Thursday, May 5, 2011

Secrets on a Bus

Fontainebleau Palace, 2006

We met Crystal and Steve on the bus to Fontainebleau, the Sixteenth Century palace of King Frances I located on the outskirts of Paris. My wife and I had signed up for a tour. When it became clear that there weren’t enough people to fill the bus, our tour was cancelled and we were ushered down the street to another tour company that agreed to honor our tickets.

That should have been a sign. The second tour company wasn't much better. They kept us waiting on the curb and then on a claustrophobic overheated tour bus for yet another hour. Crystal and Steve were seated in the row in front of us. Crystal turned around and introduced herself when she heard us speaking English. Steve didn’t have much to say, which we initially marked up to shyness or simple disinterest.

When the bus finally got under way, it quickly became tangled in early rush hour traffic. We arrived in the town of Fontainebleau fully two hours behind schedule. "Don’t worry," our guide announced. "We've got plenty of time."

That, too, should have been a sign.

After running through a quick downpour, we were barely into the entrance hall and drying ourselves off when we heard an announcement, first in French and then in English, that the chateau would be closing in thirty minutes. Still the guide assured us that all was well, and set off to start our tour, seemingly oblivious of the impending closing.

Fontainebleau Library, 2006

Crystal and Steve stayed close to us as the tour progressed. After about twenty minutes, a security guard approached our guide to tell her we needed to move to the exit. As soon as the employee walked away, the guide continued her tour as if we had all night.

At the end of the tour we were left to explore the gardens behind the palace. Crystal seemed more anxious than ever to stay close to us. As Crystal prattled on, Steve continued to act as if he didn’t want to be there or be noticed at all.

Fontainebleau Chapel, 2006

Steve’s evasiveness finally became so noticeable that my wife asked Crystal whether there was something wrong or whether we’d unknowingly done something to offend him.

Crystal breathed a mighty sigh, looked at Steve, who nodded affirmatively, and explained that Steve was, at least technically speaking, AWOL from the Egyptian army. While working on an engineering degree in 1966, he’d been drafted into the army and sent the next year off to fight in what would become known as the “Six Day War.” Only when his fellow draftees headed off to try to wrest the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis, Steve kept walking until he reached Iran where, with the help of family, he flew to India. From there he went to Japan and eventually to Canada, where he sought political asylum. In Canada, he worked at a car wash, earning less than twenty dollars a week. Eventually he was able to complete his engineering degree, which he used to get a job in California, where he legally changed his name to Steve, started his own engineering firm, married Crystal and had a family.

We found it interesting that Crystal would tell such a personal, and possibly incriminating, story to two such relative strangers. Perhaps it was cathartic for her. I have changed a few details regarding their identities. Even nearly forty years late I don’t think it would do Steve any good for the Egyptian army to discover his whereabouts.

Fontainebleau View, 2006


  1. What a great story. And the photos are brilliant!

  2. Yeah, I was thinking, considering you didn't have much time, you got great shots of it. I visited Fontainebleu, and these photos bring it all back.

    It is bizarre, isn't it, how people who don't know us at all will share such things.