Archive for January, 2007

The French screw up

January 23, 2007

It all began when Vivek IMed me one fine day and suggested we visit Paris that weekend. His logic : it was the first week of the month and we would get a free entry into the Louvre, thereby saving 8 euros. A cheap but potent argument. I gave in.

The next step was to find an effective means of transportation. Vivek suggested I look into some mitfahr .., a website which gives a list of people visiting various places in Europe and willing to take a ride along, in short hitchhiking. I wasn’t very sure about this. So I asked a German friend across the room what this mitfarh.. bullshit was all about. He said it was pretty common in Europe to take a ride along, and much cheaper than conventional means. And you could always hitchhike with a nice cute girl just to be on the safer side. That was enough to tilt the balance. I immediately looked up the website and found a nice cute girl traveling from Heidelberg to Paris the very next day along with her two nice cute girlfriends. We immediately struck a deal. She’d pick me up from outside the university at 3 the next day and if all goes well, we’ll be in Paris by 8:30.

Since we were all traveling from different parts of Germany, a suitable rendezvous point had to be decided. Vivek suggested (yeah..he gave lots of suggestions) we meet at the Replica of the statue of liberty. It was supposedly a very famous landmark in Paris and we could easily find our way there by asking around. We decided to meet there the following evening between 9 pm to 11 pm (the time range to account for any contingencies).I left the university that evening feeling very good about myself.

The following day started on a terrible note. My colleague informed me that the girl I was traveling with had called. There had been a sudden change of plans and she wasn’t planning on going to Paris that evening. I was screwed. The others had already left their respective cities and there was no way of contacting them. I had to make it to Paris that day. I scanned through the website again and found a girl leaving from nearby Karlsruhe for Paris at 5 that evening. I called up Christina Zman and set up a “date”. We decided to meet in the parking lot outside Karlsruhe Hauptbahnof (main station) at 5 pm. She’d charge me 40 euros for the journey and drop me off outside Paris by 10. Touch and go I’d say but I was seriously running out of options by then.

So I picked up my bag and left for Karlsruhe. At around 3:30 I was in the parking lot outside the hauptbahnof. I still had over an hour to kill. I roamed about the place, had a donner kebap and a soda and tried to catch some sleep. Apparently the location was a hot spot for hitchhikers like me and the place was teeming with them. My ride showed up at 5:15, 15 mins. late and a crime by German standards. Christina Zman was cute. She made my day when she bent over to put in my luggage and gave a fleeting glimpse of underwear. Unfortunately, she came with excess baggage, including a boyfriend and a huge french african friend. So I dutifully gave my introduction, shook hands and made myself comfortable in the backseat.

The journey into France was nice. We made a couple of stopovers, mainly to relieve ourselves and catch some fresh air. The car was an Opel Corsa with a top speed of 110 or 120 k’s. On Indian roads, we would have been flying but on the Autobahn, this was painfully slow. I could feel the speed difference when the other cars whizzed past us at jet speed. In between conversation, I asked about the replica of the statue of liberty, the place I was supposed to meet the IIT junta. I found blank faces staring back at me. Apparently none of them had heard about the place, let alone visit it.

At around 10, we were still on the outskirts of Paris. I could feel the first signs of impending doom. I just hoped that the others would be late too and would wait for me at the rendezvous point beyond 11. A long shot but I did not have a lot of options. The worst part was that even the french african girl, who had lived in Paris for the best part of her life, was clueless about the replica. Christina and co. were even more shocked when I told them I had no contacts in Paris. I could spot a hint of sadistic pleasure on their faces when I told them that in my excitement I hadn’t bothered to dig up on my IIT friends in Paris. But then only I was to blame for the mess I had got myself into.

I was dropped off outside a metro in Paris at 11. They asked me 25 bucks instead of the regular 40, chucking off 15 bucks because they hadn’t paid the toll tax a couple of times because of some strike. I couldn’t have cared less. Anyway, the french african girl got off with me. We asked around a bit for the replica but to no avail. Even the experienced ticket guy at the metro had no idea. We (she actually) did some brainstorming and eventually decided that I should go to a place called place da italie. It was open late in the night and had lots of hotels. If that did not go well, I could always go to the police station and they would definitely sort things out for me. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t too keen on the police station.

Anyway, I thanked her for her time and advice and boarded the metro. At around half past 11 I emerged from the underground metro station in place da italie. The first thing that hit me was the cold. I wasn’t really dressed for the weather. The place was lively with hordes of shoppers. That kind of soothed my nerves a bit. My first objective was to find a place to stay overnight. I went into a couple of hotels but retraced my steps back each time. Apparently Paris hotels are not meant for 3rd year interns with a budget of 275 euros. For the uninitiated, that’s chicken feed in Paris. So I explored other options I had. My best bet wud be to find a cybercafé and try to get some contacts. But that isn’t exactly a cakewalk when you don’t know your way around and barely speak the language. So I wandered aimlessly on the streets for an hour or so. At around 1 in the morning, my legs were beginning to give way. I decided to give the police station a shot. What’s the worst that cud happen, I thought. They cud throw me in, but then at least I wud have a place to sleep.

The police lady was amused. Can’t blame her really. Its not everyday an Indian guy comes up to you and starts with the story I was telling her. I kept blabbering about how I had planned to visit Paris with friends, the German girl ditched me, I reached Paris late, wasn’t able to meet my friends, did not have any contacts and nowhere to go. She kept nodding sympathetically all through my ordeal. Finally, when I was finished, she showed me to a cybercafé. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for orkut. I was scanning through some scrapbooks when I found an ISM guy’s cell phone no. Apparently he was staying with some of my friends. Just a number, not an address. Anyway it did give me an overwhelming sense of relief.

I decided to ring him up, the fact that it was 1:30 in the morning notwithstanding. But when you are having a bad day, even a simple phone can’t go hassle free. Phone booths in Paris do not work on coins. Some sort of card has to be inserted, which I was sure cud not be arranged for at that ungodly hour. I tried inserting my 1 euro coin into the slot meant for the card, hoping against hope that the slot wud somehow magically change shape and work. As expected, it did not. I asked a passing lady for her phone card. She was petrified, like she’d seen a ghost or something, and disappeared over the corner in a flash. Hopeless, I thought. People aren’t very friendly at 1:30 in the morning. At around 2 I found myself back at police station. I explained myself again, this time to a policeman, but again the amused smile never left his face. I asked him if I cud use the phone. The guy went inside, I guess to consult with his superiors and 15 min. later I was let inside. I followed the cop to a closed room, where I was joined by another one. Both men stood either side of me, and one of them offered to dial the no. It felt straight out of Hollywood movie, where they’d allow you one customary phone call before throwing you in.

The ISM guy seemed friendly. I’d be pretty pissed off if some unknown guy woke me up in the middle of the night. It was like he was expecting the call. I offered my introduction following which he gave detailed directions. I showed the address I had jotted down to the cops and they nodded in recognition. It was a relief to finally get a destination Parisians actually knew. By 2:30 am I was back on the street. The cops had instructed me to walk straight down the street, take a left, cross a red light and then take a cab to evry (a suburb outside Paris and my destination).I had absolutely no intention of following their instructions. Cabs in Paris are too damn expensive. But just for the heck of it, I asked a cab driver how much he wud charge for evry. “50 euros”, pat came the reply. “No merci”, I blurted out, before vanishing out of sight.

The metro wud start operating by around 6 am. So I had about 3 and 1/2 hours to kill (or rather survive) on the streets. This had to be by far the most torturous 3 and 1/2 hours of my life. I wandered hopelessly, trying to find nooks and corners to save myself from the cold, which kept getting bitter as the night progressed. I tried to sleep on the benches, but it was just too uncomfortable. The deal about sleeping in the cold is – you stay motionless for a few minutes and you’d freeze to death. So sleeping was an option I did not have. I tried to cover myself with everything I had, layers of clothing, but nothing seemed to work. There were several groups of people on the roads, most of them boozing or smoking, and most of them black. Some really scared the shit out of me.

I was glad to see the first hint of morning and immediately made my way to the metro station. The Paris metro system is a labyrinth of lines and routes, very extensive and quite overwhelming for a first timer. And if you do not have a map you are totally fucked. I asked around, with the address written on a bit of paper. But the early morning crowd seemed to be in a hurry, hardly spoke any english and looked at me as if I’d come from planet mars. A wise guy once gave me a very helpful tip regarding the French (and Europeans in general) – talk to them in their native tongue and they’d kill for you. Literally. So I did exactly that. I started off with my broken and heavily accented french – “monsieur bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais ?”. It did break the ice eventually. Most people tried to give directions with vigorous hand gestures and whatever little english they knew, with as many ummms and ammms thrown in as possible and an utter disregard for prepositions and other grammatical forms.

Using whatever bits and pieces of information I’d gathered, I boarded the underground metro to Gare de lyon, a central Paris station from where I took a train to the suburbs. The journey was quite uneventful, apart from the fact that I sat next to an obnoxious looking black guy in an empty compartment. He hailed from French Guinea and just cud’nt stop talking about it. He kept chattering about life in Africa, why he had come to Paris and how much he loved Indian culture and Indian people. I was just glad he did not rip out his knife and slit my throat.

I finally reached evry, but not before taking a detour from another evry (yeah there were two and no one seemed to’v bothered to tell me about it).Anyway by then I’d become immune to minor hiccups and was quite unfazed. I was outside my friend’s door by 9:30 am, around 12 hours late I guess. To say I was relieved would be an understatement. At the time, I was quite flustered and kept obsessing about the fact that nothing had gone my way. But in retrospect, I often have a good laugh about it. I learnt a lot of stuff too, carrying addresses of your local contacts being the most prominent. I also feel fortunate. There were a thousand different things that cud’v gone wrong but did not. But then again that’s life.