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A Canadian passport and a mélange of French phrases saved one traveller from missing his plane.Carl Durocher

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

It is my last day in California, and I am sitting on a regional train southbound for San Jose from San Francisco. Chugging through the beating heart of Silicon Valley, I am whizzing by torrents of Internet company headquarters and endless suburbs divided by busy palm-tree-flanked intersections.

It is before noon and my flight home to Edmonton leaves at two. I glance at my watch, and then outward at California's congested Highway 101. The brakes hiss, and the murmuring of impatient commuters interrupts the rhythmic rumbling of the train. A deep voice over the intercom unapologetically announces our delay.

I fish around my wallet and retrieve my ticket. If this delay doesn't continue, I should make San Jose station with enough time to catch my flight. As I look for an estimated time of arrival, I realize I made a mistake. CalTrain bases their fees on zones, six of which separate San Francisco and San Jose. In a hurry to board, I had only paid for four.

The train is moving again and a tall, dark-haired girl with a tattered backpack sits across from me.

"Are you from Canada?" she asks in a familiar accent.

Surprised, I take out my headphones. "Yeah." I pause. "How did you know?"

"The navy blue of your passport. It's sticking out of your bag."

Her name is Danielle, and she's from Montreal.

We talk for a good 30 minutes and come to the topic of French-immersion schooling in Alberta. Perhaps not surprisingly, Danielle wants to hear the fruits of nine years of French education.

"Come on, Alberta. Let's hear what you got!"

"Bonjour, mon nom est Keaton… Salle de bains."

I know that I'm horrible, but decide to keep going.

"Menage et trois, je suis fromage poisson."

Danielle bellows with laughter. "Oh. Your name is cheese fish, is it?"

We laugh at my expense for 20 minutes before Danielle attempts to correct my pronunciation. She says I might pass if I speak fast enough.

The deep voice returns over the intercom, and the train whistles to a halt.

I check my watch, and begin to get worried again. I look away from Danielle and spot a transit officer removing a group of teenagers from the train. My stomach shoots into my chest. "Danielle, my ticket is wrong."

Her eyes widen. "They are very strict here; you're going to get in trouble! Pretend to be asleep!"

Seeing no other option, I put in my headphones and rest my head against the window. Heavy footsteps head toward us while I play dead like a cornered animal. My mind is racing with potential scenarios, and few are pleasant.

I feel a firm touch on my shoulder. It scares the you-know-what out of me, and I yelp and jolt up in my chair.

"Sir, ticket."

I look upward at the harbinger of missed flights. He looks like a James Bond villain. I don't speak. Smiling nervously, I hand him my ticket. The zoning mistake is a small error. Maybe he won't notice the discrepancy? I never read the fine print; maybe he won't either.

He radios the front of the train immediately: "Open the doors. It looks like we have another fare dodger."

Paralyzed, I look him in the eye and keep smiling. He must think I'm deranged.

"Sir, I'm writing you a citation and escorting you off this train. The fine will be for the improper payment of …"

I'm not listening to him; I'm weighing my options. I have to think of something quick or I'll miss my flight. I need to come across as harmless but be such a pain in his ass that he decides I'm not worth the hassle.

I look over at Danielle and it comes to me – French!

"Oui, Oui! Bonjour, je suis fromage poisson!"

Absolute silence.

The officer stands confused with an eyebrow raised as I stare into his eyes, smiling demonically. I'm going for it. No turning back now.

"Salle de bains, oui, oui! Au revoir. Je m'appelle ananas!"

I wish I could have captured the look on Danielle's face when I said my name was Pineapple. She can't believe this is happening either. I go all in and explore some of the pronunciation techniques Danielle taught me.

"Oui! Au reVOOOIR. Où est votre salle de bains? Je ne porte pas de chaussures."

Does he think I'm French? He must, because I'm still sitting here. He doesn't know what to do with me. I figure I have the momentum now, so I smile and continue. I flail my arms, point to my watch, make airplane gestures with my hand, and yell in broken French about where the fish are in the restroom.

"Sir, do you speak English? I need to see some identification."

"Non, non, monsieur, François! Canadien! CAN-AH-DAH! CAN-AH-DAH!"

"Do you have a passport?"

Even if I was as French as he hopefully believes, understanding the word "passport" shouldn't blow my cover.

"Ahhhaa!" I reach into my bag, "KAN-AH-DAH Passport-ehhhhhh!"

I sound more Spanish than French.

He looked it over before imitating a French accent himself. "Keh-tonne, huh?"

He pronounced Keaton as if it were a French name. Danielle snorts a quick laugh that she covers up with a cough.

The officer radioed the front of the train and said we were good to go. The train's whistle announced my freedom as the doors closed and the rhythmic chugging returned. The inspector informed me that my Canadian passport saved me from a heavy fine and, unbeknownst to him, a plane ticket. He retrieved a zoning pamphlet and pointed to the price differences while I continued grinning and offering apologies.

"Merci! Merci! No Ticket! Sorry! Oui! Oui!"

He sighed heavily and walked away. They don't pay these guys enough.

We arrived in San Jose and I quickly paid for the extra two zones in hopes of deflecting the cosmic amounts of bad karma radiating down on me harder than the California sun.

I wished Danielle the best on her travels, and she assured me that she'd never forget Cheese Fish from Alberta.

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