Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting to Balou

Next stop: chez les Bouchers, whose little country estate, named Balou, could be found (eventually) clinging to a mountaintop in Barnas par Thueyts.  But to get there, I would need nerves of steel, a good pair of sprinting shoes, and a patient bladder.  

You remember Eskia and the window washer, and the five-kid obstacle course Catherine and I navigated to the train station? That was only the beginning...

We arrived at the train station only to discover that all trains to the interior had been cancelled due to construction. Ah bon.  

I could get a bus to a train in the interior, and then a bus from the train to the more interior interior.  The line for bus tickets wove out the door, and I looked at the time: we had 6 min.  

Catherine shoved me in one direction, charged Rachelle with helping me with the luggage, and stormed off to buy tickets, calling over her shoulder, “Head for Track F!”    

On Track F, a shuttle train sat quietly, and empty. a transportation crisis, an empty means of transportation was never a good sign.  As the French would say, "One train can hide another."  

Was a shuttle train the same thing as a train, and therefore not running?  Or the provisional transportation for the real trains that weren't running?  I got in.  I got out.  I got back in.  There weren’t supposed to be any trains.  Did a shuttle count as a train?!  I had a few more seconds to crack the code.   

“What do you think, Rachelle?”  Although I wouldn't normally count on an 11-yr-old to bail me out, she was French, and well, any port in a storm.   She stared blankly at me and the shuttle, sweat pouring down her sweet little face, and shrugged.  

Just then Catherine sprinted up the stairwell, waving a ticket.  She looked at the train, or shuttle, and stopped dead.  

“Where’s the bus?”  

“I don’t know - you don’t think this is some kind of shuttle?”  

She studied the departure screen - “NO!  Get off!”  

I jumped, and as I did, we spotted a bus behind us, pulling out--headed for my destination.  Waving and shouting, we signaled the bus driver, along with others running with us, waving tickets.  He ignored us all, and a chorus of curses exploded as he picked up speed.  Moans and groans, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Cell phones popped out all around, and I asked Catherine for hers--time to let the Bouchers know I had missed my train...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eskia & the Window Washer

I hadn’t seen the family in three years, but it could have been yesterday.   We slept well into the morning, but someone woke in time to let in the window washer at 10 am, much to Eskia's dismay.  (Catherine's new home is a design dream--housekeeper's nightmare!--of cathedral ceilings, with glass windows and walls everywhere.)

I forced myself out of jet lag stupor into a house full of kids, barking dog and the window washer, Eskia remembering nothing of bonding with me the night before.  She treated me as equally intrusive as the window washer, and could not be begged, cajoled, scolded or banished from the house to stop barking.  I was fully awake in no time at all, while Clara worked Eskia into compliance over the next half hour.

But soon I was out on the terrace with the power coffee, the baguette, more fruit, and the chance to catch up more with Catherine, while various kids popped in and out with their questions.  Eskia mangled Catherine's latest knitting project, in lieu of me or the window washer, and that seemed to help her with anger management.  We were soon on speaking terms again.  Eli did an unintentional upside down flight off the hammock, and a neighbor chimed in with some toys for the boys.  We did manage to get a quiet hour when everyone seemed to have found their level with a jigsaw puzzle indoors, and Eskia asleep at our feet, waiting for crumbs to drop.  

We then roused ourselves to walk over to the bakery for more bread, while the kids started lunch at home--another welcome respite of calm and beauty in La Buisse, to savor the French countryside.  

We returned home to Rachelle concocting an elaborate cake, with more professionalism than I've ever masterted, although she is several decades my junior. 

"Yes, she is quite the baker!" Catherine affirmed.  "Too bad you will miss it."

Natan's birthday was tomorrow, but by tomorrow I would be several hours west in Ardeche.  

"Lunch isn't ready yet?  Pat, what time's your train?"   Um....we need to leave in an hour...Catherine whipped the troops into action, I ran for the gifts and to finish final packing, and we zoomed to the table together within 15 min.   

More language lessons, over saucisse (I hadn't yet gotten around to telling Catherine I've gone vegan), mashed potatoes and salad (thank God).  A few phone calls--Rachelle was arranging a pool party with a friend, who lived near the train station.  Catherine would drop her off after me.  Distribution of presents, dessert... it that late already?!  Where are the keys!?  Rachelle!  You're not packed yet!!!!  Clara, be ready when your friend gets here--any minute!'s the friend...with the mother...a few minutes of chit chat, introductions.  Where's Rachelle?!    

Well, you can finish the end of this tale...a French lunch that included 5 kids, one dog, and one international guest?  Yep, missed that train...bus...whatever....but that's tomorrow's story. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Thirty six hours after departure, I made it.  Catherine and clan were hovered around a vending machine as I arrived; Rachelle spotted me first, and started walking towards me, wordlessly, but with a big smile blooming with each step.  A few seconds later, one by one, everyone turned--all 5 kids, Catherine, and a new puppy whose acquaintance I had yet to make.  

Catherine was the very first friend I made in the North, where I moved one year after arriving in France and completing language school.  She adopted me on first contact, and drew me into her family, culture, and life.  I learned to love the North through Catherine’s eyes: the infamous stinky Maroilles cheese, the adorable windmill of Cassel, the winding cobblestone streets of Old Lille,  the monastery of Mont des Cats, and the cinnamon Dutch waffle cookies, to which I remain irrevocably addicted. 

I was there to meet the man who would become her husband, and for the birth of two of her children.  I introduced her and her female family members to the American bridal shower.  Eventually, I would stand as a witness for her marriage.  Eighteen years and five children later, Catherine remains one of my two French soul sisters, and maintains better communication with me than I do with her!  Our friendship has been deep and rich.    

All five children (and the recently acquired pooch Eskia) hugged me and began talking at once, in good French style.  And Eskia, who knew me not, jumped and licked in the contagious joyfulness.  

The car ride home included a quick English lesson, a query as to why I spoke French from one of the kids, and a car-sick Eskia requiring immediate attention from those nearest her.  We arrived at the family's new home in La Buisse, a nearby suburb of Grenoble, shortly after 10 pm.  I got a quick tour of the new home, a few apricots to tide me over to breakfast, and watched as the children fell asleep in mid-sentence one by one on the couch.  Catherine and I made it till midnight I think, when I collapsed into little Eli’s bed.  Catherine tucked him in  on a mattress on her bedroom floor, and then we knew no more.... 

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.       

Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Begin at the Beginning...

It’s never a good day to travel when you begin with a cancelled flight and a dead bird on your doorstep.

After a few hours on the phone rearranging my life, off I flew, Atlanta to Philadelphia, an  airport filled with rocking chairs, on my way to Frankfurt, Germany and France.  The flight was uneventful, and the next morning, I was expelled into the the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport.

Next stop: find the train station.  Armed with web information that there were two train stations in the airport, and I needed to find the one downstairs, I set off, following the signs.   

I arrived at a confusing sort of dead end, and tried the kiosk to withdraw my tickets with the code; no luck.  I headed for the information counter, something I don’t trust in Europe, and waited 10 minutes to be told that I had no train reservation, that my confirmation code was meaningless, and there were no trains to Mannheim at the appointed hour.  That can't be right, I thought, and took another look around all the signs and asked one lady who looked German if she could help.  She was as confused as I was.  

Something I've come to depend on in travel adventures like these is that still, small Voice that says "Look over here" or "Ask this person."  Light came as I studied the signs and concluded I was in the regional train station, not the long distance one.  Even though I was downstairs.  

I got back on line, and asked where the long distance train station was, and was re-directed upstairs.  Go figure.  I passed on that tip to other dazed and confused Americans in the queue, who didn’t trust me enough to abandon the queue.  After all, it was an information booth; and "...but all the signs say...” 

The upstairs labyrinth was no easier to navigate, but after an hour of walking and checking in at 3 more information booths (never take no for an answer in Europe), I found it.  

Tickets finally firmly in hand, I had three more tasks to accomplish: find a working toilet, an ATM that would accept an American card, and a cafe for coffee!  

Two hours and several miles of airport walking later, missions accomplished, with an hour to kill before my train arrived.  I sat savoring the victories, the sights and sounds, people watching, waiting for my train, sipping cappucino.  It's always a good day of travel that begins (or ends?) in such a way... 

And I alone of my compatriots have escaped to tell this tale.  Maybe they’ll be along later.