My Experience on a Paris-bound Train from Amsterdam

When I started this blog, I didn’t have a clear vision of what it should be.  Part travel log, part documentary capturing what I’ve learned living abroad, I guess I can’t help that my emotional experiences have been playing a larger role.  I’m been thinking about writing this post for some time, but haven’t really “felt” enough about it until last week to be able to do so.

Since last week, I’ve been overwhelmingly affected by the goings-on regarding ISIS in the news.   I’ve had nauseating levels of high anxiety about the close proximity of what is happening around me, just a few hours down the road in Belgium, on a quick high speed train to France, and just a mile from one of my best friends in northern Paris.  I keep thinking about the political climate in the Netherlands, about how I wouldn’t understand the language if an emergency situation broke out around me, about how likely it is that terrorist cells are hiding here waiting to activate, or how fleeing terrorists could easily drive up the road and cross into the Netherlands or take a train to Centraal in Amsterdam.

It feels like everything I’ve experienced in the last year is tumbling over me.  The death of my father and aunt from the same disease, a stressful apartment move not by choice, getting married quickly and planning it from across the ocean, planning another more traditional wedding for next year, and riding the train from Amsterdam to Paris where American soldiers foiled a terrorist attack.

For the first time I am feeling a residual trauma from being on that train.  With the recent news that the mastermind behind the Paris attacks was killed, and the revelation that he was also the brains behind the foiled attack on the train that could have killed me, I finally want to come to terms with my experience.

I am not writing this to take or hear a political side.  I am saddened and further stressed everyday watching things unfold in social media, wondering if I “like” one article, I’ll have a barrage of people agreeing and disagreeing with me.  I’ve learned that conflict in my personal life is something that gives me a lot of anxiety.   I feel disgusted by seeing the reactions of some of my connections, and guilt for not feeling confident enough to post my opinions to avoid conflict.  I know you can’t have it both ways by posting in a public forum, but I think I therapeutically need to write this to begin to heal.

On Friday, August 21, 2015, Uri and I boarded the Thalys train at Amsterdam’s Schiphol station.  Before boarding, we looked at the sign that showed where to stand on the tracks in order to be in the right location for your assigned train car, and I mentioned how nice it was that it could be that efficient.  We settled in for the journey, and I spent most of the time listening to an audiobook, playing a game on my iPhone.  Uri did some work on his laptop.  We had the type of train ticket that allowed us to have a free but very dysfunctional wifi while we were not in our home country and thus not able to use cellular data.  Apparently if you get the cheapest train ticket option you are not able to have wifi.  I was WhatApp’ing with my friend that we were traveling to visit. She is French, living in Paris with her boyfriend, and one of my closest friends.

“Ugh, I think something is wrong with the train. It’s been moving slowly for a half hour.  We are only just south of Arras,” I said to her at 6:08pm.  “Keep me posted. Don’t worry,” she said.  Little did I know that my near-death experience had already unfolded, and I had no idea.  We heard a soft sounding alarm keep going off, and I complained to Uri that someone must have propped a door open or something.  I complained that the sound was quite annoying.  Only a few train cars away, a terrorist had gone into the bathroom and prepped his Kalashnikov, with enough ammo and misguided intention to take out most of the train. His attack was foiled by American soldiers and other travelers who by dumb luck or fate or whatever, were in the right place at the right time with the right amount of bravery or just sheer brazenness to save the entire train from a massacre.

Meanwhile, I’m still texting with my friend, “They are making announcements but they are in French and I can only understand ‘police’  … now we have to change trains.”  I asked the conductor why we were disembarking, and in broken French he said to me, “Because there is a terrorist on our train.”  “Perhaps he meant a bad guy with a gun, but surely that’s all it could be,” I said to Uri.

We exited the train, and there I saw a bloodied man in a stretcher.  We were escorted further down the tracks and stood for a bit in a state of confusion with our fellow passengers. I asked an officer in French if I could quickly use the bathroom, although they were still searching the train for what I did not know.  He led me in quickly, I did my business, and when exiting, another officer looked at me, and the original officer told him I was just using the bathroom.  We exchanged a smirk as he shook his head at me, slightly bemused.

After some confusion on the platform in Arras, they loaded us onto another train that was now stuck and waiting.  Passengers grumbled since seats were assigned and we were filling their train, seemingly cheating the system without assigned seats.  I was separated from Uri and grabbed a seat next to a young French man, while Uri sat closer to the door.  There, I searched the internet using the terms, “Arras + Thalys” and with my low-level French I could only understand in the article that I found, “ouvert le feu.”  I asked the man next to me if that meant, “opened fire” as I expected, and he read the article and said to me, “There was a terrorist on your train.”  The train sat mostly in silence with a few whispers wondering if they were looking for an accomplice or if the shooter was subdued, or if we were ever going to get to our destination. It seemed to us all like it  was all maybe all rumor, or we were still just hoping it was so.

After about another hour, now 8:30pm, still in Arras, everyone was removed from the train and told to go to a gymnasium down the street.  People were still milling outside the station and rumors were circulating about a possible bomb at the station.  I was starving, scared, and it was getting dark.  Uri and I knew we were not getting to Paris that night, so we left the scene to the hotel we saw just across the street.  We checked in, and got back onto our phones with wifi to check the news.  It was there that we realized what fate we had nearly escaped.  By this time, it had hit the news that there really was a terrorist on the train.  That he had an automatic rifle and a barrage of ammunition.  I had to look up the word “Kalashnikov” because I thought maybe what I thought it meant couldn’t have possibly been true. But, it was.

I’d like to say at this point that I felt a sheer state of panic, or relief, or fear, or anything. But I felt nothing.  I felt a bit outside of my body like it was happening to someone else. I asked Uri what he felt, and he also said nothing.  We felt like we were late for Paris and annoyed at the logistics of that.  We felt like what we read in the news didn’t actually happen on our train.  We said we felt really lucky that we didn’t see anything and we were clueless to the entire experience until it was over.  I don’t think I felt much of anything else about being on that train until last week, to be honest.

We had a nice dinner at a randomly chosen restaurant in Arras, with our eye on the news and on our phone feeds.  The next day, we headed to the station to get our complimentary tickets to Paris, and were grateful we made the decision not to wait around until the middle of the night for the first trains to travel to Gare du Nord.

Following that day, we tried to have a normal weekend in Paris with our friends. We basically went back to our lives with the exception of a few moments of relief and feeling lucky things didn’t turn out differently.  I spent a few weeks going back and forth with Thalys about my jacket that I left on the train and they ended up recovering it and getting it back to me. I recounted my experience that day dozens of times, and exchanged shared looks of relief with friends, and disdain for the happenings in the world around us, but again, I wasn’t really feeling it.  I wondered if I would and was relieved that I didn’t.

Last week, when Paris was attacked, my mortality and vulnerability hit me in the face.  My heart has been fluttering with anxiety for hours on end ever since.  What if those soldiers weren’t on that train?  What if I bought my ticket 5 minutes earlier or later and sat in a train car where I would have seen more?  What if Uri had requested first class tickets in the same train car it happened, since he had to work on the train that day and it would have been more comfortable? What if I go outside today and someone sprays me with bullets?  What if someone implodes himself at the convention center across the street? Or at the school?  Or in Dam Square? “Don’t be ridiculous,” I’ve been told. “It is very unlikely that you would be involved in something like that.”  Why, because it hasn’t happened before?

I wrote this account immediately after I learned that the ringleader in the attacks was killed in a police raid.  The news said that he was, in fact, responsible for the foiled attack on the train I was on, along with many others.  And I am sure we will learn more and more, and things will continue to change and evolve. For now, I have a small sense of relief because justice for myself and everyone on that train has somewhat been served. Or maybe not.  I am still feeling high levels of anxiety about my own personal vulnerability and mortality.

But mind over matter, right? Life goes on, and should go on, otherwise, what is there to live for?

Finding New Life Currencies

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started this blog, and things have changed quite a lot.  

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve seen over 30 places across 14 countries, some multiple times.  95% of these places I’ve visited have been first time visits to new countries or new cities for me.

What happens when you go from seeing 1-2 new places a year to 30+?  You get used to it.  Just like a fish that grows bigger in a bigger fish bowl that it is given, or people whose “needs” become inflated when their income rises, everything in life normalizes around your new level.  I find myself having to watch for how I present travels to my friends and family at home. I have to remember what it was like before I moved here, to hear what people that had these opportunities or this access sounded like to that version of me.  I have to put myself back in my old shoes.

You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it is your new normal.   I bounce greetings and thanks across different languages without being ashamed at my poor accent. I meet new people from countries around the world regularly, and I learn new cultural nuances, witty phrases, political stances, and social sensitivities. On a more practical level, I don’t think twice that I will not understand emergency announcements or delayed train explanations on a platform. I am comfortable that my iPhone may very well not work, and that I’ll need to find my way without the blue dot of Google Maps.

This concept of normalizing to new levels, spun negatively, feels like you are never satisfied.  Spun positively, you can always handle what you are given.  Other things that happened this year that are pretty major: I got engaged, I’m planning two weddings (thanks to my marriage to an Australian, I get a legal we-need-to-apply-for-a- green-card-stat ceremony with family, as well as our dream wedding in France), my father died unexpectedly when I lived across the world away from family and friends, and as a result of the overwhelmedness, lack of motivation, and severe lack of focus, I’ve decided to reevaluate the career I’ve been had for the last 10 years.  

So I’m in a place I never saw myself in even 3 years ago:  in a loving and committed lifelong relationship, fatherless, and questioning my career.  Re-defining who I am now is quite a feat; I call it, “finding my new life currency”. What is that thing that now defines my value?  I thought that once I “made it” in my New York career, that I had everything figured out.  I figured out how to define my value in life, and anyone doing it differently was not as smart, not as motivated, not as strong-willed.  Having my job and excelling in my career defined me. Working hard and late, having many projects running at the same time, spending my hard earned money on rent, eating out, and drinking defined me. Being a New Yorker defined me.  

I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a time limit to this way of living for me.  Once I hit a certain age or time of my life, I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually care about the job I was doing; I was just really motivated that I was really good at doing it.  I realized that this was not enough for me – being really good at something I really didn’t care about.  It was time to move to a different place and change my perspective.  

Throughout this process I am finding a way to learn and believe that parallel or sideways growth is just as much a movement upward as moving upward in your job or your income level. My first mentor once told me that a great and fulfilled life does not look like a ladder that only climbed up in the end, but instead is a mosaic of different points, skills, jobs, and experiences.  And when you stand back to look, it has actually resulted in a beautiful piece of art.