Paris by Sardine Can

“That man is spitting on my suitcase.”

I had noticed, but should I move it? I thought his spitting was a nervous tic, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. Besides, I didn’t think there was any actual spit. I told her so.

We were on the second train of the day, and spitting or no this one was much better than the first. (I’ve learned a new word since I arrived in France. Canicule. Means heat wave.) Air conditioning is not a given here, like it was in Florida. Stores still advertise that they have air conditioning as a way to entice customers. Not every place has it. The airport didn’t. The first train didn’t.

The train in question was the regional light rail that connected the airport to the center of Paris. It was full on the way into Paris, and it got fuller at each stop as new passengers forced their way onto the crowded car. Rebecca and I were drifting further and further apart, separated by rising tide of sweaty Parisians. We locked eyes at each stop, desperation mounting. The only relief from the dense, stale heat of the packed car was the hot breeze that wafted feebly through the narrow slit of a window near the ceiling. And then only when the train was moving.

It was a long ride until, swollen with cramped and miserable people, the train finally lurched to a halt at the Cité stop and spilled its passengers onto the platform like a disemboweled snake. A guy about my age or a little younger helped me swing our baggage onto the platform and went on his way. The station was hot and crowded, and the air polluted and fragrant with sweating bodies, but we gulped down lungfills of the relatively fresh air gratefully.

“Should we just take a taxi, or do you want to take the metro?”

“Let’s take a taxi.”

“Wait, we missed the exit… This is the way to the metro.”

Sighs all around.

“Okay, let’s just take the metro.”

We were surprised to find the metro much less crowded than the light rail from the airport. I set my bag down next to a fold-down chair and sat next to Rebecca. We rumbled toward the train station in relative comfort. A few stops in, Rebecca leaned over and whispered to me:

“That man is spitting on my suitcase.”

“I don’t think he’s spitting… I mean, I don’t think there’s actual spit.” There was.

He was middle-aged and thin, short-haired and North African in origin. I thought he might have had Tourette’s Syndrome: He had been spitting air every few seconds since he boarded the train, and stomping simultaneously. It was a strange combination of behaviors, perfected over the years that he’d been forced to practice them. He leaned over and spoke to me, his r’s rolling off his tongue in the way typical of North African French:

“Is that yours?” He meant the suitcase.

“Oh yeah, it’s ours.” He nodded. “Is it bothering you?” I asked him.

“No…no… but you have to make sure that bags on the metro belong to someone.”

Right. I had seen an unattended bag confiscated a few hours earlier in the airport.

We chatted for a bit on the way to Montparnasse train station. He asked where we were going, and I told him Nantes. Ah…. Nantes! Do you know it? He did know Nantes, very well. Is there anything in Nantes that I just shouldn’t miss? It’s a beautiful city, with much to see. He said he had a family member who played for the soccer team there. Abdoun was his name. As he spoke he stomped and spit, showering my bare shin with saliva.

“Well hopefully we’ll have the chance to see a soccer game while we’re there!” I told him as we approached our stop. The car rumbled to a halt.

“Have a good stay!” he said, stepping off the subway car.

Arriving at Montparnasse station, we set off to the platform where our train would be arriving shortly. Thankfully, we had already purchased our tickets online and didn’t need to wait in the long lines for the ticket agents. When the train arrived, we trudged off toward our assigned car. The last one in line, all the way at the end of the platform.

We collapsed into our seats and the towering concrete of Paris turned quickly to rural farmland. A little over two hours and we would be there. I love trains, and train travel. The countryside slid by in the brilliance of the cloudless summer sky. Good to be here, so good. And a good day so far! My French is not as far gone as I’d feared, and I’ve had some decent conversations. I remembered the man on the metro, his spit practically still glistening on my leg. I looked across the table at Rebecca.

“When we get in, I’ve got dibs on the shower.”

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