Paris, Lyon

Posted by on Aug 13, 2017 in Blog | Comments Off on Paris, Lyon

Paris, Lyon

It’s been 20 years since I last travelled to Europe alone. Back then I was an insecure grad student, and spent most of my days wandering around cobblestone streets in a state of anxiety and fear. I was lucky to have some touchstone visits with family both in France and Italy, but the in-between was just me. I did it so that I could believe I was the kind of person who could do it, and I came home feeling a bit more resilient and capable. I’m now in my early 40s, still grappling with insecurity and fear though markedly less so. It’s been a challenge-filled, transitory year for me. I knew I needed to shake things up before the darkened sediment settled in too thick to move. And so now I’m here in Paris, staying in a flat offered up by a friend I’ve known since I was a kid. I’m cat-sitting (and currently rooftop balcony-sitting), and I’m doing okay. So far so good.

I thought I would share a piece of creative non-fiction I wrote over the last year. I know it’s not yoga-related, but it’s where I was and a bit of where I’m at. You know how there are those moments that happen sometimes when you are so dropped-in to the present that you can actually feel your senses burning the details into your life story? I had one such experience during a layover at a train station in Lyon, and I knew I’d write about it someday. I’ll be writing something after this visit too, though there’s still so much time left to see how this one plays.

Lyon

     The compartment rocks as the train squeals and slows to a halt in the scrubby outskirts of town. I’ve only managed to sleep for an hour, two at the most, with my head bent at an awkward angle against the filmy plexiglass window. Stale smoke woven deep into the fabric of my seat has adhered to my clothing and hair. As the thin bars of light running along the ceiling flicker into a chain-reaction of illumination, I struggle to focus my eyes. A voice mumbles over the speakers in static to announce our arrival. I collect my things from among the discarded newspaper sheafs and fallen candy wrappers and heave my pack onto my shoulders, stepping off the train into the thickest part of the night.

     At the far end of the platform, prowling back and forth between shadow and light across the point of entry, is a young soldier in fatigues and a beret. He is holding a gun of Rambo proportions across his chest. I edge past him through the sliding doors and find myself a bucket seat in the fluorescent holding pen.  A large clock in a cage perches over the closed ticket counter—three hours until the first morning train to Paris. 

     The sparse waiting room is largely indistinguishable from all of the others I’ve been passing through—the lit-up ads for cellulite cream, Gauloises, and Rémy Martin stand as the only real indicators that I’ve crossed a border.  A man is reading Le Figaro, a few others sleep or sit slouched over in their chairs. Two vagrants lay beside their great pyramid of belongings in the far corner. So I am the only woman here. Wrapping my feet around my pack, I slide it deep beneath my seat as I notice the eyes that have already noticed me.

Paperbacks have been my saviours in yawning lulls like this, and I attempt to distract myself by reading. But as I hold open my worn copy of Tropic of Cancer, my eyes brake every few sentences, falling into long spells of empty-minded page-staring. After about ten minutes of fruitless struggle, I surrender. I pack away the book, eat some liquorice, and stare at the floor.    

     The person in the chair ahead of me who appears to have been sleeping stretches and turns. So there is another woman here after all. Her unruly snarl of silver hair, like a mess of pulled-apart scouring pads, is stuffed beneath a blue ski hat which she wears despite this August heat. Her layers of tired clothing and clusters of plastic bags that sit piled around her give her away as un sans-abri. I have spent the last month as a solitary wanderer, I’m hungry for company, and I feel she’s my safest bet. I pick up my bag and move over to sit down beside her.

     “Bonjour, Madame. Parlez-vouz Anglais?” I ask.

     “Non, cherie,” she says, her voice like thorns scratching through a near toothless smile. 

     “D’ou êtes-vous?” she asks.

     “Je suis Canadienne.” 

     I begin to relax in the company of her clouded brown eyes, relieved to no longer be holding the gazes of these men on my own. I feel like a solitary fish who has just found a cluster of coral in wide open waters. We speak in facile French about my travels, about Lyon, and the time she spent in Paris. 

     “J’ai une fille un peu plus agée que vous qui habite à Montreal,” she says. She speaks proudly of her daughter who is going to school in Canada.    

     “Parlez-vous avec elle?” I ask. She shakes her head slowly and then smiles. 

     “Voulez-vous un cafe?” She extends her tanned hook of a finger towards the vending machine by the bathrooms. I blush at her offer to buy me something.

     “Non, merci.” 

     She stands up and shuffles with effort towards the machine, her thin body curved like a comma. While she waits for her coffee to dispense, a smart-looking man in wire glasses looks up at me from behind his paper and smiles, holding my gaze until I look away.

     She makes her way back slowly, careful not to spill. Remembering the snacks I picked up at the shop in Venice before boarding the train, I pull out a grocery bag from my pack and move over to lay it out in the space between us. There is a box of chocolate-dipped digestive cookies, some warm cheese, partially-crushed Italian breadsticks, a jar of olives, and a few buns. In a motion of my hand I offer her the food. She points first to the crunchy breadsticks and then to her red gums dotted with grey nubs of enamel and giggles.

     We nibble and I tell her about my travels, but I’m relieved when we slide into a comfortable silence. My eyes can no longer resist the weight of their lids but I fight to stay on this side of sleep. Slouching deeper, I gather my hoodie into a ball and pad the back rail of my chair, unconsciously folding my hands over my belly like an expectant mother, protecting the stashed money belt that is making me sweat. I’m listening to the sound of the doors slipping open and closed; I know they are open when I can hear the walkie-talkie blips emanating from the pacing soldier, and from the heavy dampness that comes in waves, bullying the air conditioning into submission. 

     People begin to stir into action: toilets are flushed, papers are folded. I open my eyes and look to the wild-haired woman at my side. She has picked up a discarded crossword and seems to be thinking her way through it, penless but interested. 

     “Je veux donner quelque chose à vous,” I say. I reach down for the little golden angel pin Gramma gave me to bring along on my journey. For protection, she said. I know she’d understand that I won’t be needing it now—I am almost in Paris, almost home after all. I pull the pin off of the canvas flap of my bag that is otherwise covered in patches of my favourite bands and the ubiquitous Canadian flag, and hand it to her. She holds it reverently, like a golden egg in a nest of gnarly twigs, and then pins it with some difficulty to her coat. 

     “Attends,” she says. She rifles through the chaos of her bags before pulling out a clear packet the size of a matchbook. Inside the tiny pouch are a few pastel-coloured plastic shells that look like they would have been a free gift from a drug store purchase, perfume or something. 

     “Ils sont tres jolies,” she whispers as she passes her treasure to me. 

     A clot of emotion moves up from my chest and lodges in my throat. I squeeze out a merci before placing them in the front pocket of my pack for safe keeping. A man’s voice crackles overhead announcing for all passengers departing for Paris to move on to the platform.  I tie up the grocery bag with the remaining food and set it beside her. 

     “Bon voyage, cherie,” she says.

     “Bon chance,” I reply. I linger awkwardly in my seat, wanting to say something else though I’m not sure what. 

     I stand up and sling the cumbersome bag once again onto my back with a final au revoir and a small wave, one of the many gestures I’ve unconsciously picked up to clarify my limited language. I exit the station and hear the doors seal tightly behind me. The air out here is soupy and carries the sweet and sour smell of fermenting garbage. I descend from fatigue into nausea.     

     Moving further down the platform pocked with cigarette butts and discarded gum, I realize that I never asked for her name.  It seems important somehow, and I want to go back in, but a superstitious part of me, the same part of me that travelled around Europe feeling protected by a gold-plated pin, wonders if she would still be there. I’m thinking of that Wim Wenders film about those angels in black trench coats who hang around under bridges or up on the roofs of buildings, watching over people in libraries and museums. Or train stations. I can’t bring myself to turn around and look. I put my headphones on and watch to the south. My eyes water, unblinking in exhaustion, fixed upon that point in the distance where the tracks dissolve into the morning.

 

All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.