Sunday, February 16, 2014

Strasburg Transit

At 5 am, my train pulled into the station in Munich. With my boarding pass in my pocket, I found my seat and stopped fighting off sleep. We started moving around 6 o’clock, and by 10 we’d stopped in the city of Strasburg in Alsace-Lorraine, just over the French border.
A few days earlier when I arrived in Munich, I’d learned that no train would take me to Cannes overnight as I’d planned, hence finding myself in Strasburg on the morning of December 7th. Still I intended to get to Cannes that afternoon, stay the night, and leave for Barcelona in the morning. However, in the Strasburg station I learned that I could take an overnight straight to Barcelona, so I decided that, in order to make the most of my adventure, I would leave Cannes unchecked on my list and instead allow myself more time in Barça. And the bonus to my compromise: I’d get to explore the river city of Strasburg.
Unfortnuately, I was tired and suffering a debilitating sinus headache, so I slumped uncomfortably in a plastic chair, drew my hat over my eyes, and rested up for a few hours, blowing my nose intermittently.
Finally, to my readers’ relief, I woke up around 1 o’clock and decided a walk was the best thing for me. Strasburg was a pretty town. If someone had asked me to describe a small city in the Northeast of France, I would have described Strasburg without ever having seen it: brick sidewalks, three- and four-story stone buildings of varied earth tones, churches, streetlamps, some grass, ample trees, and partly sunny skies.

I walked around the streets and squares, no destination in mind, vaguely keeping track of my way back to the train station. I had all afternoon and early evening to spend. I stopped for several minutes when I reached a bridge, and I leaned over the fence into the wind. The freshest air in the city seemed to come from the river. I let it clear my head. I was hundreds of miles from anyone who knew my name and happy to be there.

I continued my pleasantly uneventful walk beneath stone buildings and across a few plazas. 

Three hours must have gone by before I consulted my map on the whereabouts of the train station. I still had plenty of time when I got there, so I asked a young woman for directions to the nearest internet café. I don’t remember her face, only that her directions were quite vague, but I had little trouble finding the café. There was almost no one else there as I passed an hour or so with French coffee and a sandwich. I then turned back to catch my train, which left around 9 pm.
It was a restful night, despite having to transfer in Avignon and again in Montpelier. I boarded my last train during what the Spanish call las tantas – the small hours of the night – eager to see the magnificent Barcelona, to return to Spain for the last stop on my Eurotrip. I put my sweatshirt between my head and the window and slept through the last couple hours of darkness, reflecting on where I’d been and anticipating things yet to come.

Monday, January 13, 2014


     On the train to Munich, I met a woman named Bari. She was Indian by birth but grew up in Germany and had lived there most of her life. I told her about the Eurotrip I was on and that this was my first time visiting Munich. I asked her what I should see during my stay, and she suggested that I tour the loop of streets that circle the city center. Then she offered to show me Munich herself and gave me her email address. When we got to Munich she helped me find my hostel on the map, I promised to email her, and we said goodbye.
     After a short walk I found my Munich hostel to be almost as cool as the Caledonian Backpackers Hostel in Edinburgh. It was a little too chic for my taste but had a decidedly more interesting name – Wombats City – I think because there are a lot of Aussie backpackers in Europe. The first floor had two common spaces, a lounge complete with modern-style chairs and palm trees; and a pub with plenty of seating and a pool table.
     After I checked in, I was about to go upstairs to my room when, peering into the lounge room, my eyes fell upon a familiar face. It was Gayle, from my program in Alicante. I went to say hi and found that she was Skyping her dad. So I sat down and began to write a preliminary version of what had just happened to me in Switzerland. When she got off the computer, I told her my story and about the rest of my travels. She said she was leaving the next morning for Alicante, then the US. We had hardly talked for ten minutes when she said she was going to bed, and I never saw her again.
     Then I Skyped my friend Ivan from back home. We caught up and I told him I was going to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers the next night. He was envious. After that I hung up the laptop, put my bags in my room, and left the hostel for a mid-nacht stroll.
Paul Bünjan?
     I went around only a fraction of the downtown loop that Bari had recommended, but it was enough to see some interesting things. The first was a kebob shop, which I investigated to the satisfaction of my belly. On this night in this part of town, there were surprisingly few people out. There seemed little to do but lots to see. There weren’t many stores but next I came across a Paul Bunyon-sized sculpture that seems to represent some historical figure from Munich or perhaps just a well-dressed imperial era German man.
     By far the most interesting site I stumbled upon was a shrine to Michael Jackson. Apparently Michael is very popular is Europe, and five months after his death, people in Munich were still enthusiastically celebrating his life. The shrine, which was set up over this statue’s dedication, was complete with uplifting quotes by Michael and (English) words of remembrance from his fans, as well as many pictures and candles. Simply fascinating. I stood by and contemplated the Michael shrine for several minutes, as I couldn’t stop ‘til I’d gotten enough. Once I’d had enough, I walked back to Wombat City and went to bed.
Legends Never Die – R.I.P. Jacko
     When I woke the next morning, I was surprised to find it was in fact not morning but 1:00 pm. Rather than make the most of my afternoon, I simply stopped out for a sandwich and coffee, then returned to the hostel and wrote the “Edinburgh” entry for this very blog, which would prove to be the last entry on Honoldblog before the 2013 revival. There was simply too much to do in each city, and I had to sleep each time I was in transit.
     I emailed Bari about meeting up on one of my nights in Munich then walked a few block to the train station, where I found out I wouldn’t be able to catch a train until 6 am the morning after the night I intended to leave. Thus I would have to forego a planned stop in Cannes, France, where I was going to stay with a couple my mom and I met in Florence – Sandy and… jeez I forget the guy’s name. We’ll call him Frenchy. (If you reread the guest entry my momma wrote, you’ll recall how a series of coincidences involving Italian art and food led us to become friends with Sandy and Frenchy.) Anyway Cannes, on France’s southern shore, would have been a nice stop on the way from Munich and Barcelona. (Sandy, if you're reading this, rain check.)

     I then returned to my hostel to meet a German chap named Johannes for the Red Hot Chili Peppers show that evening. I had found Johannes through a Facebook campaign fronted by my big sister, Katherine, which lead my twin sister, Liz, asking her German friend, Anna (who was an exchange student at Monmouth University) if she had any friends near Munich who like the Chili Peps. Originally I was gonna go from Freiburg with Shelby, but she had to cancel since she had final exams. Not to fear – thanks to modern technology, it wasn’t too hard to find Johannes. He turned out to be a cool guy, easy to talk to and very good at English like all college-educated Germans. Over a pre-show dinner of kurrywurst and glühwein, he explained the German juice economy and many points of Brazilian culture. When we finished our food and drinks, Johannes led us to the subway on the way to the concert.
      I had been awaiting this night for over three months by the time I was part of the massive queue extending through Munich’s Olympiapark, standing in line to see the show that night with my new pal, Johannes. (I regrettably have no pictures of the guy. I swear he's real though!)
     When we got inside the venue, there was music playing already, which turned out to be the mediocre opening band from Los Angeles called Fools Gold.  It was better than nothing, but these guys didn’t have half the talent, variety, or stage presence that the main event was about to display, even without John Frusciante on guitar. When they got off the stage, Johannes and I got a couple beers and found better seats to watch the Red Hots. We waited until the band walked out and the crowd erupted.
     They started the show with "Monarchy of Roses," the first song off their new album and a great way to open. The song changes texture, from disorderly and dark to steady and bright, giving the Peppers the perfect platform to launch things off with a ton of energy and enthusiasm. It pumped up the crowd.
     They went on to play an incredible set that included many songs I didn’t expect. Fourteen of the nineteen songs came from the album By The Way (2002) or earlier. To my delight, the album most represented by the set list was Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), with six songs. They played only “Dani California” from Stadium Arcadium (2006) and four songs from their new album, I’m With You (2011).
     Of the highlights there was “If You Have to Ask”, one of the band’s funkiest jams and the first tune they played from Blood Sugar, which got me into a groove I couldn't shake no matter how hard I shook. Another was “Me and My Friends”, a hard rock throwback from the band's younger days. They also played their classic funk-punk cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and of course all their most popular songs, like “Can’t Stop”, “Scar Tissue”, “Under the Bridge”, “Californication”, and “By the Way."  Some other key parts of the performance were Flea’s insane bass solos and the many funky jams they played to introduce songs.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – 12/05/11 – Olympiahalle, Munich

     To start the encore, a member of the opening band played a strange percussion instrument, a metal bowl played by rubbing and squeaking it. This solo then evolved into a jam, one Chili Pepper instrumentalist at a time: first Chad Smith on drums, then Josh Klinghoffer on guitar, then Flea, who walked across the stage on his hands to reach his bass. The man was forty-nine years old at the time. They then surprised the crowd by jumping into “Sir Psycho Sexy”, which is another one of the funkiest numbers off Blood Sugar, going straight into “They’re Red Hot," a short song originally by the great blues man Robert Johnson. They then played a ballad, “Soul to Squeeze,” and finished with the extended “Give it Away” jam.
     (The following paragraph reads like an RHCP fan forum, so unless you're into that kinda thing, I won’t be offended if you skim over.) The question on everybody’s mind: How does the new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer compare to his predecessor, the long-trusted John Frusciante? First of all, Klinghoffer did a great job and the show wouldn’t have been the same without him.  His style is different from Frusciante’s, much more vigorous, approaching the guitar as a sort of sophisticated noise machine, using different distortion effects, and slamming a lot of notes.  On the other hand, John plays the guitar like it’s an extension of his soul, taking care of every note as if it were is child. This effect was especially missed on numbers such as “Under the Bridge” and “Californication” where the guitar part is written as a song from John’s heart. This is not to say Josh can’t play those parts well and with precision, it’s just that the way he delivers the music is different, less soulful and bluesy. I actually wish that they had played more songs from I’m With You because Klinghoffer helped write them and his style presented itself best on those performances. Also the sound guy should have given him more volume, since his guitar was slightly drowned out by the bass and drums. So of course I would rather have seen RHCP in their prime with John, but I'm definitely not gonna say no to them just because they have a new guitarist. Josh put on a good show.
     The concert ended with Chad Smith throwing his drumsticks into the audience and walking off the stage, at which point Johannes and I made a b-line to the exit and tried to beat the crowd to the subway. We made the second train to Munich’s central station where we said goodnight to each other. It was great getting to know the guy on such an incredible occasion, and we vowed to be in touch if either one of us is ever in the other’s corner of the world. (You better not have visited New York City without telling me, Johannes!) The night was a total success.

München Christkindlmarkt

     I slept until 1 pm again the next day, but I didn’t waste my afternoon in the Wombats City Hostel this time. Instead I decided to take a walk around the city and wind up at the Christkindlmarkt in Munich’s central Marienplatz, the city’s biggest plaza. This Christmas market was exceptionally bigger than the one in Freiburg and included a life size nativity scene. The rest was your typical, yet awesome, Christkindlmarkt offerings, like bratwurst, schnitzel with noodle, crystal ornaments, and any number of heart warming artisan items. I pretty much just walked around for a while and soaked in the Christkindlmarkt atmosphere. I was to meet Bari here at 5 pm, next to the wishing well.
Bright Church
     At 4:55, I stood by the well waiting for Bari. By 5:00, she hadn’t shown up. Five minutes later, the impatient Millennial devil on my right shoulder told me She’s not showing up and you should just continue your walk around the city. However, the patient, more old school angel on my left shoulder insisted that I wait just a little longer. She showed up at 5:10 and apologized for being late, but it was no problem of course.
     She showed me around Marienplatz and some other plazas around town, some German stores, and two churches. The first church was brightly lit with white walls and gold accents. The second was dimly lit, with no sunlight to shine through the stained glass, only a few low lights and the candles on the alter. And few people were there. Bari and I stood in the front entrance way for a few minutes, conversing in whispers, until she said it was time to continue through the city.

Odeonsplatz, Munich
     Next Stop: Odeonsplatz, a large plaza near the center of Munich that points toward a large structure of three arches, resembling a stage. Bari told me that during the third Reich, Hitler stood on that stage and addressed the people of Germany. In fact, Nazi Germany's annual memorial parade began in Odeonsplatz each of those years. Pretty Scary!
     We then went to a mall where we found a place called Vapiano, an Italian restaurant by the food if not by the atmosphere. It was a pretty big place with the same new-and-clean look as Wombat City, two stories, and a lot of tables. There, we got appetizers and then split a pizza, which was amazing. The crust was half-way a flatbread and the ingredients were super fresh. We both stuffed ourselves to the brim, so we sat there for a while before getting up and continuing on our adventure.
     Around 9:00 we got to our next and last stop, appropriately called the Café Good Night. It was your typical independent coffee shop, not too crowded at the late hour. We both ordered drinks and sat down. I’m pretty sure I got a caffeinated coffee, since my train was scheduled to leave at 6 am and I wouldn’t dare go to sleep and chance missing it. Bari and I sat there talking for an hour or so before she walked me back to my hostel.  We got a picture together, hugged, and said Auf Wiedersehen.
Bari and me!
     I went back inside my hostel facing the dilemma of how I was going to spend the next six hours boarding time at the train station. So I went up to my room where I struck up a conversation with several roommates from Portugal. Their group was sitting on the floor in a circle, drinking beers, and after ten minutes of talking with them, two agreed to go down to the hostel bar with me. We sat down at one table, but quickly became involved in the conversation of the adjacent table and moved to join them. I will quote my notes (written the next day) which describe them as “some crazy people: friends of Ryan McGrath, guy who saw the Chili Peppers and thanked me, weird French guy, Swedish guy.” I don’t remember what I did to earn the thanks of the guy who saw the Chili Peppers, but it was definitely a good conversation. Ryan McGrath was a friend of mine from my program in Alicante, and his friends were American exchange students as well, studying elsewhere in Germany. To picture how weird the French guy was, I can only embellish my memory with imagination.
     I remember the Swedish lad well though. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, wore a pink hat, and simply oozed Swedish stereotypes. He's the pink hat guy in this picture. After an hour at the bar, he and I
"Kinda weird but pretty fun."
agreed to go out on the town. It was almost 1:00 in the morning. He knew the town much better than I (as informative as Bari’s tour was, it didn’t include any clubs), so he took me to a strange bar lit with deep red lights that stood by itself in a quiet part of town. It wasn’t quiet inside the club though. There was house music vibrating the walls, and plenty of people though it wasn’t quite packed. To get inside, we had to walk through a porch, which had it’s own small bar and was space-heated transparent plastic curtains. After a quick run through of the club’s blood red interior, the porch is where we spent most of the night. Lucky for me, the default language here was English, and we mingled with a group of people as strange as the ones from the hostel bar. I won’t describe them with words but simply offer the picture of them. To quote my notes again, “It was kinda weird but pretty fun.”
     It must have been around 3:30 in the morning when Mr. Sweden and I left and went back to the hostel. The scene there was expectedly dead, and like so many momentary travel friends, we parted ways and wished one another good luck. I went upstairs to my room and quietly packed my backpack while travelers around me slept. I went down to the lobby and sat down for a while, then checked out and walked two blocks to the train station. My train arrived a little before 5:00, and I slept, awaiting a layover day in Strasbourg, the capital of France's Alsace region.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


My train arrived in Freiburg around 1:30 pm, though Shelby was in class, so I set out to find her address. Of course I didn’t have phone (or my entire Eurotrip would have been far less interesting), but I did have access to modern conveniences like the internet and the lady at the front office of the University of Freiburg American exchange building. However when I asked, she wouldn’t give me Shelby’s address, which is understandable. So I resorted to my other modern convenience and found an internet café.

Bad Bellingen! ('Bad' meaning 'station')
Corresponding via Facebook, I arranged to get on tram line #3 and meet her at the stop near her student apartment complex – the tram, not the train; so I boarded the train on track #3 an went several stops down the line to some remote town outside of Freiburg. This time, I didn’t even have a ‘helpful’ French guy to blame for putting me on the wrong track, like I did the night before. I of course realized my mistake and turned back, but it took thirty minutes at the other station before I could catch a train back to Freiburg. At least I got this cool picture out of it.

It was around 5:30 by the time I got on the tram and met Shelby at the stop. We hugged and I profusely apologized for all the waiting in vain she had to do at the train station the previous night and that afternoon. She was just happy to see me though, and she had the privilege of being the first person to hear my coveted “Lost in Switzerland” story.

When we got to her apartment, I took a shower, and it was a beautiful thing. Then we dined on some delicious eggplant parmesan with salad and went across the student housing complex to her friend’s apartment, where I learned nine new names and how to play LA RESISTÁNCE! (pronounced emphatically in a French accent), a card game of deceiving and deciphering the other players, in which the revolutionaries have five rounds to guess who among them are the government spies. It’s a great game that I’d recommend looking up and playing at your next 7- to 11-person gathering.

After the revolution, we went to a party at yet another apartment. To anyone who’s been to a hot, crowded college party where the walls are painfully white and it smells like sweat and the sticky, cheep beer that’s on the floor: I need not describe the scene. Most of the people here were American exchange students, so it wasn’t even culturally interesting, except for the beverage brands in people’s hands. Also, the long line for the bathroom meant that people were peeing in the shower the whole night, which is kind of interesting. Nonetheless, I had a good time meeting strangers and hanging out with Shelby and her friends.

FC Hannover @ FC Freiburg
On day 2 in Freiburg, we woke up and went over to meet some of the same friends we’d hung out with the night before. We were preparing to enjoy a minor fuzball match (a.k.a. ‘soccer’) between FC Freiburg and Hannover. I joked that we were competing against East Hanover, as if it were the good old days of the Iron Hills conference back in high school, and we were supporting the Hilltopper soccer team. It wasn’t a great joke, but at any rate, it made the game a little more relatable.

Shelby and I among more diehard fans
Perhaps the most distinctive part of the experience was my introduction to glühwein, a spiced red wine served hot whose name accordingly means “hot wine” and which is apparently quite popular throughout Germany during the colder months. Shelby ordered for the both of us, confidently asking for “zwie glühwein!” since she knew how to pronounce that and “danke shöne" better than I. Once I tasted the delectable concoction, it struck me as curious that there’s no such alternative to cold beer at American sporting events. I suppose wine is just too far outside of American Football culture to be served cold or hot, spiced or not, at the stadium. Well you can always order a coffee or a hot chocolate.
            Just as memorable as the glühwein was the enthusiastically cheering crowd (though I’ve forgotten the cheers) and the way our group huddled tightly in the stands, willing FC Freiburg all the way to a 1-1 tie. We then filed quickly out of the stands and back to a very crowded tram which took us back home. Shelby and I split from the crew and went back to her apartment where we each enjoyed an afternoon nap.

I was awoken by Shelby talking on the phone with a couple of our friends from back home, Ruta and Mario, and spoke to them each for several minutes. It was great to catch up and share with them brief synopses of my European adventures.

After a bite to eat, we went over to Shelby’s friend’s apartment and, to my dismay, did not play LA RESISTANCE! (though the game later caught on back home in Summit and Ithaca). We met with some more friends and went out to a bar called ‘Shtuzy,’ which I’m likely misspelling. It was a fun, enormous bar with two floors and several rooms on each featuring different music. Most people there spoke English, so it wasn’t hard to traverse and converse with the crowd. My memory isn't perfect when it comes to inebriated events that took place two years ago, but if I’m not mistaken they were also selling silly hats, or something of the like, for a couple euro, and I bought one.

Given more time, we could have been great friends.
After several hours of Shtuzy-ing it up, I walked home about two miles with Shelby and Dan. At some point during the trek, this happened. > > > (That's Dan on my back.) We got a little bit lost at one point, and Dan asked directions of a few Freiburgers, who steered us in the right direction.

The next day, I had a train to catch at one o’clock, heading to Munich. So I bid farewell to fair Shelbz and thanked her for a fantastic couple of days in Freiburg. I left early from the apartment so that I would have time to check out Freiburg’s Christkindl Markt – every German town has a Christmas market during the holidays. This time, I did fine ordering “ein glühwein” on my own. I had a harder time ordering a bratwurst with mustard and sauerkraut (many, though apparently not every German speaks English), but it was exceedingly worth it. The Christkindl Markt itself was full of food and artisan goodies, such as carved wooden nativity scenes, beautiful glass ornaments, and a hundred other colorful items that would make a delightful Christmas present.

I resisted any urge to buy these things, but I made sure to pick up a souvenir shot glass before I hopped on my train and left for Munich.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lost in Laussane: An Unexpected Swisst

            The next stop I made was not on my travel itinerary. It was a fluke, a mishap, and in the end, a beautiful accident. It is now my absolute favorite story to tell. To begin, let’s backtrack to Edinburgh, where I made the fatal mistake of not double-checking.
            One afternoon in the Caledonian Backpackers Hostel, I was planning my travel from Paris to Freiburg, Germany, where I would be meeting my friend Shelby. Helping me with the details of my trip was Tomas, a French friend I’d made and went to the bar with, as well as the Chinese buffet. Very sure of his ability to assist me, Tomas logged onto a French website he’d often used for rail travel, and looked up train times. I told him, “Paris to Freiburg,” (pr. ‘fry-burg’) So he found a train leaving at half past six o’clock from Paris to “Fribourg,” (pr. ‘free-burg’) which I assumed to be the French spelling for Freiburg. WRONG! As I soon found out, Fribourg, Switzerland is its own city. Though I never made it to Fribourg, I’ll never again confuse it with Freiburg.
            Now remember from my last post that I walked under a ladder on the way to the subway. I thought no harm could come of it. WRONG! Bad luck was afoot. Little did I know, I’d already fulfilled it by booking a train to Fribourg.
            So I got on that train in Paris with a pack on my back and a chip on my shoulder. I was going to meet Shelby that night at the train station in Freiburg! How exciting! On my way there, it was cool to travel through Geneva, and I was feeling good about things.
A few stops after Geneva, I had to get out to transfer at a town called Lausanne. The first thing I did when I got out into the train station was to look at the railway map posted on the wall, showing parts of France, Germany, and Italy and all of Switzerland. Then I saw it. In the Northwest of Switzerland, close to Lausanne, was a dot labeled with the eight most unfortunate letters I’d ever seen: “F-r-i-b-o-u-r-g.” DAMN YOU, TOMAS!!!
I ran frantically around the train station looking for anyone who could help me. I needed a ticket to Freiburg, Germany, but it was after eight o’clock and all the stores and ticket booths were closed. Apparently Lausanne was not a big enough town to warrant nighttime operations at the train station. After an hour of asking random people the two part question, “Do you speak English?” and “¿Hablas Español?” I finally found a man, sitting behind the gate of a closed news stand, who answered “yes” to the first part. He was kind enough to explain that the train station was effectively closed and I couldn’t get a ticket until tomorrow.
I immediately jumped to plan B – stay the night – and went outside, where I found a hotel across the street, went inside it, and asked the receptionist if I could get a room. He was kind enough to inform me that I probably didn’t want to stay there, since a room for the night was 165 Swiss Franks (about 183 US dollars). I asked if I could use the internet. Since I wasn’t a hotel customer, the receptionist wouldn’t let me sit in the lounge to use the internet, but he took enough pity to lend me the Wi-Fi password and told me I could go outside to use it.
So I went and sat with my back against the outside of the hotel, where I shot a cry of help to my mother (because it seemed like the right thing to do) and a message to Shelby that I wouldn’t be making it to Freiburg that night. A group of drunk Swiss idiots who yelled at me as they stammered by did not help my anxiety.
When I went back inside, the man at the counter gave me a map and circled the location of the nearest hostel, about a quarter-mile away. So I thanked him and walked to the hostel.
When I got there, I told the next receptionist my story, but he told me they were booked solid. However, he was kind enough to call the only other hostel in town to ask if they had any room. They did, and they told him they’d stay up until three o’clock AM to wait for me. At that point it was around eleven-thirty, so I had plenty of time. Like the first receptionist, this guy circled on my map where my destination was, but this time it was no mere stroll down the block. The other hostel was about three miles west.
So I started right away. I went downhill toward the lake and began to follow a highway that
The tunnel where I almost called it quits
ran along the shoreline. Most of the hike was along this highway, which eventually lead to a separate section of town. Along the way, I went through an underpass that was fully outfitted with graffiti. I considered giving up and making a bed for myself inside the tunnel, where I could wait out the night.
But I trekked on. Meanwhile, I was keeping my map in my back pocket, checking it periodically to track my progress. Then about two-thirds of the way down the highway, I reached for my map and it wasn’t there. I panicked and began backtracking to find the map. I did this for about ten minutes before I found a bus stop with a map of the town on it. So I memorized the route I needed to take and continued on my way, without ever finding my pocket map. Not five minutes later – I shit you not – a black cat crossed the street. You’ve got to be f#$!ing kidding me, I thought. I guess my bad luck had surpassed its quota from walking under that ladder in Paris.
   Eventually, the highway met with the road that I needed to walk up to reach the section of town I was headed for. A half-mile later, I found this crop of streets and buildings that comprised a small downtown area of five or six blocks. I figured it would be easy to find the hostel, since there was only one and they’re usually well marked. Plus they were supposedly waiting up for me, so the lights should have been on.
I walked through the front yard of a small chapel. It was about one o’clock AM, and everything was still but the wind and me. Streetlights lit the way under a bridge and past restaurants, shops, and apartments, but the hostel did not seem to be there. I walked around the blocks ten times and still didn’t find it.
Around two-thirty, out of the stillness, a cab pulled up to an apartment building and two guys started to get out. I quickly ran over, and fortunately one of them spoke English! So I learned that I had to go back under the bridge in the middle of town and take the first right onto a little side street. As I was making that right, I saw that in my hour-and-a-half search, I’d completely missed a street sign that said “Hostel à” and hadn’t gone down that street because it was completely dark. I checked the time on my digital camera – 2:45 am – I still had fifteen minutes to get there. So I followed the dark road for a block and a half, around a ninety-degree curve, and finally found it.
But the lights were out. I knocked on the door and rang the bell, but nobody answered my call. The little bit of luck I got from that cab pulling up had been for nothing. I almost breathed a sigh of defeat, but I knew that I couldn’t give up. Lucky for me, it was the end of autumn and leaves were abundant on the ground.
I just needed to find a place to set up camp, so I went around the side of the hostel and found that there was already another homeless person lying in the leaves.
So I went back to the chapel that I’d walked by earlier, and this time went around back, where there were dead leaves aplenty. At that moment, I was extremely grateful for the skills I learned in Boy Scouts. I made a pile of leaves against the wall of the chapel, then put on every layer I had in my backpack: extra socks, flannel pants underneath my khakis, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a raincoat, and my winter “Scotland” hat. I tucked my knees inside my sweatshirt and raincoat, folded my hands under my armpits, turtled my head and neck inside my sweatshirt, and sat in the pile of leaves against my backpack, supported by the wall. In the end, I was actually quite warm.
I waited out the rest of the night in a half-sleep until the sky turned a light gray-blue, and a few people began walking along the sidewalks. I stayed where I was for twenty minutes, then walked out into the day around seven o’clock. I found a small café and went inside, suddenly realizing how hungry I’d been. The last thing I'd eaten was that Nutella-banana crepe in Paris.
I asked the waitress my two part “Do you speak…” question, which annoyed her considerably, but she said, “Español,” and I quickly figured out that she could understand my Spanish enough to serve me breakfast. I did the best I could to understand her French and hand gestures. I got an omelet with toast and coffee, and it was maybe the best breakfast I’d ever had. The warmth from being inside with a hot breakfast inside me was enough to make this whole ordeal seem worth it.
When I left the café and started back down the way I’d come the night before, I realized that Lausanne had a stunning view of Lake Geneva with the Alps for a backdrop. The sunshine and the natural beauty of this setting was such an incredible turnaround from the strife I felt the night before.
The Bout
Since I could now see all my surroundings, I decided to walk down the residential streets that were up the hill from the highway I’d walked the night before. I stopped to watch an orange tabby cat scare a grey tabby cat away from its turf. Quite the sight! The houses were all different colors, and they each had a slated roof. In the end, I found Lausanne rather charming.
            I made it back to the train station around ten o’clock and immediately found help in English at the ticket booth. With zero hassle, I got my ticket for Freiburg (not Fribourg!) and waited thirty minutes for the train to arrive at the platform. It would be a four-hour train ride and I would finally get to my destination in Germany.

The Champion
Today, I’m grateful for my unexpected encounter with Switzerland. It turned out to be a trying yet great and supremely memorable experience. It allowed me to prove to myself that I could survive a cold night if I’m prepared, and admittedly, it was fun, especially once I saw how beautiful Lausanne was. If there were any way for my Eurotrip to get derailed, fate picked a wonderful time and place for that to happen.

Lake Geneva, on the train from Lausanne to Freiburg

Sunday, September 29, 2013


            I landed in Paris-Beauvais airport around 9:30 and looked around thinking, “So this is France.” Then I did a double take and thought, “Wait, where’s Paris?” It turned out that the ever-deceitful budget airline RyanAir would only fly to a remote airport in the French countryside, so I had to take a two hour bus trip to the city.  It wasn’t too bad though, because I caught some much-needed sleep on the bus. When I got there I decided not to take the subway and instead walk a few miles from the bus station on the southeast edge of the city to my hostel in the northern quarter. This was the start of a lot of walking I did throughout that day and night.
            And it’s a good thing I decided to walk, because within thirty minutes I happened upon
something interesting. It was a gigantic, ornate archway in the middle of the largest traffic rotary I’ve
ever seen. I later learned that this site was the famous Arc de Triumf. When I laid eyes on the Arc, my
Le Arc de Triumf!
immediate thought was, “I have to get there!” but, although there was a decent crowd of people under the Arc, I didn’t see any practical way to get there. So in true tourist fashion, I crossed the street. This was a bad idea. The street is about 100 feet across and, at midday, was pretty busy. Drivers all around me were honking and slamming on their brakes. It was reminiscent of the scene in Mulan where Grandma crosses the busy street holding the lucky cricket with one hand and covering her eyes with the other, while traffic veers and swerves around her. Thankfully, like Mulan's grandma, I made it across unharmed. There, I spent ten minutes observing the massive angel statues on each of the Arc’s four corners, and I took a pass on climbing the stairs to the top. As I was leaving, I found the tunnel that runs under the street (thank God!), which happened to lead in the direction I was headed.
            So I continued on my way, passing through a park where there were many children playing, a pond, and some interesting sculptures. The few parks I passed through were rather tranquil and attractive, like you’d imagine a Parisian park to be, minus perhaps the bouree-wearing artist composing an oil painting of his surroundings.
Jazz quartet on a Parisian street (video wouldn't upload)
            After another hour, I was within a couple blocks of my hostel. I couldn’t find it initially, but I was in no hurry, so I stopped for the most delicious cured ham sandwich of all time and then listened to a street band of four old timers play a few jazz standards. Delightful! I took a video of them playing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” that features an elderly woman who must have been their backup dancer.
After a short search I found my hostel, where I met one of my two roommates, a man who looked like the Brazilian Ricky Gervais and spoke both English and Spanish rather slowly and softly. He soon left and I took a three-hour nap to restore my energy for the incredible amount of walking I was about to do. At dusk, I set off to conquer the big tourist attractions. First destination: the Louvre. 
Mesdames et Messieurs, Le Moulin Rouge!
On my way there (speaking of Mulan) I discovered that the infamous Moulin Rouge was only a few blocks from my hostel, but I didn’t venture inside. I had bigger fish to filet. After a downhill mile, I walked through the Louvre’s grand entranceway to the plaza that’s home to the museum’s iconic glass pyramids. When I arrived at the entrance to the Louvre’s interior, I was thrilled to find that, on a Wednesday at the end of November, there is virtually no crowd. Amazing! So I looked around the vast concourse where I was standing with no idea where to start. Eventually I figured I’d start at the top and work my way around, so I asked for directions to La Joconde, also known as The Mona Lisa.
Ancient Sculpture - The Louvre
            On my way to Mona’s quarters, I passed many ancient and medieval statues. After visiting the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Louvre, these antique works of art begin to seem commonplace, impressive though they are. So many sculptors have made so many marble statues that to stop at each one and admire its ancient beauty is not worth it. However, some stand out among the rest. One such work caught my eye because it was the only black statue in a gallery full of white ones. I assume this guy felt pretty out of place, and he appeared
Angel Statue - The Louvre
frightened about something. Another captivating sculpture was of a huge headless seraph that appears to be taking flight from her perch at the top of one of the main staircases.
           Finally I made it to the Italian Renaissance paintings, where my mysterious mistress was waiting. I wasted no time, marching with purpose in the direction of the posted signs. And then there she was.
It was Louvre at first sight.
You’ve probably heard from anyone who’s been there that it’s impossible to get through the crowd around the Mona Lisa, but on this particular night, there was only one other guy in the room! And he was looking at the other paintings! Then he left! Amazing.
So for fifteen minutes, I was the only person in the world looking at the world's most famous work of art. It’s hard to describe, but there’s really something special about Mona. People comment on how plain the painting is, but few seem to contest its exalted reputation. On the surface it is a simple depiction of a woman posing in front of a dark landscape, but there is something deeper than that. It is in the slight smile, in her inviting yet penetrating eyes. She seems to know something that she’d be delighted to share with you – if only she wasn’t frozen on canvas. The way Di Vinci painted her, in soft light against that gloomy landscape, conveys such personality and curiosity. I could have stared at Mona for hours, simply because I wanted to know more.
The actual Mona Lisa! Wait, what's that face in the bottom right? Sweet Leonardo! That's me!

            But I had to see the rest of the museum, so I followed the signs once again, this time to find a different lovely lady, the Venus de Milo (don’t tell Mona!). At the time I didn’t know the history of this sculpture, which is thought to represent the Greek goddess Athena (Venus to the Romans), but apparently nobody knows its exact history. It was discovered on the Greek isle of Milo during the nineteenth century along with many other sculptures, all highly regarded. The sculptor is unknown, and the date is approximated to the first few centuries A.D. In any case, it’s a very lovely creation and I feel bad that she lost her arms (as does Blinkin, from Robin Hood, Men in Tights
Venus de Milo - The Louvre
            No other work in the museum had the reputation of the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo, but there were many cool exhibits full of items from all over the ancient world. They say you can’t see the Louvre in one day, but after Venus de Milo, I didn’t stop moving other than to take pictures, and I traversed the entire building in two and a half hours. There was a collection of Egyptian artifacts, with angular sculptures of animals, gods, and people, carved mostly from red clay; a series of decorated coffins stacked like Russian nesting dolls; pieces of a once-whole fifty foot colossus; and hieroglyphics aplenty. One exhibit was dedicated to the ancient and medieval Middle East. There were many paintings and sculptures from the classic and renaissance artists. The bottom floor of the museum had been reconstructed to appear as part of the original Louvre palace. And alas there was one room for modern and contemporary art.
            The museum closed at nine o’clock, at which point I exited to the South. Walking down the courtyard, I looked out through a high arch and noticed a distant Ferris wheel designed in the shape of a snowflake. Then I looked left. And there she was – “she” this time referring to the Eiffel Tower – all lit up with a beacon of light beaming from the top, like a 'bat signal' for eager tourists. So I stopped to take a few pictures, then I thought to myself, “When’s the next time you’re gonna be in Paris?”
Start of my hike from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower
            So I began walking, first in the direction of the giant snowflake, half a mile alongside a park that would have been quite beautiful in the daylight. When I got there, I considered going for a spin on the wheel but quickly thought otherwise. After a short rest, I fixated myself on the brilliant tower that was two miles away, and I continued my march. I went past a deserted outdoor market, over the River Seine on a very busy bridge, around a few Parisian neighborhoods, and finally found the plaza where the tower sits.
La Tour Eiffel
At night the thing is strung up from top to bottom with gold-colored lights.  About every ten minutes, these lights flash and crackle so brightly that epileptics should be warned before traveling to Paris. And apparently, at ten o’clock on a Wednesday night there is hardly a line to get in, much like the Louvre. Amazing! On the ascent, the elevator stopped halfway up before taking us to the top. The view of Paris at night was picturesque, and the wind was brutal. Surprisingly, there is no gift shop there, but there is a list of distances to major world cities, so I was able to see that I was approximately 5,849 kilometers (3743.36 miles) from home, judging by the distance to New York City. 
After ten minutes, I made my descent and started back for my hostel, initially in the wrong direction, but I realized my mistake before long and headed back in the right general direction. That was the start of a four- to five-mile hike back to my hostel.
At first, I was effectively lost, with only a vague sense of direction and a very empty stomach. I eventually stopped at the only place that was open, MacDonald’s, and in homage to Pulp Fiction ordered a “Royàl with cheese,” which I ate sitting on the curb outside. I then returned to my trek home and before long found a major road, matched my map with one of the city plans on the sidewalk, and charted the course to my hostel, which was still about two and a half miles away. It was already after midnight.
Along the way there, I passed a few drug dealers, who would yell to me “Cocaine!” and “Marijuana!” in their French accents, apparently able to identify me as an American tourist. One of them went as far as to follow me, saying “Come on, you wanna get high, right?” and even tried to put his hand on my shoulder. Instinctively, I threw my arm out to keep him at length, shot him a glare and said, “nope,” which thankfully stopped him. In any case, the guy didn’t look any more athletic than he was persuasive, so I could have outrun him if I needed to. I made it safely back to my hostel at 2:05am, according to the man working the desk.
As I drudged up three flights of stairs to my room, I thumped my tired, heavy feet on each creeky wooden step. I imagine that someone in my room could hear my approach growing louder and louder. When I made it to the fourth floor, my shoes tapped loudly and slowly across the hard wooden floor.   Tap.   Tap.   Tap.     Then I slid my key card in the door ­– Click – and turned the handle.
I opened the door, letting a sliver of light pour into the dark room, just wide enough to illuminate the face of the roommate I hadn’t met earlier. Instantly, he shot up and screeched, “AAAAAAHHH!!! AAAHH!!!” in a shrill tone befitting of a ghoul in a haunted house ride. It could have been a scene from a horror film.
But I was too tired to bat an eyelash. I simply said, “This is my room.” 
Hyperventilating, the man apologized, but with the terrifying way I approached the room, I couldn’t blame him for screeming.
The next morning, I found him downstairs and ate breakfast with him. He turned out to be a very nice British chap, and we joked about the startling way we’d made acquaintances the night before. He even gave me a plastic card with a map of Île de la Cité, the island in the River Seine where Notre Dame of Paris is found. Visiting the famous cathedral was my last objective before leaving Paris, thus completing the city’s trifecta of major attractions: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame.
I took the subway this time instead of walking, but I had to walk several blocks to the station and passed underneath a construction ladder en route. Keep that in mind when you read my next post.
            I got out at a station across the river from Île de la Cité. Just before I crossed the bridge, I was approached by an activist of some sort who had apparently taken a vow of silence. I don’t know what she was protesting or advocating, but she chased after me with a pen and a clipboard, smiling. Though I refused to oblige her with my signature, I couldn’t help but laugh, and she kept smiling. It was the strangest, most positive encounter I’ve ever had with a solicitor on the street – much more pleasant than my run-in with the drug dealer – and a moment I’ll never forget.
            When I got to the island, I discovered much more than just the cathedral, including a small park with a dock for boats, and many stone buildings that together resemble an 18th century town.
View of the Eiffel Tower from the top of Notre Dame de Paris
At Notre Dame, I found an group that had just started its tour in English. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a free tour, but I jumped on board and even participated in a human-body demonstration that simulated the structural architecture of the cathedral. After the tour, I climbed the tower, strongly resisting the urge to shout “SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY!” in the vein of Quasi Modo. Outside on the balcony, I took a few pictures of the gargoyles with Paris as the backdrop.
I then went downstairs and observed the stained glass, the statues on the alter, and a miniature wooden model of the cathedral. I sat down in one of the pews and did something I don’t do often: prayed. As I breathed in, I thought about the world I was exploring and my life back in the US. As I breathed out, I thought about my self and the journey I was on, both geographically and personally.
When I left Notre Dame, it was drizzling, and I went across the street to order a spaghetti and chicken dish, with a banana-Nutella crepe for dessert. It was hands down the most satisfying crepe I’d ever taken.

At this point, it was nearing four o’clock and my train ride out of town was schedule for half past six, so I took the subway back to my hostel, got my things, and headed for the train station. I got there with time to spare, got my ticket, and waited for the train that would take me to Germany… so I thought.