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.

Humbug, Hamburg

The next destination on my European tour was the German city of Hamburg, a port town on the Elbe River that was known for, among other things, having particularly wild red light district that has even been compared to the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was actually heading towards the Dutch town of Groningen, where I would be meeting my old high school friend Gemma, but I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to party in Hamburg during the weekend that I passed through, and discover the reputation for myself. After having a quiet night in with Esben on my last night in Copenhagen, I was definitely ready to make up for it on the Saturday night.

***

The journey itself to Hamburg was a little strange. I took a seat on the train and put my headphones in, listening to my music as I watched the countryside roll by. After a few hours, there were announcements throughout the train, either in Danish or German, and a lot of confused looking tourists. I paused my music to listen in on some conversations – there was a lot of talk about a ferry, and having to get off the train. Eventually there was an English announcement, asking passengers to disembark from the train because we weren’t allowed to travel in the cargo hold… wait, wait? That definitely hadn’t been in the guidebook. It all became clear pretty quickly though – rather than a bridge or tunnel, the train was transported from Denmark to Germany via ferry, along with a bunch of private cars and other passengers. I have to admit, it was a little nice to break up the journey with a 45 minute ferry ride – a smaller adventure within a journey within a bigger journey. I followed the crowds and listened to the announcements, and it all went up without a hitch. Soon enough we were back on the tracks and on our way to Hamburg.

***

I arrived in Hamburg in the afternoon, and immediately set out on the U-Bahn (German underground metro system) towards some of the hostels I had looked up in advance, which were within a reasonable walking distance to Reeperbahn, the street in Hamburg that was famous for being the hub of all things sexual and kinky. I should probably take a moment to explain why I have such a fascination with places of such a nature: my old work – the one that sold Tom of Finland t-shirts – was a fetish store. In my year of working there I learnt and saw a lot of strange and crazy things, and discovered that the world and community of sexual fetish is a broad, complicated and intriguing thing. I had learnt so much about that world in a theoretical sense, since I needed to know how to explain products to customers, but so far I was yet to see what any of it looked like when put into practice. In a trip that was all about discovering new things, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek into the world that I supposedly knew so much about.

However, when I arrived at the hostel, I was a little taken aback when I was told they were completely full.
“Sorry – you can use the Internet on the computer there if you need to look for somewhere else.” The receptionist sounded sympathetic, but there was nothing else she could do. I dumped my bags onto the floor and logged onto the computer, cursing myself for not bothering to book ahead. It had never been a problem in South-East Asia – it hadn’t really occurred to me that walking into a hostel and asking for a bed on the spot might not be so simple in Europe. But hey, no big deal, right? There’s plenty of other hostels around, surely there’ll be room in one of them?

Wrong. I trawled all the search websites, and every single one told me that there was no accommodation that fit my criteria – that being “one bed in budget accommodation” and “tonight”. First I started searching for areas around Reeperbahn, but even searches for hostels in the city at large proved unsuccessful. I jumped onto Couchsurfing and found the group for “Emergency Couch Requests in Hamburg” and sent out a few messages, but I didn’t know how long I could wait for a reply. Things were looking pretty desperate. I logged onto Facebook and sent a message to Gemma in Groningen, who also joined me in the online accommodation search, but to no avail. The only available places we could find were well out of my price range.
“Maybe I could just hire a locker at the station and leave my stuff there while I party all night?” At the rate this was going, even if I did find a place to stay, I wouldn’t be staying there so much as I would be dumping my bags and going out to enjoy the nightlife.
“That could be cool! You’ve done crazier things,” was Gemma’s reply, and I was already thinking how maybe that would make an interesting blog post. Though I was already a sweaty mess from walking around with my bags in the afternoon sun, and quite frankly the stress of not already having a place to stay was making me kind of exhausted. In my mind I weighed everything up, including the fact that I hadn’t even been feeling so well the night before, and suddenly this night out in Hamburg sounded like a huge effort that might not be worth the way I would feel when it was all over. I consulted the Eurail App for some train times before messaging Gemma.
“You know what? Screw it. Is it okay if I arrive a day early?”

***

And so I found myself back on a train, heading to Bremen, where I could changeover at Leer, which would then take me the rest of the way to Groningen. I had an hour to get from the hostel back to the station via the U-Bahn, but because of the way my Eurail pass worked, I was able to take as many trains as I wanted on my recorded travel days. So essentially it didn’t cost me any extra to jump on a few regional trains, even if it did mean arriving in Groningen at 11:30pm. It was a stressful and exhausting afternoon that eventually worked out well in the end – I would miss out on having a wild night in Hamburg, but I was definitely excited to be on my way to see Gemma. Though above all, it was a lesson in planning. For so long I’d had the spontaneous and unplanned approach to my travels, making things up as I went along and choosing destinations on the day before I decided to travel, sometimes even on the day of travel itself. Tourism in South-East Asia and tourism in Europe were producing a vast number of differences with every passing day – the price was the most obvious, but this was the beginning of my learning the importance of booking ahead, even for the most budget accommodation, or risk being left out in the streets. In retrospect it seems so obvious – who in their right mind would travel to a foreign city where they knew absolutely no one with no place to stay? But I had managed to scrape through in Stockholm, so I thought I might have similar luck in Hamburg. Instead, I learnt this lesson the hard way.

The night out in Hamburg was the price I had to pay, in this scenario. However, I would be passing back through Germany on my way to Berlin – who knows, maybe an overnight stopover in Hamburg wasn’t completely off the table yet?