A man can get a lot of thinking done while relaxing in a filing cabinet. One of the thoughts that occurred to me was to check my eurail pass status against the rest of the travel days I had planned that included getting back to Paris. Good thing I did, because if I continued at the current pace, my pass days would run out two days short of my planned stay. I was on my way to Avignon in the morning, and had planned to stay two days and make several short out and back trips to …somewhere. This would be a good time then to get off the pass and pay cash for these trips.
….Arles. After that half-hour or more wait in Paris to purchase the mandatory seat reservation for the TGV high speed trains, I subsequently tried the online service on my rail planner app. I found it to be quite convenient, save for one wrinkle. The bar code where the car and seat assignments are embedded does not convey that information visually. You need a conductor to ping it with his device to find out. On this leg to Arles, I discovered how iffy it was relying on platform staff to perform this service.
The 10:34 to…
…Toulouse. For starters, the scenery on the southerly swing from Bordeaux to Toulouse improved dramatically over the Paris to Bordeaux leg. Villages with medieval walls and fortresses on hills, broad, winding rivers and handsome, prosperous farmhouses swept past my window. At one point I felt this amazing smile form on my face, coming suddenly out of nowhere. This trainhopping idea was working perfectly, and I was loving every minute of it.
When I decided to self-publish the journal I’d kept of the time Carolyn and I were first together in 1972, I gave all the real people fictional names. Carolyn’s became Danielle. She liked it. “Very French,” she told me. In these recent years, whenever we fell into conversation about that time in our lives, we called it “visiting Danielle.” In many aspects, from traveling alone to beginning again in Paris, this current trip carried a strong feeling of “visiting Danielle.”
The French train trip began on a proletarian note. This was good, since Carolyn and I both knew flying as retirees would drop us down in priority on the standby list, and that our Business Class days were all probably behind us. I still got on the flight, and with an aisle seat, I retained unfettered access to the bathrooms. I also felt a greater sense of safety on this first trip without Carolyn: I watched as my seatmate carefully read the entire safety card tucked in the seatback, as we’d all been instructed to do, but that all except her had blissfully ignored doing.
Carolyn once remarked that I was the most romantic man she’d ever met. Over the years I’d been described quite differently by people who knew me. It started out with “head in the clouds” (parents), then onto “daydreamer” (teachers), “space cadet” (male friends) and “deaf” (girls who’d been asked for a second date). There’s no doubt Carolyn bore witness to all these former appellations, but in her world they all amounted to the same thing. For the first time in my life I was with someone who not only would not try to change me, but was also not making novenas hoping for a miracle.
My earliest childhood memory is of a train, but it’s a frightening one. My family was relocating back to New Orleans from Chicago. I’d like to say we were aboard the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans; it would make the frightening image more cozily romantic at least. But the memory is of a train at night, making our passage good on the IC’s Panama Limited. Regardless, the image I can still recall is a two and a half year-old boy alone and staring at the open space between two cars. The colors of the image are dark green and black, and I am transfixed by a rubbery corrugation stretched over the open space between the two cars being jostled about by the train’s motion. I suppose it was my two and a half year-old brain telling me that I could easily slip through that open space and be lost forever, whatever that rubbery thing was supposed to do to protect me. As a teenager at war with my father, I would recall that image and wonder whether my being left alone on that train was an early example of parental neglect. As an adult, I wonder if any part of that childhood memory was accurate. In particular, that rubbery thing.
I love train timetables. I also love maps, especially road maps, but I get easily confused. Something to do with spatial orientation. But a well-printed (preferably in a tight, cozy agate font) train timetable is a thing of linear beauty, a minimalist’s rendering of the day ahead with a precision down to the minute hand on your watch.
As far as traveling alone, it’s the way I’d started out. In June, 1971 I arrived in Paris with less than two hundred dollars in my wallet, and no idea where I would be spending my first night. I treated the city as if it were a Disney theme park. Oblivious of urban dangers I’d be terrified of back home, I meandered the streets of Paris on foot from seven in the morning until ten at night, cheerfully oblivious to all the historic and culturally significant sites and landmarks I passed. At night I’d sit in a café and put down all I had learned in a journal, most of which was a gumbo of proto-emo angst, insecurity, lonesomeness and a struggle to get laid masquerading as a quixotic search for cosmic love.
This I thought I could do. Fly to Paris, buy a train ticket to somewhere, anywhere, then get off, find a room, take a walk, have dinner, go to bed, and then get up the next day and do it again. Just for two weeks to start. I thought I could do that. I knew I needed to try. It was a way to get back to how it was.