Sunday, August 1, 2004

Who Is Keeping Those Gardens?

If you sit at the window of a train speeding thru the French countryside, you will see a lot of things. Lines of aspens at the edges of small fields. Old stone farm houses. Forests. Cattle grazing in the sun. Gardens with flowers. Gardens with vegetables. And train stations. You will see a lot of train stations.

I noticed something about the train stations on our trip, and I have a theory.

As the train went thru each village and city and town, whether we stopped or not, you would almost always see one house at the end of the train yard. Each of these houses looked alike. And while their architectural similarity was striking, more striking was how each house was (1) meticulously kept, (2) subtly integrated into the train yard as if perhaps it were a guardhouse at the entrance to the property, and (3) an exploding garden in back full of blooming flowers and ripening vegetables.

What are these houses? Who lives in them? Why do they all look the same? And, who is keeping those gardens.

Here's my theory.

The French national rail system employs a live-in station master at each station. One of the perks of the job is a house to live in that you may treat as your own.

And it is the spouses who tend the gardens.

Trip To France
Normandy/Bretagne/Touraine by rail

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Melville and the Girl in Pink

1. Melville

Melville was standing in the aisle of the train as it sped thru the summer fields of Normandy. He was a seasoned train traveller, that much was clear. He stood in the aisle confidently, holding a deck of cards in his hands, not holding onto anything else even as the train sometimes came to a stop in a station and people had to squeeze by him to get on or get off.

Melville dropped his cards in the aisle. Some slid under the seat on which his sister was sitting.

Melville! she said, and she leaned over to see what he was doing.

He stood up, having gathered all of them. He didn't say a word. He was concentrating on the cards.

2. The Girl in Pink

Melville was three, maybe four years old. His sister was older: six, maybe seven. She was dressed in pink: a pink shirt, a pink skirt, which was covered by a pink denim jacket her mother had put over her lap when she hopped in the seat next to Ben. And she had pink shoes.

She was playing with a toy that belonged to her brother -- taking advantage of the fact that he was (for the moment) completely engrossed in his deck of cards.

She had an infectious smile. Her eyes sparkled with the carefree happiness of a six (maybe seven) year old. She looked up at Ben and showed him the game, as if to boast of her accomplishment. Then she shook it violently. (This shaking of the game was evidently some way to reset it -- something akin, I guess, to clearing the screen of an Etch-a-Sketch.)

She shook it and started over, this time showing it to Ben each time she advanced a step. She would hold it up and say, Un. Then she would work it a while and hold it up again and say, Deux. And then Trois. And so on.

She's teaching you to count in French, I said.

So he leaned over her shoulder (to tell the truth, he had been leaning for some time). As she said the numbers, he repeated them after her.

She was thrilled. I was thrilled. Her brother had lost interest in the cards and was now not so thrilled. He pushed her over to get in the seat with them.

3. Melville, the Girl, and Ben

When Melville got up onto the seat (it was a bit of a climb for him, but his sister helped pull him up), Ben scooted over to give them more room. When he moved over, the girl in pink moved over, too, leaving just the same amount of room (ie, none) between her and Ben.

This gave Melville plenty of room to join the party. It also left plenty of room for Melville's gray elephant, which he set down on the seat.

They sat there, in that seat, the four of them: Ben, the girl in pink, Melville, and his gray elephant. Melville leaned forward and reached across his sister to touch Ben on the arm. Ben looked at him and smiled. Melville pointed to his shirt, as if to say See my shirt? Ben nodded silently and smiled.

Melville's sister shook the game and offered it to Ben. He held his hand out and waved it back and forth declining her offer, pouting out his lower lip in a gesture of No thank you. So she offered it to her brother. He accepted it happily, shaking it over and over to get started.

And when he started playing the game, he leaned forward to touch Ben's arm again, as if to say, See? I'm playing it, too! Ben nodded and smiled. The girl leaned over to watch her brother play the game. Then she looked up and Ben and smiled broadly.

The game was compelling to her, and she periodically looked over to see how Melville was doing. But Ben was even more compelling, and she spent much of the rest of the trip to Caen looking up and him and smiling, her eyes sparkling furiously, trying to teach him to sing her favorite song.

Trip to France - Day 5
on the train to Caen

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