View from Vitalia: of trains, toilets and vaping

In the fourth instalment of his new blog, Vitali VItaliev talks about his recent travels in Italy, his love for St Pancras train station and the role e-cigarettes played in his life

“Theatre begins with a cloakroom,” a good old Russian proverb goes. And how about a train?

Last week, I had a chance to spend several days in Italy – my first purely non-medical trip after the heart surgery last February. While on train from Venice to Verona, I noted with satisfaction Trenitalia’s brand-new rolling stock – the gleaming double-decker coaches, which, as I knew, were the result of a long-awaited investment in the new fleet. Clean, spacious and smooth, the coaches were still a far cry from the state-of-the art Caravaggio EMUs due to be delivered to Italy by Hitachi in the course of the next several years, yet they still constituted a huge step forward from Trenitalia’s old and notoriously shabby regional rolling stock, so colourfully described by a brilliant British writer Tim Parks (who, incidentally, himself lives in Verona) in his book ‘Italian Ways’, which I once reviewed for E&T (see https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2013/07/book-reviews/).

The overall positive feeling (low fares, comfy seats, picturesque and loquacious fellow passengers etc.) was pretty much ruined by my attempted visit to the train toilets. Why attempted? Because all four of them (in our carriage and in the neighbouring ones) that I had a misfortune to peep in were in such appalling condition (I will spare you the details) that I had to dash out of each hastily after the first quick peek. After that, the carriage immediately started feeling much less comfortable.

Well, what can I say? Investment, Hitachi and new rolling stock are all to be welcomed. Yet, if theatre indeed begins with a cloakroom, then a train journey definitely starts (and finishes) with clean toilets. Don’t think anyone who has ever been a passenger will disagree with me here…

On a different and much more cheerful railway note, last week saw the 10th anniversary of my beloved St Pancras International Eurostar terminal. I do regard the new St Pancras station as a huge success story – both architecturally and spiritually. To me, like few other places, it embodies the wonderful spirit of ‘neither here nor there’, for walking along its glistening and very ‘European’ concourse-cum-shopping mall, having a cup of coffee or a glass of good French wine in its vibrant French Sourced Market (near the Kings Cross entrance), sitting in Europe’s longest (or so they say) Champagne Bar next to the Eurostar platform or simply looking at the wonderfully expressive life-size statue of John Betjeman, British Rail’s eternal poet-in-residence, makes you feel as if you are already on the move – not quite at home any longer, and not yet on the road, but somewhere in-between, in that special dimension, very aptly described as ‘alienation zone’ by Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov. As a ‘professional traveller’ of many years’ standing (or rather moving), I am addicted to that moveable dimension, or rather that peculiar ‘neither here nor there’ state of mind, also known as dislocation, so every time when arriving at Kings Cross from the Hertfordshire town where I live, I make sure I walk across St Pancras station to Euston Road – the walk that allows me ample time to imagine myself on board of many a Eurostar train…

The other day, while at Kings Cross, I heard a loud announcement banning smoking and ‘the use of electronic cigarettes’ inside the station. I had no problem with the ‘smoking’ bit, for I am myself a reformed smoker who – after nearly forty years of heavy puffing and countless futile attempts to stop – gave up gave tobacco in 2008, more than nine years ago, and haven’t had a single puff since then. Do you know how I finally managed to quit? With the help of electronic cigarettes which allowed me to gradually slide down the nicotine cartridge strength scale until I reached zero. Three weeks later, I was a non-smoker! I described that highly instructive (as I believe) experience of mine in one of my early After All columns.

At the time, when all the media were very sceptical as to the positive effects of ‘vaping’ (a much later neologism), I managed to get hold of the results of one of the first proper laboratory tests proving without a shadow of doubt that electronic cigarettes were practically harmless and were also the best aid to those who seriously wanted to quit. I claimed then – and can repeat now – that by helping me where acupuncture, hypnosis, Nicorette chewing gum, nicotine plasters and all the other countless props that I had tried, failed miserably, electronic cigarettes did save my life – an opinion later confirmed by my cardiologist who said that I wouldn’t have survived my inherited cardiac condition had I still been a smoker.  That is why when I hear announcements banning e-cigarettes outright and without a reason, when I read about yet another ‘inquiry into electronic cigarettes’, like the one announced last month by the UK’s Science and Technology Committee, I feel very angry. I also feel huge pity for those poor nicotine addicts who could have been cured and saved, like I was, if the general attitude to ‘vaping’ had  been more accepting.  

From electronic cigarettes to (broken) electric lightbulbs… Whatever theatre and trains start and finish with, this blog of mine, as promised in its previous instalment,  will again terminate with a reader’s story, taken from the flow of emails in response  to my dead lightbulbs mini-quiz.

Many of those stories have little to do with lightbulbs as such, but dealt with all kinds of ridiculous and illogical situations faced by the readers in the former USSR and elsewhere too.

Here’s one from David Wear, IEng, MIET:
“In the 1970s I worked as a Merchant Navy officer and went to the USSR a few times (Black Sea ports), and witnessed the type of lunacy you describe.  In those days, I think only three types of people went to the USSR: tourists, who were watched over by Intourist, businessmen who probably had to have a sponsor, and merchant seamen, who – as they have been for centuries – were ignored.  I think of the three groups named above, we were the only ones who saw the real Soviet Union.  I remember on one occasion, arriving at a port as arranged many days in advance to collect a cargo (we were an oil tanker) only to be told that the product was not available and we would have to wait "until the refinery makes some".  We were anchored for weeks…”

Thanks, David, and talk to you all again soon!




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