Proost!

I think I’m in some kind of dreamlike trance.

It cannot be true and real and actual that I spent last night at a BBQ in a huge, beautiful garden in Belgium, drinking champagne, having conversations with people I’d never met before, in a mixture of four languages, singing along with music that ranged from Queen to traditional Australian music to U2, having a go at playing the djembe, and eventually jumping into the pool for a swim at around midnight, splashing around under the stars and laughing with complete strangers who now seemed like old friends.

Even more unlikely is the fact that this is where I’m going to be living for the next month.

I expect I’ll wake up soon, but for now I’m enjoying the best dream I’ve ever had. The people I’m housesitting for are amazing – they’re treating it like it’s my holiday home and have introduced me to friends, stocked the fridge with food, and gone off leaving me to enjoy their beautiful home, garden and pool. I’m just sitting here by the pool with the dog snoring contentedly on my lap, sipping a glass of champagne (me, not the dog) that they presented me with to toast my month of luxury, shaking myself occasionally and looking around in a dazed manner. This can’t be real, can it?!

I’m sure I’ll pull myself together soon and write you some amusing tales about the difficulty I had in getting here due to a misunderstood announcement at the train station in Brussels, or the fact that the parrot managed to let itself out of its cage approximately an hour after the owners left (the beak-shaped dent, blood and swelling on my index finger would describe the situation more clearly than words ever could), but for now please excuse this awestruck, delirious-sounding post.

Hails is happy.

Head in the clouds

It would be quite a silly idea, if you were someone who had almost passed out whilst impulsively climbing the steps up some big hill in Lyon, to even consider taking on a much larger number of stairs less than a week later. No, you’d want to stay safely and contentedly on the ground, happy to look up, breathing regularly, sweating less dangerously, lungs still intact. That would be the sensible thing to do.

Still. You can’t go to Paris and not climb the Eiffel Tower, can you? The unfortunate thing about my apparent newfound enthusiasm for going up in the world is that I have chosen to do so in temperatures in excess of 30°C. This is unwise for a person who struggles with heat. A person like me, actually. It was so hot that they had huge fans spraying cold water all over the queues of waiting climbers at the bottom! Ascending stairs in the cold winter air is one thing – it can even help to warm you up, making it a beneficial exercise. But with the sun beating down on you and not a breeze to be felt on your burning skin? Probably wise to give it a miss.

So, up I went then.

And up, and up, and up…

I think I climbed quite close to the sun, as I was so hot by the time I reached the top that you could have barbequeued a couple of decent steaks on my face. Look, said my slim and agile couchsurfing hostess, looking cool and refreshed from her casual upward stroll, you can see Notre Dame over there! She pointed, and I tried to blink away the spots that were dancing merrily in front of my eyes. Oh yes, I gasped, clutching the railing with one hand and making a futile attempt to dry my forehead with the other, there it is!

Of all the traditional View of Paris from the Eiffel Tower photos that I took, impressive as that view was, my favourite shot is this one. Tiny little dots of people, safely on the ground, in full control of their breathing and with non-trembling legs. And that’s only from the first floor. The Eiffel Tower is Very Big. That’s my official travel writer’s description of the must-see landmark. Very Big. I should be getting paid a fortune for insights like these, you know.

In the summer when it sizzles, in the winter when it drizzles…

I’m off to Paris in the morning.

I don’t know what my access to the internet will be like until I get to where I’m staying in Belgium, so I may disappear for a few days. Rest assured, I’ll be back with tales of travels, mishaps, book readings and new friends, and of course the obligatory photo of me pretending to hold the distant Eiffel Tower between my thumb and index finger.

For now, everything I own is once again packed up in a far-too-heavy rucksack, although I will note that for the second time now I have ditched a lot of unnecessary stuff. By Christmas, I’ll be travelling with nothing but a change of underwear and a clean t-shirt in a carrier bag. Oddly, though, despite having jettisoned a reasonable amount of clothing in Tallinn, and now again in Lyon, my belongings still seem to take up exactly the same amount of space in my bag. Is there some kind of mathematical theory that applies here?

Lyon has been fantastic experience, computer problems and pickpockets aside. I think it was the perfect introduction to France, for me – I got to find my feet in a city that’s not too scarily metropolitan and is actually very quaint and traditional in places, with a flatmate who spoke good English. Note to self: plan on taking French refresher course upon return to France.

Paris is shaping up to be fun, too: I’m couchsurfing for the first time, which could either be nightmarish or a great opportunity to make new friends. I’m hopeful for the latter, as it might be nice to have someone show me around rather than spending most of my time just trying to find my way out of the Metro station. There’s sightseeing to be done, a book reading to attend, a dinner invite to accept, and more bad French to be spoken, no doubt. Then off to “my” new house (for a month, anyway!) in Belgium! Le Flatmate is unspeakably amused by this, and keeps grinning to himself when he thinks about it. He says that if I’m struggling to keep up with the accents in Lyon, I’ll have no hope of understanding Belgians.

Ah, well. I’m from Ballymena. I’m used to complex dialects.

Saying ‘allo, ‘allo

I’m always pleased when I find out that my preconceived notions about something are true.

This is why, for example, I sat with a big grin on my face when I arrived at Part-Dieu station from Lyon airport, having found myself surrounded by a buzzing crowd of busy people, with two little old men busking in the middle of it all. One of them was playing the accordian, the other had a violin. It was just so… French. Kind of like ‘Allo, ‘Allo, only without the silly accents and ridiculous storylines. I got myself a drink from a nearby vendor, and just sat on a wall in the station square, taking everything in, enjoying the sunshine, and listening to the general Frenchness of it all.

Imagine my joy, then, when I observed people doing the cheek-kissing thing for the first time.

It makes me smile every time I see it. The first was when I was walking along the street behind a sweet little old lady. A family member had been waiting for her, and got out of his car to greet her and take her bags as they exhanged bonjours. I had to stop and wait as they blocked my path, but I didn’t mind. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. It was sweet. You’d be hard pushed to see a cool-looking UK youth kissing his granny in the street.

Opposite the apartment where I’m staying is a bar/café, and it seems to be a popular place for friends to meet for lunch, coffee or drinks. They sit outside under the shade of a parasol, and the sound of the conversations and laughter constantly floats up and in through my open windows. It is also a very good case study in the field of cheek kissing, as there seems to be some kind of social rule stating that you must greet a newcomer with cheek kisses. I think I’ve worked out that when it’s family or a very special loved one, four kisses are required – left, right, left, right. In a standard, friend or casual acquaintance type of scenario, one on each cheek seems to be the norm.

It’s amusing to observe just how much time people spend simply greeting each other. If two people are sitting at a table, and one more arrives, this necessitates four kisses. If three more then arrive, that means eighteen kisses. And if, in the middle of that, you’ve got very close friends and/or relatives, you’ll have to double the number of kisses between certain individuals. The whole set-up would make me incredibly nervous, being the worrier that I am, i.e. what if I kiss someone too many times and it means I’m accidentally declaring my undying love? Worse, in front of their significant other? Or worse yet, what if I don’t kiss someone enough times and it’s taken as a horrible, unforgivable insult?

Fortunately none of my encounters here have required kissing, and so I am free to look out of my window at the bar across the street and just watch others kissing. That sounds a bit disturbing, actually, now that I see it written down. It’s all perfectly innocent. My main source of amusement has been watching these social interactions at the bar and imagining how different they would be in the UK.Think about it: a group of people are sitting at a table, and more friends join them.

France: Everything stops at this point as the important business of saying hello is taken care of. Everyone has to pick someone to kiss first, and somehow keep track of who has been kissed, who remains to be kissed, and who they actually arrived with and therefore don’t need to kiss. The onus is generally on those arriving – those already there are allowed to remain sitting, while newcomers must visit all sides of the table, often stepping over chairs and squeezing past strangers, reaching down to kiss the seated party. Unless, of course, the newcomer is a significant female and the seated person is male, in which case it would be bad form to remain seated: the arrival of wives, girlfriends, mothers and grannies seems to require husbands, boyfriends, sons and grandsons to get up and approach for kisses. Only when all appropriate kisses been issued can everyone sit down and continue with a conversation.

UK: Brief pause as everyone looks up to see newcomers. Alright? say the newcomers, sitting down. How are you? says everyone else. Conversation continues.

It’s certainly a lot easier in the UK. But the French way does look so much more fun, n’est-ce pas?!

Lullaby

The pipes, the pipes are calling…

I wake up from my dream, the soft, soothing melody of the music delighting me. Everything else is quiet; it is 3am and Lyon is asleep. The traffic noise outside my window has died down, there are no conversations to be overheard from the restaurant downstairs, and the only sound is the tune from the lone panpiper wandering through the streets. The tune cuts through the still night air and drifts in through my window.

Eh?!

That doesn’t seem quite right. Sleepy and disoriented, I get out of bed and stumble over to the window. Hanging out to peer at the street below, I see a solitary figure walking along the pavement. He could just be a normal punter on his way home from a night in the town; the difference, however, is that he is playing a tune on some sort of flute as he walks. There he is, just walking down the street, in the dark, on his own, all serious and thoughtful… playing a flute.

I watch him until he disappears from view, and the sound of the music gradually fades away.

It is not for me to question the strange sights I see on my travels. I tried that: there are too many, and I’ve begun to realise that maybe the only strange thing is that I see them as strange. So now I just record them without questions.

There’s bound to be a mystery around here somewhere, old chap!

Vieux Lyon, Lyon’s “Old Town” area, is beautiful.

I think I’m an “Old Town” person, having fallen head over heels in love with Tallinn Old Town in Estonia – I love cobbled streets, rickety buildings, and the feeling of having stepped back in time. I’ve been to Vieux Lyon several times now, but yesterday I went with a mission: to find the traboules.

There’s no exact translation for this Lyonnais word, but my research tells me that it comes from “trans-ambulare,” which literally means “to pass through”. That works: they are covered, tunnel-like passageways, which run through buildings and courtyards to connect one street to another. The traboules were apparently invented to accomodate Lyon’s famous silk industry, as a method of safely (and dryly, presumably) transporting fabrics from workshop to workshop. Yes: they are Actual Old Secret Passageways! This pleases me, Enid Blyton fan that I am. Well, OK, maybe not so much “secret” as “major tourist attractions”, but still. If you hadn’t done your research, you wouldn’t immediately spot them. In fact, even though I knew what I was looking for, I was still a bit hesitant to actually go inside, as the first traboule I found was behind a huge, heavy wooden door. It looked awfully official.

It took New Me to give Old Me another determined shove before I stood up tall and pushed open the door. Old Me ran away screaming in horror, and I marched proudly onwards. It was a little scary, actually. Quite dark – and I’ve been a bit jumpy about the possibility of encountering rats lately, since meeting one in the apartment building. Feeling as if I should be in possession of a flashlight, some ginger beer, and a dog called Timmy, I followed the long, winding passage and eventually came out into another gorgeous old courtyard. This might not sound like much of an adventure, but I repeated the process with every traboule I managed to find, addicted to the anticipation of where I might find myself when I reached the other end. Honestly, it really is not expensive to entertain me.

I also paid a visit to the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, at the top of Fourvière Hill. As stunningly beautiful and ornate as the cathedral was, I have to say that my lasting impression is of the hill itself. I came across it by accident, walking down one of the afore-mentioned cobbled streets, when I saw a guy cut into an alleyway that turned out to be a staircase. On impulse, I decided to see what was at the top. I’m not a fan of steps (or Steps, for that matter, although I did enjoy their cover of Tragedy), but it seemed manageable:

I had to climb more steps than that to reach my apartment in Glasgow. And so I set off quite energetically. My enthusiasm faded somewhat when, slightly out of breath and beginning to overheat, I rounded the corner you can see just ahead of Backpack Guy, and was faced with this:

Hmmm. However, despite the potential heart failure that was this hill, I chose to continue. Figured there must be something worth seeing at the top. Backpack Guy vanished into the clouds and I plodded onwards, wishing I’d started counting at the bottom just for the official record. Thousands and thousands of steps, there were, I assure you, and you have no reason not to believe me. It started to get a little embarrassing when I began meeting people who were skipping down the steps in a most carefree manner. I had to pretend I was engaged in sending an important text message on my phone each time I paused to try to regulate my breathing. They looked at me in amusement, and said things quietly to each other in French. I just know they were discussing the colour of my face, the irregularity of my breathing and the sweat-drenched section of my t-shirt, but I couldn’t speak to shout “Yah! See if I care!”.

It became much, much worse when people actually started passing me on the way up. I just continued to pretend that I was taking a leisurely stroll (and not, as was the case, on the verge of collapse), and tried to ignore their effortless ascents.

By the time I reached the top (approximately 5 minutes after I’d  stopped believing in the existence of a “top”), I was barely breathing. I hauled myself up the last few steps by clinging to the handrail, and collapsed on a dusty kerb, wheezing and sweating profusely. I remained there for at least 15 minutes, unable to stand up, receiving sympathetic looks from passers-by, one of whom – for a horrible moment – looked as if he was going to throw me some spare change.

Eventually I got to my feet, and, knees trembling, staggered along the road to the nearest gap in the trees. I stood there for a long, long time:

I could see nearly the entire city from where I shakily stood. My camera (alas, only a phone camera) doesn’t come close to doing it justice. It was breathtaking. And it almost – almost – made it worth risking my life to see it…

Itchy and Scratchy

It’s an impossible dilemma, as far as I can see.

Close the windows and suffocate in my sleep? Or keep them open and be eaten alive by insect intruders?

Unable to bear the sticky, clingy heat as I attempt to get to sleep, I tend to opt for option two in the hope that at some point during the night there might possibly be the slightest hint of something vaguely approaching a mild breeze to keep me alive. I didn’t notice many insects, to be honest, until a few days ago. This was something of a surprise to me, as insects love me. Clearly, they just didn’t know I was here. Then, one night, a little fly drifted into my room by mistake and had a nibble on my left arm.

Wow, he thought to himself, hardly able to believe his luck, this is the best meal I’ve had all summer! Buzzing with excitement, he returned to his friends in the neighbouring district. Spread the word! he cried excitedly, Free food over in the 6eme arrondissement! Amazing Irish cuisine! Eat as much as you like! All of this was probably in French, of course. I’m not arrogant enough to expect that all the flies here speak English.

They arrived in swarms, queueing up at the window to await their turn at the newest buffet in town. Now it’s like my bedroom is The Place To Be, if you happen to be an insect in Lyon. They don’t even wait until I’m asleep any more – I’ve killed 15 of these mini vampires upon discovering them happily feasting on my blood while I was still conscious! The sheer nerve of it. My skin, which was finally a nice, healthy, glowing brown from being out and about in nice weather instead of sitting whitely at a desk in a room with no windows every day, is now covered with puncture wounds and the occasional trickle of blood.

I hope I don’t die before I get to see what Paris is like.

A Bad Day

The Sister, in a rather strange French comment, has revealed to the world that my pickpocket incident was by no means the first time that I found myself sans possessions.

In 2003, on a wet and dreary day in Glasgow, Student Hails was having a Very Bad Day. Late for a seminar, tired from sitting up all night in an attempt to write an essay of the I completely forgot this was due tomorrow variety, and having just been served decaf coffee by mistake in the canteen, I noted without much surprise that the lift was broken and began running up the stairs to the 7th floor of the Livingstone Tower. I don’t recall much about the seminar, other than that it was with a tutor I despised, primarily because he thought he was funny and once wrote a list of harsh criticisms on what I thought was a pretty amazing essay. He concluded with And don’t use dashes – mainly because I don’t like them. Hilarious.

Anyway, after the seminar, I gathered up my belongings, delivered my essay to the department office, went downstairs, and found myself, quite predictably, in a downpour without a coat. It was only when I arrived at the Underground station that I realised that I did not have my handbag. I had my change of clothes for work, my uni folders, my lunch, my swimming kit, and a copy of The Big Issue… but the handbag was definitely a missing party.

Back to the uni building I ran. Run, run, run. Drip, drip, drip. Past the broken lift, up the stairs, through the corridors, into the seminar room… my handbag was no longer where I’d left it. Quite a pitiful sight by this stage, I reported the theft to the security office, filled in forms, used their phone to cancel my bank card, and left the building to continue with my Bad Day without money, cards, mobile phone, cigarettes, hairbrush, or Tic Tacs. By the time I returned home, Red was waiting for me, looking confused. Did you lose your handbag? he asked, worriedly. I was robbed! I wailed dramatically. I was halfway through my story when it occurred to me to ask how he knew.

I’ve just had a very weird phone call from your mum, he replied. Turned out that my bag had been found, and since it contained my phone, the only other way they had to contact me was via my university records, which held my parents’ details. They’d phoned my very confused mother, who in turn had spoken to my very confused fiancé. My bag was safe! Nothing was stolen! It seemed strange that a thief would steal my bag and take nothing from it. I pointed this out to Red.

Erm… but it wasn’t stolen, he said carefully. You left it in the canteen and the staff put it behind the counter.

The whole thing was a bit embarrassing, as I then had to go back and claim my bag from the security office man who’d listened to my wild accusations of robbery earlier in the day. No matter – I had my bag back! Joyfully, I got the Underground back to the apartment, clutching my beloved bag and glaring at anyone who came within ten feet of me. What a genuinely crap day, I said to Red upon my return. Let’s go out tonight. And so it was that after a few text messages, an evening out was arranged, starting with drinks round at our friends’ place in the East End. Utterly sick of the Underground and walking in the rain by this stage, I ordered a taxi.

It was only when we were climbing the stairs to our friends’ apartment and Red asked me for his phone, which was in my handbag, that I realised for the second time that day that I did not, in fact, have my handbag. I was carefully clutching two bottles of wine, but that was all. Arrrrrrrghhhh! I howled, as the horrible but undeniable reality sank in. Red, and our friends at the top of the stairs, looked at me in some surprise as I sank to the floor, my head in my hands. What? they chorused in alarm.

I left my handbag in the taxi! I said in a strangled gurgle.

I never got it back.

Shhh! Don’t tell Reality.

I love this Go With The Flow lifestyle, I really do.

In the olden days, back when I worked 9-5 and my life was governed by a strict routine that bored me to tears (or at least to drink), I’d be reading about some really cool event or another that was happening in a different country, and think to myself I wish I could go there… maybe one day.

Ladies and gentlemen, One Day has arrived, and I’m pleased to say it’s here to stay for as long as I can wing it. Why, oh why did I stay in one place doing nothing for so long? Wishing, dreaming, longing. It’s like something has clicked in my head and I realise, for the first time, that I can go wherever I want. The old mantra of I just don’t have the money doesn’t ring true for me any more. If anything, I’m considerably less well off, financially, than when I was doing the 9-5 thing. It doesn’t matter. If I really want to go somewhere, there will be a way – even if that means reviewing several hundred YouTube videos and taking on so many freelance writing jobs that my eyes start to sting from looking at the screen.

I was reading Petite Anglaise the other day – a blog I’ve followed with great interest and enjoyment since my blogbirth – and noted that Petite (AKA Catherine Sanderson, but it really freaks me out to find out that bloggers have real names) is doing a reading from her book at the end of the month. In a really cool old bookshop. In Paris. Ah, said Old Me, wistfully, I’d *love* to go to that! Petite Anglaise! Book reading! Cool old bookshop! *Paris*, for crying out loud!

New Me nudged Old Me quite sharply in her metaphorical ribs. Uh… hello? What’s stopping you?

I paused, surprised. Nothing, actually, I was forced to admit. A bit of research later, and it seems that I’m going to see one of my favourite bloggers doing a reading from her book, in a really cool old bookshop, in Paris. It works out extremely well: I just leave Lyon a couple of days earlier than planned, get a cheap train to a city that I’ve always, always wanted to visit, spend some time on couchsurfing.com to find some free accommodation, meet Petite, stay for a few nights, get in a spot of sight-seeing, and then hop on a ludicrously cheap bus to Belgium to start my month-long housesitting stint in a pretty house in the countryside, doing my writing work whilst sitting by the garden pool.

I wonder how long I can get away with this? It feels like I’m cheating Real Life, somehow…

Life is what happens while you’re busy waiting in a queue

I’m waiting anxiously in the queue at La Poste, passport and Western Union Money Tracking number in hand, to claim the emergency rescue fund sent to me by The Parents.

The queue is approximately 2.3 miles long, and I’ve already wasted half an hour today by walking here earlier, forgetting that everything in France closes for ages at lunch time. They take their lunch break very seriously here. Weaving my way through some roadworks on the way here, I saw the workers sleeping in the driver’s seats of their weapons of mass destruction, newspapers over their heads to block out the sunlight. I don’t blame them. If I had to perform manual labour in these temperatures, I’d be dead after about 20 minutes.

The queue is moving so slowly that I’m fairly certain time has started going backwards. There are no signs anywhere to indicate that I’m in the right place, and I fear that I’ll be met with a confused stare when I finally reach the counter, several weeks from now. Excuse me, I say politely to the woman in front of me, I have to claim a payment from the Western Union. This is the right place, isn’t it?

I don’t know why French people put on this great pretence of not understanding anything I say in their language. I try so hard. I repeat my sentence slowly, and she responds with the typical fast-paced babble that strikes fear into my heart. I catch a few words and try to guess what the general gist of the sentence might have been. I fail. We look blankly at each other for a moment. Um, I say nervously, trying again, My parents have sent me some money. Through the Western Union. Is that here? She replies with more babble, shrugging and looking confused.

And now, of course, the other people in the queue are intrigued by the sunburnt girl who speaks French with a silly accent. You want to send money? asks one lady. No, no – she has to pay a bill! interjects another. They are all crowding around curiously as if I am some sort of science experiment. I half expect them to start taking photos of me. No, I say helplessly, I *have* no money. I am looking for a Western Union agent. I saw on the internet that there was one here. My parents have sent me some money and I need to collect it. Am I in the right place? Understanding dawns on the face of the woman nearest the front of the queue. Yes, she says, nodding in the exaggerated way that people do when talking to someone who hasn’t got a clue what they’re saying, I think it’s here.

Thank you, I say gratefully. They all turn around again and my brain quietly implodes.

Only 4 days later, I reach the counter and repeat my earlier question. Three times. Ah, says the woman behind the counter, you need my colleague. Him. She points at the man beside her, whose desk, not marked any differently from all the others apart from the word “pros”, appears to have a completely separate queue. Here, says the woman, reaching me a form, fill this in while you’re waiting. Gloomily, I take the form and join the other queue. It is not quite 2.3 miles long, but the counter is once again a small speck on the horizon. I glance at my form – which is for people wishing to send money with the Western Union, and therefore completely useless to me – and resume my wait.

Only a day or so later, I reach the counter. I’m only halfway through my familiar speech when the man taps the “pros” sign and goes off into one of those babbles that I can’t understand. It seems to end with this desk is only for professionals! I consider telling him that I’m a professional YouTube video reviewer, but I don’t know how to say that. That woman told me to come here! I exclaim indignantly, pointing. I’m looking for a Western Union agent. He subdues a little, despite still obviously wanting me to go away. To send or receive? he asks. To receive, I reply. He thrusts the correct form into my hands and tells me to go away and fill it in, and come back when I’m ready.

Glowering, I do as I’m told and rejoin the queue. For the third time.

It’s all worth it, of course, to be no longer penniless and starving with hunger. In a rather paranoid move, I stand secretively in the corner of the post office and divide my money into 4 batches – one for each buttonable pocket of my three-quarter lengths. I’m still not ruling out invisible thieves. And this way, even if one does manage to unbutton a pocket and steal my money without me noticing, at least he won’t get it all. You don’t need to teach me the same lesson twice.

Apart from sunburn.