Between TrainsA Reminiscence of Travels in My Youth
Norma Felsenthal Gerber
© Copyright 2023 by Norma Felsenthal Gerber
Photo by Patrick Janicek at Wikimedia Commons.
The sun shone fiercely in the South of France. It illuminated a beach of pebbles. I walked on it; my feet bled. I swam in the sea of indelible ink; it stamped itself upon my soul; I drowned.
The train was waiting but there were hundreds of people on it. Faces, like beheaded flowers, stuck out of every open window. I approached the nearest open doorway, lugged my heavy suitcase aboard and mounted the steps after it. That was as far as I got. The entryway and aisles were crammed with travelers and suitcases. I retreated down the steps and headed for the next available car.
I clambered inside, but again, the same crowd. I darted down the steps and moved much further along the platform before I tried to thrust myself aboard a third time. Again impossible to move past the entry way. I tried sitting on top of my luggage in a small spot near the door. Water trickled down my face and inside my blouse. I imagined I was back in New York during the rush hour. But this commute would take an entire day. I got off the train. Hands waved from every window. I didn’t wave back.
I tackled the problem of getting on the train to Nice again in the evening and then arrived there the next morning. I stored my suitcase in a locker and looked for a hotel near the station. Several attempts to get a room failed until I agreed to one four flights up. Breathless, I stumbled into the room. The linoleum rose gummily to greet my feet. I spent the night wondering what insects were trapped in the sticky circle around my bed. At daybreak I sped down the stairs and out the lobby door.
When I returned to the train station to deposit another franc in the locker to stash my suitcase for a second night, I heard a young woman sobbing hysterically as she sat on the floor. “I’ve been robbed,” she cried. The gray-coated locker attendant tried to calm her: “But Miss, it is impossible to happen unless someone had your key.”A few moments later, a handsome dark-haired foreigner approached me and asked if I would accompany him to the beach. I hesitated; he urged me on, making erotic suggestions, puckering his mouth and swaying his hips. Then he jingled some coins in his pocket to indicate he was solvent. I made my excuses, but not before the lothario pleaded for my company even more charmingly and wangled a kiss on the cheek to speed him on his way. I figured out how a woman could lose her key.
P.M. The lockers were at the back of the station and couldn’t be seen from the open hall where people were waiting for trains.
As I turned the corner into the locker area, I almost stumbled over the bodies of five grimily-clad teenagers. They had taken up residence on the floor just below the row of lockers where my suitcase was stashed. They were engaged in a late-night picnic of sorts, chomping on apple cores and bits of meat, completely indifferent to discomfort from their position in the narrow aisle.
I reached over the bodies, since none moved out of the way to let me pass, turned my key in the lock and slid out my case. As I did so, I noticed that the hardware around my lock was loose. I shook a few of the plates on other lockers and found they weren’t firmly attached either. So, I had removed my baggage not a moment too soon.
As I stepped back over the bodies
to leave, I
imagined I saw greedy insect mouths overflowing with crumbs. I
wondered why these creatures chose to dine in such dark corners. I
suspected they were in possession of some rudimentary tools of
civilization which could pry open locks and that they intended to
make their next meal on my suitcase.
I looked for the train leaving at 11 P.M. for Barcelona. I was surprised to find it wasn’t at all crowded. “Must be because it’s so late,” I decided. An attractive couple in their forties sat across from me. The woman wore her dark hair in a short, wispy style; her skirt was short too, revealing dark patterned stockings. The man was muscular, but slender, with a long, bony face and a shy smile. They spoke French, drank wine and sat close together. After a while, he lay down in her lap to sleep.
Not yet tired, I got up and walked into the aisle to look over my section of the train. There were two young men taking in some fresh air at the windows. I was glad to learn they spoke my language although with a slightly different accent; they were from
England, students on a holiday. One was blond and taciturn; the other dark and amiable. Neither, however, bothered to introduce himself. They had been traveling around Europe and were going to a campsite outside Barcelona, even though they had been robbed at their last campsite, near Nice.
They had lost their camera, passports and traveler’s checks. The blonde youth explained that they had the checks replaced and the camera was insured. He was indeed looking forward to the better one he could get with the insurance money which would be more than the old camera was worth. But he was peeved at the trouble it was to get a new passport the second time around. “If you lose it twice, the police put you through an investigation. I guess they don’t want to hand out passports to the wrong people,” he surmised with annoyance.
Hearing about more potential travel problems put me into such a relaxed mood that all I could do after I returned to my seat was glare pessimistically at the darkness whizzing by my window. Finally, I dozed off. I awoke, sensing the train was not moving. The car was eerily quiet, but it was, after all, the middle of the night.
The door of the compartment was opened abruptly by a burly Frenchman. He swung a lantern near the face of the lean man, still dozing in his wife’s lap. Then he left us as abruptly as he had appeared. The Frenchwoman awoke with a start and wore a very puzzled look. A few minutes later the lantern bearer returned, repeating his bizarre behavior. He never said a word. Now the napping Frenchman rubbed his eyes and sat up.
I looked out of the window. We weren’t at a station, and we still weren’t moving. I started to panic and wondered uneasily. “Why did the train stop? Why did that sadist shine lights in our eyes and not say a word?”
I stood up and walked into the aisle. I was met by the amiable Englishman who announced gloomily, “I think we five are alone on this train. It looks like they’ve detached our car.” I stared at him in disbelief. The rest of the train had gone on to Barcelona, while we remained behind we knew not where.
Only the fact that it was the middle of the night and I was half-asleep kept me from getting hysterical. All I could do was just mumble repeatedly, “Why didn’t they tell us this? Why didn’t anyone come to say this car would be detached? Why didn’t anyone talk to us. At this point the aloof, blond chap imparted the sophisticated bit of information that conductors never check train tickets in the south of France. He was right. I recalled that although I had a train pass from the US, no one had asked to see it.
So no one in the train system cared where any passenger was going, whether he had a legitimate right to get there, or whether he would ever get where he wanted to go. There was now and had been complete indifference to our presence on this train and no desire or intent to communicate with us. We were alone.
Soon the five of us were walking peripatetically about the aisle, like dim-witted pigeons who had forgotten how to migrate south. We waddled off our anxiety for half an hour. Suddenly several train workmen in overalls appeared in our car. Seeing us there, they took a few steps backwards in bewilderment. They talked excitedly to each other in French and waved a row of lanterns above our heads to verify the unbelievable phenomenon of our presence on this isolated car. They pointed their fingers at us and laughed. Meanwhile the penetrating white light was cruelly blinding us; we had been staring so long into blackness.
The workmen didn’t seem to know what to do with us. They got off the train and conferred with a superior further down the track. Then that tall man climbed on the train and looked us over. The French couple engaged in a bird-like chatter with that man. The rest of us didn’t understand what was happening; and no one tried to tell us.
Next, from outside, some workmen waved at us to get off the train. The friendly Englishman, it seems, knew a bit of French and told me he had figured out what had been said. Our car it turned out, was detached outside the train station in Marseilles, and we would have to walk half a mile to the station. He flipped open a book and announced curtly that the next train to Barcelona would not arrive until after 6 A.M.
Stunned and sleepy, we tumbled off the dark train into a deeper blackness and the freakish emptiness of the outskirts of a city. I squinted at my watch to make out the time. It was just 2 A.M. Only railway tracks stretched in all directions around us. Across the ties, some workmen stared at us as though we were invaders from an unfriendly planet.
At one point I asked the friendly Englishman his name. This attempt at warmer human communication bore fruit. Richard gallantly offered to help me carry my suitcase. Good thing. By this time I had been lagging dangerously behind.
As we entered the Marseilles station, we were greeted by four ferocious German shepherds barking harshly and straining at their leashes. They looked eager to pull their police handlers into some action. The workman who had led us into the station explained our situation hurriedly to the police. The gendarmes seemed to doubt that all this could be true, and we were requested to follow them like dope smugglers caught red-handed, in need of an escort to jail. Embarrassed, we looked down at the floor as the bright lights of the station glared accusingly at us.
In the station, the French couple argued angrily with the police, but the police just looked mildly annoyed. They didn’t seem to be interested in apologizing to us for the failure of communication that had brought us into their midst. They treated us as though we were a family of outcasts who had received an invitation to their city by mistake; it never occurred to them to be hospitable to castaways.
We were directed into a large waiting area and abandoned to a wide expanse of floor.
were no benches; there were no chairs. A harried-looking Frenchwoman
was mopping. We looked for a corner away from the soggy cleaning
operation. For the next four hours we could sit or lie or sleep on
the ground. It was our choice.
Night in the Marseilles Train Station
The Frenchwoman and her husband huddled together, perched on their luggage. Before long, the man was sitting on the floor, his head nestled somewhere near his wife’s thighs. She, however, remained daintily, majestically, upright on their luggage. Her queenly bearing and the fact that she smiled at me from time to time across the room made me feel less uneasy. I too determined to sit on my suitcase. I refused to put myself in the undignified position of lounging about on a floor in need of cleaning.
I returned the Frenchwoman’s smile and together we upheld a semblance of dignity within this demeaning situation. Of course, we alone had judged it humiliating; no one else seemed remotely aware that we were there or cared whether we remained upright.
The only other woman within view, the buxom French cleaning woman of the Marseilles train station, kept her swishing, swooshing, sloshing mop in motion over the floor. Foot by foot, she closed in on the territory we five had staked out for ourselves along the furthest wall of the waiting area. Soon we would be just so much debris sitting in the way of the completion of her nightly ritual. After this cleaning operation, she would go home, slather some cold cream on her face and slip into a soft bed.
With a grand sweeping gesture she waved at us. She had released her mop and was angrily motioning us away from our nesting area. Richard, who lay sprawled about on his sleeping bag, sat up to obey. He and I exchanged glances and burst out laughing. We were at the mercy of a gendarme of the mop. Yes, this floor was hers to command and we were mere bits of dust on it. She had to remove us or at least make us vanish temporarily. She was responsible for cleaning every inch of this floor, and she let us know she was no shirker.
Once more though, we were callously dislodged. Here was the final blow to our self-respect. I considered leaving the terminal, but it wouldn’t be easy to find a room at three in the morning; nor did I think a woman should wander about the waterfront. Anyway, none of us seemed able to locate the terminal exit; nor did we really try hard to find it. We didn’t feel it would do us any good; we felt locked in. If we would attempt to break out, our imaginations conjured up a picture of hungry dogs bounding after us.And sure enough, no sooner had we removed to another part of the floor, now dry and clean, after being thoroughly mopped; than the dogs materialized before us, sniffing us for narcotics and the floor for any remaining dust. And all during the night, they appeared periodically, like the goblins in our worst nightmares, terrorizing us afresh with each visitation. Finally, we laughed hysterically when they approached, but our guffaws echoed mysterious and hollow as they bounced off the naked station walls.
As time passed, all but the petite Frenchwoman succumbed to the desire for sleep. We gave up our dignity to lie flat out on the floor; the young men in their sleeping bags adjusting with indifference to camping out in less-than-country air. I used a sweater as a sleeping mat and my suitcase for a pillow, aching from the unaccustomed hard floor. The Frenchman found some newspaper and a rolled up jacket for his head and gave up on further communication with his countrymen, having found them unresponsive and insensitive.
Asleep, we hoped to forget for a while the insult of our experience and to distance ourselves from the sight of our neglect. But I couldn’t keep my eyes shut long; the unyielding floor kept me alert to the surroundings; and as the night passed, I watched a strange life in the station This was a home away from home for more stranded travelers like ourselves; but there were some who would remain night after night detached from their moorings, shuttling between countries.
Beyond our small group, I noticed a tiny waiting room. Every bench was occupied. An old woman sat wearing a black woolen coat on this hot summer night and an exotic headdress, swathed round and round in bandage fashion over her hair. With clenched fists around a handle, she guarded a shopping cart filled with small worn suitcases and some colorful bundles wrapped as tightly as her own head.
Her face was accented with deep wrinkles and her eyes never slept, but stared out before her, where no one else could see anything. This emigrant seemed determined not to sleep, not out of concern with her dignity, like our Frenchwoman, but rather to keep a vigil over her family’s belongings. The family filled the other seats around her.
I heard footsteps on my left and was startled to be looking up at a young man, naked to the waist. His chest was smooth, his face just shaven; he smiled with a secret inner pride. He had emerged from a bathroom. In one hand he carried a bar of soap; a towel hung neatly over the other. As he stepped over towards his family in the waiting room, Richard awoke, saw him half-naked, and stared. It was a surreal sight – someone at
4 A.M., looking as though he had just bathed. I sensed a religious purification; he had dipped into a holy fount. I realized he was a refugee and in this wayside purgatory, had chosen to continue a ritual of civilized life, his ablutions the symbolic preparation for a better, shining life which lay ahead.
More and more people entered the waiting area. There were many men in colorless clothing, workmen with jackets but no ties, lean men but strong men, with rough, unshaven faces. Their hands were empty, but they drew rolled-up mats from under their arms. They spread these mats carefully over the dark floor. Then they lay down to sleep.
Like the family of wanderers with all their belongings, these men without any, seemed somehow the same. I watched them sleep. They lay silent, proud, invisible and forgotten by the world. After a brief nap they would rise and leave to board a train. Unlike summer travelers, theirs was a permanent condition. These were aliens, refugee workers, exiles from their own lands who had come to work hard and long, far from home, withstanding a harsh separation from their loved ones, in order to provide for them who were far away.
Unlike vacation travelers, these men were residents of trains and train stations, constantly shuttling between countries. One by one, each man would awaken, roll up his mat and scatter, but always another would be there to take up his empty place on the bare floor.