Double-deckers are in, smokers are out

Having managed to go by train to Brussels, it was time for the test of manhood: the thirty hour train-ride from Stockholm to Sophia Antipolis for a week of standardization work. As I couldn't reasonably pack clothes for a week in my backpack, this time I pulled along the cabin bag. It doesn't roll very well on snow…

The journey started on a Saturday with the usual 12:20 train from Stockholm C towards Malmö. X 2000—wireless Internet and power plugs by every seat. I crammed as much preparatory material as I could and jotted down comments and questions.Öresundståget in a dark and dingy Malmö C.

In Malmö I grabbed a quick sandwich and changed to a regional train to Copenhagen. In the train I found a DSB inflight magazine (or whatever the train equivalent is called) and I impressed myself by working out most of the crossword puzzle, in Danish. (The bit that stumped me was in which city Frasier lives. Seattle, it turns out.)

No smoking nowhereWhen I entered the main hall at Copenhagen H I just stopped at the top of the escalator and stared. There were large signs up saying that since a few days earlier smoking was prohibited in the main hall. In Denmark! Seriously I had thought this would be the last bastion of bastards, but no, they too have succumbed to civilization. Admittedly not all present had quite grasped the concept yet, but the difference to my previous visit was clear as day. On the other hand it was bleeding cold in the hall, all open to the outside and no heating, I gather. I bought a few postcards to send to neglected friends.

Double-decker sleeper car in CologneWell, with time (and on time! quite unusual for DB) arrived my next train, a sleeper bound for Cologne. I had a berth in one of those double-decker sleeper cars and even had the compartment all to myself. To my annoyance the shaving power outlet in the compartment didn't actually have any power, so I forewent the laptop and instead spent my time reading some paper-based articles. Soon, though, I folded out the berth and tried to sleep while the train juddered through Germany. In the morning I arrived, breakfasted and showered, in Cologne, posted my postcards, got some new ones and caught the Thalys train for Paris. No power here either, so I read some more papers.

At Gare du Nord I was confused about how to proceed until I figured out that the unobtrusive boxes by the walls were ticket machines and thus managed to get into the Metro part of the station and after a bit of trial and error got to the right platform. (I'm not sure what the problem was, but I found it difficult to work out what trains went where.) To my great surprise they were running double-decker trains underground. I caught one of these the two stops to Gare de Lyon. I had plenty of time before the next train, so I had lunch at the station restaurant and then wandered about the scores of shops in the station, trying to find one that sold stamps. None did.

New and old, the latter with rather more character.Eventually I proceeded to the southbound TGV train. Oh, a double-decker again. However, I ended up on the lower level and by the aisle, so I had restricted outside vision. And no power for the laptop. I read about compiler theory and snoozed while the train zoomed by the edges of Massif Central. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground and fir forests. For some reason this surprised me, I don't know why I didn't expect fir trees in France.

Towards sundown we reached the Mediterranean by Marseille, but continued eastwards without stopping there. Finally we stopped in Antibes and I got off. Should I eat or proceed to the hotel first? I knew that the hotel did not serve dinner, so I checked out a café near the station. It looked too smoky for my tastes, so I decided to find a taxi instead. The taxis of the town seemed to be elsewhere, but eventually one turned up and off we drove up into the hills beyond Antibes. In my hotel I was greeted by a porter looking and behaving much like John Le Mesurier. I was immediately identified, which was rather gratifying, but later on I found there weren't very many staying at the hotel, so it was no problem to figure out who I was. It must have been the off-season, as the hotel turned out to be better than its two stars would suggest.

I got a very thorough and actually quite useful introduction to the hotel and the area. In particular, for dinner I was directed to Restaurant La Table in another hotel nearby, carefully marked out on a map. (A photocopied sketch, to be precise, there does not actually seem to be a map of Sophia Antipolis as such, indeed you will not find it on many maps at all. I believe it is not a geographical region as such, but simply the group of high-tech organisations located in the municipalities of Valbonne, Mougins, Biot, Vallauris and Antibes.)

I walked along the unlit roads (at least they had pavements) to the restaurant some ten minutes away and then had to spend ten more minutes figuring out how to enter the carefully fenced-off hotel area. Finally I got the gate to magically roll open. The restaurant was well-lit and had a non-smoking section that actually seemed to be smoke-free. The waitress looked very much like an ex-colleague of mine. I wonder why I saw so many lookalikes all of a sudden, perhaps the modeller at the company producing my life is running out of face ideas. The food was good but the dessert to die for. The French, they do know their desserts.

The next morning, breakfast with croissants, yey! And the breakfast area is non-smoking, double-yey! Then I read the local paper, Nice Matin. Much excitement in France, beginning February 1st, smoking will be prohibited in all public places. Beginning January 1st 2008, smoking will be prohibited in all restaurants. My mind boggles, is this France? Can the leopard in fact change his shorts? Will I in fact be able to go places and eat in peace and quiet all over Europe soon?

Sophia AntipolisIn a euphoric cloud I grab my laptop and start the ascent to ETSI. It's half an hour's uphill walk, with nice views of the surrounding mountains, with concrete-and-glass buildings sticking up here and there. Apparently neobrutalism never went out of fashion here. In addition it's awfully cold, there's actually frost on the ground. I, who had hoped for balmy days by the Mediterranean, am a bit disappointed.

Cognitive dissonance part ICognitive dissonance part IIAt ETSI I get my badge and locate the conference room where I will spend the rest of the week. Round table introductions of everyone in the new working group. A consumer representative, how unusual! Some are (politely?) enthusiastic about such a thing, others accept it without comment, a Chinese delegate is clearly skeptical. Things proceed, I desperately try to absorb as fast as I can everything about procedure, plans, principles and in general what's going on. We all have our laptops up, and I notice many have privacy screens on them—plastic sheets that restrict the view of the screen to straight ahead. Many also have card readers and other security enhancements in their laptops. For my part I have Wikipedia up and check up unfamiliar terms at disconcertingly frequent intervals.

Finally lunch, at the adjacent France Telecom canteen. Then back to work again. In the afternoon I'm feeling rather empty-headed and am grateful when our sessions end, others just continue to other sessions late into the evening. Documents are produced, revised and commented. I make comments every now and then and perhaps I even cause the generation of a new work item. I decide that apparently I Make A Difference. I go for dinner at La Table and then to bed. So the week goes. On Thursday when I get to La Table in the evening, they no longer ask me if I want a smoke-free table as the entire restaurant is smoke-free now—why wait an extra year?

Friday is a short day ending at 15:15; I walk back to my hotel room and fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon.

Regional train in AntibesSaturday morning is early awakening, pack the last things and take a taxi down to Antibes. For some reason I cannot leave with the TGV from here, but instead have to take a regional train to Toulon. The regional train is a double-decker, but fairly full. I end up in a seat where the folding table does not stay up but heavily smacks me on the knees every time I return it to the upright position. I try to lock it in place with the handle of the cabin bag.

In Toulon I decide to have lunch and seat myself outside the Café de la Gare. They don't really serve lunch yet, but seeing my obvious hunger the waitress relents and I get my escalope de volaille. It's definitely the best main course I've had all week. I am very satisfied and sit and bask in the sun a bit until it's time to catch the train.

This time I get to ride on the top level and enjoy an excellent view of the Rhône valley while trying to write poetry. Then Gare de Lyon and double-decker metro to Gare du Nord. There I decide to have dinner at a bar in the station. This was apparently a mistake. The food is OK, once it arrives, but service is extremely slow. I cannot avoid the suspicion that this is so that the “I've lost my ticket, would you please lend me a couple of hundred euro so I can buy a new one, I'll pay you back as soon as I get home, honest”-scammer that sits down at my table will have time to go through the spiel. A tip to would-be confidence tricksters: If you want to seem trustworthy, do not attempt to find out the mark's credit card number within 15 seconds of starting a conversation… I gulp down my food, pay (in cash) and rush to the train.

The Thalys train is full of loud and elated people, many with fancy digital cameras for some reason. Eventually we get to Cologne and after yet a while my sleeper train arrives. I am fascinated by the schedule, the train will continue from Cologne to Berlin, where, in the wee morning hours, it will be split into three parts, one going to Prague, one to Binz on Rügen, and one, my part, going west again to Kolding where it will be attached to another train coming from Munich and the results continue to Copenhagen. Appparently I am very tired as I sleep through all of this shunting.

I arrive in Copenhagen on time, stroll around the still smokeless main hall until my connection to Malmö arrives and then leaves. Lunch in Malmö and then the final leg to Stockholm. By now travel is taking its toll and my sensitivity to the X 2000 trains asserts itself—I'm seasick most of the way. Still, by mid-afternoon I am home and back in the office the next day.

No comments: