Don’t Shoot Me – I’m on Vacation!

Train goes by rail in summer day, countryside.Our southbound train met up with the French coast line. The Mediterranean Sea came into view outside the window. I expected to see vast desert and a bull fighting ring or two as we approached the Spanish border. Instead, the tropical green foliage and silvery bays under gray clouds reminded me of the Oregon coast. I welcomed the feeling of familiarity.

Alex sat across from me, heavy metal leaked from his headphones. Our feet rested on my pack. The storage compartments at the ends of the train were taped off and travelers had to keep luggage with them in case they needed to be searched. The well dressed man sitting beside Alex was engrossed in his French newspaper. Across the aisle, the other kids faced each other and chatted away without a care in the world, including Chris who seemed to have forgotten about those horrible photos. Just beyond my arm reach sat Donna and Marit. The three of us adults were doing our best at hiding our nervousness about crossing the border. Marit’s worries were late in coming. She learned of the Madrid bombings at home on CNN in the comfort of her living room half way across the world. She told us that in spite of her travel plans there, the Spain bombings didn’t worry her much. That changed once she got to France and saw all the heightened security.

I dealt with my nerves like my oldest son – escapism. I pulled out a pad of paper, grabbed a pen and started writing a letter to my sister.

Suddenly the train stopped.

“Why did we stop?” Marit’s voice seemed loud among our passive fellow travelers.

Outside my window was no train station and it struck me as a weird place to stop. My mouth became dry. The feeling of vulnerability was unsettling.

“It’s probably a routine stop” Donna said calmly.

Marit sat forward in her seat, her eyes darted about. “No, there’s something wrong, I know it.”

My common sense sided with Donna, but I sympathized with Marit. Here it was moments before game time and tension was high. She was vacationing with her kids and had to deal with this. Like us, she worried more about their safety than her own.

We felt a sudden thud as something hit our car. Marit yelped a bit too loud earning the attention of every passenger on the train. Chris stood up. Alex took off his headphones. “What was that?”

Our fellow passengers seemed totally oblivious to anything. After a few moments of suspended confusion, the man sitting beside Alex said something. Alex comprehended the words, nodded then strapped his headphones back on.

“Hold on” I tapped his knee. “What did he say?”

He lifted one headphone. “They attached another train car. No big deal.”

* * *

Other than the ever-present Mediterranean Sea outside my window, there was not much change in the landscape outside. I came to the conclusion that European countries don’t give two shits about signs. There was nothing – absolutely nothing –  indicating that the Spanish border was nearing.

Then the train stopped again.

We sat silently for several minutes. There was no announcement or any other effort made to let us know what was happening. It was like visiting the social security office.

More time passed. The train car was silent. You could hear a pin drop – or an American woman’s voice.

“Something’s wrong.”

“Don’t worry Marit. I’m sure this is standard border crossing procedure.” Donna said. “If they thought there were any bombs they’d certainly evacuate the train.”

“You’d hope they’d evacuate.”

Two guards in fluorescent orange vests appeared outside my window. They were examining the track underneath our train. Several uniformed guards packing large pistols suddenly burst into our car. They systematically checked overhead luggage racks and gaps between seats with little regard for our stuff. They looked at each of us in the face with stern, almost accusing eyes. It created a feeling beyond discomfort and downright alarming – like the moment you realize the drunk you just bumped into wants to fight. These guys were all business and I was sure they’d not hesitate to put a gun to any of our heads if they suspected something.

Marit’s eyes remained fixed on the guards. “I don’t like this.” She whispered loudly. Donna gently patted her hand. Thankfully the guards had little concern for them or the kids. I still held my pen against my notepad. One guard leaned down and looked to be reading my words. Letters to my sister are always brutally honest and abundant in sarcasm. The last sentence I wrote wasn’t exactly respectful of Spanish border security procedures. I just hoped like hell this guy didn’t read English and didn’t plan on asking me any questions. My Spanish was limited to ordering tacos and asking homeowners to tie up their dogs. My heart started beating as I entered what I call the Oh Shit Zone – for me, that’s where the delight of excitement stops and the nightmare of fear begins. I first noticed it at eleven when I jumped on a Honda 70 for the first time and traversed the steep hillsides of a vacant gravel pit with my best friend. There were no adults around (his father dropped us off then headed for the nearest bar). It was a blast feeling the wind in my hair and such power between my legs. Some older kids were bolting straight down the steepest hill at high speed and dared us to follow suit. I remember breaking through the wall of the Oh Shit Zone about halfway down as everything blurred and I lost orientation. I managed to regain control once the bike leveled off at the bottom, but I was shaking like Elvis in a paint store. I had no desire to enter that zone again. No bungee jumping or sky diving for me either. I don’t like the Oh Shit Zone.

This experience had definitely taken me there.

It was time to pray. I didn’t close my eyes or recite anything familiar. I just hoped that God was on this train. It took five seconds tops, which might not qualify to some as a real prayer, but it worked because the guards moved on. In the moments of sweet relief that followed, I admitted to myself that tight security was a good thing.

The train finally got moving and sure enough – crossed the border. Spain was here. The moment I’d been dreading arrived, yet my nerves stopped buzzing and my head felt pleasantly numb. Even though we’d just arrived, it seemed like the worst was over. The kids resumed their lively conversation and Marit seemed much calmer. I continued writing my letter and planned to keep at it until we reached Barcelona, where I planned to enjoy a super-sized sangria.

NEXT: Light Up a Saint for a Euro

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