France Fail


Leaving Ireland, I acutely felt myself standing at the end of one era (if one and a half weeks is enough time for an era) and at the beginning of another. I remember the odd combination of sadness and excitement, not so much a mix of the two as the emanations of two separate parts of me focused on very different things. We people are divided creatures.

What a feeling of freedom, though, to look out along the distant waters waiting for a new country to appear. You stand on the railing at sunrise fighting the chilly breeze and straining to catch a whiff of so many new stories you know lie beyond the horizon, too far as of yet for your senses to begin molding into comprehensible shapes….

I’d decided that rather than fly it would be more economical to take the eighteen hour overnight ferry from Rosslare, Ireland to Cherbourg, France and then catch a train to Amsterdam the next morning. A few assumptions were fueling this plan:

I would save on a night’s accommodation by neither paying for a hostel nor booking a ferry bed and bumming it on one of the couches.
The Netherlands was right next to France (Belgium is like a remainder… it can be ignored) so catching a train would be no problem since, as my subconscious had come to believe thanks to hearing nothing but endless praise about the European railway system, trains ran from everywhere to everywhere many times a day.
Thanks to the cushy conditioning of my three hour trip on Irish Ferries, I now also believed that all ferries had free Wi-Fi, multiple bars, red-carpeted stairs, and a perfume store in the middle.

I imagined my night to go something like this: find some space on a couch, grab a coffee and croissant, and leisurely use the free Wi-Fi to browse possible places to visit in Normandy transitioning into some blogging until falling asleep well before I’d get up again to catch the sunrise. Every so often I’d glance out the window at the drifting waters and think about how awesome traveling was.

Well, Celtic Link’s ship was half the size of Irish Ferries’, and there was no red carpeting, nor a perfume store. But this was fine. I didn’t need overwhelming aesthetics to use a computer and sleep on a couch. I did need a couch and a Wi-Fi connection; but one of these things was scarce and one turned out to be nonexistent. I guess that’s why it was forty Euros cheaper than the other ship… the thought crawled over me.

Though a swift and silent competition for the limited couch space ensued right upon boarding, “bumming it” might be an inaccurate way of looking at the situation. We might think of it as that at first, if we came from the U.S. and did this for the first time, but looking back we might remember the tons of people who were returning to France, many with their kids, who secured their spaces and read books before curling up under their jackets as comfortably as they could, resembling average working class citizens far more than bums. This couldn’t even swing the other way to serve as my version of the “I had to sleep in a train station one night,” story.

“I had to sleep on a couch in a boat with only one bar and no Wi-Fi one night.” What an outlaw.

The lack of Wi-Fi was the far bigger problem. The plan to make plans fell through and I spent the night journaling and trying to learn more French phrases that I thought would be useful, like “je ne parle pas François” and “lent, s’il vous plait.”

Before I could get to that, though, I went through a twenty minute hassle of scouting the ship for a place to sleep and sit. Luckily, a kind woman offered me a bit of couch space and I didn’t need to resort to my intricate contraption of chairs stolen from all over the floor and placed front to front in a makeshift sleeping pad.

I hoped my dangerous new habit of automatically falling asleep on buses and trains would at least help me here, but like so many, I discovered that it didn’t translate to the horizontal position. The couch was exceedingly hard to fall asleep on. I felt uncomfortable and dirty when I finally gave up around four and went to the bathroom to change with the phrase “dirty backpacker” ringing in my cranky mind.

so worth the inconvenience
so worth the inconvenience

I went out on the deck to wait for the sunrise, which was just peeking in red and deeply orange tones at the end of a still dark sea. For all the minor misery I suffered on this crossing, still the most memorable thing was this sunrise. All of the photos I took put together wouldn’t equal ten percent of the beauty in seeing it with the naked eye, watching the water rhythmically dancing and clouds slowly drifting far, far away. Sometimes I’d see a lone boat in the distance and imagine how they experienced the early morning silence on such a tiny vessel with only a few other people, awaking to the fact that my pioneering traveler’s spirit was being transported to France on a fairly large commercial ship with a T.V. on inside. There are moments we wish we could keep bits of to have our clear windows into what’s made life wonderful before memory softens and skews it.

what their world must be like...
what their world must be like…
it looked like a painting
it looked like a painting


It was bright daylight when we docked into France, where I found myself with no plans, no accommodation, a heavy backpack, and a very limited knowledge of the language. I stood at the front of a path not yet forged. I had absolute freedom.

I spent a confusing twenty minutes figuring my way out of the port during which I walked through oncoming cars (it was actually the correct way out), and another thirty refusing a cab and walking in the once benign and now searing sunlight to the train station. There, I finally sat down to plan my journey… and made the startling discovery that France had very few hostels. Where are all the little red flags that are supposed to dot the landscape evenly from village to village? Normandy was a practically barren zone.

It was like being in a play and having the set suddenly fall from above onto the stage around you, imparting context. In a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” fashion I realized France wasn’t built for my idyllic countryside train ride wandering visions. I used my freedom to run another search and book the cheapest hotel in nearby Caen.

Why Caen? It avoided the black hole for trains called Paris, for one, and was at least in the direction of Amsterdam. I don’t even know why I was so bent on visiting Amsterdam – it wasn’t like it was particularly calling to me. But it was my plan and I was sticking with it. In hindsight I should have continued north to Lille (which still would’ve required me to go through Paris; you just can’t escape it), from where the whole plan would have worked and I would have gotten to visit what I heard was an awesome city and then awesome towns in Belgium like Bruges and Antwerp. Whenever I later explained to French people where I’d been in France, it took me at least three tries to make them understand Caen. They always thought I was saying Cannes. ”Caen! Ca-en!” I’d say, and they would look at me confused. “Ah, Khohn!” they would then exclaim after thinking about it. And then they would tell me to visit Lille.

The luxury of a private room was reluctantly welcomed after a night and day of unpredicted stress and little sleep. I headed downstairs around sunset to make tea, finding the kitchen, unfortunately, closed. But what have we learned so far? To open closed doors. The worst they could do was kick me out of the kitchen. I wanted tea, damnit.

I startled no one but the entire staff eating dinner, who looked at me.

“I just want to boil some water for tea, if that’s okay,” I say. I don’t even remember if I tried this in French. I made hand motions to help explain.

It was the beginning of Ramadan, and the four of them – one middle aged man and the other three guys a few years older than I – had a home cooked feast laid out on the table. They invited me inside to eat and offered me all sorts of delicious French food that I don’t remember the names of. They also all turned out to be biologists or biochemists, working in the hotel for the summer, so we sat and talked for a while, hashing out communication that was 80% English and 20% French. A pleasant the end to a miserable day.

What is the takeaway message here? Not to mark one tick for planning and scoff at spontaneity; nor to research a country’s accommodation before plunging in without a clue; it’s to open the doors that are marked closed, or at least try to.

So it wasn’t the best laid of plans. I’ll finish with some practical tips I learned from this.

  1. Fly
  2. Bring a roll-up foam mat with you. I saw a couple people camping like this under the stairs on the ferry. They’re so light and useful and can be strapped onto the side of your luggage, I’ll never backpack without one again.
  3. The children’s play area is technically a giant mat as well. This occurred to me while I was looking for a spot to sleep, but either nobody saw it this way, or there was a good reason they weren’t using it. I decided to go with the latter and continued searching for a couch.
isn't she majestic?

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