I am beginning to feel like St Pancras is my second home, such is the frequency with which I am seem to be travelling by train from Nantes to London of late. But there is one part of a Eurostar journey that is still very bizarre – the not knowing whether the woman next to you, or the bloke you are squeezing past on your way to the buffet, or the one who’s blissfully unaware as he stands in your way while you try to get your obese suitcase into the luggage rack – the not knowing which language they all speak. French? English? Both?
It is strange enough having announcements made first in English and then in France when you depart London, and then in the reverse order once you’ve crossed the channel – but words that would normally instinctively escape from my mouth, whether they are ‘sorry’, or ‘no problem’, or ‘do you mind getting the hell out of my way before I drop this suitcase on your face’, take a moment’s thought – not even because I might have to say them in French (which invariably takes a split second longer to formulate than my native English, as is only natural), but because I have to take a decision as to whether to use English or French.
My general rule is this – I’m not as anal as Eurostar when it comes to making announcements in a certain linguistic order depending on location in relation to the channel, so I will usually use English unless I’ve heard the person speaking French already, in which case I’ll opt for French. If they’re wearing a beret I’m clearly also likely to err in that direction.
Of course, the best thing is when you get an opportunity to be just a little bit of a show-off and instantaneously flick between the two. Two such opportunities of late – one when an overly up-herself British woman returning from Paris to London, massively stressed out by having two heavy suitcases (and already having whined to some poor Mexican bloke ‘yes, I KNOW it’s coach number one, but why aren’t they getting ON!?’ as we queued at a small bottleneck of passengers struggling, ironically, with their cases at the entrance to the train) practically accused me of stealing her seat. This was moments after the train manager had asked her to move one of her suitcases from the corridor at the end of the carriage – he had started in English and then for some reason moved into French, to which her irate response was ‘I DON’T speak FRENCH, can you HELP me please!’ As she accused me of being chief seat-stealer, I told her in English ‘no, have no fear, I’m just standing here to let people past’ – and then proceeded to have a conversation in French with the train manager, who was a few people away from me as I stood next to this god-awful woman, to ascertain whether my suitcase in the corridor was also posing a problem.
Second such opportunity was just this evening, when I conversed with a British woman who was struggling to find the buffet car as I walked in its direction – she ordered her bolognaise in English, and I then ordered my food in French and had a nice chat with the buffet staff. This British woman wasn’t all that unpleasant though, so it wasn’t nearly as smugly enjoyable as showing up the foul woman a few days before, though. Now that felt good.