so spake the fiend

2 Jan

Goodbye French home of seven weeks

I left the farm and my dear alpaca friends on Christmas Eve. It was snowing outside, there was a deer in the hallway, and I was having one last chat with Maria while she prepared a brandy butter for Christmas dinner. She’d be traveling to London after the New Year to visit her children and stock up on Quorn — her preferred meat substitute. But the warmth and festivity didn’t last long. A call came in that two of the alpacas at a nearby field had been attacked by dogs. Maria said that one of the alpacas had a hole in it big enough to put a fist through. And on that Christmas crushing note, I had to grab my bags and catch a ride to Poitiers for my train to Paris.

The ride to Paris was so forgettable that I don’t remember it. On the metro from Montparnasse to Gare de l’Est I ignored a homeless man begging for change. He slouched into the corner behind me and occasionally shoved my backpack forward, causing me to repeatedly stumble into an annoyed looking woman. Oh Paris, your dispossessed so full of vinegar. I remembered, as a child, riding on a Parisian bus one family vacation, and when some unfortunate bum overheard our American accents he came over, cocked his fingers into grimy little guns and started shouting “BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!!” I wish now I’d have returned the gesture to my backpack prodding buddy.

At Gare de l’Est I found my night train with only 5 minutes to spare. After loading all my gear into the top bunk of a six-bunk sleeper cabin I laid back and stared at the nearby ceiling, trying to imagine my survival plan if the train went off the rails. Nothing came to mind.

My cabin mates didn’t seem too special at first glance. There was a French couple that surely thought they were better than me, a short and incredibly luggage encumbered Phillipean woman who kindly acknowledged my only Phillipinian reference — Manny Pacquiao –, and a very nervous looking man who appeared to have assembled his wardrobe based on George W. Bush TV appearances.

After acquainting myself with the cabin’s limited surroundings I scooped up my wallet and went in search of train adventures, but really I was just looking for the bar. It was now 9pm and we’d been traveling for only forty minutes. Upon entering the first-class car I met a large group of Japanese men drinking champagne from pink Hello Kitty cups. As I made my way through their ramen-smelling party one of them yelled “Kwistmas!!” which inspired the rest of the group to start yelling “happy Kwistmas! happy Kwistmas!” I LOLd at them and went on my way, merry Christmas indeed.

Drei Becks biers in hand, I toasted myself and watched sparks from the train light up stands of trees passing in the distance. Now and then we’d pass a snowy village and I’d catch glimpses of Christmas Eve dinners or lonely cars on cold roads.

Back at the cabin the lights were dim and everyone had gone to sleep. So I crawled up into my bunk and shut my eyes thinking that when I woke at 7:30am we’d be entering Berlin, Christmas day and all its festivities awaiting.

In my sleep I dreamed of something I’d seen on a Berlin escalator. Two people  got on the elevator ahead of me, one of them a young boy wearing a backpack and the other an elderly blind man with his cane. The boy turned to his side and stared up at the blind man, almost as if he were looking at a piece of art — interest tingling, trying to glimpse something recognizable, seeing and not being seen. The escalator ride lasted all night, eventually fading into both the train’s ceiling and my realization that we weren’t moving. Could it be that we’d arrived in Berlin and they let us sleep in?

I hopped down from my bunk and went into the hallway. Across from our train was snow and another train. Behind us was yet another parked train, and when I poked my head out of a window I realized that we were sitting in a train yard.

But Santa Clause can’t get inside a train! What about my presents?

Locked inside my Christmas train, with no employees in sight, I tried not to freak out and smash a window open with the small Phillipean woman. A man wearing a Wisconsin sweatshirt came out into the hallway from one of the nearby cabins and told me that we’d been broken down since midnight.

‘Where are you from?’


Before my conversation with Wisconsin could blossom into some boring friendship flower I was saved by Sharek, the worried looking man. The Indian-American George W. look-alike had overheard our American small talk and decided to join in.

‘Oh hey, so are you guys American?’

We nodded. He looked relieved and smiled.

‘Oh, that’s great. My name’s Sharek, yes Sir. I’m from Georgia.  Hey, do either of you know if there’s such a thing as a white panther?’

Although unexpected, it was quite the question, and one I didn’t have an answer to.

‘Not really?’

‘Cause you always hear about black panthers and I just wondered if white panthers are real or not.’

To my left was Wisconsin, looking hungry, and to my right was Sharek, who was looking at me for answers. We chatted briefly and I learned that Sharek was a chemist who checked the quality of metal in some sort of something or other. He had two kids, and the reason he was traveling was that he’d heard, 20 years ago, that it was possible to take a train from France to Germany, but he didn’t believe it. When Wisconsin said something about the ‘arc of triumph’ I edged out of the conversation and hid in my bunk.

To pass the time I listened to my audiobook of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was about three hours in — 11:00am, our train still broken down — when I got stuck on a passage and had to pause —

“And should I at your harmless innocence Melt, as I do, yet publick reason just, Honour and empire with revenge enlarged, By conquering this new world, compels me now To do what else, though damned, I should abhor. So spake the Fiend…”

And then, like a frightening puppet, Sharek’s head bobbled into my field of vision from the bunk below.

‘Hey Jason, I’ve been meaning to ask you…’

Really? Have I become your oracle?

‘Are Griffins and Gargoyles the same thing? I mean, why do people have Griffin as a last name but not Gargoyle?’

‘Well, I don’t know really. I guess they’re both mythological creatures, right?’

‘Uh, yes sir, yes.’

‘Good question…’

‘Uh, Jason, I was also wondering, is there such a thing as a black lion?’

‘Not sure, really couldn’t say.’

Apparently, by trying to answer his questions, I’d become the ultimate authority on absolutely everything. If I had said that Barack Obama had wings, or that Albert Einstein was actually Bob Marley, he would have believed me.



‘Is there a train that flies?’

This question caught the attention of the French couple who were pretending not to know English. Their quick glance in our direction revealed a did he really just say that sort of surprise. Bastards.

‘You mean like the Maglev train in Japan?’

‘No, not magnetic levitation. I saw this movie, Polar Express, and it had a flying train in it.’

‘No, I don’t think that exists.’

‘No? Not real, huh?’

At that moment I wanted to take his picture so I could later examine the look of confusion on his face. But why isn’t there a flying train? Was he disappointed, surprised, maybe just impressed that I knew the answer to his question.

I walked the length of the train, occasionally stopping in empty cabins to sit and think about how Sharek’s thought process might work. It was 1:00pm now and our train had received a new engine — we were making our way our way through the country, but since we’d fallen out of synch with the train time-tables, we were constantly forced into waiting areas to allow on-schedule trains to pass us. Progress was slow. I thought about how Sharek had tried to explain a connection between Europe’s 220 volt system and the number of feet in a mile. His reasoning went something like this: there are 5,280 feet in a mile, which is 1,760 yards. And 1,760 divided by 2 is 880. Again, 880 divided by two is 440, and finally 440 divided by 2 is 220. The connection seemed as cryptic to me as Milton’s words.

When I got back to our cabin Sharek asked me if I needed a razor to shave (for those of you who haven’t seen my face in a while, I have a massive fuck-off beard). Then he asked me if it would be possible to put tires on a train and drive it down the road. I assured him that it was definitely possible, and he eventually concluded that, although feasible, it would be too intimidating for other drivers.

The train’s P.A. system informed us that our train would be ‘terminating’ in Hannover, almost 200 miles from Berlin. And if you’ve never heard a P.A. speaker tell you in a German accent that the train you’re on is going to be terminated somewhere other than your expected destination, you should know that it’s not at all comforting.  Sharek went off to shave and wash up before we arrived in Berlin. When he returned to his bunk he slapped large handfuls of aftershave on his face. The smell made my stomach turn after twenty-four hours of not eating. I groaned at the thought of puking bile, and Sharek must have heard my groan as an invitation to chat.

‘So I heard the largest building in the world is in the Middle East– like Abu Dhabi or something, but I don’t believe that.’

I should note the joviality in this statement. He didn’t have to frame his crazy idea in a question — ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you… Do you think someone could… Has anyone ever… Is Metz France named after the New York Mets?’

‘Why’s that?’

He laughed and gave me a well-rehearsed incredulous look.

‘The tallest building in the world, in the Middle East? It doesn’t make any sense. Just think about that one for a little bit.’

I didn’t see Sharek again until we’d made two tight connections on our way to Berlin. He was sitting at a table in a dining car with a group of strangers. I watched from a distance and wondered if he was asking them who invented the frying pan and why. But no, it was probably something more interesting than that.


3 Responses to “so spake the fiend”

  1. MomGloria January 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    A journey that starts and ends in questions.
    It seems you’re finding the answers.

  2. wolfsharksarereal January 3, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    Really great work here, Fox. I think we’ll see Sharek one day as the leader of some crazy cult or something..

  3. Allison March 19, 2011 at 3:47 am #

    This was amazing. Thank you. People are always much more interesting in real life than made-up kooky characters.

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