Interrail day twenty-five – Brussels to HOME!

22 May

The epic journey comes to an end. I’m trying not to be too sad about it because the last time I started thinking that way, my train was cancelled!

The streets were very quiet this morning after the craziness of last night. I took the metro to Zuid/Midi and it was straightforward to find the Eurostar. My ticket needed to be manually checked again, but this meant I got to go down a special, empty security line. Lovely VIP service.

Facilities in the terminal were minimal. There is vending machine and a well-hidden coffee bar inside the single shop, which mostly sells chocolate. I can neither confirm nor deny that I bought more chocolate. I wasn’t here long, anyway, because soon we were able to board, which involved everyone going back through the shop – surely not the best system, with all our luggage.

There was a delay in Brussels, apparently because of passengers being late, and then there was a debacle in Lille where first of all the doors wouldn’t open, and then all the Lille passengers had to go and check in again. I don’t know if they ever did get on board, but we got underway again almost an hour late. I didn’t have a connection to meet so do it didn’t really matter to me.

Bienvenue à Londres

It was a beautiful day in London and it would probably have felt very hot to me if I hadn’t just been on the continent during a heatwave. I was struck, as I have been in the past, by how many didactic signs there are in this country: do this, don’t do that. I was also struck my the evidence of the obesity crisis all around me. Not that they don’t have obesity on the other side of the Channel, but we definitely have more. On a brighter note, there were people with Ukrainian flags to welcome refugees this time, just as there had been in Utrecht.

I tried the ticket office (where there was a big queue) without much hope, as I had already heard an announcement saying that a train to Scotland was fully booked and people without reservations should not travel. The man (a “consultant”, according to LNER) confirmed that there were no reservations available all day because of football matches, but I could get on without one and there was one unreserved coach.

Predictably, the unreserved coach was packed like sardines. The football fans were loud and sweary but in a low-key way – positively well behaved, by their standards. I read my book leaning against a luggage rack for a while, and then a girl I’d been speaking to earlier came back to get her sandwiches and said there were seats to be had in other carriages – and sure enough, there were! I got a seat at a table and set about updating this. Later on I’ll brave the scrum again to get my own lunch.

My seat lasted until York, which came surprisingly quickly, and then I thought I’d go and reunite myself with my personal effects. It was a fight to make it back through (everyone at York had also headed straight for the unreserved coach, despite there being no seats free) and I couldn’t face the way back, so instead I jumped off the train at Darlington, sprinted along the platform to the next coach, and now I have a seat again, and access to my bag 😁

A woman in the unreserved coach was saying that this was the worst train she had ever been on, and they shouldn’t allow people on once the train is full. I had to disagree with her (silently) on both points: at only 50 minutes or so without a seat, this is not the worst train I’ve ever been on, and I’d rather stand the whole way than spend the night in London, becoming even more delayed, and facing the expense of buying a new ticket. I think that woman needs to take a trip on a Tirana bus to get some perspective 😂

At Berwick, there was the familiar sight of the North Sea, and for the first time it felt as if I was really on my way home. This seems like a good time to review some of the things that have surprised me on this trip.

  • Seeing proper little towns way up in the mountains from the Bernina Express. Places like Pontresina and Einegen, where people do the shopping and go to work and get on with their everyday lives up in the clouds.
  • The way you can use a bank card even at a burger van in Greece (not actually burgers, but the equivalent), but you can’t use one in Albania even if you’re buying a ferry ticket for over 10,000 lekë (€80ish).
  • People smoking in stations in Germany, and all the grafitti in Switzerland. I suppose they don’t see these two types of untidiness as spoiling their clean and well regulated image.
  • Being let down by German trains. I expected it in Italy, but not Germany. They were almost all perfectly on time until that one day they were very, very late.
  • That more stuff didn’t go wrong. Apart from a few late trains and ferries, and not being able to get to Croatia, it’s all gone very much to plan. I should have more faith!
  • How well a smattering of European languages served me, and how much I needed them. I remember apologising to the waitress for my poor Greek in a restaurant in Samothrace (the second time I had eaten there), and she replied, “It’s alright, we can understand you.” That was a warm fuzzy moment.
  • Apropos of that, how much I liked Samothrace and how much I felt at home there after only three days. Also how much I liked Alex, which I had only stayed in out of necessity on the way to Samothrace.
  • How much luggage people take. I know I was travelling unusually light, but there were not uncommonly people with backpacks almost as big as mine, plus a couple of large suitcases. How do people manage that much stuff?? We don’t have porters and baggage cars any more.
  • How much I’ve already forgotten. I read an old blog post and went, “Oh yeah, I was watching the snooker in Leiden – the World Championship was still on!” It felt like a long time ago. Although it has been time consuming and frustrating writing these posts on a mobile, I know I’ll be glad I did. I already am.

Those are the things that stick in my mind as being surprising or unexpected. I’d love to hear in the comments section what aspects of my trip you have found most striking, or baffling, or fun, or whatever.

My train was late getting into Edinburgh so I missed the connection I was meant to get in theory, but it really didn’t matter. I think that train (destination: Inverness) was about to get a bit more delayed, as they had announced that one of the toilets was out of order “because of a couple of chancers hiding in it”, and there were four police officers heading towards the carriage in question as I was leaving the platform.

So I caught the slow train home instead, what we call a ‘lamppost stopper’. It will take me to my local station without even having to go into Glasgow. As I’m now on the final train, let me share some of the fun data that my Interrail Railplanner app gives me.

The red bits are the bits Interrail didn’t register – the Bernina Express and the parts by bus and ferry.
That’s a lot of time on a train!

In the graphic above, I’ve updated the number of countries because Interrail doesn’t know about Albania or Greece. The other incomplete numbers are (I think) where I took a journey but it wasn’t on an official travel day (like to Bruges or Ghent) or where I had saved more than one possible train to give myself options.

End of the line

I got off at my local stop, Bellgrove, and took a deep draught of Scottish air. It actually smells good here; very green, and although there’s no mimosa there’s something sweet, like honeysuckle. It was raining lightly, in that Scottish way, but I was smiling as I trudged through the spots of rain. It is good to be back, now that I have thoroughly scratched the travel itch for a while. When I got into my flat, there wasn’t too much post in the hall (I suppose because it’s all emails now), and all of my houseplants had survived, along with some of the spinach I planted just before I left. If I had left the mint any longer, it would have colonised the whole kitchen!

Now it’s time for me to eat something very British – beans on toast – not because I’ve been hankering after it but because options are limited when you have nothing fresh in the house! And I will raise a wee glass of something to my travels, and to you lot. Having you along has made it all the more enjoyable. Thanks for coming with me – it’s been a wild ride!

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