Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Paris: Ready or Not, Here I come!


Writing about my friend Joan’s trip to France (France, Drop by Drop, 06.27.12) has me thinking about my own travels there and, in particular, my attraction to Paris. I have lost count of how many times I’ve visited the City of Light. Each visit is a voyage of discovery, from my first, when I spent six weeks there, walking, walking, walking to take in its delights, to one of the more recent ones, that I’ll tell you about, today.

The Iraq war started on March 19, 2003 with the bombing of Baghdad, dubbed Shock and Awe. It also happened to be my birthday. My friend Reggie threw me a birthday party in which we sat forlornly in front of her TV eating cake, watching bomb flashes over the rooftops of Baghdad and, with party noise-makers, giving the Bronx cheer to every member of the presidential administration who appeared on the screen.

I had a special reason to be interested in the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom: my old friend, Greg, was in the advance forces, attached to an intelligence unit. Before too many days had passed, he was able to make email contact, although many messages were scrambled, due to sand in his computer’s keyboard.

Things went along well enough for a couple of months. His communiqués were fascinating, as he was part of the team that, among other things, was investigating Saddam Hussein’s several palaces, the architectural marvels of which he described in detail. But then, one day, I received an email saying he was being medivaced out of Iraq, heading to Ramstein AFB, in Germany. Would I come?

A day and a half later, I was on a milk run train, chugging up the mountains to Landstuhl, in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz and three miles from the west gate of Ramstein AFB. Greg had already been there, in the care of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, for a couple of days. He was released looking much altered: he had lost 50 pounds and the skin around his eyes was blackened like the rubber of a burned tire. Nevertheless, he was in great spirits (as who wouldn’t be, making the switch between Iraq and Germany!), hungry and thirsty. We went to a restaurant, where we sat outside because his clothing reeked of war, and he proceeded to drink no less than two dozen bottles of water, much to the dismay of the host.

A couple of days later, he was again medivaced, this time to Walter Reed Hospital in the US, leaving me loose on my own recognizance, within striking distance of France and with a day to burn before I had to return to Frankfurt for my return flight. I consulted a map in my room at the Greune Laterne and decided I just had enough time to take the train across the border to Nancy, a city I had never before visited but the marvelous 18th-century buildings of which had long captured my fancy. In the north-eastern French department of Meurthe-et-Moselle, it was formerly the capital of Lorraine and had a fascinating history.

I grabbed my purse and hustled down to the train station, bought my ticket and was soon crossing the border into France, where we made stops at a number of charming rural villages. I was in bliss, just gazing out the window. So it came as quite a surprise to me when, after a stop at a sizeable station, the train suddenly gained speed and began to fairly fly across the French countryside.

I checked my ticket with a frown, where there was no mention of a transfer. Yet it seemed to me that, after two hours, I should have been approaching Nancy, while this train was clearly heading more west than south. The mystery was soon cleared up by the conductor who took one look at my ticket and launched into a diatribe worthy of a scene from “The Pink Panther.” He rolled his eyes under his brimmed conductor’s cap. He gesticulated wildly in his conductor’s uniform. His voice rose to a wail that encompassed his entire frustration with Americans, women and the post-War world. Somehow, my ticket notwithstanding, I was supposed to have made a transfer at the last stop and was now on an express train, headed for Paris!

I bought a ticket from the aggrieved conductor and settled back to enjoy the spectacular country passing me at warp speed. But in my stomach there was a huge knot. Now, precious hours were being expended, with my flight time looming in faraway Frankfurt. And rather than deal with the Demon Conductor, again, I would have to leave the train, once it arrived in Paris, dive into the station, buy a return ticket, and reboard the train, all in less than an hour’s time.

Despite these worries, I was mesmerized by the countryside we were rolling through. Green fields of grain were punctuated by blood red poppies. Wide and lazy green rivers flowed beneath drooping willows. A magnificent chateau suddenly flashed into view among hilltop trees. Villages with square church towers topped by rooster weather vanes drowsed under the late spring sun. I was enchanted.

After about three hours, the outskirts of Paris began to manifest: grimed brick buildings, narrow streets empty of foot traffic, giant tanks on towers, industrial areas devoid of trees. At last the train slowed and entered the station. I leapt out and hurried down the quay and into the station, only to find it bulging with weary vacationers. Young people with backpacks sat about its vast floor, reading. Long lines queued before grilled ticket windows. The smell of sweat predominated and, by this time, my own contributed to it.

I had 30 minutes to buy my ticket and return to the train. I found what I thought was the right window and plugged myself into the end of a long and very slow-moving line. I watched the clock as we shuffled forward and have never witnessed more relentless movement of the hands of time. Finally, I was next in line! I had my money in hand. The customer at the window turned and departed, as I eagerly stepped forward and . . . and the ticket agent reached up and pulled down his shade!

I let out a shriek of anguish. I approached the window, where I could still make out the rippled visage of the agent, through the opaque glass. God alone knows where it came from, but to my amazement I heard myself shout, “I have to have a ticket! My husband is dying at Ramstein!” The agent sat unmoved, a smile on his lips of satisfaction such as only sadistic public servants who hate their jobs and their public can muster.

Suddenly, however, a hand grabbed my arm from behind, and I was virtually flung into the head of the line to my left. Stunned, I bent my face to the grill and ordered a ticket to Landstuhl. No one in the line protested. Ticket in hand, with two minutes until departure, I turned and fled, vaguely aware of my benefactor reaming out the first agent through the glass. I never even saw his face. And I’m sure he had angel’s wings, as well, which escaped my notice as I ran, leaping over piled baggage and dodging the plodding, galloping from the station and down the quay. Just as the train doors were closing, I wedged myself through. The train jerked under my feet and I staggered down the aisle to a seat as the grimy bricks of the Parisian outskirts began once again to pass.

I had five hours to contemplate my own strange lie. To this day it amazes me. It erupted out of some part of me that still remains even more opaque than the ticket agent’s barrier. And who was my mysterious benefactor? He, too, may be amazed by his actions that day. All I can say is that I was meant to be on that train and events conspired to get me there.

It was Sunday late afternoon. As we sped northeastward, I gazed into backyards where families were gathered at long tables for Sunday supper. Or were picnicking on narrow beaches, under big umbrellas, beside the river. Or dining outdoors in front of cafés in little stone villages. All of France seemed to be at table, making me realize that I hadn’t eaten in many hours. I was exhausted, hungry, still with alarm and haste sizzling along my nerve tracts like express trains to Hell.

I calculated the hours. I would make it back to Landstuhl by 10 PM. I had to be on the train to Frankfurt by 5 AM the following morning. I still had to pack. I would arrive too late to find an open restaurant and leave the hotel too early for any breakfast. None of that mattered. I would make my flight. I was seeing a part of France I’d never seen before and it was ravishing. And, through its eternal magnetism on my psyche, I had once again, albeit briefly, been to Paris.

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