Couchette of Babel
A PLAY IN ONE ACT
Scene: A first-class couchette on the train from Bordeaux to Nice. Since it is daytime, a Thursday, the bunks have disappeared into the ceiling and wall. Six passengers face each other in two rows of three seats. The train’s air conditioning is barely functioning. It is a hot day in mid-June.
Traveling backwards, closest to the corridor, LEN, an American wearing a cap with the logo of the Cannes Film Festival, reads today’s Le Monde. To his right, DARLENE, his wife, reads a child’s story in French. To her right, next to the window, sits PAUL, a Belgian man of about 40 years, in business attire. He faces an elderly French woman, MONIQUE, and to her right, facing the Americans, is an Australian couple in their mid-60s, JACK and MATILDA.
DARLENE (showing her book to LEN): What does this word mean?
MONIQUE: Il fait chaud, eh?
LEN: Oui, vraiement! [DARLENE looks to him questioningly.] She says it’s hot.
DARLENE: Oui, oui! [To MONIQUE:] Vous voulez parlez avec me? Français?
MONIQUE: Oui, bien sur! Je vais voir mon soeur à Nice.
DARLENE: You are visiting your niece?
MONIQUE: Oui, nous allons restez à Nice et ensuite nous allons à Cap-Ferrat.
DARLENE (to PAUL): So you really can speak Chinese?
DARLENE: How interesting! Can you say something to me in Chinese?
PAUL: [something in Chinese]
DARLENE: What does that mean?
PAUL: Our computer has just moved to a new server.
MONIQUE: Ma tarte favorite ce’s la meringue.
JACK: What’s that you say? Are you Canadian?
[LEN sighs deeply, folds up his Le Monde, slides the dour open and disappears into the corridor.]
DARLENE: No, American. We live in Denver, Colorado.
MONIQUE: J’aime beaucoup le cantaloup avec jambon. Comprenez?
DARLENE [after typing in “loup” in her digital translator]: You like wolves?
PAUL [smiling warmly]: It’s a melon. She likes a certain kind of melon.
[Several minutes of silence pass. LEN returns, apparently calmer.]
DARLENE: It’s Thursday. Your weekly cigarette, right?
LEN: Oui. Je vais mieux.
MATILDA [across Jack, to MONIQUE]: Il fait chaud, eh?
MONIQUE: Oui, oui!
DARLENE [to MATILDA]: When you travel in Italy do you parler anglais?
DARLENE [offering a bag of cherries to everyone]: Voulez vous?
[As curtain falls, MATILDA fans herself with a copy of Paris Match. The other five passengers are eating cherries, smiling at each other, watching the Provence countryside sail by the large window. In the following scenes, eight hours go by. PAUL leaves the train at Marseilles, waving to the others as he walks by the window from the train platform. LEN and DARLENE get off at Cannes after warm goodbyes in English and French, Darlene kissing MONIQUE on each cheek.]
Note: Well, this is a much-exaggerated representation of our eight hours in the couchette. What’s hard to convey is how Darlene’s warmth with others, especially the French woman, completely overcomes her difficulty with French. I did get overwhelmed at one point by the cross-communication in languages, the heat, and the realization that there was nowhere to take refuge, since the train had no café car and all the other couchettes were full. I found one with a couple of smokers in it and sat down for my weekly Malboro. Back in our couchette, the six of us never exchanged names, but we did have a lot of laughs. I was left with a sense of how oddly and perfectly the lives of travelers are often thrown together, giving us the chance to travel together for a while before we reach our very separate destinations.
Friday, June 17, 2005
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