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Monday, September 12, 2005

You're a (Euro)Star

The big day has arrived where I bid sunny, cloudy, rainy, thundery, humid London a sad farewell. The Hostess has arranged for a driver to take me to Waterloo International at 9am and right on cue he arrives.

The drop off point is right at arrivals - walk through the door and voilà, there you are - no hiking up stairs, trekking through mazes or fighting escalators. I check once more about validating my Europass (yes, call me paranoid) and am once again directed to Check-in counter 3. However, it seems in this trip, things never run as they should. At check in I’m told that they no longer validate passes and I have to do it at the other end. Now the person who just told me is 3 foot away from the one that told me to go to counter 3. When I point it out, she brushes it off and says that they should know that they don’t do it anymore. With that, my Eurostar ticked is swiped and i’m allowed through.

First point is x-ray - jackets have to be removed, everything is scanned and I pass the metal detector without a problem.

The next point is immigration - well it’s double immigration. First, you go through the British officials and about 2 paces away are the French. I’m welcomed through with a traditional welcoming scowl. I feel that french charm already.

The terminal is akin to an airport - a long corridor, with platform entry escalators along its length, on the sides are duty free shops, newsagents, tacky giftware perfect for those relatives you can’t stand and there’s also a few cafés/bars.

Finding a seat initially isn’t a problem but the lack of seating is apparent when more passengers arrive. Two trains are scheduled to leave within 5 minutes of each other. I’m sure the lack of seating is a ploy to get people into the cafe’s. I’m kind of amazed at the number of people having full strength pints of ale at 9.30 in the morning. But what should I know. I’m not British.

Boarding commences 15 minutes prior to departure and as things would have it, I once again pick the wrong entrance. It’s not as bad as it could have been - I arrive on the platform at carriage 1 - i’m in number 7 - i’m consoled by the knowledge that i could have been seated in carriage 18! Though by the end of the trip I wish I was.

The carriage layout for first (it’s different in premium first and standard) - it’s a one seat - aisle - two seat arrangement - some chairs are facing to form groups of four or 2 - i’m facing forward in a single. It’s decorated in the Eurostar colours, silvery-grey and red. Wide velour seats with moveable armrests, tray table squeals and squawks its way out from the seat in front, a small bin is attached to the wall - the walls are also red.

The interior is looking a bit tatty - the carpet, diagonally striped bands of silver and red has seen better days, it’s stained throughout, the chairs are looking tired, frayed edges and stained - they must be coming up for a refit (or one hopes they are).

The crew uniforms - women are dressed in a round neck collarless silver-grey shirt and black pants (much nicer than the Qantas sacks), their hair in french buns no less - the men however are clad in a body forming black Lycra sports shirt with deep grey trousers. I’d have to say the men have the far more stylish outfit - I especially liked their matt finished silver Eurostar branded buckle (not that i was looking there for any other reason).

It became obvious very quickly that the double glazing was not a photographers friend. There aren’t just reflections from the internal lights and people sitting in the carriages, it’s a double reflection - it put an end to any serious photos.

This photo clearly demonstrates the problem.

About 10 minutes out from Waterloo Station our attendant starts handing out the breakfast menu - the purpose of which seemed mute, since no orders were taken before service began.

There are two options - the express breakfast (apart from the different items) is served and cleared more quickly than the traditional.

Express Breakfast:
Winter fruit compote with crème fraîche
Greek yoghurt with honey
Muesli bar with strawberry pieces
Fresh fruit
Bread and Pastries

Traditional Breakfast:
Chicken sausage, herb omelette, cracked black pepper tomato, mushrooms with a grain mustard coating and sautéed potatoes
Greek yoghurt with honey
Bread and pastries

Fresh Orange Juice
Tea, coffee and hot chocolate

that isn't a metal serviette ring, it's paper that's made to look like metal (more like a photocopy)

The chicken sausage was tasty like dim sims are tasty in the “I-don’t-want-to-know-what’s-in-them” way. The skin looked synthetic and had peeled away from the “meat” - the sausage was flecked with tiny chunks of what i hope was chicken. It was chickeny in colour so it just might be chicken. The omelette was firm but not rubbery. The mushrooms were abysmal - memo to Eurostar - ask Qantas how to do them. The tomato didn’t have any real pepper taste and the potatoes, though they looked crisp had gone soft.

The Tims Dairy yoghurt is surprising good, it has the texture of soft whip ice-cream, it's light and creamy and with a subtle honey flavour. Equally enjoyable was the pulpy Tropicana Orange Juice.

The bread and pastries were served on the tray with Lescure butter and, in my case, Bonne Femme Apricot conserve. Both items were cold, the bread a trifle on the dry side but the croissant, sacré bleu! It wasn’t buttery, it wasn’t crispy, it wasn’t flaky, it was stale. It had the texture of fine cardboard (not that i’ve ever eaten it). Perhaps they don’t let the decent croissants out of the country.

Near the end of breakfast a trolley was wheeled through, offering “champagne”, mini bottles of white and red wines and spirits.

For the sake of EAAALO I opted for the Pannier Champagne (don’t ask me either, i’ve never heard of it) - a sip tells me it’s closer kin is Minchinbury. It does come in its Eurostar etched glass - that must make it taste better.

Breakfast trays are removed about 30 minutes later, so I’m not how much quicker the express option could have been.

At 11.15 a bell sounded and we were told that the train was now travelling at it’s maximum speed - 300km/h.

You can sort of make out how quick that is.

The train at this speed is definitely smooth, and walking down the passage doesn’t come with that usual problem of landing head first in some strange man’s lap (not that it’s ever happened to me).

15 minutes out from Paris and it was still wide open farmland, interspersed with closeted villages, the omnipresent church steeples pinpointing the towns. It’s rural France - not what i expected to see so close to Paris.

Just like the train, this travelogue ends suddenly- in the case of Eurostar, it draws into Gare du Nord with little fanfare and leaves me with the feeling of "is that it?"


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