No. 7 ~ St. Colomban ~ May 23, 2020

"Please don't tell what train I'm on..." *

The Brittany coast wind is nothing if not persistent. It can blow for days, whirring through the trees. It has the hydrangea blossoms waving a greeting and my ball cap going airborne. 

All night, on Wednesday, May 13, the wind had his shoulder to our bedroom window, as if he wanted in. But we were safe inside, tucked in for our first night near Carnac on Brittany’s south coast. 

Deconfinement started on Monday, May 11. We bought refundable tickets the week before, for the May 13 train. We thought we should leave right away, during what is called a period of “tolerance.” Otherwise, I was afraid we could be confined to the city by the new state of emergency until at least July 10. 

While the government scrambled to finalize the rules, we waited, along with everyone else, to see what the release form would say — the Attestation we would use to give us permission to travel beyond 100km. Finally the document was posted late Monday evening. Our tickets were for Wednesday morning. So we had just one day to get our papers together. Still we wondered, with the release form so open to interpretation, if it could depend on the police officer we chanced upon whether we would be allowed to travel. 

We had hoped to walk down to Gare Montparnasse ahead of time. That didn’t work out. So on Wednesday morning we left the apartment not knowing if there would be a checkpoint at the main entrance. 

Montparnasse, which serves the Brittany trains, is just a short ride away from our local taxi stand. Isabelle asked the driver to drop us off at a side entrance, to save us wrestling our bags up the stairs and escalators inside the front door. I thought, Oh!, we’ll be going in the back way. From the drop-off, we found our way to the large hall that is the heart of the station, entering from a long, empty side corridor. There were a few police standing around, but they didn’t pay any attention to us. I wondered if they assumed we had already been questioned. 

This was our first look at a train station in plague time. Masks are required in public transportation, and everyone was wearing one. There were far fewer people than usual, because only half of the seats on the trains are being sold. I had read that a million stickers were printed for the Metro and train stations. As we walked toward the expansive schedule board that hangs from the ceiling, I felt like we were entering a world of circles. 

On the floor, there were hundreds of yellow circles, spaced a meter apart. Each provided just enough room for a traveler to stand, masked face raised toward the schedule board, waiting to see which platform to use for boarding. 

We walked down platform #7 and scanned the QR code on our Voyageur cards. The gate opened for each of us — I felt my shoulders relax a notch at the magic. I had expected to see a checkpoint here, before or after the gate, but there was none. So we headed toward the end of the train, looking for car #10, which was supposed to be our car. It wasn’t there. The last car was #8. We caught each other’s eyes, but didn’t speak. This was a new twist. Reserved seats on a car that didn’t exist. 

We had to hustle back against the current of people eager to board, and ask for help near the gate. Talking through masks and over the background roar of the trains, we understood that not enough tickets had been sold, so the train was composed of only eight cars. Cars 5 through 8 were double-deckers. We could go upstairs on any of those and choose the seats we wanted, as long as the adjacent seat was empty. 

As we settled in, I noticed no one had pulled their mask down around their chin. The mask requirement was being taken seriously. And with the distanced seating, my worries about dodging the virus during our trip went away. 

The train slipped out of the station, and I looked over my mask at the graffiti-plastered buildings along the tracks, and then, with the train up to its speed of about 190mph, at the perfectly flat farmland outside Paris. On a high-speed train, you don’t want to stare out the window the whole time. If the view is too close, and you’re watching, say, a blur of trees along the tracks, your eyes will tire in a hurry. Once the wheat fields start to fold up into soft hills, you can choose your moment to check a far-off rise for a modest castle. 

I had bought a newspaper to read on the train, so that I wouldn’t have to take out my phone, or even the book I’m reading. Even though we were wearing gloves, I didn’t want to give any wandering viruses a chance to get on personal items I would be using afterwards. Once my reading was interrupted by a conductor, but instead of asking for tickets and documents, he just breezed down the aisle, saying “Bonjour” through his mask. 

During normal times, the WCs in the trains are at least unpleasant, if not disgusting. During the three-hour ride, Isabelle did have to visit the facility at the end of the car. She said afterwards that even though, as usual, she avoided touching anything, the WC was remarkably clean. The trains are now being disinfected after each use. 

From the end of our car, Isabelle could see into the next car, the restaurant car. The restaurant was closed due to the crisis, and all the conductors were hanging out in there. She wondered if the conductors were leaving the passengers alone on purpose. If passengers were hassled about their paperwork, and maybe even slapped with a €135 fine, the word would get around. That might reduce ridership, and — just an idea — jeopardize the conductors’ jobs. 

When I looked out the window again, I could see the landscape changing to what is so typical of Brittany — the rolling hills, small farms, and oak trees. 

After days of worrying, we had rolled out of Paris without even being questioned. 

The landscape, whizzing by over my mask, calmed me down and ushered in those sentimental feelings about leaving one thing behind to arrive at another. Yes, we were going to our place in Brittany. But there is a much larger question. Where are we going? Where are we all going now?

At low tide, Plouharnel Bay goes so dry that it almost looks like a field. JK photo.

* from Freight Train, by Elizabeth Cotten

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