Hilde and I took a train back to Madrid from Italy that summer. We had just walked five hundred miles across northern Spain as peregrinas on the pilgrim trail of Santiago de Compostela with many of our siblings and several friends and decided to treat ourselves to a week of recuperation on the beaches of Cinque Terre, a charming fishing village postcard cliché in the province of Liguria. Leading up to this Italian extravagance, we had spent twenty-eight days of sleeping in crowded pilgrim hostels, surviving on bread, cheese and cheap wine, fending off lascivious innkeepers, pondering the mysteries of life in the earnest way that those on a journey do and developing the ability to answer any number of Mother Nature’s calls by the side of the road or behind a big tree. We felt like seasoned travelers. However, nothing in any of those experiences prepared us for the ride from Perpingan to Barcelona.
We barely slept the first leg of the trip up the coast of Italy and across France. We were stuck with aisle seats whose backs rested against each other. Logically enough, they didn’t recline. Every time someone got on or off of the train during that interminable night, the rush and swoosh of doors opening and closing would wake us and we would be jostled by the elbows, thighs and over-sized luggage of our fellow passengers. Additionally, my purse had gotten stolen on the way to Cinque Terre somewhere between Savona and Genoa while I slept. Camera, wallet, water color crayons, journal. All gone. Despite the fact that my passport and plane ticket were sealed in a secret pants pocket and I had strapped my backpack to one leg in an intricate series of knots and loops designed to deter even the most determined and discreet thief, I was reluctant to sleep. We were in hour thirty-four of a forty-hour hour trip.
We were completely out of money, the last of our lira spent on an enormous loaf of bread, hunk of cheese and small glass jar of pesto that needed to last the entirety of our trip. What remained of the bread was now two days old and the cheese was soft and greasy. We had finished the pesto on the first day. We drank warm water gotten in train station bathrooms from battered Nalgene bottles.
As if it weren’t inconvenient enough that my money and bank card had gotten stolen, hers was eaten the first day of a four-day holiday weekend in a Manarola (town numero due of the cinque) by a non-local ATM (no attached bank) while we deliberated how much money to withdraw. Incidentally, I was very impressed with myself that I could communicate our misfortune “La maccina ha mangiato la carta”. I learned later that what I had said was closer to “The car has eaten the letter.” Somehow the person on the other side of the phone understood me, but unfortunately could do nothing to help for several days. Thankfully, an enterprising grandfather believed our story and rented us a tiny, dark room with no money down until we could arrange for someone from home to wire us cash. He could tell we were good girls, he said, brave ragazze.
I felt out of place in the commuter train heading in to Barcelona from the French border town of Perpingan. The limp peasant skirt and tired black tank top that seemed so sexy when I put them on almost three days ago were decidedly not so in comparison with the stylishly dressed passengers around me. Women with small and shapely European rear ends in tight neutral-toned synthetic pants, pointy-toed shoes and crisp tops talked animatedly to pudgy, flushed businessmen. After spending time in Italy and having my ears constantly filled with its rounded, flowing vowels and consonants, Castilian Spanish sounded guttural, lisping, harsh, full of spit and outrage. I sat up straighter and tried to push my stringy, short hair into a more pleasing arrangement. I pulled out a tube of lip gloss I had carried around all summer and dipped its fuzzy applicator head into the small amount pooled in the bottom. My eyes felt grainy and my head pounded. But I had shiny lips. Hilde looked at me, smiled and shook her head. “Oh Nae,” she said, and gently patted my sweat-sticky cheek.
When I looked away from her, I caught the gaze of the man in the seat facing mine. As soon as I spotted him staring, he looked away. I tugged my sweaty tank top up, trying to cover my breasts better. I smoothed my skirt and pulled my over-sized backpack closer to my unshaven legs. Hilde had challenged me to not shave all summer. It didn’t feel exotic and European. Mainly unkempt and prickly. I shifted my weight. Unstuck my thighs from each other and my back from the molded plastic seat. He was staring again. This time I met his gaze with a disinterested, blank stare. He stared a moment longer before getting up and beginning to pace and mutter. His eyes were intent on something only he could see and he carried a locked metal briefcase. Hilde and I exchanged worried glances.
He had thick, black curls, greased with pungent hair oil and looked underfed. Dark circles under his black eyes made them seem even bigger and more intense. Peeking out from underneath a black and white keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, he wore a large hamsa, an upside-down hand-shaped amulet for good luck and protection against the evil eye. I was wishing I had one too, at that point. Slender, hairy shins and ankles emerged from Capri-length linen pants and ended in callused feet shoved into cheap rope sandals. Small curls of black hair sprouted from each of his delicate toes. His toenails looked sharp and in need of a trim.
He paced several times up and down the length of the car. Other passengers made way for him without protest. He came back and returned to his seat. Carefully set the briefcase by his feet. Dug in a pocket and pulled out a well-worn leather cigarette case. He removed a cigarette, replaced the case in his pocket, hunched forward and carefully studied it. I felt a wave of desperation begin in me. I wasn’t sure that my rasping eyelids could bear the additional insult of cigarette smoke in close quarters. I was tempted to indicate the Se prohibe fumar sign near us with an indignant finger, but looked at his metal briefcase and thought better of it. He began to crumble the cigarette, beginning at one end and working toward the other. He meticulously ripped and rolled it between his fingers, with their long and dirty nails, until he had pulled it apart. Completely apart. Tiny pieces of tobacco and paper fluttered down and settled in the grooved metal floor of the train. When he reached the filter, he pulled the fibers away from each other until it, too, had been thoroughly dismantled.
It was the summer of 2000. September 11 hadn’t happened and we didn’t know yet to not trust Arab men. But we did not trust this one. My sleep hungry mind began to image the phone call home to my parents, explaining a terrorist attack on a mid-day commuter train to Barcelona. Among the body count were two female backpackers. “We’re sorry, sir, ma’am, it’s possible that your daughter was one of them. Would you be so good as to send us her dental records?” I could tell that Hilde was thinking the same thing.
When he got up with his briefcase to pace again, we held a rapid and worried conference.
“We should get off. Now.”
“What? While the train’s moving?”
“Maybe. What if he has a bomb in that suitcase? Wouldn’t it be better to be a little bruised and not in a million pieces?”
“If he doesn’t get off at this next stop, then let’s get off.”
“But how will we get home? Our money is gone and they won’t validate our passes anymore. We don’t even have enough to make a phone call.”
“Yeah. That’s a problem. Maybe he’ll get off. Maybe he’s harmless.”.
“Maybe he’s NOT!”
He established a pattern. Pace with the briefcase, mutter, wind and rewind the keffiyeh, check his watch, sit down again, crumble another cigarette.
Hilde and I kept making deals with each other. Even though we were sure he didn’t speak English, we whispered. If he’s not off at the next stop, we’ll get off. It’s the next stop. Let’s wait till the next one. He doesn’t seem as nervous right now. Maybe the next one. What’s his deal, anyway? But again, the very real fact of being absolutely broke kept intruding and we continued to give him one more stop to exit.
Sweat trickled down my back and from my underarms, all the way to my waist. I could feel the wetness with my elbows. I forced myself to breathe slowly and kept blinking my eyes, lids dragging roughly down and up over dry contact lenses. I chewed off all of my carefully applied lip gloss and forgot to apply more. I tried to tell myself that I was being paranoid and assigning malicious intent where there was none to be found. It didn’t work.
When everything within me was screaming getoffhereNOW!!!!! and I was a breath away from some sort of rash action, we finally pulled in to the Barcelona Sanz station. With a swish of automated doors and the entrance of a wave of humid, smoky air, he rose abruptly, strode off the train, disappeared into the swirl of passengers on the platform and was lost from sight.
Hilde and I stared at each other in startled disbelief. It was really that easy? We didn’t have to hurl ourselves from a moving train. Or body slam him to the ground. Or do a last act of contrition and hope it would make up for all the wine we’d drunk and boys we’d kissed in the past six weeks before getting blown to the Other Side in a blinding flash of exploding metal suitcase.
I don’t remember if we both weakly laughed. Or cried. Or secretly wondered if maybe we were blowing this whole nearly-getting-blown-up encounter out of proportion and were never even in half the danger we imagined. What did we do? Fifteen years is a long time. I don’t know. We were definitely relieved he and the perceived threat to our lives was gone, that’s for sure.
It would be interesting to see some sort of behind-the-scenes life stats page that has all our near-misses charted out. Quite possibly this experience wouldn’t even have been counted. Maybe he was seeing his mom, whom he hadn’t seen since he was six. Or meeting up with his wife after being separated for a long time. Or had a nerve-wracking business situation about to go down. Any number of totally legit reasons could have had him acting that way.
I wonder how I would handle that now, fifteen years later. Would I start up a conversation with him? I do know the traditional Arabic greeting of salaam aleikum, peace be with you. I could have said “Pareces nervioso. Todo bien?” You look nervous. Is everything ok?
I’d like to think that’s what I’d do, instead of changing cars or stopping the train or throwing myself out the door. I want to be more conscious about the bias that exists in the world and that has made its way into my subconscious mind. I want to choose loving, awake ways to respond instead of reaching out of fear and programming. And I can do that, one encounter at a time with people – people. – who news and movies and stories have told me are dangerous or bad or in some way not deserving of my trust and respect.
Since this story happened, I’ve come to love the symbol of the hamsa and have sought it out in subsequent travels to Morocco and the Middle East. Because I’m not superstitious, it doesn’t have a “this thing is truly going to protect me” sense attached to it, but I love the idea of being covered by a hand of blessing and I like that its an important symbol I can wear that gives me something – a small something, to be sure, but something nonetheless – in common with my Arab and Jewish sisters and brothers.
Salaam aleikum to each of us.
May we all invited the hand of blessing to cover over lives and seek ways to extend it.
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