Mass panic is serious business. Okay, mine wasn’t this serious in that I’m obviously still alive.
The train is shittier than I remember it being. Five years ago, I took the RER to and from Paris without incident. I was a cheap and ambitious 23-year-old who couldn’t fathom forking out 80 euros for a cab both ways. In the years since, I’ve been spoiled with client paid-for trips and $200 cab reimbursements. Not this trip. This trip I’m on my own. This is money in real time. Train it is.
There’s graffiti all over the vinyl seats and trash on the floor. Two pale blonde boys sit in the corner, where I am certain homeless people take dumps or shoot heroin. They move quickly to another spot on the train, having likely discovered something akin to my suspicions. Behind us, a lunatic bellows in French. “VOILA! VOILA! VOILA!” he roars. It is the only time the language has made me think of something other than bedrooms and croissants, rococo molding and sculpted foliage. For all I know he could be screaming “Voila! I’m going to shoot all of you in the head right now!” but my French-speaking traingoers seem largely unperturbed. I stare forward without compassion. Ah, feels like home.
The Paris periphery passes on my right, a swell of lesser buildings than those at its center, neighborhoods that reek of relative poverty and gray depression. A tent camp runs adjacent to the train for some stretch of time and then disappears seamlessly into a trash heap. It’s a far cry from my brunches at Le Maurice, the late lunches at Hotel Costes, the designer stores on Rue Saint Honore.
An announcement is made overhead in French. An English translation never comes, but I can tell from the ensuing collective groans that there is something wrong with the train. The gray-haired man next to me, suspecting I’m the clueless American I am, manufactures a ham-fisted sentence in English: “The train, it stops here and goes no further. Accident.” He points up at a map at a little circle indicating a station five stops away from CDG.
“Do they say how long it will take?”
He shrugs his shoulders and puffs his lips. I take this to mean a time frame that exists somewhere between two hours and never. Either way, I’ll miss my flight if I wait for service to resume.
The train makes it final stop and the passengers spill out, many rolling pieces of luggage and sporting looks of general panic. The pale blonde boys from earlier saddle up next to me, as does a young bearded guy with a hiker’s backpack and glasses. By hazard of all being screwed, we adopt each other.
One of blondes speaks English. I tell him what’s going on.
“What should we do?
Fucked if I know. My cell phone doesn’t work in Europe and we are in the middle of nowhere, stuck in an unfamiliar suburb where taxis are as common as shooting stars and unicorns. I nervously chew on my lip and look around the station, as though some answer will magically come to me by way of paralyzed stagnation.
“Okay,” he says. “I guess I will go talk to someone. You guys stay here.”
The other boy, who I suspect is his boyfriend, lights a cigarette and says “Fuck!” which is apparently the only word he knows in English, or will at least admit to knowing. The bearded guy, who also does not speak English, dumbly surveys the inhospitable scene.
“The taxis pick up on the other side,” Pale Blonde Number 1 says upon return. And we silently hustle around the corner and down a street, up around to the entrance of the station, where a swarm of increasingly frantic people stand in the middle of the street and on the sidewalks, positioning themselves to steal cabs whenever one might arrive. There are about forty people here who need to get to the airport. One cab arrives every six minutes, if it’s even available. I’m not very good at math, so let me pull out my calculator…
MANY PEOPLE + ZERO CABS = HAHAHAHAHAHA
Everyone else has apparently done the same calculation, dividing supply by demand and factoring in their flight time. Getting from this train station to the airport will be a modern, first-world-problems example of the survival of the fittest. Those who do not act, perish. When a large taxi pulls to the side of the curb, the stranded descend like hungry vultures pecking at the last carcass in the field. Shouting ensues, a lot of hands being thrown into the air. It fills up with randoms and quickly disappears. The four of us stand in the street becoming increasingly helpless.
It’s 3:30 My flight boards in 45 minutes. This is almost as bad as my whole “Hey, I booked my flight a whole month off” trip to the Maldives last March.
There, stopped at a red light, is one of those white vans you imagine delivers European flowers on birthdays and funerals. His window is down. I run across the street, my carry-on bag swerving wildly behind me.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I breathlessly shout into the window.
“A little,” he says.
The light changes green.
“The train is broken,” I start, my English hampered by fear. “Can we pay you, uhhh, 80 euros to take us to CDG? The four of us?”
I point to my three new brothers standing across the street.
“Yes, yes,” he says. “Okay.”
I wave at the boys and scream for them to get into the car. There is that awkward moment when we forget that this is not a real cab, but a good Samaratin with a car, and we stand at the back, waiting to put our luggage in the trunk. The driver stays put and the boys grab onto their bags and launch themselves into the backseat. I jam myself into the front, my luggage on the floor and my knees up to my throat, shoes crammed against the dashboard.
“I don’t speak very good English,” he says. “Airport? CDG?”
The quiet bearded dude confirms in French.
I turn towards the backseat, taking this moment to get to know the people I have just hitchhiked with. The Frenchman with the beard who doesn’t speak English manages to tell us that he is going to Rome. The two pale blondes are from Moscow. The one who speaks English has blue eyes and cute dimples. A Russian Gerber baby. They’re going back home.
“Where are you going?”
“I love New York.”
“I haven’t been to Moscow,” I say. “I’m dying to go.”
And we laugh because wouldn’t it be ridiculous if this whole ordeal started a bizarre international friendship, the kind that doesn’t happen anymore because of Facebook and telephones and instant connections through a tighter, known periphery because the world is a scary, massive, terrifying place of which you have unparalleled access to.
The car goes silent, save for French rap playing on the radio and air pushing through the open windows. I imagine this is what being in war is like. You’re fighting with strangers for a very similar cause, which gives you an instant camaraderie without the usual requisite history to establish it. We resume a nervous silence in the car.
It takes six very long minutes just to snake through the narrow, unfamiliar side streets and onto the freeway, at which point I let go of any possibility of something untowardly horrible happening to us. Thankfully our driver isn’t a psychopath or a horrible driver. His car smells of nice cologne. We take a corner and the contents of his trunk tumble over. Everyone laughs. And then, again, silence.
The sign for CDG comes into view. Ohthankfuckinggod.
I’m the first to be released. Terminal 2B. I hand one of the Russians my 20 euro contribution and extract myself from the car, limb by limb, wallet falling onto the sidewalk along with hat and scarf, while I say, “Merci! Merci! Merci!” to our unnamed driver. “You’re an angel!”
I wave to my new friends, who will remain forever strangers, say goodbye and wish them luck.
“Have a nice life!” says the Russian.
And I run towards my gate, where I make my flight with minutes to spare, sweating under my jacket, graying at my temples, ready for a travel experience nearly as horrible as the RER: American Airlines.