Halfway through our one-month stay in Paris we got a call from Jim’s friend in Italy. Anton asked if we could give him a hand moving his parents from their large family home to a small apartment closer to him. We agreed. We had cut Italy from our travel plans due to budget. With Anton providing train tickets and housing for us, we jumped at the chance to go affordably. Anton works in the restaurant business so we also knew the food would be the best.
We packed lightly; in just a few days we would be back in Paris. We picked up our tickets at the station for the overnight trip to Italy. We were amused that Anton had secured first-class seats for us.
Our train wound its way south and east through France as the sun set. We had a home-made picnic dinner of bread, cheese, and vegetables topped off with the last of Megan’s homemade apple cobbler. We took advantage of our first class full bathroom to wash up and then went to bed in our fully-reclined wide seats. Thank you, Anton!
The train slowed as we began climbing into the French Alps. Around midnight we awoke. The train had stopped moving. No stops were scheduled until dawn so this was unexpected. Other passengers were beginning to stir. We went to look in the back of the car at a map showing our progress. We were in Gambetta. In our tour book, Gambetta was mentioned as a small independent municipality on the border. Neither of us had ever heard of Gambetta before.
A conductor came through our car and made an announcement in French and again in Italian. He turned to leave the car. Perhaps noticing our perplexed look, he took pity on us and repeated the announcement in English.
He said the train had been redirected to Gambetta by the government. All passengers were to bring passports and report to customs. He suggested we dress warmly for the cold mountain air on the unheated train siding.
We bundled up and and left the train in a crowd. Hung over the siding platform was a sign with a gigantic letter G in a coat of arms. Below the “G” the sign said, “Welcome to Gambetta, Land of Light and Dreams.” It was cold outside and our breath frosted into mist. Several hundred passengers disembarked with us and headed toward the station house. Our collective breath seemed to gather in a glittering fog. As we walked along, the concrete deck gave way to luminous glass panels. The light from the panels merged with the reflecting crystals of our breath and we seemed to pass through and over light.
We walked into the station through three great arches forming a wall covered in mirrors. The effect was brighter than full sun, but diffuse, as if light was coming from everywhere. The other passengers moving with us appeared as shadows all exhaling puffs of frozen crystal breath.
As we went through the arches, the floor turned into mirrors. The warmer air from the station caused the fog and its illumination to vanish. We could now see ourselves reflected in the mirrored floors. We noticed chairs and tables in the reflection below our feet. We felt strangely upside down.
Ahead of us, a man in a uniform was waving. Was he waving us to his booth? Below in the mirror I could see hundreds of passengers walking. I looked up and saw the ceiling covered with tables and chairs. I stopped and looked back; the other passengers were gone.
The man in the uniform continued to wave us over. He ushered us into his booth and told us to sit. “Passports please!” he exclaimed. In return for documents, he offered us a plate of chocolates.
On looking at our passports, he spoke, “Yes, well, I see…. Now, what brings you to Gambetta and how long do you propose to stay?”
We tried to explain our situation but couldn’t with our mouths full of chocolate and bad accents. He waved a hand for silence and said, “Impossible!” Then he stamped our passports, issued each of us a napkin and ushered us out before we could say anything else.
We walked to the front of the station. All of the ticket windows were closed. The arrival and departure boards were shuttered. We heard a door close behind us. Our customs agent, pushing a bicycle, locked his door and pedaled into the night ringing a bell as he passed us.
To keep warm, we walked the rest of the night. Gambetta is a small town, I mean country. We passed most of the streets twice. One unseen dog barked at us. Dawn found us at the town hall reading community postings. There were signs for rooms to rent, jobs at bakeries, a notice for a yodeling concert, and eggs for sale.
A fluttering noise caused us to turn around. At our feet was a pigeon. The bird dropped an envelope and waited expectantly, watching us with one eye. We offered pocket crumbs from sources unknown as payment. After a sidewalk meal, the bird flew off. The tiny envelope was addressed to “M+J.” The return address was simply, “Anton”.
I carefully opened the envelope to find a single sheet of paper.
Word has come to me that your train has become impassable in both directions. Such are the hazards of traveling in the mountains.
I have taken care of my Mama and Papa, so do not worry about that. You must now continue your journey and return to Paris. Please be at the Gambetta North Gate at noon today. I am sending some small help for your safe return.
We spent the morning at a cafe enjoying croissants, cafe creme, and tea.
We were at the North Gate by noon. As the church bells were marking the midday, Anton’s young niece, Adalie, came riding up on an Icelandic pony. Adalie said, “Come, follow me. I have a bit of food for the trip and sleeping rolls.”
Under her guidance, we returned to Paris the next day and continued our journey as we left it.
* (While none of the events described here have happened the authors do not consider this a piece of fiction. These events simply have not occurred yet).