leaps and bounds, part 2

It seemed like my backpack was getting heavier.

next stop:

This may have had something to do with the fact that it was slightly heavier with provisions for leg 2 of the run to Amsterdam (provisions being bread, cheese, and beer – it was Germany, after all).  It may have been the hundreds of kilometers I’d already covered that day.  Whatever the reason, train #2, IC 142 to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam squeaked to a stop at the platform in Berlin and I hopped aboard.  The tweet of the conductor’s whistle sounded the all clear, and the last of the train crew scurried back aboard.  With a hiss of air from the brakes, we pulled out of Berlin and made haste for the Dutch border.  This ride would be a 6 hour jaunt from Berlin, north to Hanover, across the Dutch frontier at Bad Bentheim, and on to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  From Schiphol, I’d change to one last local train to Centraal Station, and from there I’d trudge to the hostel and pass out.

That’s 120 miles an hour, for those not metrically inclined.

Time passed quickly.  The ride through the north of Germany reminded me (for better or worse) of parts of Wisconsin.  I walked the train, dodging suitcases and bodies flung willy-nilly around the passageways.  It was a completely full train, carrying volcano refugees from all over Europe, people whose stress was palpable in any of the dozens of languages they were speaking.  We were all trying to get somewhere.  Today, I’d rack up around 1000 km (621 miles), crossing parts of three countries.  Based on some of the languages I heard shouted into mobile phones and tossed up and down the corridors, I’d say that some of the passengers beat my mileage handily.  The Dutch border came and went, with only a brief stop just barely on the German side to mark the occasion.  Bad Bentheim was a border control town back in the days before the EU, but with the coming of the Schengen Agreement, it became merely a crew change and a chance to stretch.  I welcomed the respite from the tight corridors of the train.  The sun would be going down soon.  Two hours to go.

The train pulled out for the last stretch to Amsterdam.  The passengers could feel the miles tick off; the chatter in the passageway turned less heated, the bags slowly left their homes in the aisles, and the shrieks of small children caged up in compartments for too long subsided.  Fields of giant wind turbines spun lazily in the distance, turned by the same winds that blew through the sails of the famous Dutch windmills decades ago. Picturesque farms dotted the landscape as we sped through the hills east of Amersfoort, blurring together into a sleepy haze as the sun finally fell below the horizon. No sooner had I begun to doze than the speaker shouted something in Dutch – I caught ‘Schiphol’ somewhere in there.

amsterdam, the netherlands

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in Europe.  Every year, 46.3 million passengers move through its halls, going anywhere from Moscow to Houston.  At this hour, Schiphol should be receiving late-night transatlantic flights, processing hundreds of passengers through customs, and sending off hundreds more for long-haul flights destined to awake in far-off lands.  Instead, there was nothing.  Not the chatter of the intercom paging in three different languages, not the shrill buzzer of the first bags coming off a late night flight, not even the ceaseless flow of passengers trying to get wherever they’re trying to get.  Iceland’s temper tantrum had not relented, and this night there were only a few holdouts left clustered around the information screens, hoping for some good news after being stranded for so long.

The KLM counter was the center of the universe at that moment. A handful of people, maybe 20 or so, clustered around one obviously exhausted airline agent. She kept repeating the same litany she had been telling desperate fliers all day: no, there were no flights out that night, airspace over Europe was still closed. No, she could not refund your ticket; by now all the ticket agents at the counter had left for the night. Yes, she could help you find a place to stay for the night, but with all the stranded people, space was filling up fast.

A couple from Chicago walked up to her. The woman was pregnant; obviously so, and the man had clearly had too little sleep and too much coffee. They had been stuck in Amsterdam for 27 hours (he had been keeping track), having come here from Frankfurt with the hope of catching a flight back to O’Hare. The gate agent told them the same thing she had told the exasperated passenger before, then paused and added a morsel of hope to the stew of emotions brewing in the terminal. She told the couple that a few hours ago, in the dark of night, KLM had flown a 747 full of passengers out of JFK Airport in New York. The flight landed safely in Amsterdam only twenty minutes before.

“So you mean they might be flying tomorrow? Really?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I cannot guarantee-”

“But they might be flying tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, they might.”

The couples’ faces lit up. Both had been running for the door, just like me, and the end to their inadvertently extended holiday was now in sight.

I returned to the train station beneath the airport and hitched a ride on a train to Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam. Sleep came quickly, the booming bass from the nightclub beneath my hostel bed notwithstanding. Earplugs, mate. Big must-have for trying to sleep at the fringe of the Red Light District.

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paris part deux

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.

setting up shop

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)