I travel quite a lot these days. It’s rare for a fortnight to go past without me having to pack my case at least once for a domestic or international trip. This week I’ve been in Strasbourg for meetings about the EU research ethics project I’m working on. How lovely, people say; lucky you. And indeed I am lucky, though not in the way you might think.
There is a whole lot of detail to attend to before leaving home. Arranging travel and accommodation can take so much time. I’d never been to Strasbourg before; I didn’t really know where it was, except that it’s in France, but France is a big country. I learned that it does have an airport, but the airport is a long way from the city, and there are no direct flights from any of my local airports. So on Monday I made an epic train journey via London St Pancras and then Eurostar to Paris, then on to Strasbourg from there.
Paris, you say, surely that’s glamorous? It is, though the ten-minute walk between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est takes you through a very unglamorous part of the city. I had 68 minutes in Paris which wasn’t long enough to go anywhere or do or see anything I might have liked to go to, do or see. If I’d had a couple of hours and no luggage, I might have gone somewhere on the metro, but instead I had a bottle of cold citronnade in the station and did some people-watching which was fun.
I’m pretty good at packing these days. I travel light and it doesn’t take me long to get my things together. I have a little stash of Euros – but there’s always something – and this time I forgot to pack an adaptor. Luckily I had time to buy one at St Pancras, which I can add to my large and growing collection of international adaptors. (My favourite is a lightweight one my Dad bought for me when I made a big trip in 2016 which covers every country in the world. If I could only remember to pack it when I need to, I’d be golden. My last few overseas trips have been to Dublin and Belfast which is probably why I’m out of practice here.)
Then there are all the logistics. Where are the meetings? Where is the station? How far is it from one to the other? Should I find accommodation close to the station or close to the meetings? Which maps do I need to print out? (Yes, dear reader, I like maps on paper. They’re big enough to read, they don’t rotate of their own volition, and the batteries don’t run out.) What will the weather be like? What shall I wear?
I try really hard to get all the travel details right but I do slip up. For example, when I flew to Belfast earlier this month, I flew with Flybe but I booked through a third party and Flybe wasn’t mentioned till halfway down their email. When I was packing, I got mixed up and thought I’d booked with Aer Lingus, so I took my slightly larger case (which I didn’t even need to do as it wasn’t full) and ended up having to pay £35 at the airport to put it in the hold because it wouldn’t quite fit in their specified dimensions measurement box. Book it in online for the return trip, said the check-in clerk, it’ll be cheaper. So I did. Saved me a whole £6. A man next to me in the queue told me he works for Flybe and said all the budget airlines are taking tips from RyanAir about how to rip off passengers.
Then when I went online to book my train ticket for last Monday’s journey to St Pancras, I saw that first-class tickets were the same price as second-class for the train I needed to travel on. Happy days! I took a screenshot to show my client that I wasn’t wasting their money – and then when I picked up my ticket from the machine at the station, it was second-class. I fumed all the way home, planning my email of complaint to the train company, pulled up the screenshot full of righteous anger – and saw that I’d booked a second-class ticket after all. Probably force of habit.
I don’t get paid for travelling time, so I’ve become very skilled at working on trains and planes. Yet the night before I travel, I always sleep badly. I can understand myself worrying about oversleeping when I have to get up very early. I find it much less understandable when I don’t even have to leave the house till midday, like when I went to work in Belfast earlier this month. The night before I had the most ridiculous string of anxiety dreams – cancelled plane, incomprehensible message from airline, driver refusing to take me to the airport – I woke up feeling as though I hadn’t slept at all.
So there are many frustrations. But there are also joys. I arrived in Strasbourg at 5.40 pm on Monday, checked into my hotel, and went out for a walk around the beautiful mediaeval centre. There were some entertaining sights, an ‘artisanal creperie’ provided a tasty dinner, and I found a little supermarket for some treats to take home. That was a bit like having one evening of holiday, but the rest of the stay was full-on work from breakfast to bedtime. It’s often the way with these trips because the cost and effort of bringing people together means everyone feels we need to make the most of the time we have.
People often think this kind of travelling is glamorous and fun. Occasionally it is, but mostly it’s hard work and tiring. I’m glad I can do it, though; I learn a lot and that’s always a plus for me, even if I’m learning about European train timetables or hotels in Cardiff.
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