The French have a perfect sense of the ‘occasion grande’ – you only have to look at the architecture of Paris, their fashions and passion for silly little dogs (how do such small and daft-looking things, make such big statements?). So you can perhaps understand why the (French-run) CIK awarded themselves the last ever running of a 100cc-based World Championship, in their own backyard.
However, Angerville was an interesting choice. Despite being close to Paris, it’s a bugger to get to. And not just by car. You see, I thought I was being oh so clever, by going on the Eurostar. A couple of days in Paris, then jump on a train and roll into Angerville – easy. Well, no actually.
After sitting in Paris-Austerlitz station I was beginning to wonder if the French actually had any trains. Perhaps they’d built the station before anyone had actually invented ‘le train’. I’d been there for ages and not seen anything remotely looking like a modern locomotive. I had a ticket, so could reasonably expect something to take me to Angerville – even if it was just a bloke making train noises as he gave me a piggy-back.
And just getting my ‘Billet Simple’ was hard enough. I’d got there with about twenty minutes to spare but found a huge, slow moving queue for tickets. I tried to use a machine, like many of the locals were doing. However, once I’d smashed my fingertips into the most insensitive touch-screen ever invented, the infernal thing told me that it couldn’t sell me a ticket and that I would have to go to the ticket office. I sighed, grabbed my bag and wheeled it towards the queue. As the minutes ticked away, I was making little progress. Sod’s Law had come into force. When I’m in a hurry, I always get the old buffer who has more questions than ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and is deaf. So the old coot can’t hear the answers anyway. But worse than that, was the French love of a chat. Parisians working in customer service-based jobs are normally cold and indifferent but today, they were all smiles and happy to have a friendly chat with the customers ahead of me. I threw a strop and went back to the machines.
Despite going to a different machine, this one did the same thing – took me through the whole booking process and, after I’d again smashed my fingers into the screen to confirm the purchase, it said that I had to buy my ticket at the billetrie. Using some fine Anglo-Saxon to startle the locals, who of course were able to make their ticket purchases, I stalked back into the ticket hall and the back of an anaconda of bored, frustrated would-be rail travellers.
With barely deux minutes before my ghost train was due to depart, I got to the front of the queue. “Bonjour, je voudrais un billet simple a Angerville, s’il vous plait” I said in my finest Gallic accent. The woman looked at me with a mixture of complete incomprehension, mixed with ‘Avez-vous juste interféré mon carniche’[‘Have you just interfered with my poodle?’]? I repeated my request in my idiotic French. Finally, she pulled a face before rattling off something I didn’t understand. ‘Je ne comprend pas. Je suis Anglais…” I stammered. “This is for tickets for direct trains only. Downstairs.” She said in English and looking at me as if I’d burgled her Gran and interfered with her poodle.
So, I was in a ticket hall that couldn’t sell me a ticket and now had to run outside, down two flights of steps, into what looked the underground, to buy a ticket. “Un billet simple pour Angerville!” I sweated. The smiley man sold me my ticket and pointed me back upstairs when I asked, “Ou est le train?”
That’s right. I had to buy a ticket downstairs, to take a train upstairs. I was beginning to realise just how great our rail service is. Okay it’s expensive, often over-crowded and fond of crashes but at least we’ve got trains to do all that and we can buy a ticket where we’re supposed to! And then, he told me in his jovial manner, that it was okay, the trains ran every half hour or hour.
He was a liar. Back upstairs, the notice-board gave details of trains that were hours away from departing. I wanted to travel maintenant. Wandering towards an Orleans train that had magically arrived – I’d been told I needed to get a train bound for there – I asked a 7ft tall guard, was this the train for Angerville? He gave me a funny look (I’d seen plenty of those in Italy, 2004) and took me back to the concourse, as if I was a lost child. He scanned the notice-board and gave a shrug of the world’s tallest shoulders, my first train was in 4 hours.
Four hours?! How could a civilized country not run a train from its capital city, the distance of say, Milton Keynes, in less than four bloody hours?? There was nothing for it but to find a perch and like the pigeons, hang around and do very little.
The time dragged longer than a Tony Blair farewell but eventually, the hour came for me to get on a train for Angerville. “Le train ici, il est pour Angerville?” I asked five different people, aware that I didn’t now quite trust the French. “Oui”, “Bien sur” were the replies. So I got on and waited. Ironically, it pulled out of the station – bang on time. But I felt uneasy. Something was wrong.
The ugly banlieues [Parisian suburbs] soon gave way to an increasingly large countryside and half an hour into my journey, I knew that Angerville should be near. After 40 minutes, we passed through a quaint town and moments later, what looked like, in the distance, a kart track. ‘Aha, I’m nearly there’, I thought. The train pulled into a small, nondescript station but it wasn’t called Angerville. My mind raced, was that Angerville we just passed or was it another kart track hosting a clubbie? I sank back into my seat and decided to wait. Angerville never came. Orleans did – the end of the line.
“Ou est le train pour Angerville?” I asked an official-looking lady. “La!” she barked, pointing at the train I’d just got off. We both looked at each other, as if the other was daft. I trundled my bag back to the train and asked a bloke in a hat that made him look like he knew what he was doing. Again, the short conversation was conducted entirely in French and again, I was told that this was the train for Angerville. I got on. As did all the teenagers who went to 6th form in Orleans.
Not only was I lost, tired and fed up, I now had to endure being the oldest passenger on the whole train. To add to my embarrassment, a lad and his girlfriend started petting in front of me. You can’t believe how interesting railway sidings suddenly became.
As the train trundled along back towards Paris, I realised that I’d not seen a ticket inspector. Surely one was due at some point but I hoped not. I couldn’t face another conversation with someone who would clearly think I was not just an idiot but a fare-dodging one at that. As the kid in front of me tried to get his hand up his girlfriend’s top, I became aware of a grey, brooding presence beside me. “Billets, s’il vous plait.” Here we go. The inspector took one look at my single for Angerville and practically went purple. This was a ticket for Angerville! “Oui”. Bought in Paris! “Oui”. Had I got on at Orleans?! “Oui”. He was very perceptive and clearly enjoying interrogating the now bright pink pillock in front of him. I tried to explain that ‘yes, I had bought a single for Angerville in Paris but the train hadn’t stopped. That I’d found myself in Orleans and been told to get back on the train and well, here I was trying to get to Angerville. Did the train stop at Angerville?’ The teenagers giggled, pointed and gawped. All were now standing up, to get a better look at the idiot talking funny French. The inspector glowered at me but was stumped. I couldn’t understand him and he certainly couldn’t understand me. In the end, he threw his hands in the air, clipped my ticket and sloped off. Almost instantly, the train rolled into Artenay, the town where I was staying with Ricky Flynn’s team. I made to get off the train. The ticket inspector spun round and shouted “Mais ce n’est pas l’arrêt pour Angerville!” “Je reste ici ce soir!” I growled back, dragging myself and my bag off the train and trundling off to find the hotel.
Checking in proved that the French, either love making things difficult or I really am a cretin. The receptionist told me that there was no room in the inn. “But I’ve booked!” I said in a most-unlike Mary and Joseph manner. He mumbled that there were no rooms available. At this point, I resorted to the classic Brits abroad tactic – when in doubt, shout. Despite the presence of two, half-dozing gore-hounds that wouldn’t look amiss guarding the gates of Hell, I wasn’t backing down. Suddenly, I was being handed a key and a TV remote, I did have a room after all, in the chalets….
In the fading light, I crossed the car-park to what look like a modern version of the Bates Motel. As I opened the door, I dropped my bag and jaw. The room could only be described as a prison cell. There were two single beds and a bunk-bed. The walls and floor could only be described as wipe-clean, whilst a single strip-light provided dim illumination. The ‘bathroom’, crammed a sink, loo and shower into a space that a hamster would’ve felt claustrophobic in. However, at least I was now where I needed to be and tomorrow, I’d be at the track. I sat on the corner of the bed, waiting for Ricky Flynn and his team to return and feeling like I’m a new character in a lurid prison drama. I just prayed the light wouldn’t suddenly go out.
When I did finally arrive at Angerville, courtesy of John Millroy, I was blown away. What the French can’t organize in terms of train travel, they more than made up for in creating an incredible party atmosphere. There were stalls galore, promoting everything from the Julie Tonelli charity to Freeminds racewear. But the two most popular, were the Kronebourg beer awning and the saucisse barbecue. The queue for which was massive. So much so, I nearly starved to death on race day. It was easier to have un déjeuner liquide.
Through an excellent PA system, commentary on the racing was relayed in English and French, while a DJ played music appropriate to what was happening both on and off the track. In a break in Qualifying, as the commentators paused for breath, he dropped in Elvis’ “A little less talk, a little more action” and during one race, when a driver had made a big break from the chasing pack, he played The Communards’ “Don’t leave me this way”. Indeed, as Mike Courquin extended his lead during the ICA World Cup final, U2’s “I Will Follow” filled the air, as Giacomo Patrono crossed the start/finish line.
The meeting also had the air of a major UK meeting – there were so many British drivers and parents there. All were amazed at the level of organization and the size of the crowds. On Saturday and Sunday, the number of spectators was huge and with a population of just 3,000 – they can’t have all come from Angerville. Perhaps the write-up in Friday’s edition of ‘La Republique’, had inspired them. Can you imagine one of our national dailies doing a feature on Super 1?
Unable to stay and celebrate another Millroy win, the RFM team hastily broke down their awning and made a dash for the French coast, to catch the ferry home – leaving me to my own devices. Naturally, I went to the bar. It was busy with track officials, tired mechanics and disappointed drivers enjoying a beer and of course, a chat. I ordered a cab, a Kronenbourg and joined them.
My taxi driver was a fantastic bloke who spoke as much English, as I did French. We became friends and chatted away in Franglais. Then he charged me a fortune – typically French. And in typically English fashion – I paid uncomplainingly. And tipped him.
After a (thankfully) lonely night, in my cell it was time to head for home. Once again, this was easier said than done. I decided to ask a native to help me decipher the French rail timetable. He too failed, so offered to call the SNCF rail enquiries. He was on the phone for ages and looked more confused than me. However, he scribbled notes on a piece of paper before telling me that the first train to Paris was at 1 O’clock [It was 9 in the morning] and that I would have to go to Fleury Les Aubrais, change and head to Paris. Let me explain – Fleury Les Aubrais is the last stop before Orleans. That’s in the opposite direction to Paris!
Sighing, I paid my hotel bill and walked to the train station. Upon arrival, I found the billeterie closed, although there were two members of staff chatting. Naturally, they ignored me. This left me to deal with a ticket machine that had no English instructions and asked me if I wanted to go to Paris, via Etampes or Orleans? Hello??!! After choosing the Etampes option, the machine whirred and spat out a ticket. Looking at my ticket to ride, I was suddenly hit with confusion. Would the first train take me to Paris via Etampes? Managing to attract the attention of the girl chatting behind the counter, I asked her if I had actually bought the right ticket? She gave me a funny look and asked, “Why would you want to go to Orleans, if you’re travelling to Paris?” rather than scream that not even the French understand their own bloody railway system, I just smiled and gave my best gallic shrug of the shoulders.
So I settled into my hard-as-nails plastic seat in the waiting room. Within minutes, my bum had gone to sleep and I was facing a two hour wait to get into the French capital. No wonder the Germans found the French a pushover.
Like a nutter in the corner, I started to sing Bonnie Tyler’s “I was lost in France, in love”. Only I was lost in France because there were no ruddy trains!!
Just as I was losing the will to win, a train rumbled to a halt. This was it, the train to Paris – my way out of here!
Twenty minutes later, as if to taunt me, the train stopped in a quaint little town. It was Angerville.
The rest of my journey passed without incident. Well, until I got to Paris itself. Vowing to not get on another French-run train, at least until I parked my bum on the Eurostar, I decided to cross Paris in a cab. Why not? Paris is a beautiful city and it was a sunny day.
Everything was going swimmingly until, at about 50mph, the cab driver slammed his brakes on. My bag flew off the seat and I nearly head-butted the front passenger seat. We’d been cut up and the driver of the other car had suddenly stopped dead. My driver was hyper-ventilating and shouting. Just wanting to get home now, I had to calm him down and encourage him to take me the short distance remaining to the Gare du Nord.
Whilst waiting for the Eurostar, I decided to have lunch in the station. As I enjoyed the healthiest meal I’d been able to find in all my time in France, a street urchin tried to steal my phone and my laptop.
At the very last second, I’d realized what he was up to and went to grab his arm. Behind me, a waitress had spotted him and was screaming “Petit voleur!” at him. Given the journey I’d had, trying to pinch my stuff was a very bad idea. He vanished with nothing and I hit the bar.
After that, the time it took me to get from Paris to my home in Southend, was less time than it took to go from Artenay to Paris. And they say France is a civilized country…