The Man Who Pays His Way: Two unintentional double entendres in a single phrase. Formidable!

  • @SimonCalder

Grab and fly: that is the name of the sandwich bar at the commendably functional MP2 terminal of Marseilles airport. Wisely, the proprietor does not attempt a translation into French. And after a most unfortunate journey into foreign verbs last week, neither shall I.

First, let me explain the circumstances. I was discussing the problems caused by the practice of "kiss and fly" at Gatwick. Drivers who give their loved ones a lift to the airport and pick them up at the end of the trip generate twice as much traffic compared with the passenger driving themselves and parking at the terminal.

I mused that "kiss and fly" sounded even more romantic in the Romance languages, and proceeded to cite what I fondly believed to be the equivalents in Spanish, Italian and French. These are languages with which I enjoy only a passing acquaintance. So I had reached for the dictionaries.

Une erreur grave, as the French might possibly say: as a number of readers have kindly pointed out, baiser et voler has connotations that go well beyond a peck on the cheek as you climb out of the car.

"You appear to be condoning sexual congress at airport forecourts," remarked one linguist. "The verb you used in the apparently fond belief that it meant 'to kiss' is these days also a slang term for intercourse."

Another correspondent found fault with both ends of my kiss-and-fly translation. Vol means both "flight" and "theft", so the verb voler has a hazardous double entendre. "What you actually wrote was, to put it bluntly, 'f*** and steal'." Neither an ideal holiday, nor a good policy when travelling by air.

I am not the only person with a shaky command of alien tongues, mind. On Wednesday, I asked une Marseillaise whether she had lived all her life in the city. "No," she replied. "I am naked in Nîmes." I sought to explain that "I was born in Nîmes" would be better, particularly when dealing with officialdom at, say, Gatwick airport.

An interpreter would be an asset when venturing beyond these shores, and in the olden days that was exactly what travellers could expect. An inherited copy of the British Railways Continental Timetable for the summer of 1954 contains a gallery of photographs – not of cities, or trains, or ships, but of men in uniform. They are all British Railways interpreters, deployed at key stations across the Continent such as Calais (where foreigners begin), Basel and Lille, and could be hired to ease the tricky business of changing trains in locations where people had the temerity to speak languages other than English.

Flying may have brought us closer to Europe, but soon the concept of short-haul aviation may be regarded as a curious 20th-century phenomenon. In the new millennium, wise travellers opt for the train for short-haul trips – less traumatic for both you and the planet. From Wednesday, when the first passenger services depart from St Pancras International, the edge that rail can offer will become more evident still. But it used to be even better.

"Sleep your way to Paris": in any language, that has plenty of appeal – which is why British Railways used the slogan in the Fifties. The train the organisation sought to promote was the Night Ferry, which ferried passengers in optimum comfort between London and the French capital. Travellers boarded the train at Victoria and went to bed while the train rattled down to Dover. At Marine Station, the carriages were loaded on to a ship for the crossing to Dunkirk, where they were hauled off again for the journey through Picardy and the early hours to Paris. The Night Ferry took 11 hours to reach Gare du Nord, but as the lucky passengers could slumber the whole way, they probably did not care.

With all the rivalry among airlines about flat beds in business class, it is as well to remember that the railways were offering the ultimate in international travel comfort decades ago. After a good night's sleep, is there any better place to awake than Paris at 9am? When Eurostar services from St Pancras begin on Wednesday, travellers to the French capital will need to leave London at the joyless hour of 5.21am to match that achievement.

The flagship day-train to Paris, the Golden Arrow, left London Victoria at 2pm, destination Folkestone Harbour. There, passengers boarded the Côte d'Azur, the biggest, fastest ship on the Channel, crossing in as little as 78 minutes. The Paris train was waiting, and travellers would reach the French capital seven and a half hours after leaving London.

The going got tough when you got going for Brussels, at least along the route now taken by Eurostar trains, via Folkestone, Calais and Lille. A change of trains was necessary at Lille Flandres station, and first-class passengers found to their dismay that the connection had only second- and third-class carriages. The trip took eight hours, compared with 111 minutes from this week, regardless of class. In terms of the class hierarchy, Eurostar has reinvented the concept of splitting passengers into three. "Business Premier", "Leisure Select" and "Standard" are simply marketing-speak for first, second and third class – in any language. I am tempted to say plus ça change, except that it probably means something unspeakable and would get me beaten up or arrested by a railway interpreter.