During the summer after my sophomore year at Baylor, Mom, Kathy and I embarked on the adventure of our lifetimes. Our journey began in Germany at my Uncle Bob's house. For a week, he, Aunt Ernestina and our cousins, Lucian and Shawn, showed us the sites near their home in Kaiserslautern. When our time with them came to an end, they tucked us into a train bound for Paris where we were to meet up with a tour group that originated in Texas. Since we flew to Europe separately, the plan for our meeting up with them was simple. We were to be standing in front of the Paris Opera House at 4:00PM on a particular day in June. The tour bus would pull up, and we would jump on. How hard can that be?
An engineer, Uncle Bob arranged our train trip to Paris down to the millisecond. We began our journey in the late evening. We had to change trains in some German town at about midnight that night. From there, we were booked on a sleeper car where we would pass the night comfortably dreaming of la Tour Eiffel and la Louvre. Ernestina packed up a bag of snacks and breakfast foods for the trip. Bob wrote out a couple of pages of intricate detailed directions for Mom who is a detail girl. She liked to know what lane she needed to be in when she left Waco headed for NorthPark mall in Dallas. Uncle Bob assured us that the trip would be simple and non-eventful. Apparently, he over-estimated our ability to stay on the simple, non-eventful path.
We felt very proud and worldly as we waved goodbye from the train in Kaiserslautern. Even though our travels up to that time had been stateside and via automobile, Kathy and I felt like we could handle just about anything that European travel could dish out. Mother, on the other hand, was the nervous type. She kept Uncle Bob's instructions clutched in her hand and read over them ever 5 minutes. "Mom. We're still on the train. We won't need to change trains for about 2 hours. You can probably relax for at least 15 minutes!" We rolled our eyes and made "can you believe this scaredy cat" faces as she bowed her head to pour over his instructions.
Uncle Bob told us that when we were nearing our stops, we needed to be ready to gather up our belongings so that we could hop off the train quickly. "You'll have about 5 minutes to get off the train before it starts rolling again." So, at about 11:30, we began gathering up our magazines, purses, makeup cases (now known as "carry-ons"), and huge soft sided suitcases purchased new for the trip. This trip predated luggage with wheels as well as foldable luggage carts. We were each responsible for toting our own bags - the hard way - leaning over 45 degrees to the left to counterbalance the incredible weight of our suitcases clutched in our right hands. Around midnight when we reached the station where we were to change trains, the platforms were pretty much deserted. Uncle Bob's instructions noted that we would be able to find a bathroom in the station as well as a place to purchase Cokes and snacks.
This particular station doubled as a good old German beer hall. Clutching our purses up under our left arm pits while leaning far to the left we limped into the hall toting our heavy bags. There were long tables about 1/2 filled with a lingering crowd many of whom were resting their heads on their tables. We minced our way through the hall to find the bathroom where an attendent sat slumped asleep in a chair. One look at the filthy and mostly unflushed toilets sent us running (with me gagging) through the hall and out into the fresh air of the night where we stood waiting for our train all the while talking about how much we really needed to go to the bathroom. We were delirious with fatigue, and our tickle boxes were turned totally upside down. The train approached the station to find us standing there laughing like hyenas with our legs tightly crossed to prevent any unfortunate accidents.
As we lugged our suitcases up the steps of the train, a young porter glanced at our tickets and directed us to our compact sleeping compartment. The sofa on the right side of the compartment served as one bed. On the left side, bunk beds folded down from the walls. The toilet and sink were located at one end of the train car. Working up a sweat, the porter helped us stow our heavy luggage onto a shelf located just above the doorway of our compartment before he slipped away to assist other passengers. A little while later as we were trying to comfortably bed down fully dressed, a knock came at the door. The porter peeked his head in and rambled out some sort of instructions in French. We stared at him. "English?" we queried. "Avez-vous parler français?" he cheerfully countered. With no common language between us, he began to pantomime his instructions.
He pointed at each one of us. "Vous, vous, vous!" Then, he proceeded to cock his head to one side resting it on his clasped hands, closed his eyes, and made snoring sounds. "I think he's telling us something about sleeping," Mom said. Next, he drew an imaginary line in the air and said something that sounded vaguely like "border" and "passport." We were clueless. After a few more minutes of playing Charades, we pieced together that since we would be crossing from Germany into France in the middle of the night, he would need to take our passports so that they could be presented to someone at the crossing. Or, something like that.
Back home in Texas, we had been warned numerous times about people who would try to con us out of our passports. "DO NOT LET YOUR PASSPORT LEAVE YOUR SIGHT!" We began to chat amongst ourselves. "What if this guy is POSING as a porter taking advantage of us because he can tell we are clueless?!" "We're not supposed to give our passports to ANYONE!" Mom moaned, "Bob doesn't say anything about turning over our passports on his list of instructions!" We huddled up and decided that if we at least wrote down our passport numbers, we would have a leg up when we placed ourselves at the mercy of the American embassy in Paris. Mom hissed something about how making a side trip to the embassy might make us miss hopping on the tour bus promptly at 4PM. "If we miss them, they'll go on without us! Then, what will we do?!" We gave her haughty glares and assured her that missing the tour bus was the least of our worries. Kathy and I dug around in our purses and came up with the only piece of paper we could find - a piece of Kleenex. I scribbled down the numbers with a pencil while Kathy called out the numbers. Giving the porter our best "you'll never get away with this" glares, we handed over our passports against our better judgement.
Sleep didn't come for a couple of hours because Kathy and I kept making up scenarios of what would happen the next morning when the porter was nowhere to be found. "How can we pantomime 'American embassy'?" Kathy pondered. I began to sing "America the Beautiful." "Embassy" was going to be a problem. "I know!" Kathy exclaimed, "Let's try saying 'Please-ay tell-ef-phone-o Uncle-lay Roberto!'" By now, our bunks were shaking from our laughter. "Girls! Girls! You're going to be really tired tomorrow if you don't go to sleep right now!" More laughter. Sometime during the night as our train lumbered rhythmically towards the French border, we collapsed into deep, deep sleep.
Morning came with a rap at our door as we were awakened by the porter who came by to return our border-stamped passports. We took turns shuffling down to the tiny bathroom to brush our teeth and comb our hopeless bedheads. Gathering around Ernestina's goodie bag, we began to munch on apples as the French countryside raced past our window. The train slowed to a stop. Mom jumped up, opened our door and asked, "Paris?!" No. It wasn't Paris. "Mo-om. Don't you think that we'll be smart enough to recognize Paris, the City of Lights!? Duh!! Besides, it's only 8:00! Look at Uncle Bob's instructions! It says there plain as day! We don't get to Paris until 9:00!
Sitting back snuggly in our seats, we continued to munch on our breakfast as the train slowly pulled out of the station. An hour or so passed, and the train slowly came to a stop in another town. Mom began to look nervous. "Relax, Mom! Don't you think that they'll yell out 'Paris!' when we get there?! Lots of people will get off the train in Paris!" She didn't look convinced as she settled back on her settee. The train sat there for several minutes. We noticed that, indeed, many people were getting off of the train. Kathy and I glanced at each other. Could it be? Very cooly, I stuck my head out of our door and asked a passerby, "Pare-ee?" His reply? "Oui, Paris!"
Wild-eyed, I spun on my heels and said, "Ya'll, this IS Paris! We've already been sitting here for several minutes, so this train is about to leave the station any minute!!!" Mother let out a tiny scream. Kathy and I jumped onto the settee and began to yank our heavy soft-sided luggage off of the shelf. As one bag crashed to the floor, we pulled down yet another. Mom was frantically shoving our unfinished breakfast into the sack. "Leave it, Mom!!! Leave it!! Focus on our makeup bags!!! Save the necessities!!!"
Kathy and I lead the way down the narrow corridor of the train pulling and kicking the huge suitcases and dragging the makeup bags. When we reached the door of the train, we began to throw our bags down the stairs onto the platform screaming, "Hurry! Hurry! The train is about to leave!!!!!" Finally, we leaped down the stairs dragging mother behind us who was clutching Uncle Bob's wrinkled pages of instructions trying to figure out why the train arrived in Paris an hour ahead of schedule.
Once we had all safely landed on the platform, we noticed that a small crowd of people had stopped to witness our exuberant exit from the train. Turning, we looked down the platform towards the main area of the train station. The train had reached a dead end. It was going nowhere soon.
As we tried to wrap our brains around what we were seeing, we noticed that the porters were stripping the sheets off of the beds of the sleeping cars and throwing them out of the train's windows. This wasn't a 5 minute station stop in the middle of the French countryside. It was the end of the line. We had all the time in the world to get off that train. The three of us melted into a laughing heap right there on the platform in the middle of our toppled luggage. Our spectators smiled suspiciously at us and began to slowly move on. It was a while before we could gather ourselves up to begin our journey out into the streets of Paris lugging our heavy, unwieldy bags. Every few minutes, Kathy and I would once again erupt into gales of laughter with tears streaming down our faces.
As it turned out, Uncle Bob forgot one tiny detail in his long, long list of details. There was a time change between Germany and France. We were one hour ahead of ourselves in time, and lightyears behind in the world of European travel...how you say...uh...panache.