"Excuse me, is that seat taken?"
The husky female voice was speaking in English. The monotonous vibrations of the train barreling along its tracks had lulled me into a dozing state, but hearing someone talk in my own language definitely got my attention. I opened my eyes and turned my head towards the compartment door.
The speaker was a young and rather tall woman, with long brown hair that fell freely onto her back. She peered into the compartment with squinted eyes and a frustrated expression. In the aisle behind her, people were standing to smoke cigarettes, blowing the smoke out of the cracked side windows of the train. The smoking ban on the railways in France had gone into effect last year, but I knew from experience that it was harder to separate a Frenchman from his pack of Gauloises than it was to pry the rosary from the hands of an Italian grandmother. I had been on the Brussels-Paris train more than a dozen times in the last two years, and I had never seen anyone enforce the smoking ban with any degree of dedication.
There were four fellow travelers in the six-seat compartment, and all of them looked at the young woman with various expressions of incomprehension. The only free seat was at the window to my left—the window seats were not very popular in the cold months because the slots for the heater were right underneath, and it was uncomfortably warm in that spot when they cranked the heat—and I sat up and nodded towards the vacant seat.
"No, it's free," I said, and the young woman let out an audible sigh of relief.
"You speak English," she said. "Thank God."
She stepped into the compartment and pulled the sliding door closed behind her, shutting out the cigarette smoke that was wafting in from the aisle. Then she picked up the bag she had been dragging, a little roller tote that looked about as beat-up as my own travel bag, and gingerly stepped over the legs of the people seated by the door.
"I took four years of French in school, and most of the people I talk to look at me as if I'm speaking Swahili or something."
"Of course," I laughed. "If your pronunciation and diction isn't spot-on, they'll just pretend they can't understand you. Half of these guys in here probably speak English, but they'll never admit it to you unless they decide to hit on you."
I raised myself from my seat and helped her hoist the travel bag into the overhead luggage compartment.
"Thanks. I've been looking for a place to sit for the last twenty minutes, since we left the station."
"It's the Friday evening train," I said. "That one's usually packed to the roof."
"American?" she asked, and I nodded. She took off her coat, placed it on the hook I pointed out, and then reached behind her neck to straighten out the cascade of brown hair falling onto her back. Then she dropped into the seat with a sigh.
"Sean," I introduced myself. "I'm from Boston."
"I'm Sam," she said. "From Vancouver." She took my hand, and her grip was surprisingly firm. "Very glad to meet you, and that's not just a polite phrase right now."
"Bad day, huh?" I smiled.
"You have no idea. I missed my connecting flight in Montreal, and then the airline lost my luggage. Permanently, it seems. All I have with me is what's in the carry-on. I've been in the same clothes for forty-eight hours now. If it wasn't for the fact that I always carry deodorant in my purse, I'd have this compartment cleared out by now on account of B.O."
"Ouch. That's a bad day, alright."
"Yeah, well, day's not over yet. With my luck, we'll get to Paris, and I'll get mugged at the first street corner or something."
She stretched out in her seat, neatly fitting her legs into the space between the heater and the legs of the person sitting in the opposite seat.
"Paris is not that dangerous," I said. "Just don't walk around Gare du Nord at six in the morning waving bundles of cash."
"I don't even know where I'm going, to tell you the truth. I'm visiting my brother. He's working at one of the posh hotels, but I have no clue how to get there."
"What's it called?"
I let out a low whistle.
"That's posh, alright. It's a five-star place."
"Have you ever stayed there?"
"Hell, no," I laughed. That place is not for mere mortals. I can't afford their cheapest room, not on my government salary. Your brother must be doing alright if he works there. It's one of the top hotels in the world."
"Do you know how to get there from the train station?"
"Yeah. It's on Avenue Montaigne, I think. You just take the Metro. I don't remember the exact stop, but all I have to do is look at a Metro map for a second."
"Will you show me when we get there? I'll buy you breakfast if you do."
"Sure," I said. "I'd do it for free, but I won't turn down a breakfast."
She smiled and leaned her head back against the padded headrest.
"Thank you. That takes a load off my mind."
"No problem. You may change your mind, though. Just wait until you see how much they charge for a croissant and a glass of orange juice in Paris."
She hadn't eaten since the meal on the plane from Montreal, so I rifled through my own travel bag and produced a bag of pretzel bites and a can of Diet Pepsi.
"Ooh, Snyder's," she said when she saw the bag. "Mustard and onion. I love those. Did you bring them all the way from Boston?"
"No," I laughed. "I work for the Army, up in Brussels. We have our own supermarket, called a PX. They have all the good stuff from home."
"You're in the military?"
I nodded, and offered her the open bag. She reached into it with barely restrained gusto.
"So what do you do there? Or is it one of those secret things?"
"I'm a linguist. I work for the U.S. Liaison at NATO headquarters."
"Sounds important," she said around a mouthful of pretzel bites.
"Not really. I translate stuff, and serve as interpreter for the guys with all the colorful ribbons on their jackets. I get to follow colonels and generals around all day and play voice box for them."
"Aren't you supposed to keep this stuff hush-hush?" she asked with a smile. "I mean, you probably deal with all this top secret stuff all day. You should probably tell me you're just a filing clerk or something."
"Yeah. Okay, I'll be straight with you. I'm just the guy pushing a broom around. Custodial engineer, they call me."
"That's better," she said, and we both smiled.
"So what do you do, Sam from Vancouver? I mean, other than going to Paris on a lark to visit your brother."
"I work in catering," she said. "My mom owns a catering business, and we serve food to the film productions in Vancouver. Oh, and I go to college, but I'm taking a break right now. Senior year burnout," she said with a shrug.
"So you're what, twenty-one?"
"Twenty-two," she replied. "I took a year off between high school and college, too. How about you?"
"Thirty-two," I said.
"You don't look thirty-two," she said, appraising my face. Her eyes looked blue in the dim overhead lighting.
"I spend most of my day in an air-conditioned building, and I do no manual labor," I said. "I'm well-preserved, I guess."
"You're in killer shape for someone who doesn't work hard," she said, eyeing my frame.
"I have a bunch of Marine running buddies. We do five miles every morning, in any weather."
"So what are you doing in Paris? Sounds like you've been there before."
"Oh, yeah. Dozens of times. I used to come here to hang out with a friend of mine. He was a Marine guard at the American embassy in Paris. His tour was up a few months ago, but I've kind of come to like the city, so I go down there every time I have a few days of leave."
"It's my first time," she said, and then shook her head in irritation. "Like that's not obvious, right? It's my first time in Europe, actually."
"You'll like Paris. It's not the tourist season right now, but that's good. You'll get to see the real Paris, not the summer version for tourists."
"Well, I don't think I have a hope of blending in with the locals," she smiled. "I might as well put a big sign on my ass that says, 'Tourist—Please Take Advantage of Me.'"
We chatted for a while longer, and then decided to get some sleep before our arrival. It was after midnight, and our train would arrive in Paris just after six in the morning, so there wasn't much opportunity to catch up on sleep.
Sam didn't last very long after closing her eyes and leaning back in her seat. I was still mostly awake when her breathing became slower and more regular, and I glanced over to see that she was asleep. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to doze off, and when I opened them again to look over at her, she was fast asleep.
I studied her profile, and the shape of her body underneath the knitted sweater she wore, and reaffirmed my initial assessment that she was rather cute. Her lips had a natural little pout to them. There was a very faint sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, and I suspected that the slightly reddish sheen of her hair was natural. Her breasts pushed out the fabric of her sweater in a moderately assertive fashion—she wasn't voluptuous, but not flat, either, which was right in line with my own preferences. Overall, she was rather shapely, with enough curves to keep her frame from being lanky. She was taller than average, five nine at least, but nothing about her seemed out of proportion. She was very attractive in the cute-girl-next-door sort of way.
.... There is more of this story ...