Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On The Train To Toulon

    It was Bastille Day in 1964 when a young sailor boarded a liberty boat to go ashore for a day exploring the environs of Théoule-sur-Mer not far from Cannes. Since there were no piers long enough nor waters deep enough to tie up a warship, the frigate remained at anchorage off shore.

    The first images through his eyes arriving at the city pier were of young beauties sun-bathing in the warm July of south France. It was immediately apparent that French girls unashamedly revealed to the world that their breasts did indeed have nipples and that bikini tops were merely an option rarely used. "Ah yes", he thought, "The joys of foreign travel".

    With these young sun bathers never out of mind and frequently glanced at he found it difficult to think about food but with concession stands nearby this French language illiterate could browse the food stands and still enjoy viewing the 'beauties of the beach'.  Before long he discovered that French food merchants already knew that Steak and Eggs would be a favorite among any sailors of any language.

    Lunch comfortably taken, the exploration continued toward la gare to catch a train for a ride through the countryside of the Riviera. Toulon was less than 100 kilometers distant and for relatively few francs, Toulon was his destination for this day.

    Once on board he noticed that unlike American railroad cars, this passenger car had a series of compartments along the one side of the car and a passageway the length of the car on the other side. Since his passage was 'economy class' and unreserved, he made his way forward looking for a suitable seat. The next compartment he came upon had only one occupant. A young girl who appeared to be about his age. No further searching was necessary. This was his compartment.

    Navy white hat in hand he entered uncovered quietly and sat on the bench facing the opposite direction. She was at the window facing front. Not wishing to be too forward with this attractive young French woman he nodded and greeted her with a "Bon jour, comment allez vous" and assumed her response was the appropriate counter greeting but since he had already exhausted his entire French vocabulary with his greeting he relied on her facial expressions which seemed friendly.

    This young woman's delicate beauty compelled him to seek some way of communicating with her. The ride to Toulon would last only an hour or so. He searched his brain to find some common ground that would not need spoken words. Music, perhaps a tune hummed which might find a spark of recognition. He quickly dismissed that lacking any instrument or radio. What other common ground do all cultures share beyond music?

    He pondered this question for a while as the French countryside whizzed by accompanied periodically with the monotonal scream of the train's shrill whistle. They exchanged curious glances as the kilometers behind them grew and the ones ahead shrank. He was still young and a bit shy; she was circumspect and demure but it was clear to both of them that they were enjoying their chance meeting. Then it hit him. Math.

    Math? Of course. Even simple arithmetic might be the non-verbal ice breaker for the rest of their ride to Toulon. He composed a simple algebraic problem on a slip of paper and with a smile offered it to her. She looked at it for a moment and after retrieving a pen from her purse quickly solved the equation and, with a smile, handed it back to him both of them now relieved at having found common ground.

    For the remaining kilometers they engaged in a kind of Anglo-French game similar to the TV game show "Win, Lose or Draw" which would become popular many years later. They'd draw a sketch of some recognizable object and name it in their own language, hand it to the other who would upon recognizing the object add the name in their language; he in English, she in French. It was a kind of Rosetta stone approach to communicating.

    It ended ultimately with the exchange of addresses before arriving at her station east of Toulon. They were able to assure each other that someone at home was fluent in the language of the other and that letters sent would be translated.

    Several letters were sent and received, translated and answered in their turn. Until the one that was never answered. She had revealed that she was an avid skier and would whenever possible spend weekends at the resort village of Val d'Isere which, sadly, was prone to serious avalanches.

    He never knew whether she might have been there on the fateful day of a fatal avalanche. Au revoir, Mlle Richir. Dieu vous bénisse!
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