I’m riding on a bus at 8:30pm on a Tuesday night in Lausanne. I boarded at a stop going south on Georgette Avenue, near our apartment. The street signs are becoming less foreign to me as the French language begins to sound warm and comforting, no longer arresting and alien now that my French lessons have begun.
It's a feeling I’ve felt before: moving to a new, exciting place, an unfamiliar town. But it’s obviously never been quite like this. Not on a new, green planet, so quiet during waking hours I can actually think straight. So walking-friendly I can see the shadow of my cheekbones in the reflection of a storefront, yet my skin looks clear and my body feels strong (I even have muscles now! They’re very small). The signs I see through the windows of my bus as it angles downhill, closer toward Francesca’s house, I read in my own voice with an as-of-yet still fake-sounding French accent.
Wide sidewalks and old trees, planted long ago and only tended to once in a blue moon. Yet they have chosen to behave themselves, grow straight, and not upset the surrounding surfaces with thick roots expanding outward instead of down. We pass a little Georgian restaurant whose front windowpane reads like a Edward Hopper painting; seated inside around a large wooden oval table is a family being served by a waiter they seem to know, just leaning over the patriarch to set a platter of meat down in the middle of the table as the light turns green, and I ready myself for the next stop, which is where I get off.
The first morning I arrived in Switzerland, it was barely twilight as C and I boarded the train to Lausanne. I was barely cognizant, jet lagged and hung over from the 24 hour expedition. But I could still see the mountains, and the vastness and clarity of lake Geneva following us all the way to and beyond our destination. Since then I've traveled back and forth between the two cities, in the snow, rain; the moonlight and the daylight, and still I'm not fully convinced that what I see through the glass can be real.
This weekend C and I traveled to Geneva for the first time since my move to visit the opulent Cartier store in the old city, followed by another pop over to Harry Winston. We were there to try on wedding rings. The journey to Geneva felt like we were traveling back in time together, hurtling towards the far western side of the lake on a wistful, sunny afternoon, passing sleeping Vaudolais vineyards and the peaceful Alpine range painted tall and speckled with slopes full of blissful skiers. The air outside was still and pleasantly cool, like standing in front of the open refrigerator on a hot day. I sidled up next to C as he watched the revolving lake with a faint smile on his face, every so often commenting on the beauty of the day. I again secretly hoped that I would never grow tired of the excitement I feel while riding these high-speed trains, which led me to remembering some of my very first experiences and why I still find them so entrancing.
C and I were dropped off at an untenanted train station bathed in off-white early afternoon sunlight in October, 2015. It was in Thionville, C’s sleepy hometown in the northeastern countryside of France, and it was his mom who had dropped us off in her little European four-door. Just a few days before we’d flown into the Luxembourg airport and drove to meet her and the rest of C’s family; I thereby experienced my very first moments on transatlantic soil. Today would also be one for the books; we would be riding the train from Thionville into the heart of Paris, in a 1st class cabin. I had no frame of reference for a high-speed Euro-train, other than the fabricated picture in my mind of men twirling the ends of their mustaches, wearing berets and white and black striped shirts—okay, mimes. I thought mimes would be on the train.
As we settled in to the warm, wide seats and adjusted the foot rests that swung out from beneath us, C and I were offered a beverage from a woman dressed in a violet uniform. Not long after, the lunch trolley came with the first courses and choices of wine; I munched on a warm, crusty piece of world-famous French bread, taking sips from a chilled glass of chardonnay, feeling a passion for viticulture awakening inside of me. Second courses were fish, and wine from the Loire valley, many of which are white and pair well with seafood, salads, or other fresh, salty, grassy, lemony things. There was then a little cheese, followed by a little dessert; it is always in that order, as is the French way.
I looked outside at the landscapes whizzing past us, trying my best to paint as vivid of a mental picture as possible so as not to forget what I saw upon later reflection. I remember noting few differences from scenes of my travels throughout the American countryside. There were expansive neighborhoods, just like those found in North Dallas, but I saw clotheslines and opened windows (not like Dallas), ancient stone apartments with A-frame ceramic tiled roofing, and brambly gardens with trellises of sunbaked tomato vines creeping up towards the sky. There were high stone walls that led through the repurposed steam-engine tunnels, on which you could see graffiti that at that time looked like shapes to me, but read in French to C. Then the stone walls ended, and left beyond it was a sheet of blue over fields of freshly-harvested grapevines, with green patches growing in the shade underneath the clipped roots and yellow strips lining the open space between the rows, through which the dogs would run while pursuing hungry birds and butterflies.
The T is a large, old train line that spiders across, and beneath, the city of Boston, and despite the feedback I overheard from other students during my time at Berklee, I thought of the T as easy to traverse, despite never having ridden on a subway system before by myself. Descending into it, you encounter an almost always deserted open ticketing area (much like a scene from any post-apocalyptic movie: square tile, chipped plastic benches, all of it swimming in a toasted fluorescent tinge. It was 2009, almost a decade ago, and more than a few times I found myself in a thin gaggle awaiting the next train on a weeknight. My phone almost immediately would lose cell service after leaving street level, so I’d be left to fend for myself if the zombies below developed the taste for human flesh on my commute. Joking aside, the experience was not unlike what I feel as I ride the buses in Lausanne, save for a few key differences: there are far fewer people in my Swiss city than in downtown Boston, a collegiate Mecca of sorts for the USA. Secondly, there is a large disparity between those who ride above, and those who travel below.
One night, coming back to Berklee around 9 or 10PM after dinner at a small Italian spot called Assaggio—who were light on my wallet but heavy-handed when it came to doling out their lobster ravioli—I had headed to the T stop, only after waiting in the long line outside Mike’s Pastry and retrieving two overflowing chocolate chip cannolis for enjoying back at my dorm. Like a parcel of gold, I carried the white box wrapped in candy-striped dental floss in two hands, suspended an inch above my belly button, elbows glued to my sides. I kept my head on a swivel, always vigilant, ready for a drunk idiot to make a scene or start a fight in the cavernous North End station. The train came, and I boarded slowly, careful to check the name and direction of the train multiple times before getting comfy, as I had made some stupid mistakes in the past.
I took my seat near the door and peered discreetly at my fellow passengers.
On this leg was the so-over-it old man, wind-battered and weather-worn from over four decades of living through the harsh Beantown winters that nothing he saw surprised him, and nothing ever would. So, his eyes were glazed over and staring blankly through the metal walls of the train car, glued to the dark stone of the outside tunnel.
There were also some kids my age, unable in 2009 to breach the firewall of the underground and therefore also had an unusable cell phone, and were either forced to chatter to each other about the party or club they’d just attended; or worse, stand shoulder to shoulder in silence, avoiding eye contact with anyone at all costs, and remain sane amidst a deafening, self-referential inner dialogue, until their stop eventually came. All people on the T, including myself, had the same stare, one of layers of nuance. On the outside shone boredom and disconnection; but just beneath the eyes, sitting on the surface of the soul, was a desperation, clean and pure, that whispered I’m just a human, I’m the same as you. I just want to go home.
That is, everyone, except one man.
He was on his feet across from me, located next to the doors and therefore an unavoidable usher to those climbing in and out of the train. He was in his late 40s or 50s, with a tattered, closed bag at his feet. His eyes fluttered arbitrarily between opened and closed, and he had nothing in his hands. His only defining possession was a pair of giant, jet black headphones covering his ears, connected to a Discman fixed to his belt loop. With his two feet planted on the floor as if bolted into the steel, in his own single square meter of personal space, he danced. Gently shaking his hips, bobbing his shoulders up and down, and making interpretive hand gestures to moments unheard by anyone around him, stop after stop, the man danced in silence, unencumbered and uninfluenced by anyone around him. Sitting there, clutching my cannolis, I couldn’t help but stare at this human in all his majesty, literally embodying the interpretive cat poster on every office wall to “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching”. And frankly, it was bizarre to see. It was methodical and unending, like a workout, and I yearned to know what he was listening to. But it wasn’t for me to know. The students used him as respite from their thoughts, giggling or judging silently with a wink and a nod. The jaded old man probably never even saw him, so intent on analyzing the intricacies of the developing stains on the wall outside of our capsule. But I just kept staring, and the dancer never noticed me. He never saw anyone. The look on his face was not bored, nor desperate. It was engrossed. He was of the moment; in the moment; he was the moment himself. That was the night I met the Dancing Man of the T.
I was a kid, and we were at Disney World. It was dark, and we were riding back to our resort from the main park on a raised tram above the water that separated them. I looked out the window over the pool reflecting the firmament and the moon above; the earth and sky meeting somewhere undefinable, until a flash lit up the left edges of them both, and I heard a small exclamation around me, coming out of the exhausted children and their parents alike. Because we were in the front of the tram, I couldn’t yet see what they were all excited about. But as the train curled around closer towards the resort entrance, I saw Cinderella’s castle lit up in bursts of light and magic, colorful fireworks emitting from its tallest turrets and painting the sky, just like in the beginning credits of every Disney movie I’d seen. That moment, brief and imprinting, viewed through the window of the tram, has stayed with me, connecting me to who I was then, and who I remain today. It’s amazing to me that everyone is still fundamentally the same person, with the exact same make-up as when he or she came into this world. And as one lives, one sees life change like the scenery out of a moving train car, or a bus window; sharing that view with people young and old, experienced, or jaded. One can be of any age and still be full of wonder, while still remaining tied to and changed by each stop on the map. No matter where the journey leads, the memories of what one sees on the way will inform just as much as, if not more so than the destination.