The Journey South

I used to think the journey from Morningside Heights to JFK Airport was a long one. But that was before I went from Montreuil-Sur-Mer to Brussels Charleroi International Airport in a single day. Four trains, a shuttle bus, a cab ride and then a plane the following next morning is apparently the cheapest way to Spain from here.

Being that it was our third break in the school year (Vacances d'Hiver), a few of us planned a trip to migrate south for 10 days and get out of the cold, rainy weather of Nord Pas de Calais. Our destinations? Spain and Portugal. Our tickets on Ryanair and easyJet for the entire trip were really cheap, and being that it is actually easier to fly from Brussels Charleroi rather than Paris Beauvais (seriously, Beauvais is very far from Paris), we decided to head to Palma, Mallorca from there.

My trip began with waiting for the train at the station, to catch another two trains to Lille. Being that it was a clear day and before noon, I thought there would be no problem or delays. But of course there was. My train to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, which had departed from Arras, was 15 minutes late. And there was only a 22-minute gap in between that train and my connection to Gare Calais-Frethun. By the time the rickety old train finally reached Boulogne, I had two minutes to get myself and my two duffel bags (one of which I was going to live in Lille) four platforms over to the next train. I made it, gasping for air as I flung myself down in my seat, then asking a family in front of me if in fact I was on the right train, which they confirmed.

Up until this point, the sun was uncharacteristically bright with plenty of blue skies hovering over the Cote d'Opale. About 30 minutes later, I was disembarking into a sea of fog. I had to make one more transfer at Calais to catch the TGV to Lille Europe. (Being that it was a Saturday, there are fewer trains towards Lille, thus I had to make two changes, which is unusual but the only way to get there in under two hours.) When the train left me at the platform, it railed away into the mist where I was unable to see it any longer. Within the span of an hour, I had changed from sunglasses to earmuffs. Such is the weather of Northern France.

But within 20 minutes, I was whisking away down to Lille on the high-speed TGV train. After arriving, I completed a couple of errands, namely dropping off one of my bags with my laptop tucked inside at Rachel's apartment in Fives, and then going to La Furet du Nord (a giant bookstore chain) to pick up a copy of The Alchemist for the journey. Being that a Brazilian wrote this novel about a young man traveling in Andalucía (and beyond, but I won't ruin it), I thought it was relevant enough and appropriate for my own trip down to the Mediterranean.

By late afternoon, it was time for the two Rachels to hop on board the Eurostar train to Brussels. Only a 30-minute journey, we arrived at Gare Bruxelles-Midi right on time. Brussels is definitely one of those cities where I visited once and thought, "Okay, well I've seen it and I don't have to come back." Somehow I've been to the quirky little European capital three times now, each time wondering, "How did I get here again?"

We met up with Liz inside the station, and our first order of business was to find the shuttle to Charleroi airport, since we were staying at the Etap Hotel right next door to it that night.

Just to make things clear: Charleroi is not Brussels. Ryanair might say it is, but it's not. We learned this the very, very hard way. I knew we were in for a trek getting there, but it was beyond anything that any of us expected. After meeting up with Liz, we asked a few station agents where was the shuttle to Charleroi Airport. And after asking in both English and French and getting responses in both languages, all of those responses were different. And given that Bruxelles-Midi is the size of a small airport and one of the largest train hubs in Europe, walking around the perimeter of this station countless times while carrying somewhat-heavy bags on our shoulders wasn't exactly relaxing.

After about 20 minutes, we finally came upon a bus that departed every 30 minutes to Charleroi. Being that the description of this bus matched the one we had read about on the Internet before, we assumed this was the correct connection and decided we'd go eat in the center of town first before heading out to the middle of nowhere.

So after getting on a quick train to Bruxelles-Central (which you can only get on if you already had a major train ticket from TGV, Eurostar or Thalys to Midi), we hopped off and ate at the same restaurant I ate at on my first voyage to Brussels in 2004. And what did I eat? The perfect Belgian meal: fries and waffles. All that was missing was a side of mussels, but I had to keep costs down somehow.

After dinner, it was already nightfall, past 6 PM. We were aiming to get back to Midi to get to the bus by 7 PM. After trying to figure out the Brussels metro system for a few minutes, we got onto a train, which transported us back to the 1970s. I seriously questioned whether or not the Berlin Wall had fallen yet or not. It's not that the train was old itself, but it had that mustard yellow and brown color scheme going on that only goes with a shaggy carpet.

Two metro trains later, we were back at the bus stop outside of Midi. Only, after we got on the bus and were about to pay, I asked the driver if he was going to Charleroi. He said he was going to the town, but not the airport, and that we shouldn't board that bus. So we hopped off quickly, and a Belgian girl tried to help us by suggesting we take the train. However, I think we were all sure the train was more expensive and the shuttle bus was only supposed to cost 13€.

So we headed back into Midi, asking two more times where to find the bus. Finally, we tried the last door out of the station that we hadn't exited from before, and sure enough, we found the navette (airport shuttle). After a 45-minute drive, we got to the airport. At this point, it was approaching 8:30 PM. We could even see the neon-blue sign of the Etap hotel, but being that it was dark, freezing and no sidewalks in sight, our only option was a taxi. But when we got into the first taxi, the very brash driver informed us sharply that it would cost us 20€ minimum. For a five-minute drive. So we hopped out of there as faster than we got in. We almost started to walk out of the airport, but there was really no safe way to do that, especially in the dark.

We headed into the terminal, which looked recently renovated, shiny and spotless. (I've always imagined Ryanair to fly into places with wooden shacks for terminals - somewhere that hasn't been renovated since the 1950s and might have an old TWA sign hanging off its hinges, but it turned out to be the quite the opposite on this trip.) As we were unsure at this point what to do, Liz called the Etap concierge, who saved the day by sending over a taxi that only cost 7€ total.

Etap is a hotel chain in Europe that is hit or miss. It's quite cheap (our room was only 49€ per night, then split amongst three people) and they're available in most cities and near most airports. However, they're not always clean (or bearable, as I've read in some reviews). But thankfully, after a voyage that lasted nearly a day just to get to an airport for a 20€ flight, ours was one of the nice ones, with a friendly staff to boot. There was even a TV! What a treat just a simple TV has become after living without one for months.

However, we had only just begun our vacation, and we were already exhausted. Several different phone alarms woke us up at 6 AM, at which point we gathered our things, headed back down stairs and into the taxi back to the airport.

There was one thing that had kept me nervous the whole previous day: I typed in my passport number wrong when checking in for the flight online. I was terrified that because I added an extra digit, they might not let me board the plane as some kind of security precaution. However, it turned out that they didn't even care, just taking a glance at my passport and stamping my boarding pass, "Visa Checked." It was lucky for me, but I certainly hope that any potential terrorists don't try to plan their journey through Charleroi.

Soon later, we were on the plane, flying over the clouds and the European continent to the Spanish island of Mallorca…

Festival Des Soupes

rachel-king-festival-des-soupes When I bought my Let's Go: France guide-book a few months back (and after I noticed its serious printing press error of 14-pages about Spain instead of France), I came across a list of annual festivals in my humble village of Montreuil-Sur-Mer. While most take place in the summer, I happily saw one at the end of October: Le Festival des Soupes et des Pains (The Soup and Bread Festival). The book described it as a lively event in the town citadel, with admission set at 5€...all-you-can-eat soup and bread. While I was really excited about this, I wasn't sure how much other people would actually care to come up for it.

Apparently, plenty. After I mentioned it to several other American assistants in Lille, nearly all of them were ecstatic about the idea. Initially, about seven or eight assistants said they'd come up for it, but being the first weekend of the Vacances de la Toussaint (my first of four paid two-week vacations while teaching over here), naturally some people's plans changed. But Rachel, Pat, Marc and Rory seemed determined on the prospect of an endless supply of soup.

I sent out a confirmation Facebook message a few days in advance to see who was still coming, as I became nervous about how many people I could actually fit in my tiny studio. On Friday evening, I received a very mysterious series of text messages from Marc, first asking for my address. I sent it back, also asking what time they planned to arrive on the train. He said that he and Rory wouldn't be taking the train, and I'd see them the next evening. While they had previously joked about biking from Lille to Montreuil, we all thought they were kidding. The two towns are 68 miles apart. But no, the pair seriously conducted their own mini Tour de France, eleven hours from Lille to my studio. More on their arrival later...

While the two of them were probably up and getting ready to leave down in Lille early Saturday morning, I received a text message from Paul around 7:30 AM. It wasn't really a problem as I was getting up at 8:00 AM anyway, as Nathalie was picking me up at 9:00 AM to drive me to the weekly morning marketplace in Le Touquet. But I've found that California and France are the perfect distance apart for receiving drunk dials and texts, at least on my end. As it was around 10:30 PM in San Francisco, the roosters were chiming "cocorico" (or, how the French hear "cock-a-doodle-do") on my end. After chatting for about 30 minutes (who knows how much that cost him...), I got up and ready for Le Touquet. It was absolutely dismal outside, finally pouring for about an hour straight while we were at the marché. I ended up getting a pair of ankle-high flat grey boots, which Nathalie negotiated in French down to 20 € for me. She also very sweetly bought me a handful of noisette (hazelnut) chocolates, which I ate for lunch.

Shortly after arriving back at my studio, I embarked on the first of several trips down the hill to the train station, first to collect Rachel, who was coming in with the two Lance Armstrongs' stuff. Then a few hours later, we headed back down to retrieve Pat, who was arriving from Paris after staying there for a night. While we were down at the station, this time at about 7:00 PM, we received calls from the biker boys that they had arrived in Montreuil and were waiting outside my apartment. After an 11-hour journey that involved popped tires and a Google Maps mistake that said there was a bridge over a river where there clearly wasn't (I said they should have tried to caulk the wagon, but whatever), there they were: exhausted, sweaty and throwing back some beers, which turned out to be 7 € each - only 2 € less than the train ride would have been from Lille. Oh well.

After cleaning up and stocking up on beverages and snacks at the Shopi (a mini-mart) downstairs, we headed back into the bistro downstairs where my Paraguayan friend, Jean, is a waiter. For the first time ever, I ordered a seafood dish as my main course: mussels and fries. Probably the only seafood I can stand, it was very good, but I realized I'm not ready for a full seafood meal yet. I shared my mussels with the rest of the table and concentrated on the fries. As the boys were tired, and the weather wasn't the best, we passed the rest of the evening in the studio playing cards and drinking French wine and beer.

When I awoke Sunday morning, aside from a headache, something that Julia said to me on Friday suddenly passed through my head: time change. I'm not sure when the time changes in the United States this year, but daylight savings time ended in France on Sunday morning, giving all of us an extra hour of much-needed sleep. My iPhone (with the Orange France Telecom carrier) changed the time for me, but my American Motorola didn't.

After much-needed coffee and orange juice, we headed out for the weekend's main event: The Soup Festival! There were over two dozen different kinds of soups, prepared by local farmers and chefs. Some of my favorites included spinach, pumpkin, Saint-Germain and, an oldie but a goodie, Lentil. Unfortunately, I missed out on the tomato garlic soup, and I wasn't too impressed with the garlic or onion soups. But all the bread was amazing. However, I wasn't quite prepared for how much of a mob scene it would be. People were pushing everywhere to get to the front, go to the bread station or over to the drinks tent, where sodas and du vin chaud (hot wine, which is divine and tastes like cider) were being sold. But it was so crowded that at one point, someone bumped into me and knocked the lens cap off of my camera. Rachel and I then spent the next five to ten minutes trying to find a tiny black, Canon lens cap on the ground covered in hay. It was useless, so I'll have to buy another one at some point.

We made two trips to the Soup Festival, as we could re-enter for free for our tickets. In the middle of the day, we toured the ramparts of the village, as the weather was much warmer and brighter than the day before (with the exception of a 30-minute downpour around noon). We also saw a re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt going on near the Citadelle, being that October 25 was the anniversary of that fight. But I found it a bit odd considering the British won that battle, not the French. After the second round of soup, we grabbed our bags and we all headed back to the train station. I was going with them as I'm leaving for the south of France from Lille on Tuesday, and there was no point in staying in Montreuil another night. Plus, its nice to make the two-hour journey with others when I'm usually by myself. But on the way down the hill, the boys had to stop and grab some souvenirs: two Festival des Soupes signs, which prompted many stairs when we were walking through the Metro station at Gare Lille Flandres later on. It was also extra nice as it was a rare direct train to Lille, although the train itself was an older model, one that Rory said "should have been retired after World War I." A bit harsh...but true.

At the moment I'm at Rachel's apartment in Lille, but tomorrow morning, us two plus Liz and Amy will be speeding southward on the TGV to Bordeaux. Tout à l'heure!