I was traveling by train from Aix-en-Provence to Nice and after a week of budgeting I decided to spend the extra 10€ to travel in the first class cabin for the three hour ride. When I boarded I noticed an elderly French woman was sitting in my seat, chatting with her seat mate, another elderly woman. I didn't bother to trouble them by telling them they were in my seat, they were engaged in a happy encounter and it seemed perfectly harmless in the moment to sit in the row behind them with so many empty seats in the train car.
As the train traveled from station to station, the first class cabin slowly began to fill with more passengers. It was a Friday afternoon and we all shared that excitement of arriving in the Cote d'Azur for a weekend by the sea.
Throughout my trip to the south of France, and up until this moment, I had experienced only the most pleasant French people. I was ready on my return to the States to take on any person who dared suggest the French were anything short of lovely.
An hour before we reached Nice, a French man in his 60s boarded the train with his wife. He wore an old straw hat and a permanent scowl on his face. Through gritted teeth blackened from age and lack of care, he hunched over and snarled at me, wagging his finger and announcing in a loud voice that I was sitting in his seat. With my basic understanding of French I understood he was displeased and wanted me to get up and leave immediately. I tried with my best "pardons" and "excusez-mois" to explain to him that the woman sitting in front of me was in my seat which was why I was sitting in his. The man was irate and made no attempt to understand me or to care. He spoke in an uncomfortably loud tone, insisting I leave immediately. The entire first class car filled with travelers were all staring down their noses and blaming me, the young American, as the instigator of the conflict.
The exchange continued between me and this man, his voice grew louder and his snarl more menacing as his wife cowered in the background. I could tell from her posture she'd become accustomed to this type of tirade. Something inside of me told me to remain calm. Even though I was a traveler in his country and sitting in his seat, I would not allow him to bully or mistreat me.
Back and forth, back and forth we went, me showing him my ticket, explaining my seat was in the row in front of him, and asking if he would be so kind to help me communicate to the elderly woman in front of me that she was sitting in my seat. He refused and continued to yell at me to leave.
From the front of the cabin came a gentleman to intervene. He spoke fluent French and English and translated, once again explaining the circumstances to the hostile man. The elderly woman in front of me (the one in my seat) stood up and insisted she was in the right seat, despite my ticket proving otherwise. The irate Frenchman with the dirty teeth would not back down and continued to yell. They were ganging up on me. We had come to an impasse, it was time to get the conductor involved. People were staring. Tensions were high.
But it was serendipity that would win. From the back of the cabin another man came forward. He announced he was getting off at the next stop, and sensing my discomfort offered his seat to me. I gladly accepted, at last we'd found a peaceful resolution. In the end, the seat he gave me possessed the better view of the Mediterranean sea (much better than Mr. Nasty's) and I enjoyed the beautiful scenery as the train meandered to our final destination in Nice.
It's a guarantee we'll encounter rude residents from time to time when we travel, and cooler heads do prevail if you remain calm in the midst of conflict. Mr. Nasty got under my skin and treated me poorly. But I learned to never let one bad encounter to spoil my grand adventure or allow one nasty human taint my view of a country and its people.