I haven’t travelled by train much, and most of my train experiences are local ones, going specifically from Paris to Cannes, to then be picked up by my mother who lives in the hills above the French Riviera, away from the humidity and the bling, as she likes to say.
So I’m on my way back after blissful days spent taking in high quality air on the terrace, high quality food that I couldn’t afford myself and high quality sunshine that my capricious city distributes only when it feels like it.
I m in the TGV, I arrived at the station on time, mom made me a sandwich that she put in a Lancel paper bag with plenty of napkins and a little bottle of water. I bought two magazines, I have a book, my computer and enough battery to get through any blockbuster ever filmed.
The train left at 6 p.m. And after two hours my stomach starts asking for attention. I look at the girl next to me and the old lady across the aisle, then over at the two old men sitting diagonally from me trying to detect some kind of dinner activity or even preparation, and then discretely Iopen my tray table and put my little paper bag on it. Suddenly my little train family starts merrily popping trays open and taking out their dinner kits. Mom’s a zealous one; she made me a rucolla/mozzarella/tomato salad, wild rice with garlic chicken and mushrooms and sautéed spring vegetables, all of this in a Tupperware with dividers. She also managed to sneak a boiled egg under all of this food and a sealed bag with fresh fruit- a whole pineapple and a whole mango- underneath the Tupperware. If I’m stuck in the train after an avalanche I’ll be able to survive a full week, I might even be able to sell some of my rations.
So here we are, all 5 of us, giving healthy bites into our food, our eyes bright with delight. My neighbor’s eating a sandwich made with a stale white baguette; she probably bought it from a bakery around the station, or even at the station itself. The waxed paper around it has some generic phrase like ‘have a good day’ or ‘the love of good bread’ written on it. If the sandwich was from a bakery that pays attention to its image or takes pride in its institution, its own name would have been printed on the paper… and the bread would not have had the texture of insulating material. Inside the sandwich I can see ham and cheese. It s a French Classic, jambon gruyere! But no smell of charcuterie intertwined with sweet scent of fruity gruyere cheese and soft butter come out of it. You see, good jambon Gruyere is a treat, almost a dessert, an illusion made of three kinds of fat hidden in a crunchy baguette to contrast with their lazy soft textures. It’s the kind of food I eat when there are little options (much to my delight), standing with my elbows on the bar of a brasserie in a remote part of France between two trains or in villages on Sundays when everything but that same brasserie is closed. In my memory jambon gruyere never failed me, it always fulfilled my desire for comfort and familiarity in places I didn’t know yet. But all my nose is picking up from the sandwich next to me is the smell of warm industrial mayonnaise, what a pity.
The old lady on the other hand has a home made sandwich. It’s cut it in half to make it easier to eat, and even though it contains lots of ingredients, its engineer managed to keep it all together and coherent. The bread looks delicious, it s not fresh but the crust is golden and the heart is generous, full of holes, with a nice healthy color of good qualitydough. I could have guessed this sandwich was made in the Provence region of France just by its smell. There are fragrant tomatoes cooked over low heat with bell peppers, herbs, olive oil and a hint of garlic in it. I imagine that was one of the side dishes served at lunch. Bits of canned tuna and black olives accompany this mediterranean treat. The old men bought overpriced triangular train sandwiches, and we all knows what these are like. Once we finished our coincidental dinner party, we all smiled at each other with familiarity and passed out till the train arrived at Gare de Lyon. I rushed out of the train and sprinted to the metro to get home as fast as I could. After a couple of stations, someone tapped on my back. I turned around, irritated as a Parisian should be, and there was the old lady from the train holding a bag of cookies she had just opened for me to take one.
Words, photos and film by Nada Diane Fridi