For many years my most enduring memory of Paris has been this, and I am glad to revisit it, unexpectedly, as I listen to The Tape: I’d arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten o’clock in the evening on Thursday 18th August, from London.
In London, I had spent “a few hours” at home after returning—aflush, aglow and awonder—from Edinburgh, where the last play I’d seen was an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This had, once more, inspired me, and prompted me to consider whether QED, an experimental piece of writing I’d recently conceived essentially as a monologue, “might have a chance in Edinburgh,” and I note on The Tape, in a tone that today both amuses and amazes me, that “something at least as good, if not quite a lot better, can be done, actually.”
The unencumberedness. The youth. The brazen confidence. The honesty. Now, listening to myself then, I sense I can maybe do what I never could at the time: indulge myself, just a little. Although to others it must have looked and sounded and felt as though everything came incredibly easy to me, it didn’t. I never actually indulged myself then: I was, if anything, highly critical of myself and unsure of almost everything. But I tricked myself into appearing otherwise.
Now, I feel a warmth towards me then, a quarter of a century ago, at the beginning, setting out to what is to become me, and I chuckle. I was not a bad person. Perhaps a little deluded (maybe a lot), perhaps a little too sure of myself in some respects, but so very fragile in so many others. And yet, I survived…
I survived because of people like the good human I attach to this memory in Paris. Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at about ten in the evening, I knew I needed to find a train now to Grenoble. Grenoble was really my next stop on this ‘Europe Tour 1988,’ and try as I might I could not see a train listed to this place anywhere at the Gare du Nord. (It is telling to me now, but not in all seriousness that surprising, that I had not worked out a full itinerary. Taking a train to a European city and from there another train to another city in that same country, without planning or let alone booking a specific connection ahead, to my still European mind was entirely reasonable then.)
So I walked up to the information desk and in my dodgy French enquired after a train to Grenoble. The lady at the counter talked to me, not unfriendly, but quickly, and made no sense at all. I wandered off and found some other person to start over again, possibly at another information desk or maybe just at the ticket office, and here I fared a little better because while I still was profoundly out of my depth with my inadequate French, I got the gist that in order to get to Grenoble I would first have to go to Lyon, and that while it was not possible at this time of night to catch a train all the way down to Grenoble I could still quite feasibly make it to the station in Lyon.
I must have been travelling on Interrail (nowhere on The Tape do I specify) or at any rate have already been in possession of a through ticket to Grenoble, because now, without further purchase, confused but a little relieved, I went searching for said train to Lyon and boarded one which for some reason or other must have looked plausible to me. The train was pretty empty, but it was also pretty late, and I’d done enough grappling with unforeseen complications to give it much thought. Also, I had spent the most part of the last 36 hours on trains, and so I was maybe just a tad tired.
Then suddenly the hum of the air con ceased, and the lights went out. Now fully awake and alert again, I jumped off the train only to see it pull out of the station—all dark, all empty—obviously depot bound. I was stuck, as far as I could tell, at Paris, Gare du Nord, for the night.
Apparently I was not the only one though because a few other lost souls, or travellers in transit, were lounging about the concourse around shabby cases or, here and there, leaning against their backpacks, and I felt unperturbed, as far as I can recall.
Come midnight or maybe around 1am they closed the station, and those of us stranded there with nowhere to go were moved outside. While some of them at this point dispersed (they probably never meant to travel anywhere and were just seeking shelter inside the station), a handful or so remained, and I spent the night talking to a Parisian clochard and then sleeping next to him a few feet apart on the pavement outside the Gare du Nord. When I say ‘spent the night,’ I mean really a few night time hours, because at 4:30 they opened the station again, and those of us who had, or thought we had, trains to catch were let back inside.
Now, what on The Tape in my a little self-conscious and just slightly off-the-mark English I refer to as “sufficiently tired” (having spent the second night in a row getting all of about two hours sleep), I walk up to the ticket office as soon as it opens and make my third attempt at establishing how to get to Grenoble from Paris.
I finally find out that in order to get to Grenoble from Paris I first have to go to the Gare de Lyon. Not the Gare de Lyon in Lyon, where you would expect it to be, but the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Suddenly a lot of bizarre and circuitous conversation the night before begins to make sense: they were talking about the railway station in Paris called Lyon, and I was understanding the railway station of Lyon, all the time.
To get to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, I’m informed, I can take either the métro or a banlieu train. And so, after asking a few more people, I find myself in front of this gigantic ticket machine that looks to me like the unsolvable puzzle, like a mysterious lock to which no key can be known, like an impenetrable riddle in an unbreakable code.
By this time I can barely keep my eyes open, and even if I do: I’ve taken out my contact lenses for the few hours’ rest on the pavement outside, and my glasses are somewhere at the bottom of my bag. I stand there like Ali Baba having forgotten the magical phrase for Sesame, when a chap pitches up, charming and bright eyed, and asks me if I’m lost.
‘Not really…’ I say, which now strikes me as disingenuous, and I tell him I just need to get to the Gare de Lyon. He asks me if I’m from London. ‘Yes,’ I say, and give him a weary smile. He tells me that a friend of his had been to London for three days, and keys in the correct sequence. I’m trying to process if that was just recently that his friend had been to London for three days, or once in his lifetime, and what the further significance of this may be, but the price flashes up on the machine, and it now dawns on me that I haven’t got any francs yet. Before I can explain, he throws in some coins and hands me the ticket and wishes me good luck. I barely manage a ‘thank you’ before he is gone, vanished into the early commuter throng of Parisians.
I have never forgotten this man and his random act of kindness. He changed not only the way I thought about ‘the people of Paris’ (they had a fearsome reputation), but completely opened my eyes to what a small deed could do; and because I was so grateful and so touched and so genuinely helped out by what he had done for me, I often and in many situations since have tried to emulate his disposition towards me and pass on the love. And I still do, three decades later.
And so if anything I ever was able to do for a ‘stranger’ has had even a fraction of the impact he had on me, then this young man—with a smile, two minutes of his time, and what must have amounted to about three or four francs of his money—has made the world a much, much better place.
Merci, mon ami. Tu es toujours dans mon âme…