Rush Hour At Gare Du Nord

Mallory Wycoff

Nothing seems to faze my best friend Bianca, not even rush hour at Gare du Nord. We stood awkwardly in the huge, bustling crowd at the busiest railway station in Europe, keeping our suitcases as close as possible. Well, I was keeping my suitcase close; Bianca had wandered several feet away from hers to take a picture before meandering back.

Hundreds of Parisians rushed by us speaking to friends or on their phones in rapid French, and I felt panic roll over me as I realized I could understand none of it. My eyes scanned the many signs, but they were all in French and, again, I understood nothing. Before we’d left home, I had tried to learn a few basic French words, but now none of it would come to mind. Seriously. All I was getting was, “Como se llama?” and that was Spanish. Totally unhelpful.

While I was freaking out, Bianca had thrown her head back, raised her arms, and was spinning joyously. (She’s rather dramatic.)

“We’re here, Sarah!” she said, stopping long enough to grab my arm. “We’re actually in Paris!”

“I’ve noticed,” I said, mindful of the strange stares we were receiving. “Can we please hurry up and find the Métro?”

Bianca sighed and grabbed both her suitcases. “I wish you could enjoy life more, Sarah,” she said, walking into the flow of traffic. I struggled to keep up; there were so many people, and all of them in a hurry! I dragged my bulging suitcase behind me, one hand firmly on the strap of my heavy backpack. Normally, I was a light packer, but the colder weather had forced me to bring more than I was used to. So I kept an eye out for pickpockets and gypsies as we pushed our way through the crowd.

A sleekly dressed businessman bumped in to me and knocked me in to the woman next to me, who gave me a nasty look. Before I could think of the French word for sorry, she had gone on her way, but not before I tripped over my own boots. Trying to keep my balance, I lunged, tilting my suitcase and causing it to spin around. And then—while I tried to right it—my backpack shifted and the left shoulder strap slipped off. In the meantime, Bianca had kept going, oblivious to my struggles, and was several paces ahead. She finally noticed and pulled over to the side, giving me a look.

“I thought you were in a hurry,” she said when I caught up, her head tilted to the side. “What happened?”

“Some stupid guy bumped me and I accidentally—” I stopped abruptly, realizing that Bianca wasn’t even listening to me. She was looking around, fascinated by the crazy scene. I blinked back tears of frustration. “Bianca, can we please just take a cab?”

Bianca turned to me, her eyes wide. “A cab? No way! This is an adventure, Sarah! C’mon, enjoy it!”

“I can’t enjoy it; it’s too stressful! We can’t understand or read French, and it’s way busier than we thought it would be. We don’t even know how to find the Métro. And once we do, we still have to switch trains. I just think it’s too busy and too hectic to take the Métro. A cab would be so much easier.”

“And more expensive, not to mention boring!” Bianca groaned. “We’re taking the Métro. And one day you’ll thank me, Sarah. I promise.” She shifted her carry-on bag and gripped both suitcases again. “C’mon, I think the Métro is this way.”

As I followed her, my irritation began to grow, and my thoughts wandered back over the last few days. Bianca and I had arrived in London four days ago, staying with her aunt who had a tiny flat in Islington. We’d had a wonderful time, visiting the Tower of London, the British Museum, and riding on a double-decker bus. We’d even taken a day trip to Windsor Castle and out to Stonehenge. I had enjoyed every minute, but as we sat in Aunt May’s flat, sipping tea on our last night, I suddenly had reservations about going to Paris.

“Let’s not go to Paris,” I said to Bianca, who was looking out the window, watching traffic. “Let’s just stay here. There’s so much more to see and do.”

“We can’t skip Paris,” Bianca said, turning to stare at me as if I’d lost my mind. “It’s Paris.”

“I know, but…” I didn’t finish, knowing Bianca would scoff at my hesitations. But they were there, nonetheless. Here in London, I could speak and read the language, I had gotten comfortable riding the buses and taking the Tube, and the culture was pretty similar to my own. Plus, we had Aunt May; she had been able to explain anything we didn’t understand. In Paris we’d be on our own, unable to understand the language, and we’d have to actually interact with the French people who ran the hotel we’d be staying at. It was daunting to me, and I truly wanted to skip it and stay in London. But Paris was the place Bianca was most excited about, and to Paris we would go.

Earlier this morning, Bianca and I had packed our suitcases, stuffing in our heavy coats, scarves, gloves, hats, and the souvenirs we’d purchased in London. Aunt May had already left for work, so we left the keys on the tiny kitchen table and dragged our heavy luggage down the narrow flight of stairs and out into the frigid air. Even though it was midmorning, traffic was pretty heavy and we crossed Essex Road carefully, then waited at the bus stop.

We’d taken the bus several times since our arrival, but never with luggage. And—to my dismay—the bus had never been so full! As we half-dragged, half-carried our luggage on, my eyes anxiously flitted around looking for a place to sit or even stand. I followed Bianca’s lead, squishing into the wheelchair access area, where two moms with strollers were eyeing us dubiously. I felt my face burn with embarrassment; we had totally crowded the moms and their babies, and there was no room for anyone to walk by in the aisle.

Bianca, however, didn’t seem to care. “Do you have the tickets or do I?” she asked, snapping her gum. My stomach dropped and I must’ve looked upset because she smiled quickly and shrugged. “Just kidding; I’ve got them.”

I turned away from her, trying not to lock gazes with any of the other bus riders as we lumbered down the road. Several stops later we exited the bus, lugging our suitcases into the beautiful St. Pancras Station. We found the Eurostar Terminal, went through security, and ate a quick lunch. When they announced our train, we took the escalator up to the platform and boarded car 15. After storing our luggage in the racks near the door, Bianca and I entered the seating area and searched for our spots.

When we’d reserved our tickets online, we had carefully chosen the seats that faced a small table. There were only two tables in each car, so I walked confidently to the table on the left side, faltering when I realized someone was already sitting there. It was a dark-haired woman with several shopping bags. She had taken off her shoes, and her feet were up on the seat across from her.

“Oh,” I stammered. “I—we—um, what?” I turned to Bianca. “Aren’t those our seats?” I asked her in a whisper.

She checked her ticket and then glanced at the number above the seats. “Yep. This is awkward.”

Before we could say anything, the woman looked up. “Are these your seats?” she asked with a French accent. “I am not here.”

Bianca and I stood, staring. “Um, but you are here.” I said timidly.

“I am not here,” she repeated, looking relaxed. “You want to sit here?”

“Um, yes,” I said, giving Bianca a “she’s crazy” look.

“Okay,” the Frenchwoman said, grabbing her shoes and all the shopping bags. She deposited everything on the table across the aisle, then sat down, her feet elevated once more. Crossing her arms, she leaned back and dozed off.

Bianca and I, while shooting mystified looks at her, settled in at our table. Bianca pulled out a map of Paris and—as the high-speed train began to move—we circled the places we wanted to see.

“We have to go to Rue de Cler,” Bianca told me. “And I’d really like to see Sacré Coeur. And obviously we’re going to the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Rodin’s house.”

I only understood half of what she said, so I just nodded.

“Do you want to go up the Eiffel Tower or just look at it from the bottom?” Bianca asked, circling it on the map.

“Oh, I don’t care.”

“What do you mean, you don’t care?” Bianca said, looking up at me. “You have to care!”

I shrugged. “I don’t really need to see the Eiffel Tower; I’m sure we’ll see it just going around Paris.”

“Sarah.” Bianca was glaring at me. “It’s the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower. How can you not care?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged again. “I mean, I just feel like it’s kind of overrated. You see it everywhere: in the movies, in decorations, on handbags. I just don’t see what’s so special about it. It’s not even pretty.”

Bianca’s mouth was hanging open. “I can’t even believe you right now. What’s wrong with you?” She shook her head and then turned away, concentrating on the map of Paris.

I sat back and tried to relax, but all I could think of was the fact that soon I would be in a tunnel that went under the English Channel. I had grown up hearing about the Chunnel but had never imagined I’d actually go through it. It had always sounded too terrifying to me, but now here I was.

Suddenly, I felt a strong pressure in my ears, and then the windows went completely black. Then—just as suddenly—there was light again and my ears adjusted.

“What the heck was that?” Bianca asked, rubbing her ears and yawning.

“You too?” I asked. “That was weird.” I looked out the window and up ahead I could see a tunnel. As the speeding train raced through another tunnel, our ears protested once again. We realized that the train was moving so fast and the tunnels were so tight that the pressure would affect our ears every time. I pulled out some gum and we began chewing, hoping there weren’t too many tunnels.

We went through a few more and then one tunnel seemed to last forever. “Could we already be in the Chunnel?” I asked incredulously; hardly any time seemed to have passed.

But the longer the tunnel lasted, the more convinced I was that we were travelling through the famous Chunnel. And then we emerged on the other side and saw the rolling green countryside and cute little houses. An announcement came on completely in French and that was my first reminder that Paris would be totally different from London.

By the time we had exited into the Gare du Nord Station, with its noisy busyness, I was ready to go home, not to fight crowds. But I was here, and I’d have to deal with it.

We walked on until we saw a sign for the Métro; it was down a long, double escalator, and I looked around for an elevator. There was no way I was going down an escalator with an overstuffed suitcase—again. But Bianca gave a cheery, “C’mon!” and stepped on.

Grumbling under my breath, I followed her onto the moving staircase, just barely flipping my suitcase around so that it sat on the step in front of me. When we reached the bottom, I kicked my suitcase out, spinning it to face forward, and then pulled it behind me as if I did this every day. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t been that bad.

But when we reached the correct landing, the amount of people shocked me. There were people everywhere, and they all wanted to get on the same Métro train as me!

I had gotten used to London’s Tube, but the Métro seemed more crowded and less organized. I tried not to panic, but I felt anxiety rushing in. Bianca, however, looked completely in her element.

“How fun is this?” she said above the noise of screeching brakes, hearty conversations, and people laughing.

I rolled my eyes and concentrated on the approaching train. The doors opened and a flood of people rushed toward it, colliding with the group trying to get off. It was chaotic and I cringed, knowing it would be a huge fight to get on.

“Let’s wait till the next one,” Bianca said, and we moved forward to the front, waiting with the others who hadn’t made it on the last train.

Only a few minutes passed before the next one arrived. I felt less anxious since we were at the front of the line, but as soon as the doors opened, I pushed forward, letting no one get in my way. I shoved a guy aside and stepped into the doorway, dragging my suitcase behind me. I saw Bianca get on and save us a spot in the corner where there weren’t any seats, but I couldn’t join her. My suitcase wouldn’t budge!

I turned to look at it and stared in horror. One of the wheels had gotten caught between the platform and the train! I pulled and pulled, but it was completely stuck. Now my panic was growing and I imagined myself screaming as the train took off, my suitcase sitting all alone on the platform, and me holding the broken handle. I took a shaky breath, intent on completely losing it, when a tall, black Frenchman grabbed the handle of my suitcase and gave it a rough, strong tug. Suddenly I heard a snap! and the suitcase came free. I thankfully turned to my rescuer, but he was already gone, and I realized that he had only helped me because I was blocking traffic.

I didn’t care, though, as I joined Bianca, who was laughing. “That was so funny!” she said, tearing up because she was laughing so hard. I glared at her, pulling my bag close to me as more and more people poured onto the train. Soon Bianca and I were wedged in the corner, with people pressing in on me from all sides.

“We’re going to be trapped here, B!” I said, panicking once again. “We won’t be able to get off at the stop where we switch trains!” I wailed.

“Chill out, Sarah!” Bianca said, sounding exasperated with me. “Just wait; maybe it’ll clear up by then.”

I looked away from her, angry and frustrated. Nothing ever bothered Bianca, and she just expected everything to turn out all right. But that’s not how life worked! I swayed with the train, clutching my bag and trying not to worry. But Bianca was right, and by the time we needed to get off, there were a lot less people.

Pardonnez moi,” Bianca said cheerfully, and people moved to let us off. We followed the signs for the other train and realized it was directly across the tracks. And the only way to get to the other side? Up a flight of stairs, across a walkway, and then back down again.

“Seriously!?” I protested. “Do you know how heavy my bag is?  I can’t walk up and down stairs with it! The escalator was bad enough!”

“Well, stay here and I’ll come back for your bags,” Bianca suggested, lifting both her bags. I groaned and followed her, taking turns dragging and carrying my suitcase, which now sported a slightly broken wheel, I noticed. We finally reached the other train and boarded without mishap (I decided to lift my suitcase on this time, instead of dragging it on).

There were no available seats, but hardly anyone else was standing, so we had plenty of room. I kept one hand on my suitcase and gripped the pole with the other, relieved that this train wasn’t so busy. At the next stop, two guys with accordions got on and started playing upbeat music. Bianca was smiling hugely and I couldn’t help but smile a little, too.

“It sounds so French!” Bianca squealed, and I nodded, enjoying it. “It’s like we’re in a movie!”

She should’ve waited a few seconds to say that because, just then, the train emerged from a tunnel, and I realized we were now raised above the ground, and I got my first glimpse of the city. The sun was just slipping below the horizon, and right in front of me was the Eiffel Tower, lit up and sparkling. The sight of it took my breath away, and I completely forgot all my prejudices against it.

“Oh my gosh, Bianca!” I gushed. “Look! It’s the Eiffel Tower!  Look at it! It’s beautiful!”

And Bianca smiled at me smugly, “I told you so” written all over her face. But it was okay, because she had been right all along. And I decided right then and there to let go of my anxiety and enjoy life. After all…was in Paris.


About the Author

Mallory Wycoff graduated from Biola University, in 2009, with a B.A. in History, but her true passion is writing. Besides working on her novel and writing short stories, she enjoys playing with children, watching movies with her family, and reading a wide variety of books. She also loves traveling and recently visited Europe for the first time where—while in Paris—she accidentally fell in love with the Eiffel Tower.