Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Mannheim to Tunisia

The train for Mannheim arrived and I climbed aboard and shared a private compartment with a young Belgian psychology student.  

The conductor didn’t seem to mind either, as we spread our papers before him to be checked.  The sheer quantity no doubt clouded his judgment; he studied them in perplexity, punched them anyway, and left without a word.  The young student and I went to have a good conversation on the intersection of faith and psychology, until we arrived in Mannheim.   

And then things got next train arrived late, and only got later and later with each stop on the way into France.  In between jet-lag naps, I realized I would probably miss my final connection--at Lyon Part-Dieu.  

I steeled myself for my first argument in French in a long time--clearing my head of as much jetlaggedness as possible.  Then, signaling a conductor, I explained my situation: I needed to print out a ticket at the station; the connection was dangerously tight.  Could I board the next train with the paperwork I had?  

The conductor seemed to take it as a personal offront that I would suggest the already-announced lateness would actually happen, and that I should prepare for it.  How could one prepare when it was too soon to tell if we would make up the time or not?  He left, wounded; I reviewed my options.    

As the time for connecting drew nigh, I signaled him again, and dragged another conductor into the conversation for a second opinion.  Our discussion was brilliantly French: long, convoluted, passionate and inconclusive.  The only thing we agreed on was that I would not have enough time to stop and print out my ticket at the kiosk.  I could risk it, or opt to buy another ticket.  

Dang.  This would actually be my third purchase of this ticket, the first round being cancelled when my flight was, and now this...fortunately I had bought travel insurance.   I wondered how many reimbursements I was eligible for...

In any case, I bought the ticket, learned which track I needed to sprint for, and entered ‘the zone’--that cluster of passengers poised at the door with their pile of luggage.  Anyone who knows the Lyon Part-Dieu station knows connections are tight and merciless.  And we were in high vacation season.  As the train slowed, tension increased perceptibly, especially when one child bolted from his mother, lost a shoe, and began fighting with another child.  Agh...  

The doors opened, the crowd stampeded around the fighting children and errant shoe, and thundered out and away up and down escalators.  I thundered with the best of them, found my train with a nanosecond to spare, and crashed into a seat opposite a young Tunisian man, who eyed me in disgust.  I disarmed him with a smile and a greeting--mostly unheard of in French cities, and especially a Western foreigner woman with a young Muslim man.  

He winced in return and clutched his side.  “Are you okay?” I asked.  And for the next 20 min., he told me his life story, while I nodded sympathetically.  My jetlagged French was not quite up for this challenge, although I could throw in the random question, comment on American politics, and apologize for invading his space.  He smiled for the first time in our conversation - “No no, it was a pleasure.”  

I was sorry to see him go at the next stop, and watched him limp off; he turned suddenly then, smiled broadly, and waved an enthusiastic goodbye.  I smiled and waved back--grateful for human connection in an otherwise mind- and body-numbing bit of travel.  Banal on the surface perhaps, but rehumanizing on another level.  One wonders what might have occurred on deeper and invisible levels.  It is the season of Ramadan; I prayed for this young man the next day, and the next, and he does not easily pass into memory yet.  Maybe we will meet again someday.  Not likely, but...Inshallah.       

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