Posted on 20-07-2007
Filed Under (Greece, Languages, People) by admin

As I drifted awake the morning after we visted Capri, I became more and more aware of a conversation going on around me about Hayley suffering from a lot of back pain. Apparently, she was in the bathroom, her back started hurting her a great deal, and she could hardly move… Mike was doing what he could, and I woke up and gave her a bunch of Advil. She stayed in bed for awhile, and started feeling better about an hour later, but that pretty much exed out the possibilty of going to Pompei.

Instead, we got ready to leave the hostel and head to Greece. Getting to Corfu would require 3 trains and 2 ferries, and take about 22 hours (We left at 11am on the 19th, and arrived at about 9am on the 20th). The three of us headed towards the Via Liberta train station to get our day started, but I was carrying Hayleys backpack in addition to my own, to make sure she didn’t hurt it any more. Mike and I carried her stuff for most of the traveling until we arrived in Corfu.

From the Napoli train station, we took a train to Castreta. The ride was only about an hour, and, despite the heat of the train, was relatively uneventful. The bulk of the train ride would be on our Castreta to Bari leg. It was marked in our Eurail booklet as a train that needed reservation, but when Mike went to book our seats, the woman said we should just get on the train. We met two backpackers from Alabama in Castreta, and they were told the same thing.

Waiting on the platform, a train came in and a girl got off, asking us if she should get off here to go to Bari. We told her we too were going to Bari, so hopefully, yes. She turned out to be from an engineering town in Sweden, and we spoke to her for awhile while we waited for the train. She, too, was told that she didn’t need to make a reservation for the train to Bari. But, when the train finally arrived, there were absolutely no seats. We finally resigned to standing the entire ride in the front of a car, which wasn’t the greatest thing ever.

A ticket collector came soon after the train headed off, and he did not seem pleased that we didn’t have reservations. He violently said something in Italian to us, said something about paying the difference and then moved on. Two other backpackers, who we soon fond out were from Spain, also had no seats and were standing with us. They spoke a good amount of English, and Hayley and Mike spoke some Spanish, so the six of us, Hayley, Mike and I, the Swedish girl and the two Spanish backpackers, spent the 3 hour train ride standing with all our bags by the train doors talking about our different countries, our trips, and a variety of other things. We were all ultimately headed to Greece, but, while Hayley, Mike and I were going to Corfu, the rest were headed to Athens.

Eventually, a woman ticket collector came by, and told us she didn’t want to charge us or get us in trouble, but her boss was coming… So, she told us to move to the last car of the train, where he wouldn’t get to by the end of the ride. We did, and the conversation moved with us. We finally got off in Bari, where the six of us took a bus together to the port. We were taking a ferry from Bari to the island of Igomanista in Greece, and then another ferry to Corfu.

With our Eurail passes, we are given “free” ferry rides, but still have to pay all kinds of surcharges for gas and peak-season fees and so on… Also, the free ticket doesn’t include seats, just permission to get onto the ferry. We weren’t exactly sure what this meant, we pictured ourselves standing in the cargo area for 9 hours… So, we opted to put down a few more Euro and get real seats on the ferry. After getting to the port, we weren’t sure if we would be seeing our Spanish & Swedish friends any longer, since we were going to different places and had different types of tickets, so we exchanged some contact information and said our goodbyes just incase.

We got onto the ferry at 8:00 pm… It was so much more than we expected. The boat was really like a small cruise ship; it was nicely decorated, had  a swimming pool, a big room with our seats, decks outside and several eating choices. We ate at the “self-serve” restaurant, that had fairly good food, and we got a bottle of Greek white wine for 5 Euro. We sat and slowly ate, then just sat and talked for awhile… Actually, we only left because one of the staff told us we had to go get more food if we were going to keep sitting in the restaurant!

But, coincedentally, as we left, we saw our Swedish friend again, and followed her to the outside deck. Speaking to other backpackers here, we learned that the typical backpacker ferry-riding strategy was to either sleep outside on the deck, or go into the seating areas late at night and take seats that weren’t bought, or sleep on the ground inside. We didn’t really end up needing seats, but it worked out ok, and we know what to do next time.

We found our Spanish buddies soon after that, too, so the six of us were back together again. We had some rum that we’d been carrying around for awhile, so we got a some coke and started teaching them some American drinking games. We started with Kings, a card game where you pick cards that relate to different actions. Some of them require word games, which was interesting because there were so many different languages in play. We asked us if they had any drinking games to teach us, and they told us about a drinking game called “Duorito”, which is similar to “Quarters” that we play, where you try to bounce a quarter off the table into a cup. t was a lot of fun, we all just hung out, had a good time, misunderstood each others languages and so on.

It’s actually been really interesting that meeting other backpackers from the states isn’t particularly interesting, but as soon as we start conversations with backpacker’s from other European countries, we can keep interesting conversations going for hours. I think just figuring the languages out is exciting enough to keep conversations going and start new ones.

The ferry would be getting into port at 6am, so we all got to bed at around midnight. We woke up, moved around sleeping bodies on the ground to get our bags, and before we knew it we were in Greece. We still had one more ferry to take to get to Corfu, which we basically just slept through. We arrived at the port, and there was a van from our hostel right as we got off the boat… I don’t think anything yet has been that easy.

20 minutes later, we were eating Greek pancakes overlooking a bright blue, translucent beach. We’ve been chilling on the beach today, swimming, drinking cheap wine and eating gyros. I have a feeling not much will happen the next few days in Corfu, but my birthday is on the 23rd, so that should be interesting!

Back to the beach, Andio!

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Posted on 09-07-2007
Filed Under (Elation, Languages, France, People, Adventure) by admin

Well, surprise, surprise, another eventful day…

Lievin (The middle officer in the picture above) from Police Municipale said to call him at 10:00 this morning and he would update us on what was going on. We went down to the desk of our hostel and had the woman at the desk call, since she spoke some English. She told us that he wants us to call back in 30 minutes.

So, we called back in 30 minutes, and he said that we should go see the Chief of Police at 12:00. So, a few hours later, in the appropriately pouring rain, we head over to the Police Municipale Station and meet a few more French cops. They’re, again, all very friendly… But it’s really hard to communicate with them, and a new cop, Herald (The officer on the right), tells us to come back at 2:00 pm to find out what’s going on.

At this point it seemed like they were just putting us off, so we told the officer we really had to go to the US Embassy in Paris to get her a new passport, and we couldn’t keep waiting around Epinay sur Seine. He was sympathetic to our issue, and said he would come to the hotel and deliver us a message personally at 2:00 pm.

We, at this point, accepted the mentality that the purse was simply lost. We’d been working non-stop since it was stolen to get it back, but it was time to move on. As we left the hotel to head to Paris, the rain cleared! We hoped this was a sign that moving on was the right thing to do, and headed looked forward to the refuge of the US Embassy.

Walking to the train station, I realized that the big problem we were having with the officers was communication. We just needed to know what they were doing, if there was hope, if we were keeping them from some murder case… just some information. Lievin had given us his personal cell-phone number, so I realized it may be possible to connect Lievin with my Dad (Mon Père) who speaks French. We called my dad on the train to Paris, explained things and gave him Lievin’s number, but as we were finishing things up, we went into the subway and lost connection. I wasn’t sure if he needed more information from me, or if he could call back, or if I would interrupt him and Lievin if I tried to call back… So, we just waited on that front.

The first thing I saw stepping out of the RER C in Paris was a thick bolt of lightening as the rain fell in sheets. It was amazing to finally be in Paris, but it certainly would have been better under different conditions, weather and otherwise.

We reached the US Embassy and there was an English speaking French “GUARD-FORCE” there, blocking anyone from getting even close to the outside of the buildings. We told him Sam’s purse was stolen, that she lost everything, her passport, her money, her license, everything.

“Ah, eeuuu… The passport office closes at 12.”

What?! Why are things so crazy here? Why can’t anything just go smoothly? Apparently the Embassy would be available for us to get what we needed done between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m… And they only tell you that once your there, because we certainly checked.

Sam started crying, Hayley put her foot down, and some other officers went off to try and figure out whether or not it was safe to let in a bunch of US Citizens into the US Embassy… I thought this place was supposed to be our safe zone, or something?

We were waiting in the rain for about half an hour. Standing there, we, by freak chance, ran into a guy our age we had met on the train into Paris. He, “had already seen the Eiffel Tower too many times,” so he went to walk around while his friends were there and stumbled upon us.

Apparently, while they had no reservations or plans, managed to pop into a hostel in the center of Paris, while we were fending for our lives in the most dangerous part of Paris. Awesome.

He left, and a bit later we were allowed in. They brought us to a security check-point, and as I was putting my cell-phone on the table to walk through the metal detector… “Anonymous Call” pops up. The rest of the staff at the Embassy was actually very nice, and one guy urged me to go outside and take the call.

When I picked up, I got disconnected, but called back my dad just in case. A few seconds later, I find out my dad left a message for Lievin, who then called my dad back, directed him to officer “Gregory”, who informed him…

THEY FOUND THE BAG!

I called Gregory and he told me the news was true, and the bag is that their station. The Embassy security was a bit confused, but finally understood and were happy with us for a brief moment before we high-tailed it towards the train station to get back to the Police Municipale.

It had, strangely, stopped raining by the time we got out of the Embassy… The weather has been an incredible reflection of our luck so far! We got to the station and waited around for a bit. Lievin came over in casual clothes… He had apparently come in to help us on his day off! Herald then came over holding Sam’s bag, covered in dirt and garbage and… blood? It was gross… But inside was her passport, traveler’s checks, plane ticket, Eurail pass… The kids swiped her cash, of course, but that didn’t take too much away from the excitement… We got the exact closure we needed after everything that had happened.

An officer we hadn’t seen, who spoke more English than the rest, asked us if we had a minute to talk and brought us into the Chief of Police’s office. The Chief of Police came in (the officer on the left in the picture), smiling and showed, proudly, a paper weight that said “Washington D.C.” on it. We smiled, and the officer who spoke English began telling us that if we felt it was deserved and genuinely wanted to, we can write a letter to the Mayor of Paris about what happened. The officers and station would basically get a commendation/congratulations for their work.

The police here have been incredible and we explained that we would definitely write such a letter. The Chief of Police gave us his card and personal telephone numbers, so if we were ever in Epinay sur Seine again (yeah right) we could call him for immediate help; he promised he would remember us.

The mood was then light, we talked to the cops, joked around, described police in the U.S., told them about our trip around Europe and that we were students. And we finally took a great picture with them outside the station. It was really an incredible and unexpected meeting we had with them… The Chief’s email address was on his card, so we’re looking forward to sending him the pictures, an email, and perhaps sending the station a thank you gift from New York when we get back.

We then gathered ourselves, and headed back into Paris. We went to the top of the Eiffel tower and ate delicious french fries at the bottom.

Tomorrow, we will be back in Paris, as many sites as we can quickly, hopefully having lunch at my favorite restaurant in the world, Le Relais de L’Entrecote, and then heading to Interlocken in Switzerland. The police may be great, but I can’t wait to get out of Epinay sur Seine!

Well, it’s 4:00 AM here, and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, so thanks to everyone that helped us through things the past few days, and especially dad for saving the day! ;)

A demain!

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In preparing to come to Europe we heard a million times from a million people that we should watch out for pick-pockets and thieves and all their stories and experiences on such issues. Well, here’s ours.

Last night, we were trying to figure out what to do. It was 10:00pm, and the last trains from Paris came back at 12:06am, so we were considering going, but we wouldn’t have much time. We hung around for awhile and finally decided to just see what we could find in Épinay-sur-Seine.

We walked towards signs for the Centre Ville, and were surprised to see that everything was closed. We finally stumbled on a pizza place and went in… only to discover that it was closing. We walked a few seconds more and were thinking about heading back, but decided to press on one more block.

Mike & I walked by stairs that went to a little hole in the wall, but Hayley & Sam noticed people inside, and we noticed a sign for a Brasserie. We stood at the stairs for a moment, and when a man at the door saw us he urged us to “Entre!”

We walked into a oddly smelling, fairly small bar, playing Indian music. Directly to our left as we walked in, was a group of men playing dice and we walked to the other end of the bar and took some seats. The bar tender was an older guy, in his 50s or so, but incredibly nice. He didn’t speak any English, but spoke slowly so I could understand him (he actually reminded me a bit of my Dad, looks/personality wise).

We had some beer, and were completely enjoying the bar, it was an amazing find. We still hadn’t really eaten all day, though, so I asked the bartender if there was anything that we could eat. He told me everything was closed, but that a pizza place might be open… And he didn’t just stop there. He figured out what kind of pizza we wanted got the phone and tried to have it delivered to the bar for us. Unfortunately, that pizza place was also closed, but the extent people have been willing to help us since we got here is just astounding!

We had one last round, paid and headed on out. Across from the bar there was a fountain with a sculpture of two horses, so we hung out there for a little bit and then started heading back to the hostel. As we got closer to the hotel we heard a group of French kids behind us, probably about our age. They were talking behind us for awhile, and then at some point they passed by us.

I looked behind us, and saw smaller group of guys talking to each other, the way they were acting gave me a bad feeling. I half jokingly/half seriously said “I think those guys are going to mug us, we should walk faster.” No one really seemed to hear me and when I looked back again one guy seemed to be whispering to another; it was pretty dark right where they were.

I started walking faster so the others would keep pace, and when I turned around Sam was on the ground, clutching the strap of her bag fighting against a group of guys pulling it away. Suddenly we were chasing these guys down the street. Sam and Mike dissapeared behind the guys into some bushes in front of another building, so I called Hayley over to keep from separating all of us. Hayley and I got into the median of the street, which was bright and safe from the dark bushes on the other side.

We called Mike while running back to the hotel (these phones have already been worth their weight in gold) and found out that they were a few streets down, and he was breathing heavily. Hayley and I got back to the hotel, and I asked for the number of the police here. The guy on duty told me to hold on, went and made some food, got a drink came back and slowly flipped through his Rolodex. He then gracefully wrote out “POLICE” and finally wrote down the number… Which I tried many times with no success.

So Hayley and I walked around the block to where we thought Mike and Sam would be… And as we got deeper into this neighborhood things felt less and less safe. Luckily, we saw Mike up ahead with Sam, near a building. Apparently they had chased the muggers until this building, where they saw two guys who were helping them.

They introduced themselves to me as Abraham and Billy (He pronounced it Bee-yay). They were two older, probably Haitian guys, maybe around 25. Abraham was wearing a long white robe outfit, and Billy had a long beard, wearing a colorful skirt type thing. They had two younger friends and seemed genuinely concerned with trying to help us. One of their friends was “homeboys” with the kid who took her bag, and went off to try to find him and figure out where the bag was. Abraham spoke great English, Billy’s was ok. They repeatedly said if one euro was missing they would find it.

Things were still tense though. Sam was crying and we weren’t really sure if we could trust these guys. Was this some trick to get all the rest of our stuff? It was tough to tell. Abraham seemed to know every single person that walked by in the neighborhood, was that good or bad? We gave them our phone numbers, so I was hoping to all get back to the hotel and have them call us if they found it. Sam wanted to stay though, to make sure she got her bag, so we all just waited around there, alert on adrenaline but a bit unsure of things.

Ultimately though, it just didn’t seem plausible for it to all be an act, and if it was, they were dragging it on a long time just to get the rest of our stuff. Abraham got a call saying it was some 14-15 year olds that did it, and when Sam chased after them they got scared so they dumped her bag down a garbage chute.

The group of people helping us grew to around 6, and they were all trying to get the guy who would have a key to the garbage chute. Abraham ended up calling the Police Municipale to open it up. They came, but spoke only French, so the other guys did all the talking. We went into the building, and the cops discovered there was very little they could do without the key. They said they would try to do more tomorrow, took our information and we finally left to go back to the hotel.

It was a huge relief to get back safely, and we all slept deeply, but this morning we had a lot left to deal with. Hayley and Mike went to get food (the first we’d eaten since those sandwiches the day earlier), while Sam and I went to get the names of the streets things happened on the night before and locate the police station (a woman at the hotel told us roughly where it was).

The directions we got lead us to the Police Nationale, and we all went there after eating. It was pretty dead there, but a room we weren’t allowed to go in seemed pretty busy. I roughly explained in French what happened to a woman officer and she had us sit and wait. Another couple there seemed to have had one of their bags stolen, but they didn’t speak English.

We were sitting and waiting for awhile, and saw a bunch of plain-clothes officers leave with a lot of equipment… It seemed like the Police Nationale was more for carrying-out planned out missions than responding to issues like ours, so Mike and Hayley headed towards the Police Municipale building that I’d seen on a map while Sam and I kept waiting.

Eventually an officer came out that spoke some English and he took us into a room to start a police report. We explained to him what happened, and when I told him we ended up on Rue Dumas, he seemed surprised. He was confused as to why we were here if we were backpacking, and I explained we were looking for something cheap. He was trying to tell me something about Epinay sur Seine, and agreed completely when I suggested the word “unsafe”, then adding, “très dangereux.”

So, Sam and I continued the process and finally explained that we think we know where the bag is, we just can’t get to it. We asked if some police would be able to go there and try to open the garbage chute to check. The officer responded that Rue Dumas was too dangerous, and his officers probably wouldn’t want to go.

What?! You’re officers wouldn’t want to go because their scared of a dangerous street in the town they’re supposed to be protecting?! This confirmed our belief that the Police Nationale really did just carry-out planned missions rather than response. We also found out since that Epinay sur Seine has, within the past two years, had several instances were groups from gangs ambushed officers. According to the officer, they got into a large fight on Rue Dumas two days ago.

As I was giving our cell number to the officer, Mike and Hayley found us and had two Police Municipale with them. Apparently they found them on the way to the Municipale station and brought them to the building on Rue Dumas. One of the officers just kicked down the door of the garbage chute (Police Municipale are way cooler than Police Nationale, apparently). Unfortunately, behind that door was another one, that was not possible to open.

So, the Police Municipale are going to try to find the owner of the building when it isn’t a Sunday, and we will go to the Municipale Station tomorrow at Noon, after they are done. Hopefully they survive Rue Dumas.

Anyway, the whole experience has been pretty crazy, and although it is scary and unfortunate… We’re backpacking through Europe and crazy things like this are bound to happen; It’s good to know that we can handle situations like this. Although a few dumb teenagers decided to ruin our trip, many many more people generously lent us a hand when they didn’t need to.

We’re relaxing and playing cards in the room now… I think the Epinay dark is something we will not venture into again. Tonight I am going to try to figure out a good way to put all my pictures up. Tomorrow we’ll either get Sam’s stuff back, or head to the US Embassy in Paris and get her a new passport. Either way, Paris tomorrow! It’s - about - time.

À demain!

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Posted on 08-07-2007
Filed Under (Languages, France, People, Adventure) by admin

Though the beginning of our day was relatively calm, it’s becoming clear that every day will be full of surprises and confusion.

We got packed up and checked out at 11:00 with no snags. We headed over to a Patisserie Mike and I had seen earlier and got some incredible French sandwiches. We ate those and headed to the train station, which was across the street from our hotel.

We were lucky to get seats on a High-Speed train at 3:00, and hung around at a restaurant for a few hours but didn’t actually order anything. At 2:50 we finally boarded, and the ride itself was relatively uneventful.

Arriving in Paris about an hour later, we found a spot in the concourse and started deciphering the directions we had to the hostel we had booked the day before at Starbucks. It’s funny how at first its just gibberish, and things slowly make sense. “So, we take the RER [Subway/Train] B to the RER C to ‘Épinay’, where we should be able to find signs that point to our hostel… Simple!”

Once at the RER, we found that ‘Épinay’ was a tad bit misleading… Which ‘Épinay’ were we going to? Épinay-sous-Sénart, Épinay-sur-Odon, Épinay-sur-Orge, … ? The choices were endless. But, remembering it had to be one on the RER C, we saw that Épinay-sur-Orge fit the bill and made our way there.

The scenery as we went through Paris started bleek, but 30 minutes later it was much improved and we stepped off the double-decker train into an incredible little town with beautiful small houses and a bright energetic atmosphere. We didn’t see any signs for “L’Hotel Balladins”, which is what we were told we would see, so I searched around the town quickly to no avail. We asked people, and people forced their help upon us… We followed signs to ‘Le Centre Ville’, talked to two guys selling ice cream who friendily yelled while making hand-signs, “GAUCHE, GAUCHE, DROITE, TOUT DE SUITE DROITE… NON NON.. GAUCHE, TOUT DE SUITE…”, and it continued.

We ended up, after about an hour and a half from getting in the wonderful Épinay-sur-Orge, on a street corner, sitting on our bags, trying to find directions on our computer’s after locating a wireless network. Needless to say, this saved the day.

Apparently, there is more than one Épinay off the RER C, and we went in the opposite direction we were supposed to. So, after a ton of walking (keep in mind our back-packs really are huge…) in this Épinay, we headed back to the train, back into and across Paris to get to Épinay-sur-Seine.

About 45 minutes later, we find ourselves in a new Épinay, that is seems similar but not quite as nice as the previous. Again, we don’t see signs, but this time people we ask about Hotel Balladins actually have a clue to where it is, so we keep trekking with our huge packs and eventually make it. 

Our room is actually pretty amazing here, and somehow only $20 a night per person. We have 2 rooms and 2 beds, a bathroom with a shower, a kitchen with a stove, a nice TV, a dining room table… We were ecstatic when we entered. We’d been carrying our 50lb packs all day and walking miles in search of a place we were beginning to think didn’t exist, and it turned out to be worth the trouble.

Despite the crazy day we had, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The truth is, this is exactly what I wanted to be doing. So far we’ve seen 3 little towns in France that are nothing like Paris and there, all we did was explore around, get a feel for the people and their lives there. I’ve really been enjoying working-out my French with people and its probably improved tenfold since being here. So, although I would love some days to just relax without a pack and enjoy a drink, I came for adventures like today and I think it’s worth the extra back-pain.

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Posted on 07-07-2007
Filed Under (Strange Food, Languages, France) by admin

Well, we ended up having to go from London to Lille, France and are about to head to Paris now. We were casually hanging around our cheap hotel and realized we may need to check-out soon. I went down and asked “Quelle temps nous devons partir aujourdi?” and found out we had to be out by 11, it was 10:30 at the time.

So, we’re about to head out of this room but I wanted to just post an update quickly. Last night we went to a restaurant/cafe and had huge beers, and I had a “Cake Tomates”… which was interesting.

This morning, Mike and I woke up at 6:00 and checked out Lille in the morning and ate Crepes at a small Brasserie. Lille was actually really nice… A good warm-up for Paris.

A bientot!

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