Posted on 18-07-2007
Filed Under (Great Food, Italy, People) by admin

So, we’d just left Balmer’s. It was 9:20 in the morning, and our train was leaving at 9:30. The walk from Balmer’s to Interlaken West usually took as about 15 minutes. We knew we had to have left earlier, but there was nothing we could do given all the things that had been going on with our hike the previous night.

My watch was ticking closer and closer to 9:30, and Hayley said she knew a shortcut so we quickly down a different street. “Should we start running?”, Hayley asked. “Probably.”, I replied, and started running with my pack on.

A few moments later I heard Hayley say, “Only one of us needs to get there to hold it.”, and I was suddenly running by myself. I just kept going down the street Hayley got us on, but as I reached the end I realized I must have had to turn off somewhere… I was on the opposite side of Migros from the train station, which is probably a bit more than 500 ft from where I expected to be. I kept running towards the station, and as I got there Mike came out through the station to rush me onto the train… Apparently Hayley’s shortcut works if you follow it correctly!

So, we made it just in time, and the trip to Spiez was only about 20 minutes. The next train, from Spiez to Milano was about 3.5 hours, which we much prefer. Long train rides are one of the few times we can really just relax and get some sleep. Unfortunately, although it was a long ride, the train from Spiez to Milano was a bit of an experience itself and I didn’t end up getting any sleep at all on it.

We walked through the train to Wagen 16, noticing that it was a very full train. We were weaving through people with our large bags through 3 train cars, only to find a group of 3 old people in our seats. There was another American couple that was going through a similar issue on seats diagonal from ours. I guess the train is so full and people just sit stop honoring the seat reservations. Ultimately though, Mike asked and they surrendered our seats before the train really got going.

Hayley and Mike fell asleep almost immediately, but it seemed a bit risky for all of us to sleep at the same time on such a full train, so I transfered some pictures onto my laptop and did some work. The seats on the Eurail are setup with 2 seats next to each other, with a table in the middle, and then another 2 seats that face the first two, in fact almost all trains in Europe are setup like this. At a stop, about 30 minutes in, a man got on and sat in the seat diagonal from me; I was sitting in the window seat.

He was dressed casually, but well, wore glasses and had shortly shaven, blondish hair that was balding. I acknowledged his presence with a smile, and he smiled back… Seemed like a nice guy, and I was guessing, to myself, what nationality he was and what languages he would speak.

I was working on a pretty terrible sketch of Mike sleeping when he began snoring lightly. Hayley drifted awake and woke Mike up so he would stop. Soon after he’d fallen back asleep, he, again, started lightly snoring. Hayley didn’t awake this time, so I looked up at Mike, and then the man diagonally from me. He signaled with his hands that the snoring didn’t bother him and I should leave Mike alone. I went back to doing what I was doing, but his snoring progressed until erupting, causing the entire train cabin to break out in laughter (this has actually happened a few times, and gets even the coldest-looking people smiling).

We awoke Mike again, and a few seconds later a man came around to check passports as we entered Italy. The man diaganolly from me spoke to me in English to me as I got my passport back. He noticed that I had one of the new passports, and asked if he could take a look. I showed it to him, and explained the new Radio Frequency ID tag they all have. We exchanged a few words and went back to our own business soon later.

A few minutes later, Hayley asked to switch seats with me so she could rest her head on the window as she slept. We did, and the man became the man across from me. As we waited for customs at the first stop in Italy, we began talking, “It is always a long wait here, like this.”, he started. Apparently he made this trip often…

When we entered the Milan area, he picked up conversation again and started telling me about homes we were passing and the area in general. We began really talking to each other, and he became my tour guide for the remainder of the trip. He explained a lot about Italy to me, and the towns we were passing by. We were passing by lakes, he took out a map to show me where exactly we were and how the lake we were currently passing curled up into Switzerland, where he was from.

Eventually we discussed his background, (he’s a history teacher/humanitarian/researcher working at a Swiss University on a project at the moment), my own background, our trip, and details about where we’ll be and things to do. He told me Florence, though very nice, is very touristy, but if we just cross the river it’s possible to find much more genuine and exceptional food/stores.

We also talked about the pick-pocketing in Italy, and I told him about our mugging in Paris. He replied that crime in Italy has no malicious motivations. To them, it’s more of a test of wit or skill or “a restaurant owner overcharging a confused customer, so he can buy his wife a present.” I’m sure malicious crime exists in Italy, but I think he is probably right on certain levels; they’re looking to get one by you, not hurt you.

Anyway, we talked about a lot of really interesting things, and it was a really unique treat to find someone so helpful and talkative on the ride to Milan. We arrived and parted ways without ever exchanging names.

Mike, Hayley and I saw a train to Firenze (Florence) on the board in the Milan train station and ran to it, because the layover was short. We were on car 12 and started heading down, but suddenly realized that there were clearly only 8 cars! We found a train conductor of some sort, a younger guy, and asked for help. He spoke absolutely no English, but said something about “partitto” when looking at our train. I connected the dots from French’s ‘partir’, and realized he must be saying our train had left. He walked us down the platform to a TV, pointed to the train we were supposed to be on, and showed that it was blinking which signaled its departure.

Somehow, he communicated that it would be ok if we got on his train to Firenze instead, so we got on and started walking through cars. They were all small cabins with 6 seats, and we weren’t really sure what the deal is with them. We walked back near the door where the conductor was, so he could at least vouge for us, and figured we’d just stand. He hopped on just before the train started movie and urged, “Prego, prego!”, pointing toward the seats. Again, a time when someone really seemed to care about us. He didn’t want us to be stranded in Milan, he wanted us to get where we were going… And he didn’t want us to have to stand up, even though we hadn’t paid for seats.

We found seats in a cabin with 2 other people, a quintessential Italian man and a firey red-head talking on her phone in Italian. The ride was relatively uneventful. A woman came around to check for tickets and we showed her the Europass and tried to explain what happened. She said something in Italian and moved on. The red-head then told us, in Italian-accented English, that the the woman had said, “You’re on the wrong train, but its ok.”

We arrived in Florence at the end of the afternoon and found our way to 8 Via Bolognese (Pronounced Bowl-own-ay-zee), where our hostel, Dany House, was. We met an older italian man, wearing a silk button down shirt, with the first 3 or 4 buttons undone who gave us big smiles and welcomed us in. He had a large aparment in a building that had separate rooms, each with a shower right in the room, and a toilet behind a wall that was definitely built after the fact. It was actually quite a nice room, though. He came in about 5 minutes later and brought us some cold red wine that he makes. It was excellent, but some sort of Italian moonshine-wine, because it was incredibly strong. Finally, he suggested a restaurant nearby so we headed out to eat.

The man across from me on the train was right though; this side of the river was very touristy and we found ourselves in a restaurant that made delicious food but had waiters that said “Yeah, sure.”, without even an Italian accent. It was a nice meal, but felt wrong.

We were about a 10 minute walk from the Duomo and the heart of Florence and decided to check it out at night, before calling it a night. We got our first Gelatti, amazing, of course, and got to see some of the major sites without the crowds and heat.

The next day, we headed back towards the Duomo to see it all again in the light. It was just as magnificient. Hayley mentioned that it is all very similar to famous structures like Notre Dame, but these are so colorful… The buildings are amazing and uniquely beautiful to see. We checked out a Da Vinci museum we’d seen on our walk back at night, and got to play with some recreations of his inventions. I’ve always loved Thomas Edison, but more and more I feel my general mindset connects much more with Da Vinci.

We began heading towards the river to cross to the other side of Florence and heard applause as we approached a covered sidewalk. Through the arched entrance, we heard a woman opera singer performing with a man playing an accordian. The accordian player, I noticed, was wearing bright, baby blue converse shoes that somehow caught my eye. Both of them were incredible, and we started leaving after the first song, but couldn’t resist and went back to listen to another. I’ve been loving the little unexpected treats like this along the trip, this one just costing me the few Euro I tipped them with.

Across the river, we took some pictures, checked out some great little shops and found a little tucked-away pizzeria to eat at. The waiter and waitress didn’t even understand English…perfect. We ate delicious pizza, trying 3 different kinds and splitting them. I don’t know why, but something about the meal just felt like a perfect moment to me. The food was good, the people were genuine and welcoming, the conversation was relaxing… It was a great time.

We saw some more sites in Florence, and then stumbled onto a real mime. He was dressed in forest green pants, a torn shirt and had his face painted black and white. He found a little area where three streets connected, and as unexpected tourists walked through, he would mimic or trick them. If someone had pronounced body movements or behaviors, such as talking on a cellphone, or super-confidently, he would get just an inch behind them, without them noticing and mimic their exact body movements. Eventually he would get his face so close, they would see him out of the corner of their eye and scream or laugh.

Even better, if a couple was walking hand-in-hand, he would sneak up and slip his own hand in replacing either the man or the womans. He hung back, still holding hands with the boyfriend until the unsuspecting guy would look over and scream, seeing his girlfriend turned into some monstrosity! The street performances in Florence were amazing. This guy had us and hundreds more entertained for a very long time.

We’d spent the entire day in Florence enjoying the atmosphere, and started heading back around 5. On the way we got a caricature of the three of us together, which was incredibly done. We found a Wash & Dry on the way back, and stopped at Dany House only quickly to get our clothes. As we neared the door, we heard incredible piano playing coming from the living room area of the apartment. The door was partly closed, so we just went to our room and enjoyed the music. We were getting incredible performances all day! When the song was over, we clapped and the older-man owner came over to our room, surprised that someone had come into the apartment. “Molte Bene!”, we cheered. He played another song as we got our things together and headed out to to laundry.

While the clothes were going, Mike & I ventured off to get internet, where we found the place I used for my last post. This wouldn’t be worth writing about, except as I was sitting there, tapping away, I looked as a woman entered that I strangely recognized. She was with a man, and I suddenly realized she looked just like the opera singer we’d seen earlier that day. I looked down at the man’s shoes, and sure enough, the same bright, baby blue converse sneakers! Somehow, the opera performing couple we’d seen earlier had ended up at the computer next to mine in some random internet cafe in Florence. They left quickly, but we had just enough time to show them the CD of them that Mike had bought. She gave us a victorious smile, happy that someone had recognized them in public, and they yelled ‘Ciao!’ to us as the headed out the door.

We really wanted to go to the Tuscany area where we could do some wine tasting in Chianti. A younger, English speaking woman worked at Dany House in the morning, who helped us navigate our days and made us breakfast. The first morning in Florence, she suggested a bike tour of Chianti that people always really liked, so on the morning of our second day, we thought it might be something worth doing. Unfortunately, it left from the other side of Florence, on the North side of the Ponte Vespucci Bridge, and there was no way we could make it there in time. We were originally going to do wine tasting, then Pisa the next day, but decided to switch it up.

So, we spent the morning using the Dany House computer to research and book our ferries and hostels through Greece and then went to the station to reserve our tickets to Napoli (Naples) for late the next day. We also got tickets to Pisa for a day trip to see the leaning tower. It was actually much more beautiful than its given credit for. It’s made with a yellowish-ivory colored stone, and I never really noticed or appreciated the large number of arcs and columns circling the outside on every story. Seeing the tower in person also makes the leaning aspect much more real and incredibly strange.

We spent awhile looking at it, and watching people do the typical “holding up the tower” pose for pictures. Finally, we attempted it ourselves. I really wanted, and tried for a long time, to get a picture of me holding it on my big, or with my feet and hands, instead of just the standard pose… But it was difficult to get a good one. People enjoyed watching me try to balance and hop around on one foot with my hands up in the air, though.

As the sun set, we headed to a small restaurant that Mike’s book suggest called “Il Pailo”. We got a big table right infront of their large open door and had one of the best meals yet, for very cheap. The food was, really, the absolute best Italian food I’ve ever had. The started with Bruschetta, then shared Rissotto alla Raculo (Like spinich, we discovered) and the meal they told us they are none for, Beef with Raddichio (Translated as ‘Rocket Salad’, but was like cabbage). The beef was perfectly cooked strips of meat stacked and covered in an incredible sauce, covered in this Raddichio. I had their Rossa, Red, beer which was also very good. Another perfect moment, I would say.

We just made the last train from Pisa back to Florence, and were wiped out by the time we walked back to the hostel. We seriously walk miles and miles a day, everyday. Our performance is showing improvement too… After completing our first week we decided we could evaluate what we had actually used from what we brought, and ship what we really haven’t needed back to the states; it was worth getting it off our backs and minds. So, this morning we rushed to the UPS Store when it opened, at 9 am, and had to make it across Florence by 10 am, to catch the van to go on the biking tour.

Things were moving slowly at the UPS Store, and my watch ticked past 9:35 as we left. We either had to figure out a bus to take and hope it would get us there by 10, or just walk across Florence in 25 minutes. We decided we trusted our feet more, and walked as fast as we could. We had already checked out, so we had our full-packs on. I was already getting used to it, though, and now dropping some weight, it feels like nothing. Somehow, we got across the bridge to the van with 5 minutes to spare. A week ago, that would have been an absurdly long walk, but we finished it today ready for a bike ride through Tuscany.

We met our tour/bike guide Nicole, who was American, from Pittsburgh and at first she didn’t seem especially talkative or welcoming. We met another kid, about to be a freshman in college, and a group of 2 adult couples, who would be biking with us. We started by biking to a Vineyard in Chianti, where we got a tour of the facilities. They made red wine and olive oil. We got to have a tasting of different varieties of both after the tour, and it was all a delicious breakfast for Hayley, Mike and myself.

We then biked towards an area where we would be eating lunch, which was included with the tour. The meal was a full meal, with an entree, then salad, then dessert and coffee. It was excellent; I had cheese and spinach ravioli and a chocolate covered piece of Italian ice cream cake. I also tried some Italian Cappuccino, which was very good. During the meal, we started really talking to Nicole and sharing stories of our travels. She was actually really friendly once we started talking, and it was a lot of fun. The older group of 2 couples appeared to be pretty intensely into biking, and were seemingly upset that the meal took so long, when they just wanted to ride.

No one really liked them, they rushed us all through the course and made it difficult to really look and appreciate the scenary. They were probably the best biker’s out of the group, but I stayed with them throughout the 23 km ride, and it felt great to hear one of the women in particular get upset as I passed her.

In reality, that really didn’t keep me from enjoying Tuscany. It was absolutely amazing. Acres and acres of vineyards and farms lined the streets on both sides. Off in the distance were mountains, fading out towards the horizon. Cars zipped past us adding some excitement to the ride, but they were attentive to cyclists and it was never especially dangerous. The terrain was very hilly, which made for a really nice bike ride. There were fairly challenging stretches, and then spans where we could just coast downhill, admiring the landscape. A couple downhills were shaded by trees on both sides, arching over the curving road; it was something else.

The group of adults had driven their own rental car to the spot we started, so Nicole drove just the three of us and the kid we’d met back to Florence. Nicole admitted on the way back how annoying the older group was and we all reminisced on the ridiculous things they said, providing for an entertaining ride back. It was sad to say our goodbyes to her as we got our bags back together on the Ponte Vespucci bridge, but we had a train to catch so we head towards the station as fast as we could.

No need, though… It turned out our train was pretty late and Mike found out, from a man at the desk that we could take a direct train not much later that would get us in quicker than waiting to catch our now late train. We hung out on the ground in the station for awhile, and I’m writing on my computer as we’re about to pull into Naples. We should have internet at our next residence, so hopefully posting this will be a breeze.

And that’s Florence! Sorry this was so damn long, but I wanted to get all of Florence done so I’d be prepared for Naples. We’re actually staying outside of Naples, which is supposedly a pretty bad city, and are just using it to get to Capri and Pompei the next two days. They’re both supposed to be great places to visit, so hopefully something unique and terrible will happen that will be interesting to write about.


p.s.: for Lina & Sami, I usually write my posts on the train, sometime late at night or early morning… Sometimes I start it and finish later… Just whenever I find a moment to write, I work a bit on it.

(3) Comments   
Posted on 15-07-2007
Filed Under (Switzerland, Elation, Disaster, Adventure) by admin

Getting internet in Europe, apparently, is not as easy as we had originally discovered. The last time we easily found internet was in Epinaye, which doesnt say much for the rest of the continent. The last post I made was from the ground in front of Migros shopping plaza, tonight, I am in “FIRENZE: Internet Point”, a little Internet Cafe in Florence.

I’d love to write all about Florence and catch everyone up, but I feel it would be best if I finish off Interlaken, and then do all catch up on Florence tomorrow. So, here goes.

It seemed like it would be difficult to beat skydiving; the day after looked to be a relatively uneventful day, and I guess for the most part it was. We woke up a little hung-over from the the night before (celebrating after a good jump!) and didn’t really feel like doing anything too intense. We hung around Balmer’s for a bit, picked up the Skydiving DVDs from the Xtreme Desk and headed out to grab food.

We’ve begun the simplification of our lives; we now do our best to have one decent meal of typical food for the area we’re in, but then shop out of grocery stores. For example on that day, we picked up a baguette, some turkey from the deli and Camambert cheese. This lasted us for 2 meals, and came out to something like 3 Euro a person. Things are really expensive, so we’re doing our best to trim down on extras.

After that, we hung around outside Migros, the shopping mall that had the grocery store, and found internet access. I updated the site, checked email, and took pictures of people going by. We were feeling a bit bad for being so lazy and were interested in doing some of the great hikes we heard people talking about, so we headed back to Balmer’s and Mike began looking through his books for a good trail.

He found one that was one of the “more popular, but slightly steeper” trails. We considered a few others, but that trail, which was supposed to take about 4 hours, seemed like the best option. Interlaken is split into its East and West, and has an Ost and West (Pronounced Vest, since its part of the German-speaking Switzerland) train station. Our hotel is on the West side, so we took the train to Interlaken Ost. The trail would then lead us back to Interlaken West, towards our hostel.

Judging time here is really difficult because it stays so light until so late. It was probably about 8:30 pm when we started our hike, but the sun was still high in the sky; it felt like 3 or 4 pm. So, a 4 hour hike seemed like a completely feasible idea.

We crossed the river that passes through Interlaken, and eventually found the start of our trail. It was amazing. We would hike over all sorts of terrain, and the switchback path kept things interesting. We would criss-cross up the mountain, passing by large trees, beautiful flowers and rest points that overlooked Interlaken. We crossed bridges that looked unsafe (but seemed to be once we were on them…), and areas where water would flow down the mountain, creating a small brook through the path.

Once again, my watch was actually incredibly useful! We started the hike at about 1600 feet, and steadily watch ourselves rise. At about 2300 ft., we were going up a fairly steep hill when we saw a car barreling down the rescue path. It had been awhile since we saw any other form of life, so it was a bit reassuring to know other people existed. We yelled hello as the car passed, and although it was a few hundred feet, he seemed to have heard us and stopped. We waved, he yelled “Ahoy!”, and drove away.

As the started sun set though, I started wondering if he stopped so quickly because he thought we were either crazy for hiking so late, or lost and asking for help. The sunset was beautiful, but we slowly started to comprehend that sunset meant darkness, and, expecting a short hike, we just brought our small packs. I think we all silently realized that things were getting iffy, but kept going with the hike as the sky turned pink.

Back in time, for just a moment, the three of us were at Interlaken West train station. We’ve been seeing this water spouts all over Switzerland and contemplating whether or not we can drink them. Finally, I decided to ask at the train station. The woman I asked didn’t understand, but apparently a man online did, because he came to me outside where we were sitting and said “Water, ok drink.”

On the train we were discussing this Swiss water, when a woman overheard. She began telling us that the water from those spouts is Swiss water, almost directly from the mountains, and it’s purer than any bottled water. She said, with great pride, that they actively maintain that water to be as pure as possible from the tap.

We continued speaking with her, and she began telling us that the next 4 days are the best in Interlaken to go hiking and camping. She said that there were literally only 4 days every Summer where it would be warm all night and without rain, and these were them. So, I think it was at this point where I sub-consciously thought… “Screw Balmer’s, let’s sleep on an Interlaken mountain!”

Back on the mountain, as the shades of pink where hugging the horizon more tightly and the sky began turning dark blue, Hayley was beginning to want to start heading back the way we came. Mike and I wanted to push on, though. And convinced here we’d be able to get to the top soon… We were at just about 3200 ft, and the summit of the highest mountains in Interlaken were all around 4000, so we had to be getting close.

Of course, I think we all knew we couldn’t make it in time. The truth was though, we would have had to turn around long ago if we wanted to make it to the bottom before we were walking through pitch black. The only real option was to find a nice spot to camp out for the night. .. And that spot came as we followed a wooden railing slightly off the trail to a looking point at about 3500 ft.

It was perfect. We had a little roof with benches on three sides, we were surrounded by rocks on three sides, and from the North and East, there were cliffs, so we were fairly protected from roaming animals. In front of us, North, was all of Interlaken… It was spectacular. We began identifying everything in Interlaken we knew, and had created a pretty accurate composite of everything we knew by the end of the night… “No no, THAT must be Centralstrasse, see how it curves around those green lights that are the train station lights?”…”Those aren’t green lights!”

There was another interesting light spectacle that night, which happened only about half an hour after we arrived at our camping-site and the sun had completely set. Staring into Interlaken, we noticed a dot moving quickly across the mountain across from us, on the other side of Interlaken. Suddenly, it started hissing and fireworks sprayed out! It would stop shooting fireworks, move around somewhere else and two minutes later, more fireworks! We realized it was a helicopter, and for about half an hour it would just fly around for a few minutes, shoot off some fireworks from both sides, and fly somewhere else to do the same thing. It was an amazing site, that I’m sure we would have completely missed were we not camped out on a mountain.

I maintained pretty high spirits the whole time… It was really exciting to be outside at night, and see Interlaken in such a unique way. But, it was getting pretty cold and we were not prepared for camping out like this. We hit a water spout halfway through the mountain, so we had plenty of water, and we bought a baguette of bread just before heading up on the trail, so we were well fed, but a flashlight and blanket would have been priceless.

We we arranged the huge wooden benches into a large bed and shivered together talking and complaining most of the night… At some point we realized my computer had a full battery in it, so I took it out and we started watching a movie. We’d been hearing wind moving leaves and animals scurrying around all night, but it seemed that the noises increased a great deal after the computer was on. We were afraid we were attracting animals, so we turned it off, and just enjoyed the lights some more.

Soon after the laptop was on, though, I thought I’d heard the more distinct noise of just two legs stepping through the leaves coming from our East. About 15 minutes later from behind us, and then again from our West, where the only entrance from to our spot was. I was a bit afraid we had attracted more than just a small animal, but maybe a person that realized some camping-newbies had some sweet electronics with them.

I think I was partly just hypersensitive to such noises and situations after all that had happened, the darkness and the situation we were in, but I just pictured a guy waiting for us to hit the hay, and the pluck us of our valuables. Luckily, Mike and I don’t sleep much anymore, we were up pretty much all night and nothing came of that. Too bad, robbed us of a good story!

I’d enjoyed the night, but by about 4:30, it was incredibly cold, and I was in a short sleeve shirt, shorts and sandals… It was hot when we started! Shivering, we made our way back onto the path with my laptop as a flashlight and found a point that seemed like it would be great for watching the sunrise. We parked there, and enjoyed the show before moving to one more spot and viewing it from a slightly higher angle. It was incredible.

It may have been a lot of work, but we got a lot more out of this hike than we expected. Unfortunately though, our hopes of crossing Interlaken from East to West were shattered, when we saw that the our trail was closed at the summit and seems to have been for awhile. It was too bad, but we made it to just over 4000 feet, and survived an incredible hike and camp-out.

We made it back down the same way we came, but it all seemed a bit different anyway, approaching it from a different angle. In other words, I was in awe on the way back down too. We saw some people going up as we went down, and they seemed confused as to why we were heading down so early in the morning. We, nevertheless, exchanged polite ‘Good mornings’ and continued on our way.

At some point on the way down I slammed my foot into a rock and got a cut on my toe that bled pretty relentlessly all day. I know, I know… Why was I wearing sandals on a hike… blah blah. Really, I’ve found my feet to be so much more comfortable in my sandals than in my shoes, even for long trecks with my back-pack. This was something of a test, to see if my sandals would hold up in the toughest of conditions. And, I think they did. My feet felt great the whole trip, and I’m sure would have been hurting much more if I was in normal shoes. Either way, I realized today in Florence that I left my sneakers in Balmer’s, so I’m going to have to justify their loss by saying I realized I didn’t need them anymore.

Anyway, Hayley, Mike and I happily took our step back to 1600 ft at around 7:15 and it felt great to have overcome that night. We rushed back to Balmer’s, got breakfast, a very, very needed shower, quickly packed up our stuff and had to sprint with our full-packs on to just make our train to Spiez, where we would then take a train to Milano, where we would then miss our train but graciously be allowed on a more local train to finally make it to Firenze…

But that’s all for tomorrow… Ciao!

(4) Comments   

Hello again from Interlocken… Or Interloken, as I see it spelled here. Mike and I are, at the moment, sitting in front of a Migros shopping mall, on the ground, plugged into an outdoor electricity socket, leeching WiFi internet from someone’s router. Perhaps a strange site, but Interloken is truly a backpacker’s town.

It also happens to be the extreme sports center of the world. Everywhere you look there are advertisements for canyoning, bungy jumping, ice climbing, zorbing, hang-gliding…and Sky diving. Hayley, Mike and I had been fantasizing for a long time about going Sky Diving in Interloken, but all had some feeling that it was one of those things that just didn’t work out.

But yesterday, the first thing we did after checking into Balmer’s Hostel was go to the Extreme Sports desk and book a trip with Scenic!Air to jump 11,000 feet over Interloken through the Alps. At this point, I found that I was, surprisingly, more excited and less scared… We did the whole process pretty quickly, without really processing what we were getting ourselves into.

We had about 3 hours to hang around Interloken before we would go, but that went quickly and we soon found ourselves in the van which took us for a beautiful drive through the mountains of Interloken, and to a small airfield. In front of us there was only a runway, a hangar, and a big garage full of jumpsuits, harnesses and adrenaline junkies.

The guys and girls at Scenic Air were awesome; they were funny and kept the mood light. We’d already signed our life away at the hostel, so all we had to do was get in jumpsuits and take a 30 second crash-course on how to position our body while in the air. There were 3 simple steps… In the plane, we lean our head back and grab the harness, for the first few seconds we keep our hands holding the harness, we get a tap and then we get let our hands go and enjoy the ride… We were on the second plane, so I found myself racking my brain, going through the steps hundreds of times while we waited.

Even so, I was still less nervous than I’d thought I would be. Sure, my heart was pounding a bit more than usual, I was thinking about what the moment would be like. But I was really just so excited… Something about the incredible Swiss scenery made it a lot easier to deal with (Besides, if my sister can do it, there’s no way I should be worrying).

I met my tandem jumper, Hans, who was actually the guy who gave the 30 second instruction and seemed to be of high-rank in someway, so I was “In good hands with Hans.” Hayley, Mike & I, with our tandem jumpers and camera crew, started a short walk across the airfield to the blue plane idling on the runway. Hayley had said she wanted to go first, but as we started filing in, Hans said to me, “Last on, first off… Make sense?”

Suddenly I got a little nervous, but convinced myself I wanted to be the first one out, and we hopped in the plane. The space we were in was tiny. I always pictured a pretty large area where we could all comfortably sit and tap our feet nervously, but there was just enough room for the people we had, and our legs were all sort of interwined; I wondered how we’d all maneuver to get out.

Since I was the last one in, I was right at the sliding door of the airplane. The tarmac was 2 feet from me, with the door open as the plane started taxiing away. Hans allowed me about 45 seconds to nervously wonder if we’d be taking off and flying around with the door open the whole time, before closing it as we took off.

The scenery was spectacular. Interloken is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and we were flying through it in a tiny airplane, with an absurdly good view. Seeing the town from this perspective, I finally truly understood the name Inter-loken… It was a city clearly Inbetween (Inter) two incredibly blue-colored Lakes (Loken).

I recently received a very nice watch as a gift from my Aunt & Uncle that has an altimeter built in… For the first time, I really got a chance to use it. Paying a bit more for the camera man was also like paying a little more for a best-friend up there, and they kept us sane as I saw my watch slowly creep over 6,000 feet.

“How ya feeling?” Hans asked, in his awesome Swiss accent. “I’m doing ok… How are you doing?” I wondered, making sure the guy in charge of my life was in peak condition.

“Eh, I’m feeling a bit sick.” He joked.

We had about 15 minutes in the air to go sight seeing, but the higher I saw us getting the less I cared about the mountains. 0 to 6000 feet took about 10 minutes, so when I looked at my watch and suddenly saw us at over 10,000 feet, it hit me that this is it.

Hans started tightening me in, we attached our shoulders and torsos together, and he gave me the last few instructions. My watch hit 11,000, and seconds later Hans slid the door open.

The rush from the air through the door was incredible, we were going so fast. But there was no time to be scared, no time to back out. My camera man climbed over me and out the door, hanging on the wing support. Hans and I twisted our bodies onto the doorstep, and VOOSH, he pushed us out.

If words could describe how it felt, it wouldn’t be so expensive… But I guess its worth a shot. All the fears drop away, air is pushing your face and body so hard, but it feels great… The noise of falling 125 mph is loud, much louder than I thought. I was screaming, but I could hardly hear it.

As Hayley put it, “The Earth below looked like a toy train-set.” Jumping through the Alps was also probably the best possible way to do it (A sky-cameraman originally from Munich that we were talking to for awhile actually said Interloken is in his top 3 places to jump). The clouds and mountains were beautiful as we plummeted from above them to below them, but to be honest that wasn’t really what was on my mind at this point.

Hans spun me around, we played with the cameraman, screamed, made faces, and then I felt a tap, and VOOSH again, the parachute opened up and it was a completely new sensation.

Now it was just Hans and me, I felt completely safe with him. He loosened my harness a little so I could be more comfortable, and took off my goggles. We were still quite high, and the trip down lasts about 7 minutes, so we talked and had some fun.

The control they have over the chutes is amazing. He did some maneuvers through the air that gave me as intense a feeling as when we were falling. There’s something about seeing the parachute in front of me, when I feel like it should be above me, that really gets me screaming “WOOO. YEEEEAHH.”

Hanging there, Hans asked me what I thought, “Freaking incredible”, I replied (Though I wasn’t so clean-spoken at the time). “It’s the shit, eh?” He replied.

It was the shit.

We did a few sharp turns, and Hans asked me to put my head down so he could see, making sure not to drop us into the river below us… Not a bad idea, I thought. We swooped down towards the grass of the airfield at what seemed like far too fast a speed, but with a tug of the lines just as we were about to the ground, we slowed down, seemed to hang a bit in the air, and glided onto the grass.

We were all euphoric… We still are all euphoric. We’ve decided to just come back home now, because we cannot top that, ever. We hung around with the skydivers and watched the other groups go, enviously. The skydivers told us that once you’re licensed and have your gear, it costs about $25 a jump, so Hayley, Mike & I made a pact to do it and go skydiving around the world (kind of like a pact we made to go backpacking through Europe?).

Since, I’ve relived the experience in my mind many times, and they played clips from mine and Mike’s jump in the Metrobar, at Balmer’s, where we hung out at night after enjoying a cheap fondue dinner.

Interloken is incredible. We will definitely be back here sometime in our lives, hopefully with loads of cash to spend on every extreme sport possible.

Pictures and video are on the way, but the only thing Interloken is missing is good internet, so that may have to wait until we leave.

-An elated Nicky

(7) Comments   
Posted on 11-07-2007
Filed Under (Site Message) by admin

To all those that have been reading and commenting!

I’ve heard from some people that pictures on the right aren’t loading; for some reason if you use any browser besides Firefox for Windows, you need to click on the “Comments” link below any post in order for the pictures to show up.

I’m working on a few other things right now for the site, but as soon as I’m done, I’ll fix that. If you’re still having trouble, you can view the pictures directly from here

(1) Comment   
Posted on 11-07-2007
Filed Under (Switzerland) by admin

Last night was a loooong night, but since then, things have much improved. I stayed awake most of the night watching over our things, everyone else around fell asleep, entrusting their belongings upon me. Things went smoothly, though, and I took a nap at around 3:30 am. The mall had been freezing all night, but as the doors were opened more and more frequently, it got colder and colder… And by the time I woke up I was glad I’d been carrying that fleece sleeping bag with me the entire time.

A train to Bern, where we would then connect to Interlocken, was leaving at around 5 am. We were weighing the options of either seeing a little of Geneva or just getting right to Interlocken. It ended up being a pretty quick decision…We were cold, tired and sick of Geneva, so we decided to hop on the 4:56 train to Bern and happily waved good-bye to Geneva.

We all were dozing in and out of sleep for both train rides. On the way to Bern we spoke briefly to a woman getting off there too, and she luckily alerted us when we arrived. The scenary I saw, in between dreams, on the train ride was amazing… So once again, I was really hoping that would be somewhat reflected in Interlocken itself.

This time, we were luckier than last. Interlocken was perfect. The air just feels more crisp and refreshing here. There was a huge board of hostels and hotels near the train station. Each had an identification number that could be dialed in below, which would light up, on a map, where its location was. The number could also be used to make a free call to the hostel and check for availability. After many attempts, we ended up finding a room for three at a hostel called “Heidi’s House.”

It’s a 5 minute walk from the train station, and amazing. As we walked in the door, Heidi herself, an cute old swiss woman, was misunderstanding what some visitors were saying as they tried to extend their stay. She identified us as the ones that needed a three person room, and told us she would give us the bigger one.

The key we got was one of those classic, old style, big metal keys and we walked through what looked and smelled like a slightly large but typical grandma’s house. Our room, though the bigger one, consists of a large 2 person bed, a bunk bed and about 1 ft. of moving space. It’s perfect. There is a sink right in the room, and a bathroom with a door that doesn’t really close…While I was taking shower #2 of this trip, Hayley’s blow-drier blew the fuse, so I finished my shower in pitch black, knocking over as much as possible.

We have internet here, so I fixed some things on the site and did some work while Hayley & Mike got some sleep. We then asked Heidi for some suggestions for dinner, and made our way to the Golden Anker. We were hoping for some Fondue, but they didn’t have any there… Instead, we all got the special of the day, which came with soup, an entree and desert. The soup was Karrotencreme… Carrot & Cream… and very good. The entree was an artfully crafted plate of moist chicken, salad, corn, peppers and other vegetables. The waiter and waitress were both helpful, and kept asking if we liked the food… We did.

During dinner we started planning out our next 5 days and how we would get to Florence. Anytime we can travel at night instead of get a hostel, it makes sense, so we can sleep on the train and cut a night of lodging out from our spending. We’re actually planning to travel backwards with our Eurail passes, so we can take an over-night train to Florence from Basle.

Tomorrow we’ll be staying in Balmer’s, a hostel aimed for backpacker’s our age. It is a dorm-style hostel, though, so Mike & I walked over to see what it was like, and if where we’d be able to leave our packs and things. There was a security guard outside, so it was definitely designed with safety in mind. He let us in, and there were a lot of kids our age hanging out. Balmer’s has their own bar and similar facilities, so it seems like it will be a good time for the next two nights we stay in Interlocken.

We’re now sitting in a communal kitchen at Heidi’s, tapping away on our laptops. There were recently some Japanese girls in here making some food and talking, and we met a girl from California who is leaving Interlocken tomorrow to see France, but has been hiking and seeing things here for the past few days.

Interlocken is really perfect. It is exactly what we’ve all been wanting and needing after being in so many bustling cities. We’re surrounded by the Alps, and the smell of fondue is everywhere.

There’s really no exciting conclusion to today! Things are going well, finally, so maybe we’ve gotten over the peak of absurd adventures… I sure hope not. :)

(0) Comments   
Posted on 10-07-2007
Filed Under (Switzerland, Disaster, People, Adventure) by admin

Well, I am writing this sitting on the cold marble floor of an underground metro-shopping mall in Geneva at 1:30 am… But we’ll get to that in just a bit.

I haven’t really mentioned it, but Sam had been pretty down about this whole thing since the mugging, and has been wanting to go home pretty badly. Finally, even though she got back her bag, she decided to go back to the US.

We got her flight booked last night and, this morning, went with her to the subway that would take her to the airport. It was sad to see her go, but it was definitely what she wanted…

And then there were three.

So, Mike, Hayley and I have been trying to figure out where we’d go next. Geneva was next on our original itinerary, but we decided to try to get to Interlocken first.

We had some time to spare, though, before heading out so we decided to do a quick run through some of the sites in Paris. We checked out Notre Dame, then did what I realllly came to Paris for…

We had a delicious meal at Le Relais de L’Entrecote… My favorite restaurant in the world. I was a bit nervous about going there though; it is a fairly fancy restaurant and we were dirty, in old clothes and carrying huge packs… I really just expected to be shunned away.

But, we walked in, I asked if we could have a table for three in French, and they gladly seated us. Not only that, but they found us a spot to put our packs out of the way and a group of waitresses came over and tried to lift them up and joked around with us.

I’ve said it a few times already, but the extent that people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly here is astounding… Especially in a place like Paris that is stereo-typed to be snobby and anti-american.

Anyway, at L’Entrecote, there is no menu. You sit down, and they immediately bring you their salad to start, which has walnuts and a delicious dressing. Then, they bring a plate of their famous steak & french fries, with their secret sauce. The best part is that, soon after you’re done with you’re first serving, they bring around another serving and you can start all over!

So, the food was incredible as usual, we had wine and our waitress was a cute French girl… Life in France was finally going well. We gave her a good tip, and as we were leaving she stuck her head outside the door to thank us.

We were taking our train to Switzerland from Gare de Lyon, so the Louvre was on the way. It started drizzling on the way, but it felt good. Once there, we had to keep it quick, so we just took some pictures of the outside, hung out a bit and then continued on to the RER.

We walked for quite awhile aiming for a particular subway entrance on the map. When we finally got there, we mysteriously found no way to buy tickets. It was one of those moments that’s just like, “Whhhhat is going onnn?”

Eventually we saw a sign that said it was an entrance only for ticket holders, and that there was a ticketing station a few blocks more, so we had to continue on a little longer. We got to Gare de Lyon soon after that, at around 2:00 pm, and had to reserve tickets from Paris to Bern, and then from Bern to Interlocken.

Of course though, after speaking to a woman at the ticketing counter, we found out that all the seats on trains to Interlocken were booked until 7:00 am the next morning. We were weighing our options, and found that we could get on a train to Geneva that afternoon, so we decided to just do that.

Sitting on the ground by the ticketing area, waiting for our train, a little, 3 year old Indian boy ran over to us laughing and screaming and sat next to us. He had apparently also came over and sat on Mike’s lap while I was away getting food. He was so funny, and his 14 year old friend would come over and apologize.

This happened many times, and the 14 year old boy knew English pretty well, so we started talking with him, and playing with the 3 year old who had now brought over one of his toy cars. It was fun to talk to them in French casually, instead of in a situation where I was actually trying to accomplish something. At some point I asked how to say some word that he wasn’t sure of, so he asked his mother over, who was an English teacher in Marseille.

We spoke to her for awhile about our trip before leaving the three of them to hop on our train to Geneva. It was a really nice way to close out our experience in Paris.

The train ride was beautiful, so we were looking forward to moving out of big cities and into something a bit different. This turned out to not be at all what we got.

So far, Geneva has been by far my least favorite destination. At least in Epinaye sur Seine interesting things were going on! As soon as we got to Geneva we began looking for a place to put down our bags and relax. We knew Geneva wasn’t the most easy place to find a hostel, but figured just going to a hostel, instead of booking one online, proved to be better in the case of the guys we’d met on the way to Paris.

We walked about a mile or two to a hostel we heard was good, and found out it was completely full. So, we went to another one that was in one of Hayley’s books, but it was also full. So, we checked out a hotel that was down the street, but it was also full… So, we checked out another hotel we saw down the street some more, but it was also full…

After checking 15-20 hotels, ranging from hostels, to small hotels on backroads to large 4 star hotels, we decided it was totally hopeless… There was no where in Geneva for us to stay. Literally, no where. It was a truly surreal feeling to be searching for a place to sleep for an hour and a half, going door to door and finding absolutely nothing, no one willing to help. We were homeless.

We went back to the train station we came into and found lockers we could leave our bags. I’ve been finding my pack surprisingly comfortable to carry around considering its about 50 lbs, but no matter how comfortable it is, getting it stored away somewhere else safely being free from its straps feels incredible.

Now less weighed-down, we went back into Geneva to find something to do. We went to a bar/restaurant to eat our second meal of the day, and waited around for awhile, until I asked a waiter if we could sit down and eat. The general thoughtfulness of people between Paris and Geneva was incredible. Here, few people really seem to care at all about each other, let alone us.

When we first left the train station, we’d seen a waiting room with some chairs, the only ones in the entire train station, so we headed there. It was really difficult to find the room, so it was a relief when we finally did. About 3 minutes after I got my computer out, a Swiss police officer came into the room and told us and a few others that the train station was closing until 4:00 am, so we all had to leave.


We asked him if there was anywhere we could go, and he seemed to understand we were planning on staying in that room for the night. He asked us where we were going, and we told him Interlocken, since we wanted to get there as soon as possible. He told us there was a train there at 4:26 am, and that it would be safe for us to stay on the floor in the shopping mall below the train station until then, as long as we stayed away from corners.

We were the first in our little spot here, but since 3 others have joined us, so maybe we’ll just get a few beds and start our own hostel here… Geneva obviously needs it.

Anyway, I’ve been incredibly positive this entire trip, and I really still am… We came to figure out what parts of Europe we like and which ones we don’t like… I can safely say, I do not like Geneva at all. The people are cold and the city primarily comprised of hotels that are all full.

The trip so far seems to be filled with mistakes and challenges and lessons learned… There is definitely a secret to planning ahead so we get the train we need, and a good cheap hostel that is safely and centrally located… We’re still working hard on figuring out what exactly that is.

Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve added, by request, some of the pictures I’ve taken. Select the city/place on the left, and then click through the pictures. Clicking the thumbnail will pop up an enlarged image. Right now, you can only click through big images 8 at a time, but I’m working on changing that and some other things.

Sorry for such a long post, but I have nothing else to do and it’s nice to write about something besides muggings and police officers.


(2) Comments   
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…


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!

(3) Comments   
Posted on 08-07-2007
Filed Under (Disaster) by admin

I haven’t changed once since leaving New York and I’m about to take my first shower.

(2) Comments   

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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