When the Trains Stop

The plan was to take the train from Brussels to Toulouse. Eight hours of watching the country scenery, reading, writing and having the experience of being on the rails. Also I don’t like to fly so this was a great way to have a train adventure and stay closer to the ground. Total travel time was not going to be that much longer than if I flew. Cost was slightly less. Win-win. When my daughter decided to join me it was going to be a shared journey and a great way for her to see this part of the world. At sixteen it did not seem like that big a deal that she was sitting in a  different compartment. We arrived at the station bright and early, excited about the day and so were a little confused by the gentleman checking us in who said in much better English than my any other language, “no train now, rail strike in France, take the next.” He stamped the tickets with something that said, ‘Hop On The Next.’ The day was going to be more of an adventure than I had hoped for – be careful, as they say, what you wish for. I learned a lot yesterday about kindness, also about fear and control, I learned about humility and gratitude, and I saw a lot of beautiful countryside.

Here is what I learned: If you find yourself at a ticket counter that requires a number in order to be served (think the DMV) be careful about making sure you have considered all of your questions before you leave the counter. Once you leave the counter your turn is over, you can not go back when you realize that you forgot just one small thing. So you should be prepared to wait in the line for your new number to be called several times if you have not thought to linger and ponder the information you have just received.

In the event that you are traveling on the day of a rail strike do not be confused by the fact that the ticket information booth acts as if things are basically normal and trains are just running late. Do not think that the rail service will be what you get on a non-strike day because it is different. For instance the conductors whom are normally quite helpful and are all multi-lingual are neither of those things when there is a strike. In fact they basically ignore you and perhaps even yell at you if you ask a question. Also the seat you thought you paid for is no longer your seat. Your seat may in fact be perching on the arm of a chair in which a stranger is sitting, or you seat may be in the aisle way, or on the floor of the vestibule in front of the toilet door. Be flexible is the lesson here. And don’t expect food. The charm of the dining car you were perhaps expecting is now more of a free-for-all with mad grabs at whatever food there is. The station authorities did hand out water at one of the particularly long stops where masses were huddled in crowded cars with no room to sit, no air conditioning and a rather hot, humid day so that was nice.

Finally I learned that there is no value in ego, asking for help means there is a chance you will get help when you need it and trying to figure everything out on your own is just not necessary. I had to ask for a lot of help yesterday, some for simple things like checking to make sure I was on the right train or getting off at the right stop, and some for very stressful things like finding my daughter when we were separated. In the latter situation I had to ask for a lot of help and ultimately I got much more than I could have hoped for. I met a broad spectrum of who and how people are in a panicked state and I ended up enormously grateful that a lot of people live on the end of the spectrum of kind, wonderful, generous and thoughtful. I wish I had got the name of the men who were helping me, I didn’t because it was chaos, but they were people that taught me the importance of caring for the people around us even when not personally convenient, they taught me to be kinder, and they showed me how totally acceptable it is to rely on support from others as long as we are willing to reciprocate.

There were ruins of castles on the hillsides, and pastures dotted with sheep and cows. There were villages of only a few blocks surrounded by green pastures and golden wheat. Then there were stations that looked like movie sets, and crowds of people frustrated but dealing with what was before them. We have all been doing this same thing for a very long time, feeling the feelings that are not new, just packaged up a little differently. Seeing the world, being connected, caring for each other, that part of the adventure never goes on strike.

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