Location | Aboard a Ouibus from Paris to Lille
Most people don’t know it, but I shared a bus with Barack Obama and former French president Jacques Chirac, was driven by Alexander the Great, got delayed at Charles de Gaulle airport because of an abandoned suitcase (this was in the aftermath of the Paris attacks) , and successfully gave directions in the same trip.
The day started just like any other of my many trips to the French capital: it was my last day, so after the whole litany of daytime things, I hopped on metro line 6 with my then-girlfriend; Place d’Italie-Bercy. Goodbyes were said, buses were boarded, and the passive voice was used. While boarding, one of the passengers jokingly told Alexandre that he went by Jacques Chirac, the man behind him chose to become Barack Obama and that stuck the rest of the trip.
The fun began as the bus began rolling, paralleling the Seine to meet up with the A1–the busiest freeway in France–for the 3 hour haul to Lille. The bus driver, an enthusiastic man named Alexandre, began welcoming us aboard with vigor. He started joking around with Presidents Obama and Chirac–his energy and gusto for having a load of people behind him caught on and not even thirty minutes later spread to everyone.
Suddenly, we weren’t paying customers aboard a bus line belonging to the SNCF on just another revenue-generating trip. During those three hours, we became a family. As we approached Roissypole, the bus terminal for Charles de Gaulle airport, we hit a snag. First off, Alexandre got lost in the maze of streets. But we all laughed it off. Then we were barred from entering because of a perceived bomb thread caused by a suspicious package.
Rather than sit tight and wait for it to blow over, Alexandre took initiative: calling every passenger he was supposed to pick up at that stop and having them meet the bus in the street, just a few short hops away. The moment they boarded, they joined our family and actively participated. It was here that he introduced himself as Alexander the Great.
Genuine human connections
I was seated in seat 1B, window seat on the right side. Next to me was a woman travelling to visit her son. In front of me was Alexander the Great. Somewhere in Picardie, and thanks to the groundwork that Alexandre laid out by making the bus such a welcoming environment, the woman and I began to chat. We talked about almost literally everything about Lille and Paris and her son and she finally brought up my accent.
I told her I was American, and studying in Lille for a semester. After hearing this, she looked at me–and asked how I felt about the events at Stade de France and the Bataclan. She was curious to hear the American perspective, she said, since we got attacked in 2001 and since we are known for being a secure nation. So, I gave her my opinion. And told her that given the time I had spent in Lille and Paris, the friends I made and the kindness of one family to welcome me into their home for dinner, I began to feel more and more French at times. The Paris attacks snapped all of the foreign students in Lille into that mindset.
Satisfied, we began talking about origin. I was American. She was Algerian. Alexandre spoke up and told us that he was Portuguese. But when he heard my name he though I was Spanish. A mishmash of languages and identities later, we all learned something.
We’re all always an outsider somewhere
One of the most important reasons to travel is to be different. Staying in one area, one state, one country means that one is always in the majority; always the same. Leaving that zone we begin to see more of the world and different norms. As our norms clash with their norms, we begin to become the different ones. My seatmate, Alexandre, and I all had to adapt to life in a country where we did not necessarily belong as the majority. Alexandre and I did not speak French as our mother tongues.
But we chose to go and live there anyway.
That made a world of difference.
I shared a bus with Barack Obama, Jacques Chirac, and Alexander the Great
But that wasn’t the highlight of that trip. The highlight was having the honor of sharing a bus with a person who brought it upon himself to be a light in others’ days. Through his efforts, an entire bus full of strangers felt united, and three hours along the A1 melted away. Normally, the delay in Roissypole would have been enough to ruin people’s days. But the other passengers and I just laughed it off together.
As we left, the was a line of passengers waiting to shake his hand.
On that trip, I learned that belonging is more complicated than being accepted. It starts with choosing to leave in the first place and becoming comfortable in that discomfort.
Three hours. 131 miles. Two presidents. One major life lesson. And all of it thanks to one man’s infectious energy.
To Alexandre the Great, wherever you are, thank you for your energy and the reaffirmation that treating people like that matter makes a world of difference in their outlooks.
Feature Image by Caleb George
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