One day in March 2008, in the throes of an adventurous mood, I went online and bought an Interrail pass (aka the Eurail Pass if you’re American). It was the Easter holidays and I felt like taking an epic rail journey to Venice, to meet the rest of the Archaeology Society (who were all flying there – but I’d only decided the week before that I wanted to go). I bought the “any 5 days out of a specified 10 day period” train pass. I then ordered a very civilized Eurostar return ticket from London to Paris so I could start my adventure in good time. It was my first solo travel outside the UK (where I was quite confident travelling solo).
I’ve referred to the fact that I fell into misadventure in Paris. Here it is. This is the full account of what happened in Paris. All the sordid details, all the mistakes, all the misfortunes, laid bare for you to see. From the whole Interrail trip, the place where I made the most cock-ups was definitely on the way into, around, and out of Paris.
First, the Interrail pass arrived in good time. When the Eurostar Tickets arrived the day before I was due to depart, however, there was a terrible mistake – they had sent Paris to London instead of London to Paris. I phoned them and it turned out the other way around was totally full for the next two days. Not to be put off, I negotiated a refund (find a train company that still does that even when it’s their mistake) and decided I’d have to get the ferry. It was an omen that the beginning of the trip was going to be pretty bad.
Planning was absent, and I’d just thought I could wing it when I got off the ferry at Calais – but by the time I got through border control, it was after dark, and I’d lost most of my first travel day. Lesson: Ferries take a LOT longer than they claim they are going to take. Since then, I’ve learned this is an inviolable law of sea travel. It’s no wonder Switzerland is such a punctual country – it’s landlocked.
I met two young women outside the ferry port who were waiting for a taxi. They looked approachable, so I asked where they were going. They were going to Calais train station, which is where I was headed, to get a train to Paris where I planned to stay overnight, starting my Interrail adventure the next day. I asked if I could share their taxi – to make it cheaper for all of us. They agreed and this made the journey to Calais train station a lot cheaper. Then at the train station I had a difficult choice – should I waste a travel day on my Interrail pass with a journey from Calais to Paris, or should I buy a separate ticket, ensuring I have five full travel days left? I decided to pay upfront, so I spent E49 on a ticket to Paris then got on the train, leaving behind the two ladies who were going to Boulogne. Of course, had the Eurostar ticket been correct, I would have glided into Paris hours ago without having to negotiate any of this extra stuff.
The train took about 2 hours, so by the time I reached Paris it was well and truly late at night. This was about the worst start to the trip (aside from not actually getting started) that I could imagine. Instead of being able to book accommodation through Tourist Information as I had expected, they had actually closed for the night by the time I arrived in Paris, and Gare du Nord station was empty, save for a few weatherbeaten older men sleeping on the plastic platform seats.
I then made another mistake – I went to the Metro kiosk and queued for ages to buy a ticket (it was more of a crowd than a queue, such a contrast to the train platforms) then, ticket in hand, I stared at the map, and stared, and stared, and I couldn’t see Paris Lyon on there at all. The map didn’t have districts, or any place names, just numbers. It said it was a Metro map but it could have been a sewer system schematic for all I knew. In 2008, mobile phones didn’t do internet very well, and nobody ever used their phones abroad because it was very expensive. After staring at the map for several minutes, feeling ready to cry, I phoned my dad.
My dad was an alcoholic with alcohol-induced dementia who died last year at the age of 54. He often tried to re-live his younger days through me, and wasn’t known for dispensing very good advice. However, I knew he’d lived in Paris for about 6 months in 1978, so I thought he might be able to help me get a handle on the Metro. I told him I was in Paris Nord station in Montmartre and that I needed to get to Lyon. His advice? Stay in Montmartre. He exalted the virtues of Paris in Spring (I didn’t see what was so special about it). He enthused about it being full of writers and artists. I’m not sure this was even still true in the ’70s. Take it from me, that might (perhaps) be true during the day, but late at night, it’s full of people going home from work and people trying to either have sex with you, rob you or sell you something. The most common things people said to me were either a wolf whistle or “avez vous un cigarette?” They didn’t say please. That pretty much sums up my experience of Paris.
I thought I’d found the right Metro line so I got off the phone to my dad because he was just adding to my stress levels. I followed the number as I’d found it on a few signs. Then it disappeared, but reappeared with the opposite colours – I think it had been white on a blue background, and now it was blue on a white background (but don’t hold me to the colours). Then I went down an escalator and thought “great, I’m nearly at the platform.” At the bottom of the escalator was a set of double doors. Outside was the street and a bus stop.
This was where I made my next mistake. Instead of turning round, going back and working out where the hell I was, I decided that this must be a bus replacement service, so since the bus appeared before I could work out where it was going, I boarded it and when the driver refused to accept my ticket (because, spoiler alert, this wasn’t a replacement service), I paid bus fare instead of getting off the bus.
The bus went straight into the heart of Montmartre. I got off after two stops because I knew now that we were headed in the complete opposite direction to Paris Gare du Lyon.
I wandered around Montmartre with my rucksack and my handbag, chain smoking cigarettes, trying to find somewhere to stay. Every hotel I went into said they were full. Every hotel tried to phone other hotels. None of them could find me somewhere else to stay. Then one hotel manager said they were full, it was about the fifteenth hotel I’d been to, but then he did something none of the others had done. He showed concern. He asked me if I’d eaten anything. I said I hadn’t. So he took me down into the breakfast room and pulled out bread rolls and coffee. My danger sense was tingling but the last thing I’d eaten was at about 7am before I’d departed, so instead of running away from this obviously dodgy trap, my brain (on bipolar) said, “hey, you’re making friends already, this is great! Let’s go eat food with the stranger!”
The food turned out to be safe (or I was immune), and I got chatting with him. He couldn’t stop staring at me and I felt very self-conscious. He said I ate very delicately. He thought he might know someone who could find me a hotel to stay in. Then he called his friend.
His friend was a doorman on the hotel at weekends, and during the term time, he was a PhD student in Geographical Information Systems. We will call him Francois. Francois had finished work for the night but apparently lived nearby. The manager phoned another hotel, agreed a price of 97 Euros, then gave Francois an address, sending us on our way. I’d heard the whole conversation (I speak French) and knew this was a rip-off. The room was really E60. Francois was more perceptive than the hotel manager and could see that I knew something was going on.
Around the corner from the hotel, Francois told me that the manager was running a scam, that the hotel room he’d found was a lot less, but he would split the excess with the manager of the other hotel. I guess he didn’t have anything to lose by telling me this. He suggested we go to his place instead. Not knowing what else to do, I agreed and we walked to his ‘apartment’ which was nearby. It was a dilapidated, ancient tenement building whose frontage was entirely covered in scaffolding. We entered through a side door and there were no lights in the hallway. I was terrified. After interminable stairs, we reached his door, and I saw that this apartment was the tiniest bedsit, it barely fitted the double bed. I was exhausted and really making a catalogue of bad decisions. He suggested we go out for drinks at a little place he knew. On the way, we stopped at a view of the Eiffel Tower, all lit up at night. It was the only time I saw it, and I was a little too exhausted to appreciate it.
We went back to his place to sleep. After several interminable flights of stairs we made it to the ‘apartment,’ and that’s when it got pretty awkward – there was a bit of a cultural misunderstanding where I’d thought “stay here” should mean, “and that’s it,” and he thought I was accepting his invitation to sleep with him. After a really unpleasant hour when he just couldn’t keep his hands to himself (really, anywhere you can think of) and wouldn’t take no for an answer, I finally got out of bed and started putting my clothes on. I said I would go back to the train station and sleep there (I probably should have done). In the end, he left me alone after that, I got some sleep and my brain felt a bit refreshed in the morning. We went to a pavement cafe for coffee in the morning. Inside, it was all animated people drinking espressos, stood at tall brushed aluminium bars, and when we arrived the few tables were all taken, so we sat outside. I got a photo of the espresso place. Throughout this trip I used disposable cameras.
One random occurrence on this street was seeing a poster for The Oxford Murders – the film I’d been an extra in a year earlier. It was the only time I saw the film advertised.
Over coffee, Francois and I discussed the phrase <<je désire>> which I’d used to order my coffee, as I’d learned it was “I would like” and it was explained that in France, it’s only used in a romantic context. The context given was <<la nuit dernière, je vous désirais>> (last night, I desired you). The rest of the time, the correct phrase is je voudrais. Wow, thanks French school textbooks, no wonder there was a misunderstanding the night before (to be fair, this came from the same school which stated “if desired” next to a couple of items on the uniform list).
The pavement cafe had a good, if distant, view of the Louvre, and at 10am the crowd was already enormous. I decided to give it a miss, and went back to the train station, but Francois just wouldn’t take a hint, and eventually I ended up getting on a train to Lille with the intent of going to Belgium, just to get away from him, because he kept insisting on doing all the talking at the ticket office (you have to pre-book your seat with Interrail or Eurail tickets – and sometimes you pay a surcharge). Francois was trying to tell me there were no trains heading south into Italy but I think he was asking the ticket lady the wrong questions.
So much for my plan of getting to Paris Gare de Lyon, validating my Interrail pass and taking the train down to Milan. I decided that going through Germany and Switzerland would be a good alternative. As soon as I was on the train to Lille, I went straight to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face, then I felt a bit less disgusting.
It wasn’t a completely wasted day, though I thought it was at the time. I did see some of Paris, and I made so many mistakes that I learned exactly what *not* to do on the rest of the journey. In one of the hotels, I also managed to snaffle a European hotel guide book for the Etap hotel chain, which at the time were a slightly-more-expensive-than-a-hostel type hotel, which came in very handy later on. These days, I suppose you’d just look hotels up on your smartphone, but in early 2008, smartphones weren’t cheap enough to be owned by normal people, and phones didn’t do everything we take for granted.
What’s the bottom line? I really hated Paris. I had dreamed of going since I was a little girl but I really didn’t have a good experience at all. If you are going to Paris, please take stock of the catalogue of mistakes I made and do it differently.
What I learned:
1. The Paris Metro system is nothing like the London Underground or the Rome Metro, both of which I can navigate with ease every time I go to Rome or London. If I ever go to Paris again I will familiarize myself with my journey and with their mapping system before I go, just so I feel like I know how to get to where I’m going.
2. The corruption of the hotel booking racket means you would be extremely lucky to turn up, walk into a hotel and find a room. They tell you they have no rooms on purpose so they can phone someone else, arrange a higher-than-listed room price, then split the profit, because legally all hotels in Paris have to have their price list displayed at the entrance to the hotel, so it’s the only way they can mark up the room costs without the authorities knowing. I suggest booking accommodation before you arrive (and be aware of when you can and can’t check in – many Parisian hostels close the doors somewhere between 8 and 10pm, which is why I didn’t choose one of them). If I ever return to Paris (haven’t yet), I would make sure I was armed with a reservation for a hotel, and if I was confused about how to find the hotel, I would get into a taxi (with licensed taxi plates). These days, I always use a reputable online booking portal to find accommodation – I’ve been using Booking.com since 2012 and I find them to be fantastic because they have a huge choice of guesthouses, hotels and hostels for every budget, and their customer review system is second to none.
3. Try and arrive while everything is still open. It would have made such a difference to my journey if the Tourist Information office had been open when I arrived.
4. Eat. Wherever you are, don’t wait to eat something, even if it’s overpriced train or ferry food. I would never go from 7am to after 10pm without eating these days, and I think it further impaired my already-impaired judgement. Coffee and cigarettes, I learned, are not a substitute for food (I actually didn’t learn this for another 4 years when I quit both coffee and cigarettes, never to touch either again, despite my love for both). I’m sure they used to work together to fool my brain into thinking I wasn’t hungry. For the rest of the journey, I made sure to fill my handbag with breakfast food from the hotel buffets, and that covered me for lunch, too.
5. The internet is a travel game changer. We can read reviews, book accommodation online, look up train times and information, and pull up maps of the underground metro networks around the world. It is an invaluable resource for travellers, and I strongly recommend taking your smartphone if you’re travelling solo. If you’re not waving your phone around, you’re less likely to be robbed than to need some crucial info that you don’t have to hand. Even 2 years ago when I drove to Rome in the Citroen Xsara Picasso camper conversion, I didn’t have a working smartphone (it couldn’t connect to a network because T mobile messed up badly, resulting in me leaving their no-good network a month later when my contract was up) so the improvements in network coverage are happening in leaps and bounds. I was lucky in 2014 that I took my netbook (they were like iPads but with a keyboard) with me as a backup, and used that to book hotels instead (using Wi-Fi). The internet really has taken the guessing out of solo travel and it has made travel in general a lot safer. I use a non-iPhone because thieves generally only want iPhones. I also always carry a RavPower external battery pack so I can charge my phone when I really need it. I like this one because it’s a good balance between lightness and power (you can get 2 full charges of your phone before the battery pack needs recharging).
Have you ever taken a solo trip abroad? What did you learn from the experience?