On the Train from Lisbon to Madrid

It was on a train in the middle of the night from Lisbon to Madrid that I started to read The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, Joan Didion said that one characteristic of successful people is that they believe anything can be resolved with a phone call, or a letter or a visit to the right person. They do not take “no” for an answer. It’s not stubborn or arrogant; it’s that “no” just doesn’t happen to them that often, so when it does, they don’t take it seriously.

I too believed that there was always a way to get exactly what I wanted. That “no” was always revocable. That I could control everything.

But on that train to Madrid, I had never felt so out of control. I had orchestrated everything down to the three vegetarian meals on three separate legs of this trip and the carry-on with the fresh change of clothes so I’d look like I hadn’t traveled more than a mile when I got off the plane – I had even tried to control my monthly cycles for this trip! – but this midnight train was not part of my plan.

I had left my passport on the plane between Heathrow and Lisbon causing me to miss my flight from Lisbon to Seville, and there was not a single seat available on any flights until Sunday—three days away.

But I didn’t believe the lady at the Iberia ticket counter in Lisbon when she told me “no.” I said, in the perfectly fluent Portuguese I had learned living in Brazil, “What if I go through Madrid?”

“Domingo,” she said.

“Well, how ‘bout if I go through Barcelona?”

“Domingo,” she said.

It was incomprehensible to me that leaving my passport in the seat pocket could set into motion this irreversible string of events. How could there not be a seat on any plane to any major city in Spain? How could the Iberia staff not come up with a solution? I decided this Portuguese woman was discriminating against me because of my Brazilian syntax, so I rephrased the question and asked her again.

“Domingo,” she said.

So I asked in English. “Sunday,” came her reply.

I decided to look for my suitcase and then take a train to Seville. I was directed to the so-called “Baggage Complaints & Inquiries” window. Behind a mass of people all pushing and screaming at once, I made out a scratched panel of Plexiglas completely covered with white masking tape save for a rectangle large enough to see the eyes of the attendant—if he or she ever appeared. Over the window was a sign—stenciled onto poster paper like in a 5th grade science project—that read inquirições e reclamações de bagagem. There was no line, so I just fell in behind the crowd. I only became more insecure to see that the attendant, who finally emerged after more than 20 minutes, was a teenager in street clothes.

A group of Spanish-speakers muttered amongst themselves, “She takes one question and then she disappears for half an hour!” An American joined us, and asked in English to anyone who might understand, “Where’s the line?” An Angolese couple asked me to hold their place. A nervous Portuguese teenager asked if I had a plane to catch right away. “Not anymore,” I shrugged. “Would you mind if I got in front of you then?” “Not at all,” I said, glad that I could lighten her load, thankful that I understood the languages being spoken around me.

When my turn finally came, the adolescent attendant assured me my bag had gone to Seville and would be waiting for me at the airport when I arrived. She spoke about my bag as if she had just put it on the plane herself. She reassured me without asking my name or flight number, without looking at my luggage barcode, and without touching a computer—as there was not one to touch.

“Can you confirm that for me?”

“If you checked your bag to Seville, your bag is going to Seville,” she replied dogmatically. (In fact that was not true; because I had not cleared customs for the international flight, the bag had not either, and anyone who works for an airline could have told me that.) Uneasily, I left the airport and my suitcase and caught a taxi to the Lisbon train station.

On the train, I brooded. I brooded about the suitcase that I was sure was still in Lisbon or worse—strewn all about some landing strip in Belgrade. I brooded about how my already lengthy and out-of-the-way route to Seville had been stretched from 12 hours to over 24 and would now include not one but two sleepless, bathless nights. I brooded about how this perfectly orchestrated change of clothes that was miraculously still in my possession was going to wilt like week-old lettuce when I put it on my grimy body.

I read The Year of Magical Thinking to get my mind off the present. When I came to the passage about successful people, I identified with it immediately. I had thought that getting a flight to Spain was a question of the way I asked. I had even thought that I could control a cycle of nature as old as womankind by simply popping a pill.

I read until I was restless and then I started to write in my journal. The entry was going to be an official declaration of all my complaints. In writing. The first line was this:

I am on a train in the middle of the night somewhere between Lisbon and Madrid.

And that was where I stopped. I couldn’t write another line for the sheer absurdity of the situation. I repeated the line to myself to make sure I’d heard it right.

I am on a train. In the middle of the night. Somewhere between Lisbon and Madrid.

I asked myself, as I tend to talk to myself when I’m feeling bad, Sonya, where would you rather be than on a train in the middle of the night between Lisbon and Madrid?

When I was a girl, I used to play that I lived in a foreign country. Any foreign country, I didn’t care. And here I was, leaving one and crossing the border into yet another—the 4th I’d seen in 24 hours. Or I pretended that I myself was foreign. Growing up in North Carolina, I was fascinated with the few foreigners I’d had the chance to meet. And I thought that the coolest super power, more awe-inspiring than flying or becoming invisible, was to speak a foreign language. Today I had managed to get my passport off that plane, beg for another flight to Spain, and get myself to the train station and halfway to Spain, all in foreign tongues. Throughout the day, I had met Spanish, Portuguese, and Angolese travelers. And now I was riding through the night, surrounded by sleeping nomads, who were snoring in Portuguese, Spanish and French.

Being on this night train to Madrid was what I had always wanted to do. Right here, in this moment that I was trying so hard to forget, was where I had always wanted to be.

For the moment at least, I relaxed. I put down my book, put away my journal and my worries about the suitcase. I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to. I smelled tobacco and cologne on my seatmate. I listened to the multi-lingual murmurings all around me. And I rested my head against the window, trying to make out an amorphous shape that I might never have the chance to see again in the dark foreign land this train was carrying me through. I wasn’t going to miss a thing.

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