Posted by: 4initalia | April 22, 2009

Cross Training

Our family spent a week and a small fortune in Paris. The Paris trip coincided with my daughter Annalise’s birthday. We knew that because she reminded us every 27 seconds: “Did you know it’s my birthday?” As her parents, we are well informed on the date of her birth; she tried so hard to jump the gun on her arrival, I had to take anti-contraction medication. Annalise counts as her birth date all of the false starts and premature labor, so for her the festivities start in mid-March; we’re looking into medication to deal with this, too. But my husband Andy agreed to start the celebration early, with an overnight train trip to Paris.

Packing for trains is easy: You can’t take anything. Whatever you pack has must be hurtled down a million steps to get to the station, then hauled back up to the platform. Getting back up the steps involves a lot of unsightly gasping and tucking all of your pulled muscles back into your clothing. On an Italian train platform, the only air space free of secondhand smoke is found on the tracks, in the area between the engine and the first car. While hiding under the train is discouraged, with every breath you hear individual lung cells seize up and die. So you breathe through your tear ducts and vow that your obituary will list your cause of death as mass murder, by train.

But surviving the platform is only the first of many challenges. When the train comes, you have to get on it. When the train pulls in, five million people have to get off, and seven million people have to get on. Somewhere in that crowd is you and your luggage, your spouse and his luggage, and your children and whatever luggage they didn’t leave in the station. And all of those people are trying to squeeze through a space the size of a train door.

European train doors are at best two feet wide and are designed to stick halfway closed; if you’re an optimist, halfway open. The doors are perched at the top of steep train steps, and the bottom step of the train is at least eighteen inches above the ground. Everyone and everything has to get and off that step within three minutes of the train’s arrival, or you’re stuck for another round of Platform Smoke Roulette.

When the train arrives, you stand in front of the door as people fling themselves and their suitcases off the high step. They aim for a soft landing, preferably on someone’s thigh. De-training alone takes several minutes, so, with seconds to go before the train pulls out, you must heave your child and her suitcase stuffed with commemorative rocks onto the top step. She comes to a dead stop in the doorway, to reflect on the excitement of travel, or to read a book, and as the train picks up speed you hurl yourself, and the packet of Kleenex you will fashion into a travel wardrobe, onto the train.

Then you find a seat. For one person, this is no problem. For four people, one of whom (Annalise) insists on sitting on the south-facing seat on a westward train, and an east-facing seat on any train whose destination ends in a vowel, getting seated can be tricky. If the pickiness in seating continues, you look for the most menacing person in a compartment, and ask whether he has ever considered adoption, or starting a business which employs seven year old chimney sweeps. Travel is so broadening when it exposes children to new career options.

For the trip to Paris, in honor of Annalise’s seventh birthday, we booked a cuchette. Cuchette is French for sleeper car, but the term actually means “if you plan to sleep in here you are woefully delusional.” Our first task was to locate the right train car. Our cuchette was in Car 97, which you might believe was located between cars 96 and 98. But not on this train. On this train, which had about 100 cars, the 70s were in the same general location, the 80s mixed and matched, but the 90s were alll over the map.

Because we would be gone for a week and a half, we took Big Red, a beast of a suitcase, and three smaller ones. As the train roared into the station, Andy watched Car 97 roll by, and tried to board there. “NOOO!” said the conductor. “But that’s Car 97” said Andy. “No, it isn’t” said the conductor, “That’s at the other end of the train.”

Trying to find a single car out of 100 is not easy from outside a train, especially one that is leaving. So we got on, to find it from inside the train. But that meant heaving luggage, including Big Red, through the clogged and narrow corridors of a moving train, which is a lot like navigating the intestinal passage of a constipated pterodactyl. Andy stayed with the luggage, and the kids and I set out to find Car 97.

We boarded the train in the middle, and Andy saw Car 97 at the front, so we headed that way. The train was full of people and travel gear of every description: sagging suitcases, bloated backpacks, lemur-carrying devices. Every passenger had a seat, and every seat has overhead storage. To facilitate movement through the lurching train, every passenger heaped all of their gear into the corridor, wedged themselves, diagonally, across the hallway, and stood there. This was not helpful. A woman and two children, at the tattered hour of 11 p.m., are not walking the halls for their own amusement. If you are blocking the passage and one woman and two children are standing beside you, it’s not because they have gotten on the train for the express purpose of standing at your side. No, really, it’s not.

One man, his volumious back an uninterrupted block of bovine obliviousness, blocked the narrow passage. “Excuse me.” I said. Nada. “Excuse Me.” “EXCUSE.ME.” “EXXXXCUUUUUUUSSSSSSEEEEE MEEEEEEEEEE.” Unable to bear the irritating din far below his hair-stuffed ears, he finally moved aside. High school students, eyes fearful with unfamiliar freedom, clotted up the hallway. But they recognized the crazed look of a tired mom, and got out of the way before the yelling starting.

Walking through the cars was an obstacle course, but getting between them is like riding on the Moving Walkway from Hell. The doors between the cars seal like Tupperware, and open only with a wrenching jerk, or sometimes a jerky wench, depending on the train. Between each of the cars, joining them, is a metal slab that grinds and jolts, but it doesn’t cover the whole area, there is a gap on each side large enough for a child to fall in up to her thigh. Through the holes in the joining plate you can see the tracks rushing by below. But since your child is airborne from the lurching of the train most of the time she’s in the vestibule, this is not alarming.

We headed for the front, where Andy said he saw Car 97. We ripped open door after door – plunged through the cars numbered in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the nineties…aaah, Car 96, 97 must be next! But no: at the front of Car 96, there was a window, and through the window, the back of the engine. Car 97, where are you???

So we turned back. I found a porter, and asked for 97. He shrugged, philosophically, he had no idea, and no interest in finding it. It was 11:30, I had two kids and no place to sleep: my family insanity genes activated and I morphed into a raging lunatic. “WHERE IS IT? WHY DON’T YOU KNOW WHERE THE CAR IS?? It’s YOUR TRAIN!!” Niente. Apparently train porters are impervious to people screaming at them, and besides, only half my genes are Italian.

We kept going. We passed Andy, who straddled the luggage. “It’s at the front, I saw it!” he insisted. But the three of us, who had been in every car in that direction, were prepared to accept that he had imagined the whole thing. It happens. We found more porters, who cheerfully confirmed that the car was at the front of the train.

This was becoming way too much like the 70s movie The Poseidon Adventure, and I was Shelly Winters, insanely insisting that we go down, towards the hull. We kept moving, through the 50s, the 40s, now reaching the end of the train…and Car 97. Why of course, why didn’t I think to put Car 97 between Car 46 and 49? This is exactly the kind of thing that makes me skeptical of Train Planning Science. Because here’s a disburbing Train Fact: the carriage car numbers were not enameled onto the walls, or carved in steel, they were MADE OF PAPER, and stuck on with TAPE!!! If you’re going to use paper signs, and you add a car, can’t you just retape the numbers, so the cars are in order? I ask too much.

We went back through the 40 cars, found Andy, (who continued to mumble that he saw 97 at the front, but we patted him gently and moved him along) and finally, after midnight, got into our cuchette.

A cuchette has six seats that theoretically turn into six cots, but only if you believe that a bed should have the dimensions of a cigarette lighter. To reach the upper cots, there is an iron ladder. The ladder connects to a metal bar on the wall by a clever hook that is really more like a flat piece of metal, so that if you tilt the ladder even slightly, the whole shebang releases. This makes it very likely a small child, who insists on climbing up and down three thousand times, will detach the ladder and be flung onto the steel wall of the opposite side. Train travel is so exciting, when you’re not sure about insurance.

The cuchette is stocked with Lilliputian bedding: there’s a single-celled pillow, and an elfin sleeve that serves as a top and bottom sheet, and a blanket, for each person. The blanket is the size of the cot, and its loose weave actually siphons heat from the body and sends it out into the cool night air. Apparently there is heat in the cuchette, but a certain person with red curly hair, who was sleeping on the top cot and was named Alexander Robert Babb Goetz, decided that it was hot in the top compartment and turned the heat off. In the morning, a certain devoted mother, who had spent seventeen grueling hours in labor to produce a red-haired person with two middle names, learned that heat was available but denied. Over petit dejeuner in the dining car, the conversation turned to military school and orphanages, and stayed there for the next several days.

Not that sleep was possible even if there were heat. When you’re seated in a train, the car gently sloshes over the tracks, bobbing and weaving; riding a train is a relatively relaxing experience. That is, until another train passes on the tracks just on the other side of the window, filling the glass with a heart-stopping million tons of thrashing steel and pulsating light hurtling within inches of your face. But in that lull between, it’s relaxing.

Lying down in a dark compartment the width of a matchstick is another thing altogether. It’s like trying to sleep in a blender, on the Puree setting. The lack of heat (ALEX!!!) made me feel like a human margarita.

When you’re sitting in a train seat, you travel either in the direction the train is moving, or in the opposite direction. When you’re lying down, perpendicular to the movement of the train and on the verge of sleep, your brain doesn’t understand.

Theoretically the tracks are flat and relatively straight, but every time I started to fall asleep, my brain decided that it was riding an Antarctic rollercoaster. This was not restful. All night long, every time I drifted off, the train pitched and bucked, climbed frozen waterfalls and fell off ice floes. Of course if my brain cells hadn’t frozen upon contact with my skull (ALEX!!) I may have been able to convince my synapses of their safety. Between the cold (ALEX!!!) and the pureeing, my overnight trip did not include sleeping, which should have allowed me to deduct the “cuch” from the price of the ticket.

The kids slept like, well, kids. In the morning they were thrilled they had slept on the train, because they had actually slept on the train. We took two more overnight train trips, in Poland and to Legoland Denmark. The experience is a lot like the third week with a newborn: loud, messy, and, except for the staggering fatigue, mercifully hard to recall. If you’re looking for an unforgettable experience to share with your kids, book an overnight train and have fun with it. If you’re looking for a relaxing way to travel, fly to a really nice hotel, put the kids on an overnight train,  and visit them after they’re adopted.

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