Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Caen, France: Becoming a Hitchhiker

It was Friday and I arrived in Caen, the capital of Lower Normandy, via my first Covoiturage. Caen is a town packed with history! Including being home to William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England and being the closest city to the D-Day beaches of WWII. Unfortunately WWII destroyed this city, it is a mix of new and old. In the old town one street might be cobblestone and the next a modern style tile. On a hill in centre of town lays the almost completely destroyed castle of William the Conqueror.

Shortly after arriving I meet my first host, Orianne, a young teacher and regular traveller that is now enjoying the Islands of French Polynesia. We are joined by one of her friends, a French Canadian, at a cool little bar with a multi-page beer menu. She buys my first beer, a 13% Belgian beer, from the tap. After a couple of drinks we say goodbye to her friend and drive back to her place. We have another beer when we arrive and for the first time on my trip I finally gave in to inhaling something that enables you to sleep easier... I did sleep well that night.

The next day Orianne left for the weekend. Although my Couchsurfing experiences have been very comfortable I decided to live it up and check into a hotel. I laid in bed all day and all night!

The following day I met my next host, Clement, along with his girlfriend and his mother at the local Sunday market. Another ridiculously big market that sells everything. After stocking up we go back to his place for possible the biggest feast I've had in my life. The large square coffee table in the lounge room was completely covered in food. When I am completely full and have absolutely no room left Clement says "I will go get the dessert"... I thought you have got to be joking. I squeezed it in. After 3 hours of eating it was nap time.

Although Clement had never ventured to the land of the kangaroo he had a didgeridoo, he and his housemate surprisingly played quite well. During the rest of my stay Clement gave me a tour of the city and took me to the D-day beaches. In return I cooked my famous meal for the 6th time and bought some beers.

It was time for me to leave the land of Camembert for Rennes. Clement and his girlfriend convinced to hitchhike!... Pourquois Pas (Why Not)!

I was  in the perfect spot under a bridge at the start of the highway going 160km to my destination. It begins to rain and the traffic is heavy. A van stops within 15 mins... but there is one minor problem. I don't know much French and he can't speak a word of English. I show him the sign and he says some stuff in French that I don't understand. I just say "oui oui" and hop in. Then I realise what he said is I'm not going all the way so I can drop you off where I turn off the highway. Houston We Have a Problem! This turn off was 60km down the highway in the middle of nowhere and it is raining. The closest town was 21km away (west instead of south along the highway) and the speed limit on the highway was 130km. I walk to a near by truck stop, grab a coffee and sit at the exit with my sign on the table. Over an hour of waiting goes by... I thought stuff it, 21km walk to the next town with 30kg of luggage in the rain, let's do this!

After walking 300m a BMW 730D pulls up in front of me. Let's think about this for a little while. I'm a wet backpacker walking in the rain and a $200,000 car pulls up in front of me. I walk up to the window and it is a 70 year old man smoking a massive cigar. I sit on his nice leather seats and he drives down the highway in the middle of the two lanes at 180km/h while smoking his massive cigar and texting on his phone. He eventually answers his phone and slows down to a turtle pace of 150km/h.

I arrive in Saint Lo where a train ticket to Rennes is the same price as where I started. I squeeze in some sight seeing and catch a train... it was a fun adventure!

Lessons Learnt:
When things go wrong just go with it and enjoy the ride, everything will work out.
Covoiturage is awesome.
Hitchhiking works

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Rouen, France: Jeanne d'Arc

After an emotional day at the Australian War Memorial I embarked on a train journey to Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy. A town I only decided to visit earlier that same day, simply because from Amiens I could catch a train to Rouen, Paris or back to Lille. This was also my second day in a row of playing the exciting game of "Sleep Roulette".

Sleep Roulette is starting the day with no accommodation plans and just seeing where the day takes you. The end result could be anything from a beautiful mansion or a bonding session with the local homeless community. On this occasion I received a text message in response to a forum post on Couchsurfing. I accepted without knowing anything about this person except his name at the end of his text "Cheers, Francky"... One of my favourite sayings is "Hope for the best but plan for the worst". In this game you just hope for the best.

Upon arriving in Rouen I was greeted by Francky and his girlfriend, a very happy and friendly French couple around my age that are experienced travellers. After dropping my bags in my new room I am offered a tour of the city and handed a beer by Francky's girlfriend to enjoy along the way. Francky's girlfriend is Algerian heritage and it was Ramadan with Francky also joining in just for this one day. So it was just me walking around the city with a beer.

The tour included the spot Joan of Arc was burnt to death, the unique looking church of Joan of Arc, a cathedral too big to fit in one camera shot and buildings with machine gun damage remaining from WWII.

Francky's girlfriend left the tour early to prepare dinner. Upon returning Francky and I were met by a mini feast and since the sun was down Francky had completed his one day of Ramadan so he was now allowed to enjoy a beer with me.

The next night they had a projection show on the front of the cathedral with interesting music, including dubstep. A feature of all French cities during this time of year. The one in Amiens told the story of the saints represented by each statue (in French), the one in Rouen was the story of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) told only by projection and music (no narration). The cathedral was destroyed many times in this projection.

On my third and final night Francky and I watched free music events scattered across the city, with beers in hand of course. It was a like a mini Fete de la Musique. Afterwards we met up with more of his friends for many more beers before the five of us went back to Francky's for more drinks. I cooked a drunken version of my famous dish.

The next morning I left Rouen en route to Caen via Covoiturage. Covoiturage (ride share) is contributing money to share a ride with a complete stranger. This was less than a quarter of the train fare and much more fun! My driver was a uni student starting his holidays and offered to meet up and show me around my destination.

Lessons learnt:
Everything always works out
Walking around France while carrying a beer is usually acceptable
I'm still terrible with names and I apologise to Francky's girlfriend

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Amiens & Villers-Bretonneux, France: N'oublions jamais l'Australie

When I tell Frenchies I've been to Amiens they always have a very surprised look on their faces and ask me one question... Why?... Allow me to justify.

After a relatively short train ride I was now in my third French Region and third Region capital. I walked to my next host's place, which turned out to be a massive 8 bedroom 3 story student apartment. Since the room next to his was currently vacant I received my own room... the owner probably wouldn't have been as impressed as I was. With my own room and a Belgium beer in hand within 5 mins of arriving I was once again reminded why I love Couchsurfing, strangers and travelling.

During the consumption of beers I said I would cook, my 4th time cooking the exact same meal for a host. To quote The Castle "Why go to a restaurant when this keeps coming up night after night?"... Chicken (if non vegetarian), mushroom and sun-dried tomato pesto fettuccine.  It has impressed everyone so far.

On the way to the supermarket we stop by one of his flatmate's rooms. As I enter her room I am hit by a really unpleasant smell. She has cages full of animals in her room. A real life young French female version of Dr Dolittle. We all went to the supermarket where I purchased the food and they took care of the alcohol. When we returned we moved the lounges to the backyard and ate outside while listening to different styles of music.... Dr Dolittle was actually very nice and pretty cool for a crazy animal girl.

After dinner my host drove me around Amiens! Which has France's biggest completed cathedral by internal volume.

    The 2nd little one from the bottom left is famous for appearing to look like a guy giving it the guy on all fours.

The next morning it was time to leave for the real reason I came to Amiens... The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. With all my luggage I boarded the very infrequent train to this tiny town where all streets, cafes, bars, parks and school are named after Australia, Victoria or Melbourne.

The war memorial was 2 km out of town and 3 km from the station. It felt quite fitting to be walking that distance carrying 30 kg of luggage. My struggle was nothing compared to that of the people that lay here in eternal rest.

                                        The walk

I was the only person at the memorial when I arrived. After placing my luggage on the ground I stood in silence with my head bowed and eyes closed. In my head I quoted the Ode of Remembrance:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.

I walked this massive graveyard comprising of over 2000 tombstones, half of which are Australian, with tears running down my face. It was incredibly overwhelming. At the end of the ground is a massive wall covered in the names of over 11 thousand Australians, that also died in France during WWI, with no known graves.

                                        Bullets holes from WWII returning to this very site


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Lille, France: Café Allongé

After nine nights in London it was time to return to the land of croissants, wine and cheese. Starting with a unique town near the border of Belgium, Lille, a working class city that has changed hands a few times giving it an interesting look.

I had a couch lined up with Marine, a child counsellor and an art therapist... the second job involves providing therapy to people in hospital, mainly cancer patients, through art and music. That is pretty cool. Although, staying with her felt a little strange and funny. She was cool but she had the same look, same accent, same mannerisms, same stubborn independence, same strong personality and came from the same part of Southern France as an old flame that once burnt me bad (broke my heart)... I didn't tell her.

After stepping out of a late morning shower I saw that the bathroom and part of kitchen floor were flooded. After unsuccessfully searching the apartment for a mop I opened the door to the backyard only to have her dog come flying straight past me and onto wet tiles... dirt dog footprints covered the kitchen floor. A few unblogworthy words later I put the dog outside and cleaned the floor.

Marine gave me a map and marked all the places worth seeing, she also arranged for one of her friends to be my next host and taught me a magic phrase that I have now used all over France, "Café Allongé", it is an espresso with a little extra water, no milk, no sugar (aka Lungo in most of the world). This became my morning drink of choice in France.

Neome, my 2nd host in Lille, introduced me to more Belgium Beers and Frites (French Fries) Belgium style. They cook them twice, apparently once just isn't good enough. From her I learnt of Covoiturage, the French site for ride share.

Sorry for the lack of photos. I do eventually get better at this. Lille had a beautiful old town with many impressive fountains scattered around the city. It also has a huge Sunday market that sells brand named beauty products cheaper than supermarkets. The city also came up with the brilliant idea of turning its previous major train station into a free live music venue. I enjoyed a "rock psychadelique" performance at the old station.

On my last night in Lille I was talking to Neome about France having a massive Australian war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Upon loading the town on Google maps I realised it was only 150km south... My plans changed!

Next stop Villers-Bretonneux!

Lessons Learnt:
Being alone in a place with language barriers is challenging
Leaving out chicken from one of my specialities made an impressive vegetarian meal
Skype is very powerful and not rated PG
Markets will give free food to try for being Australian
Café Allongé

Thursday, 18 July 2013

London: Cocktails and an Old Friend

I stepped off the bus in Sunny London after a long ride and a surprisingly very serious border checkpoint. First destination should have been a shower but I headed straight to a mate's cocktail bar via the spiderweb, aka the underground. It is actually very easy to navigate compared to my first day in the Paris metro.

I arrived at the venue still strapped to both my backpacks with my sleeping bag under my arm. Dripping in sweat I walked into this really cool chilled out cocktail bar with good music and great energy. It is happy hour so the place is packed, my friend was working hard so I chill in a corner until happy hour ends. I finally say G'day to Gumby, the person that has featured in all my adventures abroad. I'm greeted with free cocktails. This set the tone for the rest of my London visit and the bar made a daily appearance.

The rest of my trip involved awesome parks, some beautiful buildings, bicycling around the city, pretending to be the new trainee bartender to attend a Havana Club demonstration class (and actively participating), making new friends, meeting old CS friends from Bris, getting a free ride on a cycle taxi to my bus stop because he was surprised I gave him some change after receiving directions, waking up on a bus with my wallet on the floor near the isle having no idea where I was... and submitting my application to temporarily replace Big Ben if he breaks down.

                                         Big Trent and Little Benjamin

Regrettably, I didn't immerse myself in the culture of London nor become a true site see-er.

On a boat!
Brisbane CS reunion

I had an awesome time in London, although it felt more like a break from my adventure as opposed to being part of it.

Next stop Lille, France.

Lessons Learnt:
Take more photos
Either my BO is not so bad or people don't mind a sweaty guy in London
Plan a little
Londoners drink a lot more than Aussies
Class structure is still strong in London
Australia is a very clean country
Getting robbed in Paris apparently didn't teach me to be more careful with my wallet

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Paris: A Rough Start

After getting through a very tough last week in Aus that involved many farewell dinners, lunches, drinks, a BBQ... and a romantic goodbye in a nice hotel room, I was ready to embark on my three year adventure. First stop Paris!

After many in-flight drinks, meals and watching hours of movies I touched down in Paris. No accommodation, no plans and no knowledge of Paris, except for it being the location of snails, sexy accents and a beautiful tower. What could possibly go wrong?... I got incredibly lost, had a forty year old nudist ask me to stay with him, and got robbed! All in two days.

On day three I said goodbye to my first host, a French didgeridoo player not the nudist, deciding to relocate to a hostel for one night. After booking I received an email with a long list of directions leading me to an unrelated coffee shop and a phone number to call upon arrival for somebody to collect me. Sounds very legit... the reward for trusting and completing this mission:

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Lucky Youth Hostel, Paris

That evening I met up with a Parisian I hosted in Australia, Lea, it was her turn to return the favour. The rendezvous with Lea involved fun picnics, her awesome friends, a bicycle tour around Paris and a ticket to a huge music festival (Solidays). She also provided humour by walking into a parked car. Favour returned! Solidays is a dance festival in Paris attended by thousands of people with all money going towards HIV/AIDS... drinks were only 1 Euro due to a new found friend.

Moulin Rouge, Paris, France

Montmartre, Paris, France

Sacre Coeur, Paris, France

Week 1 complete! Week 2 started with the receipt of an apartment by myself in the centre of Paris for two nights. Paris has a reputation for being an expensive city but I only paid 12 Belgian beers and a note of appreciation.

I began to finally start to feel like a real Parisian; starting most days with a croissant, running for every train and changing metro lines three times instead of once if I would arrive quicker!

It was time to meet my fourth host, Elen. Within an hour of meeting we were at a  rhum bar discussing jogging the following morning. Rum and running the perfect combination! This rum bar actually was quite amazing. It had a wall covered in jars of rum labelled with the fruits, herbs and spices floating inside. The rest of my stay with Elen involved more picnics, cycling, secret art exhibitions, a party inside an architecture school... and we did go for that after rum run.

One day when strolling along the river I had a random encounter with Thomas, a French guy I played soccer with three weeks earlier in Brisbane, and a Brissie girl. Big City, Small World! This ended with an informative and amazing tour from a French girl with the highlight being this view from her 8th floor rooftop terrace of a 500 year old protected building in the middle of old Paris.

So, two weeks into my three year adventure I'm still alive, reasonably healthy and have no children on the way.

Next stop London to see an old friend.