Here I am back in Charlottesville, back to the mundane drudgery of typing away at a keyboard, fantasising about faraway lands and strange adventures. It seems so hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was part of some very bizarre adventures in strange countries. But I put the cart before the horse. To begin at the beginning, I must inform you that I had decided to make my maiden trip to India in August 1995. Since one of my best pals was getting married in the south of France in end-July, I thought it would be a smashing idea to include a mini-tour of Europe and then continue to India.
Interspersed with my tales of adventure are some tips and hints for those who may want to tour Europe the way I did. Right on cue, the first tip is: Buy a Eurail pass. I cannot overemphasise how much of a time and money saver buying the pass was. I paid $300 to buy a pass that allowed me 8 days of travel in any train in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. (Actually, it did not include the metros in Brussels and Paris and, I suspect, other big cities with the exception of Frankfurt.) Had I bought tickets for all the trains I travelled in, I would probably have paid thrice as much. Not to mention having to stand in queues, dealing with foreign ticket agents, inflexible schedules, etc.
Tip number 2 deals with the visa. If you obtain the visa for just one of the "Schengen" states, you automatically get a visa for the others. The Schengen states are: France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Holland. Apply for the visa by post - it saves you much aggravation.
July 17th: I boarded a Lufthansa flight for Frankfurt. Right off the bat I must admit that my experience with Lufthansa was much more pleasant than my previous experience with Delta. The food is much better, so also the service. Beverages are truly unlimited, and you can feel free to ask for something to drink at any time. But Lufthansa employs the same torture techniques inflicted by other airlines on their passengers: Seats that are too closely-spaced to each other. Since Nature, when designing me, decided to be generous with the thigh bones, I often found myself in all sorts of cramped positions as I best tried to accomodate 2 feet of upper legs into an inter-seat gap of 1.5 feet.
It is best to not change too much money too quickly. In the first place, change as much as you need only, because every time you change money, you lose some of it. Different agents invent different ways of fleecing you legally. Some will charge a fixed fee per transaction, some a variable fee. Some others won't charge you a cent (or a pfennig or a centime) for the transaction, but will give you extremely poor rates. I found that if I took Amex TCs, the Amex offices gave me the best rates at no service charge. This of course meant that my first call in any country was to find the Amex office. Tourism takes on a new meaning when you have to hunt for the monument with the blue "American Express" board on it.
But at 7am, my first concern was where I was going to stay. So after changing around $20, I inquired where the Youth Hostel might be. YHs are the cheapest living establishments you can find in Europe. You are guaranteed a bed, shower and breakfast, but nothing else, not even privacy of a room. On being told that I need to take the Metro to go from the airport to Konstablerwache for the YH, I stepped out of the airport and into the Metro for my first taste of Europe. Without much difficulty I got to the YH where I checked in, deposited my luggage and took off for a walk around Frankfurt.
Situated on the Main river, Frankurt is a smallish city with not too many monuments to boast of. There are the ubiquitous cathedrals of course, but frankly, once you've seen one, you've seen most. There're are plenty of museums, one of which had an entire floor dedicated to knives, spoons and forks! It did have one of the biggest malls I had ever seen though. 6 huge stories of consumer heaven. After touring it some, I decided to venture into a restaurant and order something. I picked the "historic" Café Hauptwache as a likely target. After perusing the menu I decided to order Frankfurterwursten mit Kartoffelsalat not having much of a clue what it was. I think this is a good idea to try. Pick a local restaurant and try to order in the local lingo. Cultural experience and all that. Well, imagine my surprise when I got just what I wanted: frankfurters with potato salad! Imagine my dismay when I discovered I had got just what I wanted, not even water. I summoned the waitress and asked for Vasser. Promptly she brought me a bottle of the exorbitantly priced soda there. Sigh! I was just discovering what was to be a regular feature in Europe. To order "free" water, you have to invent terms (Trinkvasser in Germany, un carafe d'eau in France), or mime it out to waitresses.
Later that night I went out to sample some of the beer, Germany being famous for that particular beverage. So I walked into this pub, ordered Ein bier and was peacefully mulling over the froth when this guy behind pssts me. I turn and he calls me over to his table and announces that he wants to speak to me in Arabic! While I befuddledly ask why, he declares that I am Moroccan! That's when the penny dropped. It was my strange facial hair-do which had got him. I explained to him that I was from India, but by then the poor drunken sod had taken a fancy for me and proceeded to tell me all about his views on women.
July 19th: I took a train to Luxembourg. Had to change twice, once at Koblenz and again at Heinz (I believe). Met an Australian guy in one train. He had a computer job that he left to form a rock band in Eastern Australia. Travelled all over the coast and then decided that he'd had enough of Australia, so came over to Europe and was legging it out till his money lasted. I think that's a cool way to live.
An interesting thing about various European countries is where they put up the street signs. India incidentally follows the American way of erecting a pole dedicated to displaying street names. In a lot of European countries, the street signs are miniscule boards nailed onto some building or the other at the intersection. I had a hard time finding the name of the street I was on most of the times. But practice makes perfect, and it was with not much difficulty that I reached the YH. The YH in Brussels also charged me $20 (something like $600 Belgian Francs), but I was given a room all to myself. But not a bedsheet - that would be an additional charge. After a shower I decided to see Brussels by night.
Incidentally, Belgium is Tintin country, and one often sees comics shops selling the original Tintins. As I was to discover after browsing through a few comic shops, they also sell comics that have a lot of sex in them. I was just browsing through what looked like an interesting comic book that had Superman and Donald Duck on the cover when lo and behold, I saw scenes of graphic violence and the most explicit sex you have never seen on American TV! I also saw a few Indian restaurants in Brussels, of all the places. So, after mucking around for a bit, I decided it was time for dinner. I went to what seemed like a not-so-expensive restaurant, looked at the menu, looked at my wallet, and decided that maybe I would not sample a full meal at Brussels. I flagged down a waiter and tried to order a Belgian beer. Belgium is very famous for beer - there are 400 breweries around Brussels itself - so I expected him to rattle off a list of potables. But no! The imbecile asked me whether I wanted Heineken! I was slowly crumpling my face in disgust when a woman (always a woman!) from the next table, evidently a "regular" at the joint, came over to my table and advised me on what to drink. So in the fading twilight of 10pm, there I was with Marty Martha Martine, sipping Belgian beer and having an ice-cream for dinner.
July 20th: I spent the first half of the day doing a walking tour of Brussels. Did the usual touristy things and saw the usual monuments. What struck me as rather peculiar was that most of the exteriors of all the historic buildings were covered with soot. Cleaning had begun on the Royal Palace, but even adjoining buildings looked black from the outside. I noticed the same thing on the Louvre(!) too. After expending most of my bodily fluids walking in the heat in Belgium, I took a train for my next stop, Paris.
I wager that no conducted tour gives you as much a feel for a city as walking aimlessly in the streets does. All you need for the latter is a map, which can be easily procured at either the railway station, or any tourist spot. Thus equipped, I walked the streets of Paris stopping when it caught my fancy to do so. Eventually, I reached the Place de la Concorde - the heart of the city. From the Place, one can see the Eiffel Tower. If you face the Eiffel, then on your left is the Jardin des Tulieres and, beyond that, the Louvre. On your right is the famous Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe. Straight ahead, but a bit to the left is the Invalides, where Napolean's sarcophagus is kept - or so I was led to believe.
It was rather warm and muggy in Paris when I was there. Quenching my thirst turned out to be an expensive venture in Paris. By this time I had got around to the concept of buying water. In my crazed logic I figured that if I was going to pay for liquids, I might as well have some flavouring (and sugar) in them. Thus it was that I obtained intimate knowledge about the price of Coke in Europe. The average price for a can is around $3. At the second floor of the Eiffel, it is around $5, but at the base I discovered some Indians selling the stuff at 50 cents a can! Taking my own sweet time, I reached the Eiffel and decided to climb the 30-odd flights of stairs that get you to the first floor. By the time I got there, I was out of breath, out of liquids, but not out of cash. In a remarkable spirit of entrepreneurship, the French have a mini-mall at the first floor of the Eiffel. Everything is exorbitant, but one always finds tourists willing to pay ridiculous amounts for a "souvenir from the Eiffel", never mind if the same thing is available for a fraction of the price on the streets below. Masochistically, I climbed another 30-odd flights of stairs to get to the second level where it was windier, more crowded, but with a better view of the city.
Daylight lasts till around 10pm in Europe. I stayed till 10:30pm at the Eiffel, just savouring the breeze. After that though, I got sick of doing exactly nothing, so I got down and proceeded towards the Champs Elysées. This is the most famous street in France (if not the world!). At one end is the Place de la Concorde and at the other is the Arc de Triomphe. In between is one of the "poshest" places I have ever seen. With open-air malls, huge restaurants (Haägen-Dazs has one of the biggest outlets here) and lots of young people, this is easily the most hep place in Paris. I spent hours here just ogling at the women and quenching my thirst with milkshakes from McDonald. Yep, by this time I had realised that the cheapest way to eat was to walk into McD and order a burger. (Anyone remember "Cheese Royale" from Pulp Fiction?) Even McD's food costs twice as much as it does in the US, but it's the most economical way to eat.
July 21st: By 1:30am even Champs Elysées closed down, and now I faced the prospect of spending the night in Paris. I walked back to the Place de la Concorde. By this time it was 2am and there was nobody out in the streets. I was despairing of what to do when at the Place, I saw two women and a man dipping their feet in a fountain. I walked to them and said, "Je n'ai personne a parler. Vous voulez parler?" ("I have no one to speak to. Want to chat?") To my surprise, they actually said "Oui!" ("Yes!") So for an hour I chatted with Sylvie, Nathalie and Olivier - rank strangers before this point. Their English wasn't too good, and my French is poor, but between the four of us, we managed to talk about a bunch of things. It's odd how during the course of my tour, I somehow became an ambassador, not just of India, but also America! I bravely attempted to explain why Kevin Costner was a better actor than Keanu Reeves, in the next breath describing what a sari looked like. At the end of an hour, I had managed to exchange email addresses with Sylvie and had at least one address to stay at if I ever visited Paris again.
At 3am the three of them had to leave to drop off Olivier at the airport. From 3am through 5am I sat aimlessly at the Place. Occasionally a police car would pass by. I was afraid of dozing off because either I would get robbed, or the police might discover I was a vagabond. (If I was awake when the police came to me, I could always say I was "waiting for a friend", huh? Talk about outrageous ideas...) At 5am daylight began to break and a few more people came out on the street. I walked halfway across the city to Gare du Lyon, the railway station from where I was to take the next train to the South of France. After making inquiries, I walked back towards the centre of the city, saw the Notre Dame Cathedrale from the outside (it was too early in the morning for it to be open!). Then I sat on a bridge on the Seine, waiting for the Louvre to open up at 9am. The reason for the desperation was not so much to see the Mona Lisa, but to use the free bathroom inside.
When I finally got into the Louvre, I determined to not be a crass tourist and head straight for the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. (Instead I headed straight for the bathroom.) I thought I would just wander around, and eventually I would stumble across either or both of them. Well, as it turned out, I wandered around Dutch painters, Ethiopian knives, Turkish couches, English interiors and all such stuff for two-and-a-half hours and got nowhere remotely close to the two. By this time I was getting desperate to leave Paris, so I just made like an idiot tourist and asked the staff for directions to the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Saw both of them (and maybe 20% of the Louvre), and then headed straight to the station to retrieve my backpack and take off for the south of France.
By the time I got into the train, I had been on my feet for 18 hours (walking most of the time), and my lenses had been in my eyes for over 24 hours. My eyes were falling from their sockets, I was sleepy and I probably stank to high heaven. The only redeeming feature about me was that I was sober. In the train I freshened up, changed and slept till I reached Nimes from where I was to go to Lunel, a little town in which my friend was to get married.
I reached Marseilles and tried to phone Christine. Unfortunately, most phones in Europe accept only phone cards, not cash. If in Europe for an extended period, it's a good idea to buy one of these. Since nobody had told me what a good idea doing that was, I had to hunt up a beat-up instrument at 7pm to phone her. Initially I could not get in touch with her at all. She was out of the house. Later I found out (over a very bad line) that she could not come to meet me, but would meet me at 8am the next day. Only much later did I know that she had recognised me, but could not come to get me because she was a night nurse on duty! However, when I first realised she wasn't coming to pick me up that night, I mentally kicked myself for believing that such a casual acquaintance could be taken seriously. I resigned myself to spending yet another night on the streets, this time in Marseilles, one of the most dangerous cities in France.
For long I stayed in the McDonald's inside the station. Incidentally, beer is served freely (as in, without any ballyhoo about age being made) in all fast food joints. I also discovered that some vending machines will also serve beer! Another quirk about McD in Europe is that they have different rates for "to go" and "for here". "to go" is obviously cheaper, so there I was ordering disgusting food "to go", but then eating it "for here". By this time, I had acquired the savvy of buying my water cheaply so I didn't have to pay for it later. So I stayed at the McD for a long time. Sure enough, at midnight it closed down. And at 1am the last train left Marseilles. At 1:30am the police kicked me out because the station had to be closed. Unsure of what to do, I went outside the station trying to look as if I knew the place like the back of my hand. Close to the railway station is a police station and outside it are some wooden benches.
Figuring that this might be the safest place around, I parked myself on one of the benches. Once again, I did not dare to sleep for fear of what would happen to me. At around 2am, a man came up to me and started chatting with me initially in French and then English. He asked me when the station would open, and I told him it opened at 4am. (As you may guess, that kind of information I had procured long ago!) He shook his head and declared that that was not good. Then he asked me about India and the US, all the time telling me that he was tired. I told him some and said that I too was very tired. That's when he offered to put me up for the night at his apartment. Immediately I felt something was wrong, but I was so fatigued that I accepted the offer. He looked 50-ish, and I figured that if the worst (whatever it was) came to the worst, I could run faster than he. I had barely got into the car when he informed me that he lived alone. I must have shuddered at what I had got myself into this time.
We reached his apartment after a goodish drive (during which I was trying to memorise all the turns we took in between dozing off). Inside his apartment, I put down my backpack and we sat facing each other across a table. He told me to go to bed. I was so scared of something happening that I told him I wanted to stay awake longer. I told him he could go to bed if he wanted. We spent some more time staring at nothing - there wasn't much to talk with him, was there? After some time he repeated his suggestion. I told him I would sleep later, but I wanted to write a few letters first. (Talk about absurd excuses!) At around 2:30, my "friend" went inside and made a phone call. He came to me and said he had to meet a woman then. It seems she worked in some restaurant till 2am, and so he could meet her only after that. I asked him what I was supposed to do. He said I could spend the night at his place, but who would wake me up the next morning? I replied that I would manage, or if he had an alarm clock that would be better. I promised to lock up behind me too. He pondered over this for some time, reached a decision and communicated it to me.
I spent one more agonising hour outside and then the station opened again. I went in with some relief. This time the station was soon swarming with police and dogs because there had been a bomb blast in the Paris metro the previous day. The police were very curt with asking me for my passport (evidently I looked like some Algerian terrorist), but when they saw I was from India they turned very polite and didn't even check my bags!
July 25th: At 8am, I finally met Christine. And boy, was I glad I met her?! From this point on Marseilles became such a wonderful place to visit. She apologised profusely for making me stay at the station. Then she drove me to her home, showed me the bathroom, gave me breakfast, and despite not having slept the previous night, showed me all around Marseilles. And what a tour it was! Better than the conducted tours, because we went at our own pace, but as exhaustive, because she wanted me to have good memories of the place. In between tourist stops, we would just make an unscheduled walk in the boisterous markets of Marseilles, or stop to dip our feet in the blue sea while we chatted. Or we'd go to some secluded part of some private beach to see more topless women or just stare at the ships far out. We visited the Notre Dame de la Gare - the biggest cathedral in Marseilles. And after all this, the sweet girl took me out to lunch! Then, since the effects of the previous night's adventures were telling on me, we went to a park and I had a nap. I was just beginning to get spoilt by all this attention when it was time for me to leave for Strasbourg - the last leg of my tour. Christine bid me goodbye at the station, and I took an overnight train to Strasbourg.
I had to fly out of Frankfurt, hence the train. On the train, I met a hopelessly lost American from Ohio. By this time I was feeling rather international myself, and so it was rather cool to help him out when we had to speak to French or German persons. From Frankfurt I took a plane to Bombay - my final destination in my journey.
Europe was a lot of fun. Given the chance again, I would do most things the same way. Maybe I would not stay awake on the streets, but I probably would foot it out through most cities again. I found people so friendly all over the place. I think it's important to savour the culture as you go through places instead of just doing the touristy things. I also think that whizzing through countries the way I did is not quite what I want to do again. I want to stay at each place for a few days the next time. Hopefully I will be in touch with most of the friends I made there - and there are portends that that will be true.