Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Cafe au Lait

DSC_0891The week after I finished graduate school, my husband, Jamie, and I went to Europe together for the first time. Excluding our honeymoon years before, this would be our first really long trip and, as my overly romantic imagination took hold, I envisioned us wandering arm in arm through moonlit Roman ruins; munching les marron glaces at Laduree’s tiny bistro tables; and elegantly sipping steaming Lapsang Souchong at Brown’s Hotel. So powerful was this vision that I completely ignored what I already knew about the reality of travelling with Jamie; specifically, I read the tour books and look at the sights while he clutches a telephone to his ear, talking to his office as he unconsciously tidies things. Years earlier we had accompanied my parents on a cruise to Bermuda. Since there were no international cell phones then, Jamie spent an entire day on the dock in Hamilton talking on a pay phone on the pier. As I skipped away for a day of shopping and eating with my mom and dad, the last thing I noticed was his saying “No, Kenny, I think if you open the bids again, you’ll find that . . . “ as he dabbed idly at a barely-visible Diet Coke spot on his khaki shorts.
I have never understood his affection for telephones or cleaning. Being rather a Luddite, I didn’t get my first cell phone until long after they’d become common. Perhaps my husband’s addiction to it put me off.
While I suspect that the telephone thing is work-based, the cleaning is something he does reflexively. Most of the time it seems harmless, quirky: sometimes it’s even been charming, like the sunny July morning my visiting childhood friend, Patti, excused herself to go to the bathroom during breakfast. By the time she returned, Jamie had cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and scrubbed the griddle, all with his trusty Motorola Razr pasted firmly to his left ear. “Seriously, Danny, you can’t honestly think that . . . “
The days passed, our suitcases were packed, and the morning of our departure arrived. My heart pounding, we boarded the plane to London. During the flight Jamie didn’t use the Airphone at all but he did tidy all of the newspapers on the steward’s cart. As we began navigating our carry-ons down the Jetway, however, his cell phone rang and it took repeated scowls from the Immigration officers to convince him to disconnect. It rang again as we settled into our black taxi and Jamie chatted throughout the drive from Heathrow to Mayfair. As he executed the U turn on Carlos Place in front of our hotel, the driver – no slouch on the mobile phone himself, by the way – commented wryly that he hoped I’d be okay visiting the Tower and Harrod’s on my own since my husband would no doubt be up in our room talking on the landline, having exhausted his phone’s battery.
We wandered through European capitals, Jamie and I, chatting and reading, folding and plumping. The evening before we were scheduled to leave Paris, Jamie prowled the room, hunting for errant objects with his cell scrunched under his chin. I reclined against pillows on the bed and watched the 1936 Warner Brothers classic Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn dubbed to sound like Yves Montand.
We needed to arrive at the station no later than 7:15 a.m. to retrieve our reserved tickets and make our way to the carriage of our 7:45 a.m. train. Because I am not at my most alert in the morning, I had taken the linen jacket I intended to wear and purposefully laid it across the back of a chair before I retired. The chair stood next to the door. Regardless of my level of catatonia, I would see it..
Just after our 6:00 a. m. wake up call Jamie shoved me toward the shower and called Room Service for café au lait and pastries. Despite the caffeine fortification, I dawdled and Jamie prodded me to hurry. Exiting into the misty Champs Elysees morning, I grumbled about the chill air. Jamie assured me I’d find hot coffee waiting at the station. Comforted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the tiny taxi. By the time we’d reached the station, however, I had awakened shivering. I searched my carry-on bag for my jacket.
“Did you pack it in your bag?” I asked Jamie as the taxi drove through the crescent to the wide-open glass doors of the Eurostar terminal.
He twisted his neck to hold his phone while he spoke to me. “Hold on, Kenny. Pack what?”
“My jacket. My beige linen Moschino jacket.”
When he didn’t answer, I poked him. He shrugged and gestured to the metal object adhered to his ear. He continued talking until the taxi stopped at the doors, then disconnected and glanced at the meter.
“Where’s my jacket?” I asked.
He counted Euros. “Do you have any money?”
I emptied the front pocket of my jeans into his waiting palm. “Here. Where’s my jacket?”
“I dunno. Did you take it out of the closet?”
“It wasn’t in the closet. I threw it across the back of the blue chair by the door because I knew I wouldn’t see it otherwise. “ I could almost feel the little cartoon light bulb suddenly switch on above my head. “You hung it in the closet, didn’t you?” I cried accusingly. “Last night when you were on the phone with Kenny you tidied it away! We have to catch a train in twenty minutes and my jacket is in a closet in the hotel!”
He swung open the taxi door dragging the carry-ons behind him. “Call the hotel and tell them to send it to Jose and Diana’s house. Use my office’s Fed Ex number. I have to call Kenny back.”
After paying the driver and claiming the tickets, there was barely enough time for my errand. Fed Ex number and hotel receipt clutched in my sweaty palm, I scurried down the train steps and looked around nervously for an old-fashioned public telephone sign. Finally locating it on the outer wall of a tiny coffee bar, I trotted into the smoky room. Reaching for the handset, I ran my eyes all over the phone’s body looking for the coin slot. With a shock I realized that it didn’t accept cash, only phone cards. I turned and dashed out of the warm, dark bar and into the bright, chilly station searching for the tabac stand. There it was, against the far corner. I trotted toward it. Facing the clerk squarely, I tried to act out my request as I fumbled with my poor French. “Je suis . . . une telephone card.”
Her brown eyes widened.
“No? Um, voulez vous une telephone card?” She frowned. Apparently that wasn’t right, either.
I mimicked dialing and chatting gaily. She cocked her head like a puzzled squirrel. Nearly frantic, I lapsed into Italian, the only foreign language I know. “Per favore, vorrei comprare una carta del telefono.” She smiled and answered something like, “Vous voudriez . . . une carte de telephone” lilting at the end so I assumed it was a question. I nodded. She asked something else and the blankness of my expression must have assured her that there was no way I knew the answer to that one. She repeated it, louder. Realizing that raising one’s voice at a foreigner seemed to be a universal reaction to coping with one, I chewed my bottom lip and nodded slowly, hoping that was the correct response. She sighed, shook her head, and turned to a locked cabinet where she slid in the key and chose a green telephone card with a French cartoon character printed on it. I held out all the money I had left. She picked out the price of the card, placed in it my hand , and then smiled.
I turned and raced through the station back to the smoky bar. Yanking hard on the glass door handle, I heard a loud, metallic binnnnnnng-bonnnnnnng. It reminded me of the televised Avon Cosmetics commercials from my childhood. Nervously, I laughed aloud at the thought – Avon Ladies in Paris – and grabbed at the telephone handset. I had no idea how much time had elapsed, but connecting to the concierge, waiting for the head of Housekeeping to travel to our room and retrieve my jacket, and then verifying the Basel address and the Fed Ex number, seemed to take hours. I guessed I was safe, though; I hadn’t heard the Basel train called.
I exited the café and turned toward the track where my train was . . . no longer waiting. Disbelieving, I ran along the empty platform, dodging suitcases, strollers, and other people. I really needn’t have hurried since I could see the train’s distant lights as it turned a curve about a half-mile away. Realizing that the Avon Lady sound had probably been my train’s departure signal, I slid onto a cold wooden bench and considered my situation. A tear leaked out from under my lashes. Another one followed. I wiped them away with the backs of both hands (my tissues were in my tote bag on the train) and, feeling distinctly like Lucy Ricardo, I decided I’d better find the stationmaster.
The office was at the top of a flight of metal stairs. The stationmaster was a very kind man; after listening politely to my admittedly ludicrous tale – preoccupied husband; forgotten jacket; no phone card; no ticket or passport, either (both were with the Kleenex in my tote bag on the train), his only response was a small sigh “I am sorry to hear that, madame, however, you are in luck because there is another train in three hours’ time. We simply have to get you on it. Please sit down and allow me to assist you.” He paused and gestured to the blue plastic chair in front of his desk and pursed his lips slightly. “I know what we will do. I will radio the conductor on your train and ask him to verify that your husband and your ticket are indeed on it. The conductor will then assure your husband of your safety.” He slid a small pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Now if you will please write out for me your name, your husband’s name and the location of your seats.”
When I was done, he lifted one of the many radios that cluttered his desk and spoke rapidly to someone in French. He listened to the response then turned back to me. “The conductor says that he just passed through the carriage containing your husband and that he was talking on his mobile phone but that he had two tickets in his hand. In a few minutes, when he finishes his round, the conductor will return and ask your husband to see your passport. Then he will confirm your identity and assure your husband of your safety. Afterward, we will issue you a new ticket. Please make yourself comfortable. We have only a few minutes to wait.”
My husband was talking on the telephone. Surprise. No doubt he’d be tidying the carriage in a few minute’s time.
I stared idly through the window while we waited. When the radio crackled in garbled French, the stationmaster lifted it to his ear, listened, looked at the pad, and then smiled. “Now we will provide you with a new ticket and somewhere to wait until the next train.” He reached for a cell phone and dialed. After a few seconds he began chattering quickly. I understood almost nothing of what he said, just “Americain” and “mal place”. In another few seconds, the stationmaster disconnected the call and rose. “My assistant is coming. He will provide you with a new ticket and remain with you until your train boards. In the meantime, I must go to the train-shed. Please remain here in comfort. If you will excuse me.” He was gone.
I sat and chewed my right thumbnail pondering my own idiocy. In about ten minutes, the glass door opened and a young man entered. “Are you the lost American?” he inquired politely.  Now I had a title.
The assistant stationmaster asked me to wait while he completed a few of his duties. Since I had so much time, I took a taxi to the hotel to retrieve my jacket then met the assistant stationmaster again when he came to reclaim me. Since it was time for his midmorning break, he led me to a cool Parisian bar where he bought me a pain au chocolat and café au lait, then leaned against the scarred zinc counter and introduced me to his friends as the lost American. At the correct time, he escorted me to my train and asked the conductor to be sure that I got to my seat safely. He probably also suggested that it would be best if I didn’t leave my seat until the train stopped in Switzerland, although I can’t be sure of this because I didn’t understand their conversation held entirely in French. Regardless, I made the trip to Basel in safety and comfort, albeit without my second honeymoon groom.
In retrospect, it all worked out fine. True, I missed the romance of a train trip with Jamie but I had a Parisian adventure that I’d never have had any other way. Plus I learned a few things; I learned that I can survive with no passport, no money, and no facility for the local language. And I learned that all my years of living inside books wasn’t wasted; Tennessee Williams really was correct about the kindness of strangers.

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