One of the oddities of my time here in France has been the exponential increase in my use of the train. The RER, or Réseau Expres Régional, pronounced AIR-ur-AIR, connects Paris to its bus and metro lines, and reaches its tentacles out into the various suburbs of the city, of which Saint-Germain-en-Laye is the western terminus.
At first the thought of spending significant time on a train to get to work and back three days seemed tedious, but I have quickly grown to love the train. During the week the A line threads through the countryside and over the Seine to the edge of Paris where a flood of businessmen edge in and out of cabins with briefcases. The A snakes past gorgeous mansions in Le Vésinet while the poverty stricken pass from station to station among the French elite, begging for a euro or two to buy a sandwich. At Nanterre, next to its eponymous university, twenty-something hipsters with obnoxious head phones cradle messenger bags and books, the smoky odor of cigarettes wafting from their bodies. On Saturdays, heading into Paris, the cabins teem with life--street musicians come on board with violins and accordions and conjure the soul of France into musical form.
All in all, I have come to love the train because rather than having to pay attention to controlling a vehicle safely and properly, I can sit and watch the world around me. If I am not sitting and observing, I am most likely reading, and on my way home from work, pass many pleasant hours this way. I'm beginning to think it's a shame that trains are dying beasts in the states, because they offer a sort of perspective quite unattainable by bike, car, or plane.
Ironically, I read a book about trains--their beastiality, their personalities, their ferocity--on the train: none other than Zola's La Bête Humaine. Last week, on the return from Cergy, I encountered a passage in which the female protagonist Séverine is riding the train from Le Havre, in the north of France, to Paris, and there is a long description of the countryside she passes by, including the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At that very moment, it was as if my life were simple an external mimesis of the book, as if I were copying Séverine, as if I had been placed specifically at that moment to encounter that very passage and think those very thoughts. It was as if life had doubled itself, as if my life were a book, and Zola's book was a book within my book. How life is funny.
The other thing I understood in that moment is how much more richly I grasped the literature because I knew and had seen the objects described. I had seen the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, I was familiar with it, had run through its trees and on its fallen leaves. Right then and there the reality that I have a deepened appreciation for the French canon of literature because I am beginning to actually see the country of its origin awoke like a sleeping giant. It was an epiphany I think I will carry with me for much of graduate study, and maybe longer.
If I had not taken the train that day, if instead I had somehow not chosen to read my book at the instant, I might not have had that epiphany. Who can guess what other thoughts might have been stimulated? There's no use in trying to divine them. In the end though, I guess I have the train to thank. I knew I liked it for a reason...