(T)hello there

Okay. Hello. So listen. I’m really bad at introductions so I’m going to tell you about the time I took a fourteen hour overnight train ride from Paris to Venice.

Or maybe it thirteen hours. Sixteen? Do I truly care to remember? The only thing I recall having to do with numbers was that the train ride cost 55 euros (I think? I might be completely wrong?)(OKAY, maybe I don’t remember anything having to do with numbers about this trip) for the each of us. Each us being myself, Jen, and Sarah, two of my best friends I’d met in during college. This was our Grand European Adventure, a trip that had been in the works since about two years before, when Sarah had begun thinking of applying to grad schools in the UK. While Sarah had shipped herself off to Scotland to study at the University of Edinburgh the summer after we graduated UMass Amherst, Jen and I worked our tiny hearts out to save up money to get ourselves over to Europe. While Sarah, of course, worked her tiny heart out studying (and believe me, that girl studies hard, I witnessed her slave over her dissertation on trains and planes and hostel beds in every city we visited. That thing probably got a free ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower with us).

Anyway, it was the three of us, the Greenough Girls against Europe (Greenough being the dorm the three of us lived in together during our senior year at UMass), and truly, it was us against Europe. Or, perhaps more accurately, Europe against us.

It had been exactly a week since Jen and I had touched down in the UK. Since that moment seven days before, we had explored Edinburgh, London, and Paris. Every day we would rise early and walk miles and miles and miles around these cities. So, you see, by this point we were pretty tired. Sleep had become a distant friend. Our minds were beginning to catch up with our bodies in exhaustion. Or was it the other way around? Just the night before, after long day traveling to and back from the Palace of Versailles, Jen had expressed her simple desire to just restand in my desire to comfort her, I hopped on our hostel wifi and googled reviews about our Thello overnight train we would be taking.

Here is an excerpt I read to Jen that night, taking care to remind her we’d have sixteen hours of rest! Read carefully.

Allowing for the constraints of providing complete meals economically on a train, dinner was remarkably good, with lentil and curried chicken soup followed by grilled Atlantic salmon steak and wild rice, then raspberry and chocolate tart, all accompanied by an excellent half bottle of Chianti and rounded off with a decent cafe latte from the restaurant car’s expresso machine. The 3-course dinner cost 28 euros, the 37.5cl Chianti 12 euros. I almost went for a nice Cognac to round it off, but didn’t on this occasion!

When we returned to our sleeper compartment the beds were made up, with clean sheets, plump pillows and soft duvets replacing Artesia’s old blankets. Each berth had a reading light and a handy power socket for laptops and mobiles, which worked fine.

The ride was very smooth indeed, on well-maintained track all the way, and our sleeper was very quiet too – unless you opened the hopper window, when you’d suddenly hear all the track and wind noise!

-Fodors Travel.com, user Man_in_seat_61

So, naturally, we were pretty excited. And well, okay, so maybe the review was written in 2012 when the train was first introduced, but, details. We were going to Venice on a fabulous train, and only for 55 euros (probably) each! It was part of our grand plan in money saving, this overnight train, because it meant we wouldn’t have to spend on a night in a hostel and on separate travel to Italy. Fall asleep in Paris and wake up in Venice. Amazing.

Also, when we arranged these plans weeks and months before, all from the comforts of our couches and beds at home over Skype, this sounded pretty adventurous. We’d train from Scotland to Italy in the space of one week! Saving money and backpacking because we’re young and free and adventurous! Traveling like royalty and eating lentil salmon just like Man_in_seat_61 said we would! And we wouldn’t skip the Cognac.

Alright. By now I’m guessing you can feel what’s coming. I’ve let my sarcasm get the better of me. It’s reached it’s peak. I’m done now, I’ll get on with the story.

Our train left at six o clock that evening (or maybe it was seven. Eight possibly. Daylight lasted so much later there), and we made sure to get to the train station with plenty of time to spare. By the time we got there, we’d already spent a very full last day in Paris. We’d climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower and ventured to the Notre Dame Cathedral, ate crepes in a park and an entire baguette along the sidewalk. We traveled the metro all around yet still walked miles, lugging our bags around once we’d checked out of our hostel.

Forget the 3-course meal, we just wanted to lay down and not get up for at least 12 hours. So we bought some sandwiches to eat on the train and waited until it was time to board. Finally, the time came, we lugged ourselves up from our spot on the station floor, and headed to our platform in a mass of other travelers.

First impression of this train was, well, that it had traveled. Back and forth from Paris and Venice. Many times. Many, many times. Perhaps a group of kids had decided to throw some rocks at it once or twice. Boulders, maybe. But, well, like they say, you can’t always trust a book by it’s cover and our 55 euros (PROBABLY) was spent, so we were getting on this paint chipped metal box on wheels. Besides, Man_in_seat_61 had said nothing about the exterior of the train.

So we reached our car, let’s say it was car 15 since I’m about as reliable with numbers as Man_in_seat_61 is with reviews. So, the doors to all the cars are open and there are men checking tickets at all of them. Except car 15. The doors to car 15 are closed. So we decide to join the crowd at the doors of car 14 and discover, okay, so the doors on car 15 are broken and won’t open. We’ll just be patient and get on through 14.

To be honest, as we were waiting in that crowd, there was only one thing I was seriously worried about. I can take shabbiness. I don’t need salmon. Just some water to brush my teeth and I’d be fine for the night. Except for one other thing. You see, I can’t stand heat. Worse, humidity. I’m the annoying person who turns the AC down to snowflake setting in the summer. I sleep with my window open in the winter. My own mother complains when I sit too close to her because my “body is a furnace.” It’s my curse to bear, and because of this, I was afraid that this train might not have air conditioning, terrified that it might not even have good ventilation. Nothing would be worse than being trapped inside a hot, sealed metal tube for an entire night.

The thing about Europe is that they just don’t do air conditioning like we do it in the States. Even in the hottest countries. They’re tough, too tough against the heat where we Americans are frail.

Non-Europeans might say “oh yeah, they don’t wear deodorant over there.” FALSE. I say, it wouldn’t matter if someone showered in antiseptic seventeen times in a row and rolled around in a bed of roses. Lack of cool air and poor ventilation in busy public places are to blame. The Louvre? The air was hot, thick, and sweaty. The Palace of Versailles? The very rooms where Sun King Louis XIV himself carried out his days? Worse. Don’t even get me started on the Paris metro. If there is one thing, one single thing you never want to do at the height of summer, it’s ride the Paris metro during busy rush hours. I may just pass out thinking about it. Jen nearly did.

My one fear for this train: lack of fresh air for 13+ hours.

We boarded through car 14 and crossed over to car 15 and Sarah checked our tickets, told us we’re in compartment 24. I followed her down the narrow passageway, Jen close behind, glancing into compartments as we passed. Have you ever watched a Harry Potter film? Think Hogwarts Express, except…not. Perhaps a run down, smaller, 1970s version of the Hogwarts express where the seats fold out into narrow beds. Not glamorous at all. But still, it was a tiny bit like the Hogwarts Express, and the Harry Potter fan that has been inside me since I was nine years old got the tiniest bit excited about it. And! I realized as I followed Sarah, it wasn’t hot! It was actually pretty cool! There was AC! I could relax, everything would be smooth from here on out.

And yet.

The first thing I noticed when my eyes found compartment 24 was there was a door blocking us from entering. None of the doors to the other compartments had been shut. Sarah reached out and tried to slide it open, but of course, it didn’t budge.

Thus, Sarah, Jen, and I found ourselves facing another broken door. Suddenly stuck in the narrow passageway, people were coming behind us and in front of us,  luggage crowded the excess space and when I glanced behind me people were watching us, frowning, staring, glaring, not understanding why we weren’t moving. Very quickly, I could feel feel the blood rushing to my face, the pressure building in my chest because DANG IT, Man_in_seat_61, you hadn’t warned us about this. You were probably wrapped in your silk sheets by this stage in your journey.

Physically unable to let people pass us from either side, Sarah and I began tugging at the door with what strength we had in us as Jen set her bag on mine and managed to squeeze her way back through the people to seek a train employee for help. In front of us were a group of Spanish girls about our age, suitcases stacked and trying to find their own compartment, and who were lovely and friendly enough to lend us their arm power in trying to move the door. There I was with Sarah and several Spanish girls, using all our might to slide this door open.

It didn’t move, wouldn’t budge at all. I could feel myself beginning to sweat, and suddenly Jen was back, telling us that an employee would be there to help us soon. Minutes ticked by, no one moved, no one came, and we worked at the door with the Spanish girls until it was utterly apparent that we simply weren’t going to get that door to move. Defeated, we made idle chatter with the Spanish girls, who’d had an even more rigorous travel schedule than us, who were very nice and who I hoped briefly might be sharing our jammed compartment with us, if we ever made it inside.

Finally, when the train was on the verge of leaving, a passenger waiting behind the Spanish girls, an older man, pushed past them and took hold of our door and forced it right off its hinges.

At last, we could go inside our compartment and free the people! The man continued down the narrow train hallway and disappeared just as quickly as he came.

It was a beautiful relief to sit down in that compartment, out of sight of the other passengers. Sarah quickly claimed the top bunk hanging over the seats, which would unfold into a second and third bunk later. We were in our compartment, finally. Our door was now jammed open, but we were in our compartment and we could finally rest.We just had to wait to see who the other three passengers in the compartment would be.

Our first stroke of luck- we wouldn’t have to squeeze to fit in our six-person compartment with three other people, but two. Two Italian women, a daughter and her mother, joined us. Though the mother didn’t speak much English, the daughter was fluent and they were both extremely friendly. Unlike us, they had no surprises about the state of our car or our compartment. “Italian trains,” the daughter said with a sigh and a roll of the eyes. They advised us to keep our suitcases secure and our most valuable belongings in our pockets when night came- in case thieves happened to see our open door as an invitation.

We were so young, so naive. So deceived by Man_in_seat_61.

The sleeping-cars had Closed Circuit TV cameras in the corridor for security, and both sleeper and couchette compartment doors had a security deadlock that cannot be opened from outside, even with a staff key. However, it seems Thello haven’t yet fitted the hotel-style card-key locks that I have seen promised.

About ten minutes into our ride, that worker Jen had flagged down appeared in our doorway. He was very nice, and very cheerfully he took our door and yanked it so it was about two thirds of the way shut, with just enough space for one of us squeeze our way through in case we needed to go in our out. If a thief wanted to come by in the night, he’d have to yank our door back open (which made a horrible scraping noise along the hinges), or be slender and small enough to silently squeeze his way through.

But, whatever. By this point I as beginning to suspect I’d probably not fall into the deepest sleep that night anyway.

Our door was stuck open, none of the electrical sockets in the compartment worked, the window shades wouldn’t close, but to be honest, we were not distressed about it. It was comical, by this point, and at least the people we were sharing our compartment with were in good spirits about it all. And of course Sarah, who’d studied Italian, got to making friends with them right away.

And if there’s one really positive thing I have to say about this train, it was the staff. You see, if I worked on this train, with disorganized chaos and passengers complaining left and right (we even heard a man being told he had a fake ticket), riding a train for hours and hours overnight, repeatedly, I don’t think I’d be able to stand it. In all honesty, I was expecting them to be short tempered and impatient, but, like the guy who’d tried closing our door for us, they were all extremely friendly, cheerful, and pleasant. Aware of our door situation, they’d stop by periodically to make sure we were alright, that no one was bothering us.

So, after a rough start, things were pretty okay. The view of the French countryside outside our window was pretty in the setting sunlight, and, forgoing the alleged salmon and Cognac in the alleged dining care, we ate the food we’d bought at the train station and chatted with the Italian ladies we’d be sharing the night with.

“Venice?” they said, unimpressed, when we told them where we were going. “Venice is sad, very sad. Pretty and romantic, but sad. Good to visit one time. Go to Florence, go to Milan. Much happier.”

So the reviews rolling in about Venice weren’t fabulous, but it was understandable, to the eyes of someone who lived in Italy. And little did they know, I love sad, romantic places. Europe was full of them.



We unfolded our seats to turn them into beds as we rolled through small French villages and the sun disappeared outside. We each took a bed sheet that  the Italian daughter had gone and retrieved for all of us and settled on our bunks for the night.

The ride was very smooth indeed, on well-maintained track all the way, and our sleeper was very quiet too – unless you opened the hopper window, when you’d suddenly hear all the track and wind noise!

Okay, listen. Listen here, Man_in_seat_61, if you can hear me over the roar of this train. This was the loudest train I’d ridden in my life, and most definitely one of the bumpiest. A far cry from the Eurostar and the British National Rail. But I’m not here to compare trains. I’m here to tell you that this train was LOUD.

And periodically throughout the night we’d stop. We’d just stop at random stations as we traveled down the south of France, probably to refuel or who knows what, but it would be silent. They would turn the train off completely and everything would go completely still, so quiet that I could hear my ears ring and my own heart beating. We’d stay like that for twenty, thirty minutes at a time, laying in complete, utter silence, which made it even harder to fall asleep when I’d been so used to the noise and the bumps of the track.

Did I fall asleep during that train ride? I’m not even sure. Perhaps for small patches at a time, wrapped in that thin sheet and using my coat as a pillow. I’d tied the strap of my backpack to a rod by my head, because the last thing I wanted was someone to steal my wallet, or worse, my camera. Before lights out, one of the employees had come around and collected our passports to check and mark, which they told us they’d return to us in the morning. It was nerve wracking, letting a stranger  take my passport. In a foreign country without it, it made us feel almost naked not to have it, very vulnerable. Even the Italian women seemed wary.

But, when finally the sun began to rise and we found ourselves in Italy, they returned our passports as promised. At around six, the two Italian ladies forced our door open and left us to get off in Milan, and we had the compartment to ourselves for the next three hours until we arrived in Venice. Jen immediately stretched out on their empty middle bunk, and after taking a foray to the small bathroom to wash my face and attempt to feel a tiny bit fresh (Do Not Drink Water, the sink said), I apparently, according to Sarah, fell fast asleep on Jen’s abandoned ground bunk, but not before snapping this photo in a feeble attempt to preserve our memory of this compartment.


So maybe I got one, two hours of sleep? Three? By nine o clock in the morning, as we began to approach Venice, finally, we were lethargic, a bit motion sick and groggy, hair greasy and skin clammy, and 110% ready to be on steady ground.

Venezia read the sign as we finally, finally rolled into the station at 9 am, Italy time. Clad in yesterday’s clothes, Parisian sweat and dust still on us, we took all our belongings and got the h*ck off that train. The air was cooler than I expected, and fresh, and the gray Italian sky hung above us and it was beautiful, just to be finished with that never ending train ride.

And, despite what the Italian women had told us, Venice was wonderful, positively beautifulso much so that the minute we walked out of that station the three of us were almost ready to forgo finding our hostel and just begin to explore because there was no time to waste.

Almost. Sleep could wait, but a shower and clean clothes were just a tad more appealing.

And that, my friends, is the story of the time I traveled from Paris to Venice on an overnight train. As I wrote this, I reread the Thello train review to Jen, who said, amidst our tears of despair laughter, “I think this is a parody review.”

Just make sure you have realistic expectations. Don’t expect luxury, just reasonable comfort, if you expect lounge cars with pianos you’re thinking of the Venice Simplon Orient Express!

Okay, Mister Man_in_seat_61_eating_salmon_while_sleeping_on_plump_pillows_and_drinking_fresh_water_behind_a_door_that_actually_shuts. Next time we’ll book tickets for the Orient Express.

My name is Steph, by the way. Don’t think I mentioned that.

One thought on “(T)hello there

  1. Pingback: 2015 | Lost: purple quill

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