September 8, 2009, Category: Italy, France, and Spain, Travel

Day 8: Homeless

If you didn’t start reading on Day 1, you might want to start from the beginning 

We had to change our plans today. Instead of exploring Torino we had to start early for Barcelona because we couldn’t book a train straight through. They ticket agent suggested we go to Nice and book from there. We started traveling at 6:30 in the morning, too early for the free breakfast, and caught a bus to the train station. Little did we know that our travel day would not end until 11pm…and we would not reach Barcelona.

IMG_2886 Our first train, to Ventimiglia, climbed up through the Alps. It was gorgeous. Everything was thick and green except where high granite peaks and cliffs cut through the vegetation. We passed over old stone bridges, through tunnels, and saw many little towns that either nestled in the deep valleys or hugged the side of the mountains. I wish we could have stopped and explored along the way because we chugged through some really neat places…and all I could do was shoot pictures through the horribly cloudy windows.

The station in Ventimiglia was hot and crowded. The train we had planned on taking had been cancelled and we weren’t the only ones displaced. We waited in line for close to an hour.  It wasn’t just the slow moving line and the stress of our unknown journey ahead that made it tough, the heat and humidity had me soaked and dripping. I looked up temperatures later and several days during our trip it may of the days broke records. Most of the time it was mid 90’s and very high (sometimes 100%) humidity. I almost needed a snorkel to breath correctly. It felt like we’d won the lottery when we finally walked up to the ticket window and I expected people to cheer and congratulate us for our accomplishment…but nobody did. I took a chance and asked for a booking to Barcelona. No dice. She told us to go to Marseille and try there. To get there we had to catch a train to Nice and then another to Marseille.

IMG_2923 We stood on the packed landing and waited for our train. When it pulled up, it just as packed as the landing and we pushed forward with the other passengers like sardines about to be canned (sardines with luggage). Standing room only. At least we were all sweaty, it made it easier for everyone to slip in to the carriage.

IMG_2916 We pulled out and onto the coast, it was gorgeous. I was stuck in the middle and kept straining to see through the bouncing heads at the French Riviera outside. We passed through Monaco and several people got off…enough that Aubs and I were able to sit down, although not together. For the rest of the trip to Nice I had a nice view of ritzy beach homes, quaint beaches, and thousands of other places I’d rather be than sitting than on a muggy train.

IMG_2955 We arrived in Nice and a train was boarding for Marseille. I asked around until I found somebody who spoke English found out we needed a reservation for it. Aubree stayed with our luggage while I ran into the station to purchase tickets. The line for the counter was long, as normal, so I went to the automated machines that had been so convenient in Italy. I’m sure they would have been convenient too, had I been able to read French. Unlike the Italian machines, these ones did not have an English option. I tried without luck for several minutes, guessing at the choices, before I gave up and ran back to Aubree. The train was making noises…it wanted to leave. I found an English speaker holding a clipboard and asked him if there was any way we could ride this train without a reservation. He told us to talk to the guy in the purple shirt who was the Train Conductor or something, I didn’t quite follow what he said.

IMG_2933-1So began my frantic search for the guy in the purple shirt. I ran up and down the terminal. It felt almost comical, something you’d see Steve Martin doing in a comedy, “Excuse me, have you seen the man in the Purple shirt…?” I ran all the way to the end of the train, dripping a trail of sweat behind me. Just when I was  about to give up, I saw a guy in a purple shirt. But he looked like a Tourist and I didn’t think he was the right guy. But I had to try.

I asked if he spoke English, he did. I didn’t ask if he was the guy in the purple shirt, that would be rather silly, but I did tell him I was told to find a guy in a purple shirt who could help us get a train to Marseille. He said, “yup, that’s me.” What a relief. He told us not to take his train but to get the next one over that would take us straight to Marseille and we wouldn’t even need a reservation. Hallelujah. One step closer.

IMG_2962 Once the train got rolling and the AC kicked in, I relaxed. This was a nice comfortable train and although it was warm, it wasn’t hot. We were on our way. After several stops a couple sat next to us and we started talking. They were from Northern France and heading home from their two month long vacation (that’s how long I needed!). He was in IT and we talked about the industry, rock climbing, motorcycles, and life in general. When we arrived in Nice, we all had nice cold $5 sodas and he helped me work the machines to see if we could get tickets to Barcelona. No luck. “Looks like you are stuck in Marseille,” he said.

Our new friends caught their train and left us alone. We waited in line at the ticket counter, again, just to check all our options. Our options were limited. There were no available routes to Barcelona today or tomorrow. Our best bet was to go to the France/Spain border. He told us to go Narbonne and then catch the train to Cerbere on the Spain border.

IMG_2968 So we had a dilemma. Should we find a place in Marseille or take our chances in Cerbere? One way or another we had to get to Barcelona to fly home in 3 days, although we did decide we could go to Brussels and catch a connecting flight there. We decided we’d better focus on getting to Barcelona. We had an hour before the train left so Aubs stayed with our luggage and I ran into town and bought us a couple of Panini’s, a jug of cold water, and some pastries. That three block run saved me at least $20 from the train station prices and the food was better.

pictasss 590 It was a long ride to Narbonne and fatigue wrapped it’s bony fingers around me. But I couldn’t fall asleep and miss our stop, so I fought to keep myself awake. When we changed trains, somewhere around 9pm, I realized we were running out of day. The train to Cerbere was almost empty. It was just us and some rough looking kid listening to some funky sounding Middle Eastern music on the speaker of his cell phone. It sounded like an old AM radio in a ‘65 Ford Truck that had somehow tuned into ‘radio Pakistani 1410.’ A real irritating sound when 98% of your brain is already sleeping. By now I was wishing we had just found a place in Marseille. I was a zombie. At least Cerebere was the end of the line for this train and if I did fall asleep I wouldn’t miss our stop.

The little towns we passed looked inviting, especially in the moonlight. Resorts with beaches, hotels, sailboats, old French buildings…I just hoped that we could find a place to sleep once we reached Cerbere. My brother had said you can sleep in the train stations, so that was my backup plan.

IMG_2861 We arrived somewhere close to 11pm and with groggy minds and bloodshot eyes walked into the train station to check the boards. Nothing. This was as far as we’d make it for the night. I looked outside and saw dark streets. I had no idea which way to walk to town and at 11pm at night, didn’t really fancy the idea of walking into the unknown. I looked around the station. It wasn’t very big, especially compared to the other train stations we had been through. It was fully enclosed but the benches had arm rests on them, no sleeping on them. The floor was dirty. About this time Aubree said, “What we gonna do?”  …hmmm, good question.

I heard a girl say Barcelona and noticed four kids (well, not really kids as they were just a couple years older than Aubree) talking. Strange how college students are now kids to me. I walked up to the girl and asked if she spoke English, which she did. They were also trying to get to Barcelona and stranded. I asked what they were going to do and she said probably sleep here in the terminal. They had backpacks and sleeping bags and had taken a break from their University studies in Lithuania to explore Europe.

“Hey, are you from the United States?” I turned around to see a tall smiling face. “I haven’t heard English in forever,” he said.

IMG_2978 Tony, as it turns out, was from Miami and a month into his backpacking trip alone through Europe. He was also stranded trying to get to Barcelona. The seven of us were the only ones in the station by now. Aubree started chatting with Domile (the girl I had spoken to) and I chatted with Tony. The Lithuanians were setting up for the night just as security to came through and told us we had to leave because they were closing the station for the night. I asked Domile what they were going to do and she said they didn’t know but they were concerned about some of the homeless people outside. I suggested we all stick together and everyone seemed to agree that was a good idea.

We all went out and decided to sleep in the sidewalk. There was 3 or so homeless looking people already sleeping there and they made room for us. Domile and Kernius gave Aubree and I a ground cloth to use, which was very kind of them. I hooked our luggage together with the backpack straps so somebody couldn’t grab one and run off, and we arranged them by our heads and laid down on the sidewalk. I let Aubs use the ground cloth but was able to use a part of it for my legs. I had shorts on so I put my coat across my legs and laid down on the concrete and rested my head on my bags. This wasn’t so bad.

We talked with Tony and Domile for several hours. It was fun to hear their stories. Tony (mid 20’s or so) had quit his job and had been back backpacking around Europe for a month or two. He used his iPhone to find hotels and hostels and went wherever his heart desired. He was on his way to the world’s largest annual food fight in Valencia. Our Lithuanian friends had also been on the road a month or so but rather than stay in Hotels, they packed sleeping bags and slept in parks, bus stations, beaches…wherever they could. She said they had very little money and used a camp stove and packed their own food, true urban camping. I hadn’t realized it was possible! They left their bags the train stations when they wanted to explore places. She said there was only one time when the police had come by and told them they would have to move, but it was morning and the police were really nice about it.

I was laying down and Aubree was sitting up talking. I have to say, she had the biggest smile on her face talking to Domile and hearing about her adventures. I could see her mind working…taking notes and planning for some future adventure with her own college friends. It was a nice evening. The sky was clear, it wasn’t too hot, I wasn’t on a train anymore…

IMG_2976We finally went to sleep…well, tried to. It was a long night. I’d wake up at the slightest noise and look around to make sure we were safe. Somebody would walk past us every once in a while and I’d watch them like a hawk. I’m sure the cement actually got harder as the night rolled on (it must have been fresh cement…just in the process of setting) and I rolled around every few minutes trying to get comfortable. But the worst was when the wind kicked in and I got cold. It would be this night that finally cooled off! I slept with my arms in my short sleeve shirt for a while, then finally dug out my only long sleeve shirt out of my bag. That helped, but I was still cold. Just before the sun came up I dug into my pack, opened my dirty clothes bag, got and put on my levis, and then put my coat on (instead of using it as a blanket over my legs). That kept me warm…I don’t know why I didn’t just do it hours earlier. Yes I do, I didn’t want to make noise and wake everyone else up. But that’s a dumb reason to be cold all night. Aubree did the same thing, slowly put on more clothes as the night progressed.

Continue to Day 9….

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