Being a foreigner always comes with a collection of foreigner-specific embarrassments. For example, sometimes you get lost and have to stand on the sidewalk examining a huge, crinkled, fold-out map while everyone who passes by you is acutely aware of your out-of-towner vulnerability. Other times, you walk dazedly into a shop and wander around until you locate your objective.
Then once you’ve stared at the shelves of foreign brand names five times longer than the usual customers and finally select something that you’re almost certain is the item you came for, you can’t figure out where the check-out line is. These things happen and I take them in stride, but I must say it gratifies me just a little to see one embarrassing, everyday behavior that applies to everyone in the city and that is running to catch the tram.
It’s not so much a matter of being pressed for time or making sure you get on “the last train out of town.” Between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., there’s another tram every five minutes or so. The wait is no more than a slight nuisance. But there’s this sense of failure, of missed destiny, when the very tram you’re trying to catch pulls out of the stop before your eyes. I’ve watched people rush to the door and frantically push the button to open it, only to find that they’re a moment too late: the door remains shut and the tram stays before them for one taunting second before the vehicle continues down the track. What disappointment to be only two seconds too late!
So how do you avoid such frustrating experiences? Run. I’ve seen people who were already on their way to the tram stop simply hustle across the tracks and mount the appropriate vehicle. I’ve seen people run thirty yards off when they notice that the tram they need is about to pull into the stop up ahead. And last Friday night, I even saw one person descend from line two and sprint down the block, through the crowd, and across the street in order to board the tram for line one that was just pulling in (“Run, François, run!”).
I’ve run for the tram a couple times myself (fold up that umbrella to prevent extra drag!), but I’m definitely not the only one. Somehow, the potential for looking a little ridiculous is judged less irritating than just barely missing your vehicle and those who are already safely aboard don’t seem to snicker. In fact, voyagers sometimes hold the door when they see somebody hustling toward their car; the conductor may not wait for people to board, but – like an elevator – the door can’t close if it senses someone in the way and the vehicle won’t leave until the doors are all closed. In fact, holding the tram door is probably the only friendly gesture I’ve seen offered between strangers in Nantes.
Afterward, of course, they return to intentionally ignoring one another, but for one moment, there’s an act of kindness, a sort of solidarity – because sometimes even the people who have it all together have to collapse their umbrellas and make a dash for it, too.