Robyn and Me
by Brenda Harker
We took a shuttle to the airport in San Francisco to board a flight en route to Geneva, Switzerland. The plane stopped for an unexpected three-hour layover in Newark—after a five-and-a-half hour flight. Then onto Frankfurt another six hours, but once there, I decided I couldn’t take any more of the air travel after all those hours en route, so I made a train reservation, first-class to Zurich—another six hours! We were so tired we started annoying each other. Robyn my six year old daughter has had this little style of sucking her bottom lip. This is in lieu of sucking her thumb—something she’s been warned against in less than friendly terms.
We took the train from Frankfurt to Mainz, with another hour-and-fifteen minute layover. I thought the clerk had said 1:00 o’clock, but why didn’t she tell me that we would be here on a cold platform—freezing! That was the least she could have done.
“Robyn, Please take your lip out of your mouth. if you don’t there’ll be no television for
you when we get to the hotel.” She contemplated the consequence of sucking for a minute or two then resumed.
“Are you cold?” I asked. “Don’t you want to go inside? I’m cold!”
“No,” she said. I’m not cold. Why? Did we miss the train? I don’t want to leave. I want to go back home. I’m tired!” she whined.
“What! And miss the train!” I responded incredulously. “Nonsense! How are we going to miss the train? We’re standing here, aren’t we?” I asked, shivering and uncomfortable, “Do you expect me to stand out here for an hour in the cold?”
“I don’t want to go inside, Mommy! It’s too smoky in there.”
“Come on, I’m leaving!” I said, starting to walk away—bluffing.
“No!” she boasted. “I’m staying here!”
“Then stay!” I said angrily. Then I turned toward the station.
With a great deal of reluctance, she followed, stamping her feet decisively. By now, I was
nearly three platforms away. I kept looking behind to see if she was following.
The station was dirty, like the Turkish railroad station in Eskişehir. However, there was a nice restaurant that I thought too expensive. Besides, I had read in a guide book, that a meal there was 18 to 24 dollars US. We would wait. Meanwhile Robyn had spotted a pastry kiosk with an array of sugar-coated sticky stuff in the window and started to make a fuss: “Oh, Please, Mommy!”
I surrendered and, I suppose, she did, too, for we retreated to the waiting room:
“Do you expect me to sit in those dirty seats?” she pointed, grimacing.
“You have on jeans.” I returned. “It’s okay, just this once.” I said, my pride wounded
“No, way, Jose,” she returned, standing awkwardly against the cart we had taken from
the main concourse. It was 1:20 p.m. We learned that the train would leave at 1:44 p.m. The thought of standing even fifteen minutes in the cold appalled me, so I sat reading my guide book. I was now a Californian and even the least cold distressed me.
At 1:25 p.m., we were up. Suddenly, I remembered my menstrual period. I’d been so pressured with the tediousness of travel, carrying all that luggage, and managing a six year old that I had forgotten it. I had better go change now before I have to use one of those awful WC’s on the train. “Now, where’s the toilet?” I asked. Of course, down another flight or two of stairs—not in the direction of platform four. So off we trudged—luggage in hand. Boy! Was that a bloody mess. Must wash my hands really well.
“Robyn, To the bathroom, now, and wash your hands afterward,” demanded.
At 1:35 p.m., I heard myself saying, “Hurry! Please! Before we miss the train. You
carry this.” Then after a second thought, I said, “No. Never mind, I’ll do it. I’ll carry it myself.” It was 1:39 p.m. Pushing my bodily capacity to its limits, I ran into the tunnel that led to the stairs, with her following—then up the two flights of stairs to the landing. Fortunately, I had learned to be more resourceful with the luggage, one-size for two persons, onto a trolley, along with a carry on, canvas, both filled to capacity. Then my book bag. At the platform adjacent to the train, the conductor was boarding. The sign read: 1:44 Zurich after a long list of German and Swiss cities. To the railroad man on the train, I asked,
“Yes!” he responded as the doors shut in my face! The clock on the platform verified my
watch. It was 1:42.
I’m not going to get angry or say, racism, I thought. What do white people say when the
same thing happens to them? I’ve seen it happen, more than once, where the train leaves with
Some white person, standing there waiting to board. I’m in a new country. I know they’re trying to expel foreigners, but maybe it’s because of scheduling. Sometimes, BART leaves early, and, besides, these guys aren't reacting to me. Probably, the driver had already started the train as I walked up.
“Did we miss the train? I told you I didn’t want to go!”
“Please. Robyn, I don’t need it right now! Give me a break!”
Just then she sputtered incoherently the most uncontrollable laughter. It was insatiable—un-
stoppable. It reminded me of the canned, audience laughter one used to hear on the old radio sitcoms. It had the unusual quality of magnifying itself, like being in an echo chamber.
“Robyn, Please! You’re making yourself do that on purpose! Cut it, please! Everyone is looking at us!” She ignored my suggestions. The display lasted another than full five minutes—to my fury.
The next train for Zürich that day, had been canceled. But one to Basil, the clerk told me,
would leave in an hour: 14:44. Would I be expected to pay more? I wondered.
“Robyn, Do you want to wait for the next train?”
“What! Wait here longer, so we can miss the train again! I’m tired. I don't want to wait for the train.”
* * *
We were in the waiting room. I was sitting while she was leaning against a rail. I was complaining about our circumstance to a young, nice looking woman, who, after hearing my story, insisted on taking me to the ticket office to enquire about the payment I had made. Once inside she started ranting about the lack of service and inserting—my train would leave in ten minutes (which wasn’t true). To be honest, I was a little embarrassed, so when she said,
“We hurry!” I was a little relieved. She told me I wouldn’t have to pay, but I would have to wait for the Basil train and change there in Basil to platform three for Zürich. But somehow we went looking for plat-form three. According to the monitor the train was to be on-time. We had about twenty-eight minutes, but we weren’t able to find platform number three for the Zürich train. However, when we did find platform three, the destination wasn’t Zürich. Upon inquiry, a stranger pointed out that we were to make a connection on platform three in Basil not here. The number for the Basil platform was nine. I was guilty of going by my memory instead of reading the ticket. It wasn’t far (Thank God for small favors!). We had to go to Basil first, to the platform for the Basil train.
Suddenly, I remembered, I hadn’t eaten a thing all day. I was so tired. Surely, not having eaten was the reason I was so fatigued—that and the travel. Imagine being so involved that one forgets personal needs. Hunger had come down on me so suddenly and forcefully that I was overcome. With so little time before the train was to leave, I had no time to attend to it.
In addition, Robyn started her climbing thing. “Please! Calm down. Within minutes, however, she had fallen into a firmly fixed sleep. I had a great deal of difficulty awakening her. But I must, otherwise, we would miss the next train. “Robyn, Please wake yourself up!” I pleaded. “Stand up. Let’s put cold water on your face.” I said trying to take the water bottle from my backpack, but I couldn’t open it and hold her up at the same time. “Please, we’ll miss the train!” As we stood awkwardly, she collapsed in the doorway.
“Oh, the poor thing! She’s so tired. Where are you coming from?” Someone asked.
“San Francisco to Frankfurt to here!”
“Why didn’t you fly from Frankfurt to Zurich?”
“I didn’t realize it was this far or so complex!”
* * *
“You don’t want this stop. This is the last stop on the German side.” I heard a voice say. “You want the Swiss side. It’s the next stop.”
A strange thing about traveling is the way in which strangers comment on the activity of one’s sphere of existence. By that I mean, the commenting is always in the form of a voiceover that comes initially and seemingly as if from the presence of something like that of a narrator— as if some omniscient narrator were examining, reporting and commenting on the details of one’s life. Like this moment. But I can’t help asking myself: Who said that? Could someone be watching over me?
Then, after a few moments the owner of the voice materializes. That presence is always surprising. It’s as if the someone had been watching and waiting for the opportune moment to speak—then materialize. It’s a bit eerie—but appreciated, especially in cases like these when one is lost.
Oh, my God! The thought interrupted. It was too late to make a move. Passengers had
started to line up with their luggage. So I shifted Robyn yet again. “Which side of the platform
does the train stop?” I asked so we could maneuver in that direction.
“I don’t know. It’s always a guess,” replied that voice.
* * *
When we boarded the train for Zürich, we were seated in a smoking car. The car reeked
of the haze of grayish white smoke that was constantly being agitated by the activities of inhaling and exhaling. We were exasperated by the filth of tobacco, the senseless delays, and the crowding, but we were too exhausted to move. She coughed and preyed there were no smokers on the train. But after a nap she was raring to go and revive her climbing thing. She wouldn’t listen to reason. She mistook the luggage rack for monkey bars. I was reading the guide for Zürich while chiding her.
With any luck I would find the Office of Tourism still open. One of my former colleagues, Hal Jones had written down three suggestions for hotels. One, he described as “homey.” We went for homey.
“Which do you want to do first,” I asked her, “eat or go to the hotel? If we go to the hotel, we can get rid of the luggage. Then go back out again later and eat.
“The hotel, but I’m not going back out!” she said determinately .
“You have eaten, but I have not had a single thing all day,” I complained.
* * *
We finally found the tourist office after some probing.
“Yes, they have rooms,” the receptionist repeated, holding the telephone receiver to his ear. “No singles with a child, however, they would be too small. They’re different from the US. Really small,” he said, repeating his telephone conversation. “You can take a double. You’ll see. OK?”
“How much? Is breakfast included?”
“150. U.S. Yes, with breakfast,” he said.
“What! Oh No, 150 US! That’s too much! Tell her 100,” I proposed.
“Ok. She’ll let you have it for 125—. Ok?”
“I’ll take it! Is it far?” I asked.
“No. Take the 4 Tiefedunner to Helmhaus—the same name as the hotel.”
* * *
The room was, indeed, charming with white ruffled curtains covering casement windows. There was a double bed with a clean down comforter and matching pillow cases of white ruffled trim. There were a small television, attractive oriental area rugs and the warmth of the pale rose-colored walls. Glass, water-filled vases held white tulips that were still closed. Good lighting—both artificial and natural gave the room a bright and airy atmosphere. Ensuite, there were a tiled bathroom with large mirrors— a Jacuzzi and shower with excellent water pressure.
She grabbed the remote and I the shower.
“My mommy is wonderful.” she said. “This is the prettiest room. Can we keep it forever?”