The train was already moving as I stepped on to it from the Parisian train station’s platform. My mom literally threw my suitcase at me, which I caught, as my train pulled out of Paris. My mom waving goodbye in the distance that was increasing between us. I was sixteen years old.
Pulling on the cold metal latch that opened the railway car I entered a corridor that took me past seating compartments. Peering in through their windows I spied an empty seat and entered. Seated across from me was an elderly couple. Their appearance had me guess they were farmers. Next to me was a girl about my age, maybe older, with dark wavy hair. She was writing in an open notebook, in French. I did not speak a word of French.
The girl looked at me and smiled. And asked me a question.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak any French”.
“You don’t speak French. And yet you are traveling alone on a train in France.”
I smiled. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Then I will help you!” She smiled back. “I will write down some sentences that you need to know in French so that you can ask them of people whenever you need something.”
I looked over at the elderly couple. They didn’t look back at me.
This kind girl with brunette hair and sweet face busily wrote several sentences in her notebook with her blue pen. The sentences were all in French.
“Here!” she said with a smile. Clearly proud how she was helping this American boy. She ripped the page of French sentences she’d just written out of her notebook and handed it to me. “This will help you.”
I thanked her, holding the page of completely unintelligible writing.
My stomach suddenly informed me I was hungry. I stood up, took my suitcase by the handle from off the overhead shelf, smiled goodbye at my helpful new acquaintance, looked over at the elderly farmer couple – they still didn’t look back, and exited the compartment.
Several train compartments and I found the dining car. It was crowded. It looked like every dining seat was filled until I observed one available at a small table for two. Sitting in the opposing chair was a girl who was a bit older than me, perhaps about twenty years old. Blond, very nicely dressed, and quite possibly the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my entire life.
She was stunningly gorgeous. Which was perhaps the reason why no one was seated across from her. Her looks were that intimidating. But I was hungry, young and naive. Entering the restaurant car I smiled at her, and sat down in the empty chair opposite this vision of beauty.
She smiled back. I could sense that she was nice. Even friendly. She gave me a look, as if she was hoping I might start a conversation. But she, I could tell, spoke only in French. And I didn’t know how to say a single word.
A waiter came to our table and handed me a menu. I ordered a sandwich and a soda by pointing at the words, and looked again into the eyes of my dining partner. She was so beautiful. I knew I would never see a girl as pretty as this girl in my entire life, ever. Painters painted paintings of girls like her. Poets wrote poems of girls like the one seated in front of me. She was stunning, lovely. Well dressed. Her perfect blond hair was properly pulled back. The way she smiled back at me. The kind look and the sweet light in her eyes whenever she looked at me. Wonderful. But I had nothing I could say. No opening word. No sentence I could start.
I thought of that piece of notebook paper I’d tucked in my pocket the friendly brunette had just given me back in the seating compartment. What good did it do me if there were no English translations next to each of the French sentences. I wouldn’t even know, even if I were to try to say one of the sentences, what I was saying, or how to pronounce any of the words. What a silly thing for that earlier girl to have done. Trying to help she had instead made me feel more helpless.
My food arrived. I looked again at the beautiful girl seated across from me. She smiled back. I could clearly see that she wished to speak with me. That she was hoping, with perfect politeness, for me, the man at the table, to start a conversation with her. It would have been proper, perfect, if I had. We might have started a wonderful communication that may have turned into a friendship, that could have continued after we’d finished eating. One where we walked together back to a seating compartment, and continued our conversation there. Exchanged addresses. A phone number. Perhaps, lost in our being together, I might have changed my entire reason for being on the train. Stayed with her instead. Gotten off the train with her, at her village or town. Walked home with her down some charming cobblestone street, past cute stores and outdoor cafes. Met her parents, who invite me to stay for dinner. Offer me their spare bedroom. Had breakfast with her entire family the next morning. Remain for several more days where, despite my sixteen years of age, I find a job. And in a few brief months we make wedding plans.
My tongue, which was normally so free and hardly ever shy, was speechless. She gave me one last hopeful look. And then glanced down. She pushed back her chair and left the table. And I could sense the eyes of every other man seated in the entire dining car were all looking at me. The noise of their conversation around me momentarily diminished as she left, and everyone judged me. Thinking what a fool I was for letting her go. I had been the only one brave enough to sit across from her. And now I was letting her walk away. In France I had committed the greatest ‘faux pas’ a young single male could possibly make. I was an idiot. No matter where I might go, this would be the label I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
I finished my sandwich. As I exited the dining car and walked past several seating compartments I held the vain hope that I might see her again, sitting inside some compartment with an empty seat next to her.
Instead, in an open area at the end of one car, I encountered several older teens who were dressed very casual, almost like hippies of yore, with bright thick long red hair. But mostly I noticed they spoke English. I stopped, stood near to them, and introduced myself. They smiled back, clearly friendly. I asked where they were going.
“We’re headed to Greece.” They replied with such exuberance it was infectious.
“There’s a beach in Greece where we’re going to all hang out for the next several months.”
“What are you going to do there?” I asked.
“Nothing.” one replied.
“Have fun.” shared another.
They looked at me. I was a bit younger, my hair, though not long, was also not short. My manner was friendly. Sizing me up I guess they liked what they saw.
“Why don’t you come with us?”
“Yeah. It’ll be fun.”
And for a moment my mind reeled. With these new friends I could leave the plans my mom had made for me for the summer and instead change my entire destiny. Forget who I was, where I came from. I would never have to return to the United States ever again. Never go back to my stupid high school.
I could hang out with these friendly guys, go to Greece, and live on a beach and play – forever. It was so tempting.
But then I thought of my mom. And in my mind I saw her sad face. The thought of never seeing my mom again was too difficult. Even if it meant that I would have to return to my dumb high school in a couple of months, I could not do this to my mom.
“No.” I said. “Thanks. But I’ve got other plans.”
“That’s too bad.”
I left this friendly group and made my way to a train car that had open seating and sat down. It was beginning to get dark outside. The french countryside was glowing under the setting sun. My train was approaching the border to Spain.
The train slowed down as it entered a railway station in a small town near Spain’s border.
Everyone was getting off. I thought that I was supposed to keep going, make my way somehow deep into Spain. But now there was only me on board and what looked like a few stragglers.
A rough looking man in a uniform, holding a large wooden paddle, entered the compartment, using his large wooden paddle to slam against the back of every seat. He shouted in French at all of us who were still onboard. I didn’t understand a word. But the meaning was clear. Get off the train.
I grabbed my suitcase and made me way to the open area between train cars, stepped down the small metal train ladder and onto the concrete station platform. I looked around. Where was I?
I entered a station office. It was busy. Everyone around me speaking French. The signs all in French. I didn’t know what to do. It was getting late. All the offices were closing down. People were leaving. Suddenly I was the only person still standing in an empty train station.
It was nighttime. Pretty colored lights were lit up and down the railway tracks in every direction. One headed back to Paris, from where I came. The other to Spain, which I could not enter, even though I was supposed to.
I started walking in the dark, suitcase in hand, along a railway track.
After some distance I came across an old looking hotel that was all lit up. The front door beckoned me. Behind the reception desk was a young girl and an older more middle aged woman who was also quite heavy. When this older chubby woman saw me she started speaking loudly in french, stepped out from behind the registration desk, opened wide her arms, and gave me a really big hug. Lifting me completely off the ground. Did I look that bad?
She took my hand and lead me over to her desk in front of a book for signing and handed me a pen. She asked if I spoke French. I replied no, only English. In fairly good English with a strong French accent she instructed me to sign my name, and someone would show me to my room.
“What would you like for dinner?” she asked.
Exhausted, I replied, “Two Pepsis.”
Her face reacted with surprise. In France food is everything. I’m certain she expected me to want to eat something. I must have looked to this larger woman at that moment like a thin starving waif.
But then she smiled and said, “Two pepsis, immediately.” And called for the young girl behind the desk to guide me to my room. The young girl took me up an open metal elevator, lead me down what seemed like a never ending corridor, until she unlocked a door and motioned for me to enter my large, very antique looking bedroom. I placed my suitcase near the bed. Soon there was a knock on the door, and another young girl was standing outside with two open bottles of pepsi and two glasses with ice on a silver tray. I thanked her with a simple, “Merci.” I could say that much, and took my dinner into my room.
Outside my hotel room window was a view of endless railway tracks that headed in every direction. Along the tracks in the dark night was the occasional sign with bright orange lights. In the distance I could hear the haunting sound of train whistles.
Across from the foot of my bed was a large free standing mirror with a wooden frame. Sitting on my bed, sipping a pepsi, I studied my reflection in this mirror. My room was gently illuminated with the soft colored lights from the train tracks outside entering in through my window. I looked at my face. Looked deep into my eyes. I studied myself.
For the next several minutes I talked to me. It was, perhaps, the first real conversation I’d ever had with myself. As I stared at my reflection I appreciated the honesty of my thoughts, my comments, my responses. Even the questions that I left unanswered. I was only sixteen years old. Most of the memories from my life so far were of me being a boy. For the first time I was beginning to sense what it was like to take the first steps to grow into a man.
Until suddenly I felt quite sleepy. And I laid back, back onto my bed, in a foreign hotel along the French Spanish border. No idea what I was going to do tomorrow, or the next day.
In that timeless moment I fell into a deep sound sleep.