From Angers to Orleans

The train is going to be delayed. This of course means that it is impossible to connect to working wifi. Everything is all connected. When a butterfly flaps its wings….

It’s a feeling of melancholy with which Angers is left. The town sleeps, the town wakes, people go about their business, meet friends, sit outside cafes, bars and restaurants, go to work, look around the shops. It’s how a place should be. It is so different to where I live. What I notice in Angers is the greater sense of peace on the streets and a general absence of loutish aggression. No one walks around with their shirts off strutting their patriotism and ignorance. England is in a vortex of despair, temporary masked by the organised soft-power of the Crown. One senses that they know this will be the last big send off, the last chance to use calls of unity in this way.

It is impossible to sense what the mood is in England. I’m hearing many different things, contradictory and in tension. So much news is now mediated through the internet, social media, rolling news, 24 hour news, thousands of different channels This has become its own layer and a considerable force in its own right. It’s not a question of being pro or against this development. It’s full of capitalist interest but it enables, organises and amplifies alternative voices too. The alt-right is louder because it receives so much more money from hidden toxic interests and is helped along by state interventions by the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and all the other dictatorships and tyrannies.

I listen to the radio which is a mix of absurdity and horror. The Russian army has been pushed back from parts of Ukraine leaving behind the slow discoveries of torture and atrocities.

I could have caught an earlier train but it’s pleasant to take time to pack, sweep the floor, try one more time to work out how the plug in the bath works so the water will drain away. There is a large object to turn but no matter which way it goes, clockwise, anti-clockwise, the water refuses to move.

If the plumbers had relied on gravity this would not be a problem. The apartment is on the fifth floor of a nineteenth century block. There are powerful forces within the earth trying to get that water back to ground level. Gravity and mysteries like that. Is there some device inside the pipes to slow the water down? Is it for aesthetic reasons? I’m not against a merging of plumbing and the arts, but not at the expense of function.

One more look around. Something is sure to have been left behind. Was that stain on the floor around the cooker there before? I only cooked once, to fry some sausages. It created a lot of fat spray, but that much? On the floor? I’m not sure what to clean the floor with so leave it alone. Apart from that, the apartment looks good, as if I never stayed there. But what have I left behind….?

I walk across the square and along the street with the Vietnamese restaurant I never managed to eat at. The wine shop managed by the man from Sardinia who once lived in London, the Cafe de The which served such lovely cakes and had such a warm and lovely atmosphere. The woman who served me there seemed curious as to what I might be doing in the town. There was always a smile about to form at the corners of her mouth. Past the Patisserie which sold those delicious salami and brie rolls which they warmed up for me in the baker’s oven. Past the chateau and the extraordinary Apocalypse Tapestry. It feels like leaving home but I’ve only been here a week.

The SCNF ticket office has a small number of people being served but they are going on complicated journeys. In the ten minutes I wait to buy a ticket they are still being seen to. What could these journeys be? There is no impatience. It feels like real travelling.

‘Now, you will have to change in Vienna and then take the train through the Alps to Trieste. From there, a train to Rimini. You should have a few hours there. The ferry to Athens leaves at seven-thirty in the evening. Remember that the port is at Piraeus and you will need to get a bus to complete your journey. From Athens, you can take a ferry to Rhodes and then you will be able to catch the ferry to Alexandria. The Egyptian trains are reliable and air conditioned. The train to Addis Ababa leaves at seven in the morning….’ and so on.

Now it’s my turn and I buy a single ticket to Orleans.

I was expecting Nantes, Saumur, Tours to all be medieval cities. It was surprising to discover how modern they are, with concrete buildings, railway stations, viaducts and foot bridges which span the tangle of railway lines. There’s wifi, aeroplanes and motorways and tall steel, glass and concrete buildings. The railway stations are enormous and the outer suburbs are full of factories, warehouses, garages, builder’s yards and such like. A large industrial complex which looks as if it might be an oil refinery.

The image of pointy architecture and peasants and people in robes, knights on horses, blacksmiths hammering at anvils as smoke and fire comes from the door of the forge; that’s all gone. There was also a vision of the Loire valley as more of …well, a valley. But this is flatter than expected. It’s as if I’m in the wrong place.

There was an anxiety about this trip. I imagined it to be the Paris train with all that might involve. Paris has taken on Frankenstein proportions in my imagination and I really don’t know why. The Paris train leaves first with all those people going to Paris. The train to Orleans is a regional train. It will end its journey at Orleans.

It is always quieter to be either at the front, or the back of the train. When it comes in, the crowd head for the back. It will be quieter at the front. I march along the platform, right to the front. There’s a little space there with four seats. Someone is sitting there but that’s ok, I’ll take the seat that folds down by the door. The rest of the lower part of the carriage is for bicycles but it’s locked up and empty. It feels quiet and personal here. The train conductor explains that the train will be about 20 minutes late. She looks upset about this but it’s ok with me. This is a great place to sit. It’s as if I’m on the train on my own.

I think it’s at Saumur that a large man gets on and sits on the other fold down seat. He brings a wasp on the train with him. It comes towards me and I swipe a hand. Luckily I miss or it would have shot across the train and hit him on the head. He pretends to read his magazine, I pretend to read my book. At Tours everyone gets off. Now I have the little space to myself. It’s great up here, watching the countryside go by, wondering if this really is the Loire valley.

Orleans is a very different place to Angers. It makes me miss the latter even more. There is more the big city tension and the under belly is closer to the surface. There is a rougher edge, the inability of capitalism to sustain good places more visible. The empty shop syndrome, the bombed out person phenomena, the weird polarisation of SUVs and gig economy workers on bicycles.

Each time I find the place I need to get to on my phone, Google, for some reason creates a blank screen.

‘Allow Google to set your location? Allow Google to track your movements? Accept cookies? Download the App? Google would like to send you notifications’. It would all be so much easier with a map on a piece of A4 paper. Part of the revolution will be the de-commodification of technologies and of information systems. Interfaces, metadata, semantic relationships; these will all flourish when the fetters of monetised technologies and software are removed.

It’s hot and the streets are strange and unfamiliar and I can’t get Google maps to work properly and Openstreetmap won’t store my data. So of course the road I need to go along is blocked off with alarming signs warning of danger. But what this danger is, unspecified. I find the place, leave my suitcase, go back into town to eat. A lot of vegetables, fruit and pulses.

The cathedral of Saint Croix is impressive in Gothic style and grandeur. The history of the building is complex. It was ‘largely destroyed’ during the French Wars of Religion in 1568. What was rebuilt and when is harder to understand. As an imitation of the Gothic it’s grand and enjoyable. It would be interesting to know more about the stained glass windows which are a mix of styles and suggest different ages. Some feels contemporary which creates yet greater intrigue.

A young woman with long blond hair and long black trousers stops. She is waiting for me to take a photograph. I apologise and she walks past. Later I notice her sitting in one of the chapels off the main body of the church. She sits at the back. There are lighted candles at the altar. She sits quietly and on her own. Here is a place for quietude and solitude and perhaps to find solace in the idea of universal spirit and a God that forgives and a Christ figure that turns no-one away, no matter what they have done.

These are immensely powerful ideas. Redemption, forgiveness, peace, understanding. It is of much wider power than individual therapy as it relates to a universal and cosmic power. If this can be flipped upside down, then the lesson may be that we find salvation, peace and redemption through a universal understanding and experience of our shared humanity.

There’s a television in the apartment. I rather like watching television when travelling. ‘The Return of the King’ starts. I remember reading the books as an early teenager and thinking them wonderful. And looked forward to the films a great deal but I seem to be part of a small minority who don’t actually like them. I don’t like the CGI and the Hollywood schmaltz. The films could have been darker, more gothic, playing on stillness and silence rather than each shot over loaded with noise, sound, ‘ethereal’ music and so on.

I imagined the landscape that Tolkien created as more English, more earthy, dirtier, with the fear of sleeping in a forest at night. Peter Jackson strives for realism but that fundamentally doesn’t work in a fantasy as it negates the sense of magic. It’s all strangely flat and I am never a fan of films which jump from one shot to another with such rapidity. Gandalf’s head, the horse’s head, someone in a tower, a face peering over a fortification. All single second shots in far too quick succession. It moves too quickly as if the audience cannot be trusted to have their own imagination. It comes across as a vast collage of adverts, but advertising what exactly is never made clear. Indeed when there’s a break for adverts there are several momentms before I realise that we’re back in the film.

I had a funny story – or at least I thought so – but forgot to write it down. ‘The only person who ever knew….and they forgot’.

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