More from Paris’ spaces in between:
Sixteen hours on a bus sounded awesome, so Kira and I headed to Paris’ Gallieni bus terminal, where our transport to Germany was waiting. Also waiting at the terminal were a line full of lunatics, a bus driver who spoke two languages I did not, and a pack of screeching teenage girls. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our last ride on the Metro left us in the bus terminal on the outskirts of Paris. We were using the ubiquitous European coach company Eurolines, and their buses leave this huge terminal for all parts of central and eastern Europe. This particular station was busy at 7pm, with coaches loading up for night routes, travelers waiting with their bags and pillows. We found our bus, the service to Berlin, with a man who was waiting to tell us in Polish that we couldn’t get on the bus yet. I had no idea why at the time, as my knowledge of Polish consists of a few words I’ve heard my grandmother say. Kira finally got through to him in German, and he informed us rather gruffly that we’d need ‘bordkarte’ – boarding passes. We’d have to go back into the station, stand on line, and exchange our tickets for little plastic cards that allowed us on the coach – all with about 20 minutes until our bus left. Wonderful.
We flew down the stairs only to be met with – of course – a queue. It didn’t seem long, but just enough to make us repeatedly and acutely aware of the time. Slowly, achingly slowly, we moved toward the front. A woman standing in line behind me tugged on my bag. When I spun round, she addressed me very rapidly in a language I’d never heard. Not knowing what to do, I smiled and turned around again. More tugs. More rapid-fire gibberish. More ‘I have no idea what you’re saying’ gestures on my part. The woman then left the queue, oddly, and we continued our glacial march to the ticket counter.
Finally, the end was in sight. The last person cleared from in front of the ticket agent, and up we went. But not so fast – as soon as we had walked up from the queue, an argument erupted between a man behind us in line and the aforementioned tugging lady. From what I could gather, the lady had told me to save her place in the queue, and when she returned, the rather irate gentleman behind her didn’t exactly approve of her cutting in line. They shouted; at each other, at me, at the ticket agent, at nothing at all. I was being implicated as the saver of spots, but the only thing on my mind was the acute lack of time we had to make the bus. The people behind us were only shouting, one big chaotic indoor shouting match at the most inopportune of times. One strung-out look at the ticket agent and a few choice words in French finally broke through the wall of noise, and, bordkarten in hand, we ran past the still vocal crowd at the bottom of the escalators and out to our coach, still waiting just beyond the glass doors.
The coach was filling up fast. There was a group of teenagers from Paris who looked like adolescent hippies, taking a guerrilla theater operation with them. There were hung-over students on their way home from a weekend of partying, an older couple with a well-behaved child, and of course the inevitable noisemakers for the night, in this case a quartet of screeching teenage girls who seemed to be especially fond of playing tinny club anthems as loud as they could from their cell phones. Excellent.
We cruised out of Paris around sunset and headed for the Belgian border. Night would fall soon, and with it would begin the chase for a few hours of sleep. At times it seemed like a battle that could never be won, dreams dangling just beyond the ragged edge of consciousness, not coming any closer but at the same time never retreating fully. We passed through the forests of the Ardennes before nightfall, the landscape dotted with villages and the occassional wind farm rising from the landscape. The sun set, and we drifted in and out until our friendly Pole announced the stop for Brussels at about 12.30. I jolted awake and got my first impression of Belgium out the window. Four police cars rushed past in the night, their sirens wailing into the distance. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car ablaze down a street. A burning car, not even fifteen minutes into Brussels. Did someone say sketchy?
The coach rumbled into the terminal, and the cancer club disembarked for a smoke. Kira and I left our gear on the bus and stepped out. Not two minutes later, the driver inexplicably closed the back door of the coach, and thinking it was about to leave, I jumped aboard. The door shut, leaving Kira and three or four others still outside. All I could think was that my friend would be left here, in sketchy Brussels, at one in the morning with no money, no passport, no phone, nothing, and the look on her face said the same. I had a momentary freakout until I realized that the driver had no intention of leaving, and Kira was safe from the burning cars of Brussels. Not only that, but the bus had emptied somewhat, including the screeching banshees, and was now quiet as we settled into our seats for the push into Germany. There was still a lot of road left to travel, but thanks to some ridiculous French beer and sheer exhaustion, we wouldn’t see anything until the the sun broke through the early morning haze twelve hours later outside Berlin.
Kira shook me awake half an hour before we hit the German capital. The coach rumbled through the forests on the E30 Autobahn, the early morning fog still not yet burned off. We passed the ghost of Checkpoint Alpha on the motorway near Marienborn, a relic of the Cold War that survived the fall of the Wall, albeit in slightly rougher condition than its much better known cousin Charlie. A lot of wars have been fought in these woods between all kinds of men, always for control of the city we were about to hit. It took the Allies more than a year to reach Berlin – we did it in a hair under 16 hours. The coach lumbered tiredly to the tongue-twisting Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof south of the city center, and we emerged from the coach bleary-eyed but ready for three days in Germany.
At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.
King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?
Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.
Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.
The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.
Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).
As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.
The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.
We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.
Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:
The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:
Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.
smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)
I have a tumultuous relationship with my backpack. Let me be clear about this: I really do love my luggage. It never complains about being tossed around by savage baggage handlers, and it doesn’t make a scene at metro turnstiles. It is by almost all measures the best piece of traveling kit I own. But it makes my back hurt once in a while, and it always, without fail, is just barely large enough to need to be checked on airplanes. This last one wasn’t as important on the first stage of this trip, however – because bags are free on the Eurostar.
The time had finally come to take on mainland Europe. Term had been over no more than 10 hours before we awoke in the darkness of 5 A.M. to catch a bus to Wood Green tube station in the north of London in time to get the Tube to King’s Cross, or more properly St. Pancras International train station, the terminal for one end of the Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels (and sometimes Avignon). We’d be going to Paris.
Allow me at this time to introduce ‘we’. This is Kira.
Kira is one of the other students on my program, and one of my best friends. Over the last four months, we got to know each other (and our preferred methods of travelling, namely backpacking) quite well living in London. We’d be traveling together until Prague, where she’d head to Frankfurt for her flight back to the US, and I’d head for England via Amsterdam. Two and a half weeks and more than 2,000 miles (3,218 km) racked up on a combination of trains, buses, and ferries – no planes. Our route would look something like this:
We emerged from the first trickles of Tube commuters at King’s Cross and hurried across the street in the chill of early morning, the sun barely peeking over the top of the London skyline. Through the big glass doors, the station buzzed with the frenetic pace of wave after wave of commuters hustling through on their way to jobs in the city. Both domestic and international trains call at the new St. Pancras, which took over the Eurostar service from Waterloo in 2007 when the High Speed 1 rail link opened, connecting the new international station with the Channel Tunnel.
Thus far, it had seemed in a way as if this whole thing was a rehearsal, a practice run for some grand trip we’d someday take. It didn’t feel real until we were finally past the ticket barriers and into the inner sanctum of the station. A French customs agent looked me over, examining the still-expanding two page stamp collection in my passport.
“How long are you going to be in France?”
“Anything to declare?”
He looked me up and down once more, fired off a few more questions, and then, satisfied, he brought his stamp down on page 8 with a satisfying thwack – leaving fresh, sharp ink in its wake. The big “F” surrounded by the stars of the EU smiled back at me from the page. We were in, even before we had left English soil.
At the top of the lift was the platform and our sunrise train to France. We scooted aboard minutes before the conductor’s whistle blew and the train pulled silently out of the station.
Eurostar is a brilliant thing. It’s cheap (comparatively), fast, and drops you right into the middle of Paris. There had been a few airfares that were slightly cheaper for our given day, but since all the low-cost carriers in London fly out of Luton or Stansted, one must tack on an additional £10 or so to get to the airport, plus the same on the other side to get from de Gaulle or Orly to the city, and baggage fees…it makes so much more sense to take the train. It’s miles more comfortable, too.
By the time the train left the first tunnel, we were already doing 100 mph (160 kph), faster than any train I’ve ever been on in the States. We picked up the pace as the train snaked its way through Kent towards the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. The landscape of southeast England became nothing but a blur on the train as the passengers settled in for the two-hour ride to Paris. Well-timed snoozes came to many of the people on board.
Before I could fall asleep again, we were under the English Channel. We entered the Channel Tunnel without pomp or circumstance, soon staring out the window into nothing but dark and the occasional crossover between the bores. It’s an odd feeling; the Chunnel seems like any other railway tunnel (though a very very long one), and there’s nothing at all to indicate that one is two hundred feet below the bottom of the Channel, except the *pop* of your ears as you descend into the depths. We finally burst into the sunlight on the French side, after about 20 minutes of darkness. Time once again slowed down, the endless fields of northern France finally yielding to the banlieues of Paris as we approached Gare du Nord. Paris! One of the cities I’d only ever heard about, only ever dreamed about was minutes away. Time to see if mon Français was up to the task.
After dodging the beggars who welcomed us to Paris (the Roma ladies with the cards that ask you if you speak English/French/German), the Metro took us to Châtelet, where, after escaping from the labyrinth of passages connected to the Metro station, we fell into the warm embrace of the Paris sun. We rested under a tree in a park and listened to the bells of St-Eustache ring into the quiet afternoon. This was the life for sure. We walked the streets of the 2nd arrondissement and soaked it up – the chatter from people at the innumerable cafés bouncing off the narrow alleys and cobbled streets, the occasional bicycle bell, the distant ring of church bells.
It’s not for everyone, I can admit. Paris cannot be called a super clean city, but of course if it was, it would not be Paris. There’s something terribly endearing about the grit of the Metro, the dark alleys between the mazelike streets of the old parts of the city, even the crazy looking panhandlers along the Seine. It’s Paris; you don’t think about things like that, you just feel.
That night, we met up with a friend of a friend who had a couch we could sleep on near Montparnasse. We arrived to find that our host had an apartment in one of the tallest buildings for miles, and Paris is a very flat city. As we turned the corner from the elevator, I snatched a glance out of a 32nd floor hallway window. The view pulled me in until my nose pressed against the glass. The entirety of Paris was laid out before me, complete with an illuminated Eiffel Tower in the distance, its beacon light broadcasting silently into the stillness of the night. Dashing out once more into the night, we found a Parisian off-license down the street and bought our first bottle of wine from a man with a beard who spoke only French. It was red, shockingly cheap, and absolutely delicious.
more delicious frames from Paris right here for your hungry eyes.