The Power of Shoes

Posted on May 1st, 2012 by

Leaning towards the window to look out at the French countryside, I watched trees flash by from the comfort of my seat on a train.  This was a TGV train, which is France’s high speed rail network, and one of the fastest (if not the fastest) in the world.  The plum colored seat in which I sat was a triumph of comfort, enhanced all the more by the smoothness of the ride.  I had a hard time believing that mere feet below me, the metal of train wheels rolled over the metal of train tracks to send me whizzing to Paris.  So smoothly did the train glide along its metal highway that I would easily have believed we were suspended in the air if someone had told me.

Here was my fancy TGV seat, complete with back-lit numbers.

Here is the train station in Nantes, getting ready to leave. To the right is a TGV train.

In Europe, you can get basically anywhere with nothing but your shoes and a plan.  Public transportation is good enough that, combined with walking, you are completely mobile.  As much as I love my car (Fantine) back home, and the freedom that comes with driving, there is also so much freedom in not having to deal with a car.  The train on which I flew across France was bringing me to Paris, for our first vacation.  During that week, I went from Nantes to Paris by train, after which I flew to Barcelona and then back to Nantes.

Of course, we’ve invented planes over in the United States too, so flying isn’t what’s amazing about their public transportation.  What’s wonderful is that wherever I have gone, I have been able to count on either public transportation, or walking to get everywhere I need.  For the long voyages, I love trains.  Perhaps I am overly romantic, but I just find them to be magical.

Traveling is about the land and the people, and connecting them in different ways.  A plane sterilizes that experience, disconnecting you from the land and sticking you with the disconnected stumps of two airports in two different places.  You’re left with the sensation that the two locations don’t connect in any way.  But a train links your start and your destination in a way a plane miles in the air cannot.  I don’t mean planes aren’t convenient, or that I’m going to renounce them for trains, boats, and unicycles.  However, I appreciate that in a train, I can watch the trees flash by and see that they’re all growing in the same dirt.

For traveling in cities, their metros, trams, and buses are great.  In Paris, the metro system is a bit complicated just because of the size of the city.  However, once you’ve been down there a few times, it really starts to make sense.  Of course you do have to put up with the fowl reek in the tunnels.  The Barcelona metro system is also under-ground, but theirs feels nothing like being in underground, smelly tunnels.  Instead, it feels like you’re just in a building, and it so happens that you can’t see any windows at the moment.  Having gone directly from Paris to Barcelona, the difference was even more exaggerated.

Paris Metro. Unfortunately, I can't communicate the smell with this picture. Or... fortunately.

Barcelona Metro. Much better smell than Paris.

To a North Dakotan, public transportation is like the ocean:  an oddity seen in movies, or talked about by people who have gone on vacation to exotic places like the east coast.  There was a time when it scared me.  On my way to the airport in Minneapolis, I was a little overwhelmed.  With this in mind, I am proud to say that after Paris, Barcelona, and my time here in Nantes, I am completely used to taking buses and trams, checking schedules, and transferring at stops.

As comfortable as I am with the trams and busses in Nantes, I am actually using them less and less in favor of walking.  Part of this is to prevent all of the delicious, butter-based foods I’ve been eating from coming home with me.  Yet more importantly, Nantes is a very pedestrian friendly city.  Below is a picture of from downtown Nantes.  The stout metal pole in the middle of the road there is meant to ensure the rights of shoes above tires on certain streets.  Only authorized vehicles can lower the pole and drive there.

In the middle of the road is the thing that stops cars from infringing on the rights of shoe-based transportation.

If for some reason, you don’t feel like using the rights that come with shoes, many cities have bike stations as part of the public transit system.  Admittedly, these can go pretty much everywhere shoes can, and are faster; so perhaps the bike is more powerful than the shoe.  But, in any case, as Nantes becomes more and more friendly to pedestrians, cars are displaced more and more from where they could once drive.  Bad if you’re using four tires.  Great if you’re getting around on two shoes.

Available bikes in Nantes.




  1. Yukako says:

    I am so happy to know that you like to take trains now. I remember when I suggested you to go to Chicago by train last semester, you didn’t like my idea. (But, train here is very slow and quite expensive)
    It’s so interesting reading your points. Can’t wait to see you soon, Eric!
    Enjoy rest of your time there :)

  2. Eric Halvorson says:

    That’s so true, I forgot about that! Now we will have train stories when I get back, which is very soon! It will be very good to see you too Yukako!