Guest Contributor: American Richard Resnick is CEO of genomic software company GenomeQuest, a TED speaker and a regular business visitor to Paris. The day before the incident below, one of Paris’s bountiful pigeon population emptied its guts on Richard’s suit and shirt while he was on his way to a meeting.
Work is over for the night, I’m having a couple of beers with my colleague JJ in the suburb of Rueil before heading back to Paris by train. It is about a 15 minute walk to the train station. It is the same walk I do every night, and I must say, I do believe I’m really quite good at it. You know, you put one foot in front of the other, etc., and so on, until you have arrive at your destination.
And indeed, like any other night, I execute this plan successfully, and arrive at the station. I put my ticket through the machine, ascend the stairs, and voila, there is a train, standing right there. No waiting. So, I board, no problem. I turn my headphones on. I close my eyes. And we’re off.
But it’s a slow ride. And, after about 5 minutes, we stop. I decide to open my eyes.
The train is empty.
I didn’t notice that before.
And we’re not in between stations. But we’re not really at a station either. We’re in a train yard. There are trains on either side of me. None is moving.
It’s suddenly becomes clear to me that every train, mine included, is parked for the evening, waiting for the morning rush hour. I’m alone in a stopped train, my French is marginal at best, and after two beers with JJ, I really need to pee.
The “RER” as it is known in Paris is a major set of train lines that run the length (or width) of Paris, from end to end, including the adjacent suburbs. It’s a bit nicer than a regular subway train – larger seats, larger cars, etc. And it has these doors that don’t automatically open; instead you have to either push a button – in the new ones – or turn a rusty crank counter-clockwise – in mine.
So I get up, move toward the door, and turn the crank, hoping it will open. It does. And suddenly I’m standing at the ledge of the train, and there is about a six-foot drop to the ground. No looking back, I jump.
The safety of the stopped train thoroughly behind me, I realize I am now walking on tracks with three rails. That third rail is the nasty one, but I really have no choice. I carefully maneuver across three different sets of tracks towards a very large fortress-like building on one side of the yard. There are fences with barbed wire, and signs saying things like “Caméras vous observant” (You are being watched) which I think could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I clearly need help.
But none of the gates open, no sirens wail, and all of the doors of the building – locked.
The urge to pee is overwhelming but I remember my mother telling me something about peeing near highly electrified metal.
“Ok,” I tell myself. “This isn’t that bad. I have my wallet.” (Frantically I drop my bag to find my wallet. I finger my passport while I am there, just for added comfort.)
“I have my phone.” Checking my phone, I am terrified to see the “Battery 20%” warning pop up. But the iPhone gives you no choice but to press OK, even though it really isn’t ok at all. (I make a mental note to Apple.)
I can do this.
I walk the length of the trains down to the other end. It’s a long train, and I have plenty of time to squint at the far end and panic about whether it is simply a closed pathway or whether there is a way out. When I arrive at the gate, it is locked. But there is a door into this fortress of a building on my right. I listen, and hear footsteps. Running through obvious things to ask in French, I turn the doorknob and go in.
I’m obviously in some kind of a Paris Metro control center, although it is totally deserted. Open boxes of pastries, fully consumed, a room full of uniforms and mops, and a stairwell, down. I take it and enter into a dingy, windowless kitchen occupied by a large table, a sink, a microwave, and a man.
“Ou je suis?” Where am I? I ask, having practiced this one in my head on the way down the stairs.
The man, making his tea, looks up. Then looks down at his tea. Then shakes his head.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I pray.
“Non,” he says bluntly.
Ok, here comes Richard’s broken French.
“J’ai parti de la gare Ruiel Malmaison, et maintenant, je suis ici…” I left the train station at Rueil, and here I am …
“Vous etes un anglophone?” he asks.
“Oui, je suis.” Yes, I am.
“De quel pays?” From which country?
“Des Etats-Unis.” From the US.
“Ahhh … d’accord …” Ahhh … now I see …
After this proper French verdict from the train driver, he goes back to steeping his tea. I watch. I wait. The urge to pee is horrendous. Finally, I try something new:
“Je veux aller a Paris, il y a un taxi, ou quelque chose….” This roughly translates in broken French as, “I’d like to go to Paris, is there a taxi or something?
He looks up. It’s really the first time he actually uses his eyes to look at me. He takes me in. Up, down, up. Finally, he decides that he is going to have to help. I’m just not going to go away.
“Vous voulez un taxi ou RER?” You want the taxi or the train?
“Oui, l’RER serait le mieux….” The RER would be best…
“D’accord. Suivez moi.“ Alright. Follow me.
He leaves his tea behind and walks up the stairs. I follow, running behind him. He weaves us through the train yard, over tracks, on paths, around gates, and pulls out a huge set of keys which he uses to unlock a mighty gate far too tall to climb.
Now, I’ve been listening to these French CDs called Pimsleur which give you a strong basis in basic conversational French. Thankfully, the very last CD I had listened to in America taught me directions, for instance:
lá-bas: over there
tout droit: straight
et puis: and then
á gauche: left
á droite: right
So with a combination of his pointing and saying the above words in strange combinations with many additional French words thrown in, I am freed from the train yard and put out onto the street, no worse for wear, with only a 10 minute walk back to the train station where I had so recently been. The second train I board gets me safely home completely incident-free.
I do admit to peeing on a pigeon outside a Rueil hotel on the walk back to the station.