June 15, 2014
Paris. A mental scream beats across my brain as I approach the service desk line for the fourth time in four hours and find that it is even longer than the last time I stood in it. Every time I am forced to come back to this dreaded collection of wanderers, travelers, and vagabonds, it seems to triple in size. Then I realize: it makes sense. Multiple train companies are on strike and ticket holders are resting on luggage, waiting to hear if they can be freed from this loathsome station. But people are not leaving, and more ticket holders continue to arrive faced with the same dilemma. Even those avid planners like myself, who bought their tickets online far in advance, are left stranded. Steve and I, along with two new friends, have decided to take matters into our own hands.
We’re breaking out of this joint.
However, Steve has given me a side-mission while he secures the getaway car: rescue his precious hat (that somehow, I have accidentally lost in the midst of the chaos) from the clutches of the service desk workers. At least, that is where I believe it will be. But I am not waiting in that line again. People give me dirty looks as I walk right up to the front. A bulbous guard puts his fat, hairy arm out, stopping me with a murderous look. It has obviously been a long day for him too, and I’m sure I’m not the first attempting to do this. However, I’m sure I am the first one who asks, “I’m just looking for something! Did I leave a hat in there?”
His look changes from murderous to annoyed. “No.” His voice is severe and final.
This disgruntled human being doesn’t even bother to ask the service desk personnel. I need a win today. I yell over his shoulder to the pretty service woman talking with another frustrated traveler. “Excuse me!” The guard cannot believe the audacity of this American girl. “Did I leave a hat in there?!” She looks over, confusion sweeping across her face, and then she just shakes her head “no.” I can tell the guard is happy to be rid of me and that I didn’t fulfill my mission. He is the embodiment of Paris, and at this point, I can’t wait to be rid of him altogether.
I stop back at the café we inhabited for the past four hours while we waited for our nonexistent train to arrive. I flag down and ask the waiter to check if a hat has been left. No luck. It’s time to give up. This stupid hat cost three Euro, but apparently to Steve, it is the best engineered hat in history. How unfortunate that his beloved, inept wife has lost it forever. It is what it is. I push my way through the congregation, which is what we have all become. We are a group of people who all believe in the same thing. However, instead of the classic religious belief that “we are saved,” we have all come to the conclusion that “we are screwed.”
Arriving at the Hertz counter, there is news: we have a vehicle for the whopping deal of 800 Euro (about $1,200). Apparently, this is a steal because Steve and Kirk have talked the manager down from 1,200 Euro (about $1,500). It equals out to about $600 a couple, plus gas and tolls, after we have spent hundreds of dollars on train tickets that we are not sure we will get reimbursed on. But what choice do we have? A last-minute plane ticket is about $700 per person, and one thing we don’t have an excess of is time to wait out this situation. We leave from Rome to go back to Chicago on June 24th, and there is plenty on our agenda before then. But still, it physically hurts to see Kirk sign the papers. Steve tries to give Kirk the money we have on us, about 300 Euro, but he says that we will square everything away once we get to Milan, their ultimate destination. Ours is Florence, which means that from Milan, we will have to take a train down to Florence (assuming they are not on strike in Italy!).
What the hell is a Lodgy? Whatever it is, we are paying about $100 an hour to rent it, so it better get us to where we’re going without so much as a hiccup. As the woman gives us a crash course on how to drive this thing, my palms start to sweat. It is a manual car. Steve asks if there is an automatic available; there isn’t. We are going to be driving a stick-shift through the Alps. A hoppy little stick-shift.
Kirk opts to drive first. We fill the minivan with our luggage and ourselves. As Kirk backs out and jerks down the streets of Paris, I quietly start doing some deep breathing exercises. Is this actually happening? It is 16:00 (4pm), so we will be driving through the night, through the Alps, in a stick-shift, with two strangers. I start to wonder if we will end up in Italy in one piece.
But as we exit out of Paris and hit the open road, I start to relax a bit. The chains of capture lift off my extremities and a part of me feels relieved. At least we are not sitting around waiting for something promising to happen; we are making things happen. We are the leaders of our own destinies. We have escaped the evil clutches of old Pari! I relax further. This highway seems like any other highway I have driven on in the States. Steve and I once drove through the Rockies in the dark; the Alps won’t be too far out of our range of experiences. I look around me for the first time without stressing about the situation we have found ourselves in. The sky is a brilliant blue with white puffs of clouds painted across the horizon. The landscape looks like a patchwork-quilt, squares woven with different shades of green and yellow. Off in the distance is a gorgeous hillside castle. The closer we get to this perfect little palace, the more I start to think that maybe this all happened for a reason. Instead of a planned train ride, we are headed off to the unknown.