A weekend in Dublin (Part 2)

You may remember that I wrote last week about my recent trip to Dublin and promised to post more when I had a few minutes. Well, I’m sat here at my desk about to start work, so thought I’d tell you a bit more about my visit while I have a cup of coffee and before the day starts in earnest.

One of the highlights of our trip was a short visit to Howth, which is a small-ish fishing community that has become a commuter suburb of Dublin itself. It’s on a beautiful part of the coast with a great beach and lots of seafood restaurants – and it’s only about twenty minutes from the city on the handy DART train service.

We started off with a bit of a wander around to get our bearings. This wasn’t too difficult, as there are only a few streets and the village is on a hill, so you can always see where you are in relation to the harbour. Here’s the church in the middle of the town, which I thought was particularly picturesque.

Howth Church

We also took a stroll along the sea wall that embraces the fairly sizeable harbour, most of which is now filled with sailing boats and other pleasure craft, though there seems to still be a small fishing fleet. Here’s the harbour.

Howth Harbour

As you can see, we weren’t the only people who’d come here for a nice walk on a sunny autumn day. In fact, a fair proportion of Dublin seemed to have had the same idea.

Howth Harbour Wall

This is the old harbour lighthouse at the end of the sea wall. It’s not operational now, as it has been replaced by a more modern light-bulb-on-a-stick type affair. But as a symbol of ‘here’s a welcoming harbour, safe from the storm’, I much prefer this one. If you’re into these things, as I am, then there’s a brilliant short history here.

Howth Habour Light

After our walk, we decided to have a spot of lunch. There is a long row of seafood restaurants and cafes along the harbourside, but we weren’t feeling particularly posh so grabbed some seafood chowder and squid rings from a stall in the car park and ate them sitting on a wall. Sat among the hustle and bustle of the harbour, sunshine + crisp sea air + a bowl of hot soup = one happy Simon.

After we’d finished our impromptu meal, we headed off for a walk along the big sandy beach that extends away from the village. The island you can see in the photo below is Ireland’s Eye, which looked like a great place to go kayaking (if one has a kayak). The island’s odd name has a bit of a story behind it, which you can read here if you so wish. (Don’t build your hopes up, it’s only a bit of a story.)

Ireland's Eye

And don’t worry, there hasn’t been a tsunami. This fishing boat was just on shore being repaired.

Howth Beach

All in all, a fantastic day out. And we still had time to head back into Dublin city centre and do a bit of book shopping. So if you’re in town and looking for something to do for half a day or so, I’d heartily recommend a quick trip to Howth. And make sure you try the chowder.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I flew over to Dublin for a bit of a weekend break. We haven’t been away anywhere for a while, and we have fond memories of when we last travelled to the city some fifteen years ago, so we were looking forward to seeing how the place had fared. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be ‘not very well’. While Ireland’s capital grew quickly during the boom years of the ‘celtic tiger’, the recent downturn has most definitely taken its toll. On the city and on its people.

I should perhaps mention that my view of the city may have been influenced a little by my holiday reading. I often read in magazines about people who take ‘themed’ reading with them on their travels, so had bought a copy of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, on the grounds that it sounded fairly relevant to our trip. However, I forgot to take it with me, so popped into a bookshop on my arrival and bought a copy of Fintan O’Toole’s book ‘Enough is Enough’, which chronicles briefly the history of the crisis that Ireland has pretty much leapt into head first and sets out what O’Toole (who is, according to the book’s blurb, a well-known commentator and newspaper columnist) thinks the country should do to sort itself out.

It’s clear that the city has spent a lot of money on infrastructure in the last decade or so. There are some lovely paths along the banks of the River Liffey, complete with trees, sculptures and some very decorative lamp posts. There are also a number of new-looking bridges and a vast array of shiny office blocks, most of which seem to be a little on the empty side. We even found a brand new shopping centre with about twenty empty units and one solitary little Starbucks quietly doing its thing in the far corner.

Here’s a view down the river. Note the cool harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge and the rather wonky building with the cylindrical glass window thing.

The River Liffey in Dublin

Here’s a close-up of the wonky building, which turns out to be a new convention centre. (I just googled ‘wonky glass cylinder building dublin’, and perhaps unsurprisingly it came out on top.) It may be an example of something cool in architecture terms, but it seems a little gratuitous to me. The city’s hospitals, it pains me to note, look a lot less modern. (Something that Fintan O’Toole would probably also not hesitate to point out.)

Office building by the river

The Samuel Beckett Bridge may also be slightly more artistic than is strictly necessary, but I guess we can cut the city a little more slack here, given that it (a) serves a useful purpose, (b) has a suitably Irish theme and (c) looks unbelievably cool. Although having just looked it up on Wikipedia, I see that there is criticism that it (a) is in the wrong place from a traffic point of view and (b) only lets you turn in certain directions, forcing many drivers to use a nearby toll bridge instead (hmm, sneaky). And it did cost 60 million Euro, which seems quite a lot. Anyway, here’s a picture of the bridge up close and personal. It really does look very nice.

The 'harp' bridge

In a class of its own, though, and not in a good way, is the natural history outpost of the National Museum of Ireland. Being big fans of the Natural History Museum in London, we thought it would be good to see what its Irish counterpart had to offer. Unfortunately, the museum’s collection seems to have been put together sometime in the late Victorian era, with little in the way of updates since then. Glass case upon glass case full of rather mangy looking stuffed mammals may appeal to some, but an engaging exploration of flora and fauna on the Emerald Isle it is not. The building itself, though, is very nice. Here it is…

Natural History Museum

Now, I’m sorry if my description of our little city break is less than upbeat. But in my defence, I’m just telling it like it is. Dublin is not doing too well. I was shocked not only by the empty buildings, the poor state of public services and the large number of homeless people begging in the streets (as well as the parlous state of the museums), but also by the downbeat nature of the people of Dublin themselves. The city seems to have lost completely the fizz that once made it such an attractive destination. It’s as if Dubliners have become so overwhelmed by their fall from grace that they can’t even imagine a way out, let alone find their way towards it. A little melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s honestly how it felt.

There were some good bits, though. I’ll explore some of these in my next couple of posts (this is part one of, probably, three), but I have to mention now the fantastic little gardens that seemed to pop up when we least expected them, such as this tiny one in the gap between two buildings.


Check out in particular the sculpture at the back. Here it is closer up. Admittedly, the gate to the garden was locked, so I’m not sure who is supposed to enjoy this little area of tranquility in the heart of the city, but it sure was pretty (if inaccessible).

Tree sculpture

Lest you think that our mini-break was a bit of a disaster, let me assure you that we did, in fact, have a great time. Natalie and I very rarely get any time together that isn’t taken up with work, family or household issues, so it was brilliant to have some time away and to just wander around chatting away to each other. To reconnect. To find the balance that is so easily lost amid the hectic of everyday life. But Dublin. Oh, Dublin. What have you done to yourself in these fifteen short years since last we met?

They didn’t teach me that at school

I’ve been learning quite a lot recently. Since my father died a couple of years ago, I have been helping my mother to move back from France, where they lived, and to get her settled here in the UK. This has meant finding somewhere to rent here, selling the house in France and sorting out the enormous amount of administrative stuff that comes with it.

Now, my mother is not – how shall I put this – the most organised of individuals. If she wants to do something, then she’ll generally do it. But when it comes to things that she’d rather not think about, such as paying bills or doing her tax return, then she has a remarkable capacity to forget all about them.

Take this morning, for instance. My mother rang me with the news that the plumber had arrived at the house in France to fix the heating, only to find that there was no mains water. He rang my mother, who promptly rang me. I rang the water company, who informed me that the water had been cut off because my mother has not paid the bill. Fantastic.

Annoying, but easy enough to sort out. I convinced the lovely people at the water company to send me a copy of the bill, so that I can make sure that my mother pays it and that the water gets turned back on. All done and dusted. Experience tells me, though, that while this particular crisis is well on its way to being managed, it will inevitably not be long before something else crops up.

The snag, from my point of view, is two-fold. Firstly, I’m the only one in my family who speaks French, so when problems arise with things in France, I’m the one my mother calls. And secondly, I’m far too nice to say no. She is my mother, after all, and I want her to get everything sorted out, even if it is – at the current rate – likely to take decades.

It’s also a great learning experience for me. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned how to surf French bureaucracy and have developed my language skills in hitherto unexpected areas. Here are just a few examples, in broadly chronological order:

  • reporting a death and getting a death certificate;
  • organising a cremation and a funeral;
  • writing and giving a eulogy;
  • hosting a wake;
  • schmoozing with the local mayor;
  • getting bank and utility accounts into my mother’s name (without anything being frozen in the process, which apparently is quite an achievement);
  • driving a tractor;
  • liaising with the notaire (French solicitor-type person) to sort out my father’s estate;
  • getting a bit shirty with the notaire because a year is not ‘fairly quickly’;
  • dealing with home insurers and convincing them to maintain cover despite my father having cancelled the policy and nobody having paid the bill;
  • sorting out a tax return;
  • arranging a high speed international house move;
  • coordinating a large number of family members in respect of a high speed international house move (spreadsheets were involved);
  • getting two unruly border collies across the channel without causing an international incident (it was going so well until the lady at customs tried to stroke one of them);
  • discussing with an estate agent why the house in France has not yet been sold and what we can do to make it more attractive to buyers;
  • negotiating payment of local and national property taxes, when nobody was sure what taxes need to be paid, which had already been paid and to whom they needed to be paid;
  • liaising with the estate agent once he had found a buyer for the house, to make sure that nothing – absolutely nothing, you hear me – gets in the way of the sale process;
  • selling a tractor (this is, incidentally, far more complicated and bureaucratic than one would anticipate initially); and
  • resolving a small issue around the non-payment of a water bill and disconnection of service (though you know that bit already).

I can say with some confidence that none of the French that I learned at school was of any use in any of these particular situations. The key, I found, was to be delightfully charming on the phone (i.e. don’t yell), to recognise what needed doing when, and to keep close track of a never-ending series of reference numbers.

At no stage, you will be pleased to hear, was I required to talk about my holidays, conjugate a verb or ask directions to the train station.

An unexpected day out

I had an unexpected day out in London last Wednesday. I don’t mean that someone grabbed me and Fedex’d me to Charing Cross or anything like that. I mean, that only happened to me that one time. But I had a really great day. It was the first time for ages that I’ve been to London and actually had some time to look around.

I’d planned to go to the capital for a couple of work meetings and had saved money by booking my train tickets a couple of weeks in advance. Typically, no sooner had I booked my (non-refundable) tickets than one of my two meetings got postponed. And then, while I was actually on the train out of Bristol, the other one got pushed to a later date, too. But what the hell. All the more time for sightseeing…

I started off with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I thought at first that it wasn’t that impressive, but then realised that I’d come in through the back door by mistake. But as I made my way around to the front entrance, I was struck by how well everything had been put together. They had, for example, made some fantastic use of visual artwork to set a nautical tone. Here’s my favourite…

The writing on the wall

The other thing that impressed me was the scale of the place. Being in a rather large old building with a three-storey roofed courtyard in the middle, there was plenty of scope for larger exhibits and displays that really showed the majesty of some of our maritime heritage. Here’s a rather imposing display of figureheads…


There was also a particularly emotive exhibition about some of the people who have featured prominently in Britain’s seafaring heritage, with the stories behind them and displays of some of their possessions. Some of the stories were rather profound. And others were, quite simply, heartbreaking. The sea and untimely death, it appears, go hand in hand. There was also some more brilliant artwork…

More writing on the wall

I then wandered up the hill to the Royal Observatory, home of the Astronomers Royal, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. It’s funny, really, how something of such prominence in the history of the world should consist of such a modest, understated collection of buildings (if you ignore the massive dome housing a 28-inch refracting telescope). But as a keen physicist and astronomer myself, I was, to be honest, a little overawed.

Royal Observatory

There are also some great views from the hill on which the observatory is sited, looking north over the whole expanse of London. Here, for example, is Canary Wharf. (A sign, perhaps, that the era of understatement is over.)

Canary Wharf

And here’s the charming Millennium Dome, or whatever it’s called now. Which, apparently, you can see from space. But not, luckily, from Bristol.

The Dome

And here, far away in the distance, is the Gherkin. If you’re not sure which building I’m talking about, the Gherkin is the one with the diagonal stripes and a black lid. And no, I don’t know why it’s called the Gherkin. It looks more like a goth’s lipstick.

The Gherkin

Yes, I couldn’t resist. Here’s me standing over the prime meridian. My right foot is in the eastern hemisphere and my left foot is in the west. Zero degrees of longitude. The world starts here. I’m glad I thought to wear some smart shoes.

Me on the meridian

While at the observatory, I stopped in to look at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. And, quite simply, wow. I mean, wow. Some of the images just took my breath away. Clearly, the organisers will go nuts if I stick any of the photos up here, so check out their website and see what I mean. Or even better, catch the exhibition while it’s on (it’s there until 17th February next year – and entry is free) and learn more about the photos and the people who took them.

An my way back to the station to catch the train home, and after a mad dash to check out the flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I stopped in to see my little sister and her new baby, Otto. He’s only about a month old, so he’s still really teeny. Here’s the little fella. As you can tell, he was absolutely delighted to see me…


And then, after a rather tiring but absolutely fantastic day, it was time for home… and bed.

Up, up and away…

I was awoken at seven o’clock last Friday morning by my wife’s insistence that she could hear a balloon. Now, I know that I don’t always function particularly well first thing in the morning, but I challenge anyone to describe what a balloon sounds like. I thought at first that it might be some kind of Zen koan. But then it struck me that this weekend is the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and things started to make a bit more sense.

A quick glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was, indeed, a huge hot air balloon floating past at an alarmingly low level, its burner roaring as the pilot attempted to avoid the chimney pots and telegraph poles along our street. See what I mean in the photo below.


The morning and evening ‘mass ascents’ are the highlights of the annual event. It’s quite rare that the winds (which usually blow the other way) bring the balloons in our direction, though, so we grabbed our cameras – and the dog – and headed out into the garden for a better look.*

It turned out that the balloon that had woken us was a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, which was heading towards us from the launch site to the north east. They made a brilliant sight as they emerged out of the sun, even if the photo below doesn’t really do them justice.


I figured that we still had a few minutes before the rest of the balloons got to us, so I dashed in to feed the dog and to get us each a cup of tea. When I got back, things were definitely starting to happen. I was beginning to wish, though, that I’d put some jeans on over my jim-jams – or at least a dressing gown.


It was fantastic to stand and watch the different balloons glide serenely overhead. And it was a particular fluke that most of them seemed to pass directly over our garden. This is my favourite photo, which I took as one of the balloons was just coming up over the house.


This is my second favourite photo. I wish the sky was always this blue.


Some of the balloons were quite a bit lower, though, so we could wave at the people dangling out of the baskets. A few of them were particularly enthusiastic.


Molly was also quite enthusiastic. We’ve tried hard to socialise her to the sorts of things that she’s likely to come across, but I have to admit that low-flying hot air balloons full of screaming, waving people was not on our list. Once she’d got the obligatory initial bout of woofing out of the way, though, she seemed to take it in her stride.


And then, as quickly and as silently as they had arrived, the balloons were gone.

* I’ll spare you the photos of me wandering around in a dazed fashion wearing only my Canon DSLR and a pair of pyjamas, because there’s already enough filth on the internet and I have no desire to add to it.

And a positive (though slightly odd) museum experience

Having been perhaps a little negative in my review of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in my previous post, I wanted to tell you about the other museum that I went to during my recent stay in Germany. Because this one was pretty fantastic and was a much better example of what a museum should be like. But the story of how I came to be there is a little odd, so I’ll start with that.

In the museum

Light, colourful and cheerful – not your average museum

The reason for our trip to the continent was an invitation to the wedding of Natalie’s brother, Dom, to his fiancee, Kathrin. For reasons that are still a little unclear, the pair had decided to get married in Duisburg, which is in the middle of the industrial Ruhr region of Germany. (And quite a way from where they or either sets of parents live, hence the slight confusion.) The ceremony was at midday and the reception didn’t start until the evening, so Dom and Kathrin (DomKat?) thought that they had better arrange some kind of activity for their guests in the afternoon.

They decided, as you do, that what the wedding party needed was a guided tour of a museum. And not just any museum, you understand, but the Museum der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt – the Museum of German Inland Waterway Navigation. I may come across as a little dubious here, but the museum was actually pretty amazing and I’m really glad that they took us there.

In the museum

Not your typical museum (or wedding) behaviour

The museum itself is housed in an old swimming baths, with separate pools for men and women. But rather than do away with the old decor, the people who run the museum have decided to integrate it into their exhibits – and have done so spectacularly well. And while our guide admitted readily that this was the first time in eight years working there that he’d hosted a wedding party at the museum, he took it all in his stride and quickly got into the spirit of things.

The focus of the museum is on two ships, one a genuine old sailing boat and one a slightly shortened replica of a modern day motor barge. These are berthed, in a fit of inspired genius, in the old swimming pools, which have been retained exactly as they would have been. With gratings installed at what would have been water level, this means that you can wander around both above and below the waterline of the ships. In one case, they have even set up a small diving scene, with a mannequin in a diving suit and a whole load of rusted objects strewn around the ‘sea bed’.

In the museum

Underwater view: Making the most of the surroundings

Around the edges of the swimming pools are a variety of models, artefacts and display boards highlighting other aspects of the history of Germany’s inland waterways, including historic boats and sailing ships (from dugout canoes onwards), old anchors (which we were encouraged to try to lift) and even a replica of an old sailors’ tavern.

At each stage of our tour, we were encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits, whether by looking around the replica of the modern barge, trying out the pump that would have been used to provide divers with an air supply (that’s what the thing is in the photo of the happy couple, in case you were wondering) or wheeling cargo around on an old sack-truck. Our guide even came up with a range of novel photo-opportunities for the bride and groom, including on the bridge of the freighter, mucking around with the pump (as you’ve already seen), ringing an old ship’s bell or posing alongside the majestic old sailing barge.

In the museum

Visitors are encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits

To be honest, this isn’t the sort of museum that I would have visited if I had been in charge of the itinerary. But it would have been my loss, as the people who run the place have taken what could have been quite a dry topic and have made it into something exciting, vibrant and alive.

Rather than just hearing about names, places, dates and objects that are so often seen as the key to the past, we were introduced to the people who worked on the boats and experienced in some small way what life was like for them and their families. And that, to me, is what history is all about.

Dog in the house

We went to Germany a couple of weeks ago to visit my in-laws and, while we were there, we spent a morning shopping in the lovely city of Cologne. As usual, we took Molly (our Labrador) along, and I reconciled myself to our usual routine of Natalie going into the shops and Molly and I waiting outside. (An arrangement that works well for all of us, to be fair.) But to my surprise, practically every time we hung around outside a shop that Natalie had disappeared into, a member of staff came out and invited Molly and I to come in, too. The sports shop. The book shop. Even Starbucks!

As anyone with a dog and any form of a social life will know, finding places that are dog-friendly can be a bit frustrating. Whether it’s beaches, pubs, shops or hotels, each place has its own attitude to our canine friends. In thinking back over our experiences with Molly, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four distinct categories of ‘dog-friendly’ establishment.

1. No dogs. Some places are very clear from the start that no dogs are allowed. They put it on their adverts. They have signs at the entrance. They make no provision whatsoever for anything with fur. While it’s tempting to try to smuggle the dog in (just for fun) or to try to convince them of the error of their ways, the only real solution is to move on and find somewhere more enlightened.

I stopped at a pub in Wales a year or so ago and popped in to ask if it would be OK to bring Molly in while I grabbed some lunch. The lady behind the bar stared at me as if I had asked if I could drop my pants and smear myself with peanut butter.

Messy, moi

Mess? Would this dog make a mess?

“A dog?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“In the pub?”

“Yes.” Clearly, this was not a common request.

“A dog in the pub?”.

“Yes.” I hadn’t appreciated that the situation was so complex.

“Oh, no. Definitely not. No dogs in the pub. We can’t have dogs in here.” Clearly a cat person.

2. Small dogs only. This is my real bugbear. Places that claim to allow dogs but then do everything to stop you actually bringing a dog with you. Self-catering cottages are the main culprit, but some pubs and restaurants are equally guilty.

“Do you allow dogs,” I asked one agent when trying to rent a cottage in St. Ives for a week. The advert had stated quite clearly that, yes, dogs were welcome.

“Yes, we do. Is it a small dog?”

“Well, she’s quite small, yes. And very well behaved.”

“What breed is it?”

“A labrador.” And she’s a ‘she’, not an ‘it’.

“I’m sorry, that’s a large dog. We don’t allow large dogs.”

“So you don’t really welcome dogs, then.” Labradors aren’t large. Great Danes are large. Labradors are medium, at most.

“Yes, we do – but only small ones.” Muppet.

There was also the place that “usually accepts dogs” but couldn’t at the moment as they’d only just refurbished the house and wanted to keep it tidy for a little while. (It’s a labrador, for crying out loud, not godzilla). And the rented house we stayed in for a week that had a notice in the hall requesting that dogs stay downstairs. But how we were to keep Molly downstairs when there was no door and no stair gate would have been beyond me, even if I had bothered trying.

3. Come on in. Quite a few places are, of course, more than happy to welcome our canine buddies. Around here in Somerset, most pubs are extremely dog-friendly and all of the local seaside towns have at least one beach that is open for dogs all year round. Some shops are equally enthusiastic. Pets at Home, of course. Most garden centres. And Molly and I were practically dragged into two separate Fat Face stores because the staff wanted to play with the dog.

4. Nuts about mutts. This is where things can go a bit too far. On occasion, some establishments such as country pubs and remote guest houses go a bit overboard in their professed dog-friendliness. Anywhere that provides dog bowls, beds or leads (who doesn’t take their own dog lead with them, for heaven’s sake?) is showing the early signs. This is often accompanied by things on their websites like ‘we love dogs’, ‘well-behaved humans welcome’ or even, in the worst cases, by text written by the owners’ own (and admittedly rather talented) dogs themselves.

With these varying degrees of dog-friendliness, it can sometimes be a bit hit and miss when going to a new place for the first time. I’m not saying, of course, that canines should be allowed in everywhere. Molly is a dog, after all – not some kind of furry human. She’s quite happy to wait at home, in the car (only when it’s not too warm – no need to write in or call the RSPCA) or outside on the pavement. But, where possible, she does like to tag along. And don’t tell her I said this, but I kind of like to have her tag along, too. Even to Starbucks.

Walk more, drive less

I went to a workshop earlier today on Green Marketing, held by Bristol’s Think Future Now and presented by green marketing guru John Grant. John showed us this video about a project developed in China to convince people to walk more and drive less. It’s a great example of how art can be used to convey a powerful message. I really like it and it’s given me loads of ideas for things we could do here in the UK.

The idea won the Grand Prix at the Green Awards in London back in 2010. According to the China Environmental Protection Foundation, the campaign reached an impressive 3.9 million people and increased general public awareness about the environment by 86%. Not bad for a few pieces of paper and some paint.

The people you meet on the train

You meet some funny people on the train. Not Russell Brand, laugh-out-loud comedy funny, you understand, but more the Forrest Gump, what-on-earth-are-you-doing-with-that-bratwurst kind. The sorts of people who make you wonder if we’re all from the same species. And nowhere is this more pronounced than on long distance rail journeys across Europe, where the carriages of Eurostar, ICE and Thalys play host to all manner of creatures previously unknown to even the most well-travelled of anthropologists.

We start with the coloniser. Usually a middle-aged teacher, the coloniser turns his or her seat into a little piece of home by bringing everything short of hair curlers and a lawn mower. No matter how long or short the journey, the coloniser is unable to relax without a plastic water bottle, a week’s supply of home made egg sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, half a dozen essays to mark and a supply of educational reading materials that would put the British Library to shame – all of which are stowed fastidiously on or around the coloniser’s person, in the seat pockets, under the armrests and anywhere else not otherwise occupied. And all of which have to be hastily removed and painstakingly reassembled every time the poor bloke in the next seat needs to nip to the gents.


TGV: Transport system or sociological experiment? (Image: Alain Stoll/Flickr)

But that’s only a mild annoyance when compared with the euro-brat. In her late teens, the precocious euro-brat is just completing her international baccalaureate at an oh-so-wonderful school for girls in a little town in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. She’s going to visit friends in Stockholm but is stopping off on the way to visit Thorsten in Hanover. And to pick up some chocolate from that lovely little shop in Copenhagen. Do you know it? You don’t? Oh, you must go – it’s simply divine. In case it’s not already apparent, the euro-brat is a spoiled and overindulged halfwit, who’s been sent to Switzerland because even her parents didn’t want anything more to do with her. She likes to hear herself talk. She’s her own favourite topic of conversation. And she’s going to be sat next to you for the next six hours.

At the other end of the chatterbox spectrum is the old woman with the suitcase. Looking for all the world like she’d really rather be somewhere else, this beleaguered traveller is accompanied onto the train by a rampaging horde of gesticulating relatives, who stampede madly around the carriage before dumping the departing visitor into her allocated seat, cramming her outsized suitcase precariously into the overhead luggage rack and fleeing the train so that they can continue to gesticulate on the platform. The old woman with the suitcase sits perfectly motionless for the entire journey, lost in her own thoughts. Possibly thanking her lucky stars that she’s survived another visit to those tortuous relatives, she’s more likely wondering how on earth she’s going to get her suitcase down.

What people do on the train

Microcosm of reality (Image: Jason D Great/Flickr)

Somewhat more belligerent is the crumpled businessman. In a permanent state of weary grumpiness, presumably because his boss won’t let him travel first class, this itinerant executive is a most unwilling traveller. He spends the entire journey shouting brutishly down his mobile phone, berating his hapless assistant for some foul up on a building site in Dresden or lamenting the flaws in the company’s latest expansion strategy. And if you have the temerity to ask him to keep the noise down, he gives you that look – you know, that look – and stomps off into the next carriage, only to return five minutes later with an even louder conversation and a Cornish pasty / croque monsieur / bratwurst (insert your favourite greasy European food here). Rarely has one man been so miserable – and how nice of him to share his misery with everyone else.

But most intriguing of all is the freaky family. Anybody with more than a few journeys under their belt will know that the natural state for a family with children on the train is complete, unashamed, almost blissful chaos. Sure, the kids all have seats, but why should they sit in them when it’s much more exciting to swing from the luggage racks and harass the buffet staff. For the freaky family, however, order and decorum are paramount. Dressed smartly and never raising their voices above a whisper, the immaculately groomed children while away the hours with colouring pens and story books, while their parents glance casually (and a little bit smugly) through the Sunday papers. The silence is broken only for a game of i-spy. And by all the other parents remonstrating furiously with their own offspring and demanding to know why they can’t be a little bit more like the children at that table over there. And people wonder why it’s always the quiet, well-dressed kids who get bullied.

So whether you’re travelling from Manchester to Madrid or Marseille to Malmo, it’s clear that there are two windows on every train. There’s the window outward onto a beautiful and ever changing continent. And there’s the window inward onto the daily lives of some pretty unusual individuals. You meet some funny people on the train.