A poverty-curtailed attempt to get to Budapest
My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a vague idea, but gradually I began to think I would actually go, and finally, the day the exams finished, I packed my bags and decided to have a crack at it.
In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so I decided to skip buying a few essential things and head for Victoria. There, I found that the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King's Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called 'abroad' is Scotland, their use there is limited. So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, and got on the ferry to France. The weather was great and the boat was almost empty, so I spread my things out over several tables, and enjoyed the ride.
Calais looked grim, and when I got to the station, I found that there was a train to Paris going in 10 minutes. I bought a ticket and headed east. Despite the train being almost empty, the conductor moved me on when he checked my ticket, as I was sitting in a reserved seat. He sent me off down the train, but there seemed to be no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren't. He had to move me on twice more before I got it right. He then stamped my ticket seven times, muttered something in French which I assume was something like "idiot foreigner", and stomped off.
At Boulogne, the train filled up with loud and obnoxious schoolkids. As they raced up and down the carriages, throwing things, picking their noses and burping, I found myself talking to a Pakistani bloke. He seemed to have been a refugee in most western European countries, and from what I could gather, he'd just been deported from Britain, and was going to try his luck in France. He'd already had experience of French bureaucracy - "Government write very much paper" - and didn't hold out too much hope of getting very far.
We arrive in Paris at 9pm. I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est, and tried to buy a ticket to Budapest. But I was too poor and my card was rejected. So I revised my plans, and, seeing as there was a train to Munich leaving in 20 minutes, I bought a ticket and went there instead.
When I went to sleep I was the only person in my carriage, but when I woke up I was surrounded by commuters, who looked as if they felt far too respectable to be sharing a carriage with a shabby backpacker. After a 10 hour journey, we arrived exactly on time at München Hauptbahnhof.
I headed for the Englischer Garten, a huge park stretching along the east side of the city. There was a sudden heavy rainshower when I arrived and I hung around under cover in the Hofgarten. Eventually, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and a Ukrainian violinist appeared. He began tuning up. After a few minutes of scratchy unpleasant noise, he stopped, paused, and began again. I realised he was actually playing a tune, and left quickly.
I sat in the park in the evening sunshine. There was a group of percussionists playing nearby, and I could hear a brass band playing somewhere further away. I wandered off towards the sound of the music. It turned out to be a traditional Bavarian band playing, all in lederhosen and silly hats.
I stayed in the park until it was almost dark, and then wandered back into the city via grand streets lined with grand buildings.
The next day dawned bright and very warm, and seeing as it had been so pleasant the day before, I went back to the Englischer Garten. I couldn't really afford to do much else.
But by the time I'd got out of the U-bahn, there were clouds in the sky, and it was getting cooler. Soon it had started raining. I thought I'd walk on through the park, in the hope that it would soon stop, but in fact just as I got to the point furthest from any shelter, the rain started really lashing down. By the time I got out of the park, I was absolutely sodden, and considerably less cheerful than I had been. I went back to the station to go back to Paris.
The first thing to do was work out the Paris metro. I was tired from the night train and it took me longer than it should have, but eventually I worked out how to get from République to the centre of town, and later still I worked out that it would have been quicker to walk it anyway.
I started off by checking out Notre Dame. It was extremely full of tourists and not particularly pleasant. The views from outside were nicer.
After Notre Dame, I went back to the hostel, and slept like I've never slept before. I woke up completely refreshed at 8am the next day, and decided to go to the Louvre. I saw the classics: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. And I saw lots of works of art that I'd never heard of that impressed me much more.
The Mona Lisa was OK, I suppose. Probably would have looked better if I'd got within 20 feet of it, but it was set back inside a protective case, which meant you could only see it from almost directly in front of it. So there was a column of people across the room, all squinting and straining to see it.
I was quite impressed with the Venus de Milo, but it was the rooms full of giant Greek statues that I'd never heard of which really impressed me. It made me think, though - why all the fuss about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum when there are Greek artefacts all over the world? Why shouldn't Greek works be seen outside Greece?
Who could go to Paris without checking out the Eiffel Tower? It was only supposed to be a temporary thing and was almost pulled down in 1909, but was saved by its capacity to be used as a radio mast. This was quite lucky, because Paris without the Eiffel Tower today seems unthinkable.
I arrived at about 7pm on a beautiful May day. The crowds were still quite large, so before I went up, I wandered around for a while, searching for the photograph that would make the tower look as huge as it is. I strolled down through the Champ de Mars. I passed people in berets playing boules (honestly), people playing cards on a table improvised out of a box in a bin, and other such odd scenes of Paris parklife.
At the bottom of the Champ de Mars is a peace monument, right in front of the military academy. It's a strange juxtaposition. From here, it was a fine view up to the tower, and I walked back towards it. Having now seen it from everywhere except up it, I bought my ticket and went to the lift. It's a little bit disturbing, going up at an angle as you do. By the time we got to the second level, the view was already pretty amazing, and I wondered whether I'd wasted my money on the ticket to the top. But once the lift started the big ascent, I decided it was worth it.
The view from the top was breathtaking. Central Paris glowed in the late evening light. The sky was clear, but there was rain falling to the west. As the sun descended towards the horizon, the light got steadily more and more amazing. After the sunset, the lights slowly came on, until with the sky a deep shade of blue, Paris was like a glowing carpet.
Eventually, at 11pm, I decided I'd have to come down and get the metro back to the youth hostel. It was really difficult to tear myself away, though. I hadn't expected to be so impressed by the tower.
The next day dawned grim and rainy. I decided it would be a good day to check out the Pompidou centre, but when I arrived at 10.30am, I found out it wouldn't open until 11am. So I wandered around in the drizzle for half an hour, returning to read the sign more carefully and realise it wasn't actually going to open at all. So I wandered around the left bank and the Ile St. Louis.
I had lunch of French bread and cheese near Boulevard Jules Ferry, then went to Gare du Nord to buy a ticket back to Calais. The rain built up to monsoon proportions while I was at the station, but by the time I was done it had eased back to a heavy drizzle, so I thought I'd go to Montmartre. I climbed to the top and spent a while gazing out over Paris.
This was the moment I felt my student days were really over. I was absolutely broke and would need to get a job as soon as I got back. I felt melancholy as I thought about the last four years, standing up there in the rain. But I pulled myself together as it was getting dark, and the rain began to fall heavily again.
The sky was still leaden in the morning, but it was dry as I made my way to the station. I got a TGV to Calais, where the sun had broken out, and by the time I was across the channel, it was a warm, sunny day. France was clearly visible across the water, which is always startling. I got on the train back to London, and prepared myself for the real world.