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the “it could have been so much worse” day

There are those times when time stands still, and your heart stops. I had one of those moments today. I got off the train from Bayonne to Montpellier at 7.15 p.m., walked out of the station headed for Julie’s apartment, towing my suitcase with my backpack on my back, and suddenly, in a blinding moment of nausea and panic, realised that I did not have my handbag. I did not have my handbag. I had left it on the train.

How much can flash into the brain in an instant. In my handbag: my wallet with money, credit cards and passport. The keys to Julie’s place where I’m staying in Montpellier. My phone and address book.
I cried out loud, “No!” and started to run. I ran back into the station to try to find the train which was going on to Marseilles; maybe it’d still be in the station. I realised I didn’t know which platform we’d come in on and couldn’t run with my suitcase, so ran into the magazine store, left the suitcase by the counter shouting, “Je retourne!” and ran out again with the woman shouting after me that I couldn’t leave my bag there. I tore down the stairs and up the platform stairs.
No train. No train. No handbag. No money or identification. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow; I could hardly breathe and wanted to be sick. I went back, retrieved my suitcase with the woman still shouting at me, went to the Acceuil, the office that handles traveller’s problems, and blurted out my problem: no money, no cards, no phone, no nothing. No friends in Montpellier, no one to call.
“The train is non-stop to Marseilles,” he said. “Nothing we can do.” He wrote some big numbers on a piece of paper, as if for a child. “This is the Lost and Found in Marseilles,” he said. “Call when the train gets in and hope someone has turned it in.”
I just stood there. I have no phone and no money, how can I call? What should I do, monsieur, I said again and again, what should I do, here I am alone and penniless. They flailed around, saying they would contact the controller on the train, but fifteen, twenty minutes later nothing had happened. Then a big honcho arrived, heard the story and put things into motion. They called the train again. Luckily I could remember the car and the seat number. Car number 15, seat number 54. I could remember the clothes the woman opposite me was wearing, and the child on her lap. Would she have noticed the bag? Would she steal the bag? Would someone else steal the bag?
Or maybe I didn’t do this stupid thing, I thought suddenly, maybe I’d dropped it coming out of the station … no, I remembered putting my handbag on the seat while I put on the backpack and got down the suitcase. I was thinking about the woman with the restless child, how sorry for her they had another two hours of travel. And I’d walked off the train.
Then the news came, at last: the controller had found my bag. Incredible, incredible relief. I didn’t know if my wallet was still in it, mind you, but he’d found the bag.
They told me I had to get the last train to Marseilles to get it. I have no money, I said. So they printed me a ticket. I asked them to fill my water bottle, and they gave me a bottle of cold water and lent me a pen, as I had no pen. I understood from them that the train got into Marseilles at quarter to midnight, and the Lost and Found closed at midnight.
What if the train is late and the office closes? I asked. I’ll be in Marseilles at midnight with nothing.
N’inquietez pas, madame, said the man.
Easy for him to say.
Now had to wait for the train. No money for food or drink. I wanted to go to the bathroom, found the one in the station, couldn’t use it because it cost 50 cents. Walked up and down outside and saw that the McDonald’s across the street had free wifi. So I went in, got my computer out of my backpack – thank the lord I had that with me – and emailed my friend Chris and my children. If I was found homeless and babbling, wandering the streets of Marseilles, they’d know how it happened.
The train pulled in and I got on. They had given me a first class ticket. Such kindness – I could not have appreciated more the quiet of first class, the nice big seats. And later, when I looked at the ticket, I realised that it got in at 10.45, not 11.45. I’d have lots of time to get to the Lost and Found. My only concern was whether my wallet would still be in the bag.
As we pulled out of Montpellier, there was the most glorious sunset, a wash of streaky pinks and blues, mesmerising. And I thought of the other times when my heart stopped, the worst when my dad called to tell me, “They’ve found something and it’s not good.” When I was in labour with Anna and the doctor thought something might have gone wrong. “Let’s get this child born now!” she cried and I pushed with all the strength on the planet. When bad things happened to my kids, times around my divorce. Those are the times that matter, I knew. This was only stuff. This was not health, not love, not life and death, only carelessness and stuff.
Still, my friends, I was one happy woman when the Lost and Found office at the Marseilles train station was open and the man brought me my handbag. Everything inside – wallet, passport, cards, phone. “Vous avez de la chance,” he said. Yes, yes, yes I do. Thank you. Merci.
Now, get this: I went to the Acceuil in the station to enquire about trains back to Montpellier the next day, because the schedules are so complicated, and after getting the information, I left to walk to the nearest hotel, clutching my handbag. And outside the station, I realised that I’d left my suitcase in the Acceuil. I was concentrating so hard on my handbag I’d forgotten my suitcase.
It’s definitely time for me to go home.
The hotel outside the station was full. She directed me to another. This adventure is going to continue, I thought, but it didn’t, the second hotel had one last room. I am there now. The room is hot and stuffy but clean and it has wifi. Chris had already written back with expressions of concern, and I’ve written to tell him where I am. It’s twenty after midnight, I have eaten for supper the emergency almonds I always carry in my bag, I’m about to have a shower. My throat hurts, I think from screaming when I realised what had happened.
Vous avez de la chance, he said. You can say that again.

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74 Responses to “the “it could have been so much worse” day”

  1. Carolyn says:

    Hey Beth,

    What a horrible, horrible day! I cringe to think of it.
    For some relaxation, do yourself a favour. Hop on the train in Marseilles and head to Cassis on the Mediterranean. It's a gorgeous little place. I think it's only about one-half hour from Marseilles to Cassis. Take a cab or bus from the train station (10 min.) Carolyn

  2. Mary says:

    Oh, my, what a terrible thing to happen when traveling alone! So glad you found some kind and helpful strangers to see you through. I can imagine the relief you must've felt once settled into your hotel room after such a scare. Here's wishing you nothing but smooth sailing for the rest of your journey.

  3. beth says:

    Thanks to you both for sympathy, support and comfort. And thanks for the suggestion, Carolyn, but to tell you the truth, the last thing I want right now is another adventure on a train. I will save Cassis for the next time I come.
    I'm off to walk around, clutching my bag to my bosom.

  4. Oh Beth only you could write something so visceral and terrifying and hilarious all at the same time. I t fully reminded me that travelling can make you LOATHE suitcases with wheels and lumpy backpacks and that god damned HANDBAG
    I could feel that First Class cabin and the peace of it that calmed your soul and slowed your heartbeat
    Your bed awaits you and your teapot and toaster and desk
    thanks for the grand words.x nicky

  5. beth says:

    Maybe I'll write a one-woman show, "Europe for Dummies," about my trip here, and you can perform it, Nicky.
    Gosh, for once, a good idea!
    b.

  6. Unknown says:

    Beth Beth, Do tell…was that the new Cavaillon handbag? Hold on to that baby – it's unique and perfect. Glad to hear it all worked out – you must be in the final moments of your odyssey. Have fun and a safe journey home. Nora

  7. beth says:

    Nora, no, it was the Longchamps bag I got at the second-hand store in Paris. Holds everything in one big dump in the bottom. Now I walk around clutching it to my chest as if someone's going to yank it from my arm, and stand at the door for ten minutes checking to be sure I have the right keys. I do not want another heart attack.

    Just two more long, long hauls – from here to Paris Monday with the giant bag, and from Paris to Charles de Gaulle on Aug. 25 with TWO giant bags. And then I am going to stay home forever and bake bread.

    Only kidding. Travelling is like childbirth – you forget the pain and want to do it all over again.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

Some Blogs I Follow

Chris Walks
This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

Theresa Kishkan
Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.

Carrie Snyder
Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

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A new book by Beth Kaplan, published by Mosaic Press – “Midlife Solo”

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