It is the beginning of another month and thus time for another installment of the Ohmygod saga (to catch up on the previous installments click on the Ohmygod menu up top). As you will recall, I used to be a cycling tour guide in Europe for several years. Through that job (yes, it is a bit difficult to call it a “job”) I met countless interesting people and have a few compelling stories to tell, but most of them pale to the story of Ohmygod, one of the clients that I had for three weeks. Some may wonder about the moniker, but the name chose itself really; it is what I uttered repeatedly during just about every interaction with him.
In the previous installment (Part Forty-Three), it was officially the last day of the Champagne trip, following which Anne, Ellen, Paul, and CC were due to depart, leaving me with Maggie and Ohmygod (and several new clients) to continue on to Belgium.
We were having our last dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Reims when Paul announced that he had just signed CC and himself up for the next week in Belgium, which CC declined since unbeknownst to all of us, she was married with four kids at home. Hearing this, Paul also confessed that his somewhat estranged wife had AIDS (although he did not), Maggie informed us that her dissertation advisor had proposed to her via e-mail, Anne and Ellen revealed that they were actually millionaires several times over, and Ohmygod demonstrated his ability to recite the alphabet with only one (albeit lengthy) belch.
The following morning I had bid Anne, Ellen, and CC adieu and was in a train station with Ohmygod trying to catch a train back to Paris. Moments prior to getting to the platform with my trusty L’Equipe newspaper, there was a loud metallic sound followed by a collective gasp.
As I tried to assess the situation, I first noticed the dozen or so people on the platform who all had assumed the “Ohmygod” stance: mouth agape, head gently shaking, hand to forehead, occasionally muttering “Mon dieu.”
I stood there for a while a bit dumbfounded as to what just happened. I looked about the tracks and there were clothes scattered all over the area.
After some more surveillance of the scene, I noticed several severely twisted pieces of metal that, though distorted, had a hauntingly familiarity: They were once welded together to form Ohmygod’s bike. There was one perversely twisted wheel right across the tracks, but I could not locate the other. The saddle, which was still attached to the severed seatpost, had somehow found its way up on to the platform. And there were several pieces of the frame strewn about along with what must have been his clothes. (From an initial estimate, I figured he had to have 18 different clothing combinations that I had never seen up until that point, which initially angered me, having suffered through the daily stench of his unwashed, perpetually worn bike gear. After a bit more examination, though, it seemed that many of those clothes still had their store tags attached—no doubt hastily bought by his mother right before the trip.)
As I was milling about, taking in the spectacle, I overheard a passenger explain to the station staff what had happened. She stated that the bike, which was on the wrong side of the yellow line that indicated the furthest advancement allowed to those waiting for the train, seemed to be sucked into the vortex that had been created by the speeding TGV.
In all my time travelling via train in Europe, I had heard of such an occurrence with the various high-speed trains, but like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I thought it was but a myth, meant to strike fear into the unbelieving, resulting in further blind adherence to the rules.
I guess I was wrong.
As we all stood there, flabbergasted, I did the only thing that made sense.
I took out my phone and started taking photos.
No one would otherwise ever believe it.
I also started to laugh. Uncontrollably at first, but as I received more and more judgmental stares, I tried to dial it back a bit, hoping to pass it of as a bout of irrepressible coughing, but that tact was only mildly believable at best. I am not sure why I found the situation funny. Perhaps it was a reaction to all that had happened in the preceding two weeks and this was the ultimate karma in response to my thoughts craving his demise.
Objectively, it was far from humorous: we were already on a tight schedule and now he would need a new bike, which would necessitate a trip to the office. We would also have to deal with the mess before us—I imagined that Ohmygod would need to recuperate at least some of his belongings strewn throughout the station. In fact, I was going to insist on it since the thought of him wearing the already disgustingly foul bike shorts and shirt that he was sporting every day for the next week was frankly too much to contemplate.
Better to spread the stench around a bit, as perverse as that may sound.
We were also due to meet the clients that would be joining us for the next leg of the trip in Brugges for dinner, but that aspect of the day was certainly in jeopardy at this point.
After I was done taking a few photos for prosperity, I went over to Ohmygod, who, incredulously, was not running about frantically looking for help, nor was he talking to any of the employees of the railroad to organize some sort of rescue program for his belongings. He was not even curled up in the fetal position on a platform bench whimpering for his mother (this was the option I would anticipate).
Nope. None of the above.
Instead, he was sitting casually on a platform bench, with his left leg crossed over his right, with no apparent care in the world and absolutely no indication that his bike was at the center of the mayhem occurring all around him.
And he was eating.
Yes, he was eating a nasty looking croissant (at least I assumed it was a croissant) that had no doubt been in his back jersey pocket since some previous breakfast.
I walked over to him and tapped him on the shoulder (although I was tempted to grab him forcefully by the ear). He looked up as if nothing had happened, perhaps even a bit perturbed that I had interrupted his dining.
After a moment or two of a who’s-going-to-talk-first standoff, I spread my hands a bit, tilted my head slightly to the left, did a quick violent, yet subtle head shake, and shot him my best “what the hell?” glance.
Knowing that another staring contest would only result in raising my blood pressure, I asked: “Why are you just sitting there? Don’t you see all of your crap strewn about the station? Don’t you think you should do something?”
He slowly stood, surprisingly brushed off the crumbs that had accumulated on his belly which had seemed to have only gotten bigger over the two weeks on the bike, and said calmly:
“I knew I was going to need your help.”
While it was certainly possible that those words were carefully chosen to invoke sympathy with me, it is much more likely that he had never spoken truer words in his life (other than “more beer” or “thanks for tucking me in, mommy!”).
And I actually felt bad for him.
I am a sucker.
So we headed over to the small army of SNCF personnel that had amassed at the epicenter, and I let them know that “he” or more precisely now, “we” were the poor bastards whose belongings were strewn all over the place.
I awaited the inevitable chastisement from a lower level French apparatchik, but it never came. Instead, the chef de gare (the station chief) actually apologized to me (or more precisely now us). Why? Well, it seems that it is rare that a TGV comes through their station at close to full speed like that, but there had been an incident an hour earlier on the regular TGV track, and the train needed to be re-routed. I stupidly asked what sort of “incident” to which the chef de gare instantly (and somewhat coldly) replied: “Un suicidé.”
And with that I found some new perspective. Sure, the next twenty-four hours were likely to be close to a living hell, but I am pretty sure that beats actual hell (which I am no doubt destined for when I am placed in the ground).
The next ten minutes, however, were rather amazing, I must say. While I thought Ohmygod and I would need to climb down on the track and pick up all his crap, there were already four station workers down there with plastic bags and the type of poles you see highway crew use when picking up garbage. Each of the workers had two bags: one for the items to keep, the other for trash or horrendously salvageable items.
Rather quickly they gathered up everything that resulted from the incident, even the badly mangled bike frame, the two wheels that resembled oddly shaped tacos, and a good number of empty soda bottles, train tickets, and oddly enough, several mismatched shoes.
At least a couple of times one of the workers would pick up an article of Ohmygod’s overly soiled clothing, would turn to him as if to say “This can’t possibly be yours, it has been on the tracks for three weeks, non?” To which he would emphatically nod as if to say “No! I love that shirt! That’s why I wear it just about every day!”
Begrudgingly, the railroad worker involved would extend both arms as far as he could away from his body and drop the item into the Hefty bag, shaking his head (and no doubt wishing he could hold his nose), and continue to collect the debris scattered about the track.
This happened at least 12 times.
Objectively, Ohmygod was exhibiting an attention to detail that up to this point I would have bet both of my arms and one of my legs that he simply did not possess. His head was essentially on a swivel, pivoting from one worker to the next, as they gathered each particle of the disaster, nodding assent on his sundry items, dismissing mangled bike parts out of hand, and pausing contemplatively on random pieces of garbage.
It was a sight to behold, as if he were a frantic auctioneer, trying to keep on top of a flurry of bids.
Eventually, we ended up with thirteen garbage bags: three of various bike parts, four that were sequestered by Ohmygod, three filled with garbage, and another three that were questionable.
Surprisingly, we were able to board our actual train, which departed only 12 minutes late. (The French get a ton of heat for being tragically Latin, i.e., inefficient, but the truth is that they can pick and chose their battles–as opposed to the Italians.)
The rest of the day was rather nondescript. I took the bag of bike items and retired to the first class cabin (one of the few perks to being a guide was a first-class Eurail pass), while I relegated Ohmygod to a second class car with the other three bags of crap. The railway workers on board, no doubt given the directive from the still apologetic chef de gare, allowed Ohmygod to rummage through the bags in case they missed something. They also let him know that anything he did not want he could simply leave on the train for the cleaning crew to address. On my end, during the short trip into Paris, I had gone over the bike items, salvaging all that I could (front and rear derailleurs, the rear brakes, a water bottle cage, and the saddle).
When we got off, Ohmygod had somehow “whittled down” his three bags into five—no doubt waylaying an unsuspecting SNCF employee to “lending” him two bags. I was curious for a moment as to how he organized his gear, but only for a moment.
He indicated that one bag might be of interest to the bike tour company (it contained, among other random items, a pair of mis-matched socks, part of a severely bent handlebar, and a McDonald’s bag containing three very old-looking French fries).
After giving Ohmygod very detailed directions on how to make it back to the office by Metro (it involved staying on a single train, the 4, for four stops), I left the mangled bike frame by a trash can in the station, loaded my bike up with all of the salvaged parts (which did not include any of the “treasures” that Ohmygod had just given me), and made my way to the office.
Along the short ride from the Gare de l’Est, I contemplated how I would handle the next week in Belgium and Germany. On the one hand, there were to be four “new” people joining the trip to distract me and thus dilute Ohmygod’s impact. On the other, we would be riding through two countries that embrace beer more than any others.
That couldn’t be good.
Before I could develop any sort of logical long-term approach as to how to limit Ohmygod’s intake of his preferred beverage (and thus mitigating any future mishaps), I was already at the office. I had called ahead to alert them of the situation so that the company’s mechanic could get another bike ready, as there was an outside chance that we could still make a train that would land us in Brugges in time for a late dinner.
As I dismounted my bike, I was amazed to see Ohmygod strolling toward me, without an apparent care in the world. He was holding on to his large plastic bags, slung over his shoulder, with one hand, and a can of the unmistakable green labeled beer in the other.
Before I could even think of what to say, he had some trouble navigating a rather odd vehicular barrier. Said barrier consists of two large concrete knee-high pillars with an ankle high, heavy-duty chain strung between them.
Ohmygod noticed the chain at the last moment, managing to lift his right foot just high enough to clear it. The problem was that this sudden altering of his gait caused the large black plastic bags to shift, throwing him slightly off balance. This caused him to extend his stride slightly and his trailing left foot did not make it over the chain.
Ohmygod lurched forward, with the plastic bags flying over his shoulder ahead of him, and he tumbled to the ground. No fall is ever really graceful, but his had a certain flair to it: as he fell, he was able to keep his right arm in the air (as if in a cast), thus bracing his fall with only his left. As his helmeted head made a large smack against the pavement, his right arm remained extended, as if carrying a torch that he was trying desperately to keep lit.
But there was no torch in his hand.
Only a Heineken.
And he did not spill a drop.