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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Dis-Orient Express

While I paced the platform at Chalons-sur-Marne, my backpack was hurling through the French countryside on the Orient Express. It was 1 AM on a cold December night in 1984. Coatless and shivering, I stared down the empty tracks at the wires and dim lights that stretched for miles, thinking of my gargantuan backpack wedged comfortably on a coach seat beside the kind Frenchman who had promised to watch it for me three hours before.
I was twenty. I was Junior Year Abroad Girl. This was not a moment of international intrigue. This was another episode in my version of “Lucille Ball Does Europe.” As I paced the platform, a prickly vanity kicked in and I worked to affect a cool nonchalance by rolling my eyes and looking at my wrist, which held no watch.
A series of false moves and impulsive gestures had resulted in my standing at the train tracks alone in the dead of night. I had arrived at Gare de L’est in Paris that evening just before nine. I was going to Munich to visit my boyfriend for Christmas. That afternoon, I’d wandered the Parisian streets lost, mainly because I’d mistranslated the expression tout droit, which means “straight,” as “totally right.” Every time someone told me to go straight, I went totally right and wound up going in circles. I discovered that Sunday in Paris meant that all the stores and museums were closed. I visited Notre Dame, dismayed by the pacing tourists who pointed at the ceiling in the middle of Mass. I decided to kill time in a café, but when my café arrived in a tiny espresso mug, I downed it in three minutes. A Midwestern girl, I lacked the cosmopolitan entitlement to occupy a seat without ordering something else. Down to my last few francs, I shouldered the backpack and killed time by skipping the métro and hoofing it to the train station.
My visit to Paris had been both a revelation and a disappointment. My high school film-strip expectations were met: the usual landmarks wowed me, as well as the Jeu de Paume and the Louvre. I had the sparkling moments of wonder that I, a suburban girl with eight siblings, was actually face-to-face with the Mona Lisa, and other low moments of feeling overwhelmed by everything I didn’t know. The friends I visited at Versailles, competitive architecture students from Illinois, were too busy with final projects to give me much time. And none of them spoke French. I often found myself alone in Versailles townie bars, speaking my half-ass French with older men who tried to coax me back to their apartments. I wanted an entrée into Paris, but not through the bedroom. However human the scale of Paris, the cobbled streets led to shining apartments with golden lights that struck me as fortresses meant to keep me out. By Sunday evening, I was ready to move on.
When I arrived at Gare de l’Est, the Orient Express awaited with open doors. Let’s clarify one thing. The train was nothing fancy—no wagon-lits or elegant dining cars. The Cold War Orient Express of the 1980s was a regular old train with filthy windows and stained chairs, which merely followed the romantic Paris–Budapest route with a stop in Munich. I trudged down the aisle with the massive backpack strapped to my waist. I hadn’t mastered the art of traveling light.
Contained in that backpack were the accoutrements of my artsy makeover. I’d only recently discovered the wonders of thrift shops. Having worn school uniforms for twelve years—plaid skirts and vests, white blouses with yellowed armpits, v-neck sweaters, knee socks, and saddle shoes—in college I found picking an outfit every day a challenge. Unable to compete with the Kappa Alpha Thetas with their wardrobe expense accounts, I sometimes longed for my Catholic-girl ready-made. When I’d discovered the Unique Thrift Shop in Markham, Illinois, located in a sprawling, abandoned A&P, the long racks of clothes organized by color made me feel like a millionaire. I could afford anything in the joint! I spent hours that summer assembling my Eurotrash look. The collective value of my backpack may have been $40, but it harbored not just clothing, but my fledgling identity.
I carried a box of adapters to accommodate my travel hair dryer, iron, and Bausch & Lomb contact cooker, as well as a four-pack of hot rollers I used to pouf up my short-on-the-sides, long-on-top Flock of Seagulls do. The Oxfam Shop in Dundee, Scotland, where I attended university, had become my new couturier. The backpack held a hand-knit black pullover, a pink-plaid tunic, a purple wool cardigan, a paisley scarf, chartreuse Capris, a pink linen dress, a black cowl-neck velvet dress, and satin old-man PJs, as well as twenty pair of socks, ten pairs of underwear, four Shakespeare paperbacks, tights, strappy gray boots, a handful of bras, and a preppy scarf and John Lennon biography for my boyfriend. Complicated straps of varying lengths dangled from the backpack, which I didn’t know how to adjust for greater support and comfort. I looked like a D-Day parachutist, and it would be years before I understood why Parisians laughed and asked, “Tu cherches le debarquement?” (Looking for the landing?)
Sweating, I plopped the backpack into a seat next to a thin, middle-aged Frenchman who looked like he was fighting the flu. His lids hovered over his dark brown eyes and he smelled like cigarettes. He kindly agreed to watch my backpack and hot-pink double-breasted cashmere coat (a $5 find), while I ran outside to find a phone booth. Since the train didn’t depart for another twenty minutes, I had time to call my boyfriend and tell him my exact arrival time. Our initial plan, detailed in a letter I had written two weeks earlier, was that he would meet every train from Paris on Monday morning. Now that I had boarded, I could confirm my arrival time. I took with me the satchel made from rubber tires I’d bought at Les Halles the day before. It held my money, passport, travel clock, Interail pass, Walkman, ten homemade tapes, my journal, and my beloved Thomas Cook train schedule. In other words, it too weighed enough to herniate a disc.
The station air cooled my sweat and made the lambswool sweater scratchy against my skin. At the end of each track was a pay phone, and I hurried from one to the other, lifting the receivers to discover that not a single one worked. As I turned back to return to the train, I counted the number of tracks, unsure which was mine. A train began to pull out of the station, so I ran after it. I had only been gone for five minutes, but the Orient Express was leaving early! The satchel thumping against my thigh, I ran faster, yelling, “À Munich? À Munich?” A train employee pressed the door open with her elbow and yelled, “Oui!” I jumped, grabbed the handle of the door, swung onto the first step and jumped into the train.
When I finally regained my breath, I snapped open the sliding doors and headed for my seat. I walked through the first car, but nothing looked familiar. Where was the flu-stricken Frenchman? I passed through one car, then another, until I reached the dining car, where a bored girl in a polyester uniform smoked a filterless cigarette. I bolted down two more cars, doubled back, confused. Had I been facing in the direction of travel or backward? I moved faster, steadying myself on the seats as the train rocked. Back through the dining car again and into the next coach. The people looked familiar, but simply because I’d seen them a minute before. I had boarded the wrong train.
I ran to find the attendant, my sophomore-level French flying out the window as I blurted in English, “I’m lost!” When I explained the situation, the attendant shook her head. “We cannot stop the train for you.”
I didn’t expect her to stop the train. She presumed I was a presumptuous American who, in the words of one of my English classmates, “expected to be catered to.” I had noticed that something about me often garnered annoyed looks in Europe. Whether it was my bright pink coat or the mattress-size backpack, I didn’t know. I’d wisely tucked my black beret in my bag, having observed that only old men wore berets in Paris. It was not a great time to be American in Europe. Our nuclear missiles were stockpiled all over western Europe, ready to be launched at the U.S.S.R. should Gorbachev make any funny moves. Reagan’s landslide reelection didn’t help, and the dollar was ridiculously strong (as low as $1.10 to the English pound). So even I could be mistaken for that dreaded class of human: The Rich American.
“Wait!” the attendant said. “This train follows the same path as the other! It will arrive in Chalons-sur-Marne at 12:00. The Orient Express will get there at 12:15.”
“I can switch trains there?”
“Mais oui.”
I took a seat and studied the gospel of Thomas Cook. It was true. The train I’d boarded like a comic action figure followed the exact same path until Munich. If, and it was a big if, nobody had stolen my backpack by now, a midnight reunion was possible! I simply had to remain calm and kill the next three hours. I saturated my brain with Purple Rain and R.E.M.’s Reckoning, read and reread the timetables, and squinted at the dark countryside that looked like Wisconsin with an occasional illuminated château in the hills.
When the train was three stops from Chalons-sur-Marne, I went to stand by the door. Enduring the jostling stops and blasts of winter air offset my anxiety in a fine masochistic fashion. If only my shoulders were weighed down by my backpack! When the train pulled into the station, I hopped off and moved toward the stationhouse with two other passengers. The sight of a couple hugging stopped me. I was too nervous to seek shelter in the warm stationhouse. As the train pulled away, I looked up into the cloudy, dark sky. A minute later another train roared into the station. It was 1:09. I willed myself still. The Orient Express wasn’t due until 1:15. I was learning. Trains never left early. They may leave late, but they never leave early.
The platform clock had long lacy arms that tick, tick, ticked. The couple had boarded the new train, and I was alone on the platform. I started to cut my losses. I still had my passport and Interail pass. I could replace the clothes, sort of. I felt a pang for the velvet dress, which I’d planned to wear to the Munich Symphony. But the loss of the clothes wasn’t what troubled me. It was the sheer embarrassment of having made such a clumsy mistake. I was an amateur traveler. Alone on some French train platform, in the middle of nowhere, it struck me that no one in the entire world—not my parents, nor my friends—knew where I was. It felt as if I could step into some void and disappear. What if I fell on the tracks and was crushed by the train? Who would return my body to my people? My backpack would continue its solo trip, perhaps be detonated on the Hungarian border. What if I were abducted, taken into the black night? The edge of the platform felt like the edge of the world. I may have been connected through rail to hundreds of other destinations, a few minutes from a phone, but it still felt as if I were on the brink of an oblivion that comes with genuine solitude. If a girl stands on a platform but nobody knows she’s there, does she really exist?
The rumble of the approaching train snapped me out of my existential pondering. It was 1:15, and right on schedule, the Orient Express shuddered to a stop. I climbed on board. As I moved down the aisles, I was stunned to find them crowded with people. The air smelled of sweat and piss, and the windows dripped condensation. People slept on the floor because every seat was taken. I moved through one car, then another. Finally I saw it. While French teenagers curled in the aisles, my backpack sat like a fat entitled Yank in the chair. I lifted up the backpack and slid into the seat beneath it. I hugged it; I planted a kiss on the zipper. I had fumbled, but I hadn’t dropped the ball.
The sickly Frenchman awoke and squinted at me. I smiled back, wondering where he’d thought I’d been for three hours. I wished that he had looked out the window to see me standing out there on the platform. He might have thought I was a mysterious time traveler who could snap her fingers and vanish and then, like magic, reappear beside him.

*First appeared in Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo, F. Conlon, I. Emerick, and C. Henry de Tessan, Eds. (Seal Press, 2007).

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