I See France

The Train to Rome

For our European social purposes, the pretense of an occupation is more important than an actual job. It is less important to do work than it is to have an answer to the question “So, what do you do for a living?” if for no other reason than to avoid awkward silences. And so, before we moved to Paris, I became European correspondent for the New York Times Magazine.

The people who run the New York Times Magazine are not yet aware of my promotion. When I floated the title past them over lunch a few months ago, they shook their heads and said they disapproved of me gallivanting around Europe as a pseudoemissary from the New York Times. They thought I might offend a lot of people who actually deserved to be called “European correspondent of the New York Times Magazine.” They preferred to keep me where they had me, as merely another of their many free-lance contributors. I asked them to think it over and get back to me, but they never did. And so I had no choice but to give myself the nod. In Europe, when people ask me what I am doing, I reply, “I am European correspondent for the New York Times Magazine.” Let me tell you: People are impressed!

As the position is self-created, it is also self-defined. In the new job, as I see it, I have three responsibilities: to travel, to observe the local conditions, and to discuss geopolitics and suchlike with any world leaders I happen to come across. This week I traveled to Rome to observe Romans and to meet with the pope and perhaps an ambassador or two.

The main downside of the people who run the New York Times Magazine not being fully aware that I am their European correspondent is the travel budget. It is not what one would like it to be. Three nights ago, we left Paris in the second-class cabin of a very slow train bound for Rome. The Italian porter actually giggled when he saw us approaching—me, Tabitha, Jennifer, and Tallulah teetering behind luggage carts piled high with nine suitcases, four giant plastic bottles of mineral water, and a half-ton, putatively portable children’s bed known as a “Happy Cabana.”

Meraviglioso,” he said.

Marvelous. He knew what we didn’t: There was not space in a second-class Italian sleeping cabin for our luggage, much less for us. Actually, it wasn’t so much a cabin as a narrow, walk-in closet with three thin sleeping slabs sticking out of one wall. Fully a third of the acreage was taken up by a small sink. Everyone else on the train knew this and had planned accordingly. All the other cabins but one—which was stuffed with French teen-agers—had been rented by single people, who stared straight ahead and smoked, like characters in one of those European alienation films. They were instantly recognizable types: The People Who Are Afraid To Fly. Our existence here is filled with these sorts of miscalculations; we always seem to be the only people who weren’t told that the party was black tie. Everyone in Paris who wants to go to Rome somehow knows to take a plane.

We piled the luggage in heaps on the beds and climbed up on top of it. The porter sweetly handed us a bottle of Asti Spumante and three plastic cups, gratis. Then he shut the door to our tiny closet and left us to figure out how to get through the next 14 hours.

The train creaked out of the station. The French teen-agers in the neighboring cabin started what sounded like a knife fight. We drank the Asti Spumante, played cards, and wondered if European people still peed in the little plastic pots they keep beneath their train sinks. But already, in the back of my mind, the questions were taking numbers and waiting their turn to be answered. Where would we sleep? How would we sleep? Why were we always so physically uncomfortable on this continent? What if the Happy Cabana came crashing down from its precarious perch and crushed us?

I remember, when I was younger, wondering why it was that older people often seemed to miss the point of their lives. They were forever permitting themselves to become angry, distracted, or generally bothered by events that the slightest reflection would have enabled them to see were no big deal. Now that I am that older person, I must find myself at war with this very same ailment, Grown-Up’s Disease. If you had told me when I was, say, 16 years old, that I would be locked inside a sleeping car of an Italian train for 14 hours with two attractive young women and a bottle of Asti Spumante, it would never have occurred to me to complain. Even if you tossed a baby into the bargain, I would have paid a lot for the experience. Now, I was the prisoner of petty concerns.

We set about to find the crannies in our luggage into which we might insert our bodies. Tallulah we left in her stroller and hoped she wouldn’t notice. She’s not one of those nightmare babies you hear about, but she has a keen sense, for an 8-month-old, of her rights. She tends to fall asleep when she’s meant to, for example, but if you disturb her in the middle of the night, you have a full-scale, multi-hour revolt on your hands. The price of her silence is inevitably the sanity of one parent, who must spend from 1 to 5 in the morning hauling her up and down some hallway, singing sweetly. Parenthood is just a synonym for a hostage situation.

All too soon Tallulah slept soundly in her stroller, which occupied the entire floor of the cabin. We three adults lay frozen in various awkward positions in our luggage-filled berths. The stakes of waking the baby were simply too high to risk small talk. There was no getting out of a bunk, or even scratching yourself, without disrupting her. An hour into the journey, the others had somehow fallen asleep. Another hour passed, then another. I had to pee. The understanding of this unlucky fact did not strike me all at once in my little corner on the top bunk; it dawned slowly and dreadfully. I attempted to out-will my internal organs. I fought them mentally; they fought back, physically.

The cabin was silent, except for the sound of the wheels on the rails grinding slowly toward Rome. The game of pretending that we might enjoy a peaceful train trip to Rome was over. There was nothing to do but leap down from my top bunk and wake everybody up. And so I rolled over and stared down at what I assumed would be a sleeping child. Her stroller was empty. This was unprecedented: She isn’t strong enough to climb out of it. Thinking she must have rolled out and onto the floor, I hiked way out. No baby. She’d vanished.

I hopped down on the sink. The two women were sound asleep. But Tallulah had her own ideas. Here is how I found her: