I am in Bardonecchia, Italy, a small ski town just along the border of France. It sounds like a resort, and I'm sure it is, but even paradise can become a prison when you have no choice to be there. I left Verona's beauty at 7 a.m. to make sure I would arrive in Lyon, France by mid-afternoon. However, every Italian train was late today. The path from Bardonecchia to Modane, France is no more than 30 minutes by bus, but they only run 4 times today. I missed the afternoon exchange, and now I wait, and sleep, for the last departure to Modane, France where I can catch a train. I have five hours left.
Only a handful of us make the trip from Bardonecchia to Modane, which is probably why there are so few departures. We eagerly depart from the vehicle into the brash hands of border control agents. A man with Russian passport is hassled, while the French citizens seems to get by with ease. Everything seems tense until I reveal my American passport. It's like gold.
The terminal is small and warmly lit. The ticket offices are closed, and the departures screen is our only hope. The last train left an hour ago. The next: 5:41 in the morning. We look to each other, an old couple, an Englishman, and I, as the reality sets in. We may have to spend the night here. It wouldn't be so bad if I had money for hotel, or even money for food. I took a risk to arrive in Lyon where I could receive a deposit, and now I am paying for it. Thankfully, at the very least, there is an wi-fi connection. If only I could eat Facebook.
I look up from the screen to see a man enter. His skin is almost as dark as his black leather jacket, but not quite. He seems well dressed enough, and I assume he's just another stranded traveler. He sits to eat his food, and after a few minutes, turns to me.
"My friend. Is there the internet connection?"
"Would you mind if I checked my e-mails?"
"Not a problem," I say. I can't stay on the computer for 8 hours anyway.I come to find out that his name is Kalid. He is from Bangladesh, and is heading to Milano, Italy. He, the elderly French couple, and I settle in our positions. It's going to be a long one, but at least we're inside. At least, this station is cozy. A woman enters to tell us that the stations is closing. She then proceeds to kick us out.
I sit on a cold bench in Modane's bitter French Alps breeze. Computer on my lap. Kalid to my left. The couple is now gone.
"What do you think my friend?" says Kalid.
"Well....we better find ourselves a nice corner for a good night's sleep."
"The wind. It is too much. Let us go behind the station."
I had hoped to rough it on my own, but it seems like, for better or worse, he and I were in this together.
Near the tracks there is a well lit area. We sit down. I take out my towel as a makeshift mattress, and put on an extra layer of clothes. I see a homeless woman on a nearby bench. Kalid puts on a hat. For a moment, we are all equal.
"Why do you travel...I mean...where do you go to?" he asks.
I explain how I've been in Europe for over a month now. I did a study program down in ol' Italy and have been traveling around, visiting friends and beautiful cities. I tell him I'm heading in France then to Spain for a while to continue the adventure.
"Not bad at all."
"What about you? Where are you going?"
"I am going to Italy to work. I have been looking for work in France, but I have no papers. So I will go to to Milano to work."
"Oh...Well, it's not so far. Just make it to Bardonecchia."
"I did this morning, but the police ....they came for me. The attacked me when they saw I had no papers, and sent me back here. Now..they have my..umm....fingerprints."
"My friend, do you know another way to get into Italy?"
At that moment, my 8 hours of hard sleeping seems significant. I know I will make it to a beautiful French city by the morning, and that when I do I will be greeted with food, friendship, a bed, and roof. I have no idea what will happen to him after I get on the train. I have no answer, because we are not the same. My passport is gold. His papers don't exist. He is the real vagabond.
For the first time as a "vagabond", I have been made shameful.
A man comes around the corner, cigarette in his mouth. He sits a couple of feet away, and looks at us.
"What a night, yeah?" he says in French.
Kalid doesn't speak it, so I have to serve as a translator. Alan is his name. He is headed to Italy as well. Kalid immediately is sparked with enthusiasm, and wants to make a plan for them to go together. Suddenly, the woman who kicked us out of the station appears. As she walks by she says to me.
"Sooooo. I am finished. No more work for me. I guess whatever happens happens," she says with a smile.
The three of us immediately go inside, and although the terminal is dark we are most grateful to be in from the cold. I continue to translate for Kalid as he and Alan try to make a plan. It seems this station is quite popular for drifters, because others start to show up. 2 are ushered in by the cops who ask us for our documents. They seem to be used to this situation and have no problem with us staying here. I tell them I will go to Lyon. I hand them a bar of gold.
It's 1 a.m. and it looks like Kalid and Alan have a plan. They will split an expensive taxi fare. Then will catch the train. With everything decided we recline on the long bench. They both unravel sandwiches and urge me to eat, to which I readily obliged. My stomach is full on the goodwill of drifters.
I understand how someone could be afraid in this situation. Stranded in an unknown land. No monies. Strangers all around. However, as I lay my head on my towel I have no concerns. These guys just want to cross the border. They just want to work.
I wake up at 5 a.m. The lights are back on. The station is warm again. Somewhat. All of my belongings are where I left them.
I send word to Lyon that I will arrive just before 10 a.m., and sit half asleep waiting for my train. It is the first one of the day, so I knew it was time as soon as I heard the scratching and scraping of the train’s brakes along the tracks. Alan is awake. I bid him farewell and thank him for everything. I think he will be fine. I wake Kalid.
"Goodbye my friend. My train is here."
"Oh, ok ok. Travel well, my friend."
I sit on the train. For some reason, they're running the air conditioning to the maximum. It's colder in here than it was on the concrete floor, but at least I know I'm on my way. I've read a bit on immigration. I've even used it as a topic for a major essay in graduate school. But this night. This morning. I don't know what to think. Tonight, I'll sit along the river. Tomorrow, I'll do it again. Kalid?
I only know one way across the border. With a bar of gold.