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Rat dodging and vagrancy in the City of Love

Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 16

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Tour d’Eiffel from Pont Alexandre III

No room at le inn

My Berlin to Paris train arrived at Paris Gare de l’Est in the early afternoon. No need to book a hostel I’d thought. Peak season in Paris was coming to a close. And when was the last time I’d turned up at a hostel and been refused a bed? It had never happened. But after walking along the canal up to Rue La Fayette, predictably, there was no room at the inn.

I had no map and no guidebook. All I had were my almost illegible directions to my chosen hostel written in my notebook. But I knew Paris well enough from previous visits to find my way twenty minutes across town to Montmartre and the hostel I’d stayed in the last four times I’d been there. But again they were full. I asked the guy at reception if I could use the common room computer to search for somewhere else.

“The internet is only for guests,’ he said.

“I’ll pay for it,’ I told him. “It says here €2 for half an hour. I won’t be any longer than that.’

“There is an internet café around the corner. If you take the first right and then …”

But I’d stopped listening. My previous loyalty or any shred of human decency to help a man in need obviously meant so little this scarf-wearing asshole. I picked up my bags and walked out.

Pompidou Centre, Paris. Exterior close-up.

Centre Pompidou, Paris

Like a vagrant

I found an internet café eventually. But every hostel within walking distance was full. I’d paid for thirty minutes of that painfully slow connection and after twenty minutes I’d had enough. I could spend all afternoon searching then walking, checking in and sorting myself out. I was due to catch the Paris to London train at 07:15 the following morning. I planned to be out until well after midnight. Best just to get myself to Gare du Nord, leave my rucksack in left luggage, then get some hardcore Paris photo taking done before I wasted the day.

And that’s what I did. What good was getting a hostel for four hours of sleep anyway? It only cost me €4.20 for 24 hours of Gare du Nord bag leaving. In any language that made economic and time saving sense. I knew I shouldn’t have been there. I knew I shouldn’t have made it this far. I should still have been somewhere on the trans-Siberian railway trying to make it from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow without a chance of making any of the European trains that got me to Paris.

All the way back to the border at Erlian when trying to get from China to Mongolia the trail of impending failure went. I couldn’t remember the last time I showered. My t-shirt was turning brown with dirt and my socks were more hole than cotton. The heels of my shoes were coming apart inside and I had to keep pulling my socks down over my foot so that my own heels weren’t exposed to their rubbing. They were already starting to blister. But Paris was mine for a day and a night. I wouldn’t be deterred.

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Montmartre Tourists

A night at the Gare du Nord

Until well after 01:00 I was at it. The lights of Notre Dame had just gone out when I sat down to rest before heading back to Gare du Nord. I heard a squeaking sound over the square and looked over to see a line of rats running stealthily along the low wall and into the overflowing dustbins. There were at least five of them in the first wave, silhouetted in the darkness, looking like a crack assault team on operations. I looked over to the other dustbins and saw the same. I’d never seen so many rats. It got so I started to panic when I saw a dustbin up ahead. I’d see the shadows and hear the squeaking and move to skirt as safely as I could around the scene. By the time I reached Gare du Nord it was almost 3am. The station was closed.

I read the sign on the door. I’d have to wait until 04:30 before the station opened again. There were a few shady looking characters hanging around and a group of four or five English speakers discussing the intricacies of how to travel Europe by train. I paced up and down, trying to keep warm, then sat down against the station doors within listening distance of my comrades. Next thing I knew I was lifting my head off my arms wondering how long I’d been asleep. All I’d done was rest my head. I couldn’t even remember feeling like I was about to fall asleep. But it was still only 03:30. And I wasn’t getting any warmer.

It wasn’t much better inside the station when it finally opened. It was still another two hours until boarding opened for my Eurostar to London. But I was able to find a seat in the corner of a waiting area and snuggle into myself until it was time. I was cold, hungry and my clothes were falling apart. If I hadn’t become so immune to my own stench over the past couple of weeks, I probably would have realised that I didn’t smell to rosy either. There were a few homeless blokes gathering round and about. I didn’t feel too removed from their predicament at that point. But comfort wasn’t far away. It was almost 06:30. Almost time to board. I would go downstairs to collect my bags, and in less than seven hours, I’d be home. After 17 days, my journey from Hong Kong to UK by train, via China, the trans-Siberian railway and finally through Europe, would be complete.

Cimetiere-de-Montmartre,-Paris

Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris

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