It was as close to a blind date as I have ever got. But instead of an expensive agency or a well-meaning friend organising it, I was being set up by SNCF. The French state-owned railway company has introduced an online service to help you meet a friend on long journeys from the provinces to Paris.
The train has always been a romantic way to travel. The whistling, the tunnels, the speed; in old-fashioned films they would show a train steaming through a tunnel instead of a couple making love. It was a preferred pick-up venue for lotharios. Alan Clark, for example, describes a chance meeting with a Folkstone shop assistant whose “delightful globes bounced prominently but happily under a rope-knitted jersey as the new coach/old chassis train joggled its way over the many points and junctions”. A girlfriend of mine recently complained that her husband has a “train friend” whom he chats to on his commute up to London. “I just know she’s female and attractive,” she said.
But while on the English train you might meet a friend, odds are you won’t get to your destination. In France, however, nothing is left to chance. You will get there; probably on time. And as you speed through the French countryside, you can chat up your fellow passengers. But first you must register on the website set up by an SNCF subsidiary called idtgv.
I decide to try this new service. I am asked questions about my best quality, my favourite food and drink and the town I would most like to live in. I am also asked my date of birth. Naturally I put in a date closer to my first kiss than my birth date; there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a train for four hours next to some old trout. There is no mention of marital status; that’s between you and your conscience.
Once I have completed my profile I look around to see who is going to be on my train. There is Chantal who says her worst fault is that she is too nice and that she wants to play bridge with someone. Not really my idea of a good way to spend a train journey.
Then there is Osirene who expresses a penchant for guacamole and cola light. Just imagine if she decides to travel from Montpellier to Paris with a great tub of it. No thanks. Daniel2 sounds quite nice; his hobby is playing music, but then his favourite actor is Brad Pitt. Maybe we would have too much in common. I check my emails. There is one from idtgv telling me I have lots in common with another person who is going to be on the same train. His name is Fab, short for Fabien I assume, like the French goalie. Let’s hope he has a bit more hair.
Fab sounds like the ideal travelling companion. His hobby is sports, his favourite food haricots verts, favourite drink Burgundy wine and his favourite film The Unbearable Lightness of Being. An image of a sporty yet sensitive man with good taste begins to form in my mind; a sort of cross between George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes.
I click on the button to contact him. I have to send a text message which costs me €1.50. They then respond with a code so I can access Fab. I send him a note saying that I am an English journalist travelling up to Paris and would like to meet him. Almost straight away he responds.
“I can’t speak English,” he says. “But I’d be delighted to meet you. I often travel up for work to Paris. I am in first class seat 51, wagon 13. I suggest once the train starts moving you come and see me. I look forward to this encounter.”
It is with bated breath that I walk towards the right wagon as the train pulls out of Montpellier station. I am unsure of what to expect but suppose that if he looks like a crushing bore I can simply walk past and pretend I missed the train.
Imagine my surprise when Fab turns out not be hunky Fabien, but female Fabienne. Why the French insist on sharing names between men and women I’ll never understand. Fabienne lives in Toulouse and travels to Paris and Montpellier several times a month. This is the first time she’s used the idtgv service.
“I was curious,” she tells me. “But you have to be so careful. I was pleased when I saw a woman had contacted me. I don’t think I’ll do it again, it’s just too risky; they can’t possibly monitor it properly.”
We talk about life in the south of France for a while, about skiing and about work. Then we swap numbers and Fabienne promises to come and visit when she’s next on her way from Toulouse to Montpellier.
Although the idtgv has been running since 2004, SNCF only launched the scheme to put like-minded people together in June this year. “We noticed that people on the trains were keen to make contact but that they found it difficult,” says Cécile Chavoin, head of idtgv services policy. “This facilitates the process.”
SNCF insists it is not trying to match make, but this is rather like Samuel Johnson not wanting the English dictionary to be used for looking up smutty words. Why else would you want to sit next to someone for three hours?
On my way back from Paris to Montpellier I arrange to meet elgringo whom I have chosen from the list of my fellow passengers due to his excellent taste in food; he likes foie gras, fruits de mer and champagne. As the train doesn’t get to Montpellier until mid-afternoon I am hoping he will bring a picnic with him. I go to the train bar where we have arranged to meet. As soon as I walk in I realise this is a very different TGV from others. There is loud music, DVDs on offer, books and magazines. The average age is about 30 and you could be in a trendy wine bar in Notting Hill Gate.
I have no idea what elgringo looks like so I accost a handsome young man in the hope that it might be him. It isn’t, but he’s happy to chat anyway. His name is Mathieu, he is 25 years old and he commutes from his home in Montpellier to Paris on weekly basis.
“I have never tried to meet people via the idtgv but it seems like a good idea,” he says. “Although when I get the train at 5.30am on a Monday morning everyone just sleeps.” Mathieu and I chat for about an hour. There is still no sign of elgringo, but by now I don’t care.
I call Virgin Trains to see if they think this is a scheme they might copy. “Virgin Trains welcomes innovation in the railways and will be interested in keeping a close eye on the new SNCF initiative,” says a spokesman. So no plans so far.
?A friend of mine once travelled with her two children, then aged three and five, from London to Cumbria. The children did what children normally do in confined spaces; caused havoc. At one stage one of her fellow passengers turned to my friend.
“Do you know when you’re next travelling on this train?” he asked her.
“No, why?” said my friend.
“So that I can avoid it.”
Maybe the idtgv scheme could work in England in reverse.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018