(If you’re just joining this saga in progress, please go back and read my first installment, My Trip Home, Part One: Stateside Chaos At The Delta Terminal.)
I’ve spent seven years bungling my way through variations of several languages, but after three months back in the States I felt like I had lost it all. It didn’t help that I was arriving in northeast Spain, which speaks two languages – Spanish and Catalan – the former I’ve mostly learned from Terminator movies and Taco Bell commercials, the latter I don’t know at all.
But I had just gotten off a flight filled with other Americans, a flight I did not sleep on, and I just wanted to get home. So I broke one of my steadfast rules and just spoke English to everyone and eventually found my way to the Barcelona Sants train station, which was familiar ground.
I arrived at Sants to discover I had missed the morning’s direct train to Montpellier by about a minute, and the next direct train was not until late afternoon. Normally a day in Barcelona with nothing to do is a dream come true, but I was tired and cranky and just wanted to be home. So, I got my face in front of a nice information lady who didn’t seem to mind that I spoke Spanfranglish, and she showed me a photocopied schedule of all the trains going to France that day.
There was one leaving in a half hour – perfect! The information lady seemed anxious, though, and carefully explained to me that I needed to get off in Port Bou, on the Spanish side of the border, buy a ticket for the last half of my trip, and then board another train to France. No problem. I’m used to that when traveling across the other border into Italy, at Ventimiglia. I got in another line, bought my ticket, received another lengthy explanation about buying the ticket in Port Bou, and got on my train.
This train featured hard bench seats and stopped in every town along the coast, but I didn’t mind. I was on my way! And I could grab a cat nap as well, since Port Bou was the last stop and I didn’t have to stay alert for announcements.
You know the scene in North by Northwest when Cary Grant gets off that godforsaken bus in the middle of a cornfield, and it pulls away, and he’s just kind of left standing there, wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do next?
I entered the cavernous train station, populated by a lethargic janitor, a sleepy barman, a woozy ticket clerk and two cats. I felt comfortable speaking French now, as we were in a border town. “Oui, bonjour, je voudrais un billet a Montpllier, le prochain train, s’il vous plait.”
“C’est pas possible.” The dreaded phrase I hated hearing – and I wasn’t even in France yet. This did not bode well.
It also seemed to be the only phrase the ticket clerk knew in French, because she gave me detailed instructions in Catalan and slid a slip of paper under the glass with a name and a phone number on it. Through some negotiation, I understood it was the number for a taxi. It seemed this taxi was my only way of getting from Port Bou to Cerbere, the town on the French border, and I could continue by train from there.
OK. This had just become an ordeal, especially considering my dead phone and its charger were in my meticulously packed but bulging suitcase. The next train was in an hour. There was no way I could find it, charge it, find a way to buy French credits for it, and repack Pandora’s Suitcase in time.
I went into the bar and spied the second phone ever invented hanging by a thread on the wall to the left of the bar. I asked the barman in French if it worked. He took the toothpick out of his mouth, answered “Si,” and promptly turned his back on me to attend to some urgent task in his empty bar. They might not have known how to speak French, but somehow the attitude had found its way across the border.
I scrounged around for change, slid it into the phone, dialed the number and prayed to a God who was surely laughing at me. A man answered. I explained what I needed in French. He told me in Spanish to go to the exit of the train station. I thanked him in four languages and looked for the exit.
And looked some more.
The station was between two sets of tracks, and appeared to be at the top of a hill. I went outside and looked for the raised ground that is the tell-tale sign for crossing the tracks. Nothing. Signage? None – not even the name of the station.
I finally gave in and asked the lethargic janitor how to exit the station. He started to tell me, sighed, and waved for me to follow him. He had done this before. I tried not to trip over his dragging mop as he took me to the Port Bou equivalent of Harry Potter’s track 9-3/4. I thanked him in 14 languages, and descended into a dark, dank tunnel that ended in a long outdoor staircase. I descended this and walked down the middle of the street, hoping to seem obvious enough to the taxi driver who I did not see but was presumably waiting for me.
I didn’t see anyone, actually, but I did see a taxi – so I went and stood by it like a patient Labrador retriever. An older Spaniard and a younger Middle Eastern man stepped out of a bar, came over to me and we exchanged greetings. The Spaniard gestured to the Middle Eastern man and said something in Catalan that ended in “taxi.” I shook the hand of the Middle Eastern man and asked him in French how much it would be to go to Cerbere. He answered me in broken Spanish that he did not know. The Spaniard laughed at me – directly at me – and pointed to himself. “Je suis le taxi,” he said in French. I am the taxi.
I decided to skip asking him why he introduced me to the Middle Eastern guy, and asked him how much it was to cross the border. Fifteen euro each, he said. Gotcha. The Middle Eastern Man was a fellow passenger. Fine. Let’s go.
Middle Eastern man got in front, I got in back. Off we went, to France, together.
This story ain’t over yet, chickadees. Tune in tomorrow for part three of my journey.