The Gare du Nord Is Neat and Tidy

Quai and station interior
The Gare du Nord at an unbusy moment of the day.

No Rain, No Fog and No Inspector Maigret

Paris:- Friday, 20. June 1997:- The inside of the Gare du Nord may be the first thing you see in Paris. It is not mysterious. It used to be.

There is a whiz-bang TV series - on occasional Friday nights - about a lady cop, stationed in the Gare du Nord. The station is used as a backdrop for the usual sort of cops and robbers stuff; chasing the bad coke dealers and other low-lifes. The only reason anybody watches it, is if the maritime show, Thalassa, has an uninteresting subject.

If the lady cop isn't on TV, then Bruno Cremer is - playing Georges Simenon's 'Inspector Maigret' - in the 99th series featuring the same characters and the same stories. I saw one too many of these - 30 years ago - and I've never been able to read one of the books, so I'll have to make some of this up.

In the mysterious past, the fog of the north starts at the Gare du Nord. It is the night train or nothing, and the sleeping cars are the best. If there is no fog, then it is raining. Sleet is good too.

The sides of the train, the windows, are shiny with rain, reflecting the dim lights of the dark station; its ceiling lost in gloom, having swallowed what little light there is. The brims of men's hats hide Eurostar and arrival quai their eyes, except for stray Hollywood glints.

The conductors wear the dark blue of the train service, and their faces are ghostly blurs. On the quai, passengers seek them out; where is wagon number 233? Is there a dining car? Other dim shapes hurry past, carrying their belongings, sometimes in matching leather, sometimes in shabby cardboard.

Facing the rails, 'Eurostar' is on the left, and the other northern lines are on the right.

Up close, the color of the wagons barely separates them from the shadows; be they dirty blue or green or grey. The entry platform at the wagon's end is dirty and its illumination is weak and yellow. Everything is indistinct, and confusing.

There is more confusion in the wagon corridor, with passengers and their baggage half in and half out of compartments; somebody is always coming back along to corridor. Experienced passengers with accompaniment, send one on first to find the compartment and open the window so the baggage can be passed in that way. Every train departure is a bit like a miniature ship departure; but when all is ready, no band plays, just a train-whistle.

A pole, or the windows of the train opposite, start to slide backwards; there is a bump crossing points, and dark scenery begins to slip back faster. The train snakes through the yards and picks up speed quickly. In the near suburbs the train seems to be going dangerously fast; but it is reassuring too - this train is on the way, to the north.

Suburban stations in their pools of blurred yellow light flash swiftly by. In the compartment, the baggage is on the overhead racks, and the passengers are congratulating themselves on a successful departure and are starting to wonder if they can get more comfortable.

If the compartment is nearly empty, one knows that there will disturbances sooner or later, as new passengers get on at stations further up the line. If the compartment is almost full, it may get no fuller, and once the conductor punches the ticket the formalities will be over. Depending on what the other passengers look arrivals panal like, you might wish for one or the other.

Since the windows were washed, you don't need radar to find this panal.

So far all is normal. The train is racing north in the rain-swept, foggy, light-spotted night of Europe. You may be going to the channel, you may be going to the Low Countries, you may be going to Berlin on the express to Moscow.

The Gare du Nord started with big ambitions on 25. June 1846, as the terminus of the line to Belgium. The line in fact, went as far as Creil, via Pontoise. Creil is about two-thirds of the way to Compiègne. From another source I see that rails ran all the way to the Belgian border as early as the end of 1846.

In 1863 the original Gare du Nord was taken apart and moved to Lille, while a new 'monumental' one was built in Paris. This was expanded in 1898 with a building to the east, which is now a RER entry. Statues representing the grand northern towns of Lille, Amiens, Boulogne, Arras and others, are on top of the facade of the centre part of the station, facing the boulevard de Denain.

Paris' first train line ran out to Saint-Germain-en-Laye and it was opened in 1836, and one called it 'the big dipper' - a toy to amuse the public. A line to Versailles followed in 1839 and ran along the right bank, from about where Saint-Lazare is today. Versailles was a popular destination, and the 'left-bank' line from Montparnasse opened in 1840; as did a line to Corbeil, which ran from the Jardin des Plantes. By 1859, Paris had eight principal stations.

And that may be why I can not think of any one of them as truly 'monumental.' Arriving at the Gare du Nord by métro in the early '80's, was like ascending from a colorful coal mine to a dark hanger, full of smoke.

There wasn't any smoke of course; it was just dim. One time I had exactly two minutes to find my train to Berlin; no time to have a café or to buy food, drink or cigarettes. Luckily, it was the first train I came to.

As I hustled down the quai the signs hanging on the outside of the wagons announced 'Moscow.' With no time left I crossed my fingers and jumped on, figuring that it would be going in the right direction at least - and also answering my worries about why I'd gotten a ticket to East Berlin. If worst came to worst, I could always take the U-bahn back from Freidrichstraße, to the funky west.

Although this was an express train, leaving Gare du Nord every afternoon at 18:00, nobody had thought to add a dining car to it. There was no other food or drink sales on board either.

The train stopped north of Paris, where Poles settled between the wars, and a lot of them got on for the ride to Warsaw. I wanted to get off and get a sandwich, but didn't know how long the train would wait there. At Berlin, around seven in the morning, the express stopped at Berlin-Zoo for ninety seconds and I got off to look for breakfast on the Kudamm.

Everybody has a story like this. If you have one, guard it carefully; because train riding is getting too civilized.

Today, the Gare du Nord is no longer dim. Even in its dim corners, it is not very dim. Where I caught my Moscow express, Eurostar now arrives from Victoria station. All is light, all is airy - like a high-rent version of an airport.

Upon arrival, the quai itself is visibly spotless. You stroll down it to the open glass barrier and decide to go escalator to Eurostar right for taxis or left for the métro. The taxi stand is 20 metres away, and the métro is not much further. No fuss, downtown Paris is outside the doors of the station.

I think, there must be more: there must be some dim old days left here. Out front there is the usual train-station confusion, made by confused people who are confused that there is no confusion; thereby causing confusion about nothing.

'Eurostar' privileges on the balcony; not too 'second-class' below.

The grand bistros are across from the station and I wonder if they do as well as in the days when just getting to the station was a trip - which required a meal - before crossing to the station and the trains.

The eastern addition to the station is without interest and I go through it and out the back and north on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, with construction buildings on the rail side and sad apartments on the right.

I cross over the rails by way of the iron bridge, the boulevard de la Chapelle, with its elevated métro line above, and try to get a photo of the shiny rails. They are covered with parked trains, snaked into the station.

On the west side, I follow the rue de Maubeuge back towards the station. The Lariboisiére hospital is on the right, but I only know this from looking at the map. There's the gate where Maubeuge swings right and rue de Compiègne starts, where the taxis are. A hole in the wall lets me into the station again and I walk past administrative offices, from some other century, to the main platform.

The pre-depart crowd has thinned out. The Eurostar passengers are up on their segregated balcony, waiting for their swank trains. Dozens of TGV's, some of them deep red in color, are sitting on the rails waiting to go quickly to someplace up north.

The information booth is manned, but has no history available. A lady arrives in a rush to ask the way to the Eurostar, saying she's got to get the 16:18. My watch says it is 16:18 as she leaves without hearing that she has to go up to the balcony.

A guard at the Eurostar exit says he prefers the station after having been a night guard at the Louvre for a long time. He lets passengers out and service people in, but Gare du Nord - rails and trains still gets to talk to more civilians than at the other place. The girls at the information booth like their jobs in the Gare du Nord too.

With all the parked trains, no rails glisten.

The newspaper stands are the standard variety you see in all stations and the snack bars all look new and clean. The public toilets all charge the standard amount, and if they don't have the personal touches of the ones at the Etoile and Madeleine, at least they are open; but without the range of services of the one at the Gare de Lyon - but I'm sure I didn't check them all and may have overlooked the one with showers and shoeshines.

Although I came up to the station from the métro, you don't necessarily go back down the same way - but the way back to the métro is just as short as the way up was. If you cross town to the Gare Montparnasse, be ready to walk a long way through tunnels.

The Gare du Nord is neat, clean and tidy. With its lack of mystery, fog, dimness, I don't think it would be a favorite hang-out of Inspector Maigret. If you pass through it, you might not even notice it.

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