It was late afternoon when the train arrived in the French town of Colmar. The passengers disembarked, with their hand luggage, walked through the terminal and out onto the Avenue de la Republique. The air was hot, humid, stultified. Sunday evening: the locals were at home enjoying their dinner.
“We should have known better,” the husband, Mike said.
He took his wife’s handbag and added it to his own load. The wife, Hulya, was heavily pregant, and tired from the trip. “We’re here for two days and they happen to be the only two days the whole place is shut down.”
“Well, you know the French,” she joked.
“Yeah, I guess it makes sense. It’s a weekend town. We should have come on Friday.”
Actually it didn’t matter. They were both exhausted. The trip from Istanbul to Basel, then all the rushing around for their friend’s wedding (it was a lovely ceremony, held at a hotel in the mountains near Lenzerheide), the long bus ride back to Basel, and now the arrival in Colmar.
The broad flat avenue was nearly devoid of traffic, and as they walked along slowly, almost no one passed them.
“Do we know where we’re going, baby?”
“Yeah, we just head straight up, and then take a left somewhere up near that light.”
They had fought in Basel, when the husband Mike had insisted they jump on a tram without consulting Google maps first, and they had nearly gotten lost. Now, they had a screenshot of a map, which Mike consulted as they walked. He took care to slow down, allowing Hulya to keep pace. She hadn’t been expecting when they booked the trip many months before. Now, he was careful not to tire her too much, but she possessed that Anatolian woman’s sturdiness that he was proud of and walked without complaining.
They passed a park, and continued on until they reached the traffic light. Mike reflected how little neither of them knew of the town, other than a cursory Wikipedia search. A commune, population 70,000 with roots tracing back to the 15th Century or thereabouts, known for Gothic and Rennaissance art and architecture.
At the traffic light, they encountered a woman and flagged her down. The woman spoke English with a heavy German accent, a reminder that they were in the Alsace region, where everybody spoke French and German.
They showed her the map, and with stranger’s kindness, the woman ushered them to a sidestreet. “You go straight and turn left. You will see a stairs. Just go up. Your plaza is there.”
Following the instructions, the couple continued walking, turning around every few steps to see the woman following, waving them on, until finally arrived at the Plaza several minutes later.
“There it is,” the wife said. A sign indicated the budget inn where they were staying. It was on the Rue Stanislaus, the street they were looking for. The inn was a modest building, with the blue Ibis Budget sign over the entrance.
Relieved, they crossed the plaza and entered the inn. It was what you’d expect for a budget inn – basic, but clean. There was a self-service cafe and lounge, serving croissants, cheese and cold meats for breakfast, as well as French and German newspapers. Of course, breakfast wasn’t included in the bill.
A young French guy was working the reception. He confirmed their reservations with an economical manner consistent with the rest of the hotel, neither rude nor pleasant, and only offered information if asked. There was no key, only a four-digit code that the husband quickly memorized, but handed the piece of paper over to Hulya to store in her bag just in case he forgot.
The lift was cranky, old, but it worked. Their room was on the third floor. Again, like the rest of the set up, the room was basic – small but not cramped, with only a bed, cupboard and TV, shower and toilet. The window offered a view of the Street.
“Do you want to rest for awhile?” Mike asked. He set their luggage on the floor, unzipped and opened them.
“I don’t know,” Hulya answered. “Take a shower. You stink, baby.”
“I know. It’s this damned humidity!” Undressing, he got in the shower. Signs on the bottles of shampoo instructed “Turn Off Water While Using Me!” It was all very eco-friendly, like the hotel in Basel, which had similar energy-saving reminders in the rooms. Fuck it, Mike thought. He let the water run as he lathered himself, but then reconsidered (not wanting to jinx the trip), and turned it off to finish bathing. He always enjoyed showering in strange hotels, how the act of showering made it more home-like.
When he finished and came out, toweling off, the air felt momentarily cool. Hulya had opened the window, and a stray breeze came through.
“I think I’ll have one too,” she said.
While his wife showered, Mike dressed in a dark blue T-shirt and jeans. He checked himself in the mirror. At 43, he was still slim enough to look younger than his age. The eyes were a bit lined and puffy from the travelling, but he was satisfied with his overall appearance. The shower had reinvigorated him.
Hulya asked for his help – the shower was very narrow and cramped, and she worried about slipping. She was conscious of him looking at her body now that she was pregnant, so he discreetly offered a towel with the door only slightly ajar, and she took the towel and leaned on his outstretched hand until she had safely stepped out of the shower.
Knowing that she would need time, Mike went downstairs to wait. He bought a Nescafe from a vending machine and sat outside having a cigarette. He’d asked the concierge about restaurants nearby, but was told that most of them were closed. “There might be some open in the center,” the young man said. “Over near the Place de Cathedral. But nowhere around here, no.”
When his wife came down, wearing a simple black dress, sunglasses, her hair blow-dried and combed, they set out. The curve of the street was a hairpin turn, and the few cars that were out really hit the turn, accelerating on their way to the normal part of the town. They were careful, waiting until the street was virtually silent before crossing.
They walked several blocks, entering the Old Town, where the streets were cobbled, the buildings colorful and silent.
“Everything’s closed!” the wife exclaimed.
At Place de la Cathedral, where the brownstone church sat amongst leafy trees, they found an outdoor cafe that was open. People, mostly local, sat over pints of beer and small glasses of white wine. A waitress was serving what looked like pizza, but it turned out to be flambee, the French-German tortes famous in the region.
Hulya was being very careful about her diet, so instead she ordered a simple pasta dish. “No salad,” she informed the waitress. The waitress was the only person working, but was cheerful, and answered everything with “Mercy! Thank you!”
Mike tried a dish he’d seen one of the locals eating, the house specialty. It was some kind of potato and cheese torte, served with a side salad. While Hulya had only water, he ordered a tall cold pint of Colmar, “biere d’ Alsace,” as the drink menü advertised.
The light was mellow, so after they finished eating, Mike leaned over to Hulya and snapped a selfie. “Baby –“ his wife complained, but acquiesed, tipping her head back and offering a wan smile. “Don’t post that,” she said. “I look terrible.”
“You look nice,” Mike said, with forced cheerfulness. He knew his wife was self-conscious about her weight, with the pregnancy. “Just one, for your parents.”
“OK, just one.”
After dinner, they walked back to the hotel, through the mostly deserted streets, past the closed up wistubs and galleries, enjoying the hushed breath of the golden hour. Mike posted the photo to Facebook and Instagram, “Arrived in Colmar,” he wrote. “A Ghost Town!” At the hotel, they settled in to the bed, falling asleep with the air conditioner on. It was still light outside, the longest days of the year approaching. During the night they slept to the occasional sounds of lonely cars passing along the road.
In the morning, they felt much better, refreshed. It was still quiet out in the town, the streets filled with heavy, bright sunlight. The concierge had given them directions to the local süpermarket, and they went there to purchase some things for breakfast. They bought bagettes, brie cheese, fois gras (for Mike), some milk and yoğurt.
Walking back towards the center, they sat down on a bench near the canals. Here there was shade, and it was pleasant spreading out their little picnic and looking at the canal. An Asian man sat nearby, looking meditatively at the water, and little reddish-colored birds hopped around, competing for the pieces of bread that the couple tossed onto the pavement.
“Shall we take the train?” Hulya asked. It was a small green and white-painted train, like the ones you see at Disneyworld. A few older tourists had already bought tickets and were sitting, waiting for the next tour.
“That’s not us,” Mike said. “Too touristy.”
“We left the map at the hotel, baby. And the wi-fi here isn’t very good.”
“I can go back and get it,” Mike volunteered. “It’s not that far. Ten minutes maybe.”
“Are you sure? Well, if you’re going, can you also get my sunglasses. I forgot to take them also.”
Mike finished his breakfast, and got up. He walked back in the direction they had come, taking time to note a couple of landmarks. He walked up a long straight Street, but before long realized that something was wrong in his orientation. Places didn’t look familiar the way he anticipated. He stopped a couple of locals, asking the direction of the Rue Stanislaus. They seemed not to understand, or else made vague pointing gestures.
“They probably just did that to get rid of me,” Mike mused. He walked faster, then slowed down. Taking out his mobile, Mike tried to bring up Google maps. But again, the wi-fi was too slow. It just loaded and loaded. He could have activated his Istanbul account, but it would have been really expensive. Don’t panic, he thought. If you can’t find the hotel, then just walk back the same way you came to the canal.
Some minutes later, having decided that he definitely was on the wrong track, Mike gave up and walked hurriedly back in the direction he’d come. It was already quite warm outside, and he was sweating by the time he arrived back at the canal.
Hulya wasn’t there. The bench where they’d been sitting was empty, and there was no sign of their picnic. Where was she? Mike stood for a moment, a thud in his chest, his thoughts spinning wildly.
“Excuse me, have you seen my wife?” Mike asked a passerby. How do you say “wife” in French? He felt impotent fury, cursing himself for not knowing even rudimentary French. The passerby shrugged uncomprehendingly and continued on. He went to Google Translate, but there in the street, he could not get a signal. She couldn’t have gone very far, he tried to reason.
The tourist train was still there, with more elderly passengers. Mike turned and asked a pale, stocky woman whose face he recognized as having been there earlier. The woman answered in an American accent, sounded Mid Western. Thank God!
“Was she the girl sitting over there on the bench?” the American woman asked. “I think I saw her go in that direction – “ She pointed past the canal, over to where some galleries were located. “Did you look over there?”
“Thank you,” Mike said, and raced off. Yes, he thought. The galleries were closed but Hulya would have gone to in the windows at pictures. But when he got to the galleries she wasn’t there. A copy of a famous Grumweld picture looked out at him helplessly.
“Fuck it,” Mike thought. He activated his Turkish account, and dialed his wife’s number. Instead of ringing, a message said that “the person you are trying to reach is unavailable at the moment. Please try again later. Thank you!”
Where the hell was she? Why wouldn’t she answer the phone, for God’s sake? The sunlight bounced too brightly off the streets, sending him into panic. Wild, irrational scenes flashed through his head. Had his wife been seized, abducted, like in that old Harrison Ford movie? But this was Colmar, the town was nearly deserted. Who the hell gets abducted in Colmar?
Had something happened to her with the pregnancy? The thought of his wife lying somewhere, prostrate, bleeding sickened him. He tried calling again. Still, that same infuriating message. On top of that, his battery was already running low. Pretty soon he would be out of contact even if she did call.
Should have brought the charger, but it was back at the hotel, along with the map. Speaking of, he turned frantically into a nearby supermarket and after asking around wildly, was pointed in the direction of some free city maps. He grabbed one and nearly ran out of the store.
Back out on the street, he suddenly saw his wife. She was sitting on the bench, waiting.
“Where were you?” he said breathlessly, feeling tremendous relief.
“Hi, baby,” Hulya looked calm, with her eyes inscrutable behind a pair of sunglasses. “I just went down the street and to buy of sunglasses.”
“I tried to call you –“
“My charge is really low, so I turned the phone off. So you couldn’t find the hotel?”
“No, I got lost, and just came back and you were gone.”
“I thought that might happen. That’s why I just went and bought a new pair.”
The mid-morning crisis was over, thankfully. His wife had not been abducted by terrorists, she had not had a miscarriage, she had not run off for a rendevous with some secret online lover. He was not left all alone in a strange Alsatian ghost town.
Hulya looked at her husband and laughed.
“Were you worried, baby? Why? If anything happened I would have just found my way back to the hotel and waited for you.”
There are moments in a marriage when one doubts the whole thing, when the whole edifice seems on the verge of collapsing, like a great city leveled, and all one can do afterward is stand back in awe, blinded and choking on the dust. But then there are other times when one realizes, with a surge of gratitude, that your city – their city – is destined to remain forever. Just like the town where they were staying. For Mike, looking at his wife sitting safely on the bench near the canal, this was one of those moments. Suddenly the deserted town, which Mike reflected had survived for centuries, through world wars, didn’t seem lonely and dull at all.
“So shall we look at the map and see where we’re going?” Hulya asked. “We can go to Le Petite Venise and have a drink if you want.”
“Sounds good,” Mike said.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is the author of several short story collections, including the recently published “Strait Fiction: 10 Bosphorus Tales,” available at Northtown Books and Booklegger. He lives in Istanbul.