Paris in between stations on a grey Wednesday morning, only a week from the solstice. A murky dawn thick with diffused light, the clock tower of Gare de Lyon a beacon amidst the hubris. I come homing in - the lady's on the road again, wearing different clothes again ... actually, they're not. Same old jumper, leggings and boots: the ubiquitous garb of the itinerant.
The TGV lumbers out of the station, an athlete reluctant to get into its stride. South of the city the landscape opens up and it feels grim up north. Blue-grey scudding clouds, endless fields reaching out to a flat horizon, and everywhere standing water.
On journeys such as these it's my wont to watch from the window at the flashing-by countryside and imagine myself moving in it, through it and across it, with all the zeal of a middle-aged nun hurrying to Sunday mass. I think of my spiritual landscapes: these flatlands, like the Spanish Meseta to which I'll return in six weeks time, are purgatorial landscapes. Every step you take puts another metre between oneself and the devil; draws you closer to the edge of heaven.
The TGV slips into its stride and picks up the pace, slicing through the showers and silver curtains of rain. It is a train with single-minded trajectory, hemmed in, ploughing its own, purpose-built furrow. It broaches no obstruction: nothing stands in its way. No level-crossings, no lumbering freight trains, no overgrown sidings where time sits idly, all dressed up and no place to go.
Sister Sian, the apostle of slow travel, hurtles across central France at over 200kmh, not quite the speed of sound but fast enough to put the weather behind her. The land begins to unfurl itself, as if God had taken hold of her tectonic fireside rug and given it a gentle shake. Shallow, wooded folds and a smattering of settlement now.
Looking out of the window of a passing train is an acquired taste. For most, watching the grass grow would be more captivating but do you know what? I am the sort of person who could sit in a sun-drenched field and watch nature creep up and over me: day after day, month after month, year after year. Into eternity. I am the land, the land is me: together, we are God.
Summer 2016. The colours of France are all wrong: grey and green and splattered with mud. It's only close to Nimes that nature begins to get her act togther, with the cypress trees and Mediterranean scrub, olive groves, craggy scarps and lavender. Journeying south in the TGV is a bit like travelling in a time machine, speeding up the seasons such that the sodden barley of the Ile de France is ripe for reaping in Languedoc Roussillon. Beyond Nimes the fast tracks are still under construction and the train slows into steady trot through the hinterlands of the Mediterranean coast. It feels good to take it easy. Up at five to catch the TGV at six, the mad dash from Paris has taken its toll. By the Canal du Midi I sat back and slept.