Strangers on a Train


Years ago, as a student, I found an intimate connection between the sensibilities of Europe and me. I also discovered that Paris is astrologically ruled by the sign of Libra governed by the planet Venus paying homage to love and beauty.  I fell in love with the city, losing myself in the art captivated by the attractive and astonishing city.

Strolling along the Seine turning into the heart of the Left Bank, into the picturesque narrow lined streets filled with bookstores, galleries and cafes, I am drawn into shop after shop in the early morning where shopkeepers wash down the sidewalks.  From patisseries, I smelled bread being baked. The perfumeries and flower shops called me in, but because of my student budget, I stand in the shadows.

The best part of being in Paris is getting lost; as I walk, I saw huge wooden gates hiding courtyards and further back mansions and I find secret hidden places.  Parisian beauty tucked in recessed surroundings, like a mysterious woman, the best part of her is hidden from sight.

A boutique window catches my eye with tarot cards decorating the portal.  Inside I splurge by buying myself the Marseille Tarot deck and a pair of pumps reminiscent of the 1940’s. They are round toed stack heels in suede taupe with very thin leather brown piping.  It sets me back financially for a few days but I rationalize my purchase by concluding that for the next three days I will only consume apples, bread, and water purchased from the grocery store.

On my last morning in the youth hostel over a continental breakfast, I sat at a communal table next to Joao, from Portugal.  He runs a graceful finger through his dark curly hair.  He is rugged handsome, a square jaw, green eyes and what appears to be a slim body.

When I find out he too is traveling alone- he’s thinking what I’m thinking- we say in unison, “would you like to see the city together?” We spend a lively day sight seeing, taking photos and visit the Rodin Museum.  We eat savory crepes from street vendors, our dessert – in season from the fruit stands.

I excuse myself, “I’ve got to make a call, to my friend’s cousin.  Are you available tonight?”  Joao nods.

Mildred’s cousin Sophie lives in Paris, with her parents, she’s fluent in English studying at the Sorbonne. She answers the phone telling me she just got back from holiday. We agree to meet at Gare d’Austerlitz the famous train station, I tell her I have a male acquaintance with me, she replies, “I too will bring my boyfriend.”

“But he’s not my boyfriend,” I insist.

“Don’t pay atencion,” she said in her trilling accent. I sense there are hundreds of commuters at the station, so I ask, “How will I know you,” she goes into a self-description that includes, “I am tall and elegante. My hair is dark, my eyes are large,” (she rolls her R’s). I think to myself – oh my God, I am meeting a Goddess!  I had better change into my best blouse.

Joao and I arrive, slightly early and pace the famous train station. “Are you sure you’ll know her,” he asks after a 15 minute wait. “Yes,” I say with certainty.  I cannot possibly be stood up by one of my closest friend’s cousin.

The clock strikes seven. I ask Joao since his French is better than mine to go to the ticket counter to see if we can have, Sophie paged. Standing in line behind is a girl with platform tennis shoes, she looks around constantly, and wears thick-rimmed glasses. I’m daydreaming thinking what lay ahead when I hear her speak to the man she is with and the voice is vaguely familiar.

I tap her shoulder, “Sophie, is that you?”

“Ahh, Linda” she expresses with gaiety.

After introductions, we head to Montparnasse and go to a café. Sophie smokes while the boys drink café noir and I ask for a mineral water.  Since we’re all students, we chat about what we will do with our lives. Joao says, “I plan on going into finance, I like handling large sums of money. And you, Linda, what are your plans?” “I want to write… only I don’t know if I’m good enough.” The crowd goes, “Ahh,” they are impressed and Sophie begins her habit of starting a conversation switching subjects then switching to it a half-hour later, as if it were natural. I love this mental game, because I do it too, but I’m the only one that can keep up with these interrupted lines of thought. When I double kiss Sophie and bid her “bon nuit,” I feel I am saying good night to a family member.

The next day is my last in Paris; I visit the Louvre and spend the entire day there.

In the evening I head to the train station and sit on a bench reaching into my suitcase changing from open sandals into my pumps, then decide they really don’t work with my outfit so I go to the ladies room and change from a floral skirt into a rust colored one.

Inside the compartment, I make myself comfortable for the thirteen-hour train ride from Paris to Madrid, since my pocketbook mandates that I not spend additional money for a couchette, I’ll sleep sitting up.

Two loud American men wearing tennis shoes come in, sit next to me talking to one another.

A French woman walks by murmuring, “Mon cheri” to the poodle she holds in her arms.

“Geez that dog is smart” one man says to the other.

“How do you know that?” Says his partner.

“Well, he understood French didn’t he?”

I bury my head in my book, Les Miserables, but can’t help but notice when in walks an elegant older man. I put my book down when I hear the voice come over a loud speaker announcing a delay. The two Americans grab their bags and leave, sparing me from their mindless yakking all night.

The older man sits across from me. I begin to journal and stare out the window, twenty minutes into the journey the conductor opens the door asking for passports.

“I see you’re an American,” says the man.

“Yes, and you most likely are French” I say with formality.

“Yes. What may I ask takes you to Madrid.”

“I’m traveling to understand my roots.”

“You do not have French lineage?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“Because Mademoiselle, you have the style of a French woman,” he says as he views my crossed legs proudly displaying my new shoes.

“I’m Hispanic, and a student.  But now that I have told you about me, may I ask your vocation?”

He reaches over to shake my hand “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Claude Dubois. I am a journaliste,” (he emphasizes the e), for LaMonde.

Enthusiastic that I am chatting with a writer we talk about non-fiction, politics- and the recent Republican national convention. He asks my views.  After I express them he smiles like a professor proud of a student, “good point.”

Our conversation turns to genealogy, culture and language. I decide to take a chance and tell Monsieur Dubois a joke. “There are three cats- their names are un, deux, and trois. They are standing over ice, are hungry and decide they have to get to the fish below for consumption. They find a saw, and saw a block around themselves.”Then in my best French possible I deliver my punch line,“ and that is how un, deux, trois, quatre cinq.” He manages a polite smile, but I’m rolling in my seat.

In the morning, I awake to hear the train wheels getting louder as we slow down. Monsieur Dubois in a polite gesture hands me his business card and wishes me a bon voyage.  When I stand, as a gentleman he reaches over to where my luggage has been stowed. I carefully file the card in an outside zipper of my suitcase knowing I will never do anything with it but thank him.

Unknown to me at the time this begins a new phase in my life- chance encounters with strangers- genuine conversations that by all accounts feel like a mental bond has been formed as in friendship, at least temporarily.

I soar like a kite onto the street, happy and adventurous, going wherever the wind takes me.


  1. I desperately needed to learn another language in Europe, no one would talk to me in English, but you make this fun

  2. These seem to be the obstacles people face when traveling. especially language. But if these factors were already worked out, we would have a smooth trip, wouldn’t we?

  3. I told my boy-friends about this blog after I suggested we go to Paris together and he said it was too expensive. You managed as a student, you must have been proud of yourself. it sounds like a wonderful time and experience, thank loads

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