The Year of Last Holidays

If you were dying, but still felt healthy now, what would you do with the time you had left?
This question is the premise for two films entitled Last Holiday. In 2016, I lived the plot line.

Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

If you were dying, but still felt healthy now, what would you do with the time you had left?

This question is the premise for two films entitled Last Holiday.

In the 1950 version of the story, Alec Guinness plays George Bird, a salesperson of modest means and ambitions. During a routine physical, his doctor delivers a terminal diagnosis: he has Lampington’s disease, rare and very deadly — and he will die soon.

Bird wanders into the street in a daze, winds up in a second-hand shop where he purchases a Duke’s wardrobe, then takes himself off to a posh seaside resort. No longer hampered by his “keep-my-head-down attitude,” Bird starts to say exactly what he thinks.

Alec Guinness played George Bird in the original version of Last Holiday (1950).
Alec Guinness played George Bird in the original version of Last Holiday (1950).

The wealthy are charmed. A captain of industry seeks his advice. Bird finds himself the center of attention, and his whole life begins to change. Near the end of the film, his doctor discovers he’s given Bird the wrong diagnosis.

The plot may be familiar to you, even if you haven’t seen the Guinness film. Last Holiday was remade in 2006 with Queen Latifah in the lead role, playing Georgia Byrd, a mild-mannered salesperson selling cookware in a New Orleans department store. Her boss is rude and thoughtless, and he regularly demeans her.

Queen Latifah plays Georgia Byrd in the 2006 re-make of Last Holiday.
Queen Latifah plays Georgia Byrd in the 2006 re-make of Last Holiday.

Georgia spends her evenings cooking complex recipes and dreaming of being a chef. When she receives her terminal diagnosis, she heads off to the Grandhotel Pupp in Czechoslovakia where her hero Chef Didier works. Freed from her regular constraints, Georgia blossoms.

I like both versions of the film. I first saw the original film over thirty years ago; I have to admit, I’ve always thought about it as Obi Wan takes his last holiday . . . since I was twelve when Star Wars came out, Guinness will always live in my imagination that way.

When Latifah’s version of the film came out, I went to see it. I love the re-make. It’s positive, it’s fun — and I love the premise, the “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Little did I know I would get to live the plot line myself.

SO . . . if you were dying, but still felt healthy now, what would you do with the time you had left?

The answer is different for each of us.

I have always dreamed of traveling the world and writing. There were so many years that I couldn’t — no money, then no time, job constraints, a small child at home. But I always thought that one day I would, that I had  to, that I wanted to with a large part of myself, my soul.

Royal Clipper near Soufriere, St. Lucia
Royal Clipper near Soufriere, St. Lucia. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

2016: My Year of Last Holidays

I should mention that my husband Drew, love of my life, died in the summer of 2013 after a 2.5 year fight with terminal cancer. We managed his last holiday — his dream, to go to London and Paris about six months before he passed.

In 2014, I had emergency surgery for a fully obstructed bowel. The Stage III colon cancer had spread to one of eighteen lymph nodes removed along with the tumor.

I started chemo in September 2014, and finished at the end of March 2015. As anyone who has had cancer knows, we live scan to scan.

My oncologist, my surgeon, and I spent the first half of 2016 thinking my cancer had metastasized, but could be cured after two lung surgeries and chemo.

Following a scan in June, things were worse. Based on conversations with my doctors, I expected I might live two years, and none of it was going to be pretty.

In March, I downsized from a large house to a two-bedroom condo; I figured I’d better do it while I still felt strong enough to do the work.

After the bad scan, I quit my job of 24 years.

My daughter and I watch Joe Versus the Volcano that night, another film in keeping with the Last Holiday theme. It’s one of those that people either really, really like or really, really don’t. I kind of love it. Catherine and I kind of loved it together.

Joe Versus the Volcano.

I took five last holidays in 2016.

The first trip was impromptu. I got the bad news, and took my daughter Catherine on a first-class Delta flight to New York for New Year’s Eve. We museumed, and shopped, and walked, and ate amazing food, and saw Broadway shows from the very best seats.

Afterwards came two last holidays before what I expected to be a very bad year of surgery and chemo.

The final two were the last holidays I ever expected to take. Where were these five trips? You know about the Big Apple. Three journeys involved tall ships. One was a trip to Alaska and Puget Sound.

And then something magical happened.

The spots in the pleurae of my lungs disappeared.

In January of 2017, I quit worrying about cancer. I’m staying on my path, to turn my writing and my blog into something bigger.

And you know what? If I hadn’t had the living daylights scared out of me last year, I wouldn’t be here . . . I’d still be sitting in my office, afraid to leave.


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

Thank you for visiting! 

I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.




There are two posts having to do with my cancer, you’ll find them here. I’ll post another shortly, for those who want to know more about the scans, etc.

You’ll find four of my “last holidays” here, broken up into six different blog posts:

Royal Clipper sails near Soufriere in St. Lucia.
Article about my cruise in the Caribbean on the Royal Clipper.

Photograph of Royal Clipper
Article about my voyage on Royal Clipper in the Mediterranean.

Classic Fiat in Rome
Visiting Rome in the summer? Tips for seeing the sights while avoiding the crowds.

Screenshot from Inside Passage Alaska, Minus the Cruise Ship
My trip to Juneau, Skagway, Haines, and Sitka using the Alaskan Marine Highway.

Article about my westbound Atlantic crossing on Star Flyer.

Screenshot from Land of Tall Trees and Fat Fish
On Golden Pond on Puget Sound. My daughter joined me for this peaceful time watching the great mountain, Rainier.

Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship

And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.

Star Clipper raises sail Black and white image
Raising Sail. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

And so it begins . . .  I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.

Star Flyer is a barquantine with four masts, and the first of the Star Clipper’s tall ships.

Star Clippers Tall Ship
Star Flyer is a classic barquantine tall ship. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

A group of 129 like-minded people boarded Star Flyer, either in Malaga, Spain, or Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, for the Trans-Atlantic sailing. This voyage attracts a different sort of passenger, and a surprising number return for the Atlantic crossing many times over.


A true tall ship. A BIG ocean. Sunrises and sunsets. Stars. The Milky Way. Endless water.

It is a voyage into our past, a voyage into ourselves. The thirteen days at sea give the time and the quiet to internalize the sounds of the ship, to think. At night, standing on the bridge of the ship looking forward, all is dark. I am surrounded by stars and the sound of wind, canvas, and water. That bright swath of sky — The Milky Way — is resplendent with no other light to distract.

The Milky Way over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Milky Way over the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: Shaunl, iStock Photo.

What color is the sea? How many shades of blue exist?

At dawn today,  the sky turns a powdery bare-blue. Grey clouds edged with pink light add a subtle contrast. 

Sunrise on the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: Bill Palmer.
Sunrise. Photograph: Bill Palmer.

Later, a silvery light breaks a deep blue swell — the shimmering of a dolphin’s skin during a short, curving leap.

In a circle we move, dragging the horizon with us, re-describing it as the day passes on.

Sometimes the ocean is a blue-black velvet. At other times, a sapphire.

Then the sun turns the ocean a golden yellow and white of reflected thunderheads — and only the horizon line remains blue — a thin ribbon of cobalt.

Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

A Little Weather

The first night out of La Gomera, I wake at 3:00 a.m. to large swells rolling me back and forth in my bed and the sound of unsecured items being tossed to the floor. Folks with cabins near the dining room hear crashing china.

Northeast of us near the Strait of Gibraltar, a large low pressure system has formed suddenly. It causes 12 meter seas near Madeira, and 5 – 6 meter (16.5 to 19.5 foot) seas for us.  At sunrise, the crew strings lines along both sides the upper deck of the Flyer, as well as in the open Tropical Bar — we need them to keep our balance as the ship moves with the waves.

I find the whole thing exhilarating. I’m spending a lot of time in the open Tropical bar, and some up on the top deck. The 5 – 6 meter seas don’t frighten me  —  but they require me to watch my step. As a big wave rolls under the ship, one side of the deck tips deeply downward, then slants back to the other side in equal measure. When this happens, you’d better hang on to something, or you’ll go sliding across the ship.

Throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.  — Mark Twain

In a glint of sunlight, the sea produces a momentary rainbow on a wave’s edge. The ocean sucks and swells, a lacy froth – a crest – and she roils on, building here, falling there. She lifts the ship high on a swell, then pulls us down — holding us close and dear, before sending us up again.

For these two days, I am in the society of people who feel the same way about the waves. However, when the sea flattens out after nearly 60 hours, we are all thankful. Thankful and tired. The constant rolling means balancing each step and being sure to hold on always. Showers are difficult to impossible — too much movement to risk it. Every meal is spent holding onto the table, the plate, and the glass with only two hands.

There is the sun, there is the sea, there is me.

On the fourth day, the Atlantic relaxes into a flat mirror, and the population of the ship increases. I realize that nearly a third of the passengers never left their cabins during the rough period.

Sunset Atlantic Ocean from the Star Fyer
The Atlantic became so calm, that it was difficult to believe it was the same ocean. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Too much of a good thing?

Yes, it is calm, but there is little wind. The sails hang slack, and then there is a great, cracking THWOMP as they fill, catching the wind and holding before losing it again. Then another crack a minute later. The sea is a flat shield set with silver stones. Inscrutable. Endless.

Sailmaker on the Star Flyer
One of the sailmakers on the Star Flyer, working on the main staysail. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

While we are not becalmed, I start to understand the doldrums. The water glints diamond hard, and we are making less than two knots with the sails. Captain Sergey turns the engines back on.

The sounds of the ship are the sounds of a workshop. A saw, then a hammer striking wood. The smell of sawdust and varnish. The whir of the industrial sewing machine. A chisel chinging on a bit of swimming pool rust. The rustling of a fisherman’s sail, bustled together by six seamen before it’s hoisted into position.

The storm damaged the main staysail badly that first evening, ripping it all along the bottom seam. The sail repair advances slowly, a work in progress for at least ten days. Now and again the Captain and first officer stand looking at the ruined sail with the sailmaker — along with the huge new sections of Dacron that have been cut to size. The sailmaker kneels and measures with the sail tacked into the deck for cutting.

Sunrise, Sunset

The two most magical events of the day, every day. I’m sharing “Seattle Bill” Palmer’s series of of sunrise/sunset images:

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Practical Questions

For those of you considering an Atlantic crossing with Star Clippers, here is a review of the more practical aspects of my westbound Trans-Atlantic cruise on the Star Flyer in the fall of 2016.

I was onboard Star Flyer for three weeks. The first week was a cruise from Malaga, Spain to Las Palmas. The second two weeks were the Trans-Atlantic portion of the trip, going from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, to Bridgetown, Barbados. This way, passengers may choose either a longer or shorter Trans-Atlantic experience.

So, is thirteen days at sea boring?

I had never been this many days at sea with no ports of call, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would feel. I figured I would know halfway into the trip. The answer for me, was no — I wasn’t bored at all. I found it deeply relaxing. I brought things to read, movies on my iPad, photos to edit in Lightroom. The ship has a library and a substantial DVD collection as well.

Closing ceremony for the Star Flyer Olympic Games, Fall 2016.
Closing ceremony for the Star Flyer Olympic Games, Fall 2016.

The cruise director and her sports team staff prepared a schedule of activities each day, so truthfully, passengers could be as “busy” or relaxed as they wanted to be. Star Flyer also had a special yoga instructor on for the crossing. Typically, there were two yoga classes each day, as well as two or three other fitness offerings. Four or five days out of La Gomera, it was warm enough to take a dip in the pool and lounge on the deck.

And — mast climbing anyone?

Some of the activities I participated in were the Olympic Games, the daily trivia quiz, and Captain’s story time, a navigation class on the bridge, and a star class after dinner. Oh, and the first-time Atlantic crossing baptism.

Lounging on deck, looking up at the sails and the sky. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Lounging on deck, looking up at the sails and the sky. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Olympic Games: four teams, five days, three events per afternoon. It was great, silly fun!

One thing to note: generally, the ship would have had wifi internet access; however, the storm near the Canary Islands knocked out the ship’s wifi, and we were without internet access for the crossing. Important communication could still be handled through the purser’s office. Honestly, I enjoyed being unplugged.

Worried about Being Seasick?

If you are thinking of taking a cruise on the Star Flyer clipper ship, being seasick is a real concern for many people. I was not sick — but then I did take Dramamine proactively, particularly on the couple days during the bad weather. After being on Royal Clipper for two cruises this year, I felt confidant that I could handle the Atlantic Crossing.

My advice is this. If you get seasick really easily, this is probably not for you.

However, if you simply haven’t done much (or any) sailing, but you are really captivated by the idea of taking a voyage on one of these beautiful ships, try a week long cruise in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean to see how you feel.

Star Clippers has even scheduled several three night cruises out of Venice specifically for people who would like to try sailing on one of their tall ships but aren’t ready to commit to seven or more days.

Another thing to be aware of: due to the size of the ship, there are no elevators. You need to be capable of climbing stairs in both calm and rough weather.

Sunrise on the Stern of Star Flyer
“Atlanta Bill” watches the sun rise. He is part of my favorite family onboard — we formed Team Portugal for the Star Flyer Olympic Games.

Fellow Passengers

On most Star Clipper cruises, 50% to 60% of passengers are repeat customers. On this trip, of the 129 people aboard, 92 had sailed with Star Clippers before — so over 71%. Most of the ship attended the Captain’s champagne reception for repeat passengers.

On this voyage, the passengers were predominantly American, British or German. There were several French couples as well.

More than half of the passengers had also crossed the Atlantic before, but there were many of us were first timers. Jane, originally Canadian, now from Colombia, came out of a deep love of the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brien. After reading the twenty books in the series, crossing the Atlantic was a compulsion for Jane. She simply had to experience it on a tall ship.

Then there were many passengers who had made the crossing many times. There was Spanish Bill, also known as William the Conqueror (there were four Bills on the ship, so they each got a nickname based on their home). Spanish Bill is actually British, but now lives in Spain. Years ago, Spanish Bill had built a 35 foot sailboat in his backyard in England; then he and his wife sailed her back and forth across the Atlantic several times.

Seattle Bill, very introspective, thoughtful, captured every sunrise and sunset. He served in the US Navy in the 1970’s and loves the Atlantic crossing, which he has made several times now on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. He was kind enough to share his series of sunrises and sunsets, which you will find above.

All hands on deck! Head bartender Alberto becomes the loading foreman as Star Flyer takes on supplies for the crossing.
All hands on deck! Head bartender Alberto becomes the loading foreman as Star Flyer takes on supplies for the crossing.


I think very highly of the Star Clipper crews. I’ve spent almost seven weeks on their ships this year, and the people who work for this company are one of Star Clipper’s great strengths.

Many of the crew members have made their careers with the company. On my three cruises with Star Clippers, I have found the crew members to be highly skilled, very professional, and genuinely warm people. They are a big part of what makes passengers continue to return to the Star Clipper ships.

Star Flyer versus Royal Clipper

Many of Star Flyer’s Trans-Atlantic passengers fiercely prefer either Star Flyer or Star Clipper to their bigger sister, the square-rigged Royal Clipper.

Why? Star Flyer heels over further — this enhances the feeling of sailing. Captain Sergey laughed at people who thought this meant that Star Flyer sailed better than the Royal — he thought this was silly. I will say this though. Sailors like to feel the ship move, and I think Star Flyer and Star Clipper attract more hard-core sailing people, and I really liked this aspect of my fellow passengers on this trip.

Star Flyer and Royal Clipper.
Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Star Flyer Royal Clipper
Tonnage: 2,298 Tonnage: 5,000
Length: 360 feet Length: 439 feet
Beam: 50 feet Beam: 54 feet
Draft: 18.5 feet Draft: 18.5 feet
Sail Area: 36,000 square feet Sail Area: 56,000 square feet
Mast Height: 226 feet Mast Height: 197 feet
Masts: 4 masts, 16 Sails Masts: 5 masts, 42 sails
Total Staff: 72 Total Staff: 106
Passenger Capacity: 170 Passenger Capacity: 227
Cabin 339 on Star Flyer
My Cabin 339 (Category 2 ) on the Star Flyer is on the Clipper deck — which is also the where the dining room is located. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

The standard cabins on Star Flyer and Royal Clipper are so similar that the minor differences aren’t worth discussing, but it is important to note that the cabins are smaller than cabins on large cruise ships.

I found my cabin on Star Flyer to be roomy and comfortable, with plenty of storage. However, Royal Clipper does have a group of cabins with private balconies, while Star Flyer does not — this can be a deal breaker for some passengers.

Additional differences: Royal Clipper has a small fitness center and two massage rooms. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have fitness centers. Massages are given in tent on a very private part of the Sun Deck. Royal Clipper has a marina platform that opens on the stern of the ship. Passengers can swim or windsurf off the back of the boat when she is moored. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have marina platforms. Royal Clipper has taller ceilings in the dining room, which makes it somewhat more quiet because the noise isn’t as compressed.

Bill Palmer photographing the sunset on Star Flyer
“Seattle Bill” Palmer captures another sunset on Star Flyer. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

When the ships are sailing directly in front of the wind, Royal Clipper is faster. She can make 14 to 16 knots, while Star Flyer and Star Clipper have a top speed of 8 to 9 knots. However — and this is a BIG one: Star Flyer and Star Clipper can sail much closer to the wind than Royal Clipper can. This means they can sail more under more varied wind conditions than Royal Clipper without resorting to the engine.

All of the Star Clipper ships have bow thrusters and anti-roll tanks. However, Star Flyer and Star Clipper do roll more in rough seas than Royal Clipper, which is larger and more stable feeling. This might be a consideration for someone concerned about seasickness.

Look – I loved both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, equally. I can’t tell you I have a favorite. They each have different strengths, and I’d be back on either ship in a heartbeat.

Note: food on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper was very good. I wrote about the food on Royal Clipper at length in my first article on the Royal Clipper, and everything I had to say there pertains to the food on Star Flyer as well.

If you are interested in reading further about the ships, or looking at upcoming sailings, you’ll find Star Clippers website here.

Ports of Call

I boarded Star Flyer in Malaga, and spent the week visiting Tangier, Morocco, Cadiz, Spain, Funchal, Portugal, before winding up in Las Palmas, Grand Canaria, where the Transatlantic crossing segment of my trip truly began. 

Las Palmas is, of course, an appropriate place to begin the Atlantic journey, following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. As part of my tour of the island, I visited Casa de Colon (The Columbus House) — really the mayor’s house where Columbus stayed before continuing to San Sebastian in La Gomera. One interesting note. There was a model of the ship La Nina — that ship was approximately 50 feet in length. Star Flyer: 360 feet. As small as Star Flyer seems next to large cruise ships, she would have dwarfed the ships in the Columbus fleet.

Las Palmas is large and fairly urban. I found the old section of the city interesting, but over all I was not captivated by Gran Canaria. It is of course, an important port for the ship — capable of resupplying the Star Flyer before its fourteen day crossing to Barbados.

La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary islands, was our last port before beginning the voyage to Barbados. Columbus stayed a month on the island of La Gomera, doing final outfitting of his little fleet, laying in supplies. It was his final stop before his 1492 voyage.

While Grand Canaria did not captivate me, La Gomera did — and in a big way. La Gomera has micro-climates from one side of the island to the other. I loved the stark differences between the misty laurel rainforests, and the arid, sun-baked southern point where San Sebastian lies. It’s easy to see why Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. One of the unique rock formations on La Gomera is the Roque de Agando, a volcanic plug — very dramatic and beautiful part of the island.

Would I make the Atlantic Crossing again? Yes. It simply was not like anything else. It was beautiful, and it spoke to my soul.

Sunset on the Star Flyer
Magical. Each sunset we sailed into — there really aren’t words. Photograph, Ann Fisher.


I have written about my two other trips with Star Clippers on the Royal Clipper in 2016, in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. You will find those articles here:

Photograph of Royal Clipper
Article about my voyage on Royal Clipper in the Mediterranean.

Royal Clipper sails near Soufriere in St. Lucia.
Article about my cruise in the Caribbean on the Royal Clipper.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

Thank you for visiting! 

I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.







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The Train

Train compartment,Copyright habrda / 123RF Stock Photo

Life, love, and death on a trip from Amsterdam to Paris.

The train picked up speed as it left the station in a little town not far from Amsterdam. We passed so close to a row of houses I felt I could touch them, all neat, all the same. Lace curtains hung in each window, and a dusting of the recent snow still held on the roofs.

The sun’s rays sparkled on the window, refracting light into the cabin of the train. It was cold. I pulled my coat from the seat next to me onto my lap to stop the draft on my legs. My gothic architecture book lay open to the chapter on St. Denis. Reading in French seemed more difficult than usual, and I found myself going over the same paragraph again.

When the cabin door opened with a jarring SNAP, I gave a rabbit-like start as a man stepped into the compartment. He heaved his bag onto the overhead rack, sat down just opposite me, and opened a newspaper, De Telegraaf. He was a good-looking man, not really handsome, but his face was strong and intelligent. Very fit. I returned to St. Denis and read the same paragraph for the fourth time. 

After continuing in this manner for thirty minutes or so, the man folded his paper, set it on the seat next to him, and stared out of the window. Then he turned his gaze from the window and began studying me.

“Goedmorgen,” then looking at my book, “ou peut-être, bonjour?”


“D’où venez-vous?”

“La Nouvelle Orleans.”

“Ah, New Orleans. Then you are American . . .  sorry,” he said.

I thought for a second of asking whether he was sorry that I was American, then thought better of it.

“That’s okay. I’m glad it’s not immediately obvious.”

“No, you are not obvious. You could be Dutch, but appear more French. I wasn’t sure. We don’t get many Americans in November.”

Dutch field in the snow. Copyright: rmorijn', 123RF Stock Photo
Dutch field in the snow. Copyright: rmorijn, 123RF Stock Photo

We were rocking along at a fairly high speed. I looked out of the window for awhile, watching the passing fields, all snowy white. I thought of Martijn’s mother, snug in her old farmhouse, and smiled. I turned back to my work, but had not gone many pages when I realized the man was staring at me. I raised my head, stared back and him, and waited.

“You are going to Paris?”

“Yes, I study there.”

“What brought you to Amsterdam?”

After a brief pause, I answered him. “I am engaged to a man who lives in Hoorn, and I came to meet his family.”

“Ah . . .  So you will move to the Netherlands? Or will the two of you live in the United States?”

“We plan to live in the Netherlands.”

“By the way, I am Piet Maas.”

“Sarah Stewart.” I took the hand he offered. “Good to meet you.”

I glanced down at my book, at the abbey church, then back at Piet. “What takes you to Paris? Business?”

“I am only traveling through Paris headed to Marseilles. And it is neither business nor pleasure.”

I raised an eyebrow.

He laughed and tilted his head back against the headrest, looking up at the luggage rack. “At home, everyone thinks I have lost my mind. I had an important position at a respected bank in Amsterdam. My apartment was large — perfect location. The kind people in the city wait years to get. I’ve been dating someone for almost two years.” 

Amsterdam on a winter morning. Copyright: dennisvdwater, at 123RF Stock Photo.
Amsterdam on a winter morning. Copyright: dennisvdwater, at 123RF Stock Photo.

“One night I was walking home with the thousands of other people who work in the city. It was dark and it was cold. And suddenly, I thought — I am not going to live this life anymore.” Piet looked at me.

“Thea, that’s my girlfriend, gave me a lovely party a week later for my forty-second birthday. While everyone was toasting me, I announced my plans, that I was giving myself the present I had always wanted. In three weeks I would quit my job, leave Amsterdam, and go see the world.”

“When I finished, the room was very quiet. It was my boss who finally spoke.”

“Well, Piet,” he said, “if you want to take a trip, you certainly deserve a vacation. Take extra time — have eight weeks — travel — my birthday present to you. I’ll just take that expensive watch back to the store.”

“Everyone laughed at his little joke, but then I said, “No, you don’t understand. I am leaving, and I am not coming back. I will be handing in my resignation tomorrow. I ship out of Marseille on a cargo boat in three weeks.”

“Absolute silence. Then Thea burst into tears, and the guests all gave excuses for leaving early . . . . “

“All night I tried to explain how I felt to Thea, but it was no good. I know I should have told her privately. Telling her with the others was a coward’s way out. But I wanted no one trying to talk me out of it. It was poorly done, though, and I feel guilty over it.”

I turned to the window. The passing scenery became an indistinct blur, and the hair along the back of my neck prickled.

“Tell me, you are quiet. What do you think? That I have lost my mind?”

I looked at him for a long time. “Hardly. But I am wondering why you should care what a complete stranger thinks.”

“I don’t really . . . but — the last weeks have been so full of logistics. Now I am started, and I have some quiet. And there you are, across from me, watching me.”

“It’s a bad habit of mine, watching people.”

“Yes, same — for me as well. So, for the hell of it, what DO you think?”

“That I am amazed you did it. Think about it, yes . . . .  Do it though? And hopping a tramp steamer — it sounds like a movie script — it reminds me of a story an old journalist once told me. The closest I’ll come to anything like it will be marrying Martijn and leaving the USA behind.”

Piet watched me quietly. We continued contemplating one another until I began feeling uncomfortable. Then he spoke.

“Being married in the Netherlands will not be much different than being married in the United States. You will live in a foreign country and learn a new language, and for awhile, this will be an adventure. The newness will wear off though . . . and one morning, you will wake up and realize that you exchanged one mundane reality for another.”

I thought of the neat, tree lined fields outside of Amsterdam, and Martijn’s orderly approach to his work, indeed to everything he did.

Typical tree-lined fields and canals in the Netherlands. Copyright: rmorijn with 123RF Stock Photo.
Fields and canals in the Netherlands. Copyright: rmorijn with 123RF Stock Photo.

“Perhaps. I suppose I will find out.  — Why don’t you tell me about the ship you are sailing with?”

He frowned, but acquiesced. So the conversation changed course and we passed several hours swapping views on various subjects. The bright sun and snow of the morning gave way to gray winter fields and an overcast afternoon.

Parallel tracks. Copyright: Garry518, 123RF Stock Photo
Parallel tracks. Copyright: Garry518, 123RF Stock Photo

We left Mons, Belgium, and had crossed into France when the train came slowly to a stop. We walked several cars down to get coffee and sweet biscuits which we consumed while continuing to talk. Finally, after almost an hour, the train began to back up, all the way to Mons. There it switched to tracks that paralleled the original set, and moved at a snail’s pace towards Paris.

“Must be a problem on the track up ahead, ” said Piet.

As the train approached the spot where we had been delayed, we stood up to look for the cause. At this point the ground rose abruptly up from the two sets of tracks. It had the effect of a very wide tunnel without a top. Several pedestrian walkways crossed above it.

We had gone a little way past where our cabin had sat for an hour, when the tracks turned crimson. The stone chips of the railway bed were soaked red. As the blood dried, it darkened, so there was a variation from brilliant red to a dull reddish-brown. Then came a leg, severed from its body. The leg wore khaki trousers. The thigh had been shredded as the train tore it from the hip. The torso followed, but it was somewhat obscured by three railroad workers and two officers discussing what was to be done with the mess. A blue workman’s cap lay next to the tracks, shivering slightly in the breeze.

I stood staring, when suddenly I was jerked back and the window shade snapped down. I had not seen Piet moving, and I felt jolted and bewildered.

It is not a thing to look at.”

I stared at the shade, but saw the mutilated thigh. Piet took my shoulders. “Are you alright?”

I nodded. He pulled me to his chest, and for a moment I relaxed and hid my face against his shirt. As I came back to myself, I tried stepping back. Piet looked down at me for a moment, then let go.

“Sometimes this happens . . . I should have suspected. I could have prevented you from seeing that.” Then more quietly, “please forgive me.”

“I, I’ve never — well, I mean . . . never. I mean, I’ve seen corpses in the dissecting room at Tulane medical school. But it wasn’t like this.”

 “It is the blood. So much blood . . .”

“Poor bastard,” he continued. “There are often suicides like this. Frequently in Paris someone jumps in front of the Metro. The engineer cannot stop in time. He sees it all. And he cannot stop it. For the person who jumps, it is all over. It is for the engineer I feel sorry.”

For awhile neither of us said anything. Finally, I said, “I wonder why he did it?”

Piet watched the gray fields. “Because it was easier than going on.”

I looked at him. “But you were unhappy — you felt trapped. You didn’t jump under a train, though — “

“Ah, well. But in the moment when he had no hope left, he couldn’t see a way forward. You are so young . . . . maybe it is something that it takes more life to understand. You see, it is always out there; it is always a possible answer.”

I picked at a loose thread on my cuff and thought I didn’t want to hear anymore of this. The grey afternoon dimmed into twilight and the train sped on towards Paris. As it grew dark, we left the lights off in our compartment. Traffic signals and train stations in passing towns lit our room now and again. We alternately looked outside and at one another, but neither of us spoke.

We reached the edge of Paris, and the train soon pulled into the Gare du Nord. Piet flipped on the lights, and I rose to pull down my bag.

“Let me help you with that.”

“Thanks, but I can handle it.”

He shrugged.

When we moved out of the cabin and down the passage to exit the car, Piet preceded me down the steps, then turned and took my bag from me. I stepped down off of the train and stood in front of him as people hurried around us down the long platform. The old iron roof supports rose high over our heads, the riveted beams full of pigeons gone to roost. Loud speakers blared information concerning departures.

I looked up at Piet. “Well,” I said, “I think . . .”

Piet took my arms, pulled me close and kissed me once, then after looking at me for a long time, again, even deeper and more passionately. The noise and the people disappeared, and the two of us stood alone on the concrete slab.

He pulled back and I stood looking at him, breathless.

“Don’t marry him.”

Piet picked up his bag and walked away, disappearing into the stream of humanity.

Gare du Nord in Paris.
Gare du Nord in Paris.

This is a true story; only the names and other minor facts have been changed. This train from Amsterdam traveled to Paris in late November of 1985. I never saw “Piet” again . . .  Seven months later, I called off my engagement.


By Ann Fisher. Copyright 1989 and 2016. All rights reserved.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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