My brother-in-law, Laurent, is French. I’m not talking about being of French descent. I’m talking about being born and raised there, complete with accent. A few years ago he became an American citizen. There was a big party and he made us all take the test he’d taken. Most of us flunked. He worked hard to become an “Ugly American”. When he travels home, do the French people frown at him? Are Americans still considered “ugly”?
A few years ago, on a Halloween night, I drove to the Vancouver train station. My daughter was coming home from college for the weekend. I was excited to see her and arrived just before eight, nearly half an hour early. I mean, you never know. Maybe trains can be early, right? They could have caught a tailwind, right? Or perhaps a good following sea may have pushed them ahead of schedule.
As I entered the station, the agent behind the counter hollered, "And next time find your own ride!" He flipped open the counter and flung the door wide. A middle aged blonde woman glanced up as she dug through paperwork on the counter, a cell phone balanced between one ear and a hunched shoulder. She glowered at his departing back and pounded the counter with her free hand.
"I can't believe you are being so obnoxious. What kind of a welcome to Canada is this?"
The station agent stopped and sent her a glare hard enough to stop a speeding bullet. He turned and stomped out the door, letting it slam behind him.
I glanced around the station which consisted of the agent’s counter, a baggage counter, a few vending machines and four or five smooth wooden benches similar to church pews. An older couple sat at the end of one of the benches; the woman clutching her purse on her lap and the man hunched over his folded hands. Both warily watched as the woman at the counter ranted into her cell phone in an “outside” voice. The only other occupant in the small station was a young cowgirl, wearing a light blue fringed skirt, matching fringed shirt, a white Stetson with a light blue hat band and white cowgirl boots. A number of large black freckles adorned her face and her hair hung in perky pig tails.
I sneaked past the bellowing blonde at the counter and approached the older couple. “Did I come at a bad time?”
The man gave me a wilted smile and the older woman shrugged. “This has been going on for hours. Her friends can’t find the station to pick her up and she is accusing the station agent of giving them bad directions,” the woman whispered.
“Oh.” I lowered myself to the bench beside them. Perhaps I had come in at the climax of the story. My eyes roved over the nearly empty station. “Well, are you waiting for the southbound train?”
“No,” the man spoke in a low tone, “The northbound. It is late. Four hours late.”
Whoa, I didn’t know a train could be that late. It isn’t as if it could be stuck in traffic. “Do they know why it is so late?”
“Forest fires in L.A.” He glanced at the little girl as she loped around the vending machines. “We’re waiting for her mom.”
The older woman pressed her lips together a moment. “That woman has been here the whole four hours we’ve been waiting. After waiting about two hours she became agitated. The agent suggested she call her friends on her cell phone but she didn’t want to do that because it would be long distance.”
If I had waited two hours for my friends to pick me up, I’d be dialing their number, long distance or not, and would have a few choice words to say. But that is just me--the personification of the impatient ugly American.
“Her friends finally called her and said they couldn’t find the station,” the woman went on. “She got the directions from the agent but they still couldn’t find it. After several phone calls, the agent got on the phone and talked to the friends himself. They were at Fifth and Main, so he gave them directions from there.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About an hour ago.”
I glanced up. They could have walked from Fifth and Main on crutches and still arrived by now, I thought. My eyes narrowed. The blonde seemed to have an American accent, but you never can tell if it might be a Canadian accent. I heaved a sigh and folded my arms, tapping my foot. "Um...when I came in, she said something about Canada. Is it possible she thinks she is in Vancouver, B.C.?"
They gave me blank stares.
So, which is worse: intruding in other people’s lives or not getting involved when someone needs help? I probably should have stayed out of it, but I tend to leap into the fire when I hear the snap and crackle of flames.
I hopped up and ambled over to the woman who still shouted into her cell phone. I cleared my throat. There was really no polite way to ask this question. "Excuse me. Do you think you are in Canada?"
The woman shot me with a glare, rolled her eyes and spoke slowly, like she was speaking to a dimwitted child. "I'm in Vancouver, Canada."
“Hmmm.” I schooled my features into a sympathetic expression, even though she'd just treated me like I was daft. "Well, that might be the problem then, because you are in Vancouver, Washington.”
She stared, the phone two inches from her ear.
“In the United States," I emphasized.
She blinked a few times and her mouth gaped open. "What?"
"You are in Vancouver, Washington, right across the river from Portland, Oregon." I repeated.
She turned back to the phone and her voice took on a caustic tone. "You are not going to believe this, but I've just been told I'm not in Canada at all. I'm in the United States…in Vancouver, Washington."
Her discussion became animated so I walked back and sat next to the older couple again. I gave them a bright smile and asked, "So, your train is way late."
"Yes", they whispered, giving the little girl with the painted freckles a compassionate grimace. "We had no idea we'd spend the whole evening here." The little girl strolled over to us, plopped down on the bench next to the older woman and let out a pitiful sigh. She clasped an empty orange trick-or-treat bag.
The blonde woman at the counter, apparently on hold, fixed her eyes on me. "They think this is my fault! I arrived at the Seattle train station fifteen minutes early, got my ticket to Vancouver B.C., ran out to the platform and asked the train guy which train was for Vancouver. He pointed it out and I got on it. Now here I am. I'm from Georgia. How was I to know?"
"Indeed," I said. "This must be awful for you.” I didn’t want to say anything, but I suspected she never mentioned B.C. to anyone. She probably just went up to the window, said “Gimme a ticket to Vancouver,” and jogged out to the platform. A lot of people don’t know there is a Vancouver, Washington.
"It is going to be more awful for them," she threatened.
(Part Two of Training for Halloween tomorrow.)