Before I leave Europe for good, I quickly tour a few cities I have been meaning to see.
My friend and I miss our bus to Prague and take an endless detour through the German cities of Erfurt and Dresden. Once in Prague, we wander around and take in the charming architecture.
Next, we stop in Berlin and take part in a walking tour so moving that by the end we are both on the verge of tears. We find ourselves stunned and humbled by the city which is clearly very willing to accept its troubled past. Everywhere, there are remnants of the Berlin wall and stores and parks named after it, things like, “East Side Kiosk,” “Wall Park,” and so on, which I find both funny and a bit unsettling.
Berlin is unapologetically cool, boasting exclusive clubs and a thrumming, alternative vibe. As our tour guide informs us, many clubs require you to be wearing “toned-down, all-black, sport-chic” to get in, and there is one club that has never closed in 37 years. But in the evening, we decide to forgo the clubs, instead choosing to see a live performance by my favourite composer: Hans Zimmer.
On the Berlin metro to the airport, our tickets turn out to be Zone A/B instead of Zone C,
which earns us a lovely 120 EUR fine—60 euros each.
“Schönefeld Airport is not Berlin,” the controller says, shrugging, in spite of our pleas. “Do you prefer to pay now or later?”
The last stop is Budapest—a city with the most incredible skyline I have ever seen. Everything is lit up in gold and yellow. We wade in natural thermal baths which I find extremely pleasant; they remind me of the sea.
The last few days of exchange are bittersweet. In French, the adjective is partagé(e), or ‘shared,’ which I think is accurate.
I circle the residence complex and post paper ads to help sell my things. Soon enough, nearly everything is gone, half sold to different individuals and the other half sold to a Brazilian who contacts me on seeing my ad. He just moved in and has nothing, he says. He’ll take anything I’m willing to sell. He buys so much that I resort to using a spreadsheet to calculate the cost, and I end up giving him everything for a tidy little sum.
I pack, weigh, and re-weigh my luggage. I repaint my wall where I have destroyed it. I submit insurance forms I have been meaning to submit. I cancel my phone plan via letter, the only way to do it in France. But this is not the hardest part, by far. The week is peppered with difficult goodbyes.
“How’re you going?” my friend says, as she enters my apartment on the day she is set to
leave. She is a Londoner originally from New Zealand, and her expressions are so varied I can never trace their origins. This one is Kiwi, I think; How’re you going.
I notice that she is wearing a hat I have not seen since the very first days we met. It is a blue baseball cap that suits her sporty persona. Her hair is in its customary blond ponytail.
She hands me a card she has written. I was not expecting this. I hand her the card I have written for her that she didn’t expect, either. Mine is accompanied by photos I have developed, ones where I feel she looks happy—where we look happy.
She and I only realized how close we were only a few weeks before.
“We have a lot in common, don’t we?” she pointed out one day, as we were housesitting for a friend, cooking salmon together. I nodded, because she was right: we both had the same ideas about travel and were both relatively easygoing on that front. We both liked to cook, liked to run, liked to read. We had the same music taste: alternative rock and indie. We both played the piano at precisely the same level and had started learning an upbeat duet together. We even considered moving from the university residence into an apartment in the city to change up the experience a little.
“Well,” I say now, looking down at the pot before me, the last thing I own after having sold everything. I am boiling eggs and they have exploded in the water. I start to cry. “Don’t mind me. These aren’t tears. They’re from the… egg fumes.”
We embrace and cry together. Her brother, who has come up from London to help her move out stands back, watching us knowingly as though this is not the first tearful goodbye he has seen nor the last.
She promises that we will see each other again and I believe her. In our cards we have referred to each other, independently, as best friends, which I think is sweet.
Another good friend and I are sitting together in a café the day before I am set to leave.
“It’s going to be strange, not having you all in such close proximity,” I say. “I won’t be able to walk to your apartments.” Something breaks in me and I begin to ramble. “This is just like high school. One day you have friends and the next you just don’t—”
I am referencing events that happened long ago that she cannot know. I will myself to stop. “I’ll just miss you all a lot, is all,” I say, in summary.
She is staying in France for the next few months so I hand off my English students to her as per the parents’ request, so that the kids can keep studying and working at the language.
“Remember to hound her about the past tense in English,” I say, referring to my star student. “She fences in her spare time and would like to go to a university near the sea. She’s passionate about the language. She’s so smart and doesn’t even know it. Make sure to make her laugh. In our classes we were always laughing together.”
That night we go to another friends’ apartment, where he cooks a nice risotto with asparagus. As usual, we bring the wine and dessert.
The father of one of my students kindly offers to take me to the airport. He lugs my
suitcases, 25- and 30-kg apiece, from my apartment and places them in his car; he hauls them out of the parking garage and places them under the bus for me.
“Danke schön!” I say, an expression I learned from my brief time in Berlin. It is ‘Thank you very much’ in German, his native tongue.
As the bus is pulling away from the station, toward the airport, I wonder: When is the next time I will be in this city? When is the next time I will see my friends? A thousand questions flick through my mind, and all fizzle out simultaneously because they are unanswerable. I will answer them in the weeks, maybe years, to come.
My mind flits inevitably to my parents. They immigrated years ago and left behind old friends with whom they had sat in the sunshine, drank wine, laughed with abandon. How did they find the strength to continue?
I note that poppies have sprung up all over the South of France. They have lowered their dainty heads against the impending storm: dark clouds above forecast a downpour. I do not worry for them; the poppy is a flower much more robust than it appears.
At the airport, I get a message from the girl with whom I shared a teary goodbye.
Hey! Busy day yesterday. How did packing go? I suppose you’re getting ready to leave? Hopefully it all goes smoothly—
I stop reading because my eyes are blurring with tears and I need to read the screen above me to see what gate to walk to. There is no gate number yet.
Dammit! I think, getting unnecessarily distraught. I am upset and decide to get a cup of tea. While sitting, I empty my European bank account and am pleased to see the value explode in Canadian dollars.
On the plane, I cannot help but think about the residence complex, specifically the ads I didn’t have time to take down and the recycling I didn’t have time to sort in my rush to the airport. 6,000 kilometres away on a continent far from my own, in a small town in the South of France, I have left up four posters. I have left my recycling in front of the bins, unsorted. It is not my concern anymore. Someone will do it, eventually. But somehow I am unsettled, absurdly, by these tasks I have left undone.
My layover in Lisbon is 5 hours long. I stuff my things into a luggage locker so I can wander around. I buy a pretty postcard. When, finally, I land in Toronto, my family is there to greet me and waves frantically out the car window. They put all of my suitcases in the trunk for me, as I watch, tiredly.
Many hands make light work, I think. It will be nice not to have to do it all on my own, anymore.
The coming days will be an adjustment. I need to renew my health card. My drivers’ license has expired, too. There are doctors’ appointments to go to and dentists to see and phone lines to re-instate. There are old friends to meet with. I need to find a job for the summer, and a place in Toronto if that’s where the job takes me. I need to choose my classes for next year. I need to find a supervisor that will oversee my research.
It’s a lot to think about the first day back. Taking a baby step toward readjustment, I reluctantly switch my phone and laptop from French to English.
I have been thrust from one life into another. Soon, Aix will not be the same city I left behind. Without the exchange students I know it just won’t be the same.
“I’m beyond thinking that it’s France that made the experience great,” I told my friend in the café just the day before. “We could have been anywhere. We could have been in Mexico and it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the people. It’s being around people that are willing to do something like this.”
“This is not goodbye,” my friend said, seeing the distress on my face. “We’re going to video chat.”
“The plane tickets aren’t that expensive. And I’m good at saving money.”
“Exactly. So why are you crying?”
I wiped my eyes. “I’m just thinking about a poem I wrote. It’s sad.” I handed my phone to her.
Before I’m set to leave I realise There is no space in my suitcases for the friends and the memories
Everything is so full! And the luggage is already overweight (as usual).
I shrug. I suppose I will have to put them in my heart.
I open myself up and a quick scan of the organ to ensure there is ample room, and there is.
I place them next to my family, next to my old friends, And wind them up with bubble wrap To keep them intact for the bumpy ride Home
This is so convenient!
At the airport, I won’t need to join the “things to declare” line (Because the most valuable goods are hidden inside.)
No customs fees to pay; In my heart they will stay.
“It is sad,” she agreed. Her face reddened. “But lovely.”
“What should we call it?”
We named the poem together. Baggage Allowance Exceeded. It is a technical title for an experience that was decidedly un-technical and improvised. Friendship.
I decide to start taking pictures of things I need to sell at the end of the year. Printer, microwave, and other things I have amassed over seven months. When I look back at the pictures I get a heavy feeling in my chest.
“It just made me so sad,” I say, when recounting this to a friend, over dinner. “I don’t know why. I’m hesitant to leave.”
From the other side of my small kitchen, he shrugs. He shovels himself another big helping of spaghetti. Every time I have boys over at my apartment they seem determined to eat all my food.
“This is the first time you’ve built a life away from your home,” he says. “Your family.”
He’s getting at something. We constructed small, humble lives here. Alone. Faced with only vague ideas about different countries and cities, we were able to choose exactly where we settled, and where we studied (within certain parameters, of course!). We opened bank accounts and found apartments and surrounded ourselves with people we believed were good. Lately I have noticed that it is an existence so small and controlled that the individuals who populate it play an unusually important role. This is not always ideal.
Now we must, piece-by-piece, dismantle what we have created, settling debts and cancelling phone plans. In some ways I feel I have set up camp in a quiet clearing and am now yanking up the stakes of my tent, unceremoniously.
We did not face ultimate hardship here. We are from the first world, briefly resettling in the first world. But what if it had been different? How many times in our lives will we be able to construct, from the ground up, a new existence somewhere we don’t understand? Twice? Three times? Surely we will have more chances to pick up our lives and start again?
A friend recently told me she was proud of me. And of course, this meant a lot.
In the rare moments where I am able to set aside my perfectionism and examine what I have built here, I am proud of myself, too. I have established a small, private practice teaching English courses. My apartment is comfortable, despite its being a bit solitary. For the first time in years, I am away from the crippling intensity of bad roommates, away from all the noise, and I can breathe, read, write, think.
In my studio, one wall is a giant window. In the beginning I used to shudder with gratitude, wondering how I was lucky enough to wake up every morning and see so much light, so many trees. To have windows I could throw open at any time of year so I could hear the mourning doves. I am happy, and if I wanted to stay, I could, with the right paperwork. I won’t. But I could if I wanted to.
“I’m going to struggle,” a friend agrees, when I mention how I’m feeling.
I am struck at the heaviness of the word she uses, and even more by the nonchalance with which she uses it. Struggle. “What will you miss the most?”
“This,” she says, gesturing around. We are having the conversation in an RV we rented with three other friends, which is currently heading west across the South of France, through small towns. By the end of the trip we will have almost reached Spain. It is the first time I have ever been camping (or “glam-ping,” as a friend of mine aptly calls it) and I love it.
“You can’t do this at home?”
“Not this. Here,” she says, and I understand what she means. There will no doubt be more camping trips, but not here, not in France, not together, not now.
I am proud of us. I like to think of the experience as a shiny coin we can pull out of our back pocket and look at whenever we need to remind ourselves what we are capable of. Oh, and by the way, I’m fluent in French. If we fall in love with a foreigner and have to move; if we are offered a job abroad; if someone suggests a spontaneous trip—we will hesitate just a bit less than everyone else, since we’ve done it all before. And I think that’s great.
I don’t doubt that myself and my friends have all grown over the course of the year, but personally, I won’t attempt to try and gauge it. It is a mark of human arrogance to believe we can chart our growth with precision, understanding exactly why and how we have changed. I have grown in ways I will never notice and I am fine with this.
The last line of one of my favourite movies is: Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through. Or feel we’ve had enough time. […] I remind myself I am lucky to have had any time […] at all.
As we explore Paris, the South of France, and Rome, my sister keeps me in stitches with her deadpan sense of humour. We are walking along the streets of Aix when a little old car typical of France passes us at a clip. “Woah, buddy,” my sister says calmly. “The last thing I want is to get obliterated by such a dumb looking car.”
Rome is beautiful despite the torrential rain that soaks us over the course of the entire weekend. I can’t believe that, every day, these people grocery shop and walk and chat among buildings that date back two thousand years or more. My sister and I see the Villa Borghese, the Vatican, Colosseum (for which there was only one exit; we and a few other tourists feared that we were trapped forever), the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and the Sistine Chapel. We stare up at Michelangelo’s ceiling and take secret photos even though it is not allowed.
My sister imitates the Italian security guards under her breath: “Silence! Silencio. No peec-tures and no vee-dio.”
We walk up and down the street staring at Google Maps until a man with a cigarette hanging from his lips motions us over.
“You are looking for the hostel?”
My sister and I look at each other in the way we do when things are getting absurd. This man is standing in front of a laundromat.
“Yes,” I say.
“Follow me,” he says.
We soon learn that the hostel is a moderate scam. The public laundromat serves as its makeshift lobby and every one of the employees looks questionable. Despite its 9.0 rating, I quickly realise that every one of the hostel’s reviews was probably written by Laundromat Man with Cigarette.
We drink terrible, complimentary red wine with a British teenager we just met who is trying to travel Western Europe but has “washed” his money. I am not from Britain but assume this means he is broke. Watering down the wine with 7up, my sister and I complain about the German PhD student with whom we share our hostel room—every day he gets into the shower and uses it as an opportunity to hack and cough and clear his nasal passages, waking us up.
Later, my sister and I are sitting at opposite sides of the hostel room. A photo appears on my phone. It is my sister’s face at a strange angle. She has just taken it and is Airdropping it to me from across the room, for no reason in particular. If you have a younger sister you may be familiar with this particular brand of nonsense. I try to click exit but it keeps popping back up.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask. “It won’t let me exit.”
“Click accept,” my sister says, half-smiling. “Just accept it…”
We attempt to buy some souvenirs for our parents from a stall on the street. It quickly becomes clear that the vendor does not know any English.
“Man?” I say in Italian, pointing at a shirt.
“No,” he says. “Bambini.” A child’s T-shirt.
“Ah,” I say, in the way I have heard Italians and Frenchpeople and other Latin language speakers express assent. I turn to another shirt. “Small?”
“Sì,” he says. I sling this shirt over my shoulder for my father.
“Woman,” I say, pointing at another shirt. “Medium?” I just heard him use a word which I think means medium so I decide to try it out.
At the end we have 3 items, a sweatshirt and two T-shirts. “Twenty,” I offer, attempting to barter.
“Non possibile,” he says.
“Twenty-two,” I say, inventing the number because I do not actually know the word in
Italian. It turns out to be right.
“Ventidue,” he agrees. We pay the man and leave.
“Congratulations,” my sister says, rolling her eyes. “You’ve saved exactly 2 euros.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange?” I ask, ignoring her sarcasm. “Two Jamaican-Canadians wandering the streets of Rome, speaking semi-coherent Italian. Don’t you think that’s random?” In Toronto we are already far from home, and all the way over here, in Rome, doubly so.
My sister shrugs, and we step back out into the rain.
When I get back to the South of France, I wonder how it is for people that are actually from here, who look around at the Cypress trees and the cobblestones and feel that familiar twinge that reminds them they’re home. A sigh is coaxed from their lungs and their heart is pinched, maybe.
Das ist gut
At 4 or so in the morning, I put my sister in a cab and tell the driver in French where she needs to be and what time she needs to be there by. “Take care,” I say, sadly, hugging myself against the early morning chill.
With my sister on a plane to Toronto, it’s back to business as usual. As I am walking toward the laundromat to wash some clothes, a German friend peeks her head out of the window of her apartment just as I pass. I love Aix-en-Provence for this, the smallness of the place. How you are constantly bumping into friends everywhere you go. Sometimes you may be texting a friend, or walking into town meet them, or merely thinking about them, and you will see them—something that is virtually impossible where I’m from.
“Hey!” I call out in English, involuntarily.
“Salut !” she responds in French. Hi.
“Ça va?” I ask in French. All good?
“Ja!” she responds in German. Yeah!
In true exchange student style, I switch to German too. “Haha, Das ist gut!” That’s good.
In the laundry room I load my clothes into the washer, laughing and shaking my head at this bizarre, multilingual conversation.
There will come a day
When the books and clothes are tucked away,
The boxes sealed, the shutters drawn,
My small apartment
Emptied of song
When you come to help, you’ll say:
‘Doesn’t this room look big!
Without your life inside,
Without your socks and printer and iced tea, inside!
Without the fridge’s hum.’
Our voices will bounce around in echo
Pounding like a tuneless drum—
Whispering: “Thank you for your courage,
Safe travels back to where you are from.”
We knew this was a passing thing
(That’s what happens when you are nomadic)
We also knew that wouldn’t make
‘The End’ seem any less tragic
Come, friends, and sit with me
Wherever we first met:
On the stairs,
Or on that rocky bench,
Then tilt your face toward the sun,
Let its heat cradle your head.
Years from now you’ll be reminded of these:
Cypress trees, Mediterranean breeze,
And I’ll think of you—you’ll think of me
I can chart our growth just like a map,
There we were young and here we are old;
There we were nervous, here we are bold;
Here, we spoke in riddles, in themes,
like love, distance, and fear
In personal musings, in philosophy,
Voices growing louder, more clear
Shoulders were offered, dinners were held,
To help us all get through,
We realized even the bravest souls
Were lost and wanting, too.
I’ll see you all again, someday
Once the wind has blown us
Every which way,
We are halfway through. If the exchange were a day, I imagine this would be the point where the sun creases over the sky and begins its slow but deliberate descent.
The exchange students must now regroup. Our friends who were staying only for the first semester are gone. We are not exactly sure who is left, and are reminded, yet again, of temporary nature of the year abroad.
In a recurring dream, I am at a final dinner with these people who have become such good friends. Here it gets confusing: I am wearing a one-shoulder green dress and I do not own a dress like this. Anyway, there I am, wearing I dress I do not own in a restaurant I do not recognize. (Bear with me, here.) Raising my glass, I try to tell the people at the table how much they mean to me but I am having trouble getting the words out. I do not know if this will happen. Probably not.
But it gives me comfort, because everyone is there. And you, reader, are by my right-hand side.
While I am home for the holidays, my family goes to one of our favourite restaurants. We
dash through the -28 degree weather to the entrance, with as little grit as you can expect from a family whose members were born minutes from the Caribbean sea.
Once at the table, we grin at each other and lean forward, speaking in hushed tones as though telling secrets. I know that anyone looking at us can tell we are an adult family. Average age around 35; children living in different cities, all over the world; communicating through Skype, FaceTime, and a family group chat. The contents of the conversations being, more often than not—is everyone alright, does anyone need money, have you completed this paperwork, have you paid these fees, when is this due. Poetry and news articles shared by my mum. The occasional exclamation in patois. Brief discussions about politics. When did we get like this?
People like to say, “Time flies.” Looking back at my family’s history; however it does not seem that the time has flown. It has passed, evenly.
It is clear to me that it has been a long time, especially when I peer around the table at my family. My father is wearing the sort of hat his father used to wear, a flat cap; my sister, a university freshman now, has her eyes shadowed by mascara; my mother is wearing her signature shade of dark red lipstick; I am wearing shiny brown shoes and a watch. We have all developed our particular styles but are all wearing black coats, as though this one aspect was carefully coordinated.
“First person to remember to remember our server’s name gets ten bucks,” Mum says under her breath. My family loves to play little games like this, where no one actually keeps score and no money ever changes hands.
Later: “Are we going to Jamaica this year?” The question is posed by my mother to the table at large. We are long past the days where our parents were the sole planners of our family trips. Now there are schedules to be thought about, vacation days to be organised.
“Yes,” Dad says.
My sister and I smile. If you are an immigrant you may be aware of the concept of on-years and off-years, where, some years, you go back to your small island and others, you don’t.
These periodic trips are important. They are like tacks, pegging us to our history. They remind us who we are and where we are from and where we were born. It’s been decided; 2018 is a Jamaica year.
I tell my family that I do not know whether I will stay in France for the summer or come back to Toronto. “I’ll go wherever the jobs are.” When I say this, I feel much older than I am. “If Toronto, I might look for a place downtown.” This, too, makes me feel old. But I am half-joking. Rent in Toronto is sky-high.
“I think you will have to,” my mother says, taking a bite of her lobster. When available, she will always order lobster, steak, a baked potato, and a virgin strawberry daiquiri. I know her order by heart. “I know you’re bored in the suburbs.”
“What? You’d let me get a place downtown?” I say.
“I think you’d have to.”
“Wow,” I say, and squint out at the restaurant, past the people.
Please, touch the art
I knew I was an adult when I walked past a wall of felt in an art museum that was meant to be touched but did not touch it.
Bedbug level: 12
My sister is coming down to France for a week. It will be her first time in Europe, so we decide to book a spontaneous trip to Rome over Skype. We end up having to put it all on Dad’s card because mine is not going through.
“What! Do you think I’m made of money?” Dad cries over the phone, when we call to ask. This is his constant refrain.
On skype, my sister and I giggle. I am reminded of a video on Facebook of a child throwing money out a window, with the caption, “This is what it’s like having daughters.”
As if it is not enough to rob him blind, we tease Dad relentlessly, sending him text messages with lots of ellipses and strange punctuation, just as he would send them to us:
No problem… putting it on your card… will reimburse 🙂 thanks,
Once the train tickets are booked, my sister and I search for hostels. I read out some of the worst reviews to her.
“On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is no bedbugs and 10 is bedbugs, I would give this hostel a 12, as in, don’t even fumigate, just burn it down.” We double over laughing.
I am sitting in a class called l’Europe et la mer dans l’époque moderne (Europe and the Sea in the Modern Era).
The professor made a huge show of singling out the foreigners in the class when we walked in, first to welcome us, and later, to reprimand us, saying, “I know in England you may eat in class but here in France we do not do this.” I roll my eyes at his assumption. I am not from England.
I work out how to fight back in my head. We don’t like being singled out every time we walk into a room, I would say in French. It makes it difficult to integrate. And at this point, when we are nearly fluent, it is frankly offensive. But I decide not to say anything because arguing makes me tired. Instead I look out the window and notice the sky is a cloudless blue.
My eyes shift to the syllabus, which has a painting of sailboats on the front. I think of how I would much rather be at sea, rather than discussing it. I want to taste the sea air and feel the sun on my legs.
I am reminded of something a colleague at my internship last summer once said to me, in the staff kitchen:
“You’re so young. Have you ever been in love?”
I shook my head sheepishly, retrieving my lunch from the microwave.
“Well, one day you’ll fall in love and you’ll do things you never thought you’d do. You’ll go—I don’t know—sailing, and you’ll love it. You’ll say, thank God I met you otherwise I never would have sailed.”
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.