Paris is a convenient place to do many things: shop, eat, sightsee, fall in love and, of course, dream. It’s also a good place to decamp for a few days to conduct business both in the city, and in those neighboring countries easily reached by high speed trains. As such, I had planned a meeting in Amsterdam and booked a round trip first class ticket – food included.
It’s a four hour train ride one way, and since I had a mid-morning meeting, I caught the first train at 6:10 a.m. This meant a 4:30 a.m. wake up call. I had a long day ahead of me but I calculated I’d be back in Paris and in bed by ten.
I love train travel; it’s fast, efficient (or so I thought) and ranks low on the hassle scale. All you have to do is board. Today’s cars now have WiFi so you can even do a little business as you watch the bucolic countryside speed by frame by frame.
This was to be a quick in and out trip. So after a meeting with customers and a bite of lunch, I headed back to the Amsterdam Central Station. Since my scheduled departure was for 4:30 p.m., I bided my time in the lounge like a good soldier and dutifully worked on my email. My plan was to finish everything before boarding the train so I could enjoy the view on the ride back.
About an hour into the trip, I suddenly found myself in the parallel universe of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Although in my case it ended up being: trains, buses, commuter trains and another high speed train. That’s right; we had a mechanical malfunction that necessitated alternate means of transportation. My 8:00 p.m. arrival in Paris went from 10:00 p.m. and then to midnight, but there was no guarantee.
With no further instructions, we were left standing on a platform in Brussels waiting for a special train that would arrive in about an hour’s time. Maybe. They weren’t very big on giving out information. In fact, the station was all but deserted except for about 200 tired, hungry, and angry travelers.
The stranger next to me looked over and shrugged. “Que veux -tu?” (What do you want?) He said to me in French with a Gallic shrug. Apparently this was a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, an Italian businessman yelled into his telefonino – he had a business dinner in Paris at nine – you could say that his goose was cooked. He wasn’t going to be doing any deals that night.
As for me, I gave up fighting the system years ago. I had spent enough time in Europe over the years to know better. The two things it taught me were patience and surrender. I could hear my Italian grandmother’s voice in my head, “And this too shall pass.” I would get back to Paris – but just when was debatable.
Just then the stranger turned to me. He was dressed in a casual suit, matching pants and jacket with a pumpkin-colored shirt. His burgundy shoes had laces that were intricately woven back and forth through the eyelets. He caught me looking at his shoes and laughed. “It throws off those big corporate types – they can’t figure out how the shoes stay on…and when I show up with out a tie…oooh la la,” he said.
He was charming and funny and spoke to me in French, which was a compliment because I was sure he spoke English as well. Anytime someone in France (or in this case Belgium) lets you blunder on in French without switching immediately to English means one of two things: one, either your French is pretty damn good, or he is an extremely gracious person. Since I was rather tired that evening, I suspected it was the latter. Although normally my French is pretty damn good.
“Say, listen!” he said. “If the train doesn’t show up at midnight, would you like to share a car back to Paris? I’ve already spoken to that gentleman (he pointed to the Italian) and he’d be interested as well.” A woman with a briefcase on the platform overheard us and asked if she could join our party. We figured it would cost us about 25,00 euro apiece and would save us the cost of a hotel in Brussels because the next regularly scheduled train out was 6:25 a.m.
As most people milled about aimlessly, we at least had a plan. Each of us had lived this scenario dozens of times before in at least as many countries. As seasoned business travelers, we were nothing if not resourceful.
Quite unexpectedly my co-voyager with the cool shoes leaned over and told me he was going to the Grand Place for a beer and asked if I would I like to join him. A beer sounded awfully good – and perhaps some Belgian frites. And this time I would take the mayonnaise dammit! I had suffered enough; I was going to treat myself.
His name was Richard (Ree – char) and he was retired from corporate life but not from service. With his three children grown and on their own, he spent most of his time setting up co-ops in third world countries, most of which were run by women, to help fund village necessities like schools and running water.
He was tall and broad and had the powerful build of a rugby player. His salt and pepper hair was fashionably close cropped. His brown eyes were soft and gentle. He had beautiful hands that he used to punctuate his stories, of which he had many.
You could tell that he was a guy you could turn to in a crisis – calm, cool and collected. You could see it by the way he organized our little rental car group on the platform. Fortunately we didn’t have to rent a car. The special train that they had commandeered just for us would get us back to Paris around midnight. “It really is too bad,” Richard said. “We could have stayed here at the square and talked all night.” I was a little disappointed myself but happy to be heading back to the hotel and my bed. It had been a long day.
As we walked back to the train station he took my computer bag and offered me his jacket. The night had grown cold. I had told him a little bit about me but gave him much less information than he offered about himself. I had decided after my recent ill-fated affair that I was no longer going to give so much of myself away. I didn’t tell him much about my Italian experience but being a man and French – he filled in the blanks himself.
There was a look of unspoken understanding his eyes. He shook his head and smiled. “Something tells me you’re a very strong woman,” he said. I blinked back the tears. I wasn’t going to go there. “And stubborn,” he laughed as he gave me an affectionate nudge. This was a good man I thought.
We talked for another hour on the train back to Paris and the Gare du Nord. It’s funny. I had shared more with this stranger in two hours than I had with my ex-husband in 20 years of marriage. Things like this often made me wonder about timing and destiny. Why him, why now, why tonight? What if we had met … but we hadn’t. So speculation was useless.
Richard had another two-hour drive from Paris back to his country home so he figured he would stop and take a hotel room along the way. He was too tired to make it in one go, and he phoned a friend to let her know his situation. They had planned to have dinner, but it would have to be postponed. He insisted on sharing a taxi so he could drop me off at my hotel and continue on to where his car was parked.
“Say listen, if you ever want to spend time in France – with no complications, just to try it, you’re welcome to stay at my place. I am never there and you can pick up the keys with the neighbor. I won’t trouble you.”
Something told me this man would not be any trouble at all. On the taxi ride over to my hotel, he held my hand. And as the taxi parked, he ran one of his beautiful hands down the side of my face and under my chin. As he tipped my face up, he said, “Tu as des beaux yeux, tu sais.” It was a classic line from the old French film “Quai des brumes.” Jean Gabin says it to a starry-eyed Michele Morgan.
There was a look of such tenderness and regret in his eyes that I had to look away for a second. There was no future for us – only now, this moment. And although the offer of his house was generous, we both knew I wouldn’t be staying in his place in the country (especially not without him I thought) . Nor would he be staying with me tonight. I was too tired, both mentally and physically to invite him up. And so I took his hands in mine, leaned in, kissed him and said – so do you.
Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Richmatts