The tiny restaurant on the little street that goes along the north side of Gare de l'Est, not the big one place on the corner or the one next to it, but the one down the block half lost in the industrial zone, does couscous on Thursdays. Could be interesting, but I really wanted the onion soup. You hardly ever see onion soup on the menu in my part of France. I don't see why; we've plenty of onions, and cold weather begging for a rustic warm-up. Simple eateries in Paris are the best bet for onion soup that I've found.
So I ordered the soup, and the table on eight colleagues next to me all had the couscous. What a layout. Platter after platter: huge bowls of pale yellow couscous, platters of sausages and chicken and mutton chunks piled high, swimming bowls of vegetables in sauce. There was a flurry of passing around, some taking extra merguez, some passing on the mutton, and calls of Maurice! to bring carafes of wine. More wine.
It definitely looked good. I don't have work lunches like that. It looked like the crowd knew exactly what they were coming for, like it was a Thursday Thing.
My small bowl of soup was served molten hot and smelling heavenly, with a side of bread and a knife and fork. For my steak & fries to follow. No spoon?
Um, a spoon?
No matter; it was so full of onions and chunk of bread topped with melted cheese that there wasn't much liquid soup there, and that was all very well taken care of with bits of sourdough bread. A delight.
Which is how I spent 90 minutes waiting for my train to Nancy.
Other passengers didn't have so much time for lunch before our 2:12 departure, and the train car was filled with the sound and odor of a hundred bag lunches. Like the deep fried nuggets and stinky sauce of the guy sitting next to me. Not nearly as appetizing as the table a comfortable distance away at the restaurant!
After the smells die down, the journey becomes more ordinary. The old man in the row ahead dismantles the plastic trash container between his seat and the next, perhaps looking for more space for his copious lunch trash. The next quarter hour is filled with the plasticky noises of his trying to get the thing back together.
As we glide through the northeastern suburbs of Paris, the bright graffiti along the right of way is a welcome relief to the drab sky, drab winter landscape, dull depressed projects. I know a lot of people are against graffiti, but along the tracks it doesn't get erased quickly, and the artists have time to really get into it.
First stop: Champagne Ardennes.
Middle of nowhere! Even the smallest of stops on the lines around Clermont have towns (villages at least), but this is a park & ride amid potato fields. Two minutes later we come to the "Champagne" part, with acres and acres of vineyards on the hillsides, crisscrossed by dirt roads and decorated with dozens of small white vans or trucks. Working the vines even in January.
Mostly the train runs through a long ditch, and we don't get to see the countryside at all. Just as quickly as it came upon us, the wine country is gone, leaving a wide, flat land of industrial crops and dull, low sky.
Meuse: another stop with nothing but a parking lot. Bus to Verdun waiting in the yard. Hilltops with thick forest, bottomlands empty, waiting sodden for spring.
This train is air conditioned. I wish I hadn't packed my sweater in my backpack, but it was so warm in Clermont and Paris that for a time I regretted bringing it at all. Such are the vestimentary trials of travel in winter.