A woman who gets lost in a European town in the middle of the night is confronted with the strange feeling of solitude, two foreign languages, and three strangers who are sitting in a shelter, until …
Four minutes past midnight. The autumn wind swirling in through doors that swing open and closed at the arrivals hub of the Hall de Chars, Strasbourg. Feet stop on a threshold, between the outer and inner spaces of this place. It has not yet dawned on the woman that there are gaps in maps, just as there are gaps in the synapses firing her brain in their particular ways. There are gaps in maps; that is not news to anybody. The woman pulls out a map from her handbag. In it are the directions to her hotel, details of the bus that will take her there. The bus has a stop just outside the station. She sees the stop, heads towards it, wrapping herself in her coat. The temperatures have plummeted, although the skies are pristine black. Beautiful. She will note this, to let her breath catch, count six stars – navigational markers for those who know how to read them – before returning to her map. Her train to Strasbourg was three hours late; trouble on the route. The German euphemisms for death by rail: persons have occupied the tracks, or its equivalent. It would take the woman three days to decipher what the announcer really meant.
A dribble – not flow – of arrivals spurts out of the doors.
There is the stop.
There is the bus.
But it is not the one that she was advised to board; the numbering is different.
She will wait.
And become increasingly puzzled by many things; for example the French that surrounds her.
There is some German through which to cling to, signpost, but there is mostly French.
Questions in her mind?
Is this what borderline being means?
Is this the consequence of the blurring of European lines?
Is this what the EU has wrought, this miracle of the blended peoples and multiple languages in a small radius?
Is this … is this …?
Surprising moments, clues that will take time to come together and offer an epiphany.
First, she approaches three women sitting in a shelter with the rudiments from the German lessons of that week
Entschuldigen Sie bitte!
Wo bitte finde ich ….
Wo bitte finde ich.
The women wave her away, as if they do not understand.
(It does not make sense, and it is past midnight)
Return to the stop.
Wait for the bus
(Gaps in the map)
There is a particular solitude that comes from waiting for the unknown in uncertainty, of knowing oneself as the stranger who has arrived through the doors into another’s landscape unannounced, un-waited for. It is always so much better when there is another stranger waiting in that elsewhere with your name, if not on the placards they tend to carry, but certainly in their hearts. It is even better when this happens in the place whose language you have no grasp of. If this does not happen, a necessary »girding of the (figurative) loins« must happen. But before that … a retreat to the familiar gray-edged inner-scapes inhabited by all the ghosts equipped with the grammar of abandonment, of the sense of getting lost, of the fear of never being found. It is harder, I think, in these days of assumed interconnectivity, that the person should not get lost. Google Maps exists, you see. It is automatically assumed that the stranger (a) carries a cell phone (b) that the cell phone is aligned to the stars and satellites of the place of arrival. Makes it a little harder to ask the passerby:
Where am I? And trust that the passerby will respond with; Where do you need to be?
Every time the woman imagines she had lost any sense of shame in announcing to the random stranger, I am lost, she discovers new levels of unease with the message. Like going into the confessional in the digital age, aware of … a lack.
Cellphone, dead battery, unticked.
Ich bin verloren.
The buses have stopped running.
The minute hand of the clock outside he station has pinged into the ten to one position.
The multi-languages have given in to mostly silences, and night murmurs, and the wind.
Then, a surrender into waiting.
Sudden consolation. The relief of the pause, of the not-having-to-do, of a stilling, silencing. Before the next question, which is actually the same as the first one infusing this, and most other arrivals.
Wo bin ich?
(strange; even though this woman speaks passable French, it has not yet occurred to her to ask, Où suis je?, not yet)
At 1 am a taxi driver approaches her to say:
Je t’ai vu attendre, où veux-tu être?
First impulse, tears.
As if she has been found.
So, she shows him the map.
He takes it, studies it, tilts it up, tilt it down.
There are gaps in the map.
(Il y a des lacunes dans la carte)
(Es gibt Lücken in der Karte)
(Kuna mapungufu kwenye ramani)
He will want to refer to the maps in his phone, find the places she has indicated, the hotel to which she is destined, where she understands her people are waiting for her.
Two other drivers join the taxi man, who has taken the gap in your map as his own.
Google Maps, other maps, Blink, circles, lines.
But not the hotel of the name.
He offers her his phone to call the people waiting for her in that elsewhere, so that they can give him the coordinates to (temporary) home.
She keys in the number, grateful for this stranger’s phone; an older Nokia. Dark blue.
From the other end of the line; the voice of familiarity.
Reassuring even as it scolds: Where the hell are you, we are waiting for you, and why are you calling from France?
Last puzzle piece down.
Eavesdropping the taxi man echoes, a twitch on the lip beneath a moustache:
Etes-vous conscient d’être en France?
She is supposed to be in Stuttgart, you see.
Her brain has merged Stuttgart with Strasbourg.
She took the train to Strasbourg convinced she was heading to Stuttgart.
Her brain, to this day, and has refused to relinquish the combination it made, its adoption of the German habit of compounding nouns: StrasbourgStuttgart.
Gap in the map.
They have not yet added StrasbourgStuttgart/StuttgartStrasbourg to any map. (it is not a hyphenated place noun)
Of course they laugh at the situation, its strangeness.
The lost stranger who has just found out where she is, where she was supposed to be. They laugh for a long, long time. Stranger-Woman. Taxi drivers.
(The stars in the skies of Strasbourg twinkle.)
They ask each other,
Where are you from?
Woher kommen Sie?
(Filling in gaps in the map with people)
It is a good question to have in Strasbourg after midnight:
Africans, the second taxi man notes.
In-between travelers to in-between places. Lost in a condition of journeying.
It is the same as pause, wait, listen.
It is now right to ask:
Where am I?
They laugh and laugh again.
Three Africans in Strasbourg.
(Who knows why they laughed again.)
Tomorrow (later today, technically) the woman will seek out the Stuttgart part of StrasbourgStuttgart.
The 6 am train.
One that might correspond better with the map in her handbag.