Two days before the UK introduced the 14-day self isolation for all arrivals into the UK, I travelled from south western France to London by TGV and Eurostar…
It’s 8.30am on a wet and grey morning when we leave the apartment that has been home for the past 80 days. For the first time in nearly three months, I’m travelling across Europe, from Poitiers in SW France to my home in Central London.
I would have been content to stay in Poitiers, where, mercifully, there have been very few cases of the dreaded coronavirus. But the new isolation rule pushed my partner – a French national – and I into making the decision to separate, so I could get to my own home and deal with all the things that needed doing there. This includes medical treatment I need for a mouth infection, repairs to the house, which I share with tenants, car MOT’s etc.
We don’t talk much in the car on the way to the train station. After nearly three months confined in a small one-bedroomed apartment, with just a small terrace for outdoor space, on the outskirts of Poitiers, we are now about to be apart.
When my partner drops us off at the station we say an unusually brief au revoir. Neither of us is in the mood. Neither wants me to be making this journey.
I’m travelling on a TGV and then changing in Paris for the Eurostar to London. It’s usually an enjoyable and relaxing short trip – about 5.5 hours in all. But today it feels like a mammoth journey. On top of that, after weeks of sunshine and 30 degree temperatures, It’s drizzling today. As if on cue. I am British after all.
Poitiers to Paris
The TGV to Paris isn’t due for another hour yet, so I don my face mask and wander around the terminal concourse. Everything is closed, but the Relay shop in the station – the French equivalent of WHSmiths – is open. I buy some cigarettes – there goes my attempt to give up.
There’s a kind of post-apocalyptic aura about the place. The roads are quiet. The station is more like a library, with only a few other fellow passengers hovering by the entrance or lurking in far corners. The waiting rooms are out of bounds, so there’s no place to sit down in the station building itself.
It’s that time of the morning – the first ‘movement’ of the day, so I quietly look around for a toilet. None are to be found. The idea of traveling all the way to London without an ablution isn’t one I cherish. But there’s literally nowhere to go. I begin to sense the magnitude of the coronavirus’s effect on our daily lives. Even going to the loo becomes an arduous task.
I spot, across the road from the station entrance, a cafe that’s open. I dash through the rain, enter the cafe, order a mint tea and ask the on-duty waitress if the toilet facilities are open. Mercifully, they are. Relief.
Once I’ve finished my tea I notice there’s a gendarme posted outside the station. I haven’t got any papers for travelling. I’m not an ‘essential worker’ or diplomat, but I am trying to get home after more than two months locked down in France. I nurse my Thé Vert Menthe until the policeman and his van move on.
Furtively, I make my way to the platform. Guards are stationed at the bottom of the steps leading up to the voie. They check my digital ticket. Circles have been painted on the platform floor telling passengers where we need to stand to social distance.
Once on board the 10.15 TGV to Paris I relax into my seat on the upper deck. The cabin is about half full. Nobody speaks and the 1.20 minute journey passes in an eerie calm. Thankfully, the toilets on board are in service. But is it safe to use them? What is the procedure for doing so safely? It’s confusing really. If someone with the virus has used the convenience, how long should they be avoided for? I anguish over this for five minutes, wondering if I should’ve gone without that mint tea. Then, I make for the loos, using a tissue to open and close the toilet door.
There are no catering facilities on the train during the pandemic. But it’s only a fairly short journey to Paris, so I make a virtue of fasting for this part of the journey. Plus, I reckon that less liquid in now means less need to find facilities later.
When we arrive into Montparnasse station in Paris there is a bit more of a hum. But not much more. Again everyone is masked. The streets are so quiet, I feel for a moment as if I’m in a less busy second tier city rather one of the world’s most vibrant and bustling capital cities.
I fret about taking the Metro to Gare du Nord, but feel it’s the better option rather than the taxi. It’s busy on the Paris underground, and there’s not much social distancing going on. But the city dwellers appear to be taking this in their stride. Some, though not many, are wearing face masks. I notice a few are wearing them over the mouths, but not their noses, which strikes me as being slightly futile.
At Gare du Nord the main station is quieter than I’ve ever seen it. None of the shops are open. A lone youth glides across the expansive concourse on his electric scooter.
Before the pandemic this would have been impossible, as the station is full of people milling around, waiting for trains or to meet friends and family from arriving from other parts of France and beyond.
I ride the escalator to the upper level where the Eurostar check-in channels are located. Again, there are only a few stragglers, where normally there would huge queues at this time of the year. The double border control desks – I never understand why there are two – are a breeze today. No queues anywhere.
As a regular traveller I’m lucky enough to sometimes be allowed into the Eurostar Business Lounge. All such luxury has evaporated though amid the lockdown. The access lifts to the Paris lounge is cordoned off. The bars and cafes of Paris may have been given leave to re-open last week, but there’ll be no treats for the the well-heeled Eurostar traveller for the time being.
Eurostar to London
As well as the restrictions on travel and movement that are in place, Eurostar is also limiting the numbers of people traveling on its services at any given time. This, it says, is to help ensure a modicum of safe distancing on journeys.
My face mask is now hot and uncomfortable. I can feel the warm moistness around my mouth and nose. I’m not used to covering my face. It feels restrictive and confining. Even on board the train we are obliged to keep our faces covered. We’re allowed to briefly remove our masks to eat, which brings a momentary relief to my sauna’d facial features.
There’s no catering on board, due to the COVID19 outbreak. I’m glad I brought an apple and two small single-wrap Twix bars, a bottle of water and a Coke-Zero.
In the pre-COVID world I would often travel in Standard Premier, Eurostar’s reduced-price the business class service. But, with no onboard catering service I couldn’t see the point and opted for a standard class seat instead. As the train speeds through the countryside of northern France towards the Chunnel, I slouch in my seat and watch the latest series of Afterlife, which I downloaded from Netflix earlier.
The irony of the title of this black comedy isn’t lost. Ricky Gervais’s creation is suitably sombre for the moment. No one on the train speaks. Even those travelling together sit quietly, side-by-side reading or watching their tablets and smartphones.
Occasionally a guard passes by. He stops and motions to the woman in the seat two rows down to put her mask over her face. Then he apologises, saying he didn’t realise she was eating. He smiles and continues his face-covering patrol into the next carriage.
I’ve written two books where trains, and Eurostar in particular, feature large. But I don’t think any writer could’ve dreamed up this world we’re all now living in.
Eventually, we reach Calais and the train worms its way into the Chunnel. “Nearly there”, I whisper into the damp fabric of my mask. Soon, we’re rolling across the fields of Kent, then diving into the deep tunnels on the approaches to Central London.
London in lockdown
As we pull into the towering edifice of St Pancras International, I find myself wishing I’d stayed put in Poitiers. I’ve left the relative safety of SW France, where there have been very few cases of COVID19, for the melting pot of the British capital, where it still seems people are being infected by this modern day scourge of biblical proportions.
When we alight at St Pancras, I notice there were more people than I thought on the train. I amble along the platform, careful not to get too close to my fellow passengers.In the arrivals hall the border staff are out in force. They just seem to be observing though. Only the occasional passenger is being stopped and asked questions. “What else can they really do?” I find myself thinking.
The quarantine will come into force two days after my arrival, so I expect this is all going to change. I can’t really see how this is going to be enforced, though. I suspect it’s going to make travelling much more arduous, with lots of queues, which kind of defeats the whole safe distancing thing to my mind.
The journey isn’t over yet, though. I need to get to Kennington and I’m not looking forward to the tube ride. Still masked, I pass through the barrier and onto the long escalator to the Northern Line. An elderly gent about twelve steps below me on the moving staircase starts sneezing and coughing into the air. He has no mask and I’m suddenly gripped with fear, that within seconds I’m now gliding through the air space he’s just sneezed into. All I can do is pray that he’s one of the un-infected. But how can we know?
Finally, I arrive home. The housemate I haven’t seen for three months is home, but we observe the social distancing and exchanges niceties. I’ve made it back to London. I hope I don’t get sick. But now that I’m here, I find myself wondering how long it will be before I will be allowed to travel back to SW France and into the arms of my lover.