Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 - I'm strolling along the beautiful South Bank area of Brisbane, Australia, with a gorgeous Brazilian girl named Julia. South Bank is a combination of beautifully landscaped parks and gardens as well as outdoor restaurants and cafes, perfect to stroll about in, especially on a nice day such as this. Ibises (ibii?) awkwardly stalk about looking for scraps.
"So I need to find someone to take over my place in the apartment because I'm moving to Bundaberg" I mention, "which I'm worried about because I won't be in town much longer"
"I need somewhere to live! I'll take your place!" she exclaims
"Well, you know you'd have to share a room with the french guy" I caution.
"That's okay, I don't mind." she says. She'd been over to our place just the day before, a friend of the Brazilians in the other room.
"Really? Are you sure?" this is almost too good to be true. We discuss the rent and deposit and everything and she's entirely on board. I make a mental note to get it all squared away before she changes her mind or it all goes south.
Sixteen months later: This Spring Mathieu ("the Frenchman") invited to me their wedding, which would be in France on July 26th. As luck would have it, I was able to fit it in right after my Guinea trip if I, say, killed a week in the area first.
Friday, July 25th, 2014 - My flight from Goteborg, Sweden to Paris was to leave the Goteborg airport at 7:15am, for which conventional wisdom would have me try to arrive at the airport at 5:15, but the earliest bus began running at 4:50, and it was about an hour to the airport. An hour should have been enough time I think for this small airport that seemed pretty easygoing about security (see also: no one had checked my passport or anything on the way in), but I missed the 4:50 bus, arrived at the center of town where I had to change buses just in time to watch helplessly through the automatically-closed bus terminal doors, as the airport bus closed its doors, raised itself up and backed away. Just seconds too late, I had to wait twenty minutes for the next one.
Arriving at the airport less then twenty minutes before my flight I knew I was in a pickle. The luftansa check-in counter was closed already. Called Luftansa and the lady there was entirely unsympathetic, despite the fact that my flight hadn't even left yet she said I was a "no show" and my flights were all cancelled without refund. I asked if I could still get a flight to Frankfurt, where I was to have a connecting flight after a three hour layover so I should be able to catch up to it, but she said no, that ticket was now null and void as well, which I thought was unnecessarily impertinent on their part. She offered me a ticket on a luftansa flight later in the day for 700 euros (nearly a thousand dollars!!) but I declined. My entire round trip from Paris to Sweden had originally only cost me about $200.
Sat down at the airport cafe and got out my laptop and started desperately looking for cheap flights. There were some SAS flights to Paris for $59, but not until Sunday or Monday, after the wedding. Posted about my predicament on facebook as well to crowdsource my friends, some of whom are amazingly good at finding flight deals. Sure enough, my friend Matthew Donley, who I'm convinced is some kind of superhero, found a relatively cheap(er) flight on a Finnish airline via Helsinki, for which people were just checking in. I ran to the check in counter but they said the price was much higher in person. I'd have to book online (why are airlines so obtuse and difficult?!??), and then trying online it was no longer available. After exhausting all possibilities I sadly messaged Mathieu to let him know that I didn't tihnk I could make his wedding after all and got back on the bus back to town.
Continuing to flog the flight matrices from the ship, I finally found a flight later that afternoon for around $400 that would get me there that evening (a lot of options had an overnight layover in London or something and would fail to get me to France for the wedding the next day). Booked it, and then as I was calculating out the time dilation of bus transfers I'd have to allow for,
"why don't you just take the taxi?" asked Ellie, one of the crew leaders.
"How much would that cost?" I asked. In Egypt you can book a taxi all day for the price of a sandwich but in developed countries it can cost an arm and a leg to get anywhere at all so I often don't even think of taxis as an option
"200 kronor ($30), its a fixed rate to the airport... just dial 25-25-25!" .
So I did forthwith, wishing adamantly that I'd thought of that in the morning.
Arrived at the d'Orsey airport around maybe 8pm. For some reason I was really concerned about being able to catch the right trains to get around France. I'd successfully gotten all over Turkey without speaking the same language at the people selling bus tickets, but there you're dealing with people, in France tickets are dispensed by machines and there's widespread legends of French rudeness to people who dare to not speak fluent French in France, so I was very concerned.
Was also amused/alarmed when I went online on my phone (using the airport wifi) and saw that everyone had given the d'Orsey terrible terrible reviews on the check-in app foursquare, widely calling it "the worst airport evar," and "be prepared to experience airport hell."
But I found my way to the baggage claim easily, without having to walk several miles like in the Charles de Gaulle airport, and was pleasantly surprised to find my bag, which I had been sure had been lost in my stopover in Stockholm (on account of that I had to practically run across the airport to make the connection). Guy selling tickets for the light rail system was almost helpful, and directed me how to get from there to the train station at Bercy. At Bercy my plan was to find a "relatively" cheap hostel in the vicinity of the train station and catch a 7am train (which I confirmed existed) out to the countryside, since the wedding was in a small village near the town of Clermont-Ferrand in central France. Getting to Bercy alone would take two subway transfers, and since each line has a name that sounds like it comes from a different naming convention I wasn't sure if I was going to have to buy more tickets or if the one I had just gotten would get me all the way.
My France experience soon improved drastically though, when a group of about eight young men and women in their mid twenties boarded at one of the first stops, completely sauced, holding bottles of wine, loudly singing, and with a penguin hat (it appeared be the ripped off head from a large penguin stuffed-animal?). This group happened to enter by the door I was standing near, and as all the seats had been taken I was standing holding a pole there and found myself veritably surrounded by these jovial passengers. One of them, a pretty brunette with green eyes said something to me in French and put the penguin hat on my head. Welcome to France! :D
At the next transfer they ended up waiting for the same connection as me (and it turns out I didn't need any new tickets), so when she wasn't busy singing I asked the green eyed girl what they were celebrating. Turns out they were all former flatmates but they were all moving out so this was their last hoorah together. They were all friendly and eager to (drunkenly) try to speak to me in English, invited me to come out with them, but as I had all my stuff with me, still needed to find a place to stay, and didn't want to miss my 7am train, I had to decline. Altogether a nice amusing and friendly welcome to France though.
Walked around the area of the Bercy train station. The streets were lined with little cafes where people were still sitting out enjoying the pleasant summer evening, it all looked, well, just like Paris is supposed to look I guess. No hostels in the vicinity though, just a 135 euros a night hotel and a €115 a night hotel. Much more than I'd have liked to pay but I didn't have many options, had been too busy just figuring out flights to spend any time googling ahead for lodging, so booked at the €115 hotel and went to bed.
Saturday, July 26th, 2014 - Hotel was just across the street from the train station at least, so after a complimentary breakfast that was actually good (in wild contrast to the traditional American hotel breakfast) I trotted across the street with half an hour to spare to catch the 7:00 train. Easy peasy. Was able to navigate through the automated ticket dispenser without too much despair ... and then it wanted me to insert a credit card. Let me tell you about credit cards and America. This is one area where I'm not just being snarky when I say America is seriously lagging in this. We're just about the only place left that has easily-tampered-with magnetic strips on the back of credit cards instead of a computer chip. Card readers in the rest of the world can't read our neanderthal cards. I had euros in cash but it didn't accept cash (recall Swedish experience: "no one uses cash anymore"). Sooo I had to wait in the long line to talk to the human ticket salespersons. The line was full of foreigners and old people and moved slow like molasses .... aaaand I missed the 0700 train. There was, however, a 0900 train they could sell me a ticket to. This would get me to Riom outisde Clermont Ferrand around 11:00. He'd told me to show up for the wedding at noon on this day. I'd tried to give myself a 24 hour buffer (on my original flight I could have made it all the way out there on Friday) but here I was arriving with only an hour to spare!
The trainride was nice, watching the beautiful French countryside roll past out the window. Farms and quaint towns of houses all huddled together medieval style, topped by a church spire. The occasional castle. Rivers with roman bridges. I still had one last source of stress though: I'd be getting off at Riom, a small town nearest to Matt's village (Enval), and he said I was to call him when I arrived -- but my phone (which I generally avoided using if I could at all help it, to avoid outrageous international charges) for some reason couldn't get through to his number. As we rolled along I had visions of missing his wedding after traveling 99% of the way there, stuck in a neighboring town!
Finally I got my phone out and unclicked "disable mobile data," thus exposing myself to truly outrageous international data usage charges, and went on facebook and messaged him. I was afraid that he'd be too busy getting ready for his wedding to notice a facebook message though and still sat there fretfully. Fifteen minutes before my arrival though he wrote back, saying he was coming to get me!
The village of Enval was just six kilometers from Riom. Matt took me to a nice little hotel where his other out of town guests were staying. It turns out the wedding wasn't actually beginning until around 3 so I had enough time to rest and have lunch.
The dining area of the hotel was disproportionately large, it evidentally serves as a restaurant for more than just the few hotel guests. I was directed to a table, and a carafe of wine showed up unsolicited, the way they bring water in America (there was also a carafe of water). The staff had to hunt down the one person who spoke English, who may have been the owner, to come take my order. There was a choice of one of just three entrees (turkey, fish, and beef, though the description was way more descriptive than that), which they would bring out once I was done helping myself to the salad bar for an appetizer. I ordered the beef-with-mushroom-sauce dish and went to load my plate with the varied and interesting things at the salad bar. This wasn't the salad bar at sizzler mind you, there were all sorts of strange French things I don't know the name of. Most memorable was something I thought was mashed potatoes but it tasted like it was somehow almost entirely mayonaisse. Entree came out on cue when I'd finished my plate (sans the mayonaisse stuff which I just couldn't stomach), and then there was even dessert (some kind of cheesecakey think I think) All in all it was a fun a and delicious dining experience and only came out to like €10, which is pretty good for Europe!
Matt had introduced me to an aunt & uncle of his that we ran into on arrival at the hotel and established that I'd meet them at three and ride to the wedding with them. They didn't speak any English at all, but they seemed nice. We made the short jaunt to the middle of the village, which was draped on the slope of a hill. In the United States one brings a wedding present, and I had brought them this sweet giant wooden spork from Guinea, and in expectation of this there's usually somewhere to put wedding gifts upon arrival. Apparently this is not a thing in France, so I was the only one with a gift and there was nowhere to put it. And as I hadn't had time to wrap it in all my running around, I was stuck just awkwardly holding this giant wooden spork.
And of course I didn't know anyone and couldn't talk to anyone, so as the group gathered outside the (government building? I don't think it was a church) where the wedding was to take place I felt kind of awkward being the guy standing by himself with a giant fricken spork. Shortly though I got to talking to two French friends of Matt's who had been in Australia, so spoke good English. After a short ceremony in town we all proceeded to the nearby castle Château de Chazeron for the reception.
Damn that catering truck ruining my photo. It left moments later but by then people had wandered into the scene.
Matt noted several times that this was all because of me, putting Julia in his room. I like to think they would have worked things out anyway, but I suppose that added a good deal of kindling to the fire, so to speak.
I was also finally able to get the giant wooden spork off my hands. I hope Matt was able to put it somewhere where it wasn't lost in the confusion. They decided it seemed useful as a back scratcher.
Dinner was in a great-hall-like room, where there were five courses of food (including a course that entirely consisted of cheese), and the wine was plentiful (though I think we actually ran out arond 4am and had to move on to other sources of alcohol). Some friends of Matt's who spoke pretty good English adopted me and as people got drunker more and more people wanted to practice their English with me so that by the end of the evening I'd met a large number of the guests.
Julia's two sisters, brother, and parents had also come from Brazil, and I got along very well with the Brazilians despite not sharing a language. I like to think it was because of my Brazilian heritage but its probably just that I was the other foreigner.
We all partied the night away until 5am, whereupon Matt's dad gave me a ride back to my hotel.
Sunday, July 27th, 2014 -
One last travel panic!I had a train to catch at 12:50 in the afternoon and I couldn't get ahold of anyone in Matt's family for a ride, and there were no taxis running on a Sunday in the French countryside! At 6km I could have even walked except my bag wasn't the sort that was comfortable to be lugging around for 6km. All the hotel staff had gone home for the day except for the manager, who was kind enough to call around to all the taxis and determine that none of them would take me that day. The situation was looking extremely dire! Finally the manager himself volunteered to take me in his car, leaving the hotel completely unstaffed while he did so!!
Got back to Bercy and took the subways to Charles de Gaul Aeroport. I had had wifi at the hotel in Enval so had been able to look into hotels this time, so upon arrival at CDG I went across the street to the citizenM hotel, which at €65 was a really good deal considering it was Figuratively across the street from the hotel, and a pretty swanky place in its own right. The hotel in Enval had been €55 btw. The interior of CitizenM was entirely new and modern and chic.
The next morning I boarded my flight for Salt Lake City and I was off!
[NEXT: though the traditional "in-flight movie review intermission" and the adventure I managed to fit in to my twenty minutes in SLC fall into the crack between them, this brings us up to this entry. ]
Journey into the Heart of France