Paris Gare du Nord and London St Pancras stations were on Friday united by a dark humor and a wistful nostalgia as the final trains pulled out linking Britain with mainland Europe before the country’s EU divorce.
The Eurostar trains that whizz passengers from Paris to London through the Channel Tunnel in less than two-and-a-half hours should continue as normal, even when Britain wakes up on Saturday as no longer a European Union member.
But there was a sense in both giant stations in the capitals Friday evening of an emotional parting, a fitting feeling perhaps in historic rail hubs that for decades have witnessed dramatic farewells in times of love, peace and war.
“It’s not the last one forever right? They are not gonna break the tunnel tonight?,” asked John Burke, a British doctor who was leaving Paris after attending a conference.
For him, the best way to get over the bitterness of Brexit was a “good bottle of French wine”.
For his colleague Arup Paul the sadness of their trip was “we knew we were leaving as EU citizens and returning as non EU citizens.”
But the French capital will remain within easy reach of Londoners nonetheless. “You know for us it’s easier to go to Paris than to go to Scotland,” he said.
Eurostar began services in 1994 as a symbol of Franco-British cooperation and with its service beneath the Channel has transformed the lives of regular travelers who previously had to opt for ferry or air travel to reach France from Britain.
John Earwicker, a pensioner from Oxford who took a group of friends to Paris, admitted he was plunged into nostalgia as he presented his British passport at the border as an EU citizen for the last time.
“I am especially sad for my grandchildren. They will not know the freedom of traveling, working that we had. It will disappear. And they didn’t even vote for that, because they were too young. It is very unfair to them.”
“Champagne for everybody?!” interjects one of his friends in a bid to raise spirits. “No, this evening, I will be crying into my cocoa,” lamented Earwicker.
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‘Strange and sad’
British passengers at St Pancras in London were also struck by the strange sensation that they would no longer be Europeans by the time their late night trains pulled into Gare du Nord.
“It’s strange and I’m sad, as I didn’t vote to leave the EU,” said Dominic, 27, who was planning to meet his girlfriend in Paris.
French traveler Klervi, 24, said he is sad to think of Britain leaving the European Union but it is “their choice” and should not have any practical impact in the short term.
“I think so many French will be going backwards and forwards that not much will change, even later,” he said
In case the symbolism was not enough, a man strikes up John Lennon’s iconic paen to love between peoples “Imagine” on the piano left for musical travelers on the station concourse.
A more light-hearted musical celebration is in progress nearby. “So goodbye Brussels, Amen! Here’s hoping we don’t meet again!” sings Sally lustily, while her husband Peter dressed in a Union Jack T-shirt accompanies her on the piano.
Impassioned Brexiteers? Nothing of the sort. Just good old British humor. The couple are “totally pro-EU” but have decided to play the unity card.
They have three songs for the Remainers, three for Brexiteers and, last but not least, “one for everybody”.
“We are here because it’s fun. It’s a pleasurable thing to do with my wife Sally,” pointed out her husband Peter. “Brexit has become far too serious. Far too many people in Britain are upset one way or the other.”