No! No! No! NO!
Help! Somebody? Help! Oh no! Does anybody speak English? Oh no!
I frantically looked around for someone in a uniform. Someone who could stop the train that was carrying my children away from me. Apparently I was in an alternate universe because everyone else was strolling along the platform as if I didn’t exist.
There were some stairs going down into an underground station so I ran down them scanning the area for someone with authority. Halfway down I spotted a uniformed man and stopped him. I began blubbering hysterically about my plight. He looked at me gape-mouthed and held up his palms and shrugged his shoulders indicating that he didn’t understand a word I was saying. I ran on. There must be someone in this country that can understand English! I found another uniformed man and asked if he knew English and he indicated he did- a little. So again I sobbed out my story. I think the only part he got was “baby” and “train” because after asking me to repeat certain things, he seemed to grasp the reason for my hysteria without a clue about the details. After more questioning he expressed relief to find out that my daughter was not a small child like my son. He asked me to go with him to someone else who knew English better than he. I have since learned that though many Europeans speak English fairly well, the French do not learn English almost as a matter of principal. Even those who know English will not use it unless pressed. French is the only language of worth to them.
The uniformed man took me to an office where he brought out someone who was clearly in charge and could converse with me. The first thing this man said after hearing my story was, “Well now, the train doors are only open during the stop for three minutes.” I had the explosive urge to give him my opinion about that fact of which I was already well aware but I bit my tongue. He had me repeat the details of our ticket conundrum and our destination. In the mean time French conversations were occurring about me with other train personnel and they came up with a plan. He took me back to the platform and told me I would get on the next train. He instructed me to stay on the train until the third stop where I would meet up with my daughter. The third stop? How do I know Katie won’t get off at the first stop? I wanted some reassurance that this was really going to work to reunite me with my children. I wanted details! He wouldn’t give me any but pointed out the conductor who would take care of everything for me. The conductor didn’t speak or understand one word of English. I had to put my trust in these people with no assurance that they were worthy of it. I had no choice but to do as I was told.
So I got on the train. I sat in a row of seats where two seats faced two other seats with no table in the middle. There were three women occupying the other seats and they made sure to never look at me as I sat there tearfully snuffling for the long ride. I’m not sure how long the ride lasted, certainly over an hour and it could have been two or more. It is all a blur to me now. When the train halted at the next station I looked out the window, frantically scanning every face I could see on the platform worried that Katie would be there waiting for me to get off there too.
I was a mother alone, three months pregnant, in a country thousands of miles from my home where everything was in a language completely foreign to me. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I had no money. I couldn’t call anyone. I had two children out there, somewhere, and I was completely out of control of everything. I had no idea how to find them. I knew that God knew where they were and I just had to try to trust that we were somehow, someway, going to be reunited. It was the loneliest despair I have ever felt.
Eventually the woman who sat next to me vacated her seat. Immediately a well-dressed, middle-aged French woman who had been sitting across the aisle took the seat, patted my arm, looked me sympathetically in the eye and said in perfect English, “Tell me why you are so upset.” She seemed so kind and genuinely concerned. I was grateful for someone who wanted to talk with me and who could understand my language. I tearfully told her the story and she responded confidently that everything would be fine and that she would stay with me to make sure that it would. I asked her how she spoke English so well. She enthusiastically responded, “Oh, we love America! We go there often and have family there.”
After an eternal ride we reached the third stop, which was the cavernous station in the Mediterranean city of Marseille. The French woman accompanied me with the conductor (with whom she carried on a vigorous conversation in their language that was most surely about me and which made me feel very self-conscious because they knew I couldn’t understand them). We walked through the massive rail station, past rows of TGV trains, eventually arriving at a raised office in the middle of the open warehouse-like station. The conductor knocked on the door and spoke (need I say in French?) to the man inside asking about the whereabouts of my long-lost children. The man listened and then shrugged his shoulders disinterestedly in the universal gesture of, “I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.”
At that- I burst into tears again. “They don’t know where they are! No one knows where my kids are!! They could be anywhere in this country! They could be two stops back!” My French advocate put her arm around me and told me not to worry, all would be well.
The conductor started walking and we followed. There were crowds and clusters of people everywhere. He seemed to think my children were in the vicinity but I couldn’t see them. We kept walking. Suddenly, there they were -sitting on a bench against the wall with the backpack and gear piled around them. I ran to my daughter who held Samuel in her arms and embraced them, blubbering on her shoulder, overcome with relief to see them again. Katie, surprised at my hysteria, was completely calm and unfazed. She never had any doubt that we’d be reunited and things would be fine.
But then, she had the diapers and all the money. I’m the one who would have had to sleep on a park bench.