The train from Barcelona

On the train back to Fitou from Barcelona yesterday there was a French couple sitting in front of me with their baby. Robert Benchley’s observation about the subject – “In America there are two classes of train travel, first class and with children” – held just as true in Europe on yesterday’s two-hour journey.

The child shrieked, of course, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Several long tunnels beneath the Pyrenees made my own ears pop so I imagine that was rough for a six-month-old. His mother, however, sought to soothe him by standing up with him, effecting no decrease in volume but rather allowing the wails to project more generously through the carriage without the buffer of a seat back. The engineers at Bang & Olufsen would do well to investigate the ability of a small piece of machinery like a baby to resonate so.

Papa absented himself for most of the trip, presumably sustaining himself in the café car just ahead.

This segment of the voyage was only as far as Perpignan and the kid didn’t cry the whole time, after all, so it was hardly a grave inconvenience for me. Far worse was the woman across the aisle whose effort to calm the infant consisted of repeated clicking noises she made with her mouth such as you might hear by the drivers of horse-drawn wagons or members of that African tribe whose language involves, well, clicking.

The woman’s staccato clicks came in bunches of five, always five, so that if one’s eyes were closed one might think he were hearing a radio transmission from space or possibly a cricket on a July evening in Houston.

And then there was the diaper. Again, what happened was simply what babies do so I attached no fault to him, though I do wonder if the rhythmic clicking from across the aisle might have stimulated the infantile gastro-colic activity. Maman changed the diaper in her seat, a fact I did not have to observe visually in order to be aware of. People a dozen rows ahead did not need to see what was going on to be aware of it, and for all I know people on the platforms of stations at which we did not stop were aware of it.

Papa, apparently believing he had done his part by staying in the café car, reappeared just in time to be asked to dispose of the soiled diaper. He first traveled past me to the nearest door, holding the little bundle at arm’s length but swinging it within eight inches of my face. After ten seconds or so he returned, still carrying the diaper, having been unable to locate a toilette or trash receptacle. He made his way to the far end of the car and proceeded to the café, where I cannot imagine that he made many friends. At last he returned, empty-handed. I feared briefly that while we had enjoyed no interaction up to then he was going to want to shake my hand. But he didn’t.

I have spent considerable time on French trains but this, technically, was a Spanish train, and maybe this next thing occurs frequently on Spanish trains. Occasionally there would be announcements coming over the speakers. We were welcomed aboard several times and advised what the next stop was.

In fact I am only guessing that this was the nature of the announcements because people – the Spanish, not the French – took the announcements as cues to chatter. They only seemed to chatter while the conductor was saying something to us, otherwise el coche was no louder than any other train car, except perhaps for those train cars in India with no windows and hundreds of people piled on the roof, which are probably pretty noisy. It was downright Pavlovian, this talking by the Spanish during public address announcements. Possibly it has something to do with an old resistance to the fascist authority.

In Perpignan, where I had to change to the local train to Leucate, which is the nearest station to Fitou, I heard two American women trying to ask the man in the information booth a question but he spoke no English so I offered to help. They showed me a piece of paper with the name of a hotel and an address on it and I said that the street was right in front of the station. They asked if that hotel had parking and I resisted the impulse to ask how the hell I should know that. One of them asked where I was from and I told her, and she said, “Oh.”

My gracious host Hagen picked me up and brought me home.

CORRECTION: I quoted Benchley from memory and stewed some over whether I got it right, and in fact I slightly didn’t. Here is a link to his full essay on the subject.