Saturday, March 26, 2011

My train ride to Paris

I was visiting France and Monaco with 20 of my best students. April, who was 15 years old at the time, was joining us on her first trip to Europe. I was worried because she was so much younger than everyone else; I wanted her to be safe, but learn some independence and see the world outside of her American cocoon.

We were in beautiful Nice with the sloping, winding roads among gorgeous villas, white and pink blooms hanging from elaborate fences and trellises. We spent two nights in a four star hotel, with beautiful marble tiles, exquisite vistas, luxurious surroundings, sprawling gardens, delicious food, and rich tapestries and furniture from an area gone by.

I was mesmerized by the landscape, looking forward to the luxurious Mercedes bus ride to Paris, sightseeing the French countryside along the way. I knew it would be a long, long journey, but it seemed magical and I was full of trepidation, of discovering the wondrous unexpected.

To my surprise, our Italian guide, Giaccomo, who had driven us safely for 10 days within inches of our lives overhanging canyons miles deep, dangerous dead man curves, on winding roads that made us dizzy, pulled the Pullman bus within inches of the narrow walls carved into the granite of the cliff, into a parking area. That was the end of our journey under the care of Giaccomo. We had to take the overnight train to Paris, it was much faster. How much faster? A twelve hour train ride in a couchette, awaited us at the main train station in Nice. Some students were happy for the opportunity to sleep the night away, others were disappointed to miss the sights from the over sized Pullman windows. Either way, it was an unexpected twist and change to our carefully planned itinerary. I was sure, I would never hire this particular company on our next adventure.

We spent the day in Nice, visiting the sights, a perfume factory, and a famous porcelain manufacturer. At nightfall, we headed for the train station. We said our goodbyes to Giaccomo, took our luggage and started loading up on the train. To our surprise, a group of Canadians took our accommodations first and we were relegated to a long open car with sleeping recliners. It was an adventure, so we reluctantly agreed. Not that we could have done anything about it, the French were very unpleasant and unwilling to help the despised Americans.

We took our seats shortly before the 7 p.m. departure. Our arrival time in Paris was 7 a.m., on time to have breakfast in the Grand La Garre. April sat by the window, I took the aisle seat so I could get up and down the car, checking on my 20 charges. There were some adults with us from Texas, a couple of nurses, husband and wife, which eased my anxiety in case someone got sick.

I had a parent with us whose supervision proved to be much more difficult than all the other students combined. She kept disappearing for hours on end, always returning with bottles of wine which she consumed constantly and some giggolo she picked up on the way. No doubt, she was having a good time, no care in the world, her daughter was taking care of her. I had to make sure, we did not leave her behind in Monaco.

We pulled from the station and the country side started rolling past the windows until we reached the port Le Havre. The tracks were so close to the water, the furious waves were crashing into the concrete barriers and breaking into the train tracks. Our windows were misted with sea water. A large contingent of gypsies climbed onto the train. I knew from that moment on that we would have trouble. I was not confident that the two French conductors would keep them under check. They walked from car to car trying to sell drugs to passengers, accompanied by a huge dog. I was terrified when the dog passed me, he was taller than I was in my chair.

Sure enough, the trouble-seeking mom got into an altercation with the gypsies and we found her slumped in-between compartments, with a half-empty bottle of wine, passed out. We were not sure if she was drunk or took drugs, we could not wake her. We dragged her to her seat and the two nurses checked her pulse, positioned her head so she could breathe unobstructed and checked on her from time to time. We never knew what happened with the gypsies. We did know that she slept the entire 12 hours until we reached Paris and could not remember anything at all. As a matter of fact, she was the most rested of the entire group. I was worried and took catnaps of 10 minutes each before waking to make sure the gypsies had not returned.

To everyone's delight, at the last stop before Paris, a contingent of French legionnaires climbed aboard and filled our entire car. The students were relieved that they were now safe - the mere presence of the tall and buff legionnaires was enough to chase the ticketless gypsies off the train. But I knew better. The French legionnaires were soldiers-for-hire from all over Europe, killers and murderers with the training to break someone's neck on a whim if necessary. And they were not paid that well, 20,000 euros per year.

Across from April and me were two fierce looking soldiers-of-fortune. I decided to strike up a conversation with them under the belief that they would leave us alone if I, the leader of the group, befriended them. One was Irish and the other one was Ukrainian. I spoke Russian and French so I was comfortable with Igor and his Irish bunk-mate. As a matter of fact, they helped me with the passed-out woman, she was hefty to pick up, and she kept falling out of her seat.

I still did not sleep much, waking every 15 minutes or so out of sheer worry for my April and my student's safety. When we reached Paris, these legionnaires, who were on leave to spend fun time in Paris, helped us off the train with all of our luggage and were perfect gentlemen. I was so pleasantly surprised, we invited them to have breakfast with us. There was a happy ending to my twelve hour turmoil on a French night train to Paris.

We loaded another bus, another driver, another guide, and we started to tour Paris immediately. When we got to the Louvre, all the exhaustion and the previous night's travails were forgotten, until now when they flooded back into my memory.