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Paris, France-Bern, Switzerland – Europe Day 21 – June 17

Alex and I woke at 6:30 and I packed my last few things. On the way to the train station, we stopped for chocolate croissants one last time. While we waited for the train, a bird pooped on Alex, I felt bad because she was so sweet, but it was funny to see and it gave me something to smile about before leaving Paris. Alex cleaned up in the bathroom and walked me to my train. We said goodbye for now, but with the intention of meeting up again, hopefully during this same trip through Europe.

The train ride was becoming second nature to me. I got on, made myself at home and stared out the window listening to my iPod. I was starting to really enjoy the train ride. Watching the city I had just visited slowly disappear behind me and a new city appear before me provided some amount of closure to that leg of my journey. It was a chance to reflect on my last experience and plan for the next one.

The ride through Switzerland is incredible. Switzerland is by far the most beautiful country I have ever been in. The train ride took me past crystal clear lakes, rolling hills covered in lush foliage, and soaring mountains with snowcapped peaks. Every inch of Switzerland not taken up by fairytale village was covered in various shades of green foliage. From a distance, it looked like a giant model train set with beautiful hills and mountains laced with railroad tracks.

When my train arrived in Geneva, I wasn’t feeling it. I walked around the city and it didn’t interest me, so I got back on the train and went to Bern about 30 minutes later. I love my Eurail pass. I caught the next train to Bern and it even arrived early. Then I found out it wasn’t my train and I was going to an entirely different place that I had never heard of. The guy eating McDonald’s in the seat across from me told me which stop to get off at and transfer trains. I got off in Lusanne, maybe, and asked the conductor where I needed to go for Bern, he told me track 2 but it was leaving in less than 5 minutes. I felt like Jack Bauer racing beneath the train tracks to catch my next train, stopping only to sample free iced tea from a cute girl handing out promotional bottles.

When I finally made it onto the train, I met a bunch of Americans Bern-bound, a group of girls from Chicago and two guys from Iowa. We talked and shared stories of our travels as travelers do. When we reach Bern, we said goodbye to the Iowans and I walked with the Chicago girls to their hostel, taking one tram through the city, sans ticket. Lucky for me there was a bed available in the hostel and I made a reservation for two nights.

That afternoon the Chicagoans and I walked through Bern and down to the riverside. Walking through Bern, I was awestruck with how beautiful a place it was. The entire city was spotless, not a single piece of trash anywhere, I looked. The city looks as if it’s been transported out of a fairy tale. All of the buildings are old wood frame houses with little roofs and gabled windows. Bending around the city center is a fast moving river of vibrant blue water that you can see to the bottom of. Sloping up on one side of the river is the town of Bern, and on the other side are steep mountainsides with beautiful little houses. Connecting the two banks are a series of very tall bridges surrounding the city and spanning the river below. The city is so clean you can swim in the river snaking through the city, a claim most cities cannot make. If the water had been warmer, I would have swum in it, but it was somewhere around 16 Celsius that day. Nevertheless, we saw a few Swiss brave the cold and dive in.

Along the riverbank, we met some Germans staying in our hostel and made plans to meet up that night. We continued our walk along the river bank in search of syringe vending machines the Chicago girls had heard Rick Steves talk about. None could be found and it began to rain. We raced back to the city, running from one covered area to the next.

That night the Chicagoans and I met a couple from South Carolina, also staying in our hostel, and walked to a restaurant we had been recommended by the hostel. The restaurant was outside of town, across a bridge, and next to one of the former bear pits the city is named for. The menu had entrees listed at 30CHF, about $35. We left.

That night I bought the cheapest food I could, a McDonald’s Hamburger for 2.50CHF, the Big Mac was 11CHF, roughly $14. Back at the hostel we rendezvoused with the Germans and drank beer in the hostel. I told them about my trip and they told me about theirs. They were driving from Dusseldorf, Germany to a wedding in Switzerland the next day and had stopped in Bern for the night. One of the guys, in particular, recommended I try the traditional dark beer that Dusseldorf is famous for, and also that I should have 5.0, the cheapest beer you can buy in Germany. No advertising, no label, other than 5.0, its alcohol percent. By the time the Germans and I were done talking, we were the last people left in the common room of the hostel, and we called it a night.

Paris, France – Europe Day 20 – June 16

Alex and I woke up, got coffee, croissants, and lunch at the supermarket and boarded a train for Versailles, one time home to French Royalty. When we got there, I said I was a student studying in London, and got in for free and Alex did the same with her EU citizen card. There was a free audio guide for the Chateau and Alex and I spent the first part of the day walking through the Chateau listening to the audio guide.

After the guide, Alex and I walked out into the gardens behind the Chateau and had a picnic in the grass. Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before and ended up napping in the gardens for several hours. We woke and walked the gardens some more, exploring two more palaces along the way.

By the time we left Versailles it was around 6 and we were both starving. We took the train back to Paris to the Lyon train station so I could buy a ticket to Switzerland. I wanted to book a late train so Alex and I could see the catacombs the next day, but the only train available was at 8am. I bought the ticket and we boarded the metro again for Alex’s apartment. On the way back, we bought groceries for a picnic along the river bank. On the way back from the supermarket, we walked past a giant picnic in front of the Notre Dame. Alex explained that every year Parisians dress in all white and picnic in front of the Notre Dame in one giant party. Groups of people bring their own food and white tablecloth and set up long rows of tables perhaps 100 people long on each side.

While Alex prepared our own picnic, I took the metro to Lolita’s place to pick up my bag which I’d left the night I stayed at her place. When I returned to Alex’s apartment, she and I picnicked along the riverbank and watched Notre Dame by twilight. I was having so much fun in Paris, a part of me regretted buying that train ticket to Switzerland, but I knew there were more adventures to be had in Switzerland and the rest of Europe.

Paris, France – Europe Day 19- June 15

We woke around 10, had a short breakfast of more bread and cheese, and walked along the canal towards Lolita’s hotel. The canal is beautiful. Along each side are parks, museums, and open-air concert venues. The walk was refreshing and a good way to start my day after a long night. We took the metro the last bit of the way to Lolita’s work where she got off. Alex and I continued on the metro to the Louvre where we were to spend the day.

EU members get into the Louvre for free, so Alex went to one counter, got a free ticket, went to another counter and got a second free ticket, and voila, free admission for two to the Louvre. Alex and I spent the afternoon in the Louvre together getting lost and admiring art. Alex showed me some of her favorite pieces as we meandered around the museum. At 3:30 Alex had to leave for a driving lesson. She explained that because Paris was so congested and public transportation was so good, many people didn’t need driver’s licenses, or got them later. Alex was 20 and just now getting hers.

I left the Louvre shortly after her to head to the catacombs, which I found out were closed. So I returned to the Louvre and spent the rest of the day there walking through the statue garden, doing a Rick Steve’s walking tour of the Louvre, and sitting in the park behind the Louvre napping. I headed over to Alex’s apartment around 8 to meet her for dinner. Alex lives in a beautiful apartment on the second floor only 2 blocks to the Notre Dame. When I got to her apartment she buzzed me in so I could put my bag down and we walked to a local supermarket to buy groceries for a pasta dinner with bread, cheese, and wine.

After dinner, Alex and I went to a Jazz club in the basement of a former prison. The club was one of my favorite places in Europe so far. From the outside, the building is so unassuming and one could easily pass it by. Stepping into the first floor of the bar, its secrets are still not revealed. We walked to the back and down a steep set of stone stairs into a rough stone-walled basement. The basement was made up of several rooms, a bar room, and a room for jazz. The windows separating the two rooms still had bars on them from when the place was a prison. Alex and I got 2 gin and tonics and walked into the jazz room to listen while we waited for Lolita to meet us after work. Around 10:30 Lolita came by and we left the club to go back to Alex’s apartment. I played DJ while the girls made drinks and we waited for Coline to come over. Coline was Alex’s friend and they both studied advertising together in Paris. Lolita had had a long day at work and left shortly after Coline arrived. Coline, Alex, and I went to a bar at the site of the former Bastille and hung out for most of the night before Alex and I returned to her apartment and Coline returned to hers. Along the walk home, Alex pointed out sites to me such as the oldest building in Paris, a school for priests, and the best ice cream place in Paris. I was very impressed. She was a very good drunk tour guide.

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Paris, France – Europe Day 18 – June 14

I woke around 8 went downstairs for the free breakfast of bread and jam and tried to book another room at the hostel. They were all booked. I spoke with Lolita through facebook and she offered to host me at her place for the night. I moved my stuff over to her place and went to Cite, a small island in the center of Paris home to Notre Dame. While the line for Notre Dame was long, it moved quickly and I soon found myself inside marveling at its Gothic magnificence. I spent a little bit of time inside taking pictures and listening to Rick Steve’s audio guide before meeting Kiana, Andrew, and Flo, our former exchange student, at Saint Michael’s fountain.

Paris, Notre Dame

I got to the fountain before everyone else and caught the first bit of an English walking tour starting in front of the fountain. The fountain depicts St. Michael fighting the devil. It was neat. After everyone arrived we went to a nearby restaurant to catch up. Flo had come to Florida about a year ago and lived with my parents for about a month. She and I hit it off and spent a lot of time together going to Boyd Hill, Ft. Desoto, and everything else I could think to do in St. Petersburg. Having the roles reversed was fun as well, I just wish she’d had more time to hang out than just lunch, but alas, she had exams coming up for nursing school.

Lunch was good, Kiana and I had a 3-course lunch for 10 euro each. Flo and Andrew had a traditional French meal similar to fondue. The waiter brings out a hot plate and you melt cheese in little trays over the hot plate then pour the cheese over a dish of potatoes, salami, and other meats. Lunch went by way too fast and soon enough it was time to say goodbye to Kiana, Andrew, and Flo. Kiana and Andrew had to catch a flight to Prague, then Amsterdam, then home, and Flo had to go home and study.

At last, my solo Europe trip was beginning. Now what? I did a short walking tour of Paris with Rick Steve’s podcast, going through the Nazi Deportation Memorial, back past Saint Michael’s Fountain, through the Latin quarter, and finishing by the Shakespeare bookstore, one of my favorite places in Paris. The bookstore is filled floor-to-ceiling with books, covering every flat surface in the little shop, that looked like it predated the United States. The shop was filled with rare books, first editions, and intellectual expats perusing the selection of books with a discerning eye.

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After leaving the shop, I hopped on the metro and went to the Eiffel Tower. With a student discount, it was less than 4 euros to walk to the second floor. I thought why not. One heck of a long hike later, I was on the second of three stories in the Eiffel Tower looking out over Paris. I spent about an hour up here photographing the sights and building a Panorama of Paris. Pics to follow.

We had plans to meet at 9:50 at the hotel she worked at so I headed over there to meet her. I got there a little ahead of schedule and waited in the Irish bar next door. Lolita stopped in 10 minutes later and we took the metro back to her place, where she lived with her brother, Leo. Lolita’s mom came over that night and cooked a delicious chicken and rice meal for all of us. Lolita’s family was so nice and I felt at home enjoying a family meal with them, making jokes, and talking about life in Paris. Leo and I found ourselves talking about fixies and Adultswim, and I realized the world was even smaller than I had imagined.

After dinner, Lolita’s friend, Alexiane, or Alex, came over. We’d met two nights before at the pub crawl but it was a brief meeting. The three of us went to a bar across the street from my first hostel, The Peace and Love Hostel, and drank beer overlooking the canal. Alex and Lolita had beers with grenadine, which I’m told is common for women in Paris to drink. It wasn’t too bad, but not my style. By the time we left the bar, the metro was no longer running and we had to walk back to Lolita’s place.

The three of us sat in Lolita’s kitchen eating bread and cheese and drinking tea while Lolita and Alex taught me how to swear in French. At the end of the night, I slept on the futon on the ground, Alex on the couch, and Lolita in her room. For my first night of solo travel, things were looking pretty good.

 

Paris, France – Europe Day 17 – June 13

At 10:45 Kiana, Andrew, and I met up for sightseeing around Paris. We covered a lot of miles today and saw just about everything around Paris from the outside as most museums and attractions were closed because it was a holiday. At midday, we did a walking tour of the redlight district. It’s home to more than just the Moulin Rouge. Picasso and other artists once lived here. The tour was 10 euro and 3 hours with a break in the middle where Kiana, Andrew, and I bought wine and sampled free Fois Gras. About a 30 minutes after our wine and Fois Gras break we somehow lost the group and continued our tour set to our own agenda. The day was a holistic approach to sightseeing. We ended the night with a supermarket dinner of sandwiches in the hostel’s internet cafe followed by drinking wine beneath the Eiffel Tower.