On Being a Brit

Basel and Strasbourg Stations – September 2014
A brush with the law on a train at Basel, on the French TGV Zurich-Paris train. The train sits in Basel station for a while and we wondered what it was waiting for, though trains in Switzerland are pretty leisurely in nature, including it seems a French high-speed train. Then a woman came up and asked from my ‘trajet’, my journey (related to the word trajectory). She showed me her id – French Customs – Douane. Hilary fished out our passports and showed them to her and she said with some surprise, or possibly disappointment, ‘Oh. English’.
‘Where are you going?’, she asked in English.
‘Mulhouse’, I replied.
‘Do you live in Mulhouse? Are you on holiday in Mulhouse?’
‘No, we stay in Mulhouse tonight and tomorrow we go to England’.
‘And where have you come from?’
‘Milan – further than Milan.’
‘Do you have luggage?’
‘Yes. It’s here’, waving my arm in the direction of the luggage racks.
The woman was very brusque and rude in her approach, but decided we were not what she thought we were, presumably people trying to enter France illegally, and marched off out the carriage, followed by her minder with the black armband marked ‘Douane’. We were the only people she approached in the carriage. We were definitely not the only foreigners in the carriage as there were, as there always are, a number of Japanese.
Hilary was aggrieved by the Douane woman’s rude attitude, but I felt rather flattered. I was wearing a T-shirt and my face and arms quite suntanned after three weeks in Italy, and I guess I must have looked like something other than a Brit. Possibly Eastern European. It’s also quite unusual for a Brit in a T-shirt to be on a Friday evening train from Zurich to Paris unless they are part of a tour group. And another thing was that I was apparently not doing anything, not eating, not reading a magazine, not playing on my computer or smartphone. What I was actually doing, as I had been all the way from Zurich, was something that most people on trains do not do, so it’s possible someone had reported my suspicious behaviour: I was looking out of the window.
Not that I mind being a Brit, but it depends on what type of Brit. At Strasbourg station the following morning (having taken a local train to Strasbourg from Mulhouse) I saw a group and I thought: English, so sidled closer to grab a wiggy. A man in a dark grey suit, silvery hair, balding head, glasses and grey beard was clearly the group leader and I looked at the board he was carrying under his arm: Great Rail Journeys. This is quite a big travel company based in York, who organise rail-based package tours for, predominantly, meek-looking retired folk. Or at least the group surrounding the grey-bearded man were decidedly meek and retired-looking, and so are those on similar groups whose pictures I can find on the web. He was explaining to them that their train was at 10:45, it was now 9:45, so they had half an hour to look around and should meet back here at 10:15. But of course most of them did not look around, they just stood there, waiting to be told what to do in more specific terms.
The group with the grey-bearded leader.
In the fine context of Strasbourg railway station. One way of detecting British tourists is that they wear a rucksack. Sometimes the Dutch do this too, but generally if there’s a rucksack, it’s a Brit. Not that there's anything wrong with that, in fact it seems quite sensible, but whether chic, practical, naf or cumbersome, it’ll identify a Brit.
Though one thing many of them did do, is what Brits always do whenever there is a potential lull in proceedings. They go to the lavatory. As it happened, I got there before them and was waiting outside for Hilary when they all came along.
For entertainment, stand outside the bogs in Strasbourg station. It’s great fun. So many of the world’s great spectacles you do not find in the guidebooks, instead you are pressed to gawp at some stupid boring mountain or something.
It costs 50 centimes to do a wee in Strasbourg station, which you pay to a lady at a window on your way in to the bogs. But she’s not immediately that easy to spot, so you wander in past her and she bangs on her window. ‘Hello! Hello!’. If you still fail to detect her presence she leaps up and out of her door and yanks you by the collar to drag you back to pay your 50 cents. What was especially entertaining at the time that the meek retired Brits were there was that they coincided with a party of Japanese. The woman at the cash desk didn’t miss a trick, some of the Japanese managed to sneak in while she was busy dealing with others, but she didn’t let them get away with that, she caught them on the way out, chasing one of them right down the corridor towards the exit. She was a star turn.
I asked Sam about Great Rail Journeys and the man with the grey hair and beard, and he says that nearly all the tour leaders look exactly like that. You see them at St Pancras (or he does) leading their charges onto the Eurostar. I looked up the Great Rail Journeys website and yes, you can apply to be a ‘self-employed’ tour leader and it gives some testimonials and general job requirements and invites you to send for an application form. Not clear how much you get paid. Possibly not much. And no, I have no intention whatever of applying. For one thing I don’t have a beard.

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