By Georgina Vivian
My back was aching. It was December last year, and I was doing the whole backpacking around Europe thing. As the term “backpacking” suggests, I had a huge bag on, hence my aching back.
I was on a train in Paris, travelling from Gare du Nord (one of the main railway stations) to Charles De Gaulle Airport (Terminal 2 to be exact). I was sick of putting my backpack down and hauling it back up again, so I had opted to keep it on, despite the pain and the feeling that the backpack straps were giving my shoulders Chinese burns. I thought that if I put it down one more time before I reached my destination, I would give up, throw my hands in the air and just leave it on the train. This may have resulted in me being arrested under suspicion of planting a bomb on the train, so I thought the best idea was probably to keep it on my back.
I stood somewhere near a doorway of the carriage, trying not to get in people’s way while also trying not to back into anyone I couldn’t see behind me. This had, in the past, led to awkward encounters with strangers and me copping tirades of abuse in languages I didn’t understand. Despite the language barrier, their dirty looks let me know that what they were saying was nasty.
The train stopped at one of the stations along the way, and I watched as two middle-aged men strolled into the carriage. My eyes lit up as I noticed they both had piano accordions strapped to their chests. Their fingers scampered over the black and white buttons and keys as they chatted from opposite doorways, softly pressing the notes while slowly pulling the crumpled accordions out and compressing them back in again. I could faintly hear the sounds of French music (or maybe I just thought it sounded French, given where I was) sailing across my way every now and then and I smiled as I thought about how stereotypically French this whole situation was.
I watched the men and silently willed them to stop gasbagging and play some loud music for us. As the train started moving again, the men received my telepathic pleads and began to play in synchronicity. I let the music wash over me, forgetting the pains in my back, and feeling as though I should be in a little café on the Seine, with red and white chequered tablecloths, carafes of wine, and baguettes smothered in Brie.
Nobody else on the train looked up from their newspapers or took their headphones off, and I seemed to be the only person who wanted to hear the men play. Either that or they were regulars on the train, along with everyone else, and the commuters were sick of these habitual encounters. But not me. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face as they played. Such a tourist. One of the men caught my eye and grinned back at me. He shouted something to me in French, but I didn’t quite catch what he said. Seeing as I had been studying French for a few years at university, I probably should have understood!
The two musicians enthralled me for about ten minutes before they stopped playing and started walking around the carriage, shaking a small, dirty paper cup in the faces of the commuters on the train. They came up to me, and seeing as I had obviously enjoyed their music so much, I felt that anything other than my utmost generosity would be seen as rude. I reached into my pocket and emptied the contents. I threw in an Ikea pencil a German had given me, a mint from a budget airline and all my spare change. I also threw in a little “très bon!” in my best faux Français accent. The spare change I offered only amounted to about €1.75, but they happily took it and moved into the next carriage. It wasn’t much, but at least it would provide them with some shrapnel to buy a new train ticket and hopefully entertain another tourist the next day.