Yesterday was a long day of travel, starting at 11:00 in the morning, and ending at about 10:30 last night. And while it was long, it was fairly easy and uneventful, spent on planes and trains, and waiting around in airports and train stations. I rediscovered my love of trains, and oh, if I could take a train everywhere I go, I would. The gentle, rocking motion, the constantly changing scenery outside the window, the unlimited potential for daydreaming. I marveled at how late it gets dark here; not until about 10:00. I delighted in how green everything is here, how many trees, and how much countryside, as we passed through farms and fields and the occasional small village. After about an hour and a half I spotted a château out the window in the distance and sighed happily. As I said, it was a mostly uneventful trip. That is, until I arrived in the small, sleepy town of Amboise at about 10 p.m. last night. I figured I would just take a taxi from the train station to the hotel, but to my dismay there was not one in sight. And the station itself was closed for the night, dark and abandoned. "Excuse me," I asked a passerby. "Do you know if there are any taxis?" "Sorry," she said. "I don't know." I assessed the situation and decided it didn't look good. I was all alone and disoriented in a strange town, loaded down with bags, and with not even a phone number for a cab company or even for the hotel. I took one last shot on a group of French people also exiting the station. I repeated my question, to which the woman replied, "Of course there are taxis! They're right...Oh..." she trailed off as she rounded the corner and saw the abandoned parking lot, the empty taxi queue. "How strange...No, there's nothing," they murmured amongst themselves. "Where are you going?" the man asked. I told him the name of my hotel. "Well, we can drop them off in centre ville," the man proposed to the other members of his group. "I'll go get the car."
Them? I wondered. Then I noticed another lone and stranded traveler, like myself, who had happened to find this group of kindly strangers before I did. She couldn't have been more than fifteen, and she looked so young and lost and confused that my heart immediately went out to her. She had a piece of paper from the language school here, the same language school that my students will be attending in a couple weeks time, and so I told her she could come to the hotel with me and we could ask for directions or a taxi there. And so five of us and all our assorted luggage all poured into a tiny Renault, and we headed to the center of town. "You have happened across a very nice man," the woman told me, sandwiched between me and my fellow traveler in the backseat. "Yes!" I chirped. "Luckily!"
"He's my brother-in-law," she continued. "And this is my husband." Then she proceeded to give us the tour of the town, pointing out the important landmarks. "Ca c'est la Loire...et voilà le marché. Is it open tomorrow? Yes, it's open tomorrow. Pedestrian zone, more pedestrian zone...And there's the Château d'Amboise. It's beautiful, no?" I oohed and ahhed enthusiastically as she pointed an elegant finger out the window. And then we had arrived, and I thanked them all as emphatically as I could, given my disheveled and travel-weary state. But seriously, thank heavens for the kindness of French strangers.
Once in the hotel, things did not go any better for my young companion, unfortunately. The address she was looking for was at the other end of town, and a call to the two (?) cabs in town revealed that both were finished for the night. "Well, it's not so far," the concierge back-tracked. It's just a bit complicated. Here, I'll show you on the map." He handed her the map. "Sorry I can't take you myself," he apologized, "but I'm here alone." I couldn't imagine sending this young girl out into the dark empty streets by herself, braces and all. I tried to put myself in her place, at her age, alone, lost in a foreign country, scared. I was sure there had been some misunderstanding, some communication breakdown in her plans somewhere. People don't just send kids that age off to another country by themselves without making sure there's someone waiting for them on the other end, even in Europe. I wanted desperately to help her, but I couldn't think of how. I was on the verge of saying, "I have a room here! You can stay with me for the night and then we'll find you a cab tomorrow." I contemplated whether this sounded as creepy as I thought it did, and decided that actually, it was creepier. And so I looked her in the eye and said, "Ca va?" She held my gaze with just the slightest bit of moisture in her eyes and said that yes, she would be fine. And off she went into the dark night, pink backpack on her back, dragging her suitcase behind her. And I spent the night worrying about her, wishing I had done more to help. Perhaps because she was the same age as my students will be, I felt responsible for her somehow. I hoped she was ok, that she had found her way, that there was someone waiting for her on the other end. Though this small, sleepy town seems fairly safe, I hoped something hadn't happened to her on the way. I didn't know if I would ever find out what happened to her, but I admired her for being a much tougher kid than I ever was, and I wished her the best.
This morning while in the shower I heard a noise like an explosion, like a hollow bang, like far away rumbling thunder, followed by voices. Having no idea what it was, I somehow convinced myself that it was the maid opening the door of my room, loudly. But when I came out there was no one there. Had there really been anyone at all? I didn't think any more of it and went downstairs to breakfast. There was a gendarme in the lobby, talking to someone. Weird, I thought, but again, I didn't think much about it. Finally it all came together when an overexcited and chatty older lady came into the dining room to announce to the server, "It's too bad about that car out there!" She pointed towards the window. "And you know, I had a dream last night that there was a car in the hotel! And now look!" she said, obviously proud of herself. And then I understood that the sound I had heard wasn't a maid, or rolling thunder, or an explosion; it was the sound of a car crashing into the hotel.
So far, there's not been a dull moment in Amboise.
Then this morning I was walking by the château, and in one of those absolutely unexpected and serendipitous moments, who did I see but the no longer lost young traveler. "Bonjour!" I called out. "Ca va?" She was fine, she said, and she had found the house she was looking for. Both her French and her English were halting, so we didn't get much farther than that, but I told her that I had been worried about her, and that I was glad she was ok.
Oh, and there were fireworks last night at midnight, over the château. I could see them out my window, through the branches of a suddenly much under-appreciated tree.
France, France, oh what you do to me.