Au Revoir Paris, Buongiorno Overnight Train

Paris, you didn't make it easy, but in the last few days, you gave me several reasons to forgive you.

·      Comptoir Gana on Rue Oberkampf, the bakery around the corner from our apartment. I would write sonnets to her baguette.

·      The waiter at L'As Falafel in the Marais who discussed Philly sports with us, and not over the LeSean McCoy trade.

·      The Jardin de Luxembourg, for making me so emotional while I watched the boys sail their boats together on the pond. 

 Ezra catches the sunrise on the overnight train. 

Ezra catches the sunrise on the overnight train. 

·      The woman who runs the fruit and vegetable shop on the corner of Rue Oberkampf and Rue de Nemours. Every time we went in she offered the kids free cherries or apricots. She even got a sour elderly French woman to give her a compliment, "Vous êtes très charmante, Madame!" Indeed.

·      The waiter at Le Progrès on Rue de Bretange who gave us complimentary biscuits when Ezra fell asleep on my lap during the rainstorm. Ezra gets sleepy in the afternoons, probably worn out from feeding me platefuls of sass and holding sit ins against every plan I set forth. It didn't matter. Under the protective canopy with plenty of chocolat chaud and café crème, we had a very Parisian rainy afternoon.

·      And, not to be outdone, the kind policeman in Gare de Lyon who caught the kid who stole my laptop.

I consider myself a savvy traveler. I guard my belongings with ferocity. But it's been a while since I've been pickpocketed (Florence, 1991) and I forgot just how slippery those kids are. I didn't sense him behind me, or feel him slide the laptop out of my bag. I was busy rearranging something in my suitcase. Fortunately for me, the police were following him. In seconds, the boy was on the ground with a knee in his back, the laptop was back in my shaking hand, Ezra was staring open mouthed at the boy being handcuffed, and Maxon was begging me to buy him a pen shaped like a baguette.

He could be better at reading the room.

We pulled off to the side to sit down while I gave my statement, Maxon still asking for the baguette pen. The officer couldn't have been kinder. He gave us some valuable travel and theft-avoidance advice that my kids promptly forgot and he saw us off to our train – an overnight 10 hour journey to Milan.

Why overnight train? My anxiety level over the get-to-the-airport-change-exensive-planes-potentially-lose-luggage-and-sanity was exponentially higher than the 10-hour-overnight-train-wow-it's-cheap-how-bad-could-it-be-it's-an-adventure!

That was before my property was almost swiped from under my nose, before I started questioning how safe we were and before we met our two bunkmates -- an Italian man with a Costanza frame and no English, and a terse man with a Tunisian passport, who was a bit louche but helpful with the luggage. Even so, I kept my Star of David necklace under my shirt and told Ezra to do the same with his new Hamsa I bought him in the Marais.

We settled into our 6-person, um, what do I call it? Cabin? Couchette? Hobbit Closet? Let's go with Hobbit closet. All around us, much louder Americans – some families, several groups of college-aged kids on tours – shouted and laughed and spoke condescendingly to the train employees. Then my kids pulled out their electronics and went to Minecraft Town. 

I tried to silently pacify my escalating anxiety. Oh, hello strange men. We're just some vulnerable Americans with TONS of valuable electronics. I'm sure the other Americans on this train are piquing your European sensibilities. Why not take it out on us? What the hell did I get my kids into? How am I going to make them feel secure when I'm not feeling secure?

 "Grab your stuff guys, we're going to the food car."

The food car was not AT ALL near where we were sleeping, I found out. It was also not the best time for one of my sons to have a complicated bathroom issue. And by complicated I mean that we stopped in every bathroom along the way. As we made our way through the train, bumping into walls like drunks and squeezing past college kids and families, Maxon let me know he was feeling uneasy.

"If we're safe, why do we have to take our backpacks with us?"

"Did you not see what happened to me in the train station? Safe doesn't mean you stop being smart."

But the food car was the perfect diversion. We sat with some girls from Oklahoma State, who were friendly and fun and chatty with my boys.  

"Let me guess," one said, gesturing to Maxon first after he gave her a compliment. "Sweetheart, troublemaker?"


I sat opposite them with their French guide Manuel, who complimented my French accent and shared his bottle of Bordeaux with me. I self-medicated with that wine, the boys self-medicated with the Twix I bought them. We went back to our car (bathroom stops. So many bathroom stops) and Maxon confessed he wasn't into the train ride. He didn't like having to sleep on his backpack or keep quiet about being Jewish. 

"Mom, I'm not sure I like this. Are we really safe?"

"Yes we are. And since I probably won't sleep much tonight, I'll be watching over you."

"OK. This is an adventure mom, but I'm not sure it's a good adventure."

Once back to the Hobbit closet, Tunisia helped me with re-arrange the luggage and pull down the beds. I thanked him profusely in French. Merci, monsieur. Vous êtes très gentil. Because the best defense against theft or assault is politesse.

Once we were all settled in and the lights were out, I assessed the situation. Yes, there were two strange men sleeping with me and my sons. Yes, there was a possibility that neither one of them enjoyed Americans or Jews. Yes, I would have been robbed in the train station if the police weren't there. True, my kids weren't into the adventure. 

But once I nestled into my balance beam of a bed, arranged my head on my handbag pillow, and saw that the men with us just wanted to get a little sleep and not be bothered, I relaxed a bit. My kids may hate the journey, but they'll come away from it as smarter travelers and wake up to overcoming some anxiety. So I got as comfortable as I could, listened to the clacking of the train, and let its rhythm rock me to into a Bordeaux soaked sleep. Florence was just nine or ten hours away. 

Bonne nuit, France. À bientôt. 

Jennifer Raphael