This is the story of an ugly American. A weepy, hormonal, non-French speaking American.
Once upon a time, I took my first trip to Europe. The occasion was the delivery of my oldest daughter to Switzerland, to live with my oldest friend, an expat American who married a tall European who whisked her off to his homeland and gave her five children to keep her there. My daughter was to live in Switzerland with my friends for five months after her high school graduation. Since it was her first trip away from home, I, her mama, accompanied her to her far-away destination. After all, it was a good excuse for me to go to Europe and to see my dear old friend.
We had one other traveling companion- my youngest child, 14 month old Samuel- I couldn’t leave him at home. Oh, and also- I was three months pregnant with Peter.
My friend opened her charming old home in a Swiss village just outside Zurich as our home base for some sight-seeing and traveling excursions.
After spending a week or so seeing the Swiss countryside, Zurich, Lake Lucerne and a castle or two, Katie and I decided to take a short trip out of Switzerland. Where to go? Italy was my first choice but all the trains going there were full. My friend recommended France and suggested a few small towns she had visited in the south, including Arles for its Roman history and its Van Gogh connection. We got out a map and Katie and I decided it would be fun to take a train along the Mediterranean coastline, through Monaco and Nice to Arles. I chose Nice because it was the only French city I recognized besides Paris. Now the trick was to get train tickets, by phone, for our destination. I got on the phone with a Swiss ticket agent and tried to explain where we would like to go. Here is where the ugly American stepped in. Most Europeans can speak several languages – German, English, French. I could speak English pretty well and a little high school German. The only French pronunciations I knew were “oui”, “merci” and “croissant.”
Years later, while watching a Rick Steves travel program about Provence, it was revealed to me how I got us into our French jam with my lack of proper French pronunciation.
I told the travel agent I wanted to go to Arles but I didn’t know how to pronounce it. I probably tried “Ar-less” and “Ar-lay.” I learned too late that it is pronounced “Arl”. So the ticket agent booked us tickets to “A-lay” which, I learned from Rick Steves years later, is a small town- Alés -to the west of Avignon. I was oblivious.
So we- Katie, Samuel and pregnant I, went on our merry way. The trip was made on the TGV train also known as a bullet train.
We settled into a mostly empty train for a trip through the Swiss countryside. Soon we were traveling through Geneva and into France. We consulted our map and after a while it became apparent we were not going in the right direction to see the sparkling Mediterranean and the opulence of Monaco. After the train conductor examined our tickets he informed us we didn’t have proper tickets. We had to shell out some francs to continue on the train. Also, he said there were no seats for us. This was puzzling since the train was mostly empty. He informed us it was about to fill up at the next stop and since seats were pre-assigned we had none. We would have to move to the smoking car. This caused a little panic for me since I imagined that with my asthma the rest of the trip would be experienced with me gasping for breath. But we picked up our gear and moved to the smoking car. Sure enough, at the next stop the train filled with people, apparently heading to or from their jobs. Katie and I consulted the map and our tickets again and decided we needed to straighten out the mess by getting off the train in Lyon and reticketing to where we really wanted to go.
Here’s where the story gets interesting.
As we headed towards the next stop in Lyon at the speed of a bullet, I realized we had left the baby stroller and suitcase in the other train car where we started so I made my way back two cars to retrieve them. The aisles in the train were about eight inches wide and every seat was full. Though the train was moving at the speed of sound walking through a moving train still required careful balance and concentration so as not to end up in some Frenchman’s lap. I managed to grab the stroller from the overhead rack and the small rolling suitcase that contained our clothing. I turned to head back to the smoking car. At exactly that moment, everyone in the car decided to stand up in the aisle to prepare to exit the train at the Lyon station. The bullet trains stop for exactly three minutes at each station. As soon as the train comes to a halt, the mass of humanity getting off the train dances with the mass of humanity getting on the train and they exchange places through the doors that are only open for three minutes. There was no way I was getting back to the car where my daughter and little son were waiting.
As soon as the train came to a full stop, the doors slid open and I surfed the French wave onto the platform which was outside in the bright Provençal sunshine. I ran down the platform with my stroller and suitcase to the car where Katie was waiting. I could see her at the window in the seat. I started flailing my arms at her – “Get off the train!! Get off!” She scooped up Samuel, her backpack, my purse and the diaper bag and joined the sea of humanity in the exit dance.
I stood on the platform at the door of the train waiting for her appearance. Finally! There she was, her arms loaded with baby and gear, at the top of the train steps ready to descend. I held my arms up to help her down the steps.
2:57 Hand me the gear!
2:58 Get out of the way, people!
2:59 Come on!
3:00 The doors of the train slid closed and the bullet train took off- like a bullet- and disappeared into the Provençal countryside.
I stood there with my arms extended and my jaw on my chest, watching as the train silently vanished with my daughter, my son, and my purse- which contained my passport and all my money.
To be continued...