Conversations with few words, Part I: Spontaneous combustion

I was finally alone. After over a week of amazing travel, incredible people and fantastic, rambling conversations into all hours of the night, I sent my navigationally-challenged friend through the turnstile at Atocha to take a wrong train and I was on my own. Just me, my bags and my increasingly sore throat.

I had time. Resigned to spend the night in Madrid before making my way home to Normandy, I had all afternoon to procure the train tickets that I wasn’t able to buy online, then get myself to the hotel for some much needed rest. I tightened the straps on my backpack and headed for the ticket office.

Distancia Larga,” it said on the wall, as well as Renfe (I had already almost gotten on the metro once), so I must be in the right place. I grabbed a ticket from the machine pour otras días, and seeing no place to sit, plopped my stuff down on the ground and finally relaxed a bit. I looked at my ticket number: 401. Then I looked at the screen: 261. Shit. Well, I had all afternoon, right?

Standing there finally letting my guard down a bit, I felt my fatigue start to slowly take over my body. A seat opened up and I took it without hesitation. I looked at the board: 265. How is this possible? Am I in the right place? The thought crossed my mind, but not strongly enough to overpower the relief I felt to just be sitting and quietly waiting. So I waited.

Until the coughing started. It came out of nowhere and was suddenly uncontrollable. I took a slug of water. No help. The tickle in the back of my throat would not let up. My eyes started watering. This was no good. It was a major train station, there had to be a pharmacy. All I had to do was find it, fast.

I was able to stifle my cough long enough to turn to the woman next to me and mutter as politely as possible, “por favor, sabe si hay una farmacia?” Which is as close to a complete sentence in Spanish as I am capable. Her reply was much lengthier, many words were said, the only one of which I really understood was, “no“. But through her gestures and her body language, I gathered her meaning, “No, I’m really not sure, but you should ask one of the shop keepers next door.”

Given context and intention, words are really only a small part of communication.

I thanked her, gathered my strength, looked at my ticket number and then at the board (273) and headed out into the corridor. That was when it happened. Spontaneous combustion. Another coughing fit accompanied by watering eyes, and my nose that decided to join the party. Half hidden behind a big support column away from most of the foot traffic in the station, I had never been so glad at my compulsive need to have tissues on me at all times. I emptied what felt like the entire contents of my head into several of them and took a deep breath.

“You got this,” I said to myself.

Slightly drier, I walked in slow motion into the nearest shop, and repeated my grammatically incorrect query. This time I got an affirmative answer, again, not so much with words as with gestures (although it is handy to understand “right” and “left” in any language).

I made my way slowly down the long corridor of the station lined with shops and full of people, until I arrived at what was quite obviously where I was supposed to turn right. It was a big, open, well-lit part of the station. There were also shops, but somehow the whole area was different. It was like arriving in Galeries Lafayette after walking through Tati, Bloomingdale’s after a Target, or Harrods after…well everything seems fancy to me in England, but you get my drift. It was night and day.

That creeping thought I had about being in the wrong place came slinking back as I passed by a different ticket office that looked decidedly more appealing and less busy than where I had just come from. But in my zombie state all I saw up on the boards was “Hoy“, and all I could I think was that hoy and ahora all I needed was that pharmacy. I let the nagging thought creep back into its hole and trudged on.

A flashing green cross really is like a holy revelation when you know that your very salvation lies within. Few words were needed on my part with the woman behind the counter who took one look at me with my hand on my throat and quickly produced a small box of what I can only describe as a miracle. Of course they were only throat lozenges, but in that moment they were golden drops of pure heaven. I asked her to throw in some paracetamol for good measure, 750mg? No, make it an even mil por favor. I was saved.

Walking back through the nice part of the station, my rational mind told the rest of me to stop and inquire about that really promising looking ticket office. The rest of me did not, however, and for reasons that are still unclear to me, listen…