Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deja Vous: Alaskan Habits in France

Leaving Lourdes was harder than I thought. It was nine at night, blacker than ink, with no street lights or street signs in this quaint provincial French town. I was searching for the train station, or rather groping around in the dark for the only means of transportation and fearing I’d miss my ten o’clock train. I had a map, but a whole lot of good it did me. Apparently, this side of town was empty at this time, as all residents, tourists, and pilgrims congregated by the shrine for the nocturnal processions of Mary and candlelight.

I wound up in a sinister alley, weighed down by my backpack and duffel bag so I didn’t have much mobility in the occasion of being attacked. (Being a petite young girl, albeit a scruffy one, you had to be wary of these things.) Then a car drove by, at a considerably slow speed as if the driver was coincidentally meandering along waiting for me. This might be my last chance. Call me reckless, but it was dark and I was desperate, so I resorted back to my Alaskan hitch-hiking ways. I flagged down the car. (No, I did not adhere to my usual rule of riding with mini van-driving moms with a baby in the back.)

Thankfully, it was a pleasant-faced woman who was very sympathetic to my plight and offered me a ride to the train station a few blocks away. A grad student, she was rather young and seemed like my contemporary, although at the moment I thought of her more as angel. Angels may be portrayed as cherubic visions, or winged seraphim of blinding white at some divinity’s beckoning, but I am much more interested in the flesh and blood creatures who literally appear out of nothingness to save us from our scrapes. In moments of most dire need. When things appear hopeless. I have known many such angels. To others, they are normal citizens going about their everyday business. But to some, they work magic.

So she dropped me off at my destination with fifteen minutes to spare. I thanked her and I don’t remember her name, but it happens so often that these details are forgotten in the transcendence of to help and be helped. Then I was off to Switzerland to visit Matthias.

Remember Matthias? He was the Swiss German economist who had summited Mt. McKinley and ended up with a viscous green toe. We met while backpacking in Alaska and he had invited me to stay whenever I visited Europe. I thought about him while boarding the train, wondering if I’d have to find my own dubious lodging in Zurich. After all, there is a difference between what men say and what they actually do, and the well-intentioned directives of “I’ll call you,” or “Let’s go out” or even “You’re welcome to stay,” often have hieroglyphic meanings and even more ambivalent shades of meanings. For Americans, it is common to say things that you don’t mean out of politeness or not wanting to appear as anything less than nice. Edith Wharton implied that Americans did not like to refuse; the real answer was known only by a set of arbitrary signs. Do I think we’re fickle? Not in the slightest…

Well, Swiss Germans, or at least this one, did exactly what he said. There he was, waiting for me at the station, complaining at my selection of tardy trains and ushering me away, paying for everything as we went to his home since I hadn’t a single penny in Swiss Francs.

Matthias welcomed me into his sanctuary; he shared an apartment with an amiable roommate overlooking Lake Zurich. When I saw that iridescent sea of promise, shimmering with the halcyon of youth, I already felt at home.

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