This is the first of three “Letters from France”, based on a short stay in June 2017.
We fly into Paris across the flat green fields of northern France. Under a blue sky, with wisps of cloud, they stretch on and on for miles. Ten minutes has us across them, it took armies fatal months to cover the same ground.
Trains are like veins in the insight they give to a country or a city’s nature. From the airport, the RER heads for Paris Gare du Nord through northern suburbs of upright French architecture interspersed with blocks of modern flats and all purpose industrial units: the old and the new, past and present, side by side, like the passengers around us: elegant suits and the hijab and jeans.
The graffiti is internationally incomprehensible and the weeds grow between the goods siding tracks like an attempt to ruralise the city.
Rusting lines branch off towards long forgotten sheds, dusty trains line up as if they are waiting to be called, whether permanently out of use or ready for tomorrow, it’s sometimes hard to tell.
In some ways the arrival at main line terminal stations is the same in all cities. The lines multiply, the buildings on either side grow taller, the expansive station roofs cast shadows, and travellers stumble to their feet, reaching for bags and coats in a kind of hurried desperation.
The Gare du Nord is railway busy and commercially packed. Shops abound and arrows point all ways to various connections and exits. If you never escaped from this warren, you would think everybody in the world had an urgent mission.
After stairs and escalators, corridors and passageways, the metro slides into place like an obsequious servant, exactly on time and where it should be.
The short ride to Haussmann Lazare is followed by a break out into the Paris streetscape – which is so familiar with its high and ornate stonework, its wrought iron balconies, and its huge wooden doors leading to hidden courtyards – that it feels like a film set.
Sainte Lazare is a commuter station for passengers heading towards the northern coasts – a manageable size and a familiar layout: platforms, departure boards, shopping mall, and people in suspense waiting for their platform number.
Shortly after the train leaves the station for Caen, Paris pulls off its most famous and repeated stunt – and you cross the Seine without warning or preparation – with its wide waters, its high stone banks, the bridges, the barges and the houseboats. Like an ID flashed at a checkpoint it instantly validates your location – you could be nowhere else, but as soon as you’ve made your recognition the grand old river is gone, and the train flows over smaller streams and canals, auxiliary vessels to the main artery.
To remind you of the country through which you are travelling, there is a huge Citroen-Peugeot plant by the side of the tracks, the cars in lines like soldiers waiting for battle, transporters holding them in double decked rows, thousands of tiny mass produced elements of trade and industry. Later there is a sprawling Renault site, massive barns of machinery, and endless white vans and shining cars, even the signal box location named “Renault Poste 1”.
With greenery growing in every available space, the suburbs pass by: like the workers they house, there to do a job, half turned towards the countryside, pulled ever closer by the city’s power.
Then the fields take over – rolling and green and of good size – they are interrupted at intervals by solid farmhouses and buildings, the rubble of their domesticity scattered around them: machinery, cars, tractors, children’s toys, signs, and pylons, country and people carefully united, lives merging into the land.
Neat stations serving small and widely spaced communities don’t merit a stop from this inter city express, they are a blur of platforms, half full car parks, and the mismatched sheds of local industry and commerce, till the fields reassert themselves. This is arable land – no cattle, scarcely a person or car to be seen, just the greens and golden browns of growth, the reaping and sowing of rural repetition.
Here the sky is bigger, the light less fraught, there is a sense of heading for somewhere, somewhere different. Approaching Lisieux the towering Basillica of Saint Thérèse, its dome shimmering in midday sunlight, is somehow a reminder of the connection between the country and the spiritual – be it pagan or theocratic, and the fields have changed again. Now we have the bocage for which Normandy is famous: the fields smaller, the hedges thicker and more like small trees, and the crops have given way to cattle – heavy, strong looking beasts, scattered about the fields, sheltering by hedges, reminders of the tough nature of this terrain.
This feels like the Normandy you carry in your head, from distant geography and history lessons in school: the farming and the war, the richness of the ground and the impenetrable nature of the small, well surrounded fields.
But then you are reminded that you are headed to the coast as we approach Caen and the fields flatten, water towers appear – huge white concrete mushrooms across the landscape – you can see for miles across these featureless flatlands, to the city, its factories, its periphrique, and its strange confusion – of post war modern and middle ages ancient. Throughout its history, war has come to Caen and left its confusion, but continual rebuilding breeds a people adaptable to change, and on the platforms of the modestly sized station there is a vibrance.
Caen is a city of transition and opposites, destroyed by war and rebuilt by peace, far enough from Paris to be defiantly normal, close enough to the centre to be of some importance.
The journey has been a definition of France, or, at least, a part of it; the old alongside the new, commerce and agriculture, flatlands and bocage, country encroached upon by town, suburbs and cities, tiny towns and huge factories.
Through it all there runs a strong sense of where we are: this is France, this is how we look, diversity brings conflict but also strength.