THE EUROPEAN TREK PART DREI
SMATTERINGS OF GERMANY AND FRANCE
(Originally sent to Friends Tue, 17 Sep 1996)
Now where were we? Oh yes. We were on a night train between Copenhagen and Koln, in northern Germany. After a fitful sleep (nobody was used to sleeping on a train--least of all the children--with all the lights going by and the clickety-clack of the rails), we were awoken an hour before 8am arrival in Koln by the train conductor. Time to get packed.
Packing was an ordeal we hope we never have to do again. I had dad's old exterior steel-framed backpack, bought in the 1960's, when people still had to tie their backpacks shut, and nothing was clip-on or snap-on. I have used it for nearly twenty years, but never had to carry it in narrow corridors of a train, trying to avoid bashing somebody in the eye going past. Aya had a modern French-designed Korean-made internal soft-frame pack, which I picked up for a song in Seoul. Amy had a small pink backpack shaped like a penguin, which she carried if she was in a good mood. Anna, who couldn't walk yet, became part of the luggage.
So let's pack my pack. Everything that we never touched when on the road was securely in the bottom of my pack, and on top of that, accessible, were diapers, children's books (which we collected in several languages along the way), and some snacks. Alright, tie it all down. Add on to that my daypack, i.e. my mini backpack, which I attached onto the very top of the backpack, increasing my height far beyond any doorway and making it so I would have to crouch for passage. Then along the back of the backpack, strap on (with bungee cords we'd wisely procured before leaving Japan) the collapsible baby cart (a two-wheeled contraption which could fold into being a chair, a backpack, and a stroller), and on top of that, between the cart back straps, strap on a metal-wire basket (borrowed from an English shopping centre) with the day's foods, day's diapers, and other assorted nicknacks like toilet paper and wet tissues for cleaning crawling Anna's hands and knees.
All on? Now strap to the front of me a baby pouch which could carry Anna, facing forward, so she could see what I could see. When lumping, I had on probably near 100 pounds front and back, and looked somewhat like a two-meter turtle (with a shell on both sides of the torso) teetering through the aisles. Fortunately, I was usually given a wide berth.
Sheesh. Life was easier when we had a rental car with a trunk.
Getting off the train was the next hurdle, and I always told Aya to take the kids and I'd take the bags. We often only had a window of a few minutes between train stops, so we had to be coordinated. She and the kids were off first, and my backpack, usually left between cars when in transit (it was too heavy to steal and too complicated to pick apart) carried on my back with one hand stabilizing, and her backpack in the other hand. After all, it was only three steps and maybe ten feet to walk--what could go wrong?
I had to ask. The backpack slid off my back as we got off in Koln and fell to earth. Fortunately, nothing was broken--it only landed on my left calf with full force.
Yowch! I had not been cut--the sleeping bag and bedrolls attached to the bottom of the pack cushioned the blow--but I got a ten-centimeter bruise, which looked like a big purple ringworm with red orbitals, and a limp for weeks.
KOLN (COLOGNE), GERMANY
We only stopped here for three hours and it was enough. One of the largest, most beautiful cathedrals is within seconds of the train station and it is worth the visit. I cannot describe the exquisiteness of the building with words (unless Herman Melville starts channelling through me); it has to be seen to be believed. Just let it be known that even the war-weary Americans and British, in the closing days of the European theater of WWII, deliberately tried to avoid bombing it when razing Koln. Fortunately for all mankind they succeeded.
So, awed by the grandeur, we sat down for our breakfast, purchased the day before in a supermarket in Svendborg and hoarded. There we were, I sporting about two weeks' of beard (I would look scruggy anyway so I decided it should at least be deliberate) and dirty shorts. Aya was in her worst clothes so she could sit on the cold cement. Amy had food all down her front and Anna had black knees from crawling everywhere (we'd long since given up on trying to coop her up for the sake of cleanliness). Disheveled and ill-slept, depressed from the drizzly-grey day in this industrial city, we must have looked a sight, sitting out there in front of Koln Cathedral, because a nun, sporting a huge cross, came up to us and started cooing at the children. Then she started being charitable.
She was carrying a bagful of food, probably the donation of some supermarket (all the packages were past the SELL-BY date), and began emptying it out on us. Bread here. Processed cheese there. Yogurt. Nectarines. She kept saying something in German (which I can't understand. I can hold my own in French.), and we didn't know how to refuse. She gave the children this and that, then came back not once, but twice, to give us more. Every time stroking Amy and Anna's pate and wishing us something Christian, probably. "We must have looked like a real hard-luck story," said Aya. "This is the charity that devout Christians indulge in," I tried to explain, even to myself.
I tried the same spirit on a drunk that was sitting around begging for cash. I gave him some of our leftover bread. He certainly knew how to refuse. He threw it back at me, came up, and started giving me a lecture in German (which fortunately I could not comprehend), waving at me one nicotine-stained forefinger in a tattered glove. I said okay and walked away understanding nothing but not caring. There was the hard-luck story, and he wanted no charity. We said forget it, walked into the cathedral, and thoroughly enjoyed the space, lines, and confessionals (my favorite part of any Catholic church).
We were soon on a train away from the grey and gloomy industrial area of northern Germany and, via Brussels, got a TGV high-speed train between Brussels Midi (I didn't get the train stations wrong this time) and Paris Gare Du Nord. Cathedral in the morning, Paree by evening. Aya was jubiliant. After putting our bags away and getting a night's sleep, she was in the mood for brand-name boutiques (she's a Japanese, natch!) and French food.
We eventually got French food, but my style. Anywhere we stopped on our stroll, I bought a baguette/sandwich (which got better the farther out of Paris we went), and made sure to try pastries from any good-looking patisserie. Then, with plenty of fuel inside, we walked the city, from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower (which we went up) to the Arc Du Triomphe to the whole length of the Champs Elissees (sp?), which is a fair distance, esp when carrying or wheeling two kids. We stopped for even more baguettes, Italian food (we soon realized French was outside our budget), and diapers, and came to the conclusion that Paris was unforgivably expensive.
And this was despite staying in a youth hostel. Not in the center of town--the ones that had family rooms were always full. We were staying in a place called Athis Mons, outside of Paris proper but within Ile-de-France (Metropolitan Paris), halfway between Paris Austerlitz and Versailles. Twenty minutes by train, then half a kilometer uphill from the train station. The first time going there (I only go to youth hostels that will take reservations, so as to avoid being turfed out at the counter with two kids) was hell, with all our luggage and in pouring rain, and no taxis (this being Sunday), so I went on ahead myself and tried to get a cab. A friendly South Afrikaner staying there had a car and a family of his own, and gave me a lift. Soon all was hunky-dory.
Till we saw the room. It was clean and Spartan, but with worn-out bunk beds, graffitied walls, and a door with tampered-with locks. Signs everywhere said FOR YOUR SAFETY DONT LEAVE YOUR WINDOWS OPEN EVEN WHEN YOUR SLEEPING, and we were afraid Norman Bates would visit if we even took a shower. Still, it was 200 Francs (40 dollars) for all of us a night, which must be cheaper than the rest of Paris. Amazingly, we stayed there three nights.
ILE-DE-FRANCE IS A ROUGH NEIGHBORHOOD NOW
On retrospect, perhaps we should have chosen a better location. Paris, thanks to Jacques Chirac when he was mayor, has become a haven for the rich. Under a policy to move the minorities out to the suburbs (like Athis Mons), we found that every train we were on was filled with those minorities, which was fine when it was daytime. However, after that day stroll along the Champs D'Elisees, we ended up getting a train back around 10:30 pm, delayed until 11. It was not good timing. In our car in one corner was a rough-looking chap, in the other corner another, and a third one giving us a look as he walked past. From my experiences in NYC subways (I don't have Bernard Goetz's antennae, but I didn't need to in this case), I was getting the distinct feeling we were being sized up. Anna kept crawling along the filthy train floor in their direction, and Amy was grouchy enough by that time to keep grumbling and attracting their gaze.
Finally I said to Aya that we should put ourselves in another carriage before something happened. She agreed, but just before we moved, some women and more well-to-do-looking minorities boarded, and we set off for Athis Mons without incident.
Phew. Being mugged would certainly have spiced up the travelogue.
We had a day in Versailles afterwards, and found it enough. We don't feel like going back to Paris.
OUT OF PARIS AND INTO THE COUNTRYSIDE
We decided that four days of touring without hosts was enough of a strain on us physically and financially. We decided to head for some families we knew in the French countryside and in Spain, and decided to enjoy the society from in insider's, not a tourist's, point of view.
And what we saw, from the point of view of a happily-wed family, a single mother, and an unmarried friend with little hope for her own family, made us see something very special in what Aya and I have created.
Those stories next.
(on to the next essay in the series)