Across the Continent
Still in Vilnius. 2:30pm. 15th of July, 2006
From Portsmouth I Sailed to... oh yah, first, about Portsmouth. Its interesting if you`re into Navel history. In retrospect I wish I`d taken the last surviving HOVERCRAFT to the Isle of Wight. But I was in a hurry to get off of the Sterling system and its brutal 1.80 USD=1 Pounds exchange. Also they have very impressive Clipper ship they`ve turned into a museum which I missed cause I was watching football in a pub instead of taking in the cultural sights and activities. Next time.
So I boarded the ferry and promptly fell in love with two French Girls. We stayed up till 2 drinking and smoking in the pub on board the ferry (ferries are really the only civilized means of travel anymore). Slept a few hours in the aisles of the seating section, and then awoke to the sunrise over Le Havre. I said a sad farewell to the young ladies and wandered off into the City.
It was 8am, I was now in France, and racking my brain for ideas and vocabulary. I think I was still a bit drunk. So, following standard protocol, I located the center of town, sat down and waited for my head to clear. It was a pivotal moment for my trip. To be washed ashore in a foreign land with no agenda, no ideas, and a couple days to kill. Sit, meditate, and feel total emptiness. Nothing pulling my this way or that, but a nagging suspicion that I ought to prioritize shelter. The weather had been too good, and I just felt that it couldn`t last. So, I explored the city, checking out the park gazebos, the shrubberies, and the bluffs along the coast before discovering the Tourist Information office. In stark reminder that I was now in France, this lady was rude and tried to be as unhelpful as possible while still doing her job. I asked about hostels. "There are none." Full stop. I asked again. None? And she says, "well, there is one place <muttering quickly something in French> but it is for students." Okay, I can pretend to be a student... I study, after all... "Could you please tell me where that is?" After a small huff and an incremental rolling of the eyes, she points it out on the map. God, I hate the French... well the ones in positions of percieved Authority at least. You should have met the guy at the Bus Information office. "I`d like to go to Mont St. Michelle." He just looked at me like I`d passed gas. And then did everything to convince me that I was wasting my time and should go back to America. But he did warm up a bit in the end actually give me the bus information. ...Which neither was was encouraging, and so I abandoned that idea. France has only two cities it turns out. Paris and Other. If you want to go from Other to Other, you have a 95% chance of going through Paris to get there. Okay, I exagerate, but I was very delirious that morning, and found the whole information gathering very off-putting.
I did eventually find the hostel, which had only iconography which indicated "preschool" to distinguish it from the surrounding buildings, and a sign on the door only in french, but loquatious french it was difficult to interpret. After some time staring pleedingly into the windows, and buzzing various buttons at the people who could clearly discern my intent from the Pack on my Back, a frenchman finally came to the door and enquired, "what do you want!" Well, world peace in a borderless world and to get laid but I`ll settle for, "Pardon, Je ne parle pas francais, mai, I would like to stay here?" I was still working to recover my paltry French. He pointed to the sign... which was in french... and retreated behind the door. It was at this point that another man staying there, a Morrocan student at the local university stepped forward. He appologized for not being able to help but explained that the desk clerk was not there, and I would need to call the phone number at the bottom of the page. Fair game. So off I went to buy a phone card and locate a payphone, and place the call, and get a message, also only in french rattling off undoubtedly the same information that was on the sign. Fuckers. So, back to the front door, to more closely study the sign. The game was on, I was going to get in to that damn hostel. (Which it turned out wasn`t only for students, but was merely primarily so.) Decoding the sign, I identified days of the week... I knew them to be days of the week, but not only could I not remember which was which but I also didn`t know which day of the week it was anyway... nor the time for that matter. But clearly we had a chart with office hours and days of the week. So I flagged down an elderly passerby. "Pardon, to parle anglais?" "Ehh, Non..." No matter, we`ll do this with sign language. So I pointed to the sign, and to the chart, and he pointed to the day whichever day that day was, and the next available time, 13:30, at which I might possibly expect to find the desk clerk. Thanking him profusely, I went around the corner to drink a beer and wait the hour for my next opportunity. The woman in the bar was very friendly, and so I didn`t just get back on the boat and leave the country as I was starting to consider. At any rate, the ferry was cheaper than a hostel... (mental note...)
So I went back to the hostel, and rang the bell, and the desk clerk was surprised to see me. He spoke very little English (??? Desk clerk? Hostel? No english? What planet is this?) and was dismayed that I didn`t have a reservation. But after checking his books closely for five minutes and visiting the room, he decided I could stay there one night. About twenty minutes later, it started raining. Score. So I promptly did my laundry, shaved, and showered (I was a bit of a mess at that point), and rejoiced at having a roof over my head and an ample supply of hot water for bathing and making coffee. Life can be so simple. They even had a super cool proto-treehouse in what once was a lightwell, but had been converted to a computer loft. This tree even had a fireman`s pole inside what one might take to be the trunk. Very cool. Very preschool, but very cool. The rise of the steps was even too high to make you feel like a little kid. Not that I need much help... But I felt like a shipwreck victim rescued from the storm, and delighted in the free, wired internet. And to wash my clothes in clean water was a beautiful thing. The rivers and oceans and lakes did clean, but not as completely as one might hope.
Well, I almost never saw the desk clerk again. Part of his surprise at seeing me was that he`s never there in fact, the sign on the door is subterfuge and obfuscation, and in the end, My four bed dormatory room was empty but for me, and occasionally one other person the whole time. So, his record keeping is obviously very French. I met most of the other residents, and was the only backpacker staying there. I was also the only non-french speaker, and one of the few non-africans. I had slipped through a wormhole into a parallel dimention of travel. But I liked Le Havre; there is nothing there. The center of town is a UNESCO heritage site (like most of Europe) famous for a local architect`s loving use of concrete in rebuilding the levelled city after World War Two. This New-Town, Corbusian vision of architecture reminded me most strongly of Chandigarh, India; also Pondicherry and Auroville to a lesser extent, and so paradoxically I felt at home, or at least on familiar ground. But mostly it was refreshing to be some place no tourist in their right mind would visit, giving the town a very provincial local French feel. However, as my friend Youssef pointed out, in Arabic, "havara" means "a hole." And everyone agrees, Le Havre is, in fact, a hole.
So after a couple days in Le Havara, I took the train to Paris to see Jen. You might remember Jen from past posts. She`s one of my favorite people to visit. Always somewhere different and up to something interesting, I stayed with her for six days, and probably got three hours of face time in all that. She`s one of these perepetually busy people. And fair enough, she was working alot. Currentlly she`s using her septalingual skills to be a tourguide on the river Seine. This is just to earn money for travel, of course. Fred is a filmmaker and was busy with a number of projects as well. So I had a lot of time to explore Paris and try once again to figure out what the big deal is. As I`ve upgraded NYC to "I like NY." I guess I`ll upgrade Paris to "okay, I get it." The tourists are confined, as if by an invisible fence, to the area between Sacre Cour and The Moulin Rouge, and the area from the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. Once you get a hundred yards past the invisible boundary, you`re all alone with the French or the Immigrants, depending on which direction you walk. Its a quite big city, but a day`s walk can easily get you from one extremity to the other. I spent most of my time in the 19th Arrandizement, because there were really no tourists there, and a nice mix of the poorer Parisians and recent immigrants. It was safe, it was local, and people were nice. Though for the only time this trip, a cafe owner tried to short-change me. Okay, sure I don`t speak French, but I`m not an idiot. And a coffee is rarely 4 euro... I just looked at my hand when he came back, and slowly counted and recounted, and recounted, and looked at him hurtfully, and to the guy at the bar beside me (a surefire technique, by the way...) who got into the fray, and the bartender acted... overacted confusion, and a discussion ensued, with no aspersions cast, and eventually I got my full change. The tosser.
Jen explains the French as superior because they are beyond binary logic. Two plus two does not HAVE to equal only four. In fact, in France it rarely does. Take the bus to get out of town. it takes 15 minutes per person to sell a bus ticket. With a reservation and a prepaid ticket, it took me four documents and five minutes. I was sent upstairs to "check in" as if it were a flight, at window "R" well, actually, that would be window "S." I was given a boarding pass for bay 10, well actually the bus loaded in bay 7. You know, everything works out, just not efficiently ,or linearily, if you prefer.
Anyway, I opted to skip Germany this time. What with the world cup, I figured it coulda been fun, but... I really needed to get some more miles under my feet, and haven`t been able to afford to linger in Western Europe. So I took the bus straight through to Prague, figuring I could just wander around and find a hostel that looked nice. Wrong. Prague has gone to great lengths to kill the charm of their city with historical preservation and a massive infusion of Tourism. There are few hostels that can afford to hang a sign in the old city, and even if they can afford it, the city council may not even permit it. Yes, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but its ossifying and dying as a real place. The old city is not even properly a city any more, but merely a tourist attraction. Though, a beautiful one... The architectural sculpture has greater scope and dimention and artistry to it. The frescoes on the sides of some buildings are impressive. But, there is very little Czech left in the old city. Its all gone over to a Museum peice for tourists. My first night I wandered around among all the americans, but the second night I managed to get lost in the outlying neighborhoods. I found a local coffeeshop with an English-Language bookstore in a graffitti covered neighborhood (which turned out to be a good neighborhood despite the semiotics), and then a local bar ("How did you find THIS place") where I was once again, the only tourist. I struck up conversation with the bass player from the band that drew me into the place, and had a good time "getting to know people." Earlier in the day I was surprised to discover there actually is a place in the world still known as MORAVIA, and with people who still consider themselves Moravian. But it was at this bar where I banged my head in frustration to learn that, clearly, the Bohemians and the Moravians hate eachother. Dammit, can`t ANYONE get along? There`s even a third region in the Czech Republic that wants to break off from these two... ... ... That`s it, we`re all going back to Greek City-States. I`ve had enough of this false Nationalism.
So a couple days in the Prague tourist circus was enough. The next someone else in the hostel I stayed at day I headed to Brno. I thought I could escape the tourists somewhat in Moravia. How right I was. I outran all the tourists and all their amenities. Brno is the Second City of the Czech Republic. Its been called "The Mancheser of Czech." Okay, apparently that`s not complimentary, but refers rather to their strong industrial base. Nevertheless, it has a strong, active nightlife, heavy on the bars, light on the cafes and with very little diversity in style or ethnicity. There is pizza, and that`s about it for fast food or snack food. Oh, and kebab. You can`t go anywhere in Europe without finding a kebab stand. But Its quiet. Really quiet. There are cars, but they`re not going anywhere in the old city. And there are people, but not crowds. The streets seem a bit too wide, and the old town seems somehow depopulated. There are hotels, but only one Youth Hostel way out from the center. I ended up passing the night on top of the hill, under a shrubbery, being eaten by mosquitos, and awoke to a BIG muzzled dog startled by my presence. Not the best campsite I`ve chosen. But secure. I chose it mostly for its proximity to a concrete cube shelter that resembled a hunting blind or bunker... IT would keep me dry, to be sure, should it start to rain, but lacked something for charm. Also it seemed a place where people would go at night for covert activities of various sorts.
Brno was also a lovely city. Its not as full-on as Prague for architectural expression, but it makes up for it by being a Real Place. But I accidentally left after a single night because I went to the least friendly tourist office I`ve ever been to. I asked about hotels, and she offered me a room for 500 crowns. Which I guess was like 25 bucks. Reasonable. Then she called about another dormatory for workers which sounded dismal, but was 150 a night, which sounded great. It was full. They then tried to be done with me, but I persisted in asking questions about the area, and about neighboring Slovakia. The woman at the desk actually Rolled her eyes and Huffed when I pulled her away from the book she was was reading to answer some questions about where she`s been and what she`s seen. She`d barely been 100 kilomoters from her town it turns out, didn`t want the trouble of the high mountains and preferred staying close to home, in the lower, easier hills. But I`ll never forget how put out she was for being asked to do her job. I persisted in annoying her for some more time, flirting and smiling until she returned a smile, and then I let her get back to her book. At the train station for information, I noticed the train I wanted leaving in 20 minutes. The risk of wandering around with your backpack is that you are very likely to end up on that train. Which I did.