Monday 19th December – Bla Bla to Paris

Somewhere along the way I have picked up the superhuman capability to sleep wherever and whenever I need to. Today is the day those powers came out in force. I woke to my alarm still sleepy, but I’d had a good night’s sleep and I was feeling better, almost over my cold. Sabrina was the same. Alex and I did some washing up from our chefing last night, I made breakfast and Alex made me lunch. I’d packed the night before so I was ready to walk out the door at 8am, which I did, after hugs goodbye and last minute advice about Paris from the locals. Don’t talk to anyone trying to sell stuff, don’t give anyone money and expect change, watch your bag, all the usual precautions.

I walked around the corner to the train station, where it smelt like cow poo and people were getting in that last cigarette before getting into an enclosed space. I was early so I waited for about ten minutes before I saw my train. I hopped on and didn’t find it hard to get a seat. Seamless so far. I’d booked my ticket online and had my ticket on my phone, which I’d scanned to get in. I was enjoying the technology!

The train to Roosendaal took about half an hour. From there, I transferred to another train towards Antwerpen, where I would meet my BlaBla driver, which I was feeling a little apprehensive about. Would we talk during the journey? Would he be a good driver? It would be an interesting eperience, I resolved that it would be similar to getting into a taxi, just for a longer trip. It was on this train I had my first nap of the day. The seats were bolt upright, but I was still managing to nod off. I set a half hour timer on my phone, not expecting to need it, but no sooner had I shut my eyes, the alarm was ringing and I was two stations away from my destination. I was surprised I’d managed to sleep.

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Once I got to the station, which was a beautiful building with old sculpturing, I tried to find Wifi so I could get in touch with BlaBla man, but didn’t have any luck, not even at Starbucks. While I was attempting this, I got a call from BlaBla man, but when I answered it disconnected so I decided I’d try doing things the old fashioned way, I went outside to look for him. Within minutes, I saw his black Opel hatchback outside the station. At the driver’s window I said hi and introduced myself. Yes, it was Jo the BlaBla driver, who is French and doesn’t speak much English. He stowed my bag in the back and I took the passenger’s seat. After a few attempts at simple conversation, I gave up and settled into silence and staring out the window at the built up city of Antwerpen, which was a network of trams on cobble stone roads with pedestrians and bicyclists taking up every free space between the motorised chaos. After ten minutes in city traffic, we were on the highway.

Jo told me we were picking up two others in Brussels so a half hour later we were off the highway and into the craziness of another city. We waited for a while near the station, Jo looking all around and sending messages on his phone in an attempt to get in contact with his customers. Eventually he got out of the car and returned a minute later with two French girls, armed with shopping bags and a small suitcase. I stayed in the car while they all spoke rapid French and struggled to fit the bags into the tiny car.

Soon enough, we were off again. Once we were back off the highway and I was nodding off again. I was alarmed at my tiredness but I let it take me. I slept in and out, but mostly solidly until we pulled into a servo for a bathroom and snack break. Jo was having a coffee and speaking with the girls. I was definitely fourth wheel and feeling ignorant.

When we were back in the car, I began thinkinig how much of a money maker this was for Jo. I’d paid EUR25 for my trip and I assume the other girls had as well. In a car as small as this, a full tank would cost him no more than EUR30 and we didn’t fill up along the way so he definitely ended up ahead. Just as I was drawing this conclusion, I fell asleep, AGAIN. I started feeling bad now because I was missing all of the countryside flying by beside us, but I drifted off anyway. I kept it light because I wanted to pay attention as we drove into Paris.

As soon as we hit the city limits, we also hit traffic. “Bonjour, Paris!” Jo laughed. While in the traffic, I noticed we were close to where my hostel was so I asked Jo where we would be stopping, showing him the map on my phone. He explained he would be dropping us off outside the city. I wasn’t sure how to ask for any more information so kept quiet. It didn’t matter where he dropped us, I could make my way to the hostel. He actually dropped us shortly after, just off the highway. After a few broken words of English, I had my bags and was on the streets of Paris.

I didn’t much like them. I was amongst a chaos of roadworks and pedestrians that had their place to go and nothing else to care about. After failing to find a free bathroom, I wandered through the nearby flea markets which sold goods similar to what you’d see at the Queen Vic Markets in Melbourne, so mostly crap. I managed to ignore all of the vendors holding goods out in the hopes of a sale by looking straight ahead and kept a neutral expression.

It was a few kilometres to the hostel so I started heading in that direction. I was using offline maps I’d downloaded onto my phone. I took some of the back streets and I started liking Paris more and more as I walked.

The streets were narrow, lined with cobblestones and framed by tall apartment buildings without a single space between them. I walked up my first hill in weeks! Up through hidden courtyards and stairways, I came out on top of the hill at Basilique du Sacré Coeurwhich offers a great view of Paris.

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I found my people (tourists) here in their hundreds. As I approached the courtyard in front of the cathedral, the few vendors selling Eiffel tower trinkets and selfie sticks, all laid out on mats, saw a cop car arrive and immediately collected up their goods and ran off. The constables didn’t even get out of their car and as soon as they were off, the trinkets came back out. Obviously the business is worth the risk of the law.

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The cathedral was lovely both inside and out, but I declined to pay the EUR6 to go up to the dome for a view since I was already getting one and didn’t much fancy the three hundred stairs, especially after my Cologne Dom experience with yelling kids. I looked out over the city, my first good look at Paris and I felt stupid because I couldn’t figure out where the Eiffel tower was. I wasn’t stupid because I eventually found a sign that told me it was around the corner and out of site.

As the sun went down I continued on down the hill to the hostel. This part of Paris was all restaurants, bars and souvenir shops and it was lively as the lights came on. As I got close to the hostel, I took note of the food on offer nearby for future reference. I found the place easily enough, right next to Gare du Nord train station. I’d found this hostel thanks to Couchsurfing funnily enough. In searching for a Couchsurfing host, a girl let me know she wouldn’t be able to host me, but she told me to check out St Christopher’s Inn which I had and found they had a room free for EUR16 a night. Win! Even better that it is in a stellar location.

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This is exactly what it looks like – a Bear Angel. Of course!

I waited at reception a while, then settled everything which was the room and breakfast each morning for EUR3. The total came to about EUR80. Pretty damn cheap for four nights accommodation! I ran up to my 10-bed female dorm on the third floor, ditched my backpack then came straight back down for the free light tour at 5pm operated by the hostel. There were a few takers at reception and we chatted while waiting. Our tour guide, Eva, a local French lady who has been working in tourism for over fifteen years, came over and collected the group of two Aussies (both born in Mackay!) and four Americans. English it would be then! Not only was Amy from Mackay, she was also an engineer who had been moving around ever since she left home at 17, same age as me. Yeah, we didn’t really have much in common.

We all got to know each other as we walked to the train station and Eva gave us a tutorial on purchasing train tickets. We were on a train and our first stop was Galeries Lafayette. This store is the first of its kind in France, built in the 1800s, it changed the face of shopping for the women in Paris. No longer did they have to have a tailor come to their home to make a dress per their measurements, they could come to Galeries Lafayette and purchase a dress there and then! Today, 200,000 people visit the store EVERY DAY. All the original architecture still remains and we were here to look at the window displays celebrating Christmas. It was constructed entirely out of white paper and each scene contained penguins and bears doing all sorts of crazy things. It was very creative.

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Inside the building, there was a giant Christmas tree (again made out of paper) with bears in ski lifts around it. Towering above the tree was the dome of the building, all original and absolutely stunning.

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Feeling like we were getting the back-stage, only locals know about it tour, Eva took us to the rooftop of the building where we emerged to see the Eiffel towel sparkling against the night sky. It was right on 6pm and it was the first of the hourly sparkles. It was the first day in Paris for everyone in the group so we all experienced the Eiffel tower for the first time together. Special!

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Eva pointed out where we’d be going on the tour and the historic architecture that stood out among the cityscape. It was hard to drag ourselves away, but we ventured outside again and walked to a nearby train station where we caught another train (everyone totally disoriented now) to the Christmas markets. Most in the group were hungry so this was perfect. Similar to the German Christmas markets, there was Gluwhein on offer as well as all the best French cuisine, including escargot and frogs legs on a stick. I steered clear of those offerings and had a cheesy dish with just potatoes, bacon, onions and cheese. It was all goodness. Amy, the other Aussie joined me enjoying the dish. We stood around enjoying some warmth inside our bodies and shortly after finishing our dinner, we were on for dessert. Opting for the first thing that caught our eye, we ate a waffle-cone concoction that was made by a very enthusiastic man with a lot of character. Amy and I shared one, coated in nutella. Yum!

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Once everyone had taken their pleasure at the markets, we continued our walk down Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triumph. All the way, Eva told us different stories of French history and architecture and how she didn’t pass her driver’s license because of the chaos at Arc de Triumph. After fifteen years in tourism, she saw something new when we came across a group of people on the streets gambling. The game was simple, three little boxes and a ball. The man would hide the ball underneath one of the boxes after scattering them all around and you have to find the ball. Each time it was so obvious where the ball was, we shouted out, but it was EUR50 to play and we weren’t stupid. The people in the crowd playing were obviously working with him, putting on the show. He hooked some people though, it was a great scam.

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At the Arc, we gathered around to hear the story of its building and the historic events that have happened there. We all got photos, the best being one of the whole group since we were all having such a good time together.

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Eva told us that was the end of the tour. It was now 9pm and we’d left the hostel at 5pm. Best free tour I’d ever had! She lead us back to the hostel on another two trains, more stories flowing the whole time. When we got back, she offered us free shots at the bar, which we couldn’t turn down so we all downed a measure of peach schnapps minutes later. Eva wrote down some stuff for each of us, depending on what we were interested in seeing, then we put together a huge tip for her and said goodbye.

The group was keen for a drink so we stayed at the bar for some 2-for-1 specials. Amy and I walked away with free beers because the Irishman behind the bar offered me a remedy for my sickness (crushed lime and mint with hot water), which distracted him away from asking for our money. Cheers!

We stayed in the bar chatting and connecting on Facebook until about 11pm when I called it and we all head up to our rooms. Two of the boys had done quite well to stay up so late having flown in from America that morning.

I did some research on my top bunk before lying down for more sleep! I had a bit of trouble falling asleep, surprise, surprise.

France Fact #1: You probably already know you often have to pay for many public bathrooms (50c or EUR1). In Paris, this extends to McDonalds!

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