Dave: We walked from the lunch place back three doors
to the hotel, picked up our suitcases, and headed off on the park
path to the airport. As we had found, the flagstone still gave our
rolley-bags bumps, but there were less per linear foot than the
cobblestones on the way in. We crossed through the fair, stepping
over power cables and garden hoses, then crossed a small park freshly
planted with flower beds. Then we came to the front of the train station.
We had forgotten the cobblestones. Jesse described them as an
"endless sea" of cobblestones. Why? Why in front of a train
station? What were they thinking? The trip up the cobblestone
sidestreet had erased our memory but now we remembered. As so we set
off, "whup-whup-whup-whup-whup", pause, then "whup-whup-whup".
We set our pace to take 10 minutes to cross this sea, to make the
bone jarring noise bearable, and then we were in the station.
Brugge train station with its vast expanse of cobblestones to drag
your suitcase across
Dave: We walked about, bought some sodas for the train
to Paris, then walked to our track. The large schedule was flagged
with a red light for one of the trains running late. The flagged
train was 4 minutes behind schedule!
the stairs and the platform was a little crowded, with a few more
people arriving with each minute. This evening Thalys bullet train
only runs from Brugge to Paris on Sunday nights, so it was good
scheduling that we could catch it. And the platform continued to fill
in. The Track 9 area was becoming quite crowded while the adjacent
area for Track 10 was completely empty. Jesse and I simply stepped
around the corner and sat down, all by ourselves. Yet more and more
people continued to stand by number 9. Its not like we wouldn't see
and hear when the train arrived, yet we found such crazy impatience
again and again in Europeans. They all wanted to be the first on and
the first off and needed to be standing facing the train, not seated
five steps away on a bench, even though we ALL HAD RESERVED seats. Oh
well, how quaint. How very strange they must have found us to be.
We found our car and couldn't believe our luck, we were the only two
people for the hundred plus seats. We quickly relocated ourselves
from our assigned seats to the central 4-place table and I took out
the laptop and downloaded the digital camera. While Jesse napped, I
cleaned up pages, and wrote some notes. A conductor checked our
tickets, and when I pointed to the empty car he replied, "more
people may board at Brussels". Yeah, right. Like he didn't know
what was going to happen.
The ride to Brussels was smooth and fast and quiet. When the laptop
battery ran out I repacked it and Jesse roused as we entered Brussels
station. An announcement (Dutch, then French, then unintelligible
English) said that cars would be jostling and that nobody should
enter or exit the train for the next few minutes. After that, the
doors opened and people started to stream in.
We figured it best to return to our assigned seats and put the
luggage overhead, and people and people and more people arrived.
Eventually, every seat in the car was filled. Sure, maybe "more
people will board at Brussels". This was our only
"full" train during the whole two-week trip, and also the
site of an interesting little squabble. A older man and woman claimed
the seats behind us occupied by another couple. We were still
fascinated with the language and I eavesdropped as they went through
the same transaction I have seen on USA planes all the time. Are you
in the right seats (each look at tickets), "the correct
car?" (look again), "the correct day?" (look again).
The older man went off to find a conductor, then returned again to
converse and exchange, then both went off and were gone. Presumably
they found "chaise différente" for themselves. So
with the laptop battery dead and exhausted from the bike ride and
walk and with every seat filled, we both just eased back our chairs
and dozed off.
We woke up during some announcement, probably that we were nearing
Paris, and I had us retrieve our tourist books to read up a little. I
had been frustrated that we had done so little preparation for our
Paris visit, even though we had planned to go a year previously, had
planned this trip for over three months, and had tour books in our
possession the whole time. I read Rick Steve's guide to France while
Jesse browsed our Rough Guide.
Both of us read for awhile, then stopped to remark how both books
warned about crimes against tourists, pickpockets or scam artists,
and the large amount of unemployed, especially prevalent in train stations.
Rick Steves book even joking taught how to say "Give me back my
wallet" in his French language mini-lesson (har-har). We both
agreed to play it very conservative and work together during our
first few minutes of confusion at the station. By the time we got to
our hotel, we would have a good feel and could act more natural. But
until then, we would be on "red alert".
We stepped out of the train, last, after the flurry of Frenchmen in
their traditional foot race. We snapped pictures of us, the trains,
and the famous Gare d'Nord. It was just like the pictures on the web
site and seemed familiar from the recent viewing of
"Amilee". Then we headed up the escalators toward the
station where we were immediately pounced upon.
A young blond woman, resembling a Baptist missionary to me, stepped
in front of us and asked "Are you Americans?" We both
stepped back and I stammered. "Yes ... what do you
need?" not having ANY idea what to expect. "I don't need
anything", she said, "I have this extra museum pass that I
wanted to give to somebody so they can use it, HOW LONG WILL YOU BE
What a strange question. We did not answer her, but then we were
asked the same question five more times by three more people within
the next 15 minutes. Very very strange indeed. Were we paranoid?
Sure. But we had not even set foot off the platform yet.
we are just passing though Paris today, let somebody else use
it", and we walked on following the signs pointing to the Metro.
The metro part of the station was down a level, and an absolute
beehive of activity with people coming and going. I spotted the
automated ticket booths, and wandered us toward them, stepping up to
the one placed in a corner. Jesse was riding shotgun on my backpack,
and I had my wallet in my front pocket firmly beneath my casually
A stranger approached us, a middle aged man, middle eastern features,
wearing scruffy but well kept clothes looking much like a handyman
would back home. Here, you need to buy tickets, he started to quickly
press buttons, "HOW LONG WILL YOU BE IN PARIS?" "Non,
Merci", I said. "Please, we do not need help, we are just
walking about and looking. Non, si vous plait", I added and he
stepped away, only to come back and try again. "It is ok, I work
here", he reassured us. "I will help you, and he started to
press the keys". "PLEASE!", I intoned, "we do not
need help". I then spoke to Jesse and pointed to a distant wall
map that we wandered off to, waiting for our uninvited host to leave.
We then wandered back to the machine, and touched the screen a few
times. Another man, same questions, only this guy exclaims NO! and
actually presses the red cancel button on OUR machine. "You want
the all-day pass, HOW MANY DAYS WILL YOU BE IN PARIS?" Jesse and
I both stared daggers and him and wordlessly walked away from the
machine. When he left, I stepped back to the machine and Jesse
physically placed himself between me and the second machine that each
person has pretended to use while actually accosting us at our
machine. This time our helpers take the hint and keep away.
With about twenty seconds to orient to the machine, I read the French
buttons and spotted the Great Britain Union Jack flag icon in the
corner, the universal symbol for English. I pressed it and, wah-la,
all the screen menus immediately were legible and we could easily buy
our tickets. Rick Steves suggested buying a book of ten tickets (9
euros total ,90 cents each) as a better buy then the 5-euro all-day
pass. He was right, but the machines wanted EXACT change, and we only
had a couple of Euro coins on us. So we just bought two one-way
tickets (1,1 euros) , just in case, and then followed the signs to
the RER station (the magenta line).
We kept following arrows, eventually walking over half a mile, each
of us with a full backpack and pulling along a rolly-bag.
Additionally, we did constant circles and cutbacks (just like in spy
movies) to flush out any tails. We took a zig zag tour, cutting back
randomly to read kiosk signs that we had already passed. Sure we were
acting paranoid, but we were in a very deserted "no man's
land" between the train station and RER station and two
different men had paced our steps and delays. Each finally wandered
off coincidentally with our random backtracking. Sure, it could just
be coincidence, but each of them wandered away crossing back over
their own path. Verrrry creepy.
Then we found a manned ticket booth. Yes, he spoke English (a
little). Yes, he sold 10-packs. Yes he could break a 20 euro note.
Wah-lah, we were flush with one-trip tickets and just 10 steps away
from the RER station.
Dave: Gare d'Nord and Gare St Lazare are connected by
RER, the long-distant metro trains that run into the distant suburbs.
We only needed a one-mile hop, but the train was designed for long
haul commuters and featured a double-deck design. The
car was packed with people standing on the train foyer area. Again,
we moved about randomly and I kept my hand on my wallet in my pocket,
and Jesse also circled behind me randomly. All very casually, of course.
The train pulled into Gare St Lazare in about three minutes, and it
was the first time we saw the manually opening train doors. Unlike
other subways, many of the Paris trains have a big red button by each
door (one inside, one outside) requiring that somebody push it or the
door remains closed during that stop. All trains I had ever been on
before always opened every door at every stop automatically. A
typical Frenchmen stood at our door as the train slowed in the
station. He had held his ground when we first entered the car, making
us pass by him to be second in line. As the train slowed, he pushed
the button, methodically every two seconds; Push, pause, push, pause,
push, pause, push. Until the door finally opened (before the train
actually stopped still). He stepped out on to the still moving
platform and was thus in front of the hundreds of other scurrying
Frenchmen right on his heels. We stepped out (to avoid being run
over), then simply stepped aside. Within thirty seconds, the
platform, and the station for that matter, were deserted. How quaint.
We walked down a long hallway (with our packs and rolleys) then
finally found a street map kiosk only to realize we were at the wrong
exit door. We had to walk back the entire long hallway to the
opposite side. When we heard a train arrive, within one minute the
corridor was completely packed with hurrying people, and a minute
later empty again. Just like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. We found the other
exit door, another map, and headed out to the street. Our hotel was
two blocks away and in five minutes we were checking in.
The desk guy seemed weird, not dangerous, just "dorky". He
seemed careless and distracted. An older guy that you might find
minding the pool at a seniors community. Like he should have saved
his money when he was younger or something. He was friendly but
casually disinterested in us, like he wanted to get back to the TV
show he was watching. Wouldn't help or even have fun as I tried to
speak French. Wouldn't recommend a place for dinner. He needed a form
filled out (Passport#, etc) but said to not bother now and to do it
later instead (we never bothered to fill it out). Ah, "cest la
vie" I say with a shrug.
The room was up one flight (on the "first" floor) and we
turned to use the tiny lift behind us. Oh no, he suddenly sparks to
life, please use the stairs. But we have luggage, I pointed out, and
the staircase has a spiral with dangerous wedge shape stairs. Oh,
that is easy, he said, simply have your son here carry up the
suitcases, he is strong and healthy. I looked at Jesse and he wanted
out of the lobby. So he took one bag in each hand and headed up the
tiny staircase and its tiny wedge shaped spiral stairs, while I
followed. We quickly found our room, it was tiny but at least 30%
bigger than our previous room in Brugge. However, the bathroom was
tiny and definitely not designed for "Grand Homme"
Americans. Both the bathroom door and the shower door would not close
if either of us were inside. How quaint. I leaned out the window and
took our first pictures of Paris, including the abandoned and boarded
up building across from our hotel. We tried to call home but
couldn't, the telephone was pulse only. It was still light out, so we
quickly reorganized our stuff to head out for dinner. We split up the
money, locked up the passports and tickets, put away the laptop and
camera and maps and guides. All we took was the GPS and our
appetites. We will take Paris pictures tomorrow.
Dave: We stepped out on the street and set the GPS, it
was getting dusk and our only goal was to get a small dinner and
return to the room. We were dangerously close to repeating our trick
from Brugge and having frites for dinner (grrr). Gare St Lazare had a
huge construction project in its outparcel. A five story building was
going up, wrapped in construction signs and with cones and
barricades. We looked all directions to guess where restaurants would
be, and headed up the street.
It was a lonely Sunday evening, and all the buildings were closed
tight and abandoned. It was a little eerie during our peak of
paranoia. Had this been America, homeless guys would surely have been
sleeping in the doorways, and I kept imagining that I saw some when I
didn't. We were behind the train station, crossing the tracks on a
bridge with no sign of life and the sun setting. Also, a new vision
was a city block full of office building being gutted and rebuilt.
This is a fantastic program, which we saw several more times in the
coming days. All exterior windows are jammed open with wood cross
members, and the facade is held in place with a webbing of steel
I-Beams out across the sidewalk into the street. The complete 5 story
interior is gutted and rebuilt, providing a modern office with modern
wiring and internet access, with an historic building facade keeping
with the French Provincial look of the neighborhood. Of course it was
the next day that it all made sense. Tonight, starving, wandering
about an abandoned city, it was something out of a black-and-white
horror movie. A giant empty shell of a building when we wanted lights
and noise, people and food. Very, very weird.
The ornate Gare St Lazare train station in Paris
Paris building having its interior completely rebuilt
Dave: We crossed the Place de Europe and passed one,
then two Metro's but still had no place to eat. We finally saw some
neon bulbs, but as we walked toward them (like moths) we finally made
out that they were for "sex
shop" businesses and instead continued down our abandoned
side street as darkness fell.
We finally appeared on Rue St Lazare, and encountered several
restaurants about a square that included the Trinity church. Sun set
and lights came on as we walked between the restaurants trying to
decide what to eat. I get disoriented in such a situation, but Jesse
took over, and started making decisions. One place had a small
counter to get take away sandwiches, which I recommended to have in
the room. We didn't need to be hanging out in this abandoned
dangerous place. On a lark, as we were choosing, I asked if we might
instead have a small snack in the cafe. We did not want a large
dinner or the "plat du jour", just something small. The
host was delighted and sent his friend to seat us, bring us menus,
and point out small snack items. I had a delicious small quiche /
tart and Jesse had a croquette <?> sandwich. Jus d'Orange, Eau
du Tap, and it was bedtime. I told about our day of Brugge, trains,
bicycles, and bed. Fatigue, oui. With our bill, our host taught us
the difference between "Bon Sior" (good evening) and
"Bon Nuit" (good night) by putting his hands together as a
child's pillow. "Bon Nuit" he wished us and I replied
"Merci". I wished we had brought the camera.
We walked back to the hotel and can you guess what happened? As we
walked back along Rue St Lazare we encountered restaurant after
restaurant after restaurant. All of them lit and full and bustling.
All of them serving at the very un-American hour of 10pm. We had
simply guessed the wrong street on our little Sunday night walk and
had toured a shut tight business district. I was so shocked that I
actually walked back to where we stood when we first left the hotel.
By now, it was dark and the lights and neon clearly showed activity,
but it was easy to see how at dusk with the construction the area had
looked abandoned. This was our last feeling of worry or confusion in
Paris. When the sun came up in the morning, we were completely
adapted to our host country and its way of doing things. We didn't
always appreciate the differences, but we understood them. But as we
went to bed on Sunday night we were exhausted and apprehensive and
overwhelmed by it all, and it was all very unnecessary.
To finish the story, since we could not phone home from our hotel
(pulse phone) we wanted to call Lyn from a pay phone. We waited at a
phone booth for five minutes as two people carried on their endless
conversations, then finally crossed to a phone at the train station
(with a homeless guy sitting nearby). I told Jesse my experience in
Milan, with scraggy men following me from phone to phone around the
train station as why I wanted to use the well lit (but occupied)
booth outside. We finally charged in, called home quickly; "Can't
talk, will be in our room in 10 min, call us there". We
returned to our room, the desk guy told us Lyn had already called,
and we told him she would be calling again. When our room phone rang,
we told her our stories, and then crashed into our beds. Welcome to Paris!