Departures: England Plus Paris: Part 3

Get Me Out Of This Place

Tue Apr 16 Gare Montparnasse, Paris

Apparently, you don't just walk into a Paris train station on a Tuesday morning, say you want to go to St Malo, and hop on a train. I had a rail pass, but it was only good for second-class travel. If I wanted to wait for a second-class seat, I'd have to wait four hours.

So I bought a first-class ticket part of the way, until I could get out of the crowded-train zone. And the rail card covered me the rest of the way.

That railcard was for four days of travel, and I used it for less than four hours. So I didn't plan things too well.

On the plus side, the ticket-seller at the train station spoke English very well and was very nice to me, though I was obviously pretty clueless, thinking I could catch a 2nd-class ride without advance reservation.


Tue Apr 16 Northern France

I rode on a train through remarkably flat terrain. Was medieval France known for her chevaliers? I could believe that this would be good country for horse-riders. No rough terrain to slow them down, plenty of visibility. It didn't entertain me.

Melting Pot

Tue Apr 16 Northern France

The interesting thing about the ride was the conversation in my compartment of the train. The train was full, and we four strangers were seated around a table. The guy sitting kitty-corner to me had a question, but he didn't speak much French. He tried to ask the guy sitting next to me, but couldn't make himself understood. The lady sitting next to me strained to figure it out.

The guy next to me said (in French) that he was sorry, but couldn't understand. The lady asked me something (in French). I asked her if she spoke English. She spoke a little, and asked me: "Do you speak Spanish? Can you understand this man?" She spoke a little Spanish, but didn't understand him much. My knowledge of Spanish goes little beyond what I read in Pocho, so I was no help. Nobody was any help.

So Mister Question asked stuff, and the lady would listen to him and try to get the gist of the question to the guy next to me in French. I listened to Mister Question. He talked about St Malo, where I was going, and about Rennes, where I was changing trains. He was pointing at the map in his guidebook.

Maybe he was worried that he was on the wrong train? I looked at his map. St Malo wasn't on his map.

I got out my Lonely Planet, which was in English, but had a more-detailed railway map. I turned it towards him, pointed out St Malo, pointed out Renne. I said, "I go to St Malo. There is a transfer at Rennes."

This pleased him. He studied the Lonely Planet map. He made noises of enlightenment. I wracked my brains for all the Spanish I knew, but I still couldn't understand the guy. I just hoped he understood me.

At Rennes, Mister Question and I got off that train and onto the St Malo train. He kept asking questions that I didn't understand and I kept spouting reassurances that he couldn't understand. I sure hoped I had steered us onto the right train. (I had.) It moved through yet more boring flat farmland.

We stopped for a while in Dol De Bretagne. There was an old-looking factory right next to the station which would have been fun to photograph. If I'd realized how long the train was going to idle there, I would have hopped out to do that very thing. But I didn't, and soon we were rolling through fields again.

At St Malo station, Mister Question and I parted ways: he was going to the ferry terminal (and eventually to Jersey), I was heading into town. For this situation, I knew enough Spanish. I said, "Adios, senor." He looked at me strangely and replied, "Addio."

"Addio"? Maybe I hadn't understood his Spanish because he'd been speaking Italian? Or do Spanish people sometimes say "adio" instead of "adios?" I didn't ask. I just smiled and waved.

Welcome to Scenic St Malo

Tue Apr 16 The Not-So-Touristy Part of St Malo

St Malo has old stone buildings (and new stone buildings built to look like old stone buildings), a beach, swimming, boats, tidepools, and more. It seems that everybody in France knows this.

[Photo: Approaching the touristy part of St Malo]

To get to the touristy bit of St Malo from the train station, I walked along a road lined with warehouses and marine fitting shops. I inhaled and smelled the sea. I had missed that smell. I looked up, and saw stone walls and old fortifications ahead. But then I looked down a little lower and saw all the tour buses and cars parked in front of those stone walls and fortifications.

I've Come Thousands of Miles to See Fisherman's Wharf?

[Photo: cathedral crap store]

There were stores selling tourist crap operating out of the cathedral. That Jesus guy may have tossed the merchants out of the temple at some point, but apparently the temple had let them back in.

Tue Apr 16 The Touristy Part of St Malo

Then I was inside the city gates, and the place was aswarm with tourists. They spilled off the sidewalks and into the road. Cars crept along, not quite crushing anybody. People clumped up in front of shop doors, hoping for glimpses of t-shirts and ice cream.

There was one street whose pavement was mostly obscured by discarded chewing-gum. I don't know exactly why I blamed the tourists for this, but I did.

Fortunately, once I got a couple of blocks away from the cathedral, the crowds thinned out. I suspect that would not be the case if I'd been there during a more popular time of year. As it was, I think my luggage mauled a couple of people as I wriggled my way.

I reached the Hotel Aux Vielles Pierres. It appeared to be the upstairs of a closed restaurant. I rattled the doors of the restaurant, which were locked. Then I noticed that the Hotel had a separate door around the corner. That door was locked, too, but it had a doorbell. So I rang the doorbell.

Nobody answered. Maybe I should have called ahead.

My Home Away From Home In St Malo

Tue Apr 16 Hotel Port Malo, St Malo

Instead, I walked across the touristy part of town, knocking over those tourists who dared get in my way, until I reached the Hotel Port Malo. This place had rooms above a bar--and the bar was open. They checked me in.

I liked the Hotel Port Malo. My room had a TV. And I was able to enter the building.

You Will Reach Your Destination

Tue Apr 16 Ferry Terminal, St Malo

I visited the ferry terminal to buy a ticket to Portsmouth, England, the next day. Normally, I would pick up a ferry ticket just before hopping on the boat, but the morning's experience in the train station made me cautious. I was able to buy a ticket, but the guy at the counter seemed pretty surprised. I don't think he saw a lot of walk-in business.

But he sold me a ticket.

As I walked out of the ferry terminal, the loudspeaker was announcing the departure of some ship. I noticed Mister Question walking towards the gate. He didn't notice me. I didn't say "hi", since I wouldn't have known what language to say it in. But I was glad to see that he had found his ship.

Focus Around The Edges

[Photo: new St Malo construction]

Not all of those stone buildings were old. I got to watch some people constructing a new old-looking building.

Tue Apr 16 Around, St Malo

The center of town was a seething pit of tourist-hell, but I still had a good time in St Malo. I avoided the cathedral area and didn't waste too much time walking the city walls. (Each person in St Malo (and there were a lot of them) thought it would be a nice idea to walk the city walls.)

There were, uhm, dry ship-channels. Uhm, these were crosses between dry-docks and locks. I think that they could be filled with water when people wanted to move ships between the bay and one of the inland water-areas.

[Photo: uhm, dry ship-channel]

I can't explain the dry ship-channel things. Does this photo help?

[Photo: uhm, dry ship-channel]

Does this photo help? Or does it just make you wonder what those blocky-looking things on the bottom of the channel were for?

[Photo: Le Rendard, a tall ship]

This is Le Renard. If your boat is based out of St Malo, you can put "S-M" on the back of it and nobody thinks you're a pervert.

I walked over a beach. People were sunbathing on the beach, but none of the women were topless. And thus another one of my French stereotypes was tragically shattered. But this beach had something better than exposed breasts: it had tidepools.

[Photo: green anenomoid] [Photo: I have no idea what that reddish plant/critter/whatever was] [Photo: more plants and snails than you can stand]

Ooohh, looky! Nature!

I spent a lot of time clambering over the rocks, looking at the tidepools and the life lolling within.

These French tidepools were a lot like Californian tidepools, except that

None of the local French snails that I saw seemed more appetizing than the Californian snails I was used to. I still don't know how that got started.

I kept an eye on the waves, though. St Malo had big tides. One of the tourist attractions is a monastery on a peninsula--that becomes an island at high tide. (I haven't heard that there's anything interesting to see at this place. I think people just visit it because they think, "I'd better visit it in the next hour, because if I visit it later than that, I risk being trapped there until morning.") I wasn't sure why no-one else was out looking at the tidepools, but I thought maybe they knew that the spot was going to be underwater in 15 minutes. I could see wall-fragments pretty far out towards the water. Were they debris dumped down from the city? Or were they an old breakwater that had been shattered by incoming waves? Anyhow, I needn't have worried. I got hungry long before the tide came in.

Universal Lassitude

Tue Apr 16 Le Penjab, St Malo

I dined at Le Penjab, at the intersection of Rue des Lauriers and Rue Thevenard, or something like that. It wasn't vegetarian, but it was an Indian/Pakistani restaurant, so I recognized all of the dish names anyhow.

When I went in, the place was playing some rockin' modern bhangroid music, but they quickly changed it to something placid. That was too bad. In general, this place was kind of bland. The music-change was a bad sign; just as they did not wish to upset my ears, so they did not wish to risk upsetting my stomach.

In spite of the blandness, I felt like a wildly brave man at this place: I ordered off the menu. I didn't see "mango lassi" on the menu, but I did see "mangeau fraiches". So I ordered a "mango lassi," and they brought me one. It's a good thing they understood me, because even after a week in France, I don't think I could have said "fraiches."

When in France, Soak Up Culture

Tue Apr 16 Hotel Port Malo, St Malo

Since my room had a TV, I was able to watch the movie "Mars Attacks!" As I write this, I cannot remember if the movie was in English or dubbed into French. I am not sure that it matters.

Escape From France

Wed Apr 17 Ferry Terminal, St Malo
[Photo: dockboy]

Continuing my photo series "Dockboys of the World", this fellow helped us to cast off.

The ticket seller had told me to show up at the Ferry Terminal, "9:30 maximum". I didn't know if "maximum" meant "or earlier" or "or later". So I showed up a little earlier, which seemed fine; and I watched lots of people arrive a little later, which also seemed fine.

We walked through a gate so that people could check our tickets and our passports. We boarded a bus, which took us to the ferry, sparing us a walk along the dock.

The ferry seemed big enough to be a cruise liner. It had staterooms and shops. We left our luggage in a room and then spread out. I wandered around until I found my way to the forward deck.

Bad Idea

Wed Apr 17 The English Channel
[Photo: town across the bay from St Malo] [Photo: island off the French coast]

Most of the sights came along within an hour of leaving St Malo.

The ferry ride wasn't very interesting. It took most of the day, and much of the time we were too far from land to see much. I've enjoyed past ferry rides, but I think they have all been shorter and didn't spend so much time out in the middle of nowhere.

When we were close to a coast, things were interesting: there were lots of boats, islands, lighthouses, and what have you. But beyond that, there wasn't much. There were far-off boats and the occasional bird. I got excited at the sight of a buoy, that's how little there was to see. (I got a lot more excited when a school of dolphins and/or porpoises swam ahead of the ship for a couple of minutes, but I'm still surprised at how glad I was to see those buoys.)

It was more scenic than the chunnel would have been. All the same, I wished that I had chosen a quicker ferry crossing.

Border Cross

Wed Apr 17 Ferry Terminal, Portsmouth
[Photo: dockboy]

Continuing my photo series "Dockboys of the World", these fellows helped us to tie up.

As the ferry approached Portsmouth, I had my guidebook out. I looked at the city, and looked at my guidebook map. I figured out which part of the city the map covered. Then I watched that part of the city recede into the distance as the ferry approached its terminal. Great, I wasn't even in the country yet, and I was already lost.

The ferry docked. We retrieved our luggage. We disembarked. We were in Portsmouth, England, UK. Most of them went past immigration control with no problem, but not me.

The lady who checked my passport was not happy with me. I did not have a tangible ticket to leave her country. I was sunburned and wind-blown. I was unemployed.

She wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to look for work. I could have said, "But I've met lots of programmers from the UK, and they all wanted to live in California. They talked about soot raining from the sky in Bristol. They talked about poor pay in Macclesfield. Yours is a tiny country, but it is full of geekish misery." But I didn't think that would go over so well.

She asked me how I'd gotten into France. She asked me if the French border-people asked me any questions. "Nope, I just filled out this little yellow form." What did they do with the form? "Well, uh, the guy put it into a stack with everybody else's yellow forms, and that was the last I saw of it." This information seemed to make her sad, and she hadn't been happy to see me in the first place.

Everyone else got processed pretty quickly. But I had plenty of questions to answer. Where was I planning to go, seeing as how I was spending so much time in the country? "Portsmouth, Penzance, Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes..." She cut me off when I said "Milton Keynes." I'm not sure she believed me. I'm not sure how many foreigners go to Milton Keynes. I didn't even get a chance to mention Porthcurno.

Finally, she let me in.

Later, I looked at my passport. I'd asked for permission to stay in her country until May 18, 2002. She'd stamped me in with permission to stay until May 18, 2003.

I will never know exactly what was going on there.


Wed Apr 17 The Lady Hamilton, Portsmouth
[Photo: over the bus station]

The view from my room looked out over the bus station.

As I exited the taxi at the Portsmouth Bus Station and wrestled my luggage out, rain was just falling down. This luggage consisted of a big backpack which Tom Lester had loaned to me. I was glad to have such a gainly way to carry my stuff as I sprinted through the rain and into the door of the Lady Hamilton, a pub which rented rooms.

Running into the pub, I noticed that an advertising board outside advertised vegetarian dishes. As I waited for the barman to process my credit card, I had a chance to look at the menu. The most appetizing vegetarian choices were mushrooms stroganoff and vegetable Kiev, and they sounded quite awful. I made a mental note that pub-food-nature could transcend meatiness.

My room was huge. There was a TV. There was a bathtub. It was a great place to stretch out and celebrate my return to civilization.

Navigational Hazards

Wed Apr 17 Portsmouth

I stepped out of the hotel in search of a restaurant that would serve me something better than mushrooms stroganoff. The rain started to come down harder. I could tell that if I found a dinner place, the sun would be down before I finished dinner. Did I want to find my way back to this hotel in the dark?

I decided to walk just a little further, just to get my bearings. So of course I got lost.

Earlier, I made fun of Paris' street signs. In general, England's cities were worse than Paris. Many streets were unlabelled. Traffic circles were the worst: often, the signs told me where the various roads went, but not the names of those roads. So a sign told me that a road went to, e.g, the "A328", but I didn't know where the "A328" went, so this wasn't much help.

It's not quite accurate to say that "I got lost." Mostly, I realized that finding my way around Portsmouth (and subsequent cities) wasn't going to be as easy as I'd hoped.

Eventually, I found my way back to the Lady Hamilton where I dried off in my room and ate peanut butter sandwiches.


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