Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How I almost accidentally went to Dusseldorf

Matthew's wife has asked for stories about Matthew... I'm still working on mine, but here's a rough draft. Please be aware there is some language that might not be work appropriate.

A few years ago, Matthew and I went to Europe. The plan was to go to Paris, then from there to Belgium, Amsterdam and Luxemborg. Along the way we almost ended up in Dusseldorf, although we didn't make it to Luxemborg.

We had spent a few days in Paris and were headed to Amsterdam to connect with Jacob, who we had met in Honduras a few years earlier. Along the way we intended to spend a little time in Brussels. It's not that we had any business there, but it was on the way and somewhere we hadn't been - no better reason to go somewhere as far as we were concerned. We weren't sure when any of these things would happen - we were just traveling and finding the places where we would lay our heads as we went. 

So, we arrive at the train station in Paris, Eurail passes in hand, and procure our tickets for Brussels. The attendant tells us Platform 16. When she asks if we understand, Matthew pipes up and says, "Oh yes, my friend Patsy speaks perfect French." I shoot him a withering look and beg him to please stop lying to people. He has been perpetuating this lie for days, and no one believes him when they look at me, and with my eyes wide in fear I'm muttering, "un peu, un peu" and holding my fingers a millimeter apart to illustrate only a little French, a tiny bit.

We head to track 16, which I had understood, not to mention it was written on the tickets. We settle ourselves into a very nicely appointed train car. We toss our backpacks in the overhead racks and sink into the cushy seats, ready for what promises to be a luxurious ride into Belgium. We can't help but notice that everyone around us is dressed far better than we are. Not only are our backpacks unusual in the sea of leather briefcases, but all around us are men in suits and women in high heels. Not that that last one means anything in France because for reasons I don't understand French women's feet are made differently than ours and they can wear high heels 'round the clock, walking on cobblestone streets - nay, running, on uneven cobblestone streets - with no discomfort at all. Anyway, we're not feeling any embarrassment over our jeans and sneakers. We're on vacation, after all.

We're sitting there, playing with the trays like you see on airplanes, wondering if food is going to be served, when we become aware of someone beside us. I look up and there is this older French woman, perfectly coifed, in an elegant red skirt suit, designer handbag over her delicate wrist, speaking to us and holding her ticket. I look at her with what I'm sure was a deer-in-headlights look because I do not speak perfect French, despite what Matthew kept saying. Recognizing the look of yet another American who is incapable of learning a second language, she switches to flawless English and says, "I believe you're in my seat."

We fumble for our tickets - they're somewhere - maybe in the backpacks.

While we hunt, she says, "Are you going to Dusseldorf?"

We look at each other and then it dawns on us that Dusseldorf is in Germany, which was not on our original travel itinerary.

Trying desperately to maintain her composure, and brushing away a piece of lint with a perfectly manicured hand, she says politely, "This train is going to Germany."

Matthew and I begin to apologize to her profusely, although we're a bit unsure where we're supposed to go. Even I think my French is good enough to have heard "16," and it is written on the ticket. Isn't it?

"Where do you want to go," she asks.

"Brussels," I reply.

"The OTHER train is going to Belgium," she says.

"The other train? What other train? There's another train? Is this platform 16?"

"There are two trains on this track. You want the other train," she says as she motions behind us.

So, we get up, grab our backpacks and head out, thanking her all the while.

Her parting words were, "You must hurry."

And, let me tell you, she was right about that. We walked on down and sure enough there was another train. We were the last people on it. It started moving before we found seats.

One of the things I loved about traveling with Matthew is that if we had ended up in Dusseldorf, it would have been fine. We would have gone to see whatever there is to see in Dusseldorf, had some dinner, stayed for the night, maybe for a day or two, took in the sights, met some folks, and then proceeded with the rest of our trip.

I'm very choosy about travel partners and Matthew was a perfect one. He never got upset - even when his wallet was stolen in Paris on another trip. We just dealt with whatever crossed our paths - from lost luggage to machine gun toting "officials." We lived by the travel rule of always keep on your person three things - your passport, a credit card and some cash. Everything else you can leave behind if you need to get out fast.

But, alas, that was not the day for us to visit Dusseldorf. We arrived in Brussels that evening, and met a nice lady named Catherine at the visitor's center in the train station, who found us a nice second floor walk up room to stay in. When she mentioned the proprietor spoke no English, Matthew again piped up, "Oh, that's no problem, my friend, Patsy, speaks perfect French."

Other than his propensity to tell bald-faced lies like that, Matthew was a great travel partner. He told me once that he loved traveling with me because he always came home with some stories that start out, 'No shit... there we were...'" I thought it was HIM that was causing those stories to happen.

"No shit, there we were, on the edge of a volcano..."
"No shit, there we were, and this guy was telling us about how the 'lion et the lion tamer' in his circus... during the show..."
"No shit, there we were, and we saw the boat leaving shore..."
"No shit, there we were, and she says, 'oh, we don't have the 3 p.m. flight anymore - that plane crashed'..."
"No shit, there we were, and the guys says, 'oh, doesn't your friend live here? Her French is so good'..." (I still think Matthew put him up to that.)
"No shit, there we were, and I swear the guy says, 'be sure you get the hostage insurance before you leave'..."
"No shit, there we were, and we figure out the guy is a monk..."
"No shit, there we were, in El Salvador..."
"No shit, there we were, and there was this banging on the door. It's 4:35 a.m..."
"No shit, there we were, about to go to Dusseldorf by accident..."

I think it was the combination of the two of us that resulted in those stories. We always found people to talk to, wherever we were, even if we didn't speak the language. We met people in airports, busses, restaurants, piano bars and cathedrals. We had Italian food in almost every country we went to, but oddly enough never made it to Italy together. On our last flight together, coming home from Paris, we were talking about the next trip.

"I need something a bit more exotic," I said.

"How about Peru," Matthew asked.

"Maybe so," I said. "I just want something less 'antiseptic' next time."

"I know what you mean," he said. "This was great, but I want to get closer to the people."

"I want my next trip to involve negotiating with a goat herder for transportation at some point," I said.

Matthew leaned back, gazed off into the distance, smiled wistfully and said, "Yes, exactly... A goat herder, a chicken bus... something interesting..."

Unfortunately, we never got to take that trip. But if I ever do get to Dusseldorf, I'm going to drink a toast to Matthew and the trip that almost was.

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1 comment:

sigerson said...

Beautiful essay! Such people are a truly rare treasure. Even those who didn't know Matthew can recognize that the world is a poorer place without him.

You probably shed a few tears in writing this, but I hope such stories make you smile, too, at the good fortune you had to have Matthew in your life to begin with.

And he had the good fortune to know you as well.