France, Spain, Poland
17.12.2007 - 08.01.2009
I waited so long to write about my Europe-Africa trip, because I’ve been thinking no word can ever describe it.
I wasn’t supposed to leave on vacation until mid January when the intersession winter classes finish. But, at the last minute, I found out that I was spared teaching the winter classes and found myself on vacation a month earlier than I expected. This was the first time since I came to Korea that I didn’t have to teach during the vacation and therefore having the whole two months off.
I had booked a ticket to Dakar via Paris for mid January with two airlines: Air France and Aeroflot. The Air France portion was flexible and could change, with a fee, but the Aeroflot could not. I had planned to tour around Europe after Africa to avoid the kind of shock effect I suffered from when I went from Singapore to Cambodia. But I wasn’t going to stay in Korea for a month waiting for my flight, so I changed the plan: Europe first, Africa next.
And, there I was on a plane to France on December 17th right after I entered the final grades. Without any itinerary, I decided to 'kill time' in Europe until my flight to Dakar, from December 17th to January 8th.
Couchsurfing is a blessing. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford a 2-month vacation, or if I could, I would be lonely and isolated watching CNN in my hotel room.
My first host was Richard, a free spirited Parisian in love with Brazil, who had his door open to guests any time. He had emailed me his address, which he said by subway it shouldn’t take more than an hour to get to from the airport. It was easy to find, but it took longer to get there. When I got there, I saw the rings on the door but didn’t know which one to buzz! I waited for a few minutes and then asked the shop across from his apartment to let me use their phone to call. No answer. I tried again and left a message. I had the address of two hostels for back up, so I took a cab and went Peace and Love hostel. The hostel turned out to be a place for party animals, and the room was strange. My room was on the 4th floor which meant I had to climb 100 steps in a spiral stairway that was too narrow for my suitcase, so I had to leave it in the basement and take the stuff I needed with me. By the time I got to my room, I was tired and dizzy having climbed the painfully long spiral stairway.
December 18th was a cold but sunny day. I got up early and got on a Paris city tour bus. I was so excited to be in Paris that I didn’t mind the blow of the cold wind while I was sitting on the top deck of the bus. The bus went around the town and I took mental note of the places I wanted to go back to visit.
At night, Richard sent me an email and invited me over again, explaining that he couldn’t reach me last night since I didn’t have a cell phone. Hauling around my suitcase was a heavy task so after yet another expensive cab ride, I met him and another CSer from the U.S. Later that night, he invited other couchsurfers in Paris for a small gathering. We partied, drank whatever we could get our hands on, from soju, my souvenir from Korea, to wine and vodka, and shared stories. French guys party like there is no tomorrow. At the party, I met Francois, a couchsurfer from Toulouse, who was going to drive back to Toulouse the next day and was looking for someone to share the ride. I didn’t know where Toulouse was and had never heard of it before, but 20 euros sounded like a good deal to get to the south of France, so I decided to go.
The next morning, François and I went to get his car, which was parked somewhere on the street only to find out that it had been towed. We spent the whole day trying to figure out how to get it back. It was Sunday and we weren’t sure if the parking lot was open. It took him many phone calls, lots of stress and 132 euros to get his car back. Then we met Emmanuel, a nice French girl who needed to send some of her stuff from Paris to Toulouse. So we drove to her house in the suburb of Paris and spent the night there. She had made a nice meal which we gratefully shared, talked and went to bed. The next day we squeezed Emmanuel’s stuff in the car and drove to Toulouse. At night, François had organized a CS party at his place.
I stayed with François and his lovely sister, Iris, for three days. The second day, I went for a short walk around the neighborhood, and spend a long time in an internet café catching up with my emails. The next day, François gave me a tour around Toulouse: the cathedral, downtown and the romantic river. Toulouse is pretty. We had lunch at a famous French restaurant where many panties were hung on the wall. Apparently on some special nights, women who take off their underwear get a free drink! The owner was the type of person who you wouldn’t ever forget if you met him, funny with a strong personality. We had Foie Gras, forced-fed duck’s liver. Foie Gras is a delicacy in France and hard to believe that it actually exist. In a country where human rights and democracy has been an example for other countries, people actually still do that to ducks and geese? Some argue that forced feeding doesn’t hurt the animal because the birds still come to the tubes voluntarily. But the tubes could cause throat injuries or death, and the unnatural excessive fattening of the animal doesn’t sound humane.
I don’t like staying with a host for more than three days because then guest becomes a burden. I was thinking about my next destination when I found out that Toulouse is only few hours away from Spain. So I decided to hop on a train to Barcelona the next day.
On December 23rd, François took me to the train station and I took the train to Barcelona. The train ride was nice, going through villages that looked like postcards. I daydreamed about staying in one of those white villas next to a light house in a villages in the middle of nowhere. Maybe after Africa before going back to Korea?
Barcelona is beautiful, and dodgy! There are so any tourists and ethnicities in Barcelona that it’s had to tell who’s who and who's doing what. After I got off the train, dragging my big suitcase behind me, I walked to the subway station which was few blocks away from the train station. I waited in the line at the ticket machine and saw people in front of me had some yellow fluid, something like throw-up on their back and their bags. I thought a car might have splashed that on them and thanked God I had none on me. I bought a ticket and went down to the train. While waiting for the train, a good-looking guy, who spoke no English, came to me, said something in Spanish and pointed to my jacket. I turned around and there it was, I had the yellow throw-up on me too and all over my luggage. He offered some napkins and helped me clean up my suitcase. I thankfully accepted his help and thought to myself, “yeah, a pretty Spanish boy! I already like Barcelona!” Then he suggested, through body language, that I take off my jacket to clean it up. I had to put down my purse to take off my jacket, so I did. He pointed to the left and said: “water!” I guess meaning that there’s water over there if you want to wash up. Naturally, I looked at the direction his finger was pointing at, and in a matter of seconds, my purse was gone. I looked down and it wasn’t there. I saw a guy walking up the stairs the opposite direction from us, and since he was the only one going that direction, my guts told me it was him. I ran after him and firmly tapped on his shoulder “Give me my purse back!” he dropped it on the steps and kept walking. I grabbed my bag and went back to where my suitcase was. The ‘helpful’ guy was gone too. They were working in a team. They always do. I yelled, ‘I can’t believe this!” People looked at me and mumbled things I couldn’t understand. Then a female cop came to me and said in broken English “We caught the guy. This has happened a few times before too..”
So I learned that Barcelona is no safer than Beijing and held on tight to my stuff for the rest of my stay.
The first night, I checked into a hostel and tried to get rid of the yellow stains on my jacket and suitcase, and then called it an early night.
The second day, December 24th, I bought a three-day pass for the city tour bus, which I have made a habit of using when I’m in a new town. Barcelona was fascinating. The architecture, the life, the cafes, every corner and every street is picture-perfect. I sat on the top deck of the bus and took in as much of Barcelona as I could. I sat there on the top deck and went around town twice. Then I got off at the hostel and went for a walk around the city. At night, the Christmas eve, I went to a ‘dinner for orphans’ CS party where I met Juan, a professional CSer. He offered to host me in Barcelona. He then said if I beat him in chess, I can stay for as long as I want! The next day, He picked me up from subway station. We played chess on the beach. He turned out to be very good at chess and kicked my ass three times! we talked about the CS guests he’s had and teaching English in Korea and Europe. On December 26th, I went for another city tour bus and sat on the top deck again. It started raining but didn’t make me want to move inside. The rain made the architecture look even more majestic. At night we had pizza and watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The next day, I got sick as a dog, it must have been the rain. It had been raining in Barcelona for a couple of days. It didn’t show any sign of stopping so I decided to get out. Juan helped me find the cheapest airfare to ANYWHERE! And it was Poznan Poland by Ryan air for 20 Euros.
At night, sick and tired in bed, I thought about my family, my friends and Scott. I missed them and wished there were there with me. Suddenly I felt so lonely, thinking to myself why I left home and why I was there in Spain by myself when I should be with the ones I love. It was a strange feeling. Wasn’t this trip all I wanted? To be traveling around Europe? to see the world? Why is it that now that I had it, it felt so insignificant? I cried in bed and was careful not to wake up my host. I guess when you travel alone, there is always a time when you miss home and that’s what makes you appreciate it even more when you get back.
Barcelona captured my heart and it became my favorite city in Europe (so far) but I was ready to leave for a warmer sunny place. My flight to Poznan was at 4:00 a.m. Juan Kindly took me to the station and I took the bus to the airport. I got in Poznan at 10:30 am. Landing in Poznan and walking through the train station comparing it to Barcelona, was like going 100 years back. Everything looked cold and unwelcoming. It was like a ghost town, empty, unfriendly and cold, even colder than Barcelona! I took the tram in the wrong direction and had to wait for the next one,. No one spoke English. It took me a couple of hours to find my way to the hostel, Frolic Goats. When I finally got to the hostel, cold and sick as a dog, I slept for the rest of the afternoon until the next day.
The next day, I felt a little better, and decided to go for a walk around Poznan. I walked to the town’s pretty town center, the old cathedral and the modern shopping mall. The cathedral was stunning and humbling. I was the only one sitting there in the back row, with occasional visitors who’d come and go. I sat there, contemplated my life, and again cried. Cried because I was feeling ungrateful for what God has given me. I was mad at myself for not being more grateful for being blessed with freedom and health and all the things I’ve been blessed with. Grateful to be able to do the things I want, to be able to be who I want to be, and to be able to just ‘be’. I felt ashamed for not being happy that night in Barcelona. So I cried in silence and thanked God for being so good to me.
The next couple of days, while I was recovering from the Flu, I went for a walk around the shopping mall, caught up with my emails, wrote, and enjoyed the peace and quiet in the last days of the year.
In Poznan, nobody checks your ticket when you get on a tram. Occasionally, a ticket controller might come on the tram to check whether people have tickets, and if you don’t, you could get a heavy fine.
One funny thing in Poland is that ALL the movies are dubbed with one voice all throughout the movie. So you hear the actors in the original language in the background, and one voice, male or female translates the dialogues to Polish while trying to change his/her tone of voice when the actors are angry or screaming. Funny to watch but it takes so much away from the movie! There wasn’t one single movie with subtitles!
I had one host in Poznan: Tomak, a medical student who had been to Iran! When we met, he told me he and his friends were disappointed that I wasn’t actually Korean, but got over it quite fast. On New Year’s Eve, we went to a small house party with some other medical students and had a cozy celebration.
On January 1st, there was a CS slide show party where Tomak and another CSer showed slides from their trips to Iran and Turkey. It was interesting to see those guys talking about their trip to and their impression of Iran. I had no idea Iran had become a sensational tourist destination for East Europeans.
On January 2nd, I met Agga, a lovely Polish girl who invited me to her apartment and treated me like she had known me for years. We went to the supermarket, bought food and wine. I made Loobia-polo and she made the best chocolate moose I’ve ever had. We talked about our lives till midnight and then went to a CS party at Dragon’s organized by François from Toulouse! He was there with his friends after a night of partying in Berlin, which is only an hour away from Poznan. It was nice to see him again and his crazy French friends!
The next day, I got on a bus to Lyon, where my uncle lives. First, a mini bus took us out of town, where we waited for a bigger bus to take us to France. It was freezing cold and the big bus was so late that for hours I thought we had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. There was a restaurant/hotel where we went inside to escape the cold. We waited for hours and when the bus finally showed up, I slept all the way and woke up the next day at the bus station in Lyon.
My uncle was at the bus station to pick me up. Seeing my uncle made me so happy. I hadn’t seen him for years and had vague memories of him visiting us in Iran, teach us French words and numbers, helping out at my sister’s wedding while my father was away, and visiting us in Montreal. He took me to his apartment where I met his wife. The next day, he took me around Lyon and showed me the old part of the town which looked very gothic, just the way I had seen on postcards. On January 6th, he helped me book a train back to Paris.
After Lyon, I had one more day in Paris to kill before my flight to Senegal. I walked around Paris and got my shoes fixed at a shop that was run by a Cambodian family. It was so lovely to talk to them and hear their story of leaving Cambodia and immigrating to France. I stayed at Love and Peace hostel again and anxiously got ready to my trip to Dakar, the trip I had been waiting for a long long time.