horizon I see a road lined with round, even trees. In reality I can’t see the road, and only guess it is there from the line of trees, which are regularly spaced as they so often are in France. The tree-lined country road figures prominently in my personal iconography of France. I find them almost as reassuring as high-ceilinged train stations.
Now the landscape has flattened again, and in the time it has taken me to write this, daylight has all but disappeared. We’re pulling into Niort, our second stop. It is past nine-thirty. I’ve less than an hour left before the train reaches La Rochelle, but I’m already so, so much farther away than I had imagined I’d be from where I left.