The Inertia kindly published part one of Circumnavigating a few months ago. In case you didn’t see it, here it is. If you did (and enjoyed), look for part two tomorrow.
Against all logic and airline stipulations, my board and I traveled from New York to Paris, to Metz, back to Paris, to London, and to Sydney (via Bangkok) without paying a single baggage fee. Unless you count needing a bigger-than-standard taxi in Paris. And actually, the board got me some free first-class Chunnel seats.
Friends at home kept suggesting that I just ship the Penguin straight to Australia and forget about dragging it around with me, for the sake of expediency and cash flow. I insisted that taking it with me would be a “funny” thing to do—and would probably be cheaper. To those friends, I say… “Wait a second, I was right?” Okay, only half right, maybe.
The guy who checks me in at the Iceland Air counter gingerly presses a “Fragile” sticker onto the bag and says it is light enough to fly for free. The very image of hospitality. Nevermind that I will shiver through the entire flight, there will be no food served, and Icelandic sounds like a mash-up language.
I am eager to see Reykjavik and realize only as we arrive in the pitch-black morning hours that Iceland is largely sunless this time of year. As we disembark, the pilot (or somebody) says, “Have a pleasant afternoon!” Not only is it dark; it is also still pre-standard breakfast hours. Seriously bizarre.When we board the next plane at 8 a.m. I have seen a lot of whipping rain on the runway and drunk Koko Mjolk. I assume this is pronounced “Co-co m’yolk” and as of now, it is my favorite foreign food name.
Though flying east, we somehow end up in 7:37 a.m. again. The sun finally peaks over the cloud carpet below us as we swing to the south of the Faeroe Islands, and just like that, it’s 8:54 again.
I really should have brushed up on my French before taking this trip.
“J’ai une… uhh… bag grand? Surfboard?”
“Carton?” asks the guy at baggage inquiries as he points to a big flat screen (in a box).
“Ahh…” He indicates for me to wait at another counter but no one comes to assist me. After a few minutes, the board emerges on top of a trolley and he happily reunites us.
I think people must be gawking when I’m not looking, but nobody says a word about the surfboard in Charles de Gaulle.
Ali and I manage to secure a van taxi, and board transport goes smoothly until we reach our hotel. The elevator, barely big enough for three medium-sized humans sans luggage, requires that we take two trips: One for Ali and our suitcases; one for my board and me. For the next three days, the Penguin reposes in the corner of our compact room while I pretend to know my way around Paris.
I realize I haven’t been here in 5 years. 5 years! That’s depressing. Last time I was here, I didn’t want to leave, and I certainly didn’t want to wait 5 years to come back. When I convinced my New York roomie/classmate/friend that we should take a trans-Atlantic journey, I also managed to persuade her that it would be ludicrous to visit London without visiting Paris, and it wound up being cheaper to fly from JFK to Paris, so here we are.
Paris is a whirlwind of landmarks, masterpieces, and heavy cream. On the morning of our departure, the hotel concierge appeals to the presumably sleepy cab dispatcher on the other end of the phone for a larger car. I hear the words “planche de surf” and “oui” repeated a lot. He seems exasperated and apologetic that they have to charge me an extra €5 for a bigger car. I’m making out like a bandit. Seriously.
Andromeda requested that I leave my board in Paris somewhere, since her new car is even smaller than the old one. And pretty much all cars in France are, actually, very small. Andromeda (yes, that is her real name) is my friend from college who now lives in Metz. I am visiting her for the first time since she moved to France–about three years ago. My main motivation is that she now has a cat named Vortex. Her boyfriend Ben tells me the cat is named after the drunken sensation that he calls being “in the vortex.”
Gare de l’Est will not, as it turns out, store my board. The woman near the luggage lockers looks at me like I’m insane when I ask if it would be possible just to leave it locked in their little office. I take this as a “No.”
One of the guys with whom I’m sharing a space heater at 7 a.m. asks me if the long, silver bag I’m toting is a surfboard. When I say yes, he asks where I’m going. “Metz,” I say. He laughs and says there’s no surf in Metz. Yeah, I know.
Dromeda is a good sport about the 6-foot piece of luggage and we manage to squeeze it into her little hatchback, though she did have to ask me if any cars were coming on my side every time we merged/made turns. She opted not to mention this to Ben.
Metz is a really cool city that once belonged to Germany, and maybe some other country. It’s full of yellow stone buildings and award-winning boulangeries. There’s also a lake, in which a dragon allegedly lives. That might be my favorite thing about Metz. That, or, the really excellent Belgian and German beer that is brewed nearby and doesn’t cost a fortune.
One night while we are enjoying this beer (Maredsous Brune!), we touch on the subject of my upcoming journey to Australia. Ben’s friend Jerome (who claims his English is terrible, but is lying) says, “I hope you like crocodiles.”
“Yeah,” Ben adds, “’cause you’re gonna get eaten by one.”
You know when you pay for train tickets and then nobody comes around to ensure that you actually have them? I hate that. Nobody checks our tickets on the train back to Paris. Ali loses her cool the only time in a week and a half when she can’t liberate her suitcase from the previously mentioned locker in Gare de l’Est. I don’t see it; I’m guarding the rest of our luggage. I think she may have broken the thing by wrenching it open with a pen or something, but whatevs; now we are free to continue on to Gare du Nord.
We’ve been told that it’s a “short walk” between the two stations. After turning right out the door, we are faced with a gentle slope. OR, about 40 stone steps. My backpack contains a DSLR, lenses, laptop, and oranges. I’m carrying a purse that is very near capacity with books and bottled water. My suitcase, though on wheels, is stuffed with clothes and more books. And also, I obviously have my surfboard. Ali is similarly saddled. I stop at the bottom and stare up. Three men offer to help with my effects. I allow the third, because he is old and doesn’t look like he might steal them. Thanks, guy.
At the top of the steps, we follow signs that lead us on some retarded, zig-zagged path past many a sex shop and seedy-looking person.
I forgot that I hated this neighborhood—despite my deep and lasting love of sex shops.
The Chunnel customs officer, a little blonde woman, has eyed my board and decided she will hate me. She lets Ali pass by with little difficulty, but me… no.
“What’s in that bag?” she demands.
“A surfboard,” I reply with a smile that is supposed to say, Ridiculous, isn’t it? Don’t you find my idiocy charming? She does not.
“How long will you be visiting London?”
“Where are you staying?”
I have already provided the address of our hotel.
“Where is your return ticket?”
“I don’t have one; I’m going to Australia on the 28th.”
“Where is your ticket to Australia?”
“How long will you be there?”
Ohhhhh shit, this should be good. “I don’t really know. I have a visa and can stay for a year.”
“Where is your visa?”
“It’s electronic as well.”
“Well, I can’t let you through without proof that you’re leaving the country!”
I start to panic. “If there is a printer nearby, I can print all of this, or I can show you on my computer.”
“There’s NO WIRELESS!”
“How much money is in your bank account?”
“I don’t know… $_,___?”
“Where did your last paycheck come from and how much was it for?”
“Uhh Eastern Surf Magazine… $40?”
“Listen,” she says sternly, “you are a journalist. You should know about facts.”
She is clearly enjoying this. I, meanwhile, am on the verge of humiliating tears. Finally, she deigns to let me into her royal freaking country. (Before I’ve even left France.)
Eight minutes later, the ticket taker looks cheerfully at my board and says, “Ohhh, that is too big for ze train!” I shoot him a look: You had better be fucking with me. He quickly says, “Just keeding!” Funny.
The board actually does have to go in the luggage hold, which is on a different car than we are. The train manager saves the day by sneaking us into first class. He tells us to write Eurostar and gush about the service. Then he clarifies: “If you write in, don’t mention the upgrade. I’ll get sacked.”
First impressions of London:
- Fuller’s London Pride is delicious.
- Two pence coins are absurd but I love them.
- Riding “The Tube” feels like riding in one of those suction-powered delivery/retrieval things at bank drive-throughs.
London at a second glance:
- Most people are in too much of a rush to gain any satisfaction from life.
- Many things are more difficult than they should be.
For instance, try asking for directions or advice on anything:
“Excuse me, could you please tell me if there’s anything cute in this area, between here and here?” I gesture to a 3-kilometer expanse of London.
The friendly bartendress says, “Ehhm… cute?”
“Yeah, you know, anything interesting? Anything worth seeing?”
“Well, there’s nothin’ mega interesting.”
“K, great. Thanks so much.”
Try mailing a package that weighs less than 2 kilos (umm, 4.4 lbs?) across the Atlantic. Just try it. It will inevitably be over 2 kilos, despite your best re-packing, scale-eyeing efforts. As a result, it will cost you a bajillion pounds (or 50) and it may take six weeks for this very expensive package to reach its destination. Huh?
Okay, I concede that London has large, surfboard-friendly cabs. The Tower of London is spectacularly historical and the London Eye is unnerving but amazing. The beer happens to come in very large glasses. The streets, however, are dizzying. Ali and I are both New York-trained city navigators with decent senses of directions and we have managed to become lost countless times in only a few days. Also, I know this is a massive cliché, but the food is pretty awful. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Pizza should never be on the same menu as sushi.
I’ll just say this: When it’s time to head to Heathrow and catch my flight to Sydney, I don’t mind taking a shuttle that will get me there hours ahead of schedule. The closer I get to Australia, and the Pacific, and warm air, the better.