France, A Year Of Pain: Countdown to Arrival

Consonant please Rachel

Not many things attract almost exclusively students and the elderly. Countdown falls into that bracket. Students have either lost the remote, or they’re me, and they like looking at Rachel Riley. Elderly people either have the remote, but can’t work it, or they’re waiting for the numbers round because they think it’s the lottery.

For at least two of the above reasons, Countdown was a weekday staple during the year before I went to France, and the person in charge of scheduling at the BBC had made the unfortunate decision to air the show half an hour before my French oral classes, thus creating an overlap effect. A friendly voice gently encouraging me to rearrange some letters, with just the softly sedative buffer of Dictionary Corner to counteract the jump shots to Rachel’s flirtatious smile was a sofa-confining combination that resulted in an hour long commitment to the French department becoming, at most, a forty-five minute commitment.

So an unfortunate piece of scheduling, teamed with a thorough commitment to avoid speaking French in class as far as possible once I had arrived, resulted in me not feeling absolutely ready to spend a year in Paris.

Adventures typically start with a journey, and unfortunately this adventure was no different. Manchester Piccadilly platform 5 slid away from me. Time really jumps when you’re going somewhere you don’t want to, and a year of the unavoidable necessity to speak French wasn’t where I wanted to be. The previous years of French classes had only made me proficient at avoiding speaking French for periods of up to one hour (or forty-five minutes, I should say), and the techniques I had picked up there were not likely to be of any use (keep your head down, avoid eye contact; when asked a direct question, look for something vital in your bag, feign a coughing fit, mime that you have a hunting injury to the jaw).

I had a feeling akin to the unpleasant sensation I always get on rollercoasters, when you start that steep ascent and you know that there is no going back. Your mind begins to panic and increasingly wild escape plans formulate. I could force my way out of the carriage and carefully climb down the metal framework to safety, perhaps to applause and a local news crew waiting to interview the sole survivor of the Pepsi Max’s fateful final fling. Perhaps I could yell, ‘Fire!’ and try to convince others to do the same in a bid to alert the appropriate authorities. But no good, these hopeless goons around me have no idea of the peril they face, some are even smiling and waving in their giddy ignorance. No, now that the ride had started there was no getting off, the best I could hope for was to wait it out and arrive at my destination with a veneer of composure.

Shortly after the Eurostar departed from London St Pancras I became aware of a problem with my watch. I would check the time, then look again just 5 minutes later only to find that the recalcitrant hands had taken advantage of my lax concentration to propel themselves forwards by a full 40 minutes. I described this curious malfunction to a disinterested neighbour across the aisle and asked what the time really was, only to discover that his watch appeared to have exactly the same problem and had advanced by the same preposterous amount. Somewhat taken aback by his disinterest in this amazing coincidence, I resignedly sat back in my seat and wondered what the French for watch repair shop was.

Some minutes (or possibly seconds) later, I was distracted from my musings by the unnatural speed with which the English countryside was flying past the window. Cursing the driver for choosing this of all days to attempt the land speed record, I looked out of the window at England slipping away from me. My backwards-facing seat offered no view of where I was going; all I could do was watch a narrow strip of the recent past as it calmly shot by. The window was my television, and the countryside a film being fast-forwarded by an imbecilic and merciless projectionist.

In an effort to slow down my all-too-speedy advance I reached for the reliably soporific complimentary magazine, but before the smugly smiling front cover face had reached my retina, we were already slowing down into Paris. I had thought we were perhaps an hour out from London at this point, but the two and a half hour journey, which had seemed comfortingly long as I boarded, was already over. I searched my memory for the long tunnel that I was fairly sure we had to pass through on the way, but the thought was pushed from my mind as a large French woman temporarily mistook me for a baggage rack. I politely unzipped my head from the side pocket of her bag and gathered my effects.

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