With a Home On Your Back

photo: no photo, notre dame

Notre Dame is not dressed up for photos today.

And a Railpass In Your Pocket

Paris:- Wednesday, 14. April 1999:- Natasha arrived at ten, just about on the dot. From Gare d'Austerlitz, she managed to get through Paris to Saint-Lazare, get on the right train there, get off the right stop here, and not get lost coming down the hill and through the one-street village.

The first time I came out here, the guy said, "Look for the church." It was night and there was no church to be seen. Going back was worse; getting lost for a long time in the dark somewhere between Paris and Normandy.

Natasha has arrived on the night train from Barcelona. I have done it from Madrid, and when you finally arrive in Paris, it looks like a tough nut to face. Natasha did it with a 15-kilo backpack; I forget to ask her if she had to hang around Saint-Lazare a long time.

She wrote from Barcelona to say it was good there. She got there from Seville. Before that she wrote from Morocco and from Lisbon. She got to Lisbon from Bangkok, or Malaysia, and passed the worst of the winter in Morocco. All the time with the 15-kilo backpack. Carrying her house around.

Natasha started out in Victoria, in Canada, which used to be characterized by southern wits as 'Our Lady of the Snows.' In Paris, she isphoto: waiting at the louvre three- quarters of the away around the world and the next stops are Amsterdam and then maybe Corfu which appears to be also known as Kérkira.

Not unique to backpackers: rain and lines, lines and rain, at the Louvre's Pyramid.

I do not know about Amsterdam, but it is pouring rain in Paris today. People like Natasha do not let a little rain stop them, although she decides not to go to the top of the Tour Eiffel when I tell her the view will not be super.

We see a hint of this from my weather station on the train while it is passing the heights over Suresnes. At Palais Royal-Louvre we take the underground way in from the métro. The line of people waiting to get in - without tickets - reaches back through the Carrousel so we take the exit up to where the Arc du Carrousel is sitting in a big puddle of rainwater.

The line getting rained on, waiting to get into the Pyramid is shorter and Natasha decides she will wait in it. Half of Paris must be inside, but she has her backpack parked at my place and not having this may compensate for the overnight ride from Barcelona.

Except for other backpackers, they are not like you and me. They do not go to some civilized sunny place and lie around in rows like grilling sardines. Natasha said there were funny, almost invisible animals in the bathtub-warm Asian waters, ones that bit.

Backpackers stay in hostels a lot. In some hostels, noted in guides as being 'partyzones,' a lot of backpackers may stay. Some of these have small dormitories and usuallyphoto: paper, tickets, junk you have to be out of them during the day, and they can cost almost as much as cheapo hotels. The 'partyzone' aspect is their drawing card.

What is all this? Green tickets, yellow tickets, trash - important or not?

While being young may be fun, I think it is hard work. If I stayed in a 'partyzone' hostel, I would need to rest the day after and have to rent a hotel to do it. This would be wimpy to backpackers, because they go out all day touring the sights and trying out the cheapo restaurants and staying away from the fast food places in the Rue de la Huchette because all the guides say it is rotgut alley.

I would think it is no worse than Istanbul, but this is probably because I already have a Paris-infected rotgut. Anyhow the guides say what they do, and if you want to get lack of sleep by staying in a 'partyzone' hostel, it's your - it's what you chose to do.

If it isn't, I strongly suggest getting a copy of these guides so you will know where not to go. They also have names of places where it is supposed to be fun to drink beer in Paris. I guess it is the drinking with other backpackers that counts more than the beer. The advice about wine is about the same. It comes in two colors and in little carafes, big carafes and really huge carafes and it is all quite inexpensive.

In the guide I look at, the Rubis is mentioned. I have never seen carafes there; it is not that formal. Whole bottles are put on tables instead. I suppose this is off-putting to beer drinkers.

Backpackers do not worry about traveling alone. As soon as they see another backpack, they are alone no more. These 'partyzone' hostels are famous worldwide and backpackers are drawn to them like migrating turtles. Ah, what a wonderful world!

But backpackers are subject to ripoffs and scams. If normal people want to go someplace they can simply buy aphoto: walking, walking train or plane ticket. Sometimes, if the phase of the moon is right, ordinary travellers get a minuscule discount fare.

Besides riding on trains, backpackers walk a lot - a lot more than on any Parisian 'street rallye.'

Backpackers are restricted to discount fares. They have to buy 'railpasses.' These come with so many restrictions; ifs, ands, buts; that half a backpacker's time is spent either trying to figure the system out, or trying to fit into it.

The European railnet looks like your body's blood system, unless you have a 'railpass.' Then it looks like three-quarters of it has been amputated.

For example; there are four 'quick' trains a day from Paris to Amsterdam and one 'slow' one for 'railpass' holders. For other people without backpacks there are 15 trains a day to Brussels and 20 trains a day from Brussels to Amsterdam. The 'railpass' sees this as two distinct trips though.

With so many trains, you'd think you could just go to station and hop on. Uh-uh. Nope. Backpackers have to reserve a seat. Being restricted to the four trains a day, means having to wait five days. No question of the railroad putting on an extra cattlecar for the backpackers. Not a chance.

Hitchhiking is not reliable. Europeans have such small cars that a backpack is like two people. People drive like lunatics anyhow, so after a couple of days at the 'partyzone' hostel, I don't think a backpacker could handle it. It is a sort of Catch-22. While waiting for a train, more time passes at the 'partyzone.'

I guess the good part about this, is being able to exchange notes about the 'partyzone' hostel in Amsterdam. I was there on one of my honeymoons and the hotel was on the other side of a big mudpuddlephoto: looong walking from the whole rest of Holland and it rained hard the entire time. We could have used a 'taxipass' even though taxis were reluctant to go all the way the this hotel - although the guide said it was quite 'near' the station.

The only time I notice backpackers in Paris is in the métro when they are taking up two places, or when they turn around fast without remembering their caravan sticking out behind. I've watched them and I think they forget they're carrying them after a while.

Another view of the l o n g walk style of the seasoned backpacker.

For one reason or another, backpackers - once they have their packs safely stashed at the 'partyzone' - walk around a lot. In Paris, my advice is, do not automatically buy one of the several varieties of museum or museum-transport passes. Just because you have been suckered into a 'railpass,' does not mean you have to get a Parisian version.

After unloading the backpack and after a night at the 'partyzone' hostel, backpackers may be a bit light in the head. This is a good way to be in Paris. I have been glad to see the guides do not harp too much about how expensive the place is.

Unlike the old 'Europe On Five Bucks a Day' guides, the new, laid-back guides never mention a thimble-sized thimble of express café costs slightly less than a litre of unleaded super, or about the same as one of our new Euros. Nossir, these new guides merely say the further north you go, the steeper it gets.

Natasha has got all of this down pat. We go to see Notre Dame which is fine to see from anywhere except up close, right in front. It is even greater at the back, where a lady walks in front of my beautiful shot of Natasha taking a beautiful photo of Notre Dame's unretouched backside.

She wants to go to the Picasso Museum and on the way we go into the Rue des Roziers. Nobody has the meringue goody she wants, so she settles for some pickled herrings instead. Afterphoto: yum pickled herring she gets a plastic fork - but not the plastic knife - it turns out the herrings are fresh and marinated and not pickled at all, so they taste different to what she expects.

I don't know whether it is the backpackers or a general change, but the Rue des Roziers is getting more and more Middle-Eastern all the time, and Natasha is not the only one eating al fresco.

The 'pickled' herring is so fresh the plastic fork is hardly necessary.

After passing up the cheesecake, I split off to find some - any! - 'posters of the week' on the Rue de Rivoli. As soon as I am out of sight, Natasha doubles back to the cheesecake and buys a piece of it; which weighs about the same as a thousand-gram canary full of butter.

When it is downed, she does her regulation five-more kilometres across Paris' hard stones; digesting it. Then she rides the long train ride back out to the sticks and gets some Thai-like stuff from the local supermarket, and cooks up a big stir-fry for enough people at a 'partyzone' hostel.

I'll tell you, regardless of what else I've written here, backpackers are a hardy lot. If I didn't know better, I'd swear they had all trained with the postal service in the country otherwise known as 'Our Lady of the Snows.'

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