by joanna bair
“Ventimiglia ultima fermata…” The train conductor rattled off a stream of Italian words. As Alessia opened her eyes, she tried processing, but her brain didn’t function in Italian this early in the morning. Venti was twenty, and wasn’t miglia million? Or did he mean twenty minutes? She adjusted her seat and followed him down the hallway, but he disappeared into the next car. She saw someone peering out at fields whizzing past in the dim morning light.
“Scusi, parli inglese?”
“Yes.” A man with a gorgeous smile turned from the window, combing his hand through a trendy blond haircut.
Alessia let out a sigh, relieved he spoke English. At the same time, her eyes appreciated his beauty. “I was half asleep. What was the conductor saying about Ventimiglia?”
“The French trains are on strike. We stop on the border in Ventimiglia.”
“What? I have to get to Nice. My sister’s getting married!”
The man shrugged. “And I have business, but it’s France. They strike often. My name is Mathieu.”
“Where are you from?”
“Belgium. And you?”
“America. I’ve always wanted to see Rome, so I vacationed there before the wedding. It’s tomorrow.” Flustered, she spoke too fast and tugged on the mass of knots in her curls, a hot mess next to this European dream. Mathieu chatted about French trains, which turned into country comparisons, and she leaned forward, laughing at his jokes, ignoring the passing coastline.
They passed crumbled walls everywhere and cigarette butts strewn on the street around a wrinkly man sitting along a deserted building. Minutes later the train jerked into the station.
Alessia shuddered, staying near Mathieu, who seemed to welcome her presence. He approached the counter, and Alessia strained to comprehend.
“The buses are on strike too?” She leaned in and Mathieu nodded.
Two taxis waited on the curb between them and the blinding sun. A small paper sign hung with the prices in the window of each cab.
“I don’t have that many euros. I’m broke. Can we Uber instead? Is there Uber here? I can use my dad’s account. Wait, no I can’t. My credit card is maxed. Dad will be livid if I ask for help. We spent all our money on the wedding.” She collapsed on the dusty curb and watched cars zoom past in crazy patterns that made no sense as she considered her options.
“How far is it?” Alessia asked Mathieu. The driver standing nearby overheard and answered.
“Where’s the shoreline?” Alessia gathered her bags and tapped on her phone’s GPS.
“Lido, beach.” The driver pointed down a street lined with palm trees. Alessia headed that direction and ignored the driver’s heavily accented, “No walk.”
The buildings grew nicer, newer, and less crumbly as she glimpsed the sea between them. Mathieu caught up. “Alessia, you can’t walk to Nice, let alone Monaco. A forty-minute drive through windy, mountainous roads equals an all-day journey.”
“I don’t care. I have time.” She quickened her pace. She didn’t want her family giving her a hard time about asking for handouts. She’d figure out a way to get there. The sun sparkled on the sea, matching flecks in the pebbles forming a beach unlike any she’d seen before. She longed to jump in the turquoise waters where the promenade ended. Instead, she climbed stairs leading to what appeared to be ruins. She chose to ignore Mathieu, embarrassed he knew she was broke. But by the time she reached the top of the third flight, her shoulders were red and her entire body glistened with sweat. She stopped to pull out a water bottle. Lugging her simple carry-on up these ancient stairs did not help her cause.
Mathieu stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Look, beyond this hill is another and another. We’re at the bottom of the Alps. It will take you forever. Listen, I need to get to Nice too. Will you let me pay?”
“No,” she answered. She pulled out her phone again. Her GPS had finally loaded. Nine hours to walk to Nice. It was barely seven, and already the sun beat heat on them. She’d collapse before noon. She regretted quitting Zumba. “All right. I’ll pay you back. What is my sister going to say about me taking handouts from a stranger?”
“Your sister wouldn’t want you to spend the wedding in the hospital from sunstroke. Come.” Mathieu handed her his backpack and reached out his other hand for her carry-on. “Switch. It’s lighter.”
Alessia didn’t argue. He helped her down the limestone steps. She rested at the bottom, taking in the Mediterranean again. “Well, if there had to be a place to get stranded, at least it’s beautiful.”
A few cafes along the promenade were opening up outdoor seating for the day, and Mathieu led her to a cluster of iron chairs near a table. “Have you had real Italian espresso?”
“You must.” Mathieu ordered for them.
By nine, when they strolled back down the palm-lined street, she felt like she’d known him for years. This time the town appeared safer, and she appreciated the pastel buildings and balconies draped with the morning’s laundry.
A taxi sat in front of the station as if waiting for them. Mathieu held the door open, speaking French to the driver who loaded Alessia’s carry-on into the trunk. The driver turned to her and spouted out words in French.
“Do you want to hold your boyfriend’s backpack in the car?” Mathieu winked as he translated.
“My boy…” She handed Mathieu’s bag to the driver and laughed off the mistake. Settling into the back of the taxi, she caught Mathieu’s gaze. “Are you working all week?”
“The conference starts in two days. I wanted to see some sights.”
“What would you think about being my guest at the wedding?”
He smiled, covering her hand with his. “I thought you’d never ask.”