Don’t Blow my Cover

Marseille St. Charles railway station, FranceAs our train sped through Belgium I reminisced about our time with Mrs. M. What extremes I’d felt there – security and care followed by horror and anxiety. It was hard saying goodbye to her. We walked into the dining room that last morning for breakfast and found our table decorated with balloons and a Happy Birthday sign. She even had a cake and candles and we all sang the birthday song to Alex. We stood at her door, packs on our backs and ready to make that arduous hike back into town when she told us Mr. M went to fetch his lorry to drive us to the station. I wanted to hug her and never let go.

The trains had changed since the bombings. The baggage area at the end of the car was now taped off and we had to keep our packs close by to allow a command inspection by armed security officers – who patrolled the stations and walked through cars regularly now. Our trip to Spain would not be for another two weeks, but I still worried that any place in Europe could be next. Terrorists tend to bomb crowded things, so I felt better seeing our train had only a handful of passengers. In spite of this, I still found something else to worry about – France.

I heard all the usual stories about the French and how they treated American tourists. My second greatest fear at the moment was seeing a bright flash followed by large pieces of steel penetrating my body. My greatest fear was looking like a fool in front of my family. I’d managed to avoid this so far in my kingdom back home where I had a reasonable amount of control – and knowledge – and spoke the language.

I’d hoped for a short visit  – just enough time to visit the EiffelTower, see the Mona Lisa, and enjoy a crepe suzette before escaping to another country. Yet, that plan was dashed away when our friend Caroline suggested that we visit her cousin Luc and his wife on their farm in the northwestern region of France. She insisted there would be plenty of room, Luc’s wife recently converted part of the farm into a Bed and Breakfast. Carolyn told me Luc and his wife had little children, so I figured he was several years younger than me. I imagined sitting around the parlor, watching the kids play at our feet, and trying to make small talk while fighting a language barrier. I could only hope they sold Tylenol there.

I looked out the window at the passing countryside, hoping to see a sign that read Welcome to France. Instead, the green hills turned into concrete industrial buildings and suddenly things felt urban. “How big is Lille?”

“Pretty big.” Donna replied. “The fourth largest city in France – around a million people in the metro area.”

Metro area? I thought this would be farm land.”

Donna shrugged her shoulders. Large buildings came into view. It felt weird pulling into a major city that I didn’t know existed.

“The next stop is ours.” Donna said. We got our bags down from the racks above our seats. The train stopped and we stepped out onto the platform and looked around, as if we knew who to look for.

“How will they find us?” Jill asked.

“I have no idea.”

The other travelers cleared the area and the five of us stood there alone. I realized we didn’t have Luc’s phone number. We didn’t even know his last name. I wanted to kick myself for not getting more details. I began to worry that we’d gotten off at the wrong station. An older man with a grey goatee and bright blue eyes walked quickly toward us. He looked Scandinavian and I thought he might have been a cab driver or something like that.

“Hello, Jeff’” he said with a distinct French accent. He offered his outstretched hand to me. “I am Luc.”

NEXT: Hang On!

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