Rails End by Natalie Nicole Gilbert 200411.30
It was scary and amazing.
Sitting alone there at the end of the rail car, facing where we had been rather than where we were going, not looking directly at any of the 4 or 5 unknown faces in front of me. Faces who weren’t among the 80,000 listeners I spoke to everyday. Indeed, not only had they never heard my broadcasts, but they had no idea who I was and no real way to investigate it since they didn’t know my language and I knew very little of theirs.
Surrounding me on all sides was the foreign and unfamiliar. No knowledge of where exactly this train was taking me, where I currently was or who these people before me were – and no desire to know just then. It was a welcomed sort of Twilight Zone. Sure, I had a rail map and a mobile phone charged up with 2.50 pounds of prepaid credit, but I didn’t want to consult them. I reveled in this sensory deprivation tank - unable to take in information from much of anything around me. The OCD side of me preferred to take out the map now and know something of where I was going, but I willed myself to sit still and remain reticent, giving away as little of my identity as I could.
Despite the remainder of the day’s events, I don’t regret that experience. When else would I have this grand opportunity to be so completely unknown? The only expectation of me was that I be civilized and not disrupt others, but otherwise I had no particular past or future as far as they were concerned. It’s not that I had wild plans, but having no one really watch me was relieving.
As the day went on, I quickly realized my map was insufficient. I could draw my way to where I wanted to end up in the city before leaving the country that night, but halfway to where I was aiming every sign around left me unclear as to where to go next, not quite matching my map.
“Excuse Moi. Excuse Moi!...” I heard a man call to me. He was a clean cut gentleman, so I gave him my attention a moment. “Parles Vous Anglais?” I asked. His answer was no, so I knew it was unlikely I could help him if he had a question, but perhaps he could help me. I resorted to primitive communication, showing him my map, pointing to the area I was trying to achieve and with the best verbiage I could muster inquired which of the 8 or so rail lines I should take.
He made a motion to say he would lead me. I was uncertain just how far out of his way he would take me, but any insight seemed better than my current position. He continued talking to me normally as if I could understand every word he said. Had I given him some false impression I was fluent in his language? I hardly think so. Amongst what he was saying I did hear something that lent me an idea of his intent. I repeated it back to him to make sure I’d heard him right. “Champagne?”
He nodded with a grin.
I answered with a no, explaining my time was short and expressing the urgency of getting where I was going. He needn’t know that I had another 4 hours or more before my train left. I was in a hurry of sorts. I wanted to have plenty of time to look around, and I couldn’t do that if I was stopping off to have a drink with someone, particularly someone I could scarcely communicate with. He continued his rambling with questions and such. Either his words were utterly unfamiliar or the speed with which he strung them together disguised their meaning to me. Again I told him in his own tongue that I didn’t know what he was getting at. He resorted to hand gestures that got a quick ‘no’ and ‘I need to get where I’m going’ from me, and additionally made me quicken my walking pace hoping to get away from him.
I gave myself a once over to see what about the way I was dressed might have made him feel he could ask me what he had. With that glance over my garments, I remained baffled. My skirt was long and loose to my ankles, my coat form fitting only to the extent required to keep it on. People in the states sometimes mistook me for a conservative apostolic when I dressed like this, so I couldn’t understand how it conveyed at all to him that I was liberal and indiscretionary to the degree he sought.
His continuance of language and hand gestures made me far more than eager to get away from him. I let the crowd separate us and got out of the subway, finding a shop with faces more trustworthy, persons more legitimate.
Four or five minutes must have passed while I spoke with a merchant who knew about as much of my language as I knew of his – perhaps more. However, he did clearly tell me which station I was seeking so I could ask the railway attendant which line to take to get there. I returned to the subway stairs only to find my follower was still there and was now swiftly on my tail again, continuing his babble while I again gave him a solid no. He assured me that what he wanted would only take 5 or 10 minutes, but such insistence did little to convince me to say ‘Oui’ to his essential ‘Vous les vous couche’ avec moi?’.
At some point I pulled out my mobile and rung my host in England, explaining I was slightly lost and also being followed. Before my friend could offer any advice beyond assessing the situation, my phone went dead -- not for lack of battery power, for lack of credit. Now was hardly the time to deal with the service provider’s lengthy automated customer service line to top it up, and there was no pay phone in sight. I anxiously went to a door to see what help I could get only to find I’d chosen a jewelry shop...a locked door where one had to be buzzed in. Thankfully someone inside did so after a moment and I found that the shop owner spoke some English. He offered me some small bit more information about how to get where I was going and told me where I could find a taxi to safely get away from the man following me. I was more than happy to take his advice.
The taxi took me to the tower, where I was fantastically alone again. My follower from the subway had given me some finishing remarks before I left in the cab, but seeing as how I didn’t understand a word of it they meant little to me.
Concerned that my host would still think I was lost and endangered, I tried my best to add credit to the mobile I’d been lent to no avail; either the system didn’t accept payment from American credit cards or the billing address was different than what I knew to enter. So, I was back to looking for a pay phone, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of tourists who surely also wanted to make a pay phone call at one time or another, but the country hadn’t thought to put any booths there for us. I walked across the Seine the better part of a mile (if in fact it wasn’t one) before finally locating a phone. The operator codes were all different, but I finally worked out from the phone instructions how to go about making a credit call since the phone naturally only took coins I didn’t have. Finally, I reached my host and succeeded in updating him that all was well.
Finally, 4.5 hours into my 6.5 there, I could take a focused look about with no worries. I was well ready to eat, and found a bistro where thankfully the waiter spoke my language. I tipped him more than was culturally expected, which was just as well – it would be a bother to change only a little currency, so it was better to spend what I had left and get the value of it. I kept four Euros or so incase the taxi I anticipated taking back to the train station didn’t take credit cards as some now did.
Just 30 minutes left to buy any souvenirs or take pictures of the tower. No riverside shops took credit cards, and I wanted to keep some cash on me, so I passed on the thought of buying trinkets and took the best postcard-like pictures I could spot in my viewfinder.
I headed to the taxi shelter, and quickly found that taxi’s where somehow rarer here by the tower than they had been in front of the jewelry store, where six or so were lined up in que and when one was hired it was swiftly replaced by the next eager driver. A dozen or more people were waiting for rides at the tower, many taking to stepping out in front of approaching taxis to ensure that they would be picked up next. It seemed I would need to turn to such aggression if I was to get a ride in time for my train back, and I could only hope whatever taxi I was stuck with did take cards or that four Euros would be enough.
On that note, I turned to the person directly behind me and asked as I had countlessly that day, “Parles Vous Anglais?” to which I received ‘sorry’ in an unfamiliar accent. So many had given me similar answers, pulling together the little bit of broken English they knew to tell me they couldn’t help me.
I abandoned the idea of sharing a cab to split the cost for a moment until I heard someone close by speak English. I asked those around me then, “Is anyone here heading to the Eurostar Station?” The ‘sorry’ gentleman behind me replied, “I am!”
It suddenly hit me that his ‘sorry’ had been an honest answer in his own language, perhaps because he didn’t know enough French to know I was asking him if he knew how to speak English!
“What Time is your train?” I inquired.
Interesting. Englanders would have said 19:19 or just before half 7, so he wasn’t American or English, best I could tell based on accent and usage.
“So is mine…we must be on the same train. Do you want to share a taxi?” I asked.
With a broad smile, he answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Two hands flagging down a taxi are definitely better than one.
I stepped out into the street as the others had to make my effort to secure our ride. Realizing I’d forgotten my manners in the midst of the hurry, I extended my hand out to the stranger. “I’m Natalie Nicole.”
“David.” He stated with a friendly handshake.
I managed to garner a cab’s attention and we hopped in as quickly as the vehicle came to a halt – nearly before. As it happened, our driver didn’t take cards and I was fortunate my newfound companion was willing and able to cover the 11.50E fare.
We spent our words during the ride talking about how exhausting and confusing each of our days had been. He had gotten the wrong bus pass at the station because he couldn’t understand the clerk at the billet window and didn’t want to make everyone behind him wait. Having read “The DaVinci Code” he’d desperately wanted to see the Mona Lisa, and he had even invested 5E in a headset to type in numbers from the displays for an English audio description of works throughout the exhibit. Not only were there few paintings whose name plaques contained such numbers to make it worth his investment, but for some length of time he couldn’t find the department that held the Mona Lisa. When he finally did reach it, he couldn’t find the sortie (way out) of the museum. Then, after a long walk to the tower, he didn’t even have time to do more than take a picture of it, similarly to me.
I shared an abbreviated version of my misadventure with him, glad that perhaps my story could make his day seem a little smarter. It was relieving to finally speak at length to someone in English. I found that he was a film student from New Zealand, visiting family in South London during his school holiday, while I was in from America staying with a pen pal in Notting Hill to visit a number of friends in England, I told him.
Our ride was up and it looked like we’d made it thanks to our driver’s speedy delivery. Fifteen minutes left now before the train departure and if all went well, they would still let us board. David used his last opportunity there at the border to buy a few souvenirs, including a box of Tobelerone chocolate -- something he'd been wanting to try since he'd seen it on an episode of Friends.
We approached the train, noting that his ticket was for coach 4 and mine for 14. "Since we're the same traveling class, perhaps we can ask about sitting together, if you want the company." I offered.
"Yes, of course." he returned. "Why don't we meet in the diner car about 5 minutes after the train starts?"
"Do you know which it is?"
"No, but I'm sure it'll be obvious enough."
Thankfully, I saw on the menu in coach 13 that there was also a diner in coach 6. I walked through seven coaches of first class to arrive at the other diner, being offered a free Merlot on the way by an attendant. When he saw me sitting and waiting for him to pass in the gangway between cars he likely thought I was returning to my first class seat from the WC.
I spotted the New Zealander sitting on a counter against the back wall in car 6. With my accent still a mish mosh of the Australian, British and French I'd been surrounded by in the last 72 hours or so, I lightly reprimanded, "I don't think they intended for the counter to be used that way."
He smiled at seeing me or the playfulness of my comment one. "My feet hurt from walking." he complained. The diner was void of seats, merely containing high bar tables for those who weren’t too proud to stand and take their chances on the train jostling them around. He shared that his coach was somewhat empty and once we'd gotten what we wanted, we could probably sit jointly there. Either he eyed my wine or I told him before he could, "They offered me this in first class as I passed through. Do you want some?"
For two hours, more or less, we sat in his coach talking non-stop over my 2 wines and his 3 beers -- 14% and 6% alcohol respectively, he pointed out. He showed me the caricature an artist had drawn of him in Paris that he'd paid 30E for, not so much for accuracy as for the sketcher's verbal history tour of France.
"He told me I should show the drawing to my girlfriend; I told him no one would see it, then." he managed to slip in.
I tried to disguise a winsome smile at that news I think, but thought better of getting into any mention of my own love life just now since my petit ami and I were heading for an inevitable split up it seemed, and discussing the technicalities of it all would dampen this sweet end to an otherwise frustrating day. I only told him that I agreed that his face shape was a bit narrower than the pencil sketch let on, but agreed with him that the spiky hair was quite accurate.
We talked about how he wanted to visit the states sometime and I ought to show him around on a lengthy cross country trek through California, Colorado, Chicago and perhaps New York. I couldn't disagree; I wouldn't mind a good excuse to visit more western states, and he'd proven himself to be quite enjoyable company. He also brought up a movie called Before Sunset, where two people had run into each other in Paris with the guy having just 2 and 1/2 hours in the country, spending those last few hours with this woman he'd had a one night stand with some 9 years earlier. The concept sounded similar to a movie I'd seen, I told him -- something with 'affair' in the title. Interesting topics for us to talk over, I thought, though I naturally kept that bit to myself.
At rail's end we said goodbye, kissing each other on the cheek as was customary in London and giving a brief but friendly parting embrace, then finding some small piece more of conversation before repeating the process two more times. Our lack of desire to truly part ways was evident enough, but I wasn't sure what other sort of goodbye he might feel comfortable with. Though I knew my own level of willingness, I didn't find the courage to impose it upon him without knowing what his own feelings or cultural habits dictated in such circumstances. Likely, his culture wasn’t so different than mine, but I wasn't willing to initiate and risk damaging the report we'd built. Besides, he had mentioned he'd likely email me that night since he was bound to be bored when he returned to where he was staying. So chances were we'd see each other again before I left England in three days and any loose strings we wanted tied could be dealt with over coffee later.
There was no coffee later. No call to my now working mobile. No email sent to the address on the card I'd given him. Though he told me what address to look for when he wrote, I didn't think to write it down, trusting somehow that my 2.5 by 1.5 inch business card would not be lost in the hustle and bustle of train connections from the Waterloo East gate and the 15 minute long walk from his stop to the front door. How does it end? Je ne sais pas. I don't yet know. I did look for his face in the crowd on the Underground the next day and some the day after that. Though many had some of his features, none had all.
The mind or heart pines for many things. Despite how I could pen this as some unspoken love story, the truth is it's merely a pining of the mind, thinking the end should be moved farther on rather than here. But when my plane lands in three hours on American soil, time will begin to make this little more than my own inner legend and a bit of conversation about getting lost in France -- and how serendipity kept me from knowing there was another 10 Euros buried in my pocket.
Natalie Nicole Gilbert is the morning host for 94.7 FM and AM 900 the Spirit in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as 105.9 FM the River. She’s also a studio session singer with recent work on French TV’s “Pardon Our French” and does national voiceover and acting work for films and commercials. Gilbert is always looking for another good excuse to travel.
EMAIL : Natalie@NatalieNicoleGilbert.com
Posted By Natalie Nicole on Wednesday 15th December 2004 @ 00:32:00
Updated : Tuesday 11th January 2005 @ 22:04:00 | Words : 3295 | Views : 564 | Comments : 0
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