or, "Buying Bison Shawty at the Train Station"
Wednesday 18 May 2011 - Thursday 19 May 2011
Wednesday was a train day. Coming in to the trip, I don’t think we anticipated the trouble with trains. The first few days went swimmingly. Hop on a train (which always seemed to be simply waiting for us at the station), flash the Eurail pass at the conductor if he came by, and wake up just in time to get off the train (train rides inevitably put all three of us to sleep regardless of how short they are or what time of day it is).
Today proved itself to be the exception. Trains are infuriating. You’d think that since there is a train line direct from Amsterdam to Paris, we could ride it, right? No. No no no. Oh, there is a mandatory reservation for seats? You can’t do it online? Even though we waited in line for 40 minutes to talk to a service agent, we can’t reserve it here at the station either? But we can do it on Friday? And the eurail pass doesn’t cover that? Oh, alright, yes, thanks.
UGH. Rough day. Lots of trains. Since we cannot take the high speed direct trains, we had to scramble together a series of short connections (four in all today). Which was capped off by 2 hour wait at the station right before Paris, sitting on the tracks, because of a fire on the tracks. Though, given our lack of French language skills, the situation mostly consisted of guessing by other people’s expressions what the announcements might be saying. Ay ay ay.
Luckily, along the way, we had some pleasant stops in various French towns that let us get out and stretch our legs.
After more than 12 hours of travel, we finally made it – we triumphantly pulled in to Paris Nord, excited to be in the city of lights!
We stepped out of the train station, breathing in the Paris night air, fresh with the scent of … urine. Paris reeks. Seriously. Every ten strides or so, you get a strong whiff of stale urine. Disgusting. And of course, it just happens that both the train station and our hostel are in a terrifying part of the city. I won’t go in to too much detail (to spare our dear parents), but it was the creepiest, most shady experience of the trip. The hostel man was incredibly rude (with broken English, telling us that it was OUR fault that the train was late due to fire!), there was one shower shared among at least 50 people, and the security system to get in to your room (per the hostel man’s instructions) involved knocking on the door until one of the other (sleeping) occupants got up to let you in. The system was invoked by several newcomers after we were already there and asleep (despite the fact that all five of the beds – one being a COT – were already occupied).
We slept with our valuables inside our sleeping bags. If there had been anywhere else available in Paris, we would have moved. Ahhh! We woke up at 6 am so we could get out of there as fast as possible.
In contrast to the failures of the previous evening, our day in Paris was quite lovely. Since all the other Paris hostels were booked, we found a small (expensive!) room in a hotel in a nicer part of the city which was so much better than our horror-movie-terrifying hostel from the night before.
With the sun beaming down strongly, we grabbed our metro tickets and set out to see the sights. First stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral. All throughout the trip so far, we’ve seemed to have a lot of luck with attractions like this, and so it continued today. Just as we walked up, they opened up one of the large cathedral doors for free access! We got in right at the front of the line, and in no time flat, we were gazing upwards in awe at the gargantuan arches and stained glass windows. And the most wild part was to think that this was all constructed hundreds and hundreds of years ago! If you’ve never read “Pillars of the Earth”, give it a shot – it talks all about how these grand cathedrals were built.
After finishing at Notre Dame, we started the trek to see the Eiffel Tower – yay! With such a nice day on our hands (especially after several very chilly days in Brugge and Amsterdam), we decided to run to a market and get food for a picnic. Baguettes and cheese – how French! Eating outside on the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower did much to make up for the previous day. What a lovely afternoon!
As promised at the beginning of the trip, we kept up our tradition of catching some time for Frisbee in every place we stop.
If there’s one thing to say about the Eiffel Tower, it is that (for me at least) it was much bigger than I ever would have expected from photos. Just the arch portion at the base is a gargantuan structure. I would have hung out there all day if we had more time, but since we wanted to catch the Arc de Triomphe before making the long walk home, we headed out again!
The traffic circle (I’m not sure if you can call something of this scale a “roundabout”) was terrifying. Six lanes or more of cars making seemingly patternless movements around this great monument – I was scared to even cross the street! Fortunately for us, there was an underground tunnel to get to the Arc.
Exhausted from walking and from travel, we concluded our day in Paris back at the hotel by all falling suddenly and unexpectedly asleep for several hours. We’ll see the rest of Paris when we return in June!