If Amsterdam is full of pot-addled cafes and ladies in windows teasing leery strangers with their tits and tuppence, they were all hiding from me. Not that I went in search of them, obviously – I’m not that sort of gentleman. Even if I were, I’d have been hard-pressed to get my money’s worth; I had barely 90 minutes between arriving in the city by coach and boarding the 1226 train for Paris.
So the Dutch capital, then: flat, cloudy, occasional drizzle, and certain death by a combination of car, tram and bicycle is inevitable. The roads girdling Centraal Station have lanes for all three, so negotiating your way from one side of the street to the other means traversing not two lanes of traffic, but six. It’s like a real life game of Frogger.
I’d been lost at sea for 17 hours, so I needed to get up to speed with Twitter. I’d glimpsed an offer of a westbound flight to Canada or the US the evening before, but wasn’t able to act upon it before leaving Newcastle. By the time I’d arrived in Amsterdam, there was an email from @clocsen who had made the offer, concerned that while he has happy to offer me a flight paid for with his Air Miles, I’d be sent on the first flight home by US or Canadian immigration officials.
He was right. Without a return ticket, it’d likely I’d be led into a windowless room, hear the sickening snap of latex, be thoroughly probed and sent back the way I came. Bugger. There was no way around it. Flying west wasn’t going to be possible; I’d have to look at travelling by land to the east or south, a prospect I wasn’t relishing because there’d been so little Twitter activity and support.
Then a dormant thought sparked into life; I did have a return ticket. At Christmas time, Virgin Atlantic put on a sale for flights to New York for £249 return. I’ve been to New York nine times and any excuse to return, I’m front of the queue. I booked up a three week trip there and then; flying from London Heathrow on May 6th, and returning on May 25th – within the 90 day duration for a single stay in the US.
I could take up @clocsen of the flight to the US, and provide my previously booked flight as proof I intended to return. Fantastic! Into the states within a week! Not quite. There was the small issue of reaching Frankfurt to catch the flight. Oh. How likely was that?
After the dozens of offers of help at the end of last week, only one appeared over the weekend; a train ticket from Paris to Saarbruck in Germany, with a bed for the night plus a lift the next morning to… Frankfurt. Unbelievable.
And you’d be well within your rights to denounce this whole affair as some outrageously contrived social media bollocks that’s fooled nearly 6,000 people and countless media outlets around the world. I swear on my mother’s life that’s not the case. Call me a lucky bastard til the cows come home, but by hook or by crook this idea was working so far.
I spent a frantic 60 minutes in Centraal Station online, chasing up @pluripotent and her Frankfurt offer and attempting to bottom out whether I could travel west. As my departure time ticked into view, I took to the platform and spotted a thing a beauty and wonder; a double decker train. It was quite possibly the most exciting vehicle I’d ever seen, and I say that as a man with as much love for trains as I have for banging my knees off the corners of desks.
And I wasn’t on it. I was on the more mundane single decked variety beside it. Meh.
Gare du Nord was manic; @iKangaroo met me on the platform, having generously parted with 83 Euros for my ticket. Upon meeting Chris, I was entirely surprised to find the tall, well-groomed, designer-stubbled Frenchman had a gruff American accent. Therefore, I was entirely unsurprised to discover that while he has lived around the world, Chris has only been in Paris since last year and hailed from upstate New York. Welcome to the constant naivety I find myself enshrouded in; if a man looks foreign, has a funny sounding surname and lives in Paris, then can be no shred of doubt that he’s an onion-wearing, beret-fancying, baguette-waving Frenchman. I’m such an idiot sometimes, it’s untrue.
Chris bought my ticket for the Metro and we plunged underground to re-emerge in the 19th District – a mixed neighbourhood in the North of Paris inhabited by students and immigrants, that up until five years ago was a dangerous place to stray into. You wouldn’t know it today; restaurants line the canal, coffee shops and local bars see Parisians laze away the days. Several miles to the south, the Eiffel tower juts above the skyline.
@stchostels had offered me a bed for the next two nights at St Christophers Inn, a cuboid of a building sheathed in stripes of metal. It struck the perfect tone for what lay within; a modern, clean hostel and a bar bubbling with life, spotless dorms and – and this is always a deal breaker – free wi-fi. I’ve stayed in only a few hostels in Prague, Barcelona and New York; they varied from adequate to unfit for rat infestation – but this was a world apart.
Chris and I sat outside in the late afternoon sun and slowly sank a pint; I was still a little tender after my solo champagne bender on the boat. A no-nonsense, straight talking guy, Chris had travelled extensively and sought the help of people abroad himself wherever he happened to be; I think my plight had pinched a soft spot in the guy. He moved to Paris in August with his wife Sarah, and runs his own travel website iKangaroo. We talked about monetising Twitter, the price of a pint and how our different cultures perceive the French and their brash ways.
Duncan arrived – the man behind @stchostels – and I took an immediate dislike to him; he was a 20-something wearing a flat cap. Never goes down well in my book, but again first impressions counted for precisely sod-all because he turned out to be a bloody nice bloke who fed me beer and brimmed with enthusiasm on my behalf.
In the evening, I popped up on BBC Five Live for a lightening quick interview, before exchanging my gift from @rivets with Chris and Sarah. Ah. I’d sensed Chris was unaware of the gift exchange, despite sending him the blog post about it. I slowly squeezed the topic into conversation at which point Sarah threw open her handbag, emptied the contents onto the table and handed over a French postcard, with a stamp. All that random crap in there does come in useful sometimes.We
We ambled down the canal with others for dinner at a French restaurant. I embraced the cuisine as any hungover man who hadn’t eaten properly for 36 hours would do, and sampled the snails (like muscles but chewier), onion soup (a cheese topping as thick as your wrist, gorgeous) and frois grae (wasn’t too keen to try it, but it was delicious netherless). I told my story to those who hadn’t heard it, spread the word of Twitter, drank a comfortable amount of red wine and retired to my dorm, with only five empty beds to keep me company through the night.
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