Larry King on Eurostar


I read the Chicago Trib piece on rail travel with some interest and a little irritation. What irritated me was a certain tone I've come to associate with Americans writing about Europe, which manages to sound simultaneously condescending and naive. Look how much the people of these cute little countries have accomplished! They have trains! I realize word probably travels slowly across the prairie to Chicago, what with the oxen dying and the Conestoga wagons getting mired in the mud, but Eurostar has been in operation since November 1994. It's not a new toy.

Other than that, I was left with a few questions. For one thing, I don't see how on earth the writer could take an hour and a half to get from a hotel in Kensington to Waterloo station, particularly at 6:30 in the morning. I live in South Kensington, and at that hour it takes me twenty minutes. You could walk in an hour and a half.

(He gave us one clue, albeit inadvertently. He said he was delayed because a shortcut through St. James Park was shut. He was not. No roads traverse St. James Park. It sounds to me as if one of London's more enterprising taxi drivers spotted a wide-eyed, apple-cheeked son of the plains, invented a shortcut that to his shock and dismay was closed, and took the guy for a ride, as it were. I wish he'd mentioned what the fare came to.)

I also don't see how the Chicagoan could have had any trouble finding his coach. At Waterloo, Eurostar has its own terminal, where overhead monitors tell you to use a particular stairway, A, B, or C, depending on the number of your coach. That number is clearly printed on your ticket. Big signs direct you to the stairs, which lead to the platform. Once on the platform, you're near your coach. Every coach is marked with its number at each end.

But if you have trouble reading and can't tell your left from your right and don't know the alphabet, it doesn't much matter. All the stairs lead to the platform. On the platform, a horde of Eurostar staff stands ready to point you in the right direction. You might end up walking a bit farther than you'd have had to if you'd paid attention, but not a lot.

At least he enjoyed the trip. He should have. First class on Eurostar is about as comfortable a way to travel as I've found. You have a comfortable, roomy seat and attractive Frenchwomen bring you surprisingly good food and wine. You may smoke. And half the time, when you arrive, you're in Paris.

Once there, I've never felt much urge to leave, although a trip to Rome would tempt me. A trip to Rome by rail from Paris would not. It's almost as far as New York to Miami. How many people do that? I realize rail travel is more haphazard in the U.S., and outside the Northeast corridor waiting for a train can involve building shelter, digging a latrine, and laying in a supply of canned food, but even if you got regular, direct service, you wouldn't want it.

The Chicago Trib piece never made it clear exactly why the writer felt compelled to make the trip. He gave the impression some doubt existed about whether it was possible. I don't see why. A number of trains leave Paris each day, headed south. If you get on a train in Paris and head south, eventually you'll run into Italy, the Mediterranean, or an Alp.

I've not taken the train from Paris to Milan, as the Chicagoan did, but I've taken a train from Frankfurt to Milan and Switzerland to Milan. I've also ridden from Milan to Venice, Venice to Milan, Milan to Rome, Rome to Milan, Rome to Florence, and Rome to Milan. Trust me, rail service crisscrosses Italy from side to side and cuff to sole.

One more thing puzzled me. The writer said when he was ready to leave Rome, he was told he could take a train to the airport. Instead, he hired a car and driver. He seemed to feel that was preferable. Maybe it was, from the point of personal convenience. From the point of personal safety . . .

As it happens, I just got back from Rome myself. I flew. The memory of my last cab ride from the airport into Rome had faded, so I was ready to take another, in much the same way the pain of childbirth fades, leaving women ready to breed again.

Here are a few of the things my driver did as he accelerated from zero to about seventy miles an hour on the access road from the airport to the autostrada:

  • made a call on his cell phone;
  • took off his leather jacket;
  • made a call on his cell phone;
  • checked his hair in the rear-view mirror;
  • took a call on his cell phone;
  • turned around and handed me an English-language card outlining the taxi fares from the airport into central Rome, simultaneously explaining them to me in Italian, gesturing extravagantly with both hands to help me over the rough spots;
  • reached the autostrada and really hit the gas, very quickly reaching about 150 kilometers an hour and making me wish I'd never learned to convert kilometers to miles, so I wouldn't realize we were doing ninety miles an hour while we jammed ourselves so close to the Mercedes ahead of us I could read the lead headline on the copy of La Repubblica the passenger in the backseat was looking over;
  • left the autostrada, tore through the suburbs and into the central city, where he came within a block of my hotel before discovering the street on which it was situated was one-way the wrong way for us, whereupon he pulled into the intersection of the street the hotel was on and the street we were on and then reversed down the street the hotel was on, traveling backward at high speed the length of the block, apparently on the theory that it doesn't matter which way you're traveling on a one-way street so long as the car is pointed in the right direction;
  • grabbed my bag from the boot, trotted up to the hotel door, and in my response to an admittedly lavish tip grabbed my hand and shook it furiously and then kissed me on both cheeks before hustling off, pausing only to gesture obscenely to someone blowing his horn because the cab was parked diagonally in the street, blocking traffic.

I'm joking about the kiss on both cheeks.


Larry King

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