Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Paris - the very first day

I know that this is not how my trip began. The trip as such began in London and there was a whole agonizing period before we even stepped an inch towards it. The thing is that at the beginning of this blog, I want to have something to show. If I start writing about London and the pre-London stage it will take me ages to complete it! So I will start off with just after London. There will be a flashback, but right now we zoom into Charles DeDaulle airport where we have just landed off the British Midlands flight from Heathrow.

We went to Paris many times. But except from one time we didn’t see much of it apart from the waiting rooms at train stations, always on our way to Nice. But we covered one hell of a lot of Paris in the three full days that we did spend there. Our first time to Paris was from London enroute to Nice. Our plan was to spend 2-3 days in Paris and then make our way to Nice. It didn’t quite work out that way.

When we first landed in Paris, we found Charles De Gaulle airport to be a bit shabby and without the necessary class expected of an airport serving a city like Paris. On top of that we found the airport information desk, manned, or womanned, by one of the surliest women they could have found. As she gazed at us with haughty eyes and reluctantly dribbled out ‘der eess noo bus tu Nees . Ees der anything else I may elp yu weeth’ all our worst fears of French people were confirmed. Actually as it turned out she was an exception, and at all other places in France we were greeted with smiles and Bonjours, Bonsoires and what not. Why they would pick her to be there on that desk, facing the world so to speak, only the French would know. Maybe it was due to the Unions. France is big on trade unions.

Things started going a bit awry after that. We were supposed to put up with friends in their Paris hostel, but it was not certain whether they had found a place for us to stay. We tried calling up, but only got some automated message. We couldn’t understand a word of it, coz it was in French. We tried many times, thinking it was some voicemail recording. We even tried to leave a message. Finally getting frustrated, we approached, very carefully, a lady who looked like she could speak English. To our relief didn’t start screaming and calling the security to report Asian terrorists. She informed us that the message was that the number is invalid. Rechecking the number, we realized that we had been dialing a wrong number all this while. Aaaaaarggghhhh. With some hope we dialed the correct number this time, and to our great joy, we heard our friend’s voice on the other side. He unfortunately told us told us that he had not been able to arrange a place for us to stay as their hostel had refused to allow anybody else to stay there.

Our prospects at that point looked bleak…lets see, we were in a foreign city, without a place to stay, where we couldn’t speak the language, and it was getting late in the evening. Hmmm…and suddenly out of nowhere 4-5 plain clothed security guys swooped down on us and started questioning us. “Show your passport , why are you here, what are you doing, you call, you sit, you call again, what do you think you are doing?”. We were absolutely shaken, but tried our best to explain that we were Indian students on an exchange program to France. Tirthankar thinks it was the word ‘students’, I think it was ‘Indian’ that made them relaxed. And then they all started laughing and telling us to be careful and not look suspicious. But we didn’t think it was so cheerful, especially after we saw them completely take apart the luggage of an Arabic youth. Not exactly the brightest of beginnings!!

If we had a bit more experience of European cities and finding accomodation in one, we might not have been so utterly hopeless. But at that point we were standing in the airport, with tons of baggage, a growing fear of not being able to communicate in French and zero idea about how to find our way around the city. The only option we could think of was using one day of our precious Eurail pass, and make our way to Nice. We supposedly had a flat in Nice for which we had paid a 700 euro advance, but since all of this was done over mails we had no idea whether we had been royally looted or not. The story of that day in IIMC when Kathy (the landlady) sent me a mail saying she was very sorry but the apartment has gone to somebody else still sends shivers down my spine. Sahadeb Sarkar was partly (a big part) responsible for already scraping my nerves raw. It’s a long story. Maybe some other time.

Fortunately there was a train station right within the airport terminal. Bless Western development. We went there and enquired about taking a train to Nice. The gentleman at the counter in contrast to the info desk female was much more polite and helpful. We chose to take a train which left at around 6 in the morning and reached Nice in the afternoon at around 12:30.

We then set about settling ourselves for the long wait for the morning train. Waiting at travel stations and airports was soon to become quite common for us. Only problem was that the train station cum airport terminal seats were designed to dissuade people from sleeping on them. They were designed for three people to sit, and only sit. Partitions meant nobody could lie down on them. Steel construction meant that the cold would prick you wherever an exposed part of you skin touched the bench. In addition 2 euro or so for a packet of biscuits made us forget our deepening hunger for the time being. We had not even graduated to supermarket meals at that time. We explored the place a bit, being very careful not to look like terrorists planning their next strike. Finally somewhere in the wee hours of the morning we caught the train and made our first train journey in Europe, the first of many.

That was the story of our first day in Paris, the city of lights, romantic capital of the world.


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