Sunday, 2 August 2009

International Express

15 years ago, my first experience of Paris was the Gallieni international bus terminal in the basement of a 1970s shopping centre. I had said goodbye to my girlfriend that morning and was about to spend a year working in Hungary. I now had a 24 hour bus journey ahead of me and a couple of hours to fill, but all I could find in the vicinity of this soul-crushing location was a McDonalds. I ordered my food and went to sit down, but the heavy rucksack I was carrying overbalanced sending salty fries, gherkins and chunks of ice all over the floor. I wanted to cry.

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!

The inside of the bus becomes a classless, democratic society. There are no first-class seats here or compartments where you can hide yourself away, and everyone is condemned to share the same toilet. Soon food and photos of family members are being shared around, and everyone knows where everybody else is going. The locals, going home or to visit family, are soon sharing tips of places to visit and giving the first language lessons to visitors going to the destination for the first time.

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.

15 comments:

cupcake_couture said...

I've visited paris a couple of times and really enjoyed reading your blog =)

Peter (the other) said...

Another wonderful post. I never have experienced this terminal, and hope I am never in a position of needing to. Yet I am glad to know of it, for I am sure it has played a part in so many people's lives.

As to "celebrated" bus terminals, the closest I can think of is New York's Port Authority, which has played a part in my and many other, train starved, yanks lives.

margaret said...

Here in the broad middle of the USA, I think many Americans view the bus (short or long trip) as the transport option of last resort. Typically, if you can afford to have a car, you do--it's your castle on wheels. 30 years ago, I did periodic 5-hr. bus rides to visit an out-of-state boyfriend. I don't recall much socializing between passengers on these trips. People kept very much to themselves. I do recall how passengers tended to seat / sort themselves. The front of the bus was older and female. Families claimed the midsection. Single men tended to head for the rear. I'd love to see a Richard Saul Wurman graphic representation of this.

Owen said...

Oouuff, you just brought back ten tons of memories for this traveller... I used the Eurolines service a few times between London and Paris, overnight trips during which sleep was never an option, and arriving in the dimmest and glummest of terminals... am thinking I still have a Eurolines ticket tucked in a scrapbook around here somewhere... THANKS for helping me dredge up memories, including leaving a girlfriend before getting on a bus to Paris...

Thérèse said...

Memories, memories.. if we could revisit those we have lost touch with the same way, it would be sometimes wonderful.
Nice post.

Cergie said...

Ma fille a vêcu à Berlin et avant les low cost, parce qu'elle ne voulait pas nous revenir cher, elle a pris l'autocar régulièrement pour faire la route entre Berlin et Paris, ou Düsseldorf, ou est allée de Berlin à Prague ou à Vienne par ce même moyen de locomotion ; depuis Dûsseldorf et depuis Berlin elle a beaucoup pratiqué ensuite le co-voiturage puis lorsqu'ils ont eu leur propre véhicule ont proposé de co-voiturer des gens.
Il me semble que c'était fatiguant mais merveilleux : voyager pour retouver ou avec son amoureux ! Souvenirs de jeunesse (qui passe hélas) !

Cergie said...

Tu as raison / la sécurité des hôpitaux, Adam.
En ce qui concerne cette attente que j'ai montrée elle se situe juste dans l'entrée de ce petit hôpital et il n'y a pas grande distance à couvrir pour arriver à l'unité périnatale et dans les 10 chambres des mamans avec leur bébé qui sont au RdC. Il y a juste une personne à l'accueil pour surveiller mais qui peut s'absenter un instant à l'occasion.
En ce qui concerne les grands hôpitaux c'est autre chose, on a l'impression qu'il s'agit de vraies forteresses, que c'est organisé comme un monde un peu à part avec de longs couloirs, la séparation des circulations et des services et qu'on est tout à fait en dehors du monde.

Starman said...

I've used the "mythical" Greyhound a couple of times. It's not too bad, but then, I didn't travel very far. I think my problem with a long trip on a bus would be that you can't get up and walk around when you want. Nor do I remember any sort of comradeship between passengers.

Therese Cox said...

Great post. Cross-country or inter-city bus travel in the U.S. can have a somewhat cutthroat air. The classic passive-aggressive move for the solo traveller is to find a window seat, place a large backpack on the aisle seat, then feign sleep when other solo passengers come down the aisle, helplessly looking for a place to sit. But other forms of transport - the cross-country Amtrak trains or the subway in NYC, in my experience - can have very friendly interactions. I enjoyed reading your take on the Eurolines. Will have to check it out sometime and compare notes...

Adam said...

Thanks for all the contributions. There seems to be a difference between the European and US experience on buses, but I think that can be quite easily explained. When I took that bus to Hungary, it went through 4 different countries and it was filled with Hungarians, Germans, the French and at least one Brit. As soon as anyone asks a question there are just so many channels the conversation can go down, and so many people who could be encouraged to join in.

In the US the people you see in the bus are just the same people you see in the street each day. Sure you could find some topics if you tried hard enough, but most people prefer the company of their iPod. Actually, when I think about the Greyhound the only thing that comes to mind is Midnight Cowboy!

Peter (the other): Thanks for the link. Interesting to see that it is rated as one of the 10 ugliest buildings! It looks strangely similar too...

Owen: I did that one too once or twice. It was a horrible journey because you were dragged out of the bus in the middle of the night to get on the ferry!

CarolineLD said...

I love the photos - really atmospheric. And feel glad that nowadays I can afford the Eurostar...

Ken Mac said...

Thanks for the journey.

And thanks for your positive vibes re my recent surgery and quick recovery! Thank you!

martha said...

I love long distance buses. When I first moved to Europe, I lived in Greece and would take the Magic Bus 2-3 times a year to London. This was back when Yugoslavia still existed. The adventures we had could (maybe will) make a book some day. I stopped going back and forth by bus when they got everything so correctly organised that you could count on arriving in the specified 4 nigh5ts and 5 days - boring, no fun at all.

Laurie said...

terrific post. the lighting in the photos evokes the lonely noir feeling I always associate with long bus trips

Peter (the other) said...

Adam, the "ugly" renovation of the Port Authority came after my various visits in the sixties. I remember having "Thanksgiving" supper in a "diner" inside the terminal in 1967. I was between buses, going from Boston to Chicago on Greyhound (its called "riding the dog"). I remember the terminals interior as being kind of friendly. The usual newsstand, shoeshine etc. The article claims it was an art deco building at that time, but as I tended to dive into the subway I don't remember what it looked like. Perhaps there is a shot in Breakfast at Tiffany, which I seem to remember had a scene or two that "took place" there.

Cergie seems to hit it on the head, memories of youth, when your back could take it and your pocketbook demanded it.

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