I can rant all I want about the conditions of the East Coast public transportation systems but, in truth, the US is a lightweight when it comes to abusing its clientele. For a premium portion of ridicule, abuse and general disrespect, one must venture to the City of Light. Bring a change of shoes.
I was living in Frankfurt, Germany when I’d realized I had been in country for almost six months without venturing on a little getaway. Given 12 hours you can get just about anywhere in Europe. I thought I’d do the boring traditional American thing and see the capital cities first. To hell with originality, Paris was too close not to do it first.
I thought instead of flying I’d either drive or take a train. It ended up being a train. Just as well, too. In a subsequent trip a few years later I drove. Teasing my groin with a hot curling iron would have been preferable. At least it would have had the virtue of keeping me awake.
The drive from the French border to Paris is so featureless the French government placed scores of multicolored discs at intervals along the freeway in an attempt to keep drivers awake. How is that working for you all over there? I wonder how many hapless drivers have driven on to the multi-colored embankment since then.
I left Germany late in the afternoon after work. The almost as mind-numbingly featureless train ride got into Paris’ La Gare Du Nord train station late in the evening, a little before 10 I believe. I couldn’t see the station for all the bodies. Twelve different languages assaulted me the minute I got off the train. “Funky” doesn’t begin to describe the olfactory overload. I knew there was the smell of food somewhere in that miasma that was threatening to make me unconscious. Earlier, I hadn’t felt adventurous in sampling French “train food.” I was hungry.
There was no Euro at this time. Nope. Just an aggravating requirement to change your currency every time you crossed a border. It’s a lesson you learn quickly and there is no finer teacher than the noble French citizen. There is no problem changing dollars, everybody takes them…it’s getting your change back that’s problematic.
I’m sure I stumbled around the station for a good 20 minutes looking for the currency exchange station. Once I got out of the train platform area, the press of humanity really got serious. I couldn’t see past all the heads bobbing up and down. I could tell the Americans though. They were sporting baseball caps and t-shirts. If there is anything Americans do well in Europe, its “blend-in”. But nevermind that, my stomach lining was turning into lunch. Man, what was that smell? Was that coffee?
All the time I was walking around I could smell this incredibly rich and “thick” aroma of freshly ground kick-your-ass-in-to-tomorrow coffee. Keep in mind it must have been 10 in the evening by now. Some time later, I found that French coffee gives Italian Espresso a run for it’s money. If you want to get juiced on caffeine, I can recommend it.
Finally! I found the money changer under the sign “Service de Change.” I should have known: that’s where all the baseball hats were in-line. And par for the course, there must have been 20 people ahead of me. At this time of the evening after a long ride all I wanted to do what change the money and head for the hotel. And the line was certainly moving…nowhere.
Just when I thought I would rip out the throat of the person(s) in front of me, glory of glories, I could actually see the exchange in front of the person ahead of me. The “attendant,” if you could call her that, was a grizzled old woman whose shoulders barely came up to the counter and looked as thrilled to see us as we were to be in the station at, oh, must have been pushing 10:30pm. I looked down to collect my wallet and I heard someone scream. It was the guy ahead of me. He was staring at the shuttered window and a sign that said “FERME” (closed). Well, I’ll be damned to hell!
I don’t remember exactly what time it was-10:40pm maybe- but I had to do something quick or I’d be piss poor with hundreds of dollars in my pocket. There was no doubt I was going to have to accept a hit on the exchange rate. At this point in my journey, I would have traded next month’s paycheck for taxi fare. My hotel was not in walking distance.
I looked around (still smelling coffee) and headed to the concessions thinking I could get conversion in exchange for a purchase. That was a losing proposition before I even get near the counter. If you’ve ever been to Europe, you’ll know they eat late. People everywhere, dining, drinking and wait staff rushing here and there. At this hour, really? I hade no luck.
More specifically, the Italians but generally applicable throughout Europe, people eat late, are out late and enjoy being in the city more so than Americans do in their own metropolis’. We just don’t socialize to the degree they do in Europe. Perhaps it’s the proximity of your neighbors that compels civility (or destruction in the case of the Yugoslavian state). In any case, much of the city’s dining and entertaining establishments can be found open at night, even in the train station apparently.
Still, this very propensity worked against me as I could barely see the establishment let alone get near it or the folks who could possible change my money. I didn’t see many Americans in-line as before, so assume they were either traveling Europeans or Parisians with a peculiar predilection for train station fast food a la Paris. For a moment out of time I found it all exceedingly interesting.
My stomach reasserted itself and my general dissatisfaction over my poor planning returned. Galvanized to new action I located the front entrance and decided to step outside for some air. It was either that or collapse from starvation or nausea from the train’s hot breaks and assorted vented fluids that seemed to permeate the air.
Gagging from the Stink
Upon stepping into the “air” my olfactory process was immediately assaulted by the rank stench of urine and a hovering cloud of car exhaust. The latter was from a loitering column of taxis and the former was, ostensibly, from a poor inebriated wretch engaged in holding up the far wall. Neither affliction could be said to be original to Paris. I know that in the category of Best Toilet in a Major City, Coit Tower in my hometown of San Francisco would give a strong performance.
Gagging induced a return to mobility and while swatting flies I spied a magazine vender on the sidewalk closing up. A brainchild (or perhaps a “brain-dropping”) of desperation propelled me in his direction. My inspired idea was postulated on the notion that no longer being engaged in hocking his wears, he may be interested in one more “sale.” At this point I could be persuaded to allow an unfair trade upon my cloying desperation.
My experience with individuals throughout Europe over my 11-year residence is generally positive. From Edenborough to Naples there were more smiles and laughter than there was indigenous “stink-eye” leveled upon the foreigner. In no way, dear reader, should you construe this instance to belong to the above generality. The gentleman who manned the news stand was at first suspicious of my proposition rendered in broken French. At least he didn’t run away. Eventually, I did wish he would have, though.
I politely explained my dilemma as best I could. All the while I got the impression I was becoming the subject of a non-specific sense of pity. What the hell, at this point I couldn’t care less. What I thought was pity for my situation was actually the onset of a not so avuncular lecture on global and French economics.
French Economic Powerhouse…Really?
It had never crossed my mind that despite an exchange rate of almost 6 Franks to the Dollar that, because of the “strong and resilient” French economy, the US market would eventually collapse. You see, he didn’t want to be left holding a devalued clutch of US currency. Wait…what? Hey, was he…no, he was absolutely serious. That was my second “stun” of the day. In retrospect, maybe he was talking about the future 2008 recession. Me not being clairvoyant, I can’t venture a more reasonable guess.
If desperation has a cousin, it must be the sunken eyed look of dejection. I had never had such a bad run of luck in my young life. Perhaps if I had taken to heart the teachings of Kahlil Gibran, I could have found some joy in the silliness of my situation. Unfortunately, what I felt was more Tennyson than Gibran. I was finding only unhappiness. What to do next?
It was probably pointless to go back into the station. At 26 years of age you can’t really be said to be operating in peak logical form. I was verging on hiking out of there (at least I had a backpack) but thought there must be something else I could do. Find a guide, find a knowledgeable person, a seeing eye dog, something. Though at that moment I was at odds with what I should do next, I remember being pleasantly assailed by many impressions.
It’s odd how random impressions gained during a stressful moment stick with you all your life. It’s been variously explained as heightened sensitivity during moments of stress (or panic?) or receptiveness to direct stimuli. Still, whatever it was, I remember duck. Fried duck wafting from somewhere. There were diners in several establishments across the street, so it could have emanated from over there. Lots of cars. Laughter. Life. And a woman singing opera walking down the street.
Swear on my cats missing leg. She was walking on the other side of the street in the opposite direction. Sometimes loud, other times soft like checking her tone. I take voice lessons, I’m pretty sure that’s what it must have been. Beautiful voice. And nobody was looking at her except me. It’s almost like she was a local fixture. Moments in time where you wish you could have been more in the moment. So many of those.
Reentering the station, it was a different place than the one I’d left. It was more like a morgue…no, that’s not it. It was like a theater where the whispering is deafening. Something like white noise.
Where the hell had everyone gone? There was something over the loudspeaker but in rapid-fire machine gun French only a native could have deciphered. A train was pulling in/out but no people. I suppose for me the center of focus was the train platform. If I would have looked far right, I would have seen where everyone was located. And yup, they were whispering.
Crowd dynamics what they are, it seemed like there was something shocking at the center of the group of people. In this case there was a tight group of people in the middle around an open space then a larger circle of people craning their necks for a better look. My guess is half of the crowd knew what was going on while the other didn’t. It certainly wasn’t a political rally or a media corner because the whispering was like, well, like a crime scene.
Not being a shrinking violet and in the stage of life known as young and dumb, I just walked into the crowd to see what was up. It occurred to me later that that was typical American behavior. We seem to own anything that might be news worthy. Overly curious even to impropriety. Yep, that would be me. No wonder some Europeans resent our overly familiar attitudes.
Exsanguination. I had no idea what that word meant back then. Nevertheless, that’s what was happening to the man sprawled out on the ground in the middle of the crowd. Crowd or mob character is sometimes an astonishing thing to behold. Personal responsibility is overcome by the anonymity of the mob. No one was doing anything. Of course, neither was I. Was everyone stunned? The man was bleeding out on the stone-cold station floor.
Moving away from the center and shaking my head I noticed what appeared to be a police officer or a security guard. I tried to explain in my lame French that I thought a person had been stabbed. I’m not certain I understood the gesticulations or the body language but he was either saying he was aware or he thought I was coming unglued. I think he was there to investigate why the crowd had formed.
Nevertheless, the authorities (such as they were) seemed more concerned for civil order at first. I was left wondering if the man was already dead? Did anyone check? Did anyone actually care? No sirens. I felt a remarkable sense of loss for a perfect stranger and for humanity which, at least for that vital moment, seemed remarkably absent from the crowd around me.
I don’t know if you have ever had the distinct experience of smelling blood as it hits the air. It’s pungent to say the least; it’s horrid, especially if it mixes with the gas from a perforated bowel, to be more precise. How the crowd maintained control of their stomach I will never know. It’s common upon seeing such an event for many people to find a quiet corner and lose their composure. Perhaps they did and I simply didn’t notice.
It was time to go. This was my first trip to France and it had thus far been a “stellar” experience. If the rest of my trip were anything like this I might never be seen again.
I exited the way I came in. I stepped out a few paces past the entrance. It’s Funny how the “bad air” outside the station smelt sweet as rain this time around. I resolved to hike out and just get where I was going. I supposed the money could be changed tomorrow. Maybe the hotel could help me. Strangely that hadn’t occurred to me before.
I pulled the cinches on my back pack and made to walk on when I noticed my sandals felt odd. Seems they were a bit damp. Apparently, I was “downstream” from where that wretch was still holding up the wall…and taking a pee. What a day!