baguette!

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?”

“Four days.”

“Anything to declare?”

“No.”

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.

paris nord

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.

sauf velo

jammin

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.

illuminated

more delicious frames from Paris right here for your hungry eyes.

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running for the border, or, how to get across Europe during the worst airline shutdown since WWII

Sooooooo…I’m in Prague at the moment, the largest city in the Czech Republic, and home to one of the dozens of airports in Europe shut down due to Iceland’s giant plume of ash. At the moment, there are three truths I have to contend with.

1. I have a flight to Amsterdam tomorrow that will not fly.
2. Amsterdam is close to the Hook of Holland to Harwich ferry, which will bring me back to the UK.
3. I (maybe) have a flight from London Heathrow back to the States (via Toronto) on the 27th.

My goal, then, is to get across Europe and back to the UK before my flight leaves. This is what brings me to Hlavní Nádraží; the giant European coach and rail networks are my key to making it back in time. I’ll be making for Amsterdam, with the intention of getting a sailing across the North Sea to England. If I can’t get there immediately, my second choice is Frankfurt, where the huge interchange of Euro coaches and packed German trains might yield some results. Stay tuned.

through the roof – underground

The Tube is, simultaneously, the thing that I most love and most loathe in London. It will get you anywhere in the city, but will, at various times do so at its own leisure, cramming you into a completely packed metal pipe full of sweaty people (sweaty drunk people at any time after, say, 9 p.m.), and leaving you to twiddle your thumbs (if, hypothetically, you can get both hands in front of you) as the powers-that-be sort out everything from more commonplace signal failures to what Transport for London frequently refers to as ‘track obstructions’ – jumpers. Published figures are hard to come by, but estimates range anywhere from 50 to 150 people a year.

roundel

gloucester road

One becomes quickly accustomed to the ever-present crowds, the teeming masses that clog the Tube seemingly at will, at the oddest times of the day. Think the train going into London will be empty at 3 in the afternoon? Think again. From the platform to the lifts to the surface, the crowds come early and stay late. However, by the same token, some trains will be eerily quiet and empty, and precious seats can still be had without having to resort to hockey-style checking antics. It’s about as unpredictable as the weather here: going from packed, hot, sweaty and terminally late to quick, clean, and efficient in a matter of less than an hour. It’s a grab bag.

chancery lane

The London Underground has the distinction of being the world’s first subway. Opened 10 January 1863, the Tube (as it is widely known) originally consisted of cut-and-cover style tunnels that now comprise parts of the Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City lines. The system underwent a series of large expansions, helped by the development of the tunneling shield, which led to the boring of deep-level tunnels that could be built with a minimum of disruption on the surface. 3.4 million people use its trains every weekday, making it third in the world in ridership behind Paris and Moscow. Farringdon Road was one of the first stations built, and the original platform on the upper level lines (Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City) feels like it’s just as old as the 18th century buildings surrounding it. The deep level stations, like those on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, have their own distinct smell…something like a combination of burnt clutch, damp concrete, and old coffee. It gets kind of endearing after a while.

no service

Once you’ve made it on the Tube (assuming you’re not being molested by the creepy guy pushed up next to you), there is an unwritten code of conduct to abide by. Don’t try to strike up conversation, as this comes off as quite odd. Pick up a copy of Metro (in the mornings) or the Evening Standard for free outside any Tube station. Read about footballers and their flings or the latest planned closures affecting the train you’re currently on. But as you’re enjoying some of London’s fine journalistic tradition, please, whatever you do, don’t hold the doors open. It will irk the locals (and indeed, even the non-locals) to no end, and will only make you look like a complete novice. On the way out of the station, kindly stand to the right on the escalators if you’re not walking up them. You will make everyone’s day six million times better (scientific fact).

intent

It’s been said that the Tube will get you anywhere in London…eventually. Even though it’s plagued by closures, delays, and strikes, the Tube gives London something incredibly valuable. Without it, London would be a clogged, gridlocked mess of cars and lorries all the time, with traffic so foul no congestion charge could help it. Thankfully, it’s here to stay…except on weekends and when there’s ‘planned engineering works’, or when it snows. Never really understood why the whole system shuts down when it snows…it being underground and all.

More tasty morsels of photography here.

cascades 510

all aboard

Amtrak is an oddity in the US transportation system, some considering it an anachronism, a holdover from days long since past with the advent of air travel.  A voyage by train is not so much about swiftness as it is about the journey.

After a few days in Seattle, I booked passage aboard Amtrak’s Cascades service destined for Vancouver, BC, and my first foray out of these United States.  After a brief sprint from breakfast to Seattle’s King St. Station, I managed to jump aboard train 510 as it departed right on time and began to wind its way northward along the Puget Sound.  I’m used to seeing Amtrak’s California Zephyr arrive in Denver 5 hours late, so this (and I mean this term in the traditional sense) railroad efficiency was a pleasant, if not almost ruinous, surprise. When I say ‘managed to jump aboard’, I mean that in the most literal possible sense.

The tracks that the Cascades runs on are laid right up against the icy waters of the sound.  As the train speeds northward towards Everett, one can look out from the observation car across the sound, with only mere feet separating them from the astonishingly clear waters.  Since Amtrak does not own the track that it runs on, freight traffic has the right of way, and knowing this, I had expected to be waylaid by freight trains several times by now.  This was not the case, however, and as 510 continued northward through Washington, the train picked up the pace as it pressed on toward Canada.

cascades_2
510 makes its run up along the Puget Sound.

So far, this trip has proven two things: that travel by train in the United States is occasionally on time, and that it is, in fact, able to go more than fifty miles without stopping.  It certainly does not lack for scenery, either, for as the train turns back from the low forests south of Bellingham and back towards the Puget Sound, one can see so much more than possible if traveling by air.  Don’t get me wrong, I can’t sleep on airplanes because I’m too busy looking out the window, but this is entirely different.  I-5 doesn’t get anywhere near this close to the water, so travel by train is the only way to see this kind of scenery.  It’s a view that no wide-angle lens can do justice to, and it might even fall into the category of trying to grab an all-encompassing image of the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Badlands of South Dakota.  No matter how many times you see pictures of it, you can never truly know what it’s like until you’re looking right at it.

cascades_1

Train 510 rolled past the busy US-Canadian border south of White Rock, BC, and I watch out the window at the long line of cars queueing at the crossing.  A passenger next to me strikes up a conversation.  Her name is Monet, like the painter, and she’s here from Seattle visiting friends who are attending an archaeological conference in Vancouver.  She’s originally from Florida, but tells me that in the two years she’s been living in the northwest, she’s gotten used to the persistent cloudiness.  It’s her first time in Canada as well, and she tells me her friends know a good pho restaurant on Granville Street.  Finally, train 510 rolls over the Fraser River and into Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station.  Monet and I deboard the train, say our goodbyes, and head through customs and on into the great white north.