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?

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6-Month Trip Roundup

As I just passed the 6 month mark living in Europe, I think this is a good time to reflect a bit on what I’ve done here.

As previously mentioned, I forget everything or don’t give myself credit for it unless I write it down to reflect, or unless someone tells me to take some credit. My life is like the Will Ferrell movie where no one is really laughing the first time around (or at least I’m not. And I know I am greatly outnumbered here) but you realize how funny it is when you re-quote the ridiculous scenes over and over with your friends later.

So in addition to my Israel trip which was substantial enough to get it’s own entry, I’ve also been able to visit quite a few places in my short time here. I should reflect on this for a minute. 6 months ago, visiting these cities was part of a full-on European vacation, requiring a lot of planning effort and money. Now, these visits have taken course over 2- or 3- day weekends, planned only a few days or weeks in advance, and are able to be financed on my meager European salary (more on that change at another time). Here’s a quick look into some places I’ve been able to visit in my first 6 months:

Barcelona, Spain and Reims, France

My first trip, taken in the days before starting my job, and just 3 weeks into living here, was to Barcelona, as a hanger-on to Uri’s work conference, followed by Luxembourg to visit my dear French friend, Bénédicte who is living there. While in Luxembourg, we took a day trip to Reims, France to taste some delicious bubbly in the Champagne region. Real, authentic champagne from Champagne! This has serious significance to me since I am an avid bubbly drinker with my BFF Annie back in NYC. Hooray for Champagne caves!

Barcelona was an interesting place. After a casual warning from my world-traveling friend, Erik (see The Global Trip), to “watch my purse in Barcelona,” I became obsessed with googleing about safety issues and pickpocket scams in this city. I was going to be alone touring the city while Uri was at the conference, and was used to my first 3 weeks in Europe exploring the safe and structured Amsterdam suburbs. I am sure my fear and precautions taken were on one side of the extreme, while being an unprepared and clueless tourist was on the other side. And the reality lay somewhere in the middle.

I chose some organized tours to feel safer.  Running Tours Barcelona was an AMAZING way to see Montjuïc and the Olympic Stadium area, while the bus tour -especially to Montserrat- made me feel like a retiree, as I was the only person on it that was under 60, and was the only person not rushing to pick up the cruise ship before it left its port. After having my tours under my belt to feel more safely acclimated to the city, I wished I had longer than just a few days there to drink wine, eat tapas, and see more architecturally amazing sites. Yes, rambling around Las Ramblas didn’t feel like the safest place, but I realized the level of safety precautions needed in that city likened more towards how I acted in Times Square without even thinking about it than some other crime-ridden place. Basically, hold your purse close, look people in the eye, and don’t stand around staring at a map looking lost. If you do that, you’ll be fine.

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Germany – Hamburg, Munich, & Füssen
We took two trips to Germany – over Easter weekend to Hamburg, and in July to the Bavarian area so I could run a half marathon and we could go castle-hunting to a site that has long been on my bucket list. Hamburg and Munich were both very livable cities… so much that in both visits, I spend much time saying, “Maybe we can move here next? Do I need to learn German?”

Hamburg is set upon beautiful lake Alster, and we enjoyed cruising up it on a boat tour. We had Easter dinner at a place called Kartoffel Keller (Potato House), where your main dish centered around the potato, and your “side dishes” included any meats or veggies. And the waiters wore potato sacks over their clothes. Awesome, and delicious!

We visited Munich for one day and night, on our way to Fussen for the half marathon I ran at the Germany/Austrian border in the Bavarian area known as East Allgäu. It had grueling temperatures (90 at the start at 6pm) and grueling hills, and it was a great way to continue my marathon training. (Have I mentioned that yet? My first marathon will be in New York City this fall.)

The day after the race we climbed the castle hills for tours of Neushwanstein and Hohenschwangau, and learned about the crazy King Ludwig II. The sites were breathtaking in and around these castles, and well worth the climbs despite my sore legs and the hoards and hoards of tourists at their worst. I still can’t believe I actually personally took this photo:

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Chamonix, France
I really realized the amazingness of living in Europe when I had a visitor cancel right before arrival. With a long weekend off from work ahead of me that I did not want to go to waste, Uri and I looked at flights for the next day, chose the cheapest short-notice flight (Geneva), and concocted our plan from there to take a van 2 hours from the airport to the mountains, and hang out in the French Alps during the off-season. We spent the weekend basking in the shadows of Mont Blanc in the gorgeous little village town of Chamonix, eating tartiflette and crusty French bread, hiking the valleys of the mountains, and ascending the 12,605ft to the Aiguille du Midi. I was really bummed that I didn’t get to see my friend that weekend, but the consolation prize trip…. well — C’était incroyable!

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North and South
It was with visits like this that I began to understand some of the nuances between the north and the south in Europe. The North of Europe is very different from the South of Europe, just as the North of the European country is very different from the South of that same country (and in some countries like Spain, the provinces within are all  then also very individualistic).

Without grossly oversimplifying To grossly oversimplify, the northern countries and the northern side of each country feels relatively more structured, organized, and pragmatic than their southern counterparts. It also feel a little less friendly and less open to strangers. The primary sites usually feature churches, town centers, city hall buildings, and stone structures. The north feels like your Type-A friend who is a little closed off but is really reliable and you will mostly know what to expect.

Minus Barcelona, I have still yet to discover the true southern countries of Europe (i.e. Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, etc.), but I’m told that where there is heat, there is a more sensual vibe, a constant- holiday feeling, and a casual approach to life. This also brings a bit more positive and negative tourism (sun/ beaches, scammers/ pickpockets), but also more friendly people, open to meet and embrace strangers. The south is your wild party-friend that is up for a good time but might also get too drunk at the party and leave you to need to drive them home or walk home alone. …Making eye contact and clutching your purse, perhaps?

I’ve discussed the North/South difference time and time again with people ranging from Spanish, French, Dutch, and German who have all validated these trends in their countries and throughout Europe. In fact, it’s a sort of “no kidding” sentiment here. Of course that is how it is here! Well, I’m new, so it’s all new to me! I wonder if anyone else has noticed this difference? Tell me what you think! I’m fascinated by these types of things I learn every day living here.

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So that’s it for now.  6 months in, and many places on my list have been checked off, some of which I didn’t even know existed prior to my move here. My list keeps growing and there are so many places to see and things to learn. I only hope I have enough time to get to it all. We’ve got some great trips upcoming already as well (Costa del Sol in Spain and Prague for the Christmas markets), so stay tuned!