I woke up, showered, open my window and watched the early morning walkers. My view as of a 24 hour porn video store.I had a 10 am train to catch soon. I had a bit of an argument, as good of an argument one can have when both speak different languages, with the front desk clerk. They put me up in a double room for the night which meant I literally paid twice as much for a bed I didn’t use. I tried to explain this, that I came in, requested a single room only to receive a double. It was little use. I ended up feeling sorry for the guy because he was the day shift and thus, not the guy who lent me the room. He said there was little he could do as the night guy was also the hotel’s manager and of course the only one authorized to refund any money. Suspicious that the one person who could do something was sound asleep and wouldn’t come to talk to me when asked. What am I to do? I applauded them on their scam and left.
The nice thing about staying so close to the train station is you don’t need much time to hop on your train. Paris feels different than any other place I’ve been in the morning. Everyone moves slowly in the morning, but here it’s more pronounced and obvious. This reality suites me because I don’t really see the point in rising before 9 maybe 10 and Parisians make this fact an art. I don’t know if they party all night or just meet the mornings on their own terms. I imagine alarm clocks are not used much, Parisians wake up when they are done sleeping, whatever time that works out to be and then start the day.
I found a crepe place that was just finishing setting up: opening his umbrella, warming up the grille, finishing his coffee. You see, that’s what I’m talking about, every store and shop was still in the midst of opening. There weren’t signs that read: 8-5 it was more, ‘I’ll open when I get there.’ He dutifully poured batter into his skillet, which he had no doubt done many times. Vendors don’t talk much which I attributed to the early morning as well as the proximity to a train station. You figure this guy sees people from all over Europe, the world, no sense in learning more languages, there would be way too many to make small talk. I opted for a savory crepe with cheese and ham. It was good, of course, I was in Paris after all, they know how to cook.
I walked around the entrance to the train station finishing my breakfast. I had learned that that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day if you are walking for hours. Train stations are better people watching than airports. You see so many reunions and departures, all out in the open too. They don’t have TSA agents searching you, asking questions about where you are going, why you are going there, how long, etc. I suppose they trust people a bit more over there or maybe trains are such a daily, vital part of most people’s lives they don’t want to disrupt things by making people wait for scanning/searching. I do know that they wait until the last moment to reveal the track information for trains. It’s usually 10-15 min prior to departure. I’d be pacing back and forth, waiting for the information to appear on the big electronic board, convinced I’d miss my train or hop the wrong one.
On this trip I learned that I had a very prime seating preference. Just like there are rows when boarding on an airplane and groups A-D, trains also are segmented the same way. I was in group A which is a separate car towards the back. I grew concerned that the cars were filling up until I asked a train guy who told me to go into a certain car based on my group number. The car was less crowded and a bit nicer, too. I put on my headphones and we pulled away from the station. I was headed for Lille where I was told a transfer train would take me north.
It was a pretty short train ride, about 1 hour. I arrived in Lille around 11. This place was just as nice as Paris but not nearly as crowded so I liked it right away. I walked down the main road that leads out of the station, figuring it would take me wherever I needed to go. It was such a lovely day that I figured I’d just hang around the city for a few hours, then figure out where to go after lunch. I walked and walked and finally arrived in a square. Yes an actual city centre with an opera house and everything! It was so neat to learn or discover that city planning has been around a long time and that when done properly it makes it easy to navigate.
I walked around the square for a bit until I saw a large steeple. Ah the allure of churches is much greater overseas. You look at a church over here, especially a Church of Christ building let’s say, and they are all function, no style. Of course some European churches go way over the top with steeples and arches, statues. This particular church had a side entrance with an open door, another thing you don’t find in the US. One should figure that the safest place should be in a church as there are reminders everywhere of the right thing to do or at the least, someone is watching. This particular church had only a couple people in it, but they soon left. I didn’t even see a clergy person. I was completely alone in a gothic church in France.
I saw all sorts of stained glass windows, candles, crosses, you know, the usually church decor. It was just a building, come on in, but there were lit candles in this church that had all sorts of wooden pews, things that would burn quite well if one of those candles fell. You’d think they’d have a seminary student just hanging out all day, reading the bible or something, to watch over things. You know, keep the place tidy and not burned down, answer the odd question about the history, pose for a picture or two.
I soon realized how tired I was so I sat in the back pew. I walked for at least four hours every day, didn’t really eat lunch most days. I suppose one could say I was meditating or at least trying to meditate. The goal was to try and lose thoughts, to have a blank mind so I could process and appreciate the amazing experience of being in Europe. It’s a lot harder than it seems to empty one’s mind, to solely exist in the moment. What I ended up doing was realizing how lucky I was to be overseas as well as not at work. I think not working made me smile the largest. It’s a wonderful feeling to look at a clock and know you don’t really have to be anywhere; there aren’t meetings to attend and prepare for on a vacation
I think it was when I looked at a large crucifix that I started thinking about religion. It’s one of those things that I try not to think about because it is a difficult subject, one that doesn’t have any easy answers. I realized that I appreciated what religion gave me when I was younger, the morals, values, history, grand stories, but I have too many questions now. When I got to the point of having more questions than answers, I stopped going. I even arranged a meeting with my preacher to pose several questions I had about some things I learned about that weren’t in the bible. He brushed me off, gave me some stock answers but didn’t get to the point I had hoped he would. I guess I wanted him to tell me some grand thing I hadn’t thought of, a new perspective or study. Maybe I just wanted someone to listen to me, to take me seriously for a change. I was young then, 20, in college, basically transitioning from juvenile to young adult. When you are in the men’s business meetings and are by far the youngest, you tend to bend to the older or more vocal members of the church, that is to say the absolutist. These are the people who will spend hours arguing about minor details in the bible at church, but in their home life they are not as strident in their rule following.
After all this heavy thinking and rest I decided to people watch and have a beer. I found a spot just off the main road so I was assured a steady stream of people fresh off the trains. I walked into a bar that had maybe two people in it. I ordered a Duvel to which the barkeep shook his head.
‘Non! Non no: Doo-val, repeat,’ he employed. He placed more accent on the second vowel, vahl.
I couldn’t get my beer unless I pronounced the name properly! I can see how people would take this the wrong way but I thought of it as: there’s a right way and a wrong way, so this guy was trying to help me. Sure I could get all bent out of shape, that guy was a French asshole right? I could think that but I didn’t. Doo-vahl is how you say that beer’s name, simple as that. I know I would correct someone who mispronounces Pecos if they weren’t from around here. Shoot just thinking about someone calling it Pay-cōs bugs me. Pay-cuss sounds right to me.
I headed to the patio to drink my beer and catch up writing. It’s nice to take a break and document past activities. After a while I noticed this frail, old lady wandering around. This was my first gypsy sighting! I was excited but cautious. They are professional thieves, gypsies, so I must be on guard. The barkeep was outside having a smoke when he shouted at the lady. He spoke to her and shook his head side to side: no you are not allowed here. She must be a regular beggar. I went back to writing after this incident. Around the time I finished my beer and writing, in she came again, only for the same thing to happen as she was politely pushed outside. Some things are the same no matter where you go. There are homeless or unwanted people in every city. I don’t know if she was hungry, lost, confused, or following the homeless stereotype, she wanted a drink to ward off the shakes.
I finished my beer and walked to the station. Outside the station were a couple winos, bums who were drinking beers which is illegal in public, I suppose. The police for sure wanted several words with them and one deliberately kicked over an open beer that was on the ground. These guys seemed military more than local police. They had automatic weapons and shouted a lot. I watched cautiously for a couple minutes, smoking so I would have another reason to be outside than just to watch the arrest unfold, I for sure did not want to get on their radar.
I walked inside and looked up at the train board. I had a moment of panic as I needed to head north towards Antwerp but there wasn’t a city with that name. Did I get bad instructions in Paris? Perhaps I needed to get out at a different station, board another train? They have agents in every station so you can ask questions. I was only concerned that they didn’t speak English well enough to figure out where I might be going. In large cities they would have to have an expert in nearly every major language but Lille, a small city, maybe not so much. I figured all he needed to know was the name Antwerp and I’d be ok. Pointing and nodding work well overseas too.
‘Bon jour, Antwerp?’ I tentatively asked.
‘Ah oui, Anvers,’ came the reply and pointed to a city called Anvers.
Great so they have a completely different name for Antwerp over here! I didn’t feel quite so bad not figuring things out. I had about an hour before the train arrived so I decided to break a big rule. Ever since I watched ‘Super-Size Me,’ and read Fast Food Nation, I had a lot of thinking to do about what I’ve been eating. It sucks that companies don’t want to sell real food; it’s easier to pump it full of fillers and things to maximize profits. Anyway, there was a McDonald’s in this train station and I figured I should at least see what it’s like, can they really taste the same so far away?
The bonus of McDonald’s France is you can get a Kronenbourg with your meal. Beer makes everything better especially McDonald’s. Sure enough it tastes the same, looks the same, and smells the same, the only difference is the sizes are smaller. I think they also had a grilled fish option because why not right? The combo numbers are different too. The biggest chains besides McDonald’s are KFC and Pizza Hut. I think KFC was in every place I went. I just feel really sad that those are the food options people know and associate with the US. I wish we could get a real good chain going over there maybe just an American who starts a chain for all the Americans who can’t get certain options. How much more would it cost if restaurants used real, fresh ingredients, 1-2€? Wouldn’t you pay that much if you knew you were eating real food, grown in dirt vs. in a lab? This is what I thought about whilst I ate my Le Big Mac.
After a few moments of walking from one side of the terminal to the other, I got on my train to Anvers. I always found a window seat because I was sure I’d see a windmill or something cool. What always surprised me is how fast these train trips seemed. Ride a train for an hour or so and you’d be in a different country. That’s amazing considering flying in the US for an hour and you get to Odessa from Dallas, still in the same state. Hell one hour train ride around here might get you to Denton! Sad really. I got around thousands of miles for 10+ days and didn’t need a car or bus. Doubtful I could say the same thing about the US.
It was a short time before we hit Belgium. I had a few moments to think, ‘where should I stay tonight?’ it was in the afternoon and I soon realized that I’d arrive in Amsterdam after dark if I continued the whole way there. This isn’t the most ideal way to see a city for the first time, nor would it be ideal to navigate to my hotel. I needed to see road signs and things you know? I decided on staying in Belgium, but Brussels or Antwerp? I consulted my map and euro guide. Brussels sounded cooler but Antwerp was closer. What to do? I figured that since Amsterdam was the real destination I should hang closer so as to maximize time there the next day. Also for some reason I though Antwerp would be super fancy and cool. It’s the diamond capitol of Europe after all. I thought it would be like Paris or something, boy was I wrong…
I arrived around 5-6 in Antwerp. Again I was amazed at the train station. They go all out on train station designs with glass, large arches, and other architectural things I don’t know the names. This was a huge space, very high ceilings, arches, glass, just opulent looking. Things were looking up, I had maybe stumbled upon a hidden gem in Belgium. I get out into the plaza or square that is just in front of the station. It was cool, long sleeve weather. That’s what surprised me about a lot of Europe is even in August it would get down to the 60’s at night. I was walking wearing my new shirt and hat taking it all in.
‘Pardon do you have a lighter? Bic?’ a man asked me in French as I walked around the courtyard outside the train terminal. He made the international hand symbol for flicking a lighter.
I apparently looked like a Frenchmen now! Ha I had one so I handed it over and he said merci! Oh man I tipped my cap and walked with a big smile! I realize I prob don’t really look French but the hat and shirt made me resemble one I suppose.
Usually my routine when I arrived in a new city was: walk down a major avenue, follow attractive woman, hope to find internet café, search for closest hostels, map it out, check emails, try to concentrate whilst men argue very loudly for the duration. I swear literally every internet café I visited, which I did in every city, was run by men and I’d overhear from some closed room, men arguing very loud in a foreign language. This started when I walked in or was already in progress. I spent an hour in the room a couple times and the entire hour was shouts back and forth. I half expected blows or gunfire. Maybe that is just how they communicate. I’m used to the genteel Southern politeness and I have encountered east coast demeanor but this was like a foul New Yorker or Bostonian x5.
I did not find an internet café but I did find a church courtyard. It was amazing, every city seems to have one and they were downtown surrounded by old buildings and hotels etc. it was so great to find this place and people watch for a moment. Whilst sitting I remembered my friend Britney said that she could get deeply discounted rates at Ramada’s. I remembered this as I spied a large Ramada overlooking this particular courtyard. I had time so I figured I’d try for a sweet room. I spoke w the host and explained my situation. He showed me a form that Britney would have to sign before he could give me the room discount. I hoped it would have been easier than that but of course not, why would it? Turns out the rooms were 300€ a night so even with the discount I don’t think I would have been able to stay there.
I walked around some more, up and down streets, always trying to remember my way back to the station. That was the one thing I knew I could use if things got desperate. Hop on that train and ride to Amsterdam. I found myself wandering around Chinatown, but not a hostel or hotel in sight. I then recalled several chain hotels by the station. These would be pretty generic options, not something that would give me a local’s experience I really wanted. It was round 7-8 o’clock so my options were narrowing, the sun was setting, dusk was looming. I had once again reached that point, that moment in any trip, where you don’t care how much things cost anymore, you are going to do what you want, costs be dammed. I’m on vacation! When will I ever be in this place again, I’m going to be responsible now?!
I walked right up to a big chain hotel, room for one please. Turns out it was 40€ or about 80$ but hey, my own room! The receptionist was very pretty and friendly. We talked a bit, she asked me where I’d been. She seemed impressed when I rattled off I’ve been to Spain, France. I told her I was heading to Amsterdam but I wanted to see the countries along the way. She said Amsterdam was full of drugs and whores. That was awesome! She was from Rotterdam and didn’t care much for the Netherlands it seemed. I should have just asked her to go out and talk about the city, life…see what happens. I figured this girl was so pretty, there’s no way she’s single. A horrible mistake in hindsight.
I made it up to the room. My usual routine when checking into a room was: use restroom, shower, open windows, write post cards. I think the most important thing was privacy and showering. On this trip, skipping a day of showering was never a good idea when you walked miles and miles, sweating the whole time. I flipped on the TV and started to zone out. I was really tired. It was a lot of stress from walking and trying to find lodging every day. I ended up watching most of Predator 2 and The World’s Fastest Indian before realizing how stupid I was;
‘What did you do in Antwerp, Jason?’ they’d ask.
‘I watched movies in my hotel,’ would have been my reply. No, that was not going to happen, it was not going down that way.
It was after 9, probably closer to 10 before I headed out onto the mean streets of Antwerp on a Saturday night. There was a corner bar that I walked past full of older Belgians that was very loud. They were all singing and dancing, having a real good time. They seem to enjoy things a whole lot more in Europe. I’d seen this scene before, sometimes early in the afternoon. I wondered when people worked, then I realized: most of these people are living rent free. Think about it, their houses were built by relatives decades or centuries ago. Take what you pay in rent and put that into a savings account or vacation expenses, well I’d be a whole lot happier too! If you didn’t pay rent, of course you could just be a bartender, waiter, and shopkeeper, whatever you want, really. Over here, we move to jobs, we change house and residences often for jobs to support ourselves. There are pluses and minuses to both lifestyles, so it depends on your perspective and preference.
I was right by Chinatown where I could get Chineese food (that is how it was spelled on the signs). Sadly I was too late, most everything was closed. It was Saturday night too! in US these places would be open a few more hours but not here, they all prob wanted to go out too. I walked down some side streets but it was dark and they didn’t have many lights. I was around the ‘entertainment’ district, lots of friendly girls and dudes all around. I thought about venturing in to a European strip club but alone seemed like a bad idea. I was fast growing concerned about my safety. The area was creeping me out, mainly due to the dark streets, I expected a dude to jump from behind a corner or something.
I knew it was time to get off the streets when a large muscle man with an obvious tranny on his arm walked by. Ok so maybe I was in the gayborhood. I was bent on getting out of here but I was also really hungry too. I saw a chicken restaurant and ducked in. They were out of chicken fingers, WTF? I had to get some chicken limbs and they were super greasy too. That’s why I always opt for finger or breast pieces as they don’t seem to hold grease as much as a thigh or leg. Also this place didn’t have many soda options, just teas. I thought tea would be a healthy option but, man, I was reading my can and it was loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Their lemon tea sucked out loud. Not a good night in Antwerp. I sauntered back to my hotel, I found a computer, uploaded some photos to Facebook and chatted with someone who was online. I went to sleep round 2 am as I was riding a sugar rush.