Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 1: The Road (or Track) To Amsterdam

I am, as of now, more or less giving up on preserving the anonymity of the people around me. I've realized it's going to be next to impossible not to talk about them, and much too complicated to try to explain who everyone is all the time, so I'm going to start using names again. Only first names, and without too much other information, but if anybody doesn't want me identifying them, please let me know and I either won't include you or I'll find you a pseudonym.

I'm still not going to reveal the names of the school where I work or any of the people (students or teachers) there.

Anyway, my holiday, to be British about it, began with an absurdly convoluted train trip to Paris. (Yes, there are trains directly from Brest to Paris, as well as trains directly from Brest to Rennes and from Rennes to Paris. But you remember what I said about Eurail passes and making reservations at the last minute?) My friend Sam, a fellow American English assistant, and I traveled together to Rennes, where we were joined by Jimena, the Mexican Spanish assistant, who had already been in Rennes for her medical visit, and the three of us took a second train to Le Mans (I don't know where that is, so don't ask), where we got on a regional train that took a ridiculously long time to finally deliver us to Montparnasse Station in Paris. Along the way, we at least got a glimpse of the magnificent cathedral in Chartres—the first thing (other than Charles de Gaulle airport) I'd seen this year that I also saw on my first trip to France five and a half years ago.

In Paris, we were staying with a French friend of Sam's in a splendid apartment near the canal in the northeastern part of the city. I don't even want to think about what such an apartment (three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, all of them very nice and quite spacious by French standards, let alone Parisian ones...) costs in Paris, especially considering I do know exactly how much the host of the party we went to that night pays for his cramped studio apartment and it's three or four times the going rate in Brest.

The party was just on the other side of the canal, conveniently enough, where Olivia (also an American assistant in Brest) was staying with a friend of hers who is also American and working in Paris as a paralegal. It was Olivia's birthday, and it just happened to work out that all of us and a couple of other Brest assistants were all stopping in Paris en route to our respective holiday destinations, plus several people had other friends who live in Paris or who were in Paris on holiday travels, so thanks to coincidence and to the generosity of her friend (and perhaps his lack of roommates), we had a lovely expat party with a really interesting mix of people. Language assistants from Brest and Paris, English and American interns in Paris, friends and friends-of-friends on vacation. I met several really cool people that night and had a lot of fun.

The next day, we had a mission: To begin with, we cured our hangovers with an early lunch at the Marché des Enfants Rouges (which sounds racist, but I still haven't managed to find out exactly where the name comes from), where Sam knew where to get delicious and very affordable (not just by Parisian standards, but objectively) Moroccan food. Then we headed off to find a series of bookstores recommended to us by another friend. We only actually made it to one before Sam had to take off again to return the key to his friend's apartment, so Jimena and I wandered along the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame and I took her to Shakespeare & Company, the famous old Anglophone bookstore in the heart of the city, right next to the river. Shakespeare & Co. makes me claustrophobic, and I don't really feel the need for English books as long as I'm only here temporarily, but I think Jimena would have happily stayed there all day.

Afterwards, my friend Thalia, the one I know from Oberlin who's now a language assistant outside Paris, met us at a nearby café and we all walked together to the Champs-Elysées and its massive Christmas market, where I had mulled white wine (a new one for me) and where we tried and failed to meet up with Sam again. After much confusion and crowds, we ended up joining him at a metro stop to get the heck away from the Champs-Elysées after all. Instead, we went to Montmartre, where Sacré-Coeur was illuminated beautifully against the night sky and a charming and much less crowded Christmas market was spread out around it. I had not been to Montmartre before, having spent only about a day and a half in Paris on that high school trip, and I was blown away by the charm and the view of the City of Lights below.

The next morning we were up and out in the dark to catch the first of four, count 'em, four trains on our way to Amsterdam. (Again, with the Eurail passes and the not having reservations and all that... This was the most efficient way to get from Paris to Amsterdam on regional trains that don't require reservations.)

Our first stop was in Amiens, an hour or so away from Paris. The cathedral in Amiens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also served as proof that I have not yet become completely jaded by all this traveling. An exquisite French Gothic cathedral can still take my breath away. And exquisite this one was. I think it almost rivals Notre Dame de Paris (which, by the way, is probably my favorite Paris landmark).

I had somewhat forgotten just how beautiful and elaborate French cathedrals are.

After a sandwich and a rush to catch our next train, we had a two hour ride to our second stop in Lille. We didn't really know much about Lille, and didn't have very much time, anyway, so we wandered down the street from the train station to see what we could find. This included a square where there was a Christmas market and some very interesting decorations, and also the old “stock exchange” (also a marketplace and a place for assorted other businesses, as far as I can tell), which is elaborately decorated and was randomly full of sellers of used books and comics. I don't know if that's a regular thing or not.

I was expectingly Lille to be sort of drab and shabby, kind of like Brest, but the bit of it we saw wasn't like that at all. It seemed vibrant, kind of old and modern at the same time, and it had interesting architecture.

After that we crossed into Belgium. Based on what I saw from the train windows, Belgium is very flat, very green, very cold, and very fond of ducks and sheep.

Our last layover was in Antwerp. By then it was getting dark, but I was determined to see the tomb of Peter Paul Rubens, which Sam had learned was in a church not far from the train station (whereas the cathedral was pretty much on the other side of the city), so we grabbed a map from the tourism desk and headed out. Sadly, it turned out the church was closed. We looked up at the big wooden doors, and I pouted, and Sam got out the map again and showed me that Rubens's house was practically around the corner, so off we went again.

We couldn't find it. We got confused took a wrong turn that led us to an H&M, where Jimena wanted to buy some gloves. Sam waited with her while I backtracked in search of the Rubens house, which was indeed very close and actually very easy to find.

Then we went back to the station to await our final train to Amsterdam. Our platform wasn't listed yet, so we parked ourselves on the floor in front of the departures board and waited. And waited. And waited.

And eventually, I started to get concerned about the fact that our train was the only one listed that hadn't been assigned a platform and also the only one with a note underneath it that said “trein afgenschaft”. That didn't seem good. Sam went off to ask someone, and it turned out our fear was correct: “afgenschaft” does indeed mean “canceled”. Fortunately, that train runs every hour, so all we had to do was hang around and get the next one. That also gave us time to head back out again and find a fast food place down the street (and that was a somewhat awkward adventure given that none of us speaks Dutch).

Antwerp has a fantastic train station, by the way. It's very old and beautiful (and huge), and also just super cool. I really get a kick out of multilevel train stations.

Naturally, the train was exceptionally crowded, presumably because it had to contain all of the people who were planning to take it plus all of the people like us who had originally planned to take the previous one. We couldn't sit together, and I think every seat in our car was taken. It also seemed more cramped in general than the rest of the trains we'd been on that day. BUT it got us there, and after some confusion about where to get the tram outside the Amsterdam station, and how to get the tram, and how to pay for the tram, we found our way to our hostel, checked in, and were even refunded for that night's dinner, which we'd paid for in advance and then missed because we were an hour later than we'd planned.

And then we had a cheap and much-needed drink in the hostel's bar, and so our adventure in the far North finally really began.

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