25 May 2010

Democracy, croissants, art and trains (Part Deux)

And so on to Paris.

Why Paris? If the original purpose of our impromptu jaunt was to feed my seemingly unquenchable addiction for all things electoral, what reason could we have for extending our trip eastward into the heart of Old Europe?

We like travel, pure and simple. There is something about living in Dublin that necessitates the occasional experience of being elsewhere to remain sane, like a release valve on a nuclear power plant that stops the whole enterprise going Chernobyl. Other people smoke, or have cars, drink or spawn offspring, but our rainy day funds always seem to find themselves winding their way away into the pockets, purses and wallets of folks further afield than a Number 10 bus manages to take you, and herein lies the problem.

We are an island nation. While technically it is possible to travel abroad without leaving our fair shores, aside from the funny coloured post-boxes and occasional acts of mindless barbarism and senseless sectarian violence, going to the North is a lot like staying at home, only more grim, like that point in the evening at a party where its actually morning and most people have sobered up but there are still enough folks around you in worse shape than you to remind you that it really is time you were heading off to bed, but for some reason you still haven't left the party and end up sitting on a couch in a room not talking to the other people around you, because they too are sitting in silence trying to work up the willpower to go home, and as you look from bleary set of eyes to bleary set of eyes it slowly dawns on you that not only do you look in all actuality just as haggard as everyone else in the room, they are having the same moment of anguish-laden self-revelation as you, and yet somehow they seem more horrified by the thought that they look as bad as you than you do of looking like them. That sort of grim.

Also, their Minister for Education doesn't believe in evolution.

So in order to experience a more engaging form of international travel it is necessary to leave our green and pleasant island altogether and this starts to place a toll on one's carbon footprint, or as The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I have come to call it, our Carbon Crater. This loomed uncomfortably large in our thoughts as we considered the options for our last-minute jaunt to London, and as a compromise we decided that we could go, but only if we could do so by train.

Again, it is important to remember that we are an island nation, and trains are notoriously un-buoyant.

Luckily as an island nation, we are remarkably well served by ferries, which (when all external doors remain firmly closed) are very buoyant indeed.

In order to compete with the illusion of cheap flights from budget airlines, the ferry companies on the Irish Sea operate a SailRail promotion, which lets you buy a combined ferry and rail ticket from Dublin to anywhere in the UK for a fraction of the price of individual tickets. Only its not available for purchase online. I phoned the number given on the website to book a ticket, and was told that unfortunately tickets can only be sold by phone eight or more days in advance of travel, and we were looking to leave in three day. Poo. Good news though, tickets could be bought in person at any major train station. Huzzah! I put down the phone and cycled to Heuston Station, one of our two largest train stations, only to be told that SailRail tickets were only available at Connolly, the other of our two largest train stations. Poo. To be fair though I had a 50/50 chance of picking the right one, better odds than the Lotto.

Giving up for the day I decided to drop in to Connolly the following morning, 48 hours before our travel, and upon doing so was somewhat relieved to find that yes, they did sell SailRail tickets, and then somewhat less relieved to be told that because of the volcano they had been told to stop all sales.

"Volcano?" I asked.

"Yes, the volcano. You may have noticed that for the last few weeks there has been an Icelandic volcano erupting, and the resulting clouds of volcanic ash have played a merry game of whack-a-mole with European flight patterns, resulting in the on-again off-again closure of Irish airspace at seemingly random moments?" came the helpful reply, though possibly not in those exact words.

"I am aware of such a phenomena", said I, "but I am confused, for is this ticket not for a ferry, a craft that travels at, and is technically somewhat limited to, sea level, and as such should not be disrupted by a cloud of volcanic ash hovering at somewhere above 30,000 feet?"

"Ah yes", they responded, "but you see many other travelers are just as cunning as you, and have noticed the ferry's innate invulnerability to clouds of volcanic ash, and thus demand for SailRail tickets has been quite high. Unfortunately our system is not computerised and so the last time the airports were closed, between the three ticketing agents we oversold by just a tad."

"a tad?" I asked.

"um, by about 2,000 places."

"and the ferry holds how many passengers?"

"about 800"

"aha", I nodded sagely, "a tad."

"yes, a tad. So now as long as the airports might close you can only buy your SailRail tickets directly at the ferryport on your day of travel"

"Yay!", said I, and returned home cursing both the Icelandic volcano elves and the end of the last ice age, when retreating glaciers and rising sea levels scythed our battered and windswept land clean away from the rest of Europe. "A pox on all geology", I cried.

So I broke down and bought the ferry and rail tickets separately online, and in the end only paid €30 more than the combined ticket would have been, but it was the principle of the thing that was galling. Thus given the many hours of pain and frustration that had gone in to the (albeit last-minute) planning of our trip, we thought that once in London we should see how much farther we could go while remaining true to our admittedly slightly flexible green travel ethos, and seized upon the idea of a Eurostar trip under the English Channel to Paris, and a TGV trip or two to the rest of France. Five minutes later we were in possession of deux allez-simple à Paris and our last-minute jaunt started to feel more real.

Train travel is great, when it works, and for the first leg of our European adventure it worked, and worked well. After a fast and pleasant ferry crossing we connected seamlessly with an awaiting train in Hollyhead, and by 'seamlessly' I mean 'after a panicked dash off the ferry and into the adjoining train station to join the queue to collect our train tickets, which could only be collected in person from a live human being at the single ticket window in the train station that mysteriously doesn't have a ticket collection machine unlike almost every other train station in the UK, while two hundred equally nervous people waited agitatedly in line behind me because a) they too had been unable to buy combined SailRail tickets and b) were equally fearful of missing the connecting train given the fact that it was due to leave in ten minutes'. Thanks to my willingness (some might say eagerness) to trample over old people and children in pursuit of my goals I secured a place near the top of the queue and thus we collected our tickets and made it on the train with a good five minutes to spare.

Others were not so lucky, but such is life.

Don't blame me, blame Darwin.

In contrast boarding Eurostar the following Monday morning couldn't have been easier, just very relaxed, comfortable and hassle free, clearing passport control at St. Pancras Station in London and stepping off onto the platform at Gare du Nord in Paris some two hours twenty-two minutes later. Its only as you step on a train in London and off again in Paris two hours later that you truly appreciate just how isolated we are in Ireland, but I may have mentioned that before.

(I appreciate that I have not actually managed to explain anything about our actual visit to Paris and beyond in this post, and that in fact much of the action and adventure detailed herein takes place either before or concurrent with events as outlined in my previous post. Rather than catgeorise this post as at best a minor digression or at worst a time-thieving deviation, I suggest that you view it more along the lines of a flash sideways, à la Season Six of 'Lost', though without the obvious implication that you and I, and the other assembled readers of this blog, have together created Booming Back as a communal holding place for our souls, a chance for the departed spirits of all those we hold most dear to join together until we are all united and ready to leave this place together and Move On. But without Mr Eko. Seriously, what's the deal with that? The whinging brother and sister from Season One get to come back, but not Mr Eko? Dude, that's weak, seriously weak. But I digress, we'll get to Paris in the next post, honestly.)

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