15 years on and I think it must be time to revisit this place. I haven't taken an international bus since, and certainly haven't been back to this terminus. Why would anyone come here unless they have a bus to catch or a blog to write? Naturally, it hasn't changed at all. It is still raw concrete, dimly lit by suspended florescent strip-lights, split plastic seating and groups of students laying on the floor with their heads resting on over-flowing rucksacks.
Travelling by bus is not a French activity. They will use them on short journeys in town, but it is one of the few countries in the world that has never had an organised city-to-city bus service. State run rail and airline services ensured that a national carrier could not be set up and offer cheaper fares, but the country is still part of the continent-wide Eurolines service. Being an organisation that uses price as its chief selling point, it should not be entirely unexpected to find the bus station is housed in such an unbeautiful location.
There is none of the glamour of rail or air travel on a bus. I know of no celebrated bus terminals around the world, and yet travelling by bus is an activity that deserves to be celebrated. The United States has the mythical Greyhound, and even the National Express in the UK has been immortalised in song. Should we not also acclaim Eurolines, a network of 32 different independant coach companies connecting over 500 destinations from Casablanca to Moscow?
15 years ago, a McDonalds employee quickly appeared with a full replacement meal and told me not to worry about the mess. I took a seat on the bus, and soon it was heading out on to the motorway taking me to my new life in Hungary. And I noticed something different about buses immediately - people talk to each other. We all know that we have a long and not very comfortable trip ahead of us, with dewy dawn breaks in motorway service stations and half-remembered stops in obscure towns en-route, so we may as well get to know each other a little!
As I sit and watch 15 years later I see a modern-looking bus arrive from Sofia in Bulgaria. It has covered 1800km in 37 hours, and yet the passengers look remarkably fresh as they spring off the coach and collect their luggage. I hope this is not their first trip to Paris because first impressions count and this bus station gives a very poor initial perspective. Soon though they will be heading down into the Metro and off to more attractive parts of the city, but also back into cocoons of anonymity. Brief friendships made in the bus are already forgotten. What happens in the bus stays in the bus.