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A Break from Paris

February 10, 2013

Last weekend, I bought tape.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is without a doubt the most interesting lead I have ever written. And yet this post has another 1,400 words to go.

For this semester, I made a calendar using post-it notes, one post-it for each day an assignment is due. The plan was to hang them on my wall in usual calendar-format so that I could easily see the weeks’ busy and free days. Only the post-it notes I bought are failures and don’t stick to anything. So, I bought tape Friday February first to finally get a massive visual of the next few months. Then, I saw that I had zero assignments  due the week of February eleventh.

I had been getting impatient to plan a trip somewhere outside of Paris. After almost a month abroad, I was beginning to feel somehow unproductive by not getting out of this city nor having any plans more solid than “Hopefully Munich for spring break” and “London sometime.”

So when I saw a weekend wouldn’t be filled with homework, I knew it would be a good time to cross the first trip off the to-do list. By Saturday the second, I had booked my train tickets (there was a sale) and bed in a hostel (there was another sale) for a trip to Amsterdam, leaving Paris Thursday morning and returning Saturday evening. I would spend three days and two nights in a city I knew only a bit about and with a primary language with odd double vowels and paired consonants that conflict in English.

It was kind of spontaneous. At least by my standards it was.

There will be a separate post about the actual trip, since I assume it’ll be lengthy, and since I’m actually writing most of  this post from a collection of bakeries and cafes around Amsterdam (Deborah from the past, here. Hello!). It also turns out that leaving Paris was the logistically hardest part of the trip.

First, there was a bit of a dilemma with getting to the train station. My train was to leave at 6:25 a.m. The earliest metro at the station within reasonable walking distance from my apartment would leave at 5:45. With an estimated metro ride of 35 minutes, that option was cutting it far too close for comfort. I seriously considered leaving my apartment at 4:30 in the morning and walking for an hour to a metro closer to the train station that would leave at 5:30 and get me to the station at 5:50. But that would involve, you know, a small female walking by herself through Paris in the hours of the night-morning carrying a passport and cash and a backpack that labeled her as a traveler to whoever else was on the streets at that hour. If I rescheduled the trip, I would lose 22 euros from the two nights at the hostel I wouldn’t spend. A taxi had the potential to be more expensive than that, but it would save me the disappointment of putting the trip off. I ended up caving, and, as I write this, I realize it wasn’t really as much of an issue as it seemed to be at the time. By Wednesday night, I had my morning taxi reserved, my packing list written, almost everything ready to go.

And then. And then.

I realized the email with my train ticket that I printed Tuesday didn’t actually print.

I could write about this panicked ordeal in great detail, but I fear that would bore you, lovely reader. You really only need to know two things: 1) Eveything in Paris closes early and opens late, at least compared to the States. There would be no printer/copy shop, no library, no school building, that would be open between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Even the metros would stop running shortly after I realized what happened, so if there was miraculously something open, I would have to develop super-speed to get there and back. 2) Everything on the train company’s website — the FAQ section, the booking section, the change-your-reservation section (and the email response to my inquiry that I got a day too late) — pointed me and any literate human being to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do, and hell if the train company cares, I would not being allowed on that train without the ticket I can’t print.

So, pretend you’re me, and imagine the panic. Then magnify it 25 times, because it’s midnight and you were supposed to go to bed an hour ago because you have to wake up in four hours, and because your normal intensity levels of panic are already higher than those of the average individual.

My sister and parents, as usual, deserve medals for calming me down a bit (you’re welcome, Mom, Dad, and Mary, for the 20 years of practice). My mother gave me the best advice (also as usual) to just go to the station anyway, even if I would lose money on a pointless taxi ride, and explain the situation and beg and plead and use my five feet of apparent youth and innocence to convince someone to just let me on the train pleeeaaase.

So I went to bed at 1 a.m. and woke up at 4:15 a.m. and met my taxi at 5 a.m. Paris was dark and quiet. I’ve never seen it as such. In the 20 minute trip to the station, I realized I had missed riding in cars, and I thought, probably because of the fatigue, that even if the Amsterdam trip was a bust I didn’t mind paying for a car ride, my first one in a month.

I got to the station before any workers did. I tried to make a kiosk print my ticket, but kiosks are stubborn and never do what you want them to. So I waited with the rest of the too-early travelers for half an hour until someone from the train company took her seat at the information window. And she spoke English to the people in front of me in line and I spoke in French to her because, it’s 5:50 in the morning, why not?, and she told me all I needed were the file and ticket numbers to show to the ticket collector, which I had written down before going to bed earlier that morning.

Yeah. That’s all.

And I wanted to yell, “IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MORE DIFFICULT THAN THIS; ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” but I knew that was the fatigue speaking, and I wasn’t entirely sure which tense I would use to conjugate “to supposed to be” in French, so I thanked her very much and waited for the train.

And the train came and I found Coach 17 and the ticket collector, and this time I did ask to speak in English. She looked at my written numbers with confusion, so I showed her the digital email on my iPod that I had pulled up before leaving the WiFi of my apartment. She scanned the code on my iPod and let me on the train.

That was all.

So, you know, thanks, TGV, for being lovely and inconsistent liars.

And so I took a train to Amsterdam.

And damn, it was exciting.

I was unnaturally unconcerned about going by myself. Once you’ve packed up and gone to a city like Paris, fewer and fewer things seem intimidating. I’ve done a good deal of wandering through Paris alone, so I’ve grown more comfortable in that state. I will admit, though, that for various reasons, many related to the first clause of that last sentence, the prior week or so had been pretty rough. I really wanted to just get away for a bit, to leave Paris after a month and say, “Yes, you’re alone, but you’re going to see the world anyway. You’re going to determine the game plan and see what you want and explore a completely new city. You’re going to do it, and you’re going to do it well.” I don’t want to say I needed the trip, but my word, I wanted it. If I hadn’t been able to make it to the station on time or if I wasn’t allowed on the train, I probably would have curled up in a ball around a 5 euro carton of Haagen Dazs and just zoned out for a while (because that’s the healthy way to deal with things!).

But, as you know, that didn’t have to happen. I found my window seat and nestled in for the three-and-a-half hour journey. It was too dark to see anything outside, so I didn’t feel bad about going in and out of sleep for a bit. Somewhere around the middle of the journey I realized I’d crossed the border into Belgium. It felt a bit surreal. At around 9:00, when the sun was finally up, I saw windmills — also surreal. And at 9:30, I arrived in Amsterdam.

And my three days there were beyond wonderful.

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