Friday, May 11, 2012

Angels on Our Way

I love train travel and so, it turns out, does Marian. You can put your mind on hold and let the Italian or, better, the French national railway system move your body through the world. No offense to the Italians, but as soon as we crossed the border yesterday from Ventimiglia, Italy, to Menton, France, and committed ourselves to the SNCF*, the colors came on in Oz.

Thursday's simple itinerary: 9:00 Return rental to the Europecar office on Via Casaregis, Genova; 10:55 Italian train #1 from Genova to Ventimiglia; 14:50 Italian train #2 from Ventimiglia across border to Menton; 15:30 French train #1 from Menton to Nice-Ville; 16:50 French train #2 from Nice-Ville to Marseilles St. Charles. I feel so cosmopolitan.

What wasn't simple about yesterday was the car return or the angels we encountered along the way.

While Marian enjoyed a late breakfast and journaled in her Moleskine, I returned the rental, because that's what dads do. When things got truly hairy and it looked like I might not make it back in time for our 10:55 train, Marian did what dads are proud to see their kids do: gather all of our stuff from the 4th-floor room and drag it down to the lobby, check out, and be ready to greet dad with a warm smile when he enters huffing and puffing with ten minutes to spare.

The problems were more than GPS, but that's where it all started. The GPS on my iPhone failed me, or I failed it, which I realized as I took the 14th turn off of a roundabout instead of the 13th and headed down a long tunnel and into a square where my pulsing blue dot had disappeared and there were signs of a civil disturbance. That's where I met my first angel: a policewoman in one of those Italian uniforms worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, complete with white cockade pith helmet and some strange road sign sticking out of her knee-high riding boots that looks like the target criminals are supposed to aim at. But was she ever kind! "Via Casaregis?" I implored, and the lady unleashed a flood of Italian, complete with gestures. "No Italiano!" I pleaded. She stopped, smiled, and sequéd effortlessly into English, offering three simple directions: right at the corner, left al fondo, and "then ask another like me." It was clear that she was diverting me from the normal path to Via Casaregis because the Italians were demonstrating about something again, and ten streets had been blocked off so that a few guys with blue flags could make a disproportionate amount of noise.

I did everything Iolanthe told me to do and soon found myself ready to beg assistance from someone else, who did not look like her at all. Instead, my second angel looked like the dissipated drummer of a disbanded 1970s metal band who had long ago let his hair and personal hygiene go. That's what stared at me from a red Fiat at a traffic light as I desperately begged to him from my window: "Via Casaregis?" Si, si, he told me, al fondo! It turns out that when an Italian tells you al fondo, he really means, go to the end — not part way, all the way. For the next 90 seconds, Pig Pen's red Fiat and my sweet little silver Audi bombed from traffic light to traffic light side by side, like bumper cars dragging each other down Hollywood Boulevard. Stopping at each red light, I would say or gesture, "Turn here?" and he would counter, no, al fondo! When I finally turned, heeding his frenzied arm thrusts, he waved to me with a combination of genuine fellow feeling and exasperation at the utter stupidity of American tourists.

I had abandoned myself to the good will of chance encounters, and I got more of the same now: from a grandfather pushing a child in a stroller in gentle circles under a portico and from the taxi driver first in line on a street parallel to Via Casaregis, who told me to go al fondo and then double back. I did not go al fondo and had to double back a second and third time.

I think the sign on the door of the Europecar office said TORNO SUBITO, but even if my Italian is off by a vowel or two, the intent was clear: BACK SOON. I needed NOW not SOON, banged on the door, and was relieved to see another angel walking toward me, the young clerk who processed my papers instantly (Bravo Europecar! A bas Hertz! A bas Avis!) He had a taxi at the door in less than the three minutes he promised, and so I made it back in time for the train.

Train travel is so much nicer with angels. Let me tell you about two we met yesterday.

Train Angel #1: Alberto Beware of judging people too quickly. For example, if you enter your train compartment on the Italian national railway system, where you have reserved the two window seats, and you find your seats already occupied by a woman with eight grocery bags and a balding, jowly, paunchy middle-aged guy yacking into his mobile phone as he stares vacantly out the window, don't assume the guy is some sort of truck driver. Marian and I took the two open, less advantaged seats without complaint, and at some point, Marian asked me how many litres to a gallon. As I responded 3.8, I noticed baldy looking over and nodding approvingly. When I made a universal grimace asking, did I get that right, he nodded and in perfectly good English said, yes, 3.8. Then he proceeded to ask if we were American or English, because the English gallon is actually 4.5 litres.

I was brought up short. As she told me later, Marian was impressed. She thought to herself, in what sort of profession does a man know how to convert gallons into litres and back again, on both sides of the Atlantic?

As we soon learned, my "truck driver" was in fact a chef who worked exclusively for wealthy people while talking in French, Spanish, Portuguese, "some German, a little bit of English," and his own native Italian. "Alberto" was en route to Cannes, where he would cook for an Italian family now living in Miami aboard their private yacht. He and Marian were soon talking happily in Spanish, and I sat back to watch and listen. I could make out only that they were talking about food, a subject about which Marian is passionate, and I began to think that Alberto was an angel for my daughter. All I had to do was stand aside and let him work. Whether she received it this way or not, it was clear to me that here was a model of a man doing something differently, something he was passionate about too, cooking in countries on both sides of the Atlantic. We asked Alberto if he ever got to the US, and he admitted certain visa irregularities that had got him thrown out of Miami ten or twenty years ago. Who says angels have to abide by the earth's laws?

Train Angel #2: Ibrahim As we zipped toward Marseilles on the last leg of our train journey yesterday evening, and our car slowly emptied its contents at the stations where we stopped, Marian and I spread out. She sat on one side of the aisle at a conference-like area of four seats and I sat across the aisle at another. Each of us eventually pulled out their iPhone and ear buds and began grooving to our own music mix. I was barefoot and clad in blue hiking shorts, a 60-year-old American hippie with his feet up on the seat in front of him, staring out the window, and listening to The Saw Doctors. "'Cause I know how I feel about you now (buh bumbumbumbumbumbum)!"

Suddenly, I felt someone settle into the seat beside me, and before I could look up to his face, Ibrahim had stretched his own legs out on the seat in front of him, and here we were, just two guys sitting on the porch with our feet up on the rail, while the womenfolk make supper. Except that Ibrahim was a French national born in a small town in Morocco, whose wife (name uncertain) sat behind us in a head scarf and full body cover. And except that Ibrahim was anything but barefoot. He wore elegant, perfectly ironed grey slacks with a hem embroidered in some Arabic script and clean black socks.

I felt like a moron. What did this elegant North African think of this barelegged, barefoot American? I don't know what he thought, he seemed to reserve judgment with pursed but gently smiling lips, but for the next 30 minutes, Ibrahim and I spoke French together just like two old dudes on a porch for whom French is a second language. He is 62, I 60. He has a daughter named Mariam, I Marian. And so on. He seemed as genuinely interested in me as I was in him.

Marian pulled out a jumbo bag of Peanut M&M's and offered me some. I suggested that she offer some to Ibrahim, and she did so. He gratefully poured two, just two, M&M's into his hand, passed the bag back to his wife, and said Merci. A few minutes later, she offered us some water poured from a bottle into a fresh plastic cup. When we all began disembarking at Marseilles St. Charles, I helped Ibrahim get his heavy suitcase down from the overhead rack. Then his wife gave Marian a plastic bag containing croissants and a container of jam. "Pour le voyage," she explained with a shy smile.

Marian and I walked ahead on the quai but then waited for Ibrahim and his wife to catch up as we reached the gate, so that we could bid them Adieu, Adios, Inchallah. Although his eyes were bright with life and his olive skin had a healthy, frown-free glow, Ibrahim was plagued by a decided limp. This may not fully explain why his obliging wife pulled their heavy suitcase and lugged a heavy bag of belongings while he hobbled empty-handed behind her like the mayor behind the local beauty queen in a small-town parade, but to my mind, considering the gestures of fellowship and hospitality both given and graciously received, I accepted this as a mere cultural difference and gave thanks for what unites us. * Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français

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