Monday, March 25, 2013

Trains Encore

The Gare de Lyon today
     I can’t be absolutely certain, but my guess is that Twain debarked at the Gare de Lyon.  In those days, the train stations in Paris were different than they are today, just as they were in most major cities.  (As a former New Yorker, I'm among those who remain grateful to Jackie Kennedy Onasis for saving Grand Central Station and furious over the destruction of the old Penn Station.) Twain came up to Paris from Marseille and that was the station that served the south of France, as it does today.  But it's hard to say where he arrived because the Gare de Lyon that exists now--a classic art nouveau affair with a high clock tower--was built during Baron Haussman's renovation of Paris under Napoleon III.  To call the reconstruction that occurred during their political and architectural rule a "renovation," though, is like calling a hair cut and dye job just a shampoo.  Haussman's projects tore down the infamous Paris slums--where revolution had once festered and might have again--and built in their place the gracious boulevards that define Paris today.  He also redid the Gare de Lyon in time for all the tourists showing up for the 1900 World Fair to land at a grand new station.
     Thirty-three years earlier, though, Twain would have arrived at the second Gare de Lyon, the one built several feet above the Seine to protect it from raw river sewage.  That station was largely destroyed by fire during the days of the Paris Commune in 1871, five years after Twain's visit. Then an identical one was put up in its place until Haussman tore it down.
     Twain gave Gare de Lyon II an A, for order:
     What excellent order they kept about that vast depot!  There was no frantic crowding and jostling,  no shouting and swearing, and no swaggering intrusion of services by hackmen.  These latter gentry stood outside--stood quietly by their long line of vehicles and never said a word.  A kind of hackman general seemed to have the whole matter in hand.  He politely received the passengers and ushered them to the kind of conveyance they wanted, and told the driver where to deliver them.  There was no "talking back," no dissatisfaction about overcharging, no grumbling about anything.
     Well, okay.  I have to admit there's no France-bashing here.  But doesn't Twain sound a bit disappointed that everything's so neat and civilized?  After all, he describes the station largely by what isn't there, not what is.  No shoving or swearing, no rudeness or rip offs.  In fact, practically no talking at all.  I don't know about you, but I'd be more convinced of his sincerity if he threw in a smile or two, or a pretty word picture of a mother traveling with a child.  It sounds to me as if he would really have preferred a ruckus--a good push, shout, or haggle--the sort of thing one imagines he would have found in the American West.

Order still presides in the Gare de Lyon.
The TGF, or fast-speed "bullet train," that can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in France.
     Not to engage in America-bashing, but today anyone who can tell time, see reasonably well, and sit with ordinary ease knows that the French train system now surpasses our own.  The SNCF or Société nationale des chemins des fer ( stands, literally and quaintly, for National Society of French Iron Ways, is an extensive, impressive network of railroad lines that can take you anywhere in the country for about the same amount of money as our own less serviceable Amtrak system.  Want to go to Amiens to see the cathedral?  There's a train for that. To Dijon for the mustard?  There's a train for that.  To the beach at Biarritz?  There's a get the point.
     In the U.S., on the other hand, if you want to go to Bar Harbor for the lobster, there's no train for that.  To Cooperstown for the Baseball Hall of Fame?  There's no train for that.  To Yellowstone for the bears?  There's no...again, you get the point.
     Our love of the automobile did away with all that.  In France, on the other hand, while there are plenty of cars, they haven't taken over the culture nearly as much.  Consider, for example, that at last count there were nearly 800 vehicles for every 1,000 people in the U.S. but only about 580 in France.  America ranks third in car-ownership, beyond San Marino and Monaco, where you pretty much must have a car just to get in and out of the county.  France, on the other hand, ranks 19th, behind such countries as Italy, New Zealand, Finland, Greece, Canada, Spain, and Japan.
     But enough about trains.  There are those who love railroad history, and then there are the rest of us, who find it as fascinating as waiting for toast to pop.  
     For the former, here's a site with some lovely images of old postcards of Haussman's Gare de Lyon:
    Meanwhile, Twain is about to go speeding in his hack past the Bastille. 

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