Over dinner, I ask the Frenchman what he thinks are the main differences between Paris and London. It is not a fair question as we have only been in the UK a few hours - this time - but I want a first impression.
As soon as I ask, I wish I had not. Usually, when faced with this sort of question, his response is either infuriatingly ponderous or “je ne sais pas” which, I tell him, is the lazy option. In any case, this sort of question invariably provokes a row. Harsh words are averted, however, because this time he has already thought about it. He ponders aloud on the considerable number of station staff he noticed at Waterloo, which he says compares extremely favourably with the Gare du Nord where the queues are long and slow and half the ticket machines are more often than not out of order. He said it, not me.
He points out that at Waterloo there were ticket office people behind counter and staff with ticket machines slung around their necks, like old fashioned bus conductors without the bus, on the station concourse. There were also several other uniformed chaps – on this particular day they were ALL male - hanging around to chivvy passengers at the automatic ticket machines supposed to replace them. (I find their presence reassuring, as it tends to silence the grumblers behind when I am faffing over what button to press and trying to pay with my French supermarket loyalty card.) He ponders further and declares this must be the secret of Britain’s relatively low unemployment. I tell him they may have jobs but they are probably precarious and low paid ones, unlike in France, but I am secretly pleased he has something positive to say.
He also remarks that:
a) The train was new, almost empty despite it being rush hour, on time and had helpful guards. This is not the image of London’s transport system we Brits have.
b) Nearly everyone was reading a newspaper or magazine compared to almost nobody on a Parisian metro or suburban train.
c) Nobody assaulted us with tunes from raddled accordion or rattled off their life’s tragedy in expectation of a coin, cigarette or a luncheon voucher.
d) Complete strangers, who did not appear to be barking mad, talked to us. The fact they were talking about the weather did not bother him or seem evidence of a certain British madness.