Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Vegas to London: To Zurich and the Utrecht Quartet

**This was written on the train from Milan to Zurich on Sunday 18 April - posted later**
A time to reflect. On the conflicting emotions, apart from anything else. The high that I'm on the move and the anxiety at what will happen in Zurich when I will have to decide what to do next.
I have left Milan ... feel that it is a kind of escape.
It's idiotic, of course. But Milan felt like the Athens Olivia Manning described in her cloying but oddly compelling Balkan Trilogy.
It's idiotic. We were not forced to eat lung and rodent and Prince Yaki did not have to sell his overcoat at the last and we were not fleeing before a lethal enemy. But there was a sense of desperation, magnified no doubt by our ludicrous early 21st century assumptions about the way the world should work. Comfortably. Conveniently. Without setbacks.
And people from all over Europe milled and mixed, queued and quarreled. There was no obvious way out of the city. At least, that was the official version and it turned out not to be true.
We are four days into this and I can see no sign that anyone has got a grip. It is not the EU's finest moment.
As a BBC man through and through, I understand the arguments both in favour of and against the 'ever closer union'. (Though I do wonder what happened to that phrase - haven't heard it for a long time.) But whether you are a phile or a phobe, the EU is there ... and surely this is the sort of EU wide crisis that a suprantional institution is meant to manage. After all, it was a Europe wide body that pressed the alarm button in the first place.
But there are no additional trains; no fleets of coaches; no advice on the best route to take; no relaxation of ticketing rules; no emergency accommodation ... though the piazza in front of Milan station is already filled with tents which house the market there.
I see no sign of a EURO-COBRA. But perhaps they are videoconferencing in secret.

My seat is in the middle of a group of four elderly - they are probably not much older than me - Dutch people. From Utrecht, or close by.
They speak perfect English, of course. One, the oldest of the men I think, speaks perfect Pall Mall Club. He also coughs relentlessly and I cannot understand how he has not had an aneurysm. Or perhaps he has. It is impolite to ask about these things.
We talk about our journeys and about Utrecht which is a beautiful city. Like me, they are travelling stage by stage. They have no Big Plan and at one point they say they will try to hire a minibus in Zurich and offer me a ride to Amsterdam. It is very kind of them but I do not think this will happen. But they take my mobile phone number just in case.
The train pushes through low cloud and up the St Gotthard pass through Como and Lugano which are dripping and gloomy. But the mountains and lakes are beautiful even if it is impossible to enjoy them.
The road over the pass runs to our right and it is a long, long, traffic jam. Had I taken the taxi to Paris, I guess I would be in that queue and it is not moving.
We are and we are soon over the pass and into Switzerland where the angled pastures are sprinkled with yellow flowers and the train's air conditioning fills with pollen. This I know because my eyes begin to itch and swell and I sneeze and the hayfever makes the approach to Zurich miserable as well as anxious.
The guard on the train predicts chaos in Zurich and advises we head to Basel. I text Mrs Marsh who works out for me the route from Basel to Koln. It seems an option and the anxiety if not the misery lifts for a moment.

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