My parents advised me to never talk to strangers. That’s a little hard to do when you’re stuck alone on an overnight MegaBus in a remote part of France with no cell phone and the wrong currency. Yikes.
I had just finished the grueling New York Bar exam that I had spent an outrageous amount of time studying for that summer. I decided to reward myself with a celebratory solo excursion through Europe- so I packed a suitcase, grabbed my passport and hung my camera around my neck ready for this next adventure. After a wonderful week in London, I took a quick flight to Paris where I indulged in macaroons, artisan cheeses and delicious red wines guilt-free. I strolled through the luscious green jardins, nursing an afternoon cappuccino, and scarfed down thick pastas in simmering tomato sauce. Camera full, stomach even fuller.
A fellow traveler I had met on the way suggested I continue my free spirit of exploring; so I did what any recent graduate on a low budget would do: book an 8-hour overnight trip on a MegaBus.
I boarded the bus at the Gare du Nord station around 8pm on my way to Amsterdam to witness a revolutionary weekend celebrating the LGBTQ community.
“Bonjour. English, s’il vous plait?” I had charmingly asked the bus driver.
“Oui,” he grunted.
With the assistance of a local Parisian, I explained in great detail how I spoke no French and needed to make sure I get to Amsterdam Schipol by the morning.
The bus driver looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Ok." I relied on that affirmation and eventually dozed off.
Several hours later, I woke up from an uncomfortable slumber to find myself in a dimly lit town named Drancy. I panicked. Looking around, I noticed a few stray passengers still asleep but the main person, the driver, was nowhere in sight.
Mustering up courage, I anxiously woke up a nearby stranger. "Where are we? Is this Amsterdam?" I exclaimed.
"No," she said. "Too far. You missed connecting bus," she replied in a mix of French-English. She turned her back and went back to sleep.
I sunk back into my seat, holding back tears as I tried to contemplate what I should do. Relying on 10% battery, I “googled” hotels, flights and Airbnbs in the area that were available on short notice. Should I get a hotel room for the night? Should I get a cab back into proper Paris and get on the next bus to Amsterdam? Or should I just get to the next airport and fly home?
A light tap on my shoulder interrupted my swirling thoughts. A woman with short brown hair and deep hazel eyes looked at me.
“Bonjour. Je suis Marie. Ça va?” she genuinely asked. Of course, I’m not okay. Eyes spilling tears, I told her my tale.
After listening for a few minutes, Marie looked at me and said, “Let’s go. I’ll take you to the station.”
I took a deep breath. I was at a crossroads. A part of me knew logically this was not the safest decision, given I did not know who Marie was. On the other hand, I was terrified of being by myself in this desolate town in the middle of the night.
For the next 45 minutes, my new friend and I drove through the French streets on the way to Paris Gare de Lyon to catch my connecting bus to Amsterdam. She reminisced about her solo trip to Italy where she too got lost and was assisted by a local. We shared stories about other travel mishaps, and laughed about how panic is a universal feeling. She confided in me how she grew up in a small rural town in France and dreams of one day working in the hustle and bustle of Paris.
When it comes to traveling, internationally or domestically, it is best to exercise safe decisions. That night, in the middle of Drancy, I luckily found a stranger who was able to help me out and allow me to reach my ultimate destination. Goes to show, friendship is also universal.
Written by Pooja Shah; Photos by Pooja Shah.
For more travel photography from Pooja, follow her on Instagram.
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