A Story about the Man in Seat 68
If Kings Cross is the heaven of train stations, clean even when it is not serving as the setting for Harry Potter’s interlude between death and life, then Gare de Lyon is hell. Deceptively gorgeous from the outside, the inside is filthy and chaotic, more keenly felt when you are with of a group of children, trying to keep them near and waiting for the computers to announce your platform number.
There is an art to arriving at a train station at the right time. In contrast to the two hours you need before an airport departure, a train ride only requires a few minutes. However, if you are leaving from an unfamiliar station, you might need a bit longer to find your way, or you might not know exactly how long it will take you to get to the station so you give yourself some extra cushion. As a result, we found ourselves at Gare de Lyon an hour before our departure. An hour at Kings Cross or even Union Station in Aberdeen is a welcome amount of time to have a coffee and a seat in one of many lovely spots. But an hour in an overcrowded and dirty train station is way too long. Especially if you have four children in tow.
But you just do your best. You gather yourself in a corner and wait. One of the adults goes to find a bite of food. So you’re in a corner with your babies and your seven backpacks and the low point is when a man who has a piece of burlap wrapped around his otherwise naked body kicks something at you. You look away but you can’t help but notice that he is spitting on the ground as he walks by. And you just hope that he’ll keep walking. You feel a little badly later for thinking things like, “Please Lord, let him leave me alone.”
Thankfully, the man and the hour ticked on by.
We were all pretty spent when we boarded our train in Paris, bound for Switzerland. Seven of us in all. My brother Peter, Whitney and their two boys plus me, Ben and Simon. I had booked seats facing each other around tables, so we could all talk to each other. The seats around tables come in sets of four, so we let the four boys sit down on one side, while Peter, Whitney and I settled into the other side. Peter hadn’t quite realized what the seating situation would look like, so he made jokes as he pointed to the empty seat next to him about the mystery person winning the lottery by joining our (loud) party of seven.
“Hope this person likes kids!” he said.
“I just hope it’s someone nice,” I answered.
Then he walked through the sliding doors with his ticket. He had a big smile on his face and as he swung his big backpack up into the baggage racks, he immediately offered a long drawn out, practically Southern,
It was one of those moments in life when I was super thankful for that stereotype about Americans being gregarious.
Caleb took the seat across from Whitney and over the next four hours we enjoyed swapping travel stories and snacks from our packs. He was not remotely bothered by the kids reaching over him to get pieces of macaron, apples or baguettes. In fact, he even expressed gratitude at his having being seated with us, like it was a gift.
We all realized almost immediately that besides being Americans, we had a lot in common. He mentioned being a youth pastor near DC and he was taking the summer to travel and visit his brother who is serving in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia before starting seminary in the fall.
Then, just to prove that the world is still So Very Small, we had the following exchange,
Him: I went to a small college, you’ve probably never heard of it, out in the Midwest called Wheaton.
Me: Um, when did you graduate?
Him: Last year.
Me: Did you ever eat/study at a place in Glen Ellyn called Blackberry Market?
Him: Of course! Everyone LOVES Blackberry Market!
Me: That’s our sister’s restaurant.
Him: No way!
Me: Yes way! She and her husband went to Wheaton.
Followed by many more, Did you know such-and-such? Or did you ever do such-and-such?
Dozens familiar threads ran between us all. It was delightful and way too much fun and over all too soon. We were all a bit sad when we told Caleb goodbye, we joked that we would probably run into one another again.
When we changed trains again, we missed our friendly companion. Especially when we sat the next hour on a train with a gal who had her bags in Peter’s seat and glared when she had to move them. Actually she kind of glared for the whole hour, and when we pulled out our dinner on the train, she managed to look down her nose and hold it at the same time. She was about the same age as Caleb, but not nearly so endearing.
Young and open and full of life, he was. I emailed him a couple days later to check on him and he had been off canyoning in Interlaken with folks he’d met in the hostel where he was staying.
He was a breath of fresh air, and a reminder to me of how wonderful it is to take step out and travel alone in those years when you are still deciding what your life will look like. He mentioned that there were moments of loneliness on the road, but that God had been so faithful to put people in his path to encourage him and show him the way.
He said one of the reasons he felt he was supposed to take this journey in the first place was that he thought that God had some things to show him.
I have no doubt that He will, and that Caleb will have the eyes and heart to see. I wish him many more gift encounters on his journey.