Merci, said by no one, ever, at Montparnasse Station in Paris. First, you will struggle with the seemingly endless array of steps it takes you to travel from Bastille to Montparnasse (count: 2 metro lines, 10 stations, four shoves and six glares). Part of you suspects this is some form of trickery, a way of which Parisians will do anything to keep its denizens confined to city limits, whilst mocking luggage-strapped New Yorkers. At said station, countless men will jockey for position on the steps and gleefully shove you out of the way. You will have dropped your bags four times to rest before you make it to the faux escalator Parisians call effortless commuting. There is nothing effortless about navigating rail stations in Paris, only a subterranean torture chamber that makes Dante’s Inferno look like Paradise. You consider the fact that if you collapsed on the ground, at this very moment, people will probably step over your still-warm body.
You have yet to board the train at this point, or even locate the ticket booths. The comedy on the level of the absurd that you will soon endure is nothing short of priceless. Since there are no signs directing you to the TGV ticket booth (Why should there be signs? one images a Parisian official stomping his little feet. One should just know!), you make several feeble attempts to make inquiries in your abysmal French. In response, people pretend to think you’re speaking a language that could not possibly be French. There are several eye squints, frowns, and looks of feigned confusion. Side conversations ensue regarding this confusion. One guard even retorts whether you know how to speak French. Sweaty, frustrated and burdened with bags that are the weight of several small children, you say, You’re an asshole, and walk away.
The guard will follow you, apologize, and offer to help. Ten minutes later, you will locate a slew of ticket booths that are out of service. After queuing on the one line filled with people who clearly have never used a machine in their natural born life, your tickets spit out, along with an ominous message flashing in red: You must have your ticket stamped before boarding!
Stamped WHERE? Indonesia, perhaps. As of this moment, that seems logical.
After queueing on another line to make inquiries about this ominous stamp situation, and to perhaps catch an earlier train, you hear the phrase so often uttered by Parisians, It’s not possible. Another variation: It’s impossible. Yet another variation: How can this be possible?
In a waiting room where an internet connection fails every thirty minutes, a woman pushes the doors open and shouts, Does anyone, ANYONE, speak English? You feel this woman’s pain acutely, and help her the four times she asks you about printing out a ticket. Because this was you, thirty minutes ago.
The internet connection expires, along with your patience. You remind yourself that violence is not the answer. But you do wonder what would happen if you screamed, BACK THE FUCK OFF. You imagine the motley lot sniffing and striding past. A giggle lodges in their throat and emerges into a full-blown cackle.
As you board the train, you sincerely believe that the comedy that was your life the past four hours has now come to a close. Curtain calls, roses and all that jazz, but there are more stairs, more cars, more station attendants who laugh at your feeble attempts to speak French, and at one point you just collapse against the door of the train. Your bags fall to the floor.
Then a French woman bends down and picks up my bags and places them in the luggage compartment. One by one. Startled, I rush over and commence with my usual round of désolés, when she says, in English, Why didn’t you ask anyone for help? I give her the Cliff Notes version of my story, when she interrupts, Why didn’t you plainly say, my bags are heavy, I’m lost, can you help me? The train doors close and I say, I don’t know. She touches the fabric on my jacket and says, You see, the world isn’t such a bad place. Here is a stranger who helped you with your luggage, even though you never asked. I thank her, and realize she’s right. Even though I always assume people should know when to help, sometimes I just need to stop someone and speak plainly. Ask for help.
Then I fall into my seat and eat a pastry from Colorova that somehow has survived the whole of this fiasco, in-tact. Remembering an exquisite brunch and a conversation I had with my waitress, who marveled over the fact that I was going to Biarritz, she said, Biarritz’s so very different than Paris.
As I ride up to the sea in Biarritz, speaking a mixture of Spanish, English and French to a jubilant taxi driver, I realize I know exactly what she meant.