So, there I was, in the backseat of a taxi with the Spanish driver and the Middle Eastern passenger in the front seat. It was inconceivable to me that for a majority of the day, this was the only way to travel from Spain to France. I kept trying to ask about this, but each time I spoke the driver would look at me through his rear view mirror, the Middle Eastern man would turn around and stare at me with open curiosity, and they would go back to their conversation. I decided to sit back and enjoy the ride.
And it was enjoyable, for a time. Port Bou is a sleepy, hilly little border town that could be described as cute, in its own way. Border towns fascinate me, especially ones in the EU. No longer called upon to defend or even acknowledge the border, they still have an air of importance about them, a kind of defensive pride that I can’t help but adore.
Then we started ascending the mountain that marked the true border between France and Spain – and I was caught in my own personal nightmare.
Port Bou and Cerbere are probably a mile apart as the crow flies – but as the taxi swerves, it’s a good 20-minute hell ride of hair-pin turns up one side of a mountain and down the other, without guard rails, along sheer cliffs that drop into a churning Mediterranean shore. It might be thrilling to watch in a car commercial – not so thrilling when you’re in a taxi with two men who are actively ignoring you.
I’ve been in cars on mountains before and hated it each time. Once was through a dense fog on an Alp. Another was through a dense fog on an Appenine. As I white-knuckled it in the back of a Peugeot on a Pyrenee, I wished for fog – the crystal-clear skies provided no comfort, but instead a panoramic view of my certain death.
And to make matters worse, no one on the planet knew where I was – Cal thought I would be on that late-afternoon train, and I had not had time to call him to tell him otherwise. He wouldn’t even start looking for me until well after 10 o’clock that night, and would never think to search the rocky shoreline of the Franch/Spanish border for my mangled remains. I could only hope that my passport would somehow float ashore, and the Embassy would be alerted. I actually thought about getting it out of my bag, in case I needed to throw it out the window.
I tried to think of how to ask for one of these men’s cellphones to call Cal, so perhaps even as we plunged to our demise there would be a record of some kind of contact the authorities could work from. DUNH-DUNH! I saw the Law & Order black screen, “Roadside – French/Spanish Border” in stark white words; cut to Lenny Briscoe standing uncomfortably on the sand in Cerbere, shielding his eyes from the sun as he gazed up at the point where we sailed off the road, trying to find some connection between an American woman, a Middle Eastern man and a Spanish driver.
I know Lenny Briscoe is no longer with us, nor would he have been called upon to investigate my death in this area of the world. Work with me here. I was terrified.
After six days – OK, 20 minutes – we finally pulled into what looked like an abandoned convenience store. The Middle Eastern man got out and started dialing on his cell phone, presumably to tell kith and kin that he had survived the ride. I fell out of the back seat, panting. The taxi driver asked me what was wrong. “TERRIFICANTE,” terrifying in Italian, was the only word I could think of. He laughed, got my suitcase out of the trunk, patted me on the back, took my money, and wished me bon voyage.
I walked into the abandoned convenience store, which turned out to be an abandoned train station. There was no one at the ticket window. I went into the bar – often, bars in smaller train stations sell tickets when the window is closed. There were two sailors holding down stools and Broom Hilda was tending bar. I asked Ms. Hilda if I could buy my ticket here. No, at the window, she blessedly answered me in a language I understood. I went back to the window and stood there, again trying to look obvious to someone I couldn’t see.
A woman came from a back room still chewing her lunch and wiping her mouth with a dish towel. She looked at me as if I were perhaps lost, or at least as if I belonged somewhere else than at her window. “Oui?” she asked me.
I looked at the departure board. There was a train in 15 minutes to Montpellier. I had to be in the right place. “Un billet pour Montpellier, s’il vous plait?” I asked with as much apology and hope as I could muster. She seemed surprised to answer in the affirmative. I bought my ticket and found my way to the track – down a flight of steps, through a tunnel and up another flight of steps, schlepping my suitcase.
I caught my breath on the platform, still happy to be alive, and looked at my ticket for a car and seat number. There weren’t any, which was OK – it was another local train, so you could sit anywhere you pleased. And it pleased me just fine.
Except… oh, shit. Oh, come ON. No. No, no, no. Oh, no.
I had forgotten to validate my ticket – another casualty of my time away from Europe.
Down the steps, through the tunnel, up the steps again – still schlepping my suitcase, which now weighed about a thousand pounds. Panting, exhausted, near tears, I validated my ticket. The machine’s DUNH-DUNH stamping sound reminded me how lucky I was to have gotten this far.
Then I lugged that bastard suitcase back down, through and up again to the platform – and as a final insult, now with no time to spare, onto the train. With a grunt worthy of a Williams sister at Wimbledon I threw that mother up into the nearest train car, at about head level, and pulled my heavy, tired shell of a corpse in behind it. I startled an old couple and tried to save face with a weary smile. They were French and having none of it.
I fell into a seat, pulled the suitcase next to me, put on my headphones and passed out. I woke up in Sete, the stop before Montpellier. Before I knew it the train was slowing down for home.
No more steps and tunnels! I fought the crowds on the platform and found the blessed escalators that would take me up over the tracks and back down to the street exit. I crossed through the square and the tiny park and the winding side streets, turned onto my street, and buzzed up to the apartment.
“Allooui?” I could hear the surprise in Cal’s voice through the crackling static of the intercom. He wasn’t expecting any visitor at this hour, let alone his girlfriend.
“How about you come help a pretty girl with her suitcase?”
Yes I was.