It was almost 40 degrees outside. “The heat has killed two people in France,” I overheard on the French radio.
I could sense sweats trickling down my skin as I wheeled my luggage towards the train station under the summer heat. Our gestures moved with such familiarity after a week of being in Europe – finding the right platform, validating our tickets before brandishing them at the gates, lugging our luggage all the way to the end of the platform where our allocated car usually was; finding the right seats and stowing our luggage above us, before we could finally take a four-hour breather.
This time, being in a group of three, I had to be seated a row away from my mother and brother on our way to Nice. Fortunately, I had reserved the window seat to relish the upcoming view of the French Riviera. I plugged in my earphones, played some music while waiting for the other passengers to fill up the rest of the vacant seats. It was a bit comical to witness the familiar struggles a few of them had with their oversized bags as we did with ours earlier. For a while, I had furtively prayed just so that I would be seated alone— I was granted with a great sense of relief every time a passenger walked past me. After our wondrous sojourn in Paris and Provence, I was particularly excited to see the majestic French Riviera. We will be staying in Nice for a few days and it was hard to believe that what was once a distant dream is only a four-hour train ride away.
Not long after, a man, possibly in his late sixties or seventies approached me with a grin so wide that you cannot help but to witness a few teeth missing. Although, not the menacing kind of way, just, relatively amicable. His hair, although, left with only light strands were as white as cotton where his rosy-coloured skin simply shined through. I noticed his nose glistened with sweat and droplets on his forehead before he wiped them off with a handkerchief; then, folding it and tucking it back into the pocket of his khaki vest. He stowed his backpack on the compartment above us, took off his vest before seated next to me and stuck out his hand for a handshake, “Bonjour! Je suis Philippe,” “Bonjour Phillipe. Je suis Sara. Enchantée.” I replied, ambivalently. After months of studying the language, those words came out effortlessly from my lips and I was left with great pride until he uttered more French that left me nonplussed this time. “Je suis désolee. Mon Français est trés mauvais. Je parle un peu Français. Trés peu.” “Ah, ouai? You can practice.” He continued speaking in French and although I could understand a few words, it was a challenge to make up what he was trying to say. I was rather uncertain. Was he talking about a cow? Vache? Va? “Non, alors, pouvez-vous parler anglais avec moi?” “Ah….Bien,”
I was unsure when was the precise moment the train began to move but when I glanced out the window, the train station that was thronged with sweaty tourists was no longer in sight; this time, a couple of beautiful manoir surrounded by a bed of green stretching over as far as the eyes can see.
“Alors, vous venez d’où? Where are you from?”
He stood up, reached for his backpack, took out a journal and a pen before sliding it back into the compartment and settled comfortably in his seat.
“So you are travelling alone?”
“Non, avec ma mére et mon frére.” I pointed at them who were seating at the row next to us, he turned and waved at them jubilantly and so did they.
“Ah alors, I am travelling alone. I am on my way to see my daughter for the summer. We will be spending our time in Cannes. We will go boating.” His grey eyes rounded in excitement.
“That is so fun!”
“Oui, we do this every summer. I love the boats and the sea. Trés calme.”
“I used to travel a lot when I was younger. I am 80 years old now. I can’t go far now.”
“Oh wow, 80. You look so well and so fit.” It is not a fib, it is the truth. For an 80 year old to roam around all by himself, that is a gift.
“Merci beaucoup, ma Chérie.”
“I stayed in India for a few years. I loved the food. I learned to eat spicy food.”
“I have always wanted to go to India. Beautiful place isn’t it.”
“Oui. Trés interessante.”
“And I was in Africa too. I loved it. The culture.”
“I see you have been enjoying life.”
“I have. Life is beautiful.”
“French people, they are very depressed people. Look at them,” I glanced at the people around us who were minding their own business – some were reading books, some were asleep, some were just staring out the window. “They do not smile. They do not laugh. They are very serious people.” I thought it was a jocular comment. Something I hardly noticed considering I come from a land where smiling is somewhat a crime.
“But you are one happy French man aren’t you Phillipe?”
“Yes. I am. I think because I travelled a lot. I am happy. Life is too short for you to be so serious.”
He continued on his tirade about how French people are angry people, and the European politics.
“J’adore la France.” I said, “I love being here.”
“Sara, you do look like you belong here.”
I could feel a knot in my stomach, a wonderful kind.
“That would be a dream.”
“You can always find a place outskirt. It is beautiful. You can find one at about 200,000 Euros.” I almost choked on my oxygen but that seemed about right. I made a calculation in my head and thought, hey, maybe that isn’t so bad.
“If you ever find yourself in France again, this is my number.” He wrote the digits on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I saved his number right away and he did too, and thought, perhaps, somewhere in a near future we could meet again over a cup of coffee. Although, the skeptic part of me knew it would be almost unrealistic and delusory.
Truthfully, it has always been something I dreamed of. Perhaps, it is a bit far-fetched, but I have always wanted to own a small cozy apartment in the city of Paris and now that I have been to the outskirts of France, I felt that this was where I wanted to be. Maybe someday. Mom often told me that I am a ‘free soul’. It is something I didn’t quite understand initially. “You are not meant to be chained down in one place,” and I think about that every now and then. Perhaps, that explains the insurmountable and profound desire of being anywhere and everywhere.
“Let’s play a game shall we.” He scribbled a few words on his journal, and wrote my name.
“So tell me, what do you like to do?”
“I like to write. I don’t think I am quite good at it but it makes me happy.”
He begins scribbling ‘Writer’. “I like to document things that happen to me today and you are the good thing that has happened to me today. So I want to write about you.”
My heart. A sweet gentleman, I thought. I reckon, in his younger days, perhaps, getting women was as easy as drinking coffee for him.
“Oh no, Phillippe.” I laughed as though it was an insult. “I am not a writer. I just love to write.”
“So that makes you a writer.” I did not want to argue and I thought of how ludicrous it was for a moment, how can one love and instantly be what they love that easily, but I settled on that, okay, a writer it is.
He wrote, “A writer.”
“Do you read books?”
“Yes I do. I used to read a lot of fiction. But I don’t read much anymore. I like travel books in general.”
“Me too. I like to read old books. Maybe you don’t know. But you should read books from this author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez. I like his books”
“Lovely, will check it out.”
Up to this day, I have yet to purchase any books from the author and as I write this, I might just do that later today just to honor my words to my dear friend, Philippe.
“If you are an animal what would you be.”
“I said, maybe a lion. So I can just eat people I hate.”
He laughed, and scribbled, “lion”.
“If you are a plant, what would you be.”
“I don’t know. Cactus? So that I can prick people.”
He laughed again and wrote, “Cactus”.
“What is your favourite country?”
“France!” I said, wholeheartedly.
“That is wonderful.”
The game went on for a while, favourite celebrities, favourite artists, and the list goes on.
As I glanced out the window, we passed through a bed of yellow – sunflower fields and the green hills stretching across the horizon from afar. I thought of how nice it would be to capture that moment and so I took out my camera and began capturing the view from my seat. “Beautiful,” I said, without realizing I had said it aloud.
Again, he stood up, reached for his backpack and took out a small paper bag.
“Mind if I eat? J’ai faim.”
“Non, go ahead.”
“He took out his croissant and nibbled on it gingerly.”
Before I knew it, we were now passing by the French Riviera. What was then green, then yellow, is now a picturesque scene of the deepest blue ocean pairing with the denim blue sky. I could see myriads of expensive yachts scattered all over the ocean from afar and a spread of humans on the beach underneath the afternoon summer heat.
“This is exquisite.”
“Don’t you have this in your country?”
The closest thing I could think of is Penang. Although I am sure our secluded islands are beautiful but nevertheless, different.
“No, not like this.”
“Le prochain arrêt : Cannes” the recorded audio of a lady announced. “This is my stop, Sara.”
I felt upset and also, incredulous to the fact that it has already been more than three hours since our journey began, since I met him and how time flew.
“It was really nice to meet you.” He said, with a subtle smile.
“Nice to meet you too Phillipe, I hope you will have a wonderful time with your daughter.”
“Have fun in Nice. You have a beautiful face and a beautiful heart. Good luck in everything you do.”
I smiled sheepishly. Compliments aren’t something I am sure how to respond to.
“Thank you Phillipe.”
“Write about me, yes? The crazy old man who was excited to talk to you, who would jump and knock his head on the roof,” when he said that, he was already standing up and putting on his vest, and waiting for the train to come into a complete halt. He rubbed his slightly bald head, pretending that he bumped into the compartment and I could just laugh at his wit. He took my hands in his and planted a kiss on it.
Isn’t it amazing how a stranger could etch a beautiful permanent mark in your memory. As I watched him leave the train and disappeared, I felt a bit sad and it had occurred to me how unnatural it is to feel sad over a stranger I had only met three hours ago. A year later, I’d occasionally find myself thinking about that time with such fondness and I often think of how he is doing right about now with everything bad that is happening in this world.
I was stuck in my reverie until I heard a few knocks on my glass window and there he was, again with the widest grin I saw three hours ago, the same grin I could remember even a year later; and waved me goodbye before the train began to jerk forward until Phillipe was replaced with a view of tourists sunbathing at the beach.