Friday, November 27, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part III - Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I. Planes

I approached an aisle seat occupied by a man with dark, thinning hair, and apologized for making him stand up so that I could get to the window seat. The plane was half empty, and the seat between us remained vacant. When it seemed that boarding had completed, an announcement that I didn't understand went over the PA system, and my neighbor explained that airline personnel would be walking through the cabin to check everyone's boarding passes because there was a discrepancy on the manifest, and it appeared as though there were one more person on the plane than ought to be. I let this information wash over me without lodging in any dark, shadowy places in my brain, and presented my ticket stub when asked.

A follow-up announcement was made and my new friend turned to me and said "they found him." I smiled and nodded. He reminded me a bit of Seinfeld's Uncle Leo, with a dash of Leon Voskovec, the herring merchant from Woody Allen's Love and Death. "One time," he said, "I was going to airport with my daughter, to go to America, and I look at passport the day before my trip," he raised his eyebrows slightly, indicating that the next thing out of his mouth was going to be a shocker, "and I see - expired!"
"Oh!" I said, and raised my eyebrows to mirror his expression.
"I get to America, but coming back home, it's problem." I nodded, tilted my head slightly and raised my shoulders in the universal sign of "whattayougonnado?"

"I fly back through Mexico," he continued. At this point I was committed to the story and wanted to know how on earth the man got back to Portugal on an expired passport. "They make me connect five times," he said, holding his hand up so that I could see the correlation between the digits of his appendage and the number of times he had to connect to different flights. "Finally I make it home. My daughter, she so worried!"
"Yes!" I said emphatically, and imagined myself in her place, flying home alone from the US to Portugal on a flight that I was supposed to be on with my dad, using the in-flight time to figure out a way to break the news to the rest of the family. "Where's dad?" they might ask as they met me at baggage claim. "Well," I'd begin, "there's a story..."

When the in-flight meal arrived my new friend held out a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer and offered it to me, saying "you want alcohol?" I accepted, and a glob of germ-fighting liquid plopped into my open hand, warm from resting in the inside pocket of his jacket. I was hungry, I hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was after 7pm. I ate everything on my plate, even the dry, overly frosted brown dessert.

II. Trains

It was raining in Lisbon when we landed; we de-planed on one of those movable staircases that I've seen in documentaries about the lives of US presidents, and piled onto a bus. With only my Rick Steves backpack to worry about (thanks Rick Steves!), I blew past baggage claim once we reached the terminal and found an information desk, where I was directed to the shuttle bus that would take me to Oriente station. There were two ticket booths at the train station, and I wasn't sure which one I needed. I picked one and waited my turn.

"I need a ticket to Braga," I said to the bespectacled man on the other side of the booth. He typed something into the computer in front of him and without looking up said, "today?"
"Yes," I said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. He continued typing.
"I only have first class," he said.
"How much?" I asked, leaning an elbow on the counter and peering into his tiny workspace, imagining briefly what it would be like to spend my days inside such an enclosure. He typed some more.
"Fine," I said, and handed some money to him through an opening in the Plexiglas that separated us. He took my cash and handed me a ticket and some change. "When does it leave?" I asked. The ticket booth dweller made eye contact with me for the first time.
"Now," he said, pointing to a spot above both of us, "track 1, upstairs." I trotted up a staircase and showed my ticket to a conductor to confirm that I was getting on the right train. I clambered on and found my assigned seat, two minutes later the train pulled out of the station.

I hadn't called João from Habitat from the station to let him know what train I was on, there hadn't been any time to find a pay phone. I had no idea how long I would be on the train or how many stops there were between Lisbon and Braga, and I couldn't understand the announcements being made over the PA system. I listened to the conversations in progress around me for anything that sounded like French, English or even Spanish, but heard none. In France and Spain I had the luxury of either understanding the language, being surrounded by signage and spoken announcements that were made in at least two languages, or easily finding English speakers; this was no longer the case. If I'd been on this train in Chicago I would have assumed I was hearing Polish; despite the similarities between Portuguese, French and Spanish I couldn't understand a word of what people were saying.

I sat by the window in a berth of four seats, two facing forward and two facing backward. The seat across from me was empty, and the aisle seats were occupied by two women in their early 20's. They appeared to be traveling with four others seated in the berth across the aisle, the six of them engaged in lively conversation. The woman next to me had dark hair and groomed eyebrows, I made eye contact with her and said: "Français?" She nodded her head sideways, no. "English?" I asked, and got another sideways nod. I pointed to my watch, "Braga? What time does the train pull into Braga?" I asked. Through a combination of gesture, facial expression and ESP, the dark-haired woman explained that this train wasn't going all the way to Braga, that I would have to change trains at a station called Campanhã.

Like Holly Hunter in The Piano I opened a small notebook and wrote Campagna and showed it to her, to indicate that I knew where to switch trains. She nodded and began to mime descending the train and making a connection to another one, speaking to me throughout this exercise in the hopes that I understood some of what she was saying. I picked up on a phrase that sounded like ligne 1 and indicated that I understood by making my fingers "walk" off the train and "board" another one, and writing line 1 in my notebook. My new travel companion smiled and said "si". Then I pointed to my watch and asked "what time does the train get to Campagna?" She pointed to the top of the dial, then to the 10, and held her hand 0ut for a moment, waving it from side to side to indicate approximately. I wrote 11:50 in my notebook, she shook her head sideways. I wrote 10:50 and she nodded. I circled 10:50 to indicate that I understood this was when I should expect to make my connection at Campanhã.

As satisfied as I was with my sensory communication skills, I still had to make a phone call. The young women traveling with me all had cell phones, which they consulted frequently to read and compose text messages. I've never asked a stranger if I could borrow their phone, much less figured out how to communicate this need with gestures, but now was not the time to be shy about it. I let a few minutes pass to work up my courage, and thought of my brother in-law Mike, who has the uncanny ability to speak to anyone. Mike would figure out how to explain to this woman that he needs to use her phone, I thought, and imagined what he may have done in the same situation. I reached into my purse, fished out a €1 coin, and took a deep breath. I made eye contact with my dark-haired travel companion, held the coin in the air with my right hand, and made the call me sign with my left. I pointed to her phone, then pointed to the phone number I'd written in my notebook and said "its a local call, I need to call someone in Portugal," and hoped that she'd understand that I wasn't trying to call out of her cell phone range.

She looked at me, then looked at the coin, furrowed her well-groomed eyebrows slightly and held her hand up to say keep your money, and handed me the phone that had been resting in her lap. I dialed João, he picked up on the first ring. As I spoke, the conversations in the train car dropped, all ears were trained on me as I explained my situation to the man on the other side of the phone connection. Now that he knew what train I was on, João could look up the timetable and figure out when to expect my arrival. I ended the call and handed the phone back to my travel companion. "Thank you," I said, "merci, gracias," and then, finally remembering what I'd heard at the end of every train announcement, "obrigado."
"De nada," my travel companion said, and set the phone back in her lap.

Things went swimmingly until the train stopped for no apparent reason at a darkened station for half an hour. An announcement was made, resulting in a collective groan from the passengers on the train. My travel companion addressed me and pointed to her phone, and I understood that the train had been delayed, and that I might want to call João back to let him know. She handed me the phone, and I dialed. When the train began moving again a collective exhale emanated from the inhabitants of the train. We continued on, stopping at darkened stations with names I couldn't read from my seat.

My travel companion's phone rang, she looked at the incoming number and handed it to me. It was João calling to say that due to the delay I would miss the last connection to Braga, the only way to get there at this time of night was by taxi, and he was going to text the hotel information to this cell phone. "Can you just tell it to me?" I asked.
"It will be hard for you to understand, its better if I send it in a text," he said. I hung up and mimed to the dark-haired woman that I was expecting a text, holding my fingers in keyboard position and pretending to type, and then pointing to the phone. She said something to me that I couldn't figure out, and began collecting her things, including the phone. I stood up to get my backpack from the overhead rack, and she held her hands up and pushed them downward, and I understood that this was not my train stop, but it was hers. She kept talking, pointing to her phone and then to one of her friends in the berth across the aisle. I smiled and nodded, but didn't understand what she was trying to communicate to me.

She got off the train at the next stop, along with a blonde woman who had been sitting across from her. Oh well, I thought, I guess I'll find a payphone at the Campagna train station. The train continued on, and I waited for my stop; I figured it would be at the end of the line and that everyone would be getting off. A figure approached me, one of the women who'd been sitting in the berth across the aisle; she handed me her phone and finally I understood what my travel companion had been trying to say to me - she received João's text and sent it on to one of her friends who was traveling to Campagna. I opened my notebook and jotted down the address, then tried saying it out loud. The woman who'd brought me the message went over the address with me, helping me to pronounce it correctly. "Obrigado," I said, and she returned to her seat.

III. Automobiles

A line of taxis waited outside the Campanhã train station. I found an unoccupied cab, its gray-haired driver standing on the pavement, and handed him a piece of paper that I'd transcribed the hotel address onto. He read it, and I said "Braga?" He looked at me, exclaimed "Braga!" and launched into something that I didn't understand but knew meant are you crazy lady? This is really far away! He walked away from me with the piece of paper in his hand, and consulted a fellow driver, or perhaps his supervisor. He came back a moment later, still chatting.
"OK?" I asked.
"OK, OK" he said, and opened the trunk of his car for my backpack.

I settled into the car and we took off. The driver talked incessantly, I assumed he was talking on a cell phone earbud until I heard a whistle, looked up and saw that he was making eye contact with me in the rear-view mirror. He said something that sounded like capeesh, and I shook my head: no, I don't understand. He kept talking, ending his sentences with the word português? "No," I said to him, shaking my head, "I don't speak Portuguese." This seemed to agitate him, and he began talking faster. I opened my notebook and pointed to João's phone number. "If you want I can call someone who can speak to you," I said, holding the notebook up so he could see what I was talking about. Si, si, he said. I pointed to the cellphone that sat next to him on the passenger side seat, "can I use your phone?" I asked. Si, he replied, and handed the phone to me.

João is going to hate me, I thought as I dialed his number for the fourth time since 3 o'clock that afternoon; we hadn't even met and already I was causing him grief. "I'm in a taxi and the driver doesn't understand," I said once we'd connected.
"Let me speak to him," João said. The driver was in the middle of an agitated soliloquy, and it took some effort to get his attention.
"Excuse me," I said, thrusting the phone into his personal space, "excuse me, could you please take the phone, there's someone who can talk to you." The driver continued on his rant, unabated. "Excuse me, excuse me," I kept saying, and lightly touched his shoulder, to no avail. "Excuse me," I said again, my touch on his shoulder growing more firm. Finally he looked at me in the rear-view mirror, "there's someone on the phone who can talk to you." He took the phone from my extended hand and began speaking into it. "OK?" I asked when he disconnected.
"OK, OK," he said, and drove us past a highway sign that read: Braga 44km.

We continued on this way for some time, the driver talking a blue streak, intermittently looking at me in the rear-view mirror to see if I understood anything. At one point he pointed to his temple with an index finger and said "cray zee, craaaaay zeeeeee!" Then he rubbed his index and middle fingers against his thumb, making the international sign for expensive and said "reesh, reeeeesh!"
"I know, I know," I said, "I don't usually take expensive cab rides from Portuguese train stations in the middle of the night, but there was a last minute change in my itinerary." I listened to the music coming from the car radio and realized that I was hearing a cover of Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now, sung by a female vocalist; it wasn't a version I'd heard before.

We got off the highway and began circling streets, the driver became more agitated; although he had a GPS monitor on the dashboard it seemed he was lost. I'm not from here, he seemed to be saying to me, I don't usually take passengers this far out of my way. We drove up a dead-end street, then turned back around. We circled the area, the driver speaking to me in a tone that sounded more desperate and anxious than before.

I had been watching the number on the fare box grow steadily higher, and didn't have enough cash on hand to pay the driver. He slowed the car near an ATM, and I tried to sound out the words printed on the side of it: Caixa Automatica. "Kai-ksah out-oh-mah-ticah," I said, and pointed to the sign.
"Si, si," he said. I left the car door open in case there was any doubt as to my intention of returning, and hoped that the hold on my debit card that the international operator had told me about in Barcelona had been lifted. I slid my card through the magnetic reader on the glass door of the shelter, and a tiny light changed from red to green. I put my card into the appropriate slot of a cash dispenser, and withdrew €200 without incident. I breathed a sigh of relief, tucked the money and the card into my purse, and walked back outside where the car was still running, the door I'd opened was ajar, but the driver was nowhere to be seen.

Nothing good ever happens in empty taxi cabs that are left idling with a door wide open; I scanned the area - I was the only person on the block. I stood for a moment and considered my options - was I safer in the cab or outside of it? Should I open the trunk, take my backpack and run for my life? Should I abandon the backpack and run for my life? If I'd taken that grim facebook quiz that tells you the hour and means of your own demise would the result have been: bludgeoned to death by a Portuguese cab driver, 1am, November 9th, 2009, 38 years old?

I got back in the cab, closed the door, and engaged in a 360° visual scan. Shortly I saw the figures of two men approaching from behind the car; the driver and a man dressed in a doorman's uniform. The doorman was making wide gestures with his arms, perhaps explaining how to get to my hotel. My breathing relaxed a bit as I watched the men communicate. The driver returned to the car and got in. "OK?" I asked.
"OK, OK," he said, and put the car back in gear. His cell phone rang - I hoped that it was João calling to see why I still hadn't shown up.

The call ended and the driver pulled away from the curb, he took us around a bend and down a street that had a signs for a hospital on it. He talked to me, but the only word I understood was hospital. He pulled over to a curb and repeated himself, ending his sentence with capeesh? I shook my head no. He spoke to me again, maintaining eye contact in the rear-view mirror: capeesh, capeesh? I kept shaking my head no.
"It doesn't matter how many times you say it to me in Portuguese," I said, "I still won't understand." Finally something clicked. "Oh," I said, "the guy from Habitat is going to meet me here?" I asked, and pointed to the curb.
"Si, si," the driver said.
"So I should get out here?" I said, walking my fingers through the air to the door of the cab.
"Si, si!" the driver said, his mood seemed to lift with my comprehension of the situation.

A moment later João appeared on the sidewalk; I knew instantly that it was him, and I can honestly say that I have never been so happy to meet someone in my life. If I had to set the moment to music, I would use Parliament's 1978 classic: Flash Light. The driver sat at the wheel for what seemed like a long time filling out a very detailed receipt; the fare came to €70, almost as much as the economy class airline ticket from Barcelona and the first class train ticket from Lisbon combined. I didn't understand why a receipt was necessary, João explained that I could submit it for reimbursement due to the extenuating circumstances of my travels. The driver got out of the car and opened the trunk, revealing my backpack and two plastic bottles of water. João took my backpack and the driver took out the water bottles, holding them up and speaking to me.
"He wants to know if you want some water," João explained.
"Oh, that's okay, I have a water bottle," I said.

We parted ways with the cab driver and walked along dark, quiet streets; João carried my backpack, and I felt positively light with the success of having survived my journey, and excited that the person I was speaking to understood what I was saying. I talked a mile a minute, it was as if I'd been infected with the cab driver's proclivity for incessant speech, and recounted every detail of my trip like a schoolgirl telling someone about her day. When I explained to João that a kind-hearted stranger on the train had lent me her cell phone, he asked: "what was her name?" I'm sure someone said her name out loud over the course of that train ride, but my comprehension of the language was so low that I couldn't decipher names from any other parts of speech.
"I have no idea," I said.
"I have her number, I'll send her a text thanking her," João said.

The hotel was just a few blocks away, João walked me to the door of my room and said there was another member of the team who'd had travel difficulties and hadn't arrived yet. The others would leave for the work site at 8:40 in the morning, but I could sleep in and wait for my fellow errant traveler, and we'd arrive at the job site late together.

It was 1:20am, over 16 hours had passed since I left Mara's apartment in Barcelona. I turned the key to the hotel room door and crept in; in the dark I could make out the figure of a sleeping person occupying one of two twin beds. I took off my shoes and glasses, and climbed into the empty bed fully clothed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part II - Seven Hours in the Barcelona Airport

I needed to get in touch with the Habitat trip leader. There were pay Internet kiosks on the other side of security, but I couldn't go through without a boarding pass. The earliest I could check in and get my boarding pass was two and a half hours prior to takeoff. I dropped €1 into a payphone, which bought me two minutes to get in touch with M and walk him through my email to find a phone number for someone at Habitat. It was six in the morning in Chicago, I left a message with a hurried explanation, and said I'd call again.

I idled away a couple hours in the seating area of a fast food restaurant, drinking coffee and trying not to stress out. The two TAP Portugal check-in windows were due to open at 3:05 to start checking passengers in for the 6:35 flight to Lisbon, and by 3:00 people had started lining up - I was first in line. I waited for 3:05 to arrive with a mania. At the appointed hour, two languid women dressed in skirt suits and neckerchiefs took their stations and began plugging things into sockets and pressing various buttons, all the while engaging in a collegial conversation. Neither of them looked up at the line of people that had formed in front of them. When I was sure things were going to get started, the woman at the window in front of me stood up and walked away with no explanation, reappearing a couple minutes later and moving across the floor with all the urgency of a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll on the beach. I bore holes into her head with my stare, my whole body leaning forward over the red line on the floor marking the spot where people should wait until called on. By the time she acknowledged my presence I was fighting back tears of frustration.

I presented my itinerary to the woman, got my boarding pass, and asked her to reconfirm my return flight to Chicago; the prospect of going through all of this again nine days from now was too much to bear. This set off a flurry of questions - you bought this ticket today?, and a phone call to the TAP Portugal ticket window on the other side of the floor. I was so close to tears that I concentrated on tiny details to distract myself - the woman's nail polish, the pen in her hand that she took notes with. She told me to reconfirm my return flight the day before I was scheduled to fly home, and to check in at the Lufthansa counter when I arrived at the airport.

I went through a short but maddeningly slow line at security, and found an information booth on the other side where I was directed to the pay Internet kiosks. I found two kiosks, but neither of them accepted coins or my debit card. I walked to a payphone, my face getting hotter by the second, tears of frustration beginning to slip past my resolve to remain calm and making their way over the edges of my eyelids in a single file. Nothing was working, I had been at the airport for over four hours, and I was at my breaking point. I found a payphone and dropped €1 in it, and when I finally heard M's voice come through the line I was full on sobbing.

"What's wrong?" M asked, not having listened to the two voicemail messages I'd left him in his sleep.
"Everything!" I said, "this has been the shittiest day!" I had enough time to walk him through my email account, and then the phone started beeping and counting down the seconds until we were disconnected. I didn't have any more change, so I called back using my debit card, but before the operator connected me I had to read the digits on my debit card out loud for the benefit of anyone who might have been listening, twice, along with the security code on the back, the phone number I was trying to reach, my full name, and my zip code. M came through the line again and I became a ridiculous spectacle, a grown woman crying on a payphone in the Barcelona airport, cursing and sputtering, tears shooting out of my eyes and running down the inside of my glasses and down my cheeks. I don't remember everything I said, but I think there was a "they don't care, they don't just put you on the next flight, they make you pay," and "I'm so tired of nobody giving a shit!" When I'd exorcised the worst of it I jotted down two phone numbers that M had found in a recent email from Habitat, and hung up the phone.

I dialed the international operator again to use my debit card, repeated the exercise of reading the digits on the card out loud, and the number I was trying to reach. The first phone number I gave the operator didn't go through, so I gave the operator the second one. There was a pause, and the man who was connecting my call said:
"There's a block on this card."
"I just used it to make a call," I said, and in an attempt to impress upon him the gravity of the situation, "I'm having an emergency."
"I'll try again," he said, and came back a few seconds later with "It won't go through, do you have another card?"

I did have another card; it was secreted away in a security sleeve, sewn into the bottom of my backpack, underneath all my clothes, toiletries and electronics.
"Can you hold on for just a minute?" I asked, and let the phone go slack and hang from its metal cord, swaying back and forth with the force of gravity like a pendulum. I hoped the operator could hear me as I unzipped my carefully packed bag and dumped its contents onto the floor, dug into the bottom for the security sleeve - exposing my secret stash of money and backup credit card for anyone who happened to be watching, unzipped the sleeve and pulled out the credit card. Just in case anyone had missed hearing my debit card number, the operator made me read the digits of my credit card and the three digit security code aloud, twice. Finally, through some kind of divine intervention, I heard the voice of Habitat Portugal on the line.

With urgency in my voice and snot in my nasal cavity I explained my situation to the person on the other end of the line, a man named João (rhymes with "wow"). I probably sounded insane, but I got my message across. João told me to get on a shuttle bus headed for Oriente station when I landed in Lisbon, and to call him back with my train information. I said something noncommittal like "okay," and ended the call. I placed the phone receiver back in its cradle and surveyed the scene around me: it looked like a small weather event had hit a very localized area of the airport - my possessions were strewn around the floor by the phone booth, bras and panties mingling with travel sized toothpaste and guides to Barcelona and Portugal. A few feet from me, partially obscured by the phone booth, I saw a pair of crossed legs wearing black leather boots. Until that moment I hadn't realized that I had an audience. I peeked around the corner of the phone booth and made brief eye contact with a boot-wearing woman, then got down on my hands and knees and set about re-packing my bag.

I found a restroom and checked out my reflection in the mirror, my eyes were red and puffy and I looked like I'd smoked too much pot. I ran cold water over my face and headed for my boarding gate. As I boarded the plane Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now piped in over the PA system. I really, really hoped that was the case.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part I

Four luggage-toting, English-speaking girls were on the same Metro car that I was riding in. We all got off at Plaça Espanya, and I approached one of them to ask if they were heading to the airport. Not only were they going to the airport, but they were flying to Portugal. The girl I spoke to asked what I was going to do there, and when I told her about the Habitat for Humanity build she said that she'd done a couple Habitat builds herself, and so had her traveling companions. She introduced herself as Katie, she had long dark hair and walked with a limp, the result of recently twisting her ankle in the stairwell of a youth hostel. Accompanying her was Nikki, who had a short red bob of hair; Meghan, who wore glasses and had her hair in a ponytail that hadn't been pulled through all the way, leaving a loop that looked like a teacup handle; and Adrienne, who had blonde hair and spoke fluent Spanish. They were college friends who'd met in Spain a handful of years ago during their junior year abroad, and had planned this vacation together as a kind of reunion. Adrienne had taken the bus into the city from the airport on arrival, so she knew where to find it.

We installed ourselves at the bus stop, and chatted. They had a number of suitcases between them, which they leaned up against the wall of the bus shelter. I wore my backpack, it was helping to block the wind that was coming off the street. After a few minutes a car pulled up to the bus stop and the driver rolled down the passenger side window to ask something. Adrienne approached the car, but even with her fluency she didn't understand what the man wanted. After a moment she shrugged her shoulders and the car drove off. A few minutes later a man crossed the street in a brisk trot and approached us, pointing to his eyes and speaking quickly. He'd been sitting in a bar across the street and had witnessed as someone had walked past us and stolen a bag while we were distracted by the driver.

A cold sensation ran down the length of my spine. I checked my belongings: my backpack was still on me, and none of the zippers had been opened; my pacsafe purse was still around my neck, unopened; and my secret wallet that held my passport and ticket was secure under my clothes. The girls looked around and quickly realized that Katie's purse was missing. She'd lost her passport but her cash, credit cards, drivers license, airline ticket, camera and cell phone were all in a separate bag. The group strategized on the best course of action as Katie stared at a fixed point in the distance trying to remember what else had been in her purse: a pair of glasses, a set of headphones, her social security card and a package of birth control pills.

The bus arrived, and we piled in. I sat across from Katie and told her the story of how I'd once been pick-pocketed in Paris, losing everything of value except my passport. Adrienne told me that on an earlier leg of this trip someone had stolen her suitcase from a train going from Brussels to Amsterdam, the thief ended up with all her clothing but no valuables.

We parted ways at the airport, we were on the same flight but my ticket was bought through Spanair and theirs was on TAP Portugal so we had different check-in locations. The line moved slowly, there was only one Spanair window open and at least 20 people in line. When my turn came I presented my information to the handsome, dark-haired man at the window, who informed me that my flight had been canceled. I asked him to clarify, hoping that I'd missed some vital piece of information. I got the same explanation and was told to check with the TAP Portugal ticketing window at the end of the terminal. My pulse quickened, the trip leader from Habitat was due to meet me and everyone else who'd signed up for the project at the Porto airport in a couple hours, and I didn't have her contact information. I found the TAP Portugal ticketing window, where Katie sat barefoot on the floor nursing her bruised ankle, Nikki and Meghan guarded a pile of luggage, and Adrienne was speaking to a ticketing agent.

Adrienne explained that what I'd understood as canceled really meant that I'd gotten to the check-in window less than an hour before the flight was due to take off, and anyone who tried to check in under that time was automatically denied access to the plane. I'd gotten there with 55 minutes to go.

There are moments in every international travel experience when I am taken out of my comfort zone and reminded of my inescapable American-ness, they range from the banal - going to McDonald's and finding no ice or napkins, to the unintentionally hilarious - reporting my lost wallet in a Paris police station and asking to use the bathroom, to find that the facilities consist of a drain at the bottom of a depression in the floor, three feet from a wooden bench festooned with a pair of locked handcuffs. My American moment in Barcelona had arrived: if this had been Chicago the time limit for checking in would have been 30 minutes before takeoff, and if by some chance I'd missed that deadline I would have been put on a standby list for the next flight. As it turns out, flying standby is an American construct - the only option available was to purchase new tickets on the next flight Porto. The ticket pricing structure also felt distinctly foreign, the price first offered to Adrienne had been €694, but seemingly it depended on how many of us were trying to get on the flight - if just one of us wanted to fly to Porto it would cost €57 but the next ticket might be more expensive.

The process of looking up new flights involved a lengthy inspection passports and travel documents, and performing what seemed to be a deep search on a computer, so Meghan left the group and momentarily reappeared with a bottle of red wine and four plastic cups she'd bought from an airport concession stand. There was one ticketing agent serving the five of us, and every once in a while someone else would get in line and the agent would ask if we minded if that person were served ahead of us, as their request was likely to be simpler. The next flight on TAP Portugal wasn't for another six hours and the ticketing agent had our passports, so we acquiesced every time.

Aside from a reservation at a youth hostel in Porto, my new-found friends didn't have a deadline for getting there, so they opted to rent a car at €89 per day and drive the roughly 560 miles between Barcelona and Porto using only a Hertz map and their collective wits. I was invited to join them. My flight options were a €57 flight to Lisbon in the early evening and a €20-€30 train ride up the coast, or a €191 flight to Porto the following morning. Part of me really wanted to join those girls on their journey across Spain, but I had no idea when I'd actually arrive at my destination; with the flight to Lisbon at least I had a shot at arriving the same day. We parted ways for the last time, and for reasons that I cannot explain I shook their hands. It felt awkward even before I raised my forearm and extended my hand out to the first of them, but although our brief time together had been traumatic I wasn't sure if it called for hugging. I watched them longingly as they made their way out of the terminal to the Hertz rental office, certain that theirs would be a more enjoyable journey than mine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Barcelona Part II - Mara, Gaudí, and Salty Tea

When I'd emailed Mara asking if there was anything she wanted from the states, she'd requested a decent can opener. I brought the OXO Good Grips can opener from my own household. I took it out of my bag when I passed through security at the Brussels airport, where it was appraised by an x-ray examiner and handed to a supervisor before being returned to me. Throughout the process no words were exchanged, just points and nods indicating that the tool belonged to me, and that I had been cleared to continue my travels with it. I fished it out of my backpack and proudly handed it to Mara, and her eyes widened. "Let me show you what passes for a can opener in this country," she said, and opened a kitchen drawer full of tools. She sifted through the drawer's contents and produced a metal key-like object that reminded me of something a cartoon hobo might use to pry open a hole in a discarded can of beans. I was happy to present her with a hostess gift that was so simple, and that was once part of my own kitchen.

Mara served me a huge bowl of seafood and rice, and we caught up with each other in her living room. We've known each other since high school; we met at a youth program in upstate New York at a Quaker retreat center called Powell House, it drew from a wide base of schools from New York City and the tri-state area, but we've only seen each other a couple times since then. We didn't live far from each other in Brooklyn, and outside of the monthly youth conferences we attended, we spent time together on weekends. It was easy for me to lose touch with people back then; there was no Internet, cell phones, email or facebook, and once people went to college - unless their family stayed in the same place, it was easy to lose people to the sands of time. I was one of the worst offenders; my family moved from New York to Boston, I transferred from a college near Boston to one in Chicago, and if that weren't enough to throw the scent off everyone's trail I took my husband's name. The magic that is facebook reconnected me to Mara a couple years ago, and we'd emailed each other and chatted on IM, finally seeing each other in person last May for a couple hours in New York. Aside from being heavily pregnant, Mara looks exactly as she did years ago, and has the same unsurprised expression and mannerisms that had seemed so precocious on her as a teenager.

I managed to clear my plate during the brief moments that I wasn't talking or breathing, and we left the apartment to Mara's husband and sleeping two year-old daughter, walking a couple blocks to a local bar where I couldn't help noticing that patrons were smoking indoors. It was past 10 on a weeknight, but the neighborhood showed no signs of slowing down or getting ready for bed. We discussed the health care debate in the US, and the fact that the current situation seriously precludes Mara from considering a long-term home-leave; throughout both of her Barcelona-based pregnancies she has never seen a doctor bill. She told me that recently doctors have started showing patients a record of services rendered and their associated costs so that people will begin to understand what a deal they're getting, but there's basically no such thing as having to pay for the doctor unless you opt out of the public health system and pay for a private doctor. I let my mind wander for a minute to consider what life would be like in the US under such a system. While I was still daydreaming about affordable health care for all, Mara told me that American movies and TV shows that feature a storyline about parents starting a college fund as soon as their child is born come across as unrealistic to Spaniards because nobody has to take out school loans to get an education in Spain. I began to wonder why we all don't live there.

When we got home I was surprised to see that it was past 1am. Mara's husband, born and raised in Barcelona, had insisted that a space heater be rolled into the guest room. I appreciated the gesture, but 17 years of Chicago winters have pretty much made me immune to November temperatures in northern Spain. "Don't be too proud to use it," he said to me with a completely serious expression on his face. I slept until after 10, which would have made me feel slovenly, but Mara said it would prepare me for the Spanish eating schedule.

Mara's is a tea drinking household, I fixed myself a cup and brought the warm mug to my lips. For a nanosecond I wasn't sure what had gone wrong with the briny brew that was hitting the roof of my mouth, and quickly realized that I'd poured a heaping teaspoon of salt from what looked like a sugar bowl into my Earl Grey. I ran to the kitchen sink and spat, if nothing else I was certainly awake. I started over, using honey this time.

Mara had work to do, so I got some hints on places of interest to check out on my own. Paranoid or not, Mara told me to be careful of pickpockets. "They love Burt's Bees," she teased as I applied a layer of lip balm.

The next four days were a blur of sensation: I was entranced by the Mercat de la Boquería and its endless stalls of vendors selling everything from jamón ibérico, bacallà and mushrooms to whole rabbits hanging upside down, still covered in fur; overwhelmed by Gaudí's Sagrada Família, still under construction, and the Casa Batlló and Pedrera apartment buildings, with their undulating geometric forms inspired by nature; enchanted by Joan Miró and his journey from canvas to sculpture; and I couldn't stop ordering fresh squeezed orange juice and café con leche whenever I could. I ran my dirty clothes through Mara's whisper-quiet front loading washer, and clipped them to lines outside her windows on multi-colored clothespins, where they blended in with the rest of the neighborhood's laundry. I stared at the Spanish keyboard of Mara's laptop trying to figure out how to type the @ symbol, and felt like I'd accomplished something when I succeeded. When she was able to, Mara joined me on my expeditions, showing me parts of the Gothic Quarter I would never have found on my own. We went to the zoo with her daughter, where the big star was the Catalan donkey that was photographed with children and adults alike, and a display of sewer rats had the words "unwanted but necessary" above their habitat by way of explanation. I began to understand the lexicon of Mara's young daughter, who likes to eat master potatoes and ham trees for dinner (mashed potatoes, ham and broccoli) and has a fascination with elephants. I learned a tiny bit about the history of Catalunya, and wondered what it might be like to have officially recognized minority languages in my own country; Spain has several: Catalan, Basque, Galician and Aranese. Traveling in the US I've often felt as if there were more than one nation contained within its vast borders, I'd be interested to know how many languages are spoken by the 300 million people who call it home.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Barcelona Part I - Arrival

I made the twenty minute journey by train from Nimes to Montpellier where I was due to connect to a train to Barcelona. In the Montpellier station a list of train departures on a screen indicated that several had been delayed; next to my train departure the word supprime appeared. I only knew the word in the context of email, if I delete an email it becomes supprime. I didn´t quite understand that this meant my train had been canceled until an announcement spoken in French went over the PA system telling ticket holders bound for Barcelona to board the train heading to Perpignan, and switch trains at Narbonne. I went to the designated track, where people laden with bags were jammed into the entryway of the train. After asking if it was okay to take an empty seat - some trains have seating assignments, I squeezed my way into a car filled with rowdy adolescents. Across from me a dark-eyed teenager wearing heavy eyeliner called her parents on a cell phone to tell them she´d be arriving late, and a woman who must have been related to one of the teenagers made a particularly loud boy move from the back of the car and sit next to her. He plead innocence, repeating that it wasn´t him, it was his friends who were being so loud.

The train inched along, stopping at towns with names like Sete, Agde and Beziers. I kept an ear out for Norbonne, I had no idea how far it was or how many stops came before it. The train came to complete stops when fast moving trains approached on parallel tracks, causing the windows to shake, and sending the same jolt down my spine that I get if I press my face up to an aquarium facing right only to have a shark sneak up on me from the left.

At Narbonne the train to Barcelona was conveniently located across the platform; I took my assigned seat in a berth next to two English speaking men drinking Mahou beer. One of them was round and balding, the other thin and full-haired, and from their discussion it seemed they were heading to Barcelona on business. The PA system broadcasted announcements in French and Spanish until we reached the border, an unmanned expanse of railyard where the train stood for fifteen minutes in the dark. After a mighty chunk noise that rattled the whole train, we inched towards the first town across the border, where passport control came through the train. From then on the PA announcements were in Catalan and Spanish.

As the train made its approach into Barcelona-Estació de França, I made sure that my secret wallet was secure under my clothing, and that my pacsafe purse was snug against me. 500 grams of Swiss chocolate wasn´t the only gift dad had given me in France, he´d also passed on the gift of paranoia. Initially we´d planned on meeting in Spain, but dad insisted that recent ETA activity made it dangerous, and emailed me a link to an article in Frommers that named Barcelona the world´s top locale for pickpocketing. When I wrote to my friend Mara asking if ETA affected her daily life in Barcelona, she answered in two words: "um, no." I figured as much, but pickpocketing is high on my list of things to be afraid of, having lost a good chunk of money, two credit cards and my drivers license in one fell swoop during the first half hour of a visit to Paris a few years ago. I probably grew from the experience, but its not one I want to repeat.

Mara had sent me walking directions from the station, I marked the route on a map and committed as much of it to memory as possible; I didn't want to risk looking like a vulnerable tourist in the dark. I navigated the narrow, colorfully lit streets from the train station, passing through the Ribera, crossing La Rambla and walking into El Raval, the new scenery enveloping my senses as if in a dream. After about 15 minutes I found Mara's apartment building on Carrer d'En Roig, and pressed the buzzer. Her familiar voice came through the speaker, and she buzzed me in. I climbed the three flights of stairs to her apartment, where she stood in the doorway, beaming and eight months pregnant.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Southern France Part III - Uzès

After the potluck meal we got back in the car. I happened to mention to Sophie that the ride from Nimes had made me a little woozy; dad found it necessary to follow up with a story about me vomiting on a Swiss postal bus at six months old. We drove down another set of winding roads to Uzès, to Sophie and Brayton´s home that dates back to 1550. This house is twice as old as America, I thought as I navigated the stone spiral staircase that led to the guest room. It seemed that everything around me could be calculated in terms of how much older it was than the country I live in. We visited the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct built around 19b.c., and olive trees that were 1100 years old. These trees are five times older than America, I thought as I looked at them.

Dad and I dropped off our luggage and walked through the cobblestone streets of the hillside town while Sophie cooked the first of several delicious meals - in the three days we spent in Uzès I don´t think we had a meal that didn´t include local wine and cheese. Dad and I walked past The Duchy of Uzès, where the red and yellow Catalan flag flapped in the wind, and I heard the sounds of a children´s choir practicing from a building somewhere nearby. The dramatic sounds of a pipe organ mixed with the children´s voices, and as they practiced it began to sound oddly familiar. I stood in my tracks for a minute listening, and then it came to me - through their angelic voices I made out the tune and the words to Beat It. My eyes widened, my jaw dropped and I rummaged through my purse looking for my audio recorder, this was one sound I wanted to remember forever. I quickly set it to record, and stood underneath the window where the music was coming from with my arm in the air as people walked past me with quizzical expressions. Unfortunately, in my hurried state I´d jammed the microphone jack into the headset plug, so I´ll just have to remember that incongruous meeting of medievel and Michael Jackson in my mind for the rest of my life.

To say that Sophie and Brayton were good hosts is an understatement; somehow they unlocked the secret to dad´s mannerisms, not just tolerating him but even managing to direct him at times: when dad interrupted me mid-sentence to announce that he´d found a store up the street that sold lavender sachets, Brayton stopped the conversation and pointed it out; when dad poured the last of a bottle of wine into his own glass that Sophie had just reached for, Brayton stopped the conversation and pointed it out; and when dad approached the proprieter of a vinyard to ask for a tasting while another customer was still being helped, Brayton stopped the conversation and pointed it out. I have discovered the secret to visiting dad, and it is to bring Brayton along with me. Perhaps dad has respect for Brayton because they are both mathematicians, or perhaps its the novelty of getting a reaction from someone who hasn´t been worn down from years of exposure to dad. Sophie´s kind manner and unending patience added a dimension of calm and tolerance to the experience.

The rare moments when dad wasn´t talking it was as if his voice were lodged in my head, I was unable to think of any normal topics of conversation, and remained silent for fear that I´d start talking about the history of dental floss or the particulars of my gastro-intestinal system. He remained strangely silent at the Haribo factory museum, where displays of candy, antique advertisements and Matthew Barney-esque videos of sugar being melted and poured into molds kept me and about three hundred kids enthralled. Dad claimed no knowledge of the brand, though I ate it constantly as a kid, and still indulge in the odd packet of gummy bears or raspberries. Dad´s view of sugar, unless its part of a rarified chocolate truffle, is rather preachy. He held back on paying entry to the museum, prompting Sophie to pay for all of us, and as I spent all of €9 on a gigantic box of candy and a refrigerator magnet, he hovered over the cashier and pronounced: "wow, that´s a lot of money for all that crap." His thriftiness didn´t stop at the Haribo museum, at The Medieval Garden he was willing to pay the €4 entry fee, but didn´t want to part with an extra €1.10 to walk to the top of the tower.

After three days together we parted ways at the Nimes train station; dad was taking a train back to Geneva, and I was headed south to Barcelona. There were cringe-inducing moments, to be sure - while walking to the Pont du Gard, dad asked if we could wait for him so he could step into a grove of olive trees to "do what men do", and his perennial inability to pass by a small child without waving and saying "hi", but I can´t think of the last time a visit with dad went this smoothly, and I have Sophie and Brayton to thank for it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Southern France Part II - Languedoc-Rousillon

I went to breakfast at 7am, as soon as the dining room opened, to find dad already there in his running gear, his pale legs poking out from under a breakfast table like matchstick potatoes. His glasses lay on the table and he was absorbed in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. As I approached the table he said "bonjour" and then his entire body spasmed for a moment as if he´d been struck by lightning.
"I didn´t see that it was you!" he said, returning the glasses to his face, and then, as if picking up on a conversation thread from a previous discussion: "By my calculations, we´re number four and five in here for breakfast," and began a discouse on the wisdom of choosing hotels that cater to the business traveler on weekends, because that´s when the rates are cheapest. "I hate to tell you what I paid for our rooms," he said conspiratorially, his index finger resting on his lower lip. I stood up to get some orange juice and he stopped mid-sentence, continuing right where he left off when I sat down as if I´d hit a pause button on him when I stood from the table, "Eighty-Nine Euros." Two more patrons arrived, prompting dad to tell me that the breakfast count was now up to 7. Some mornings I have patience for his line of thinking, other mornings its like having breakfast with Rain Man. I finished my coffee and told him I needed to make a phone call. "Hold it, you´re not calling from the room are you?" he called after me.
"No dad, I have a calling card."

I walked outside and found a glass walled phone booth on a street corner. Nothing good ever happens in glass walled phone booths. At least once in every spy movie an innocent bystander makes a phone call from one, only to be mistaken by a hit man and killed in a drive-by shooting. I looked up and down the street for any suspicious looking vehicles before walking in. It was midnight in Chicago, and I spoke to M as tiny dogs on leashes stuck their noses underneath the glass and sniffed me as they passed by.

Sophie and Brayton, friends from Chicago who own a home in Uzes, picked us up at the hotel. We drove along a narrow, winding two-way road that was perilously close to a deep ditch that ran next to it, and looked like it barely accomodated a single car. I gripped the door handle of the passenger side seat the whole way, though I´m not sure what use it would have done me if we´d tipped over into the ditch or crashed into an oncoming vehicle. Our first stop was at the Languedoc-Roussilon Quaker meeting, housed in a building that dates back to the 1800´s and is surrounded by olive trees that get pressed into oil every year at harvest time. We were greeted by a woman who asked where dad and I were from; dad said we were from planet earth, I rolled my eyes and didn´t care who saw it.

I was glad for the silence, I haven´t attended Quaker meeting regularly in years, but I was tired and it guaranteed me one precious hour of being in the presence of dad minus his incessant patter. I´m not sure I´ve ever seen dad quiet for that long. There were 14 of us present, I was the youngest by at least 20 years. At the rise of meeting everyone introduced themselves; dad presented himself by saying he was born in a town that had not one but two periodic elements named after it - Berkelinium and Californium. I said I was visiting from Chicago and left it at that.

An outdoor pot-luck lunch followed with oysters on the half shell, wine, and other delectable treats that I´ve never seen at any other Quaker pot-luck meal. I watched as the aging Quakers around me absorbed dad´s eccentricities like wine to sponge cake, and realized that I´d hit the jackpot - Quakers always tolerate eccentricities, there are at least five eccentrics in every Quaker meeting I´ve ever been to, why hadn´t I thought of this years ago? I relaxed at the table, absorbing the late afternoon sunshine and the pleasant buzz brought on by wine from local vineyards, confident in the knowledge that I was in good hands.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Southern France, Part 1

I got off the train in Nimes, walked down to the main floor of the train station and found a map of the area mounted to a wall. I´d been standing there mere seconds when I heard someone calling out "hey hey" and making whistling noises. I should have known it was dad. He greeted me with his usual adaptation on the French tradition of kissing both cheeks, only once dad has done both sides he goes in for an extra, third kiss. Its not a kiss exactly, its more like brushing cheeks and making a kiss noise, I don´t remember exactly when he started doing this but there´s no stopping him.

We checked into our hotel rooms, and dad took me on a tour of Nimes, stopping by an ancient Roman coliseum where bullfights are still held to this day. I take bullfights personally, as my sun sign is Taurus. I realize its a hundreds of years old tradition, and I have respect for the toreador spirit, but still - what did Ferdinand ever do to you? I always root for the bull. We walked up and down ancient staircases as dad talked about inflation rates, and then went to a cafe in the old town that had good coffee and terrible service while dad told me about his prostate. With my jet lag and about 2 hours of sleep I lasted until about 8pm local time. On the walk back to the hotel the streets were filled with the honking of car horns because Bordeaux had just beat Monaco in soccer by a score of 1-0.

In his hotel room dad opened a bottle of red wine and two unpasteurized cheeses - one made from goat´s milk, the other from sheep´s milk, a baguette, some cooked brussels sprouts he´d bought from his "vegetable lady" in Geneva (which he referred to as crucibles due to their digestive properties), and two apples. It sounds like a mess, but it was delicious. The goat cheese was mild, and the sheep cheese was blue like roquefort - sharp, but the sting passed quickly like wasabi. I couldn´t stop eating it.
"Is it wrong that I can´t stop eating this?" I asked rhertorically.
"Well, yes, but that´s okay," dad said, and then went right to the place I always try to avoid with him when it comes to discussing food - my weight. He said I`d slimmed down in my old age, but that I couldn´t "escape" my mother or my grandmother in terms of body type. This is the same man who´d just greeted me at the train station with half a kilo of Swiss chocolate.

Dad is unreasonably thin, and very proud of it. I refused to tell him how much I weighed after I turned 12 years old, and I´m glad I had the presence of mind to do so, it could have induced some serious issues about food and weight for me. Drunk on wine and jet lag, I launched into a diatribe about the inherent problems in judging a person´s fitness based on the BMI - Body Mass Index scale, a tool that has put me in the overweight category for 25 years. Dad kept up with me, partly because he was also drunk and partly because we were discussing metrics and statistics, two things he loves talking about. I left his room feeling satisfied that I´d made my point, but the wine could have been boosting my sense of triumph.

I fell asleep at 9:30pm, and woke up at 2:30am. I spent the next four hours surfing channels on the hotel room TV. There were stations in French, German, Spanish, Italian and English. One channel was showing Death Becomes Her dubbed in French, and TF2 was broadcasting a talk show called lóbjet du scandale, in which a panel of experts discussed the state of American democracy while a studio audience watched. On the oval table where the panel sat some kind of conveyor belt circulated objects relating to the topic at hand: a miniature American flag; a pre-9/11 miniature set of lower Manhattan; and a photo of Osama bin Laden. TF1 showed a period piece dubbed in French with men in sideburns and a lot of chandeliers, and Canal + showed Léncroyable Hulk starring Ed Norton. I settled on an unidentified film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman set in the American southwest, dubbed in French. When I tired of the inconsistency in what I was hearing and the movements of the actors mouths I switched to France 24, where the news was being broadcast in English. Chicago had made the news because of the Fenger High School violence; its nice to know my hometown´s standing in the world hasn´t changed since the days of Al Capone.

Monday, November 2, 2009

16 Hours of Traveling, condensed.

Your hometown never looks so attractive as when you're about to leave it. The night before my flight M and I drove to Rosemont, a desolate concrete village northwest of the city, to see Leonard Cohen in concert. It was sublime, despite the less than grand venue of the Rosemont Theatre - a round monolith off the highway that has carpeting imprinted with the Greek masks of tragedy & comedy, recessed lighting and a smokey quality to the air that made it seem like we'd been transported to a sales convention in 1985. It was raining when we left, and the city sparkled on the drive home.

In the morning I took care of some last minute details, and packed everything I would need for the next two and a half weeks into my official Rick Steves carry-on sized backpack that I bought especially for this trip. M is such a nervous traveler that he became anxious for me and got me to the airport before 3pm even though my flight wasn't until after 5. Near the underground terminal entrance a musician played Neil Young's Harvest Moon, which I took to be a good sign. I had attended the concert of one Canadian performer the previous night, and here was a musician playing a song written by another. Why Canadian musicians should be a good omen I'm not sure, but I'll look for the patterns in anything. I had no change to drop in his open guitar case, so I said "that sounded really nice," as I walked past. He looked up an said "thank you, thank you very much."

As I walked to the American Airlines check-in counter, a familiar figure walked towards me. It was my French teacher Tim, who was on his way to Seattle. I took that to be another good sign, as the first leg of my journey was in France.

I went through security and towards my gate, conveniently located right next to a Gold Coast Dogs concession. I was feeling nostalgic for Chicago already, so I indulged in a char-dog with everything: bright green relish; mustard; a dill pickle spear; onions; tomatoes; sport peppers; and celery salt. It sounds like a mess but its delicious, and I'm proud to say that in Chicago there are more hot dog establishments than all other fast food combined. Perhaps this is linked, so to speak, with Chicago's meat-processing past. The Union Stock Yards - which are the subject of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, processed a huge percentage of American meat from the end of the civil war until 1971, creating fortunes for men like Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift and George Hormel.

I ate my hot dog at the gate, where my fellow passengers spoke in a cacophony of languages. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a group of French-speaking passengers to brush up on my skills. Is it possible for non-verbal vocalization to sound foreign? Even the laughs and the sneezes sounded different.

I made a connection in Brussels from an airport that featured Starbucks and Pizza Hut as well as Hermes, Burberry and a BMW that was on display as if on a showroom floor. It was eerily quiet for an airport, and I realized that unlike O'Hare there were no TVs anywhere. I fell asleep on the flight to Marseille, my mouth hanging agape until my throat was completely dry. The Marseille airport was small and calm, and had palm trees and a few birds hopping around the main floor. I ate a sandwich near a terminal where flights arrived from Ouagadougou, Tunis and Casablanca.

I took a shuttle bus to the train station, and watched the scenery of cypress trees, graffiti and dilapidated buildings with laundry lines hanging out the windows as Lady Marmalade's Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi? played over the sound system. At the train station I bought my ticket to Nimes, and boarded a train heading for Bordeaux. On the platform outside my window a family was seeing someone off, waving and miming to an unseen person on the train. When the train started moving, one of them - a boy who looked about 18 years old, ran alongside it until he couldn't keep up any longer.