Before I miss my train, a few very crucial thoughts go through my head:
- Where are the service people? (My ticket wouldn’t print, and I insisted on fiddling with the machine, on my own, for way too long.)
- Where is the platform? (It doesn’t say on the confirmation.) How far is it?
- Why aren’t I running! I should run! (The clock on the wall reads 20:17. I have two minutes. And I remember, heart sinking, that European trains always leave on time. Without fail.)
“Ca va être chaud, hein ?” The guy who is trying to help me print the ticket is shaking his head, saying it will be difficult for me to make the train.
“Go! Just go!” cries his colleague.
By the time I get to the platform, the train is already pulling away. It is moving so slowly it is hard to believe it is really missed. I want to jump on top, or something. But when the train is gone, it’s gone.
It is a strange end to what was otherwise an incredible holiday—two weeks in Toronto, followed by three days in London and three days in Paris. It was the first time I had been to London, and I was struck by the city’s mix of styles, unlike anything I had ever seen. My first impression was that the city had a really industrial look to it; the brown brick and red metal of the buses reminding me vaguely of a fire station.
I was led around the city by Londoners I met in the South of France, also on exchange, who were back in the city for the holidays. I walked around the Tate Modern gallery and was actually moved by the artwork; I wandered through markets with my friends and chatted with the merchants; I ate brunch at a restaurant with an underground speakeasy, which required a password to get in. I watched a show called “A Comedy about a Bank Robbery” at Picadilly Circus which was very slapstick but entertaining. All the while, I admired eclectic style of Londoners: bangs, turtlenecks, newsboy hats (which I haven’t seen since 2008), and huge fur coats.
“Was that the last train to Marseille?” I ask a guy in uniform, panting.
He is with some other men, also in uniform. “Oui,” he says simply. Then the group turns away in unison and walks away like a gang. I am left alone on the platform, gripping the handle of my suitcase.
Think, Marisa. Think. I force myself to find a chair and sit, because when I panic, bad things happen. I leave things behind, like bags and wallets and keys. I have an English class to teach tomorrow morning, and if I miss this class it will be the fourth week in a row I have missed, due to the holidays.
Using the GoEuro app, I do a quick search. It compares all the possible routes from one place to another in Europe: plane, train, bus, whatever. The trains for tomorrow morning are 100+ euros. Nope. The flights are 150+. Double-nope.
It’s worse than I thought. I’m stranded.
There are three buses leaving from Paris to Marseille. They are 10-11 hours. Overnight. I vowed years ago to never take one of these buses. But I have to teach a class. You made a commitment, you have to follow through. This phrase flies to the forefront of my brain, without me even realizing. These are my mother’s words; she said them so often that they are now mine.
At the ticket counter, I try to get reimbursed for the train ticket.
“There’s nothing I can do for you,” the guy says. “The ticket is non-remboursable.”
“But it’s your machine that wouldn’t print my ticket.” Would he rather I have gotten on without one? I want to ask this but do not know how to say it in French so I let it go.
“Sorry,” he says. “Nothing I can do.” He prints, now, the ticket that wouldn’t print when we needed it to and tears it in half. I find this very pointless and look at him squarely. Then I gather my things and leave.
The train has left and I am not on it. It has left without me, and it will get there, without me. While I was arguing with this man, one of the three buses has left. It is late in the day and I am running out of time.
I pull out my laptop. I buy a ticket for one of the remaining buses. Immediately there are a few issues:
- This bus is overnight and I cannot sleep upright (!)
- I cannot print this ticket because there is no printer near me.
- I do not know where the station is in Paris.
I check my watch. I have a few hours. More than enough time to find out.
I find the bus stop and realize I still have a ton of time to kill. I eye a McDonalds from across the station. It’s raining and I want to sit inside, idly, but in Europe they always make you buy something. And I have not eaten McDonalds in over a decade so if they make me buy something there, I will be upset.
I decide to take the chance and set up in a booth, eating a sandwich I have packed. A security guard eyes me shyly for around 30 minutes before approaching me.
“Mademoiselle, you cannot just stay here, like this. You need to buy something.”
Sometimes when not-so-great things happen (like missing important trains, for example) I make the conscious decision to let it go. In situations like this I am so busy laughing at myself that I become borderline giddy. I decide to mess with this security guard.
“Oh,” I say, placing a hand earnestly on my chest. “I don’t eat McDonalds.”
He raises his eyebrows. “You have to buy something. A coffee, a cookie…”
“I’m not hungry.”
We look at each other. I relent almost immediately. We walk over to giant menu screen thing that McDonalds have now and he presses the buttons on my behalf.
“I don’t eat McDonalds, you know,” I repeat. He is hardly listening. “I have my reasons!”
“You want this cookie?” he says, pointing.
“Yes,” I lie. I stand at the cash and wait for the unwanted cookie. “Where is my cookie?”
“He’ll bring it for you. You can sit.”
I can’t recall a single McDonalds in North America where they bring you your food. It’s so European I grin. “This is a weird McDonalds,” I point out.
“A weird McDonalds!”
“Yes,” I say. I am North American so I feel like I have authority on this, at least. Maybe not about high-speed trains, but this, surely.
“This is a McCafé, mademoiselle.”
I shrug and pull the cookie from the bag. It’s chocolate. “Woah, woah, woah,” I say, grinning. “This is not the cookie that was pictured. I am not happy; I am going to complain.”
He smiles and shakes his head, resuming his post at the side of the restaurant. While I eat my cookie (happily, because I actually do love chocolate), the security guard and I discuss my being from Toronto and my inability to catch important trains. It’s a welcome distraction after a pretty hectic day.
On the overnight bus, I try every possible sleeping position until my legs are literally folded cross-legged against the window. I alternate between lying down, sitting up, and wrapping my scarf around my face as a mask and a pillow. The bus jolts to a stop. A burst of cold air and cigarette smoke burst through the door, chilling me to the bone. Why did I choose a seat by the door?
“Excuse me, Madame,” I ask the conductor. “How many stops do we have like this?”
“Every hour and a half,” she tells me.
Nightmare, I think. Nightmare!
I probably look like a character out of a nightmare, too, with my big scarf around my face. That, or a human cotton swab.
I take three sleeping pills and try to will myself to sleep but nothing works. As promised, every hour and a half I am met with a blast of cold air. I stare around jealously at the people who are sleeping, heads lolling.
I watch the sun rise. Then, after 11 hours on the road we finally reach my stop. I have not slept at all and practically fall out of the bus. Salvation!
I realise that, for some reason, I am still 20 minutes out of town. When will it end, I wheeze. I feel genuinely very gross. No shower, no teeth brushed, and when I get to the washroom at the station, the person who stares back at me has her makeup smudged and hair mussed. But she’s made it!
I get back home and collapse into bed—but only for 30 minutes. I still have to teach my class.