Tuesday, 25 October 2011 – Part I
Slept about one hour last night, typical when I need to get up and am worried I’ll oversleep. The train tickets are way too expensive last minute to miss any segment, especially for the Eurostar through the Chunnel (short for English Channel Tunnel). Got up about 6:20 am then got Chris up at 7, and, about 8, she walked me to the train station since I wasn’t sure of the winding route. I was glad to find out there was a special open (i.e., anytime) return (i.e., roundtrip) ticket between Northampton and London of 27.40 quid (i.e., pound) for Eurostar travelers. I got my ticket, hugged Chris and headed to the platform, where I promptly stepped in a puddle of hot chocolate, “decorating” the hem of my previously clean tan cords (part of my limited wardrobe for the two-day trip).
I took the train to London Euston station, then made my way several blocks through the streets of London (using a small map Chris had sketched for me the night before) to find St. Pancras Station (the departure point for the Eurostar), which she had told me I would recognize from Harry Potter. A chap bummed a smoke from me on the street (which I discovered over the course of my trip is fairly common in Europe, not so different than in the States). Then, just outside the station, the pack fell out of my pocket, which inspired an assist from a good-looking fellow. I was comfortably early and it was a lovely fall day, so I took a few pictures of the station and clock tower (including trying the sketch feature on my camera for the first time).
I went inside to the Eurostar office to get my Eurail pass validated, as I was told I could do by the place I purchased the pass in the States. As I had initially suspected, the pass could NOT be validated on the England side, since it did not cover England. They told me I would need to get it validated in Paris and directed me to where the Eurostar departures were and indicated to arrive at the departure area at least 30 minutes in advance. There was a very cool statue in the lobby of a soldier kissing his girl, with intricate designs all the way around the base. And I can’t forget to mention there was already a retail outlet for the 2012 Olympics in the station…
I dilly-dallied outside for a while, enjoying the beautiful blue sky. Saw two guys in NFL jerseys (Bears and Steelers, I’m thinking), since there had been an NFL game (Bears and Buccaneers) in London the previous weekend. Then, there was a Middle Eastern woman with two little, little girls and a pit bull puppy who brought the whole crew over next to me to have one of the little ones pee over a drain right up against the historic and beautiful building. She just kind of glanced at me, like she dared me to say anything or was just of the attitude, “whatcha gonna do?” Guess she didn’t want to leave her dog to take the child inside… Overall, an interesting experience.
When I went in to the departure area, I found out my ticket could not go through the automatic reader, so I had to go to the window. No real inconvenience though, since the attendants were very friendly and helpful and always pointing you in the right direction. Security was no big deal either, just a walk-through with a scanner for your bag, like the good old days with the airlines here. A quick show of the passport and I was in the waiting area, which was rather crowded and cramped. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to discover a little newsstand, a deli and a bar. I bought a French newspaper to get myself acclimated, which of course led the bilingual (at least) clerk to speak to me in French until I replied. He apologized and started to explain himself, although I was already on board. (I mean, when you’re buying a French daily, why would anyone think they should speak to you in French, right?) We had a nice little laugh – again, I am impressed by the friendliness. Then, I glanced through my French paper over a bottle of water while I waited for my departure.
Quite the mad rush to board the train once it was called, with multi-levels and stairs and such. When I got to my seat, I found a nice lady in her 50’s, I’d say, from Wiltshire seated next to me. She was just back from visiting Carmel, San Francisco and New Jersey and was now making a trip to see her daughter and grandkids in Paris. After a bit of a chat, I focused on the scenery. It was really interesting to see how much northern France looks like the area in Michigan where I grew up.
As the train approached Paris, the sky turned from blue to dark as night. Suddenly, the heavens let loose with a torrent…for only a moment…and then, the most vivid and complete rainbow appeared, with all colors of the spectrum clearly visible. There was even a shadow rainbow. I took it as the first grand welcome to the City of Lights. After that, the skies cleared for a beautiful evening exploring “my little area” (7eme arrondissement) of Paris.
Unfortunately, the Gare du Nord train station was a disaster. It was undergoing a remodel, and there were all kinds of obstacles throughout. The signs seemed to point one direction but, if you followed them, what you were looking for was nowhere to be found. I did mention it to Chris later when I realized that arrows were in fact just used differently in Europe (her response was something to the fact of “oh yeah” – so many little differences that are only apparent to a new intercontinental traveler – HAH!). I believe an arrow down means straight ahead or something to that effect. In any case, it took me several back and forths, up and down stairs, to finally locate the Eurostar office UPstairs (from a down arrow) behind a bunch of construction.
The Eurail woman was atrocious and tried to tell me (in French, of course) that they couldn’t validate my pass (although she didn’t seem able to give any reason why). Finally, a more authoritative woman was walking by her in the office so she asked and was told it could be validated. They told me what they needed and got it handled, but most begrudgingly. By this time, I am really feeling the need to get someplace where I can relax…but it’s gonna be a while before I get to that point! But at least now I’ve got my pass handled so I can get out of the hell hole of Gare du Nord and make my way across the city to where I am staying. Or so I think…
After at least a half-hour wasted just trying to find the place to get the Eurail pass validated, I decided to step out for a smoke to relieve the frustration before going in search of the Metro. I realized at this point that people are not shy about asking to bum a smoke or a light or both. And there are all kinds of what seem to be beggars or disabled people who are in fact scammers and gypsies. It didn’t take long for me to learn the best approach was to act like you didn’t speak English – yes, that’s right, they were after the obliviously generous English speakers…
Then, I headed back into the construction-weary station and tried following the signs for the restroom and for Metro tickets (or so I thought) but, again, it was back and forth, back and forth, with no sign of the places I was looking for. And it was all hampered by huge puddles within the station, thanks to the remodeling and the heavy rains shortly before arrival. I finally found the restroom (a pay one of course) which left my brain more capable of finding the Metro ticketing (or at least that’s my story). The ticketing was on the side of a short dead-end, off the beaten path, which is why I thought it couldn’t possibly be what I was looking for. (And there was no line or anything, just a small window.) So now another half-hour spent in the repulsive station when I am SO anxious to get out and see the city. Again, the attendant spoke only French but was much more friendly about it, especially since I WAS trying to carry out the transaction in the native language. (This really struck me as strange in a town with so much tourism, especially in a location where the Eurostar debarks straight from England. Learned later, though, it was even worse in Lille, France, one of the other destination options.) She offered a couple of different tickets, but I asked about the three-day three-zone pass I had read about online and she nodded and got that for me, along with a map of the public transportation lines, and pointed me in the right direction.
I figured out the trains I needed to take and where I needed to change to get to my hotel by the Tour Eiffel. I took Line 4 to Strasbourg St. Denis, then Line 8 (9 stops) to the Ecole Militaire stop. When you get off the underground train in Paris, in most cases you just walk up the stairs and pop out in the middle of a block; there isn’t really much of a station or anything. So my first view involved popping out on a street of shops and rounded the corner toward where my hotel (Hotel Splendid Tour Eiffel) was supposed to be and found several restaurants with outdoor seating areas all in a row.
I had put together directions and then somehow managed to leave them in England. Guess I was familiar enough with them though, as I found the hotel without too much trouble. (Fortunately, it was on the pointed end of a building just around the corner from the Metro stop.) However, just when I felt a sense of relief that I had actually made it to my destination through the myriad of challenges, I found I still had more to overcome before I would be ready to explore. (In retrospect, I’m quite glad I had so many challenges upfront because I managed to get through all of them without any major ordeals, just minor frustrations, and my renewed self-confidence allowed me to remain much calmer as I encountered other issues throughout the rest of my journey.)
So I walk up to the door to the hotel. The door is labeled, but it is papered over inside, and the door is locked. I tried ringing the bell but got no response. At this point, I am starting to get a bit nervous because it is not far from sundown and I am wondering if the hotel closed down since I confirmed my reservation or what. I don’t really know what I will do if there is an issue, so I get a little panicked (especially since I booked this hotel months in advance because it was always booked up and was EXACTLY where I wanted to be in the city at a VERY reasonable price for Paris – I knew I couldn’t get even close to that price anywhere else nearby, especially on short notice. Due to remodeling, do you think? Oops – spoiler alert!)
So, I pull out my cheapo international phone that I bought for the trip and haven’t used yet, and mess with it until I actually figure out how to make the call within Europe and get a response on the other end. Now the problem is that I started off in French but had trouble understanding the desk attendant’s rapid-pace French, especially over the phone, and he was struggling with my Franglais as well. What I wasn’t getting was that the ACTUAL entrance was on the other side of the V-shape, which I realized after he verified where I was at, then asked me to hold on for a minute, and presto – popped out from around the other side of the building and motioned to me. Man, why didn’t I think of that???? (The door I was at was a side entrance via the lounge, which was closed for remodeling.)