To the South

by , under expeditions, life

Semi-liveblog: we went from Paris to Hendaye on a very uncomfortable TGV without internet and I think also without a power outlet, even in first class. I took notes from time to time while beta-reading a friend’s story. Slightly edited (the post, not the story) for clarity and consistency and with added Hendaye-Irun, but I can’t be hedgehogged to write proper travelogue.

I now know how to pronounce “Hendaye”: with /ajə/ not /ej/ at the end, This is probably because it’s a Basque name: Hendaia. The French pronounce “Irun” with [y] (ü), but the Basque (even in France) and the Spanish with [u].

Part of this train will go on to Irun, though the SNCF said Hendaye was the end of the line. If we’d known, we’d have been on that part, but there’s something to be said for a bridge between two countries.

The train is mostly zipping through the landscape (just south of Paris is unexpectedly flat, with endless grainfields) à grande vitesse, though we had no vitesse at all for twenty minutes because of a problem of securité. It doesn’t help that that means both ‘safety’ and ‘security’, and all train personnel seems to have caught the grande vitesse, so I didn’t quite catch if it was potentially scary or just unsafe, but it was solved before we reached Bordeaux with half an hour’s delay.

The announcement on the train would have made a fairly gruelling high-school listening test, with questions like “Where is the train about to arrive? How long is the delay? Will people be able to make their connections?”

I don’t have as high a threshold any more as I used to have to speak foreign languages: I actually tried to speak some French in Paris, mostly unsuccessfully, though buying breakfast at the station and (at a different stall) delicious fresh orange/apple/mango/lime/ginger juice went very well. It’s not until people hear me speaking an approximation of French and assume I’ll understand everything they’re saying that I get into trouble. The last time I was in Paris, more than ten years ago, people weren’t so eager to speak anything except French, but now they try English when we’re baffled. I expect that it will be easier in Spain because I know I don’t know any Spanish, so I can just try; very different from the feeling that I should know French.

(South of Bordeaux: going at what looks and feels like normal train speed, perhaps because of the earlier delay)

Spotted: an animal in the grainfields that was either a fox or a very elongated tomcat (I think the former), interesting church towers, a lone sheep in a field, the derelict railway maintenance workshop of Bordeaux, something that looked like a showroom of garden sheds, and just now a large solar-power farm. Also sunflower farms, and maize fields like it’s the Netherlands.

In fact right now there’s nothing to see outside that would look out of place in the Netherlands, except for the huge stretches of uninhabited space. This landscape (and indeed everything we came through, with the exception of Bordeaux) seems deserted, as if someone got their desire when they said “France is a great country, only it’s a pity that it’s full of French”– whoever said that, trying to check the quote gives very inconclusive results.

(Ooh! Houses! And people doing actual farming, and children running through the fields.)

It’s flat again here: only between what we thought must be the Loire and Bordeaux it was somewhat hilly. Strange, I’ve always thought that most of France –most of Europe– was much more ups-and-downs. I’ll have to check on a height map, perhaps it’s just this route.

Whee, a field full of elegant little black cattle. (Later, near Biarritz, saw black-and-white cows that looked as Frisian as anything. Well, one small nation or another, distinction without a difference.)

Didn’t know that there was a place called Dax. Train announcer pronounced the vowel as if he had a slight English accent, almost [dæks] but announcement outside had [dɑks].

Hendaye is a steam bath. We see the bridge but decide against it in favour of Euskatren, a light-rail thing, hands down the smallest international train I’ve ever been on. It has signage in mostly Basque, and a woman and two girls aged about 10 and 13 on the packed one-meter-wide platform are talking rapidly in something I so much can’t understand that it must be Basque too.

Irun is just as much a steam bath, but other half overhears a woman asking the way to “the train station” so we follow her because our hotel is in a street called Estación, and indeed we find the hotel first and notice that the station can’t be more than five minutes away, we can see it. We eat the ridiculously expensive and rather boring menu, because we’re hungry and hot and too tired to go in search of a better place. Ah, well, it’s food, and the beer is excellent and the people friendly.