Sunday, 6 May 2012

Caught In A Moment

My next destination was in the south of France but hitching out of Paris turned out to be pretty difficult.  I gave up trying because of my time constraint of meeting my host in the south the following day.  After a train journey to Bordeaux and one hitching ride from there, I made it to Toulouse.

I went into the nearest bakery to ask when it closed.  Well, I didn't ask in words, my lack of languages got in the way of that.  I communicated with actions, as always.  She said they closed in an hour.  I asked if there was anything she would be throwing away.  Click!  She understood what I was saying.
"J'ai je be je be jai?"  Or something along those lines.
"Oui" I said.
One minute later I was saying thankyou and walking out with three free pies in a bag.

I walked down to the square in the centre of the town and got talking to a man with a huge smile on his face who reminded me that the results of the election vote would be announced in half an hour.  I sat down in the square, gobbling up the first bit of food I had eaten all day, whilst watching the crowds form.

I took a few videos to capture how the next hour or so went.
The hundreds of people in front of me went crazy when they found out the had a new president; François Hollande.

(The video is pretty somber compared to what was really going on)

Now why on Earth would I write a whole blog post about France getting a new president?!  Because this one is pretty different; he's a socialist.

That night the Euro fell quite considerably.  Socialism satisfies needs and demands; it provides more jobs and services all for use instead of private profit.  It cares much less than Capitalism about the "almighty economy".

All of this means massive change for the people of France.  It was so exciting to see so many people come together and use their power to change their country's future.

"1st, 2nd, 3rd generation of children all exploited."
"Open your heart and your eyes and your heart will follow."

People were out in the streets with their entire families with all types of flags and banners.

It seemed as though every single car was beeping its horn to the same tune.  Just as I thought the beeping had stopped, someone somewhere would start again then within seconds the whole of the town was roaring.

Nobody could take the smile off their faces.  Not even me.  I know hardly anything about French politics but if any country in the world overturns capitalism then my cheeks must surrender to the pain of smiling too much.

I settled in the train station hoping that I could sleep there for the night.  Yet again there were so many homeless around; all with the same hope as me for that night.  The station closed at 1am and the guards threw everyone out.  I thought I was on the same route out as all the others, but then a young family and I were shown a warm room in the back where we could sleep for the night.  Being the model citizen that I am I gave my sleeping bag to the mum so she could wrap her two kids up.  She snored through the night.  As did her husband; twice as loud.  Four hours later I was rolling up my sleeping bag... which was accompanied with two huge patches of wee (well that teaches me for trying to be a good person!)... and I was heading back to the main station again for opening.

I don't know where all the homeless went for that four hours but sure enough they were back on the same seats they had left behind earlier that night.  I bought myself a 20c coffee and sat down.  Then my guilt built up so much that I splurged another 20c for a drink for the man sat on my right.  Apparently, all the homeless in Toulouse can speak English.  I got talking to another man who was testing out the city as a place to stay.
"Yeah I really like it here. It's warmer than Paris and the people are nicer."
Everybody kept moving around changing seats, so for a while I was sat next to a lady who was eating a kebab and who couldn't stop laughing.
"She's loopy." The first guy said. "...On crack I think."

My day and night had merged into one.  They had been so long I could hardly think straight anymore.  I was so taken the night before at the joy of the new president and the morning later I was sat talking to a bunch of people who, rightly so, couldn't give a sh*t about all that because all their positivity had probably been shattered a long time ago.  What can François Hollande do for them?  What can he do for anybody, everybody?  I'm optimistic.  And from the moment I got caught up in, it seems that most of the French are too.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Midnight in Paris

It's even bigger than it looks in this picture

Getting to the centre of Paris seemed to be a perfectly sane idea, so I asked several people but nobody seemed to understand.  Wow.  People aren't joking when they say nobody speaks English in France.  Surely the word centre is pretty much the same in French? Centro, centra, centrio; I tried them all.  I resigned myself to following a map towards the Eiffel Tower.  Now let me tell you, walking boots make no difference to how sore your feet will become when walking with a big backpack all the way across Paris.

Me & Notre Dame

I managed to make it to the Louvre and take advantage of the free baggage holding area until the evening when I met with Arno, my host for the next few days.  I told him about my tiring day then he told me that there is no centre in Paris.  I wish I had known that seven hours earlier.


The entire time I spent in Paris, I didn't learn my lesson; I walked a similar distance every day.  I think I must have seen every nook and cranny the city has to offer.  My feet met every cobble along the river Seine.  My eyes met every brick of every flawless building.  My body lay on every blade of grass on every park.  What a beautiful city.

Some wise words written under a bridge

Paris is such a rich city.  Which means that there are people who get left behind.  I saw so many homeless people that it made me wonder where they all go.  Of what I saw in the five days I was in the city, they spend their nights trying to sleep under some of the bridges along the river and mostly on the benches in the underground stations.  They spend their days warming up in the sun and try to make some pennies by begging the tourists for anything they can offer.  One man I saw preferred to walk around shouting random words in the faces of arrogant passers-by.  I almost gave him a high-five.

There are also a lot of illegal immigrants from Africa who are trying desperately to make a living selling tourist trinkts.  One of them was running towards me on my first day in the city shouting "Lady Gaga, Lady Gaga!"  I stopped to talk to him just because I found it such a funny original way of getting my attention.

Ben & Me
A few days in, I even had the chance to meet up with an old friend who I met whilst travelling in Thailand in 2009.  Ben and I wet for a coffee then took a nice long walk through the city and talked about everything.  We had so much to catch up on after three years!  Up to now, Ben is the only old travel friend I who I have had the chance to meet again, even though it is always the intention to do so with everybody.  I had such a good day with Ben that I will definitely be making sure I meet up with more old friends on my trips in the future.  So watch out everybody!

Me & Arno
After each long day, Arno was the perfect host.  We had great conversations over dinner every evening.  We laughed and joked and talked about our travels, politics, shopping, celebrities...everything!  It seems we have many similar interests and ideas.  We took a walk one night to experience the Parisian tradition of summer nights spent dancing by the river Seine whilst drinking wine and eating bread & cheese.  We spent our last night together watching the film "Midnight In Paris".  Bloody hell, this all sounds pretty romantic!  He was trying to turn me French, that's all.  It's ok, I turned him English too.  We queued up outside a shop one day.  Yes that's right, we stood in a queue!  And we drank tea in the morning... out of a bowl (not quite right but close enough).

All in all, I had the best time I could have possibly had in Paris.  All thanks to Arno, to Ben, and to the random people who made me smile each day.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Now I'm a real vagabond!

Seven o'clock in the morning and I am standing at the petrol station in St Helens which leads onto the M6 motorway. Everybody who drives by is looking at me; I guess this is pretty exotic for this town. Some people look a little scared when I ask them if they are heading south on the M6; I don't know what the problem is, I've only just set off, I'm clean!
After around fifteen minutes, a tucker, with a name I cannot remember, offers me a lift to a huge truck stop further south on the motorway. Woohoo, I'm on my way!!

"I'm not supposed to take hitchhikers because there are rules with the insurance," he says ten minutes into the ride.
"I'm also not supposed to smoke when I'm driving".  He lights a cigarette.
"But rules are there to be broken, hey?!"

The truck stop turned out to be a hit; there were hundreds of them. The only problem was that they all have that silly insurance rule and they are all terrified of it.  Literally hundreds of  "Excuse me, are you going south on the M6"'s later and I feel like giving up.  Stupid insurance.  Stupid insurance claims.  Stupid truckers.  Stupid England!  Then a gorgeous Welsh man stopped for me.  Ok, I take all that back.  Maybe I was vulnerable because I had just been out in the cold for two hours, but I wanted to marry him.

An hour or two into our conversation it was time for him to drop me off.  I got out on a very long lay-by full of cars and trucks.  The second person I spoke to was going all the way to London. This is getting too easy!

If you wonder what I talk about to a random stranger for six hours then here's your answer... Usually, in my experience, people pick hitchhikers up because they want to chat to somebody on their long lonely journey.  Which usually means they are a chatty person, so I can just let the conversation go as they want it to.  Let me tell you; some people talk about strange things.  This one in particular; about horses.  I've never really had anything to do with horses myself, but after six hours of conversation mostly about horses and looking at pictures of horses of which all looked exactly the same to me; I am now an expert on...horses.  I would delve deeper into the subject, but I've already mentioned the word horses too many times in this paragraph.  Horsey horse horse.  Ok, that's enough.

He also had a story about the time he was identified as a match to a police sketch of a murderer.  But his faithful electronic trucking log graph gave absolute proof that he was in a very different place at the exact time it happened.  I'm glad he said that, otherwise this story might not have ended so well...or been written at all.

So I finally arrived in a service station south east of London with a lot of daylight time left.  I did have the intention of staying inside London for the night, or staying at my friends house south west of London.  Every person I spoke to was going towards Dover.  So after three hours of trying to go the opposite way, I gave up and instead went to Dover.  Not just to Dover but all the way to Calais.  It was 11:30 at night and I had managed to hitch all the way to France in just one day!

 I gave myself a pat on the back and then realised that I had nowhere to sleep.  Oops.  I started walking in a direction I chose subconsciously and two minutes later I was investigating a bridge and was warming to it rather quickly.  After all, it had a bedroom and an ensuite at the side, what more could I ask for?  My night went pretty much like this: fiddle around with my backpack, turn around in my sleeping bag, sleep for half an hour, wake up because I thought I heard a noise, shiver, turn around in my sleeping bag, sleep for ten minutes, wake up because I thought I heard a noise, .....and so on. I lived to tell the tale, and to take a picture.

The good thing about sleeping rough for the night is that not only is it free but it is also very easy to wake up in the morning.  At 5am I was standing at the exit to a truck stop with my thumb out and my sign saying "PARIS".

An hour later I was in a truck with a Greek man called Basos.  We found a common language...German.  Combining his Geek accented German and my English accented German, we were probably speaking gobbledy-gook.  Despite this, I think this was my best time ever hitchhiking.  We talked about everything from apples to our countries economies.  He had a really interesting outlook on Greece's "problems":
"We have three thousand years of history and culture, and Germany are trying to tell us how to run our country.  Germany!  Before Europe, Greece was doing perfectly.  They made the Euro and Greece goes to shambles!"
It seemed I must have been tired after my very long day hitchhiking and my very long nights turning over and over and over. When we wern't talking, my eyes kept shutting uncontrollably.  I tried to fight it but then my head started bobbing too.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" I said.
"Go to sleep, it's ok!" He laughed.
By this point, I trusted Basos completely but if hitching's unwritten rules were ordered in terms of importance, I'm pretty sure that falling asleep would be top of the list.

He bought me breakfast and a coffee to wake me up, gave me a spare ticket for a ferry from Italy to Greece, and even offered to take me all the way to Greece over the next few days as that was where he was headed.  I took his number and promised to get back in touch when I get to Greece later on this year.  He dropped me just outside of Paris where I could then get a short train ride to the centre.

I had made it!  From home to Paris in one and a half days.  Not one penny spent, on travel or food.  Now I'm a real vagabond!