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Chasing The American Dream

July 01, 2006


Lost in Paris and the Eiffel at night. (more pix at Flickr badge below).

My co-worker and I went our separate ways from the Brussels train station. He was on his way to Madrid and I to Paris. The closer my train got to Paris, the more I thought about being alone. I mean, I’ve been in strange, new places plenty of times in the States. But the maps are in English and the people you ask for help speak English. In Belgium, my buddy could at least understand French so we got by. So this was really it. For the first time in my life, I was really on my own. A foreigner in a strange country. Reality sat in as the train slowed. The Paris Nord station would be my first test.

The Paris train station lines are long, un-air conditioned, and they don’t move very fast. 45 minutes passed before I got to the front. I showed the French woman my hotel address and she told me I was in the wrong line. I needed to be in the Metro line downstairs. Emphasis on stairs cuz there was no escalator to be found. That wasn’t good news because I was lugging around a 50-pound suitcase and two computer bags.

Talk about being lost. I took a look at the Metro train map and tried to figure out how to get to the hotel. I thought I had it figured it, but I didn’t want to take any chances so I waited in the information line. Another 45 minutes plus. I decided to call the hotel and ask them what train line to take. In broken English he told me to take number four and then transfer to some French town I couldn’t make out. “Excuse me, do you need help?” I turned around to find a very cute French girl. She knew exactly where I needed to go because she was taking the same train up until the transfer. She helped me buy the right ticket. I couldn’t thank her enough. I asked her her name but I couldn’t understand what she said. I also asked her if she wouldn’t mind walking together to the train. She didn’t mind. I had made my first friend.

After a monumental struggle to get my huge suitcase through the turnstile, what’s-her-name got us aboard. I immediately got two surprises. One, it was totally packed like a can of sardines. I guess those of you who traverse the NY subway know this feeling. There was not an ounce of breathing room to be had. Surprise number two was that it was not air conditioned. A total sweat box. It was hard to talk to my new friend as each stop, the train got more crowded. Five off, 10 on. I barely had room to grab a pole to hang onto. Another 45 minutes of torture. She was headed to Versailles and I to Cambronne. We said goodbye as we both chased our transfers.

OMG. I’ve never had to go up and down huge flights of stairs quite like that. I couldn’t roll my suitcase so I had to pick up that 50-pound load and lug it everywhere. By the time I found my #6 train, I was totally wiped. Luckily for me, I only had to wait three stops. Down another huge double flight of stairs and there I was, smack dab in the middle of Paris. I thought the hotel would be within eyesight but no such luck. I Looked for my street, Rue De La Croix Nivert, but no dice. I went back to the train station and showed the guy behind the window the hotel address. He pointed to his left.

So I went left. Still no sign of the hotel. I really really felt lost. I wanted to really succeed and be able to find the damn hotel. I decided to call the hotel again. I told the guy where I was standing and he told me where to go, but I had trouble understanding him. There were two streets to choose from. I think I remember him saying something about the middle so I chose the left one. I lugged the suitcase down the narrow sidewalk and I walked. And walked. A smile hit my face as I finally saw that I was on the right street. Now all I had to do was find the number, 46. I walked on and saw the number 63 across the street and cursed to myself realizing I must have walked right by the hotel. Back I trekked until I finally found it. I thanked the clerk for helping me, and I was on my way to my room on the second floor. I took the elevator or lift as they say here. That thing was barely big enough for me and my suitcase. I tumbled out of it and found my room and nearly collapsed on the bed. 10:30 p.m. Time for sleep right? Not if I wanted to see all I came to see in my short stay. So I splashed some water on my face, changed my shirt and headed out to the City of Lights. Just me and my map.

I was headed for the Eiffel Tower. I figured it would be easy to spot, but not so much. Buildings lined both sides of the streets and blocked off any view of the tower. I followed my map and enjoyed the adventure of being alone, discovering strange new worlds. A space between the buildings allowed my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Big smile. What a cool thing to see. Another 15 minutes and there it was. It looked bigger in person. Almost ominous in its presence. I started snapping pix left and right like a typical tourist. I decided to take the elevator car up the tower to get the full experience. It was spectacular. Truly. And the adventurous ride down contributed as we got stuck and stopped abruptly amid screams from the car. We hung, suspended by cables, a thousand feet in the air, for 10 minutes that seemed more like 10 hours. We finally started moving, up not down. Back to the platform. Another five minutes and then we had a smooth ride down complete with a standing ovation once we made it.

I was glad that I made the effort, and I finally felt at home, somewhat initiated. It amazed me on my walk back that people were still milling about, having their drinks, and eating full course dinners. What a city! I got back to the hotel at 1:30 a.m. Big exploring day ahead. More stories and pix to come.


  • So fun to hear about your journey - thanks for sharing! I experienced the same language "issues" when I was in France as you have...you know how we have to sometimes speak Spanish (no matter how bad it is) here in Miami? Well, my bad Spanish got me a lot more in France than my English would have ever gotten - maybe that can help you! Enjoy the rest of your trip!

    By Blogger orieyenta, at 9:13 PM, July 01, 2006  

  • Plant, sounds like a great trip, i am happy for you. I have travelled quite a bit internationally, and maybe its just me, but i always derive a great sense of accomplishment when "conquering" a challenge in another area of the world. And by challenge, i mean (for example) navigating my way from the airport to the hotel without getting lost, mugged, ripped off, etc. Its amazing how much more confident i am at this point in my international travels than i was on my first trip about 10 years ago. And while no one wants a vacation to consist of constant stress/apprehension due to the obstacles (language barrier for one) faced traveling in a foreign land, but at the same time, i always come home feeling that "if i can manage to successfully _____ (insert task) while travelling in ______ (insert foreign land), then i can certainly _______ (insert task) back home".

    I would be intersted to hear if you, or any of your blog readers feel the same way, or if its just me that feels like i can conquer the world (or at least complete my taxes on time) after taking a trip abroad. And its funny, my first trip was to western europe, which now seems (in terms of difficulty) to pale in comparison to some of the other areas in which i have been fortunate enough to travel. And everytime i travel, i come across someone whose travel experiences (comparatively speaking) make mine look like i went to the local 7-11.

    I hope the remainder of your trip goes well. Have fun!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:36 PM, July 02, 2006  

  • Yes, Gare du Nord can be intimidating the first time. And the second, too. One of the big lessons is to avoid the lines at the front of the station by going deeper into it. There are numerous information counters and ticket desks throughout the station on the way to the RER and the Métro. But the first few are always mobbed, while the rest may have no lines at all.

    You have both my respect and condolences for tackling the Métro with luggage your first time in Paris.

    Glad you enjoyed your first night in Paris. It's been fun following your adventures.

    As to anonymous' question, I have the same feeling. Having lived abroad for about a year now (basically six months in London and six months in Brussels), I know I am much more confident in dealing with the unexpected - or even with the mundane. I'm reasonably sure I can survive - and even thrive - left to my own devices in a strange city, in a new culture, and a different language.

    By Anonymous EAO, at 11:35 AM, July 04, 2006  

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