Traveling on the train was basically all we got done for the first half of today. Taking advantage of cheap tickets, we took the slow train across the country to find ourselves in Tours for a family gathering.

For long voyages I’m more often traveling by TGV. These faster trains mean zipping through the French countryside at a couple of hundred kilometers an hour and getting anywhere fast. The slower, Intercities trains, on the other hand, are slower, stop often, and are a little less comfortable to boot.

On the bright side, the countryside is still just as pretty as ever. We saw fields packed with flowers, all sorts of animals (cows, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys) on the farms near the tracks, and the villages still home to many of the French people who haven’t taken up the inevitable drive to the bigger cities.

The mix of people who wind up on the slow train is not quite the same as those taking the TGV. On the TGV there are few people who ride without a ticket, few large dogs, few smelly people – outside of the normal French smells, of course – and most everybody is only on board for three hours or so. Three hours in France on a TGV will get you most of the way across the country on the north-south axis, and if you take the longer trips from Paris down to the Pyrenees it might be just an hour or so more.

The slow trains are, well, slow. 5 hours, 6 hours. They are direct in only the geographic sense, a straight shot across the countryside towards wherever it is that you want to go. But in terms of time it feels like the roundabout way: longer, many stops, even going backwards at times – or so it seems.

Back in Australia I took the slow train across the country from west to east and, once, from east to west. Now that’s a slow train, a voyage of days not hours. There’s less to see along the way and few stops, and when the stops arrive they are welcome, not annoying as on the Intercities trains in France. It’s a journey that allows you to feel just how large the country is, and it’s a journey taken for pleasure, not to get to a family dinner somewhere on the other side of the nation.

France is not a big country like Australia is, but it is not a small one, either. The slow train helps me to realize this.

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