16 April 2011
In the morning Ian delivers me back to the Bordeauxstation in what we both think will be lots of time. Fate intervenes. At the ticket wicket, I present my papers with proof of purchase. The agent looks at the paper, looks at the computer screen, looks again at the paper and, after some moments, says (in French) “The tickets were printed yesterday.” I say “Not by me.” He then enlists the assistance of several other agents, who all examine the screen and my papers with great interest but little illumination. By now it’s 15 minutes to train departure. I ask if I have to pay again. “Oh, non, monsieur”. More time passes. More scratching of heads. Finally a supervisor is called in. She looks at the screen, looks at the tickets and says that everything is fine, all seats are reserved, but I must pay. So out with the trusty credit card and pay – again – for my set of tickets that will take me fromBordeaux all aroundFrance on four trains for ten hours to get to Le Puy en Velay. I get my ticket, find track 6, find car 12, find seat 66 and am on board with five minutes to spare. What if I had no money?
The trip to Le Puy is long and circular. There is no train service east to west in central France. Bordeaux is east, Le Puy is west, so the train goes from Bordeaux in flat agricultural (vineyards) country south to Montpellier – where I see the Mediterranean, an unexpected pleasure, change trains for Lyon, heading north-east, change trains in Lyon for St-Etienne heading west and again in St-Etienne for the last train to Le Puy. I almost blow it in Lyon. I think that I have a two-hour layover, but the train is behind schedule (unheard of in Europe) and I have about ten minutes. I get to the right track and am about to get on the train, when I read the routing on the side of the train. No mention of St-Etienne. I ask a redcap – it’s not my train. It pulls out, another pulls in – this is my train. I would have gone off in the wrong direction. I haven’t done that in almost 50 years.
On the train from St-Etienne, the entertainment is provided by two young clean-cut seemingly competent young men who pull out a parcel, two large sheets of wrapping paper and Scotch tape and proceed to “wrap” the parcel. Charley Brown and Linus could have done it better. When they are done, I am sorely tempted to ask to take a picture of the finished work, but I suspect they might be insulted. Across from me sit two male teenagers, big grins on their faces as they tell me that they don’t speak or understand a word of English. Apparently this is a matter of pride for many young French today. It’s a shame. Why wouldn’t you want to speak more than one language? I am finally starting to feel excited about this journey.
This last train is like being in Norway: many tunnels, running on mountainsides beside a fast river. It is a three-car train and makes a very satisfying clickety-clack as it runs over the track. The area here is called Rhone-Alpes, describing it quite accurately. It has been sunny and warm all day.
An observation today. I have seen literally thousands of people today at the various train stations and on the train. Not a single one – not one – is obese. Very few are even chubby. It seems to me that this is a terrible indictment of our North American life style and of our whole lethal food industry. They are killing us for profit.
In Le Puy, a city of about 29,000, the only flat parts are the river valleys; the Loireand the Borne merge here. The rest is very hilly, very steep. My gite d’etape (hostel) is next to the cathedral in the old town, at the very top of the hill. It is directly under the famous, but ugly, statue of Our Lady of France, situated on top of one of the “puy”. At the train station, a local woman suggests that I take a taxi up my lodging. It is very, very good advice. It’s steep and the roads are irregular stone cobble, much of it volcanic rock.
I check in to the gite, run by the Franciscan nuns – I am greeted by two young nuns – and given my room. Unexpectedly and very pleasantly, it is a single room with a bed, wardrobe, spotlessly clean, toilet and showers nearby and a French door directly on the street. When Karsten arrives tomorrow, he will have a room next to mine.
The huge statue of Our Lady of France, directly above my gite, has an interesting history. It was created in 1860 from 233 melted-down cannon taken from the Russians in the Crimean War. There is a British and Canadian connection as well. The British took Russian cannon, melted them down and formed the medal of the Victoria Cross from them. So every Canadian who won a Victoria Cross in every war after that has a little piece of Russian cannon on his chest.