This is a story from my trip between Nice and Marseille, the last leg of my Italian adventure.
Rail leg No. 6 Nice to Marseille.
What a cultural shock it must have been for the Italians to arrive in France. Nice, the first stop of this leg of my journey beyond the Italian border, might have been a mere change of trains for them but the language would have suddenly become unintelligible. Even the landscape would have been surprising as the town of Nice cascaded down from the surrounding hills, burnt chalky white by the intense Mediterranean sun. Even in February this place would have been sundrenched.
As I will find out as I travel further, Nice, like Marseille and then Aix en Provence is under construction. Marseille/Provence is the European Capital of Culture for 2013 and it seems the money is flowing and there are major projects under way in each city. The Nice railway station is a grand 19th Century structure with a soaring glass ceilinged roof. The steel skeleton was designed to be much more than a frame to hold up the roof. Yellow light streams from above while outside, the station is surrounded by ugly barriers and clouds of dust. I’m sure it will be a wonder when it’s completed but today it feels like the in-transit passengers are all crowded into a space half the required size.
There are English, German and Italian voices mixed throughout the ticket hall. It takes me a bit by surprise. I have become used to travelling alone with only the English language in my head and every other person speaking Italian.
The 13:45 train to Marseille is late. This is the first delay I’ve experienced since I began my rail journey in Treviso five days ago. The Italian trains, with a reputation for chaos, bureaucracy, last minute cancellations and delays have all run to time, to the minute. It has been a pleasure. Here I am about to catch my first French train and it arrives 25 minutes late.
I board the nearest carriage as it comes to a stop. Most of the passengers enter and turn to the right, to a carriage cluttered with seats. I go through the glass doors to the left. It looks less crowded. I find myself with a small number of confused travelers all trying to ascertain if this is the ‘standard class’ carriage. We’re asking this because we all really know it’s not, but want an excuse to settle into these lovely large compartments. We don’t have a common language between us. An American arrives and he and I agree to take a risk and plead ignorance when the inspector arrives.
For a short time we have a six berth compartment to ourselves. Soon we are joined by a young Italian mother with her three year old child. An older man I have seen on the Ventimiglia-Nice leg takes a seat opposite her. They know each other.
Gordon, the American, is from LA. He is a Bill Clinton look-a-like. He has the chiseled jaw line, the full head of wavy graying hair, brilliant blue eyes, is a snappy dresser and keeps himself in good shape. I can imagine him seated behind an oval desk in Washington. He is my second celebrity travelling companion. From Milan to Torino I sat across a table from an Italian Richard Gere. He spent much of that hour-long journey staring at me as if I were from an unfamiliar planet. Perhaps my dress code gave me away as not belonging on the up-market Eurostar. Richard sported the requisite designer stubble, distinguished grey collar length hair and a stylish sports jacket. At one point I asked him if he spoke English thinking that he might be signaling an interest in a conversation. But Richard merely shrugged at my question and continued to stare.
Bill, on the other hand, has a story to tell. He travels the world selling equipment to major science and research agencies who need electronic or computer based systems. NASA is one of his clients. It takes up to a year to secure a sale, such is the process of building a relationship, assessing the needs of the client, modifying the product to their specifications etc etc. He’s not short of a dollar and he loves travelling.
But his real story is of triumph over adversity and a passion to share his experiences with the world.
Born in South Africa to Afrikaans parents he fled, at the age of 23 to the United States. There he worked illegally for a period before eventually getting his green card and making his way from working in kitchens to travelling the world. At this stage he told me, for the first time, how many countries he had visited. He was like someone who can’t believe their luck and keeps repeating the information, not so much to impress others, but to convince himself that it really is true.
In South Africa he had led a life full of risk and in the USA he continued to devour all that life could offer. ‘The only thing I’ve never done is stick a needle in my arm’ he told me.
He’s left school before graduating and had never done any further study. He was a survivor. And now this had become his passion, his story of survival. He felt so lucky to have survived that he was committed to sharing his journey as a lesson in life for future generations. I’ve written a book’ he tells me proudly. It’s a book about what I learnt along the way’. He wants young people to learn some of the street skills that got him through and to avoid some of the pitfalls and dead ends. He has a website. “streetsmartkids” on which he is developing a series of life-lessons to accompany his book. Bill talks, nonstop. But he’s not one of those who ‘s convinced himself that he knows everything. He is still on a learning journey. There’s a strange vulnerability to him. I feel free to interrupt him and share some of my experiences of working with young people. We’ve found a common theme.
I tell him about the Brisbane school I’ve worked with over a ten year period. About our concept of a school as a family, a community with responsibilities as well as rights embedded in its ethos. His story is about survival distilled to a ‘How to’ guide. He’s interested in other ideas because he’s still working it out.
The French ticket inspector arrives and Bill immediately starts a conversation with him (in English). He notes that the train was late and what might have been the cause. He asks if he can help with the bags of a woman who has entered the carriage having just climbed aboard at Roquebrune Cap Martin. The guard is diverted from his task, is charmed by Bill, despite not understanding a word of his west coast spiel. He inspects our tickets and without comment moves on. I’m not sure if this means we were in the correct carriage anyway but Bill prefers to think it is his street savvy that has worked for us. Either way we can relax.
‘Did you notice what I just did?’ says Bill. I nod. ‘Yep’ I respond positively. He’s demonstrating to me some of the ‘street smart’ skills he’s developed. It helps to look like Bill Clinton and have the brash confidence of the Americans. I am always taken aback by the assumption made by many of my American cousins that implies that the rest of the world has been living under a rock for the past 200 years while they have accumulated all the wisdom and colonized the planet. Or perhaps my Australian preference to assume a more understated role holds me back?
The conversation segues to travel and family. We share stories of our wives, our youth, meeting our partners, the secrets of good relationships, children, men and the limits of men’s understanding of relationships, of the Monica Lewinsky moments which can ruin your life and of tolerant, wise and forgiving life partners. I hope Bill doesn’t have a blog. I’m being far too honest with him.
Bill is married to a woman of Iranian descent; I’m married to an Aussie with deep Irish roots. Between us our families are connected to four continents and seven countries. I have no Italian beyond my tourist phrases and Bill, thankfully, has few traces of his Afrikaans accent – one of the few accents which triggers in me an inherent racist element buried deep within my psyche.
Bill is not one to sit still. When he pauses he is on his feet in the corridor wanting to get a closer look at the Mediterranean coastline. He takes photos of everything on his phone. I join him and we photograph together. And talk. He wants to understand the rules of Australian football. He’s seen it on TV and can’t make head nor tail of it but gets that it is an exceptionally physical game demanding incredible stamina. I try and help him. Explaining the scoring system just about does my head in. I try to help by likening it to a combination of soccer, rugby, American and Gaelic football with less rules then add that it may have also developed from our Indigenous brothers. He nods his head. Meanwhile the three year old has decided that Bill’s luggage is play equipment and has colonized his seat as a playground.
He seems like an intelligent man and a strong humanist but when he talks about guns and the right to bear arms I am nonplussed. Kill or be killed he explains .’Have you ever been in such a situation?’ I am seeking to understand what motivated this fear. ‘No.’ It is just an article of faith. ‘I’d prefer to be prepared.’ He says. I don’t push it. I suggest that other nations don’t seem to have this need. It’s like water off a duck shooters back. It’s chicken and egg. There are guns, so I need a gun.
Towards the last forty minutes of the journey Gordon/Bill is getting a little jumpy. He has a 5pm flight from Marseille airport to Frankfurt and we’re losing time not gaining. It will be after 4pm when we pull into St Charles Station and the airport is a good twenty-five minutes by bus or car.
The middle part of his story he shares with me over this last leg. He’s arrived in the USA, played hard, survived the drugs, the street battles, the uncertainty of being an outsider with no prospects; no one to call upon but himself and he’s found a way through. He has reinvented himself through sheer force of will and determination. He looks back and can now breathe easily but he will never forget the struggle. On becoming a citizen he begins to work on convincing his siblings and his parents to join him and, twenty years after he fled South Africa to make a new life, the family is reunited.
He hasn't forgotten. He is still somewhat incredulous that he now travels the world to that list of 40 odd countries he has given me but he would give it all away tomorrow if he could get his ‘streetsmartkids’ concept to take flight.
At Marseilles he makes a run for it. He’s the first off the train, his gray head tall among the crowd. I lose sight of him before I am even able to gather my meager belongings and alight.
That night I send him an email and he replies.
“Thanks Steve, grabbed a taxi, was on time and then the flight was delayed, but arrived safely in Frankfurt, so nothing else matters :)...even ate the very crappy sandwich they gave us, yuck! (something you'd find at a petrol station)
I really enjoyed out chat and wish you all the best
Street Smart Kids.
Street Smart Kids.
Train travel. Sometimes it’s just magic. I can’t imagine having the same conversation on a plane.