Baggage, Beer and Jet Lag
To say that the trip did not begin perfectly is a bit of an understatement.
I'm not the type to write off a trip (or even a day) due to unexpected challenges or things going wrong. To me, any moment travelling is a moment well spent, even if things aren't going exactly as I might want them to go. It's all part of the adventure. I find that when things don't go as planned, the stories that emerge are more interesting and often lead to better experiences than what was initially intended anyway. I didn't write this day off either, but it has to be said:
Things did not go as planned.
Despite our only meal being a cold, greasy batch of Kelsey's famine-era potato skins sprinkled ever so sparingly with cheese and despite my budding friendship with the duck-faced in-flight photography enthusiasts, things were off to a fine enough start. There was nothing that couldn't be laughed off.
We emerged out of the plane onto the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle Airport on a day that was hot and humid. After hours in the dry, cold, air-conditioned plane, it was a welcome change, though I was feeling that unique and indescribable sort of unclean that only ever seems to arise after air travel.
We got out of the airport without incident and made our way onto the RER into central Paris.
As soon as I lifted our luggage down one flight of stairs to the train platform, I knew that we'd made a terrible mistake.
My wife and I typically pack fairly light. We aren't the world's most efficient or spartan packers, but we certainly don't bring the kitchen sink, like others I have seen. At this point, after years of touring and globe-trotting we're pretty seasoned travellers. Somehow or other, despite our experience, we did not pack thoughtfully enough this time.
I have one friend who, it seems, will wake up in the morning, decide it might be cool to see the jungles of Borneo and get on a plane later that day with nothing but what can be carried in the pocket of his corderoys.
I have other friends who empty their entire wardrobes and bathrooms, along with a 40" TV for any down-time, into a rolling behemoth that requires two people and a two-stroke engine to transport.
On a spectrum ranging from the philosophy of KonMari on one end to post-apocalyptic Fallout 4 level hoarding on the other, my wife and I sit at what I will arbitrarily dub a three: we like our stuff, but we're ok going without it.
This time we packed anything but light.
I'll make a few pitiful excuses for this and then we'll move on.
- We were going for a month and worried about having enough clean clothing to keep us going?
- We wanted to really experience France and so brought clothing for all contingencies including hiking, swimming, cold, rain, and going out to nicer establishments? This meant that in addition to our usual travel gear, we also wanted decent hiking shoes, decent jackets, one or two nice suits and a pair of dress shoes for me, and a... few... pairs of shoes and a nice dress or two for Aleks.
- We thought it might be convenient to pack one large (and very heavy) suitcase for the two of us supplemented with a smaller bag or backpack each rather than split our stuff up between two suitcases?
- We mistakenly thought that since two-thirds of the trip would be a road trip and we'd have a car, it wouldn't be that big a deal to carry the suitcase around once in a while when we changed locations?
France, in general, but Paris in particular is not known for wheelchair accessibility. Thus, it is also not very friendly to giant mountainous rolling luggage. The cabs, as in every European and North American city, require that you make a sizeable downpayment on the vehicle in exchange for a short ride. We hadn't discovered Uber yet (Calgary was one of the last places in the civilized world not to allow Uber to operate) - more on that in a later story.
I sure as hell did not intend to drive in Paris. Anyone who has ever spent five minutes wandering the city knows that Parisians care about the state of their quarter panels and bumpers about as much as they care about following such mundane traffic rules as not driving a motorbike on a sidewalk when fifty some-odd pedestrians are using it, or stopping for red lights and going for green ones. One way streets are treated as a recommendation at best; a challenge at worst. They literally ram other parked cars aside if a parallel parking space is not the right size. Without a word of a lie I saw this occur nearly every day on our wanders through the city.
I'm convinced that the French car rental companies have developed a lego-like assembly system for damaged bodywork so that they can provide a pristine and undamaged car on demand for unsuspecting tourists and then charge a fortune for repairs when the car is inevitably dented and scraped by other motorists within seconds of driving off the lot. I'm fairly sure that the rental companies also hire thugs to track down vehicles and beat them with wine bottles and stale rock-hard baguettes when the renter leaves them unattended. Finally, I'm convinced that the rental companies have bought up the nearby gas stations to ensure that renters seeking to return their cars with a full tank of gas (and so avoid the 300% refuelling markup) are unable to fill up within 20 km of the airport between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 11:00 a.m. but this, too, is a story for another day.
In any case, one of the great joys of Paris is being a pedestrian. It's dangerous; sometimes life threatening, but it is through wandering the streets that a person really falls in love with the city. This is what we intended to do. We were going to walk everywhere and use the metro system which, when unburdened, is fantastic. We, however, were decidedly burdened.
As we carted this oversized suitcase around the Paris Metro, it quickly became apparent that the rollers were not going to be much help.
The Paris metro system operates lines on a multitude of levels below ground and even the simplest of routes usually require several, many, or a shit-ton of stairs.
I'm usually a pretty big stair proponent. I get pretty annoyed at seeing the abundance of unnecessary escalators around North America.
I also roll my eyes when I see a big line-up for an elevator when the staircase is right next to it and there's only a story or two to climb.
In fact, for the remainder of the trip, once things were settled, I loved our daily commutes around the city and became very proficient at navigating the network of stairs, trains and tunnels, all the while getting a vigorous and enjoyable cardio workout.
That said, on our first day, after dragging a fifty pound suitcase (I know it was that much because we had to move some things to the backpacks in order to get down to the airline's weight limit) up and down hundreds of flights of stairs (I can't guarantee that this number is accurate) over the course of a couple hours as we navigated the Metro, I was about done with stair-climbing for a bit.
We weren't even close to done.
My parents had decided to join us for the first half of the trip and throughout the day as we worked our way in toward the apartment she'd rented, my mom had been trying frantically to get ahold of the renter to no avail.
Fortunately, a friend of my dad's had recently moved to Paris and was going to meet us for a drink while we figured out our lodging.
That drink, though sorely needed, was going to have to wait.
Our booking, which had been reserved through one of AirBnB's competitors (which shall remain nameless as I don't know if this service is typical of them or a one-off), had indeed been cancelled. We'd finally managed to get in touch with the host who didn't really have an explanation for cancelling our accommodations an hour after we were supposed to check in, except that he "did not zink ze landlord would allow eet anymore."
So, after two hours at YYC, thirteen hours on the plane, another hour getting sorted at CDG, and having spent the last hour or two hauling way too much luggage (our own fault, admittedly) around the Paris Metro, we were now homeless for our week-long stay in Paris and I desperately needed that beer and a shower, in that order for my sake, in the reverse order for the sake of those around me.
Aleks and I started frantically clicking through our go-to site, AirBnB, for alternate accommodations while my mom tried to get in touch with the company through which she had booked our previous lodging.
Side note: though I'd be happy to talk sponsorship with AirBnB - are you out there AirBnB? - I am not currently being sponsored by them. I just like them. A lot.
My dad's friend, our saviour, very kindly started calling her own friends to see if anyone had space to take in a family of sweaty couch-surfers from Canada.
After a few phone calls, she happily reported that we might be in luck. A friend of hers regularly rented out to AirBnB anyway and, if she could get in touch with him, he might be willing to let us stay at his place for a couple of days while we got our feet under us.
After an hour or so of sorting things out, evening was approaching and a plan was beginning to coalesce.
Dad's friend's friend generously offered to let us stay at his place for a couple of days and even decided to stay elsewhere so that we'd have the place to ourselves, despite our protests at so thoroughly putting him out. He, apparently, would hear none of it, and turned down all talk of compensation. We, of course, left him a little gift to show our appreciation.
Moral side note: And that is why when you travel you should always be kind, courteous and eager to make friends and acquaintances. No matter what's going on around you, no matter how stressful the situation, no matter how heavy your bag is or how desperately you need a cold beer and a hot shower, on a truly exciting trip you often find yourself relying on the kindness of strangers.
And so, with dad's friend guiding us, we set out once again across Paris, dragging our worldly possessions along the worn cobblestone streets while trying not to badly injure the other pedestrians as we pushed way too much stuff through sidewalks that were far too narrow and crowded for tourists like us.
We arrived at our new place and dad's friend let us into a beautiful flat that had a perfect amount of space (meaning a lot of very separate space) for my parents and Aleks and I.
Another note on the luggage situation: As it turns out, when/if they do add elevators to buildings in Paris, they look like this:
Our suitcase did not fit into the elevator when accompanied by a person and I simply was not up to the task of hauling it up 4 stories of winding staircase, no matter how good it might be for my health and physique. We had to push the button and duck out of the way of the closing (and somewhat guillotine looking) wrought iron gates that kept passengers from toppling out of the smallest elevator in the world. We then had to have someone ready at the top to retrieve the suitcases one at a time once they arrived.
When we'd finally got everything up to the flat, it was time for that drink.
Just below our apartment we found a perfect little pub called Falstaff's and immediately, enthusiastically and with satisfaction such as I have rarely felt, ordered drinks. (We of course bought a drink for dad's friend after all the help she provided)
And so it was that this thing of beauty, to this day one of the most satisfying drinks I've ever had, wrapped up our first day in Paris. We were settled in and ready to go. No one had chucked a wine bottle at us, we had a bed, a roof, a door that closed and locked and we were now very well acquainted with the transportation system.
The moral of the story: It's only as bad as you let it be. Make friends. Be nice. Get out and walk more. For the love of all things good in this world, don't overpack.