Travel: Random Acts of Kindness

I spent the rest of my first week in Europe, in Paris…eating croissant…alone. If you’re a Sex and the City fan (as me!) then you certainly remember those scenes from the series finale, where a nostalgic and melancholic Carrie spends all her time exploring Paris all alone. Well, that was pretty much me in Paris…minus the smoking and fabulous wardrobe. Of course I was still ecstatic to be there, to walk into Notre Dame, to wander thru the Château du Versailles, to go back to the Tour Eiffel and make it all the way to the top, to spend lovely afternoons sitting at the Jardin des Tuileries or admiring the Seine River; but I would lie if I didn’t admit it got a little bit lonely at times. I mean to make such a big dream come true, to witness such beauty, and to not have someone there to share it with…yeah, it got lonely.
Paris was the only city during my whole trip where I didn’t meet someone new everyday or made friends with fellow travelers (other than my first night there). I don’t know if it was because I didn’t speak the language or because the French can be, ahem, unfriendly, or maybe because I wasn’t sharing a room with other travelers…most likely it was all of the above, but no connections were sparked. I still fell in love with the city, but my time there was for sure one of mixed emotions, bittersweet even.
At some point during that week, I decided that my next destination should be Italy. I sort of knew someone in Milan, who had agreed to let me couchsurf (that term hadn’t even been invented then!) at her place, and after that lonely week in Paris it seemed like the best idea to go somewhere where a friendly face awaited. And that someone was my friend Gaby, who would indeed become a dear, dear friend after that visit. Truth is we weren’t really friends when I first came to see her in Milano. In fact, we had barely met before that. Actually, it was so random how we met that I have to share that funny story, and this is how it goes…
My now husband, who was just a friend at the time, had extensively travel thru Europe for business back in the mid-90′s, and on a long, overnight train ride from Milan to Paris, had met a Mexican girl named Gaby, who was living in Italy. She wasn’t very fluent in English and Gregg spoke barely any Spanish, but a couple of older Argentinian ladies who were also on the train served as translators, and a connection of sorts was made between them. They never saw each other again after that train ride (’til this day they haven’t seen each other since), but email addresses were exchanged. Correspondence didn’t last very long, after a few emails back and forth, they lost contact.
One day, after first deciding to make this European trip on my own, I was talking to Gregg about it and mentioned that being on a tight budget, I was really hoping I could find some acquaintances over the pond, kind enough to offer me a roof for a few days so I could cut down my travel cost. He told me the story of how he met Gaby and said that he hadn’t talked/written to her in years, but that he still had her email address and that maybe I could get in touch with her. And so I did. I don’t know what possessed me to think I could just email a stranger saying “hey girl, we’ve never met before, but can I crash on your couch for a few days this summer?” but that’s kind of what happened. Lucky for me, she still used that same email address, and when I wrote to her telling her how I got it and how I even knew of her, she totally remember Gregg. We started some online communication, and it turned out she was a native of Monterrey, where I was living at the time. She was still living in Italy, but on one of her trips to visit her family in Monterrey, we got together so we could finally meet in person after a couple of months of online chatting. I don’t remember exactly at what point in our correspondence I actually told her about my plans to go to Europe and about the possibility of crashing at her pad if it was ok with her, but I do remember she didn’t hesitate to say “of course you can stay with me in Milan!” Looking back on it, it amazes me how kind and generous she was to me. We never really set any specific dates for when I would visit, we had just left it at a vague “sometime this summer”, so I was a little nervous when I called her from Paris to say “hey, sorry for the short notice, but any chance I can stay there next week?” Again, luckily for me, she was so cool and easy-going, and that ended up working just fine for her.
So on my last day in Paris, I sat on a street bench outside my hotel, trying to soak in all the Parisian air I could before leaving. I was just in the middle of that, when an old Italian man came to sit next to me and wanted to start a conversation. He must’ve been at least 70 years old, and didn’t speak any English or Spanish, but he was too friendly to care about the language barrier. That’s how I discovered that Spanish and Italian are more similar than I could’ve ever imagined, because we managed to communicate just fine with him speaking in his mother tongue and me speaking mine. That’s also when I first realized that after spending a week of several encounters with rude French people, I was in for a treat of hospitality from Italians. He inquired where I was headed with my luggage, and after hearing that I needed to get to Gare du Nord to take a train but had no idea how to get there, he decided he would take me. We took public transport of course, but it was nice not having to figure it all out on my own. He was so kind as to not only getting me to the train station, but also helping me find my train, and then my seat on the train, and he didn’t leave until he made sure I was comfortably situated on it. Just one more random act of kindness and generosity I got to experience on that trip.
I was so excited and ready to move on to my next destination, and so happy to get to travel by train. I grew up listening to train stories from my family because my grandpa and uncles worked on the railroad their whole lives, and now finally I was going to have my very own first train experience ever. And so off I went…au revoir Paree…ciao Milano!

Travel: A Mexican Girl in Paris (Part Deux)

It was early morning when I finally opened my eyes after a good 10 hours of sound sleep, yet still feeling some weariness lingering around. I wanted to sleep some more but I saw the guys were up and almost ready to walk out the door. The three amigos were planning on taking a train to Luxembourg that same day, so they didn’t have much time to enjoy Paris, let alone to sit around and wait for me. Mr. Brazil wasn’t in such a hurry since he had some time before meeting his dance crew, and luckily he didn’t mind keeping me company until then.
The first thing on my to-do list for the day was finding a place to stay that would suit both me and my budget, now that I would find myself all on my own. I had decided by this point that I would spend the whole week in Paris. It was the city I was the most excited to visit, I mean, sure I was gladly looking forward to visiting Rome, Venice, London, but Paris was special to me. I had dreamed about Paris my whole life like none other, I felt some strange connection to it, like it was calling my name; and now that I was actually there, I wanted to take my time soaking it all in.
I had gotten a list of hostels from some tourist information booth, and after finding a pay-phone, I started making calls hoping to find the right place after just a couple of calls. However, every time I dialed a number, I only got “fully booked”, “no beds available” or “sold out” as responses. I was starting to worry, the guys were leaving, I couldn’t afford our current hotel, and my options were narrowing down to zero. Mr. Brazil also started getting concerned with my situation, he didn’t want to leave me alone on the street with no place to go, so he offered to walk around with me asking at different hotels until we found a suitable place for me.
We walked for quite a while and stopped at many places without any luck. We were both getting increasingly worried and discouraged when we finally found this little place, an independently owned tiny hotel that almost felt more like a B&B, except they didn’t serve breakfast. It was owned and operated by a married couple with the funniest accents. They weren’t French, they were immigrants from I-don’t-remember-where that had been living in France for years; after working in the tourism industry for ages, they had picked up a little bit of like 7 different languages and when they spoke you couldn’t figure out which of those accents was coming thru. They were very friendly and inviting, and though it was more than I had planned to spend, it was pretty much my only choice so I took up a room.
Mr. Brazil really ended up being a God-send that day, not only did he walk with me until we found a place, but he also went back with me to our previous hotel to pick up my backpack and even carried it all the way to my new accommodations. Once he made sure I was settled safe and sound there, he wished me luck on my travels and left. I never saw him again, and unfortunately I don’t even remember his name. His kindness though will never be forgotten.
Even though I wasn’t thrilled about having to spend $45 Euros/night when I had planned to spend an average of $20 to $25 Euros/night on hostels, I was glad to have a room to myself. It was an average sized bedroom by American standards, which meant it was huge for Europe. It had wood flooring, a charming armoire and a comfortable double bed with a night stand on each side. Of course, I didn’t have a bathroom of my own, which it’s normal in Europe, most “low-cost” accommodations offered shared bathrooms; usually that means there’s a bathroom on each floor, with at least a couple of showers and toilettes, but this place had only one bathroom for the whole building, which granted wasn’t very big. Luckily this little bathroom, with only one tiny shower and one toilette and small sink, was located on my floor near my room. Incidentally, that was the best part of all, I was on the 4th floor, which was the top floor of the small building. Though I didn’t have a balcony, the room did have a window and I loved standing by it at the end of a long day of sightseeing. Even today, if I closed my eyes and let my mind wander back to those memories, I can still feel the cool summer breeze brushing against my skin as my eyes glanced over the Parisian blue rooftops of Le Marais.
After I was settled in, I went out to explore some more, but by 3pm I realized my plan to beat jet-lag wasn’t working quite as I expected. I was dead tired again, and I didn’t get very far before I had to turn around and go back to my hotel. I needed a nap desperately, but little did I know I would actually end up sleeping until the next day…that’s jet-lag for ya.

Travel: A Mexican Girl in Paris (Part Une)

So I sat on a plane to Paris, unsuccessfully trying to sleep to avoid jet-lag since my fly would arrive at 7am, when somewhere over the Atlantic it dawned on me…I was on my way to Paris! Alone! And I had focused so much on getting there that I had forgotten to actually plan what I would do once I got there. I started panicking a little, which guaranteed that I would get not even a minute of sleep the whole flight. I had bought a Rick Steves Western Europe guide a couple days prior and now realizing that I was probably way overdue on reading it, decided to get on it. The more I flipped thru pages reading excerpts here and there, the more it became clear to me how utterly clueless I was about this whole other world I was about to enter. So clueless in fact, that even the most obvious details had escaped me, like say, exchanging dollars for Euros before getting there; heck, how about actually carrying dollars/Euros, since all I had at that time was a whopping $20 dollars in my pocket. Of course I had my debit card that I knew I would be using a lot, both directly to purchase and also to withdraw cash from ATM’s, but it probably would’ve been a good idea to carry more than $20 dollars on arrival in case finding an ATM took a while.
Anyway, the flight landed safely at Charles de Gaulle airport, and after a surprisingly easy immigration process (they barely looked at my passport before stamping it), I was already thru with my checked luggage in tow. Then, another realization hit me… I had assumed that speaking English would suffice to get me thru even in countries where they spoke a different language…and now I was about to find out how wrong I was on that assumption. I didn’t speak an ounce of French, bon jour and au revoir were the totality of my French vocabulary, and there I was, roaming a Parisian airport that only had signs in French. I had no idea which way the exits were. I walked to what looked like to be the airport’s front doors/entrance, but it was full of tour buses picking up big organized groups, and didn’t look like that would be my way out. I walked back and forth thru a very long and wide corridor, and found a place to exchange my $20 dollars for Euros. I asked the clerk at the window for directions to the airport’s exit, first in Spanish (remembering that French are not fond of the English language) without any luck; I asked again in English, desperate to get some help, but only confirmed that they are really really not fond of this language, and also that all the stories I had heard about French people being rude were true.
I felt completely lost, and also like an idiot walking back and forth the same corridor with no idea as to which way to go. Twenty to thirty minutes went by, and the thought that I would have to fly back home that very same day actually crossed my mind. I was already envisioning how I would tell everyone that I had been to Paris but never actually made it out of the airport and that I had to end my trip on the same day it started because I couldn’t find my way out of said airport, when suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to look at the person touching me, when he asked, in Spanish and with a pity look on his face, “this is your first time in Paris, isn’t it?”; I silently nodded while looking at the two other guys standing behind the one approaching me, also with pity looks on their faces. Guy #1 explained that he had been to Paris before and was now traveling with his two buddies who had never been, and offered to bring me along as they made their way to the city. I didn’t hesitate and immediately started following his lead.
He then asked me what part of Mexico I was from, which initially freaked me out because how did he know I was from Mexico, then I noticed I was still holding my Mexican passport in hand as I had been the whole time I had wandered the airport looking like a lost soul. Also it hit me that they were probably Mexican too, based on their accent, and it turned out all 3 of them were going to Med school in Monterrey, where I also happened to be going to school at the time.
We met another lost soul while standing in line to get metro tickets to the city, a Brazilian guy who was in town to participate in some dance competition, but since he wouldn’t be meeting his dance crew until the next day, he joined us. We rode the metro to Rue de Rivoli, and got off somewhere not too far from the Louvre. None of us had a reservation for that night and needed to look for a place to stay, so naturally we stopped at the first hotel we came across, only to find out it was way out of our price range. It wasn’t even a nice hotel to be that expensive, so things were not looking up for us.
After asking at another couple hotels, and facing prices way out of our reach yet again, Guy numero uno suggested all five of us banded together for the night and split the cost of one room. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t very smart to agree to spend the night in a foreign country with 4 strange men, but jet-lag was setting in at this time, leaving no room for common sense. So we got our belongings situated in our new shared accommodations, and off we went to explore Paree, acting like we had known each other our whole lives.
Like I said, jet-lag had gotten ahold of me by then, but I figured if I fought the exhaustion all day and waited until nighttime to get some good rest, that would put me right on schedule with the new time zone I’d be living in for the next couple of months.
As previously mentioned on my last post, I hadn’t pack a jacket and was surprised to find the Parisian weather quite chilly and windy on what was almost June, so I bought some cheesy black hoodie sweatshirt with Paris written across the chest in some awful, awful font; at this point I was still trying to come to terms with the realization of how unprepared I actually was for this trip.
We didn’t ride the subway again for the rest of the day, we just walked and walked, for hours on end. We walked to the Louvre’s esplanade, and admired the famous glass pyramid; strolled thru the Jardin des Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde, and continued up the Av. des Champs Élysées until we stood in awe of the Arc de Triomphe, examining it from every angle. Though to be honest, we couldn’t stop for very long because we were running on the pure adrenaline that the excitement of being there was bringing us, but stopping for more than a few minutes meant feeling the need to succumb to the deep fatigue we were actually carrying around. Still, we were determined to make our way to the Tour Eiffel, not only to make the dream of witnessing its grandness come true, but also as some sort of confirmation that we were really there, in Paris, that this was all really happening.
It’s precisely its grandness that makes the Eiffel Tower’s location really deceiving. You can see it from miles and miles away with a sense that you’re about to come face to face with it at any moment, and when that doesn’t happen as soon as you were expecting, you almost start feeling like you’re chasing some sort of mirage or illusory sight that moves away just as you’re about to reach it. It was either that or the severe exhaustion that was really messing with my time and space perception. It must’ve been really about a 45 minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe to the Tour Eiffel, but it felt like the longest walk of my life. Nonetheless, we finally made it.
I was there, living in the flesh a moment I had pictured in my mind ever since I could remember, and it was more than I had ever imagined. It was so much bigger and more beautiful than I thought, its majestic and imposing presence was touching. I wanted to climb to the top of the tower but the elevator lines were long and I stupidly decided I would take the stairs instead. I made it halfway to the first level when I felt like my legs were going to give up on me, but I forced myself to continue on upwards. Slowly I made it to the first level feeling like I had just climbed Mount Everest. So many mixed emotions rushed to me at once, that I just ended up feeling overwhelmed and confused by it all. Not only had I been thru a whirlwind in the last 36 hours, but I was also going thru some personal stuff that I couldn’t quite figure out yet, and all of the sudden that was all I could think of.
I remember finding a pay-phone up there, on the first level of the Eiffel Tower, and using it to call my college roommate back in Mexico. She was surprised to hear my voice when she picked up the phone, as she obviously knew I was in Paris, and probably even more surprised when she realized I wanted to discuss all this personal stuff instead of talking about my trip. She stopped me in the middle of my blabber to ask where I was, “standing on the first level of the Eiffel Tower,” I responded. “Oh my God, you are there, you are on top of the Eiffel Tower, you made it! Forget all that sh*t, and enjoy this moment, would you?” she said. I knew she was right, and I promised I would try to focus only in taking it all in, despite knowing damn well it was unlikely that I would be able to really put all those thoughts completely behind me. Nevertheless, after hanging up, I decided I was in no condition to reach the top and that it’d be best to go back to the hotel; the idea of making it back seemed daunting so it demanded I solely concentrate on that task.
I don’t know how I mustered up the energy to walk the whole way back, especially with the cold rising as the sun was setting and even amid some drizzle falling, but somehow I did. Despite all the excitement of the day, in that moment nothing could beat the joy of finally getting into a nice, warm bed and feeling my head touching the pillow. In the 10 seconds it took me to fall asleep, I remember feeling immensely grateful for everything, and feeling a huge sense of accomplishment…I had made it to Paris, to the Eiffel Tower, and most importantly, I had survived my first day of this great adventure.

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