The (First) Great Disappointment
It was a brisk and sunny day in Paris. I was finally in (one of) the land of my dreams! As I emerged from beneath the city of lights and up unto the streets of love, I couldn’t help but smile at my luck. Too bad it ran out just a few minutes later. I can’t even begin to describe how far beyond the floors my face fell, when I was very politely told that I had missed my train to my destination in the eastern countryside. Even worse, it was another regular strike day, so there would be no more trains for the day, at least not to where I was going. I was overcome with despair as I coldly bid my two travel companions goodbye (they made me late, I swear!) while simultaneously being awestruck by the awesome grandeur of the Gare de Lyon.
After staring at the hordes of persons trafficking through the grand arena, I finally decided that I would make two calls: first to my contact person, because surely she would help a foreigner who is technically under her watch in her native land, and second, to my dear husband (we weren’t married yet). My contact person suggested that I go back to the hostel as she wouldn’t be able to help me today. Thankfully, my husband was a bit more chipper and reassured me that I’d be ok. When I hung up, I considered going back to the hostel. However, the thought of lugging my reasonably heavy suitcase back down the stairs, into the crowded subway, along three blocks, and back upstairs to the hostel, caused me to make a terrible decision. I decided that I’d sleep over in the train station.
Because hey, it’s France…and train stations are open 24 hours.
Homeless Jamaican Girl
After passing a few hours touring the station (yes, it’s that big) I decided to call my husband again to tell him what I’d decided to do. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea, but I assured him (probably myself more so) that I’d be ok because they wouldn’t be closing the station. And there was a cozy little waiting room.
Fast forward a few hours and dozens of persons had come and gone as I sat in the dingy waiting room. Each time I heard a train being called, I looked up in vain, hoping the screen would read “Montbéliard“. Never happened. As the sun began to set, I noticed a few homeless persons coming into the waiting room, choosing a seat, and falling asleep. Yikes. This little Jamaican girl was not about to sleep with homeless folks. Or so she thought.
To my dismay, at about 9 or 10 pm, the security guard politely ushered us out of the waiting room. It was closed for the night. Double yikes. Ignoring my mother’s voice in my head, I “followed the crowd” to the seats in the middle of the station. It was so unbelievably cold that I had to put my pajamas on over my jeans and wrap a blanket over my coat. By the way, it was only the end of September. But, at least I was still inside, right? Wrong. At about 2 am, I spotted the same security guard coming back. The thoughts that went through my mind are unfit for this post. He told us that the station was closed and we had to get out. Again, and against my own gut feeling, I followed the crowd, this time looking a lot more like a homeless person, only with a nice suitcase.
Almost immediately, a huge bus drove up on the outside and the majority stampeded towards it and hopped inside. I knew it had to be much warmer than standing outside in the cold, but the Jamaican in me decided against getting into a bus with strange people, at 2 am in a foreign country. To this day I still wonder where it drove off to. It was only when a piece of night cold rocked my body that I decided to give up my vigil of sitting on my suitcase by the door. Without hesitation I went to sit on the cardboard with the other group of folks. This little Jamaican girl was ready to sleep with some homeless-looking people (they weren’t….they were waiting on trains too) if it meant that it would save me from freezing to death. At a safe distance, I was still able to feel some warmth, and as I wrapped up as best as I could in my blanket, I realized that it would have definitely been worth the hassle to have gone back to the hostel. Oh well.
Joy in the Morning
Daring not to close my eyes for more than 5 seconds at a time, I sat on the cold concrete of Gare de Lyon’s outer premises and prayed to God that I would make it until daylight. Three hours later, the sound of the locks being opened was, to this day, one of the greatest things I’d ever heard. Back inside the station, it was perhaps 2 degrees warmer. But at least I was inside. Still not daring to drift off into sleep, for fear that the African fellow watching me might “try something”, I watched the station come to life. As soon as the nearest croissant stand opened, I bought myself one of the buttery treats and tried to coax some life back into myself. When the bathrooms were finally opened, I went to change and freshen up. Homeless girl begone!
As the station once again bustled with thousands of folks going about their business and catching their trains, I headed back to the ticket counter. I was too tired to protest when I learnt that the next train to my destination only had first class seats left, at a staggering 100 euros per seat–half of the money I had with me. Having gone through too much to care, I bought my ticket and waited for my train. By the time I boarded the train, sleep was attacking me on all fronts.
A Handsome Stranger
As I sat in my “first class compartment”, eyes straining to stay awake to see the sights of France, I was still too tired to be surprised when a handsome French fellow came to sit beside me. Though I can’t remember now, I know that he looked like the typical French guys that you see in magazines. And he smelled like them too. He smiled, introduced himself and we started talking. He asked me where I was from and I said Jamaica. His face lit up as he told me that he was actually living in Martinique, but was in France visiting his parents. He asked how I spent my first night in France (technically it was my second) and I told him I’d had to “sleep” at the train station. He was very taken aback. He told me he’d had a hotel room right beside the station, but he didn’t even sleep there because he was at a party all night. I didn’t know how to respond. I was too tired to even attempt it.
He bought me coffee, which I barely even drank. It was black, strong, and a far cry from sweet. With my eyelids literally closing, I confessed that I didn’t actually sleep, so I was going to take a nap. He smiled again and said “No, of course.” Three hours later, I awoke to a soft tap on my shoulder. He had his bags ready; the train was at his destination. He told me that we were at Besançon–his stop. He said he’d be there for a few weeks and I should come see the city. I stared back at him, sleep still in my eyes. He smiled again and said that the next stop would be mine. And then he was gone
*Disclaimer*: This is in no way Fictional. It all happened! But, please don’t tell my Mother….