FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
“Like unflattering clothing meets sloppy programming- with added Palaeozoic megaliths!”
5. The Communards on tour
You may remember that in yesterday’s fact-filled frolic of a Fun With The Foreigners, our pubescent platitudinous protagonist was about to get on the wrong bus… again!! ? Well, wait no more, sit comfortably, stand to attention, sit down again, and read on dot dot dot
As part of Mission “From Nowhere To A-Level In 2 Years” my parents had agreed to let me go back-packing in Spain during the autumn half-term, a few months before my 18th birthday. They said they’d feel safer if I took a friend, so I asked my mate Ian who was into the same bands as me if he fancied it.
I then spent one of the happiest weeks of my life with the Thomas Cook European Timetable planning itineraries and comparing options. Ian was the ideal travelling companion- he let me choose the trains.
Mum dropped us off at Datchet station early one morning, with one bag between us containing a few changes of clothes and a small Spanish dictionary. I gave Ian his first Spanish lesson on the way to Clapham Junction, but he started getting a headache so we gave up.
We changed to a Victoria train, and then wandered round to the platform where the beautifully refurbished teak carriages of the Venice Simplon Orient Express were just starting to board. The train had started getting very tatty and run-down in recent years, but an American millionaire had bought the carriages, had them done up at phenomenal cost, and was now offering luxury trips a few times a year from London to various continental destinations. I explained to a very quiet Ian that there was actually one train on the English side, and a separate one on the continent, with passengers travelling in a first class section of the ferry between the two. Gone for more than a decade now were the days of the Night Ferry and Golden Arrow pullmans being shunted into the bowels of a boat (though a similar manoeuvre exists to this day between Berlin and Malmø). We felt slightly out of place in our ripped jeans and sweaters, mingling with the Hooray Henrys and women in fur coats. Ian said the champagne-quaffers and brayers had clearly decided to pay homage to Agatha Christie by making us want to murder them during the journey.
He was quite relieved when I led him to our own train on the other side of the platform- the regular boat train to Folkestone. It also had comfy seats, antimacassars, compartments and curtains though, so we settled in, took off our DocMartens, and started reading. One of us read Carson McCullers, and the other perused a railway atlas. You get the picture.
Around lunchtime, our electric train reversed in Folkestone East, and started snaking down the sharp incline and out over the viaduct to the harbour, where we joined the ferry. We bought some duty-free Southern Comfort on the boat, and boarded the Corail express in Boulogne Maritime. My guidebook only listed three vegetarian restaurants in central Paris, but we found one of them after a long metro ride, and then took an overnight couchette train through Biarritz to the Spanish border, where my new language skills would be put to the test.
Right now it’s easy to think we’re living through uniquely dangerous times- last year there was a terrorist attack right outside one of my places of work (in Brussels), and two weeks ago there was one on a Christmas Market 3 miles from my home. But statistically the 1970s and 80s were more dangerous for Europeans, and as we approached the border, ETA blew up a train on the other side, closing the main line to Madrid.
After a long wait we were ushered outside Irún station, where 3 buses stood waiting. I said “Madrid?” to the driver of the first one. He said something like “Atrás” and we got in the one behind. He actually meant the third one in the convoy, the one right at the back. So once again I missed the bus and earned peer opprobrium- in this case, a tirade of “I thought you said you could speak the language here! Were you just having me on?”
Ours turned out to be the bus to Pamplona. Grateful to have narrowly avoided the bombing, we relaxed in our seats. There was a screen at the front- something we’d never seen on a bus before- showing an action movie full of car chases and explosions. The driver enjoyed watching it more than we did, as he careered around blind corners and hair-pin bends, giving us tantalising glimpses of the Aiako Harria granite massif. It’s at times like these, when you grip the sides of your seat, forcing back the nausea, listening to squealing brakes, looking at megalithic outcrops from the Palaeozoic era, perhaps 250 million years old, that you can properly meditate on the transience of human life.
I felt I quite competently negotiated with the station master to get our tickets stamped as exceptionally valid via Pamplona, but Ian didn’t look particularly impressed. We’d only been on the train for a few minutes when he made a female friend. I don’t know how. I convinced myself it was mainly thanks to me finding something at the bottom of the backpack, looking up the word in the pocket dictionary, and then accosting a stranger with the phrase “Do you like biscuits?”… But somehow he got all the benefit.
It was a similar picture in the nightclubs of Madrid. Everyone smiled at him and wanted to chat. I was always welcomed as the sidekick, and then my job was to be his interpreter, while he made them laugh. Not once did my greater height and distinguished spectacles open any doors for me. It was only on the third night that I found out what was going on. A man said he was a journalist, and asked me if he could talk to Jimmy.
Other than that, we ate so many patatas bravas (literally the only vegetarian hot food in town) that I’ve never been able to face them since, and in the mornings I’d read El País with the dictionary, while Ian went out to buy milk, coming back to tell me delightedly how many times he’d been offered heroin that morning.
One morning, we were between guest houses, and I left Ian sitting on a park bench for 2 minutes outside the tourist information office, while I went in to get a map. When I came back, the backpack was gone, and with it, all of our clothes. They were mainly dirty by this point, and we still had our passports, so it could have been far worse, but the day was spent entertaining shop assistants with an elaborate pseudo-erotic mime, since what we really needed was underwear, and they’d stolen our dictionary too. Bet they were disappointed when they realised we weren’t secretly filming our next video.