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London – Paris – Assisi

March 3, 2013

It’s sometime around 7am and the queue for Cafe Nero is obscene. I’m at St. Pancras International station and this might be last experience of the UK for the next year – stood behind a four businessmen in suits and pointed Italian leather shoes, chattering as only the middle classes can. My backpack, laden with most (without a doubt not all) of the things I’ll need for the journey around the circumference of the planet is already killing me. The businessmen reach the counter and order four skinny lattes. I watch them and wonder if I’ll ever really understand London or England, and if I’ll maybe do better in one of the many cities and countries I’ll be calling home for a little while over the next year. ‘Fucking hell,” I think, “I’m basically taking a train to China”, albeit with many stops in between. I’m too tired to be terrified, but if I was more awake I’m sure I would be.

So the Eurostar set off for Paris and I was serenaded all the way by the raucous chatter of a group of middle aged Brits (definitely Brits, not Englishmen like the guys in the coffee queue). The Brits drank champagne and talked loudly of pubs in Paris. They looked too old to be on a stag do, and Paris isn’t a stag do destination, but they certainly sounded like a stag do. I was embarrassed because there were French people on the train trying to sleep.

The Eurostar arrived at the Gare du Nord and disgorged the suspected stag do, the sleepy French, myself and everyone else into the chilly Parisian afternoon. I took the underground, where I was stared at by teenage girls and old men who couldn’t work out why anyone would want to carry so much luggage.

The first stop on my round-the-world trip was a meeting with my French publishers… yes, you don’t get that with an STA ‘RTW’ deal do you? I was rather nervous but everyone in the office was very friendly and it was exciting to see the latest cover of my novel, Vanity Game which is coming out in France in

Trying to see the Mona Lisa

Trying to see the Mona Lisa

April. My editor, Sylvie and translator, Fanchita took me for a scrumptious lunch (potato and truffle salad, goats cheese encrusted in wonton-like pastry on a bed off posh coleslaw) at the lively Brasserie Balzar, and then, after a couple of glasses of wine, I went the Louvre. This is a bad idea after lunch with wine. I must have looked pretty pathetic as I stood there under the glass pyramid, totally dumbfounded by the whole thing. A girl breezed past me and handed me a free ticket, which spurred me on. Into the Denon Wing I went, following the sign to the Mona Lisa with what felt like every school child in Paris. I was underwhelmed as I stood there by the barrier, being jostled by the scrum, staring at the petite painting. I tried to assess her beauty but her face was obscured by the flashes of the scrum’s camera phones. I decided to go and look for Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ instead, but there was an empty space on the wall and a notice saying it had gone to Louvre Lens. I was missing the National Gallery already.

It was only a flyby visit to Paris as I had to take board the night train to Florence. No stag parties on this train, in fact there was hardly anyone. I was alone in my compartment and couldn’t work out how to turn the lights on so I went to the next one along, and asked the guy in there if he spoke English. ‘Non’ he said, so I said ‘lumiere’ and waved my arms around. After that he came and sat in my compartment and we managed to converse for about three hours on everything from Zinedine Zidane to the advantages of living in Paris compared to Cairo.
It was a rough night’s sleep though and when I finally drifted off I dreamt of Russian trains. I awoke at about 5am paranoid I was going to miss my stop. We were going through the mountains somewhere near the French/ Italy boarder. Outside in the half-light everything was covered in snow.

A few hours later the train pulled into Firenze. My backpack felt even heavier as I traipsed around Santa Maria Novela station looking for the Left Luggage. Unable to find it, I went into the coffee shop and was met by the sight of crowds of Italians downing espresso at the counter and munching on brioches. It was all very confusing working out which counter you had to pay at and which you got what you paid for from. I ended up with espresso so strong it would send a pacemaker haywire and a brioche filled with jam so sweet it could rot teeth on the spot. How do the Italians all look so good eating a breakfast like this every morning?

View from the Florence to Assisi train

View from the Florence to Assisi train

I finally found the Left Luggage, left my cursed backpack, and wandered aimlessly round Florence for a few hours. It was strange being back in a city which I feel I know better than maybe any other in Europe, despite only visiting twice before. There, like old friends, were the preposterous piles of garishly coloured gelato, the huge bronze doors of the mighty Basilica, and the Uffitzi gallery which I contemplated going in but couldn’t face after the Louvre experience. It was freezing cold and I was glad to get on the 12:09 to Assisi, where I was met by Marina from the Arte Studio Ginestrelle which will be home for the next month. It’s a stunning old house in the foothills of Mount Subasio. I was tired and hungry and was so grateful for the delicious home-cooked meal of locally-sourced foods, and locally brewed wine. After a nip of the local spirit – truffle liquor – I retired to bed and slept for about nine hours, and no longer dreamed of trains.

Blue skies over Umbria

Blue skies over Umbria

Transport so far: 63 bus from East Dulwich to Kings Cross, Eurostar to Paris, Paris metro to Odeon, bus to Gare du Lyon, overnight train to Florence, train to Assisi, car up the winding roads to the artist residency.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2013 8:50 am

    Thanks for posting, HJH. A lovely, evocative read before I get up. Hence the quick response! Look forward to the next instalment.

    • admin permalink*
      March 3, 2013 11:06 am

      Thanks! I’m glad you like it!

  2. liz permalink
    March 3, 2013 10:52 am

    Sounds marvellous…but how is it that people ALWAYS give you free things?! No-one ever gives me free tickets. HP always gets people helping carry her bags; no-one carries my bags either. When you are back, I am sitting you both down and asking for advice… Or maybe you could cover the art of getting a freebie in your blog.

    • admin permalink*
      March 3, 2013 11:06 am

      I guess it must be because I always look a bit confused by everything and people take pity on me! No one carries my bags either though… and believe me, I could do with it!

  3. Paul J permalink
    March 3, 2013 1:51 pm

    Great read! Look forward to hearing more as you get further from home. I would give up being embarrassed by Brits abroad now, it’s not going to get any better.

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