Trying not to Die in the French Countryside

Suzan Frierson
October 20, 2016

I’m still mildly shocked that I’m not dead or lost somewhere in the French countryside. Since my sense of direction and ability to be on time for things are both nonexistent, I planned my weekend trip to Paris and Pierrefonds happily, but with the looming feeling that I was signing my death warrant. I was going to Paris all alone, then on Saturday taking another train to the town of Compiègne, which offered a two-bus trip to the tiny village of Pierrefonds, the final destination of that day trip.

I’ve been to Paris before, but I didn’t make it to the Sacre Coeur, so that was where I headed Friday night after my arrival. Then I went back to the youth hostel I was staying in, images of bedbugs and flesh-eating mattress-dwelling parasites dancing in my mind, hoping none of my three roommates were serial killers. Since I didn’t end up dead in the middle of the night, my first time staying in a hostel went pretty well. Sure, people came back late and threw themselves against the walls while screaming chants to awaken the dead, but that’s okay—it was a cute room, I felt safe, there was a little Parisian bookstore outside my window, and free breakfast in the morning. I survived.

I woke up decently early to take the metro to Paris Gare du Nord, step one to reaching Pierrefonds. I got there well before the train to Compiègne (step two!), successfully asked someone at the Compiègne station where I could wait for the bus (step three!) that would take me to the stop called Magenta, where I’d catch the 11:38 bus (step four!) that would take me the rest of the way to Pierrefonds.

I should probably mention that this is also the story of how I met one of my best friends in the world. It’s also one of the greatest examples I’ve amassed so far to rebuke the stereotype that French people are mean or rude.

Anyway, back to Compiègne! I waited for a half an hour, watching the other buses go by, until mine finally arrived (I was half-convinced before I even left Nantes that here, with the meticulously-scheduled buses without which I’d be stranded, was where my weekend would collapse). Surprise—this first bus was free, and I was the only person on it! The driver (my future bestie) asked where I was going.

“Pierrefonds,” I said.

“That’s odd. Usually there’s a bus that leaves directly from the train station.”

Oh God. I knew I did it wrong, I knew it!!! Still, I held out my printed itinerary. “No…the Internet told me to take this bus to Magenta, then…”

He studied it, then nodded. “Yes, actually. That works.”

Really?! Well, I was taking that as a success. I took my seat in the second row back and we were off.

For five and a half seconds, when we hit a wall of dead-stop traffic. Panic built as seconds flew by in the knot of honking cars. The digital clock with its red numbers counted down the minutes to disaster:

11:30, 11:33, 11:37…

… 11:38, the time the second bus was scheduled to leave, and we were still surrounded by cars. 

I felt oddly empty. Maybe I can call a taxi. It would cost me an arm and a leg—I researched that option when I was booking my trip. Even walking might work better than this.

“Merde,” future bestie said, and took a turn. “I can take you to Pierrefonds.”

I was sure I’d misheard him. “Really?”

“Yes. You’re going to see the castle?”

“Yes. Thank you!” Really?! The world isn’t going to end now? “A TV show I really like was filmed there.”

Of course now traffic cleared up. We sped out of Compiègne and onto a narrow road framed by lush forest. If I’d been in my right mind I would have wondered if he was taking me out here to kill me, but of course my new best friend wouldn’t do that!

“I’m sorry I’m driving so fast, but I have a route to get back to.”

“It’s okay!”

“I would speak English…I’m sorry, but my English is awful.”

Friend, you could speak Hungarian and I wouldn’t mind. I'm going to make it! I’m going to Pierrefonds!!

A sign bearing my destination’s name appeared and the forest gave way to little houses. We turned a corner and I saw the castle—clearly enormous even at a distance, familiar from hours and hours of one of my favorite TV shows. I pressed my face close to the window and fought back the urge to start screaming like a kid in Disneyland for the first time.

My best friend stopped the bus. “You can see the castle, right?” he asked, clearly concerned. “This is close enough?”

“Yes, this is perfect!” I pulled out the wrinkled five-euro note I’d meant to use to pay the bus fare before I found out it was free. “Here…thank you, thank you so much!” I wished I could give him a thousand euros, but that’s life.

The castle was even better than I thought it would be…so amazing I can’t even really write about it. Afterwards I found the bus stop and caught the last of only two or three daily buses to Compiègne, and realized on the drive back through the forest that the greatest stress of my trip—and the greatest reward—was behind me. I’d made it; I’d figured it out with a little help and kindness along the way.

There have been a lot of incredible trips over weekends during my semester so far…but this one was the only one to leave me over- and around-the-moon happy.  I returned to Nantes with a greater confidence in myself than I’ve ever had before; I'd planned a trip, gone on my own, had significant conversations in French...and of course, made a new best friend.

And now I own a Scouts of Europe 2017 wall calendar, but that's a whole other story. 

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Suzan Frierson

<p>Hi! My name is Suzan Frierson and I&#39;m a junior at the University of Redlands. I&#39;m a Creative Writing major and French minor, and the language inspired me to study abroad in Nantes. I love traveling, writing, and going on adventures.</p>

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