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Herding students around Europe’s highlights

We talk for what seems like hours, about American boys, Italian girls, traveling the world. Liz takes great pleasure in how Julio looks her in the eyes and calls her by her full name each time he addresses her. “Elizabet,” he says, silencing the h.

“That’s so romantic,” she says. “I think I want to change my name to Elizabet.”

The Tuscan hills are long gone by the time we settle in for bed, which is an adventure in itself. We pull down the two top bunks that have been strapped to the wall and lock them in place with straps that look like seatbelts. We learn quickly that they must be firmly locked or they will slam back into the wall, and Stefano, the car attendant who is trying to sleep next door, doesn’t like to tell us more than once how far the slams echo. There is only room for two people in the compartment while we arrange the beds, so Julio and I take responsibility and set up for the night. I claim one of the bottom bunks, and Liz and Lesley jump up onto the two top bunks, leaving Julio a mere arm’s length from me below.

We sleep in our clothes, but soon after we turn out the lights Julio stands, his head inches from the girls’ faces, and peels off his shirt, eliciting giggles that he cannot hear because of the Italian death metal that thumps in his ears thanks to Liz’s gift of pilas. She and Lesley whisper to each other in Spanish for a few moments, followed by “Jesu Christo” and more giggles.

“Hey, no fair,” I say. “You know I don’t understand Spanish.” We whisper for a while like we are all sixteen and expect our parents to burst in any moment and demand “lights out” before the bass from Julio’s CD player lulls us to sleep.

I am the first one awake at seven-thirty in the morning. I have tossed and turned all night, jostled by the uneven train tracks. Light seeps in through the gaps in the window shade. I peek outside and take in the French countryside—a sky blushing golden-pink, rows of stone cottages, rolling vineyards.

When we are about an hour from Paris, there is a knock on our compartment door and a troll of a woman with a cart shoves four trays into the room. Each tray consists of a small muffin, a dense brown piece of bread with large gray chunks in it, some jam, a two-ounce cup of juice, and some lukewarm water for tea or instant coffee. My roommates wipe the sleep from their eyes, smooth back their hair, and survey the food with curiosity. I take a bite of the brown slice. It is dry and crumbles on my tongue, and I can’t resist the urge to spit it out. I eat the muffin instead and down the juice in two swigs.

“Thank God I saved some of this,” Liz says and digs out her Styrofoam box. We each take a bite of the leftover tiramisu, savoring its creamy sweetness.

None of us says much for the rest of the journey to Paris. Down the hall, I hear Emily screaming about how she needs to wash her hair. I manage to squeeze into the tiny bathroom at the end of the car before she does so I can at least change clothes, expertly performing a series of gyrations so as not to touch my feet to the sticky, gum-stained floor. Fifteen minutes outside of Paris, Emily emerges from the bathroom with all of her makeup on as if we are going to a disco, sparkly eye shadow included.

I look to Liz and Lesley, neither one of whom has even bothered to put on any blush or lip gloss. Their hair is disheveled, and they are still wearing the same tee-shirts and jeans they had on when we boarded the train last night. Lesley is sprawled on her bunk, and Liz is stretched out next to Julio, listening to his music with him through a set of shared earphones, one for each of them.

I had been waiting for a cultural epiphany this whole trip, had sought it out with each picture I had taken and each cathedral we had toured. But Liz and Lesley had beaten me to it. I suddenly realize that knowing how to ask for directions in Innsbruck or order a meal in Paris is not a feat in communication. And I know that when Liz and Lesley return home, they will not remember Schönbrunn Palace or Notre-Dame or even the tiramisu. They will remember Julio.

When the train finally rolls into Gare Montparnasse, we part with our new Italian friend. “Arrivederci,” says Liz, blowing air kisses at Julio as we line up by the car door, ready to explore ten of Paris’s major attractions in the next day and a half. He nods to us. “Have a good time,” he says. Then he digs in his backpack, seeming to remember something. He pulls out his CD player and takes out the batteries. “Thanks for the pilas,” he says, handing them to Liz.

“Keep the pilas,” Liz replies. “That way you can remember the crazy American girl named Elizabet who gave them to you.”

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