Archive for February, 2013

The Metro Ticket



There is a paper trail leading from the beginning of my travel days till now that never finds a place in any photo album. Brochures, receipts, business cards, train tickets, museum/play/ concert tickets stubs, etc. I dislike having all this random, eternally homeless crap that moves from envelope to shoe box. The other day I unearthed the pile to divvy for either trash or a higher purpose. Memory dust stirred and papers parted to reveal a blue Metro ticket with a name and address written.


In 1993 I took my fourth but first solo trip to Paris. I’m not sure if I couldn’t find a travel buddy or if I was just itching to be alone with this city of my dreams. My one outside the city field trip was to Giverny. I took the train from Paris to Vernon and then a bus to Giverny to spend the day wandering around the gardens of Monet. With me I brought my  best friend, the journal. The plan was to spend a relaxing day strolling, photographing and writing brilliant observations. I wrote that since the gardens were filled with tourists, I should embrace their presence in the pictures, but complained of their bad fashion sense ruining the composition! Hmmm. What a snob! I slapped myself around for being critical in such a place of beauty and focused on savoring the moment.

I had parked myself on a bench, writing with one eye on the page and the other on what was happening in the land of bridges dripping with flowers over ponds chock full of lily pads. There were two women with three children painting watercolors by the pond. There was a gardener and his wheel barrow weeding away. Then I noticed an older lady sitting on another bench, also writing. Someone made an announcement in French and our eyes locked in mutual confusion/lack of the language and recognition. Sisters of the journal, we were…..Unmet. I wrote, she wrote and then I wandered off.

Across the road from the house and gardens is a little cafe where I stopped to have coffee while waiting for the bus. The same woman with the journal walked in after me so I said hello and asked her if she wanted to join me. She seemed pleased to have company and started trying to access her English. She said it had been awhile and since I do not speak German she had to work hard. It was very slow and awkward but as time passed she became more fluid than I expected. We moved our conversation onto the bus and then the train back to Paris where she told me her story.

Her name was Helga and she had worked for the railroad many years but was forced into early retirement. While not so happy about it, she  made the best of her freedom with the free train travel they offered her for a limited time. Helga was traveling outside of Germany for the first time in her life. (It had only been a few years since the Berlin wall came down) On limited funds, she joined a woman’s travel group and was hosted in other members homes. I can’t remember the name but I’d heard of other such groups and had another friend that had done something similar. These gals were the original couchsurfers before was happening! She was doing it all very bare bones. No restaurants, she would buy food at the market and cook with her host. Considering Helga was only 10 years younger than my mother,  I was really impressed with her courage to travel alone. This wasn’t typical of women from her generation, at least not in the USA.

When we got back to Paris I asked  if she wanted to join me for dinner, my treat.  She accepted, though I could tell she felt a little uncomfortable, like she was afraid of taking advantage.  There was this moment on the way to the restaurant  when Helga looked at me, smiled,  reached over and gave me a hug.  I totally wasn’t expecting that, but it was so warm and sincere.  At dinner,  she  only ordered a small plate and told me she didn’t drink alcohol because of a heart condition. There were other comments she made  that led me to believe she was not in the best of health. I didn’t want to ask questions but I had the gut feeling that she wasn’t going to be living a long life. I even imagined that taking this trip was something on her bucket list.

Maybe I was wrong and she’s still in Dresden, 78ish years old,  either still traveling or just dreaming of the flowers in Giverny.  Who knows? We exchanged letters once before one of us or both, let our fleeting connection fade away.  I’m thinking I should send her a postcard just to say hello.  I would love to tell her about the little metro ticket that survived 20 years without falling into the black hole that other such things are destined!  I would like Helga to know I will always remember her.



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