Gare du Nord: A moment of hell.
“Madam… many pickpockets.”
The taxi driver gestures at me to tuck my purse under my arm. I take the mini backpack posing as a purse and shove it into the Monop’ shopping bag that holds the strangling bits of shit I’ve carried around all day. I’m too tired to consider that this isn’t much better. Maybe even more accessible for any heist of my belongings to occur. My cordial taxi driver sucks in air as he gathers his strength to lift the heavy luggage out of the car’s trunk. I compose the big blue suitcase, at least 70 lbs by now, in my left hand on my left side and the little black Samsonite on my right hand on the right side. The larger of the two is the easier to manage. I manage an anxious “Merci beaucoup” and a nod before trodding inside.
I drag the worn little Samsonite and push the other forward as I balance the Monop’ bag on my shoulder to stride through the doors of the Gard Du Nord. It is a regal-looking station outside, but its beautiful details wane in my periphery. All I want is to settle into a comfy train seat for the two-hour ride back to London. But the mass of cars and the taxi line outside do not fully prep my brain for the swarm of people awaiting trains inside. Throngs of travelers hover around platforms. They squat, lean, and slunk on benches cemented in-between food stalls. It’s 6:30pm. I’ve arrived with plenty of time to spare.
I take a minute to absorb the enormity. I look at the train station board and see that my train has not yet been listed. I veer off to my right. When I don’t know what to do, I move. No matter what. The blue suitcase needs a kick to jolt forward. The Samsonite continues to drag. The Relay store might have some cute little Parisian things I can grab as last-minute gifts. I enter and scan for anything of interest and leave 30 seconds later. There is no practical way to manage a store with all my belongings at the moment. What was I thinking?
A cement wall tinged with grease stains spilled coffee, and likely an assortment of bodily fluids lines the outside perimeter of Relay. To the right, two young college-looking kids stand uncomfortably. They frantically eat sandwiches. I find a spot five feet down from them. A white-presenting unhoused man with his mouth drooping down, frayed pants sagging around his hips, and smudges of dirt all along his cheekbones, looks me dead in the eye and says something in French. I understand he wants money as he puts out his hand. I shake my head. The warning from the taxi drainer reminds me that I probably should not stop and open my purse to look for euros known to be trapped at the bottom of it. I quickly shake my head no and look away. He stumbles to the next traveler. There’s still a half of a croissant from Du Pain et de Ideeds lodged in the Monop’. I’m starving after the shock of entering the train station. I pull my mask down and decide to brave the situation. I shove two bites of croissant in my mouth and slip my mask back on. Quickness equals less exposure, right?
I find my bearings and decide I should sit down. My muscles begin to seize as they have for the past few weeks whenever I stand or walk for longer than five minutes. When I saw the French doctor yesterday, he said it was inflammation, to get a scan and return for a massage. I agreeably said okay, not letting him know I’m traveling home in 24 hours.
6:40pm. I have plenty of time ahead of me. Leaving London had been an ordeal getting through customs. No sign of customs here. Just people standing around waiting for their train to flash on the board. I settle for a corner piece of a wooden bench. It’s meant to hold up to 12 people. Uneasy travelers take up more than their share. I admit it’s me with my extra-large suitcase, my carry-on and my weekender attached, and don’t forget the Monop’. Is this why I have a pulled muscle or sciatica and have barely been able to stand or walk longer than 5 mins for the last two weeks? Did I already say that? Ugh.
Two young men no older than 20 or 21 meander through the seating. They are of the global majority with brown skin and brown hair. Beards even, that one manages to keep rather coifed. The other is working with bits of hair that I assume he’s hoping will blossom into a regal statement across his chin and lip. They feign expressions of confusion. They go from bench to bench. As though they are looking for something. One pulls out a cord and fumbles with the outlet designed as part of the seating to charge your phone before hopping on the train.
He looks at his friend and gestures his hands to say, “It won’t work..” They scour over to the next bench. After watching them for a few minutes, my eye catches the younger-looking one of them. We stare longer than feels comfortable. “Don’t worry.” I telepathically tell him. “I’m not gonna rat you out.” He moves on. Hoping that one of these passengers will accidentally leave behind a phone, some small change, anything that will be of value. They wander methodically. I wonder if they feel protected in their process.
Another mumbling unhoused man-white presenting-enters stage left. He is wearing threadbare jeans that drag along the floor. I think he’s wearing slippers. The kind that anyone might place outside the shower door. Barely a sole but plush and comfy. His are blackened all the way through. His Jesus locks are matted with faint efforts of a few brown curls exposed through the knots. A robe ties it all together. A dirty, smelly robe with likely an ecosystem of lice and larva. His head turns to the people, but his eyes do not. He slurs French. I have not a clue what he is trying to say, but it feels like he’s saying, “fuck you all. You’ve let me waste here. You’ve let me fry my mind. Fuck you for not helping.” That’s what it feels like.
7:30 approaches. My train should be boarding soon. I stand and adjust my body to handle the weight of my suitcases. The one that moves easily is heavy but can be maneuvered without a wince of pain. The other one-I’m ready to trash it. The wheels need a confident jerk to move along in mechanical rhythm.
“Excuse moi?” I say in my pitiful French.
A handsome Black French man in his SNCF uniform says yes to me in English. “I don’t understand what the board means.. my train says open, but I don’t see a platform?” He asks where I’m heading and then says, “London? You have to queue in the line upstairs.”
In a slow pan, I angle my head to view the unfolding mass of travelers moving along like cattle. Snaked in lines back and forth so that more people can fit side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Ahh, fuuuuuck!!!!! My whole body sinks. My shoulders drop. I only have a split second to melt down. I compose my luggage again and try to dodge the standing travelers. There’s no time to waste. I make a wrong turn around a dense crowd of travelers and end up forced to walk alongside a barricade. As I round the corner, an attendant stops me.
“Where to get?” he says sternly with a hand in my face. “London,” I say. “Da queue der” and he points to an enormously long line like a dragon’s tail that follows people from the mass upstairs down the escalator and half a mile away to another section of the station. I want to cry, but there’s no time. Just get in line.
And now my blood sugar is low*. I can tell because the sounds around me are becoming hard to listen to. I want to hush the whole scene and retreat into a corner. Just as I land at the end of the monster’s tail, an attendant heads down the line asking for anyone going to London on the 8:15 train. “Yes!” I say. A Black mother with her children says yes as well. A white man with a leather bag behind me speaks yes with a Brummy British accent (my favorite kind). We all step out of line and are ushered back to the point where moments ago, I was so eager to join the upstairs mass of people. I have no time to take out my phone that I’ve stored diligently inside my mini backpack purse out of the reach of pick-pocketers that is now being asked for to prove I’m on the 8:15 train to London. I have to pause. A few people go around me. I find my phone, flash it at the attendant and enter the line headed upstairs.
I careen my head to sort out the procedures while fumbling around my mini backpack purse for low supplies. Customs. For the love of god, I had forgotten about customs! Brexit has wholly thrown a wrench in the ease of traveling between European countries. I vow to not make this mistake again the next time I come here. London was always my preferred in and out of Europe location. It used to be so easy to hop on the Eurostar at Waterloo and be in Paris in two hours. The train attendant would come through and check your passport as you entered France. One and done. This- what I was experiencing right now- was absolutely terrible. I wanted to scream.
Another attendant says “business class” out loud to no one and gestures towards a bit of rare empty space. I have a first-class ticket, so I go. (But I understand I’m not business class). We reach the customs desks, and it is a calm and collected uneasiness. No one knows where to go. A customs officer stands alone in his little blockaded, impenetrable bunker. He looks content, staring at a screen and typing furiously on the computer. I’m not sure if I should approach him or not. No one else does, so I decide to hang back and wait to be signaled. The officer motions his hands to come. He gestures at me to take off my mask while holding up the passport at eye level. The photo he is looking at is one I took a month after the pandemic hit. My face is fraught with the terror of living during the Trump presidency and a pandemic I am gravely afraid of. I want to tell him why I don’t look like the person he is currently staring at, but I keep still. He brings the passport down and ushers me to move along. I take ten steps before I’m back in line with an abrupt stop. The line snakes behind a wall. I tap my phone to check the time. 7:55pm. An attendant announces that the 8:15 train to London has been delayed. All at once, you can hear a sigh of relief from the many travelers who must be on the same train as me.
Something is awry as we near 15 mins standing in line with no motion forward. An attendant yells out, “you’re all on the 8:15 train to London. please don’t worry.” We aren’t worried at this point. We’re exhausted and overwhelmed. As the line begins to creep, it’s evident that we’ve been waiting for further customs clearing. Yes, a customs officer has just reviewed my passport, and now I have to insert it into the machine that also takes your photo. Except. Except. It’s broken. We are at a standstill. I take the moment to pull out my gel and suck quickly.
An attendant is beside herself and tells the crowd how she will manage them. “Okay. We’ll go like this.. 1–2–3–4.” She says in a French accent. Her gesture implies that we’ll go down the line one at a time as there are four lines for the high-tech passport check. And we go where? I wonder? I peer to the right and see another row of customs officers. Holy heck. Another passport check. I go through the same routine. It’s embarrassing every time someone has to look at my passport picture.
One at a time, we are ushered to toss our luggage on a large x-ray machine. Usually, I’d pull out my insulin and diabetes supplies and ask them to swab them. They are sensitive to x-ray, and if they go through, it breaks down the high-tech ability of my insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor to talk to each other. I can tell that they aren’t ready for me. There is no machinery available to even test with a swab. None visible to the eye anyways. To ask would likely delay me for up to an hour. I imagine the rounds of questioning I’d get. Add to that being a Black woman with an army coat and black pants on, well, let’s say I wanted out of France more than I wanted to keep my life-saving technology underexposed.
I know my pump will alarm through the metal detector, so I tell the three security guards that I’m wearing an insulin pump.
“Okay. Go through?”
They all nod. They watch me walk through, and the alarm goes off.
“Anything in your pockets?” One says as he steps closer to me. Now a menacing look on his face.
“No. It’s my pump.” And I take it out.
They look like they’ve seen one before but decide they need to pat me down anyways. The tallest of the guards leans in and says, “Ah, maybes it’s your jacket.”
Okay. I’ll give him that. There’s metal on my jacket. He gives me a brief little pat around my clothing as to be respectful to my female form. “Okay,” he says. And I’m free to gather my heavy-as-fuck luggage. I nearly want to leave it there. And walk away and jump in that train and never look back. Damn it.
I grab my belongings and adjust back into form. Another line. More walking. I conjure up the scene from Seinfeld when Elaine is stuck on the subway and screams inside her head. This is currently my reality. Screaming inside my head. We must walk a quarter of a mile and then onto an overpass crossing a pair of tracks. The top of the train is in sight. A momentary relief.
And then, and then… a flat escalator heading down. Fuuuuckkkk! These are the worst because my suitcases are much too heavy to hold back from sliding down. These types of escalators are more like a rubber path forcing you to the level below. There’s no elevator in sight. How the hell does anyone do this with visible disabilities? How do the elderly manage this? Screaming inside my head resumes.
I brace my luggage in two positions to lodge them as close as possible against my body. I brace my hands and keep a tight pull on them. It’s like pulling on the reigns of a horse to slow them down.
I reach the bottom and gaze at the train is in all its glory. Finally!! I check my phone. Car 3. I look up at the car in front of me. Car 14. People start to pile in. More take-off for other cars further down. I follow suit. My Left leg begins to throb. The doctor said my back was inflamed when I told him that I was in a great deal of pain walking. In his very little English, he said “inflamed” “scan” and “massage.” Got it. I kinda knew that. I just wanted to know if there was anything devastatingly wrong with it.
People crowd me to my left and right as I struggle with my luggage. A couple behind me is obviously annoyed trying to get around me, but they are stuck too. I take a deep breath and continue on. The Samsonite is a pain in the ass as I jerk to keep it in motion. It doesn’t want to roll correctly, so I drag it like a kill I’d made centuries prior.
I’ve been walking for five minutes. Car 8. Car fucking eight?! I want to cry.
I keep going as though the train will leave me if I slow down. The crowd thins out the further we head to the front of the train. Five minutes later. Car 4. I slug on to see the familiar stance of a first-class train attendant. A Black woman with short straight hair and an iPad. I make my way towards her where the plague on the door says 3.
“Welcome aboard,” she says with a smile in English.
“Thank you.” I nod.
I’m dripping with sweat, and I can smell the odor of my anxiety and stress. I start with the black suitcase, the one I’m ready to throw out. I heave it on the train. A passenger is waiting to board behind me.
I look her dead in the eye and say very curtly, “Just a minute!”
I have to step back down on the platform to retrieve my extra heavy luggage. I heave it on board. No one helps. They watch, though. Is this because I’m Black and sturdy looking? Likely. The others furiously board after I resentfully get my pieces into the galley way. A Black man approaches in his attendant uniform.
“Hi,” he says with a grin.
“I want to cry! That was just too much!” I say to him.
Sweat is dripping in my eyes as he tries to comfort me.
“You’re okay, misses. You’ve made it, and now you get to relax. Seat 25?” He gestures to my seat.
There are only five people in my car. I’m grateful. This is why I’ve chosen first-class tickets. My friend Niko taught me this years ago. You have more room, comfort, and a higher quality experience when you go, first class. Over the years, I’ve often ignored her lesson, not having the money to do things first class, but this trip and after Covid, I’ve gone first or premium for all my travel.
I collapse in my chair. I take a moment to let my brain settle in. You’re okay. You made it. I feel my injury will pay the price for the experience I’ve just been through. I check the time on my insulin pump, 8:45.
A family of four across the aisle adjusts the EarPods for their two little children. The mom says in her British accent to her husband, “Nevermind that, we’ll be getting up every five minutes anyways.” They sort out children’s toys and clothing.
I pile my purse on the weekender bag and stand to use the loo. With a sophisticated button press, the door swings wide, and I step inside. At first glance, I look like an absolute wreck. There’s a stain on my white shirt. My pink pants have a large wet stain of sweat at the waist. I pull down my pants to pee and see the large sweat stain in my crotch. I smell my underarms, and it is atrocious. Wearing a mask has its benefits when you’re traveling. I wash my hands and head back to my seat. I find a wipe that I travel with. I dab my head, face and neck. A text comes through. It’s Kat.
“Back in the UK for the Jubilee?” It reads. I know she’s being sarcastic because she cannot stand the monarchy.
I text back…
“Oh my fucking god Kat… I just got settled on the Eurostar. It was the most fantastical nightmare trying to get through customs. Lines two miles long. Border patrol tech went down. X-ray machines were one and done, and I had no choice but to put all my medical through them. They weren’t prepared with the machines to swab them. Then a male patrol had to pat me down because of course, I set off the alarm after telling them I would. I’m so done. I will never fly in and out of the UK until this all gets sorted. My GOD. I’m sweaty-like dripping with sweat! My crotch is sweaty, my armpits…ugh. There is visible sweat seeping through my pants band and my shirt. And it’s still dripping down my hair as though I just got out of the fucking shower. That’s what a fucking nightmare of an experience it has been. And now, yes. The god damn jubilee. I think I’m gonna stay inside the hotel tomorrow??? Also.. is she dying? Or dead, and they haven’t said anything?!!”
*This refers to Type 1 diabetes.