Volume 16
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2022


Bound for Bordeaux


Meredith Escudier


Me? A tartine? A bite of nourishment for the deserving, committed, exhausted, exemplary mother that I was?



ith a two-year-old in one hand and a vanity case in the other, I managed to steer my young son through a slew of panicky people milling about on the platform in Paris’ Gare d’Austerlitz. When our turn to board came, we clambered up onto the train bound for Bordeaux, my shiny hippy knee boots serving me well for their stability, a clear advantage for any successful journey with a small child. Plus they went nicely with my loose-fitting dress that offered a comfortable, wintry warmth for a body—mine—that, at the time, was nearly eight months pregnant.


Together, we inched our way down the narrow corridor, pinballing off the walls and compartment doors as we bumped our way forward until finally we located our seats. Hmm, seats 56 and 57. Here we are, I said, wrenching open the recalcitrant sliding door of compartment 8, only to face the blank looks of our fellow passengers. Bonjour, messieursdames, I muttered as we broke into their settled bubble like so many unwanted intruders—barbarians from the north—or, more specifically, a woman with child and, if that weren’t enough, a woman with an actual child in tow. Oh-oh...


An eight-person compartment at the time—second class, upholstered in a light blue faux leather look—necessitated a minimum of courtesy and consideration on the part of the passengers on a French train. Four people sat bolt upright, face-to-face with four others, in a delicate, discreet exercise of avoidance. Do not brush knees (careful to thread through a topography of manspreading), do not stare, do not show interest in anyone’s doings, do not engage in conversations apart from a cursory nod of the head or, at most, a mumbled salutation to no one in particular. This was France in the ’60s and early ’70s, before the interior architecture of French trains had modernized in accordance with the more streamlined technology of the time. Subsequent trains would consist of rows of twos with a central aisle and an allotted space at the front or the back of the carriage to park one’s luggage. But in 1974, no one could foresee such a futuristic image.


Nevertheless, passengers in an eight-person configuration were still allowed some margin of maneuver. You could smoke as you wished, eat your salami and hard-boiled eggs on your lap, and open the window if desired, on condition of reaching a form of consensus with the help of a few selected genteel phrases: Ça vous dérange si…? Vous permettez que…?


My son and I settled in as our train charged off on its six-hour journey, heading southwest with stopovers in Orléans followed by Tours and Poitiers, only then cutting into the longest leg of the trip, which would land us at a long-awaited Angoulême, a final stop before reaching Bordeaux, our ultimate destination. During this time, we exploited to the utmost every storybook we had brought along, from Peter Pan to Lady and the Tramp; we mastered puppetry, using high voices for effect; we explored Native American art (kachina dolls galore) and we studied engineering (Things that Go), noting the special use of pontoons. My young one consumed gloppy yogurts and chewy spice bread. I provided beverages, crackers, and constant, but quiet, conversation in English so as not to disturb the dreams of my fellow passengers, some of whom had drifted off. For exercise, we walked back and forth in the adjacent corridor, picking out letters of the alphabet in the sign exhorting us not to stick our heads out the windows…and in all this, I wondered, where oh where is Angoulême? Whenever-are-we-gonna-get-there?


Finally, Angoulême’s train station crept into view and the train lurched to a stop—yay—at the last stop before Bordeaux; I relaxed a little, then perked up a bit, confident now that our objective was within reach…until I realized that the halt seemed to last a little longer than usual. The halt was turning into a wait, a wait into a delay, a delay that slowly built into a wave of barely controlled collective anxiety. People started to fumble, sigh, and show signs of restlessness. We weren’t in trouble—no, not exactly trouble—we were just stuck-in-place for some unknown reason and reassuring information from the powers-that-be was in short supply.


My stomach grumbled. Ouch; a pregnant person without sustenance; energy depleted; an undefined period of emptiness looming…. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. One of my seatmates took out her lunch. Small canapés of pâté on thin slices of country bread. Did a wave of nausea sweep over my pregnant self as a whiff of pâté wafted into my nostrils? Pas du tout. A wave of envy rose up instead. Did I steal a covetous glance at her well-thought-out picnic? Perhaps—or maybe her intuition was just on high alert. “Je peux vous offrir une tartine?”


Me? A tartine? A bite of nourishment for the deserving, committed, exhausted, exemplary mother that I was? Um…now normally—normalement—French courtesy dictated a rapid, clear-cut non, merci. One does not abuse of another’s hospitality. And one certainly does not ransack another person’s pique-nique, no matter how abundant. No, no, a small smile, an appreciative refusal, a reassuring show of gratitude is all that is required to maintain civilized behavior. But (for God’s sake), I was hungry! I was ravenous! I was in desperate, mounting need, suddenly faint as if the last meal had been days ago. And the new baby, too! Knocking on the door—anybody home?—manifesting his own needs in utero by a few dips and dives, breaststroking his way from one side of his cozy nest to the other, stretching, streaking, doing push-ups...


Oui,” I said, “I would love a tartine,” as she handed over half of her provisions to me, all of which I accepted shamelessly. I took my first bite. The moistness of the peppery pâté made a perfect contrast to the yeasty, dry, seedy bread. One bite, then another. I felt rescued, revived, renewed, ready for the next challenge, even up for Any and All Adventures in Angoulême if need be, all thanks to this one kind lady, who had probably been shrewdly observing me and my motherhood the whole time, perhaps secretly assessing my pâté-worthiness for all I know.


J’ai honte,” I managed to mutter, my mouth full. And I did feel some small amount of shame—an ounce or two—as per the unFrenchness of my behavior in such a situation. But I also knew on the spot that I would not look back and regret my brashness in accepting her thoughtful offer. I regret only not being able to thank her once again, today, in writing this piece so many years later, when my beautiful two-year old is nearly 50 and the sweet little unborn baby gently approaches year 47 of his still unfolding life.


Meredith Escudier has lived in France for 30-odd years, teaching, translating and raising a family. She is the author of Scene in France…from A to Z and Frenchisms for Francophiles.







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