I knew that would be at least $400 and, when the man at the counter had a solution for me for fewer than 80 euros and with several train legs in case I miss a connection, I decided to take the earliest option. I had an hour to go grab my luggage, shower, and return. Walking briskly at 6:40AM towards my hostel, thinking about the family, I heard Spanish and looked up in time to see them passing me on the other side of the street. I stopped them and the dad said, “Kayla!” I asked how it worked out and he said they were rushing off to a train just then, that everything was all right although less than perfect. I said the same was with me and showed him my tickets. We said goodbye and I hurried back to the hostel. I got back to the station with plenty of time and was one of the first on the train. Sadly, I did not take the time for coffee or breakfast and had to eat a half-melted bar I still had in my bag from Slovakia.
The first train was cold. I actually had short conversations with the lady across from me who only spoke Italian. Today, for whatever reason, I was suddenly understanding a lot more than I had before. I tried calling the lady from the program and left a message in English, saying I could not make it in time and asking what I should do. She left me a voicemail later in French that I could hardly hear and could, for the most part, not understand. I decided to wait until the Chicago office opened to call them, even though it would be past when I should have arrived. I figured she gets the picture and that they need a better system. The lady across from me then warned me that I might miss my train and I rushed off at Milan to find my train to Ventimiglia.
This leg was the longest so far and it headed from Milan south to Genoa. We passed along the shorelines of the Mediterranean Sea, heading towards Monaco. Several times, we went through series of tunnels that were completely dark, shaky, and that made me want to cry from the overpowering pain in my ears. I was afraid that if I didn’t keep them continually “popped” with my muscles that the pressure would build like a diver who doesn’t clear his ears and that I would go deaf. It was quite an uncomfortable experience.
When I finally got to the station in Ventimaglia, I was pleased to find it close and waiting. There was not enough time to get any food or drinks, being that my train had been late but this one, with SNCF, was even later in departing. The conductor was a real jokester, too, taking my ticket and pocketing it rather than checking for the stamp on my validation. He gave it back to me and a girl who was French but spoke very good English (I later overheard she studied in Montreal and is learning Spanish and Italian as well) reassured me that this train was indeed heading towards Nice. I climbed inside the two-floor car and chose the upstairs deck. I put my heavy bag on the luggage rack at the stairs, figuring I was doing the harder part now by lifting it up and letting me trip down the stairs to get off later. I then took a single seat, which just happened to be behind the girl’s.
I spent most of the ride trying to call someone in the program, texting my mom, and listening to the French and British accents around me as people spoke English. I could relate very well with the things the girl was saying about how travel really isn’t expensive, at least not once you get there. You’ve got to learn how to keep it cheap and not be afraid to hitch rides or share spaces. And she’s completely right, at least from my experience. Maybe things are a little different in America, but, in Western Europe, students and hikers travel frequently and people will give you everything out of their nothing to see that their guests are treated well.
When I got off at Nice, just having passed through the cliffs of Monaco, I was immediately frustrated by the throngs of people staring idly at a blank platform board and not budging as I dragged my bags through the crowd. I had to hurry to get the next possible ticket to Arles. I had debated staying on the last train to see if it was going to Arles as one of the maps on the wall suggested it might, but I knew the girl was going to Marseilles – also on the map – and she was getting off at Nice. I got off, ran to the guichet to buy a ticket, accidentally ran over a woman’s foot (she was nice about it), and frowned when the machine neither took my card nor bills. I didn’t have 17 two-euro coins. I had to get in line at the booth. It went by faster than I was expecting. I thought about speaking French but saw the booths took Spanish, Italian, and English as well. I could hardly hear the man speak and struggled to hear his English. It may not have made a difference because the conversation was so strained and so simple. I got my ticket to Arles and have 15 minutes before departure.
I was dying for some kind of caffeine or snack. I had grabbed crackers in Milan and I had bottles of water I made from the tap at the hostel, but I needed something more. I stood in line for a cappuccino and successfully made an exchange in uninterrupted French. It’s a blessing and a curse that I can trick French people into thinking I’m French; it means I can speak very well and with a Parisian accent, but only when it’s sentences I’m comfortable with saying. And giving them the impression that I’m French just encourages them to speak ridiculously fast, leaving me dumbfounded, stupid, and repeating “Comment?” much to their incomprehension.
I’m not really sure how I toted two suitcases, a validated ticket, and a hot cappuccino up and down several flights of stairs with a heavy pack on my back…but I did. And I boarded my train and found a seat and had plenty of time before departure. Then young man behind me took my bags from me and lifted them into the car and onto some racks at the front, offering politely in French after he saw my wrists violently shaking as I carried them. I could feel the fatigue in my legs and arms and realized how little rest and sustenance I have had these last few days. I’ve again had a loss of appetite and sometimes trouble sleeping. The determination to always go, go, go doesn’t help either. This feeling reminds me so much of my sophomore year at college when I trained in my sports so hard that I could no longer lift my legs to walk. I’ll certainly be catching a nice break in Arles.
On the train, I realized I just happen to sit in front of the girl again. I occupied myself with a book Eva let me borrow, trying occasionally to listen to conversations in French. My mom texted me the arrangements for my arrival in Arles and I could relax a little. Looking out the window, I often saw scenes of the Mediterranean, signs to different areas in Monaco, and palm trees littering the cliffs. At one point, I could have sworn that I was back in Arizona; the cliffs were so desert-like and profound out the south-facing window, but the greenery to my left assured otherwise.
Watching the scenes fly by me in the various windows felt less like I was traveling by train and more like I was watching the same movie being played from different camera angles. The movies suddenly came to a pause as our train delayed on the tracks before reaching Marseilles. The speaker, in crackled French, rattled off something about an unexpected malfunction and the need to stay in the car for safety. Less than a minute later, another train barreled past in the opposite direction at arm’s length from the windows.
This happened a couple times on the way to Marseilles. I hadn’t been concerned about my connection, but now the timeframe was narrowing and I was becoming a little nervous. Finally, the train reached Marseilles when I had only a handful of pages left in Eva’s book. Just as someone had helped me lift my bags, another young man who saw me move aside for him to pass offered to pull my bags down. In French, I thanked him and explained that both were mine. He also opened the door and held it for me as I dropped my bags to the ground.
When I got into the station and read the board, I learned that my train was a half of an hour late. I had enough time to grab a snack and pay for the restroom. I did this and I bought a book as well, thinking how it never fails: The times I rush for my train, it’s late; the time I don’t rush, I should be rushing. I think I need to find a way to peacefully rush so I can be on time without having the heart attack in the process. I think I need to learn how to deceive the train gods.
I feel foolish speaking French when people know English, like so many I encounter at train stations. I feel like I’m insulting them somehow. Then, as I was pacing the station in Marseilles, not knowing what to eat, I settled on fries over pastries as the lesser evil of my meager vegetarian options and made a fool of myself at the counter. I blanked on how to ask for the fries “to go” and started muttering in incomprehensible English instead. I never even eat fries; I didn’t know what sizes McDonald’s sells them in and like an idiot had to ask. At least that part was in fluent French.
I sat on my bags and watched the train board beside a light pole like I was eating a TV dinner at home. When the fries were done and I still had so much time – it was not delayed an hour – I decided to walk outside. The sun was setting and hitting the buildings perfectly; I could see a church on top of a big hill that was reflecting the light from the panes below a statue. A man saw me take a photo with my phone and came up to me, introducing himself in French as Julian. He’s from Marseilles. He seemed much older than me and was smoking aggressively, asking where I come from and showing off his American geography in English. I asked him what church was on the hill and he said “Notre Dame de la Guard”. Then he asked for my number. I said it wasn’t possible. He asked if I smoke and I said no, then made the excuse that I needed to check my train so I could return to the station and hide under my board.
The train was now an hour and 15 minutes late. I finished Eva’s book and started the second. I read it slowly and carefully, as it is in French. It’s about a man living six months in Siberia. It is written in a style similarly to the book Eva gave me, which I liked. Finally, platform “M” was listed on my train to Avignon. I raced to the deck to find no train was there yet and waited eagerly with the others. When it finally came, I had so much space to myself. The compartment in second class was the nicest yet and the most spacious. I continued to read my book and became so enthralled that I almost missed my stop at Arles. I jumped up just as the whistle blew and asked a conductor if it were Arles. He remembered me telling him that I was going to Arles earlier when he had asked and apologized that I didn’t understand the fast French announcement; he had thought I was French. He held the train so I could scramble and grab my bags.
I think part of what had confused me was they had misread an announcement and corrected it at the stop before, so I was anticipating at least one more stop. It was a group of students waiting with their bags that made me think it was Arles and the students were for IES. Of course, I was wrong; instead, a sole woman stood with a magenta piece of paper on which I could barely make out “IES”. She asked, in French, “IES? Kayla?” and I knew I had found the director who said she would meet me. We continued the conversation in French the whole way to the hotel, her telling me I was the last to arrive, asking where I had been this summer, and listening to me talk about family and friends I had found and met in different countries. Then I got to my room where my roommates were already sleeping. I got ready silently in the bathroom and chose a bed in the other room. I set my alarm for quite early. The room was exceptionally cold, but I was too tired to get my sweater out; I should have just gotten my sweater out. But it felt good to finally lie down and know I was where I was supposed to be.