Saturday, May 3, 2008

Night Train

I've always loved sleep. As a kid, I was always comfortable claiming sleep wherever and whenever I needed it: squeezed next to a farting labrador in the back of our little blue Renault V on long car rides down to the South of France, or curled up tight on the banquette of a brasserie while my parents lingered over coffee with friends after dinner. I loved the security of falling asleep trusting that I would somehow wake up in my bed the next morning.

Once our family grew too large, it became unfeasible to make the annual summer vacation trek down to the South of France piled in the car with all our luggage, girls, and pets. We started taking the night train instead. Everything, mother, daughters, dogs, cat, luggage, and even the car, would get on the train. We usually had a compartment to ourselves which we would fill to the rafters with our bodies and belongings. After a quick dinner of bland plastic-wrapped train sandwiches, our compartment would magically be transformed into a sleeping car. There were three sleeping berths on either side of the car, each with its own set of freshly laundered sheet sleeping bags, brown woolen blankets, and tiny SNCF pillows. I loved that everything was in its own plastic bag; it seemed so new and exciting. My mother must have hated making all those beds, but we didn't notice. As bossy eldest child, I would claim the top bunk and climb to my perch pretending to be a pirate. The perilous climb as the train gathered speed and rushed into the tunnels exiting Paris was quite a thrill.

I would slip my still clothed body in the crisp sheet bag and call out a cheerful goodnight to each of my family members. We kept our clothes on to save time upon arrival. Sleeping in such close proximity to my mother and sisters wasn't an inconvenience; it just added to the sense of adventure. The goodnights would die down quickly as we all fell prey to the rhythmic lullaby of the wheels on the train tracks and let the train's motion rock us to sleep.

When the conductor threw open the compartment door to warn us that we would be in Toulon in 10 minutes, it always seemed as though I had just closed my eyes. My sisters and I barely had time to blink the sleep out of our eyes and extricate ourselves from our berths before we disembarked into the blinding sunlight of the train platform. I have no idea how my mother managed to get her three daughters, two dogs, one cat, and luggage off the train without forgetting anything crucial. But there are no disastrous forgotten kids or luggage stories in our family lore so she must have managed it somehow. We always stepped off the train thrilled to see our grandmother again and to begin a month of vacation at the beach. To this day, I get a comfortable sleepy feeling whenever I ride a train, even if it's only a commuter train to New York City.

Later on, as a college student backpacking through Europe, I took more overnight train rides. The sense romance and adventure was heightened by tales of thefts and rapes by dangerous dark Italian men in the night. Even fraught with danger, I still could not resist the train's rhythmic lullaby and slept much more soundly than at youth hostels.

This post was inspired by the prompt "sleep" at Sunday Scribblings.

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