Monday, June 30, 2008

My doctor ordered me to take a vacation

...a real vacation, he said. No obligations, no running around. A good, solid rest.

No problem, I said. I'm going to France.

A direct flight is entirely too expensive, so we fly through Montreal. Nine o'clock in the morning on Sunday, we are on our way to the airport. At security, Mr. Billy is pulled aside. Suspicious character, Mr. Billy. Shifty eyes and whatnot.

He walks away with an official airport security shoehorn in his pocket. Thanks, security guys!

Eight hours or so later, we're in Montreal, or so they tell us. It's French-language training wheels. We wander through the clean, modern airport, the Limbo of air travel. Duty Free, bars, restaurants, endless shining hallways.

We are stuffed into another metal tube with wings, shaken and buzzed and fed and movied for another seven hours or twelve hours or fifteen days. Plastic shades are lowered over oval windows, and some people sleep.

Sleep does not come for us.

We touch earth at last. Paris. My head rings, a long, sustained note.

The training wheels are off, now, and my brain struggles to come up with the language I once knew. Mr. Billy has no French, so it's all mine to fuck up.

We follow the signs to the train station, down in the belly of the airport. We're scheduled to meet my dad on the Côte d'Azur this evening. It's Monday afternoon, local time.

We find the station. Victory! Now, we need to buy train tickets. TGV - Very Big Fast - the bullet train south. There are kiosks and vending machines and counters and signs and signs and my brain rings and the words mean nothing. Like writing in dreams, the words shift and change the moment I think I've decoded them. I leave Mr. Billy with the bags while I try to find something I can understand.

There, a queue of people, a sign that says something like what I need, I can't even form the question in English. I stand in line and I am standing in line for a lifetime and then I'm at the front of it. I walk up to the man at the counter and try my thirty-years rusty French.

"Two tickets, if you please, for San Raphael. Or Frejus."

He answers me in English. The train leaves in half an hour. All is well.

"Don't leave me for so long, next time," says Mr. Billy when I return. He's been sitting here, prisoner with bags. No language, no idea where I am. I'm hungry and thirsty, but don't dare spend a single precious Euro cent. The train tickets were much more than we expected. I can't even process the exchange rate. We can't afford this trip, not even close. What was I thinking?

There are no drinking fountains.

It's all right, though, our train is coming. We find the correct platform, we know which car we need to board. It's assigned seating on the TGV. The train arrives, and we look for our car.

No, we're at the wrong end of the train. We run the length of the platform. The car numbers are going the wrong way. No, somehow we missed our car. The note sings in my head, and thoughts are slow to swim to the surface. We should just get on, somewhere, but I can't articulate the thought, can't act on it. We're running, dragging our suitcases. I can't even see a door that's open, all we need is an open door, but it's too late, all the doors close, we're running and the train is moving, pulling away.

I can't speak, French or English. I make a panicked face at the attendants on the platform. They shrug at me. What's the fuss, they say. There'll be another train in twenty minutes.

Okay, okay, twenty minutes. I can deal with that. I'd better see if I need to change our tickets, I say to Mr. Billy. I have to leave him alone again. Back up to the queue. The minutes are ticking away. I get to the counter just in time. The platform attendants lied. It's another three hours until the next train.

We get to know the station very well. You have to pay to use the toilet. You have to pay for water you can drink. We sit, and we wait.

The train is twenty minutes late. We have to transfer in Marseilles. No problem; we have an hour between trains.

The train arrives thirty minutes late, and we get on the right car. We'll be all right now.

We watch the countryside out the window, but nothing sinks in. My ears sing. I'm tracking our progress on a map. The sun goes down. The next stop is Marseilles. It's dark outside, and the train slows, then stops. We look at the man across from us. He shrugs.

Some knocks. A clang. A loud report. A voice comes on the intercom. I can't understand these things in the U.S., let alone here. The announcer monologues. Clearly, it's quite a story. The man across from us looks at us for a moment.

"They don't know what's wrong," he says.

The process repeats. Knocks, clangs, the engine lurches, then silence. The voice monologues.

"They still don't know what's wrong," says our companion.

Again the ruckus, again the monologue. It's almost time for our transfer.

"They have no power," says the man across from us. He explains that we should still make our transfer - a lot of people are in the same boat, we just need to follow them.

The train begins to roll. The engine doesn't start up; they must have realized that there was enough of a slope to coast into the station. Softly as a dream, we pass graffitied walls and warehouses, and slide into the station.

We fall out of the train in the crush of bodies, dragging our corpse-suitcases. There are uniformed rail employees waiting on the platform.

"Transfer to St. Raphael?" I say, in French.

"Hurry!" says the rail worker. "It's leaving! Hurry up, hurry up!"

We step up the pace, rushing along with the crowd. The crowd rushes through the train station and out into the parking lot. Mr. Billy and I turn around, rushing back the way we came. There's the train, I see it now, we're running toward the train as it pulls away from the platform.

French comes flowing out of my mouth. I curse the rail worker eloquently.

"I told you to hurry," she says, shrugging.

"You didn't say where. Apparently that was too hard for you. Is your arm broken? Are you unable to point the way to the platform? I asked you about our transfer and all you said was hurry up. This was not helpful!"

She shrugs.

It's almost midnight, and we're in the Marseilles train station. The next train is tomorrow morning. I do what any grownup would do. I call Daddy.

"Don't worry," he says, "We'll pick you up."

It's more than an hour's drive, and my seventy-something-year-old Dad cheerfully suggests getting on the road at midnight to rescue us.

I find a bathroom (a pay bathroom, taking only coins, which requires me to buy water at McDonald's to get some change first), lock myself in the stall, and cry.

Mr. Billy is waiting out at the curb for me. We stare into the Marseilles night, nodding at the cat-sized rats that keep us company, and wait for Dad to arrive.