Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.

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Change Direction

After my wild afternoon and evening at Berghain, I went home and crashed pretty heavily, spending most of the day recovering from what had been a busy weekend that had been bursting with pride. Berlin had lived up to and exceeded all expectations set for it, and suddenly I was having to face the reality that it was time to move on. True, my schedule was supposed to be flexible, but I still had a large portion of my Eurail train pass to use, and I had only explored a fraction of the European continent. In spite of all that, I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to leave before moving on. I reflected on the time I spent in Vietnam with Allistair, and how upsetting it really was to cut that time so short due to the fact I’d held myself to a strict schedule, so I decided to learn from that lesson and hang back in Berlin for at least a few days. Meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely had an effect on me…

***

When we were sitting outside in the garden at Berghain, Ralf and I talked about much more than the drinking cultures in our home countries. I told him all about my travels and my journey so far – he had also travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway some years ago, heading in the opposite direction to me, so we swapped stories and compared experiences of the epic train route. He was just so easy to talk to, and since we’d already opened up to each quite physically that evening, I found myself opening up quite emotionally as well.
“So how long have you been travelling for now?” My head was resting in Ralf’s lap, and every now and then he traced his fingers over my bare shoulders, smiling every time it sent a little shiver down my spine.
“I think… It’s almost around the three month mark now,” I said as I did a few quick mental calculations. “Yeah… that’s crazy!”
“Time flies when you’re having fun?”
“Well… no, actually. In fact, quite the opposite. People say that months will go by so quickly, but… for me it definitely feels like I’ve been away for three months, maybe even longer. So much has happened already… It’s hard to believe I’m only like… a third of the way through my trip.”
Ralf raised his eyebrows at that. “Wow. That is quite a long trip.”
“Yeah… Us Australians are pretty renowned for doing the whole ‘gap year’ thing.”
“I didn’t think most people look it quite so literally, though?”
I didn’t really have an answer for that. “I guess… A lot of people stop and work along the way, or their trips are shorter, if they’re doing it before they start university. I just finished university, so… I guess I had the time to actually do it?”
“But I’m sure there’s plenty of people who could have the time if they really wanted. What made you want to do it?”

I’d thought about it quite often, but I don’t think anyone had enquired about it as far as Ralf had, beyond the simple ‘because I can’ rationale.
“Well… After sixteen years of education, and twenty one years of living in the same city… I guess I just wanted to go out and see the world. I was kind of sick of my life back home. I didn’t want to get a job and get stuck somewhere if I didn’t really want to be there.” I looked down to where the words ‘Run away with me’ ran across my ankle, freshly inked a couple of months ago in Bangkok, and laughed to myself as I traced a finger across the text.
“What is it?” Ralf could see that my thoughts had continued to tick over internally.
“It’s just… It’s funny. I always thought of this trip as running away – running away from my life, running away from the real world. But the more I see, the more I do… I realise that this-,” I threw my hands up into the air, motioning towards Berghain next to us, to Ralf, to our surroundings in general. “This is the real world. This is real life.” I let my hands collapse by my side again. “And sooner or later I need to stop running, and start living. But I’m only realising this right now…”

Ralf smiled down at me, and ran a few fingers through my hair. “Travelling is good like that. You get to see so much of the world, different cultures, and finding new perspectives. It’s all about perspective. You learn more about yourself that way too.”
It made me think of something that Rathana had told me when he was in Sydney in January, right when I was on the cusp of beginning my journey. “One of my friends back home – well, he lives in Bangkok now,” I said to Ralf. “He said to me: ‘A world journey like this is going to change you – and if it doesn’t, you’re probably doing it wrong!’ And I want that, I really do. I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.”
“It will change you,” Ralf said simply. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home, because even if things changed at home, you’ll probably have changed more. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He laughed for a moment, reconsidering his words. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”
Sitting there in the garden, staring up at the stars, I was beginning to believe that it already had.

***

I’d gone around to Ralf’s for dinner on Monday evening, stayed the night, and the following day headed back to Donatella’s apartment to gather my things. The previous week, Simon had headed to a music festival elsewhere in Germany, and hadn’t been due back until Tuesday. We had said our goodbyes then, anticipating my departure sometime during the weekend, so he was surprised to see me packing my things up when he arrived back home on Tuesday night. “What? You’re still here?” he said jokingly. “You’re really never going to leave, are you?”
“I am, I swear! I’m leaving tomorrow, I swear!” I said it in the same playful tone, but part of me really hated the fact that I knew this time I really meant it. I was going to spend one last night at Ralf’s place, and from there I would head to Berlin Haupbanhof and catch my train to… well, I still had a bit of time to figure that out. So I said my final goodbyes to Simon, Eva, and the rest of my Berlin housemates from the past two weeks, and left a small thank you note for Donatella, who was still away in Munich. It was the longest I’d lived anywhere in the past three months, and of course I was leaving just when it began to feel like home.

However, Ralf’s place was so homely and cozy that it didn’t take long at all to settle in, even if it was for just one more night. The fifth story apartment was on the top floor of the building and had a quaint little balcony with a lush herb garden. But it was raining that evening, so Ralf and I snuggled up on the couch with some herbal tea – brewed with the plants from his very own garden – to consider the immediate problem of where I would be going tomorrow. I’d had plans to head east from Berlin, to travel down through Prague and Budapest, then down through Croatia and do a clockwise circuit through the Mediterranean. Though I had also planned to leave Berlin on Friday – it was now Wednesday, and the past weekend had once again changed my outlook on this journey. I’d become so obsessed with planning a route through Europe, trying to fit in as much as I could, that I had forgotten the entire reason I had chosen the flexible train pass. I was allowed to be flexible. Plans were allowed to change. Do whatever you want Bob, my mum had said to me when I’d sent her a couple of emails expressing my ideas and concerns. As long as you don’t miss your final flight to New York, you can make or change your plans as much as you like.

My mother had been a voice of reason, but it was Ralf who had really been the catalyst for change. In addition to our profound conversations in the garden at Berghain, spending those extra few days in Berlin with him had been so lovely, and he had reminded me that those spontaneous decisions of mine were often the most rewarding. But since I had spent more time than anticipated in Berlin, I felt like I really had to choose my priority destinations. I’d come to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to be able to see everything, so Ralf tried to help me brainstorm ideas. “Where is it that you really want to go?” he’d said as I flipped through my Lonely Planet guide, and stared intently at the railway map. Poland was close by, but the trains there weren’t included in my rail pass. Prague was meant to be a beautiful city, but the Czech Republic had only recently been devastated by severe flooding. Switzerland was just to the south as well, but there were other destinations further west in Europe that I wanted to see… and that’s how I made my decision.

Ralf had reminded me that I was, in fact, a bit of a romantic. So the following morning, after saying our final goodbyes, I boarded a train heading towards a city officially known as the City of Lights, but also commonly known as the City of Love – Paris.

Prologue

Six months ago, I started planning a trip. At first it was just a few plane trips to visit a couple of international friends, but when it came to the question of when I would be able to make these journeys, I came to the startling realisation that I had absolutely no concrete or definite plans for my future. I was about the conclude my sixteenth year of education, on the cusp of finishing my three year undergraduate degree at university, and somewhere in the back of my mind, it became very clear to me that I was ready to shelve the textbooks for a while and get out there and join the real world.

Yet the idea of getting a full time job was particularly daunting, considering I lacked even the slightest sliver of a career path. And that’s when it hit me: I shouldn’t try to fit these travels around my year – I should make them my year. I’ve had far too many of my older friends lament to me about how they wished they traveled more when they were younger and had the time, how their biggest regret was not doing an exchange semester while in university. I did not want to be another brick in that wall. With my studying behind me and an open-ended future, it didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that I did – I was going to see the world.

Now, on the morning of my departure from Sydney, it all seems a little surreal. After reiterating my travel itinerary about a hundred times as I’ve said goodbye to all my friends and family, my future plans have rushed up to meet me as the present. This 9 month journey will take me further from home than I’ve ever been, completely removed from anything familiar, and this morning I’m filled with equal parts of excitement and nervousness. But heading off into the unknown is all part of the adventure – to see what I’ve not seen before, to go where I have never been, and to create my own story from the various journeys along the way.

Which brings me to this – my travel blog. I’ve been a writer for a long time now, in both a personal and semi-professional capacity. If there was a specific point to this whole trip, I suppose it would be to learn a little more about myself, and discover enough to maybe one day open up a clearer path to my future. Writing is one of the few things I do know, and so I hope to combine my known with the unknown in order to make sense of the vast and ever changing world around me.

And hopefully, I will be able to include my readers in my discovery of the world around me. So I look forward to my next experience on this journey, so that I may live it, write it, and share it back into the world.

Bon voyage!