The Bench It Is

I hadn’t left Paris for too long. I mean left Paris, not just going somewhere for the weekend, in the knowledge that I had an approximate 36 hours of mitigated freedom before I need to put myself to bed eight hours before the alarm clock rings for me to be in decent lucid shape Monday morning at the office.

The office… From September 2006 to June 2009 I studied philosophy at a university that had four obligatory hours of class per week. You could decide not to go to lectures (of which you had four hours per week too). You bet I had tons of what was innocently called “independent study time“, but which was basically unconstrained free time with random bouts of studying. I had truckloads of time for myself, and in hindsight I believe I didn’t use it wisely.

From 2006 to 2009 I perfected the arts of scrambled eggs and looping audio recordings of me playing the bass guitar. The former earns me cheers from fellow Hangoverians who have the luck of having fresh eggs in their fridge and me waking up on their couch eleven hours after going to bed on a repulsive kebab. The latter (looping stuff) gave me a taste of what cloning is like, thus excessively boosting my ego to the point I never joined a band because nobody was now good enough to play MY special blend of funk, reggae, blues, surf rock, breakbeat, and beatbox. Nor willing. It left me clueless as to the compromises one makes when playing with other musicians, and how constructive they are.

That leaves us with the scrambled eggs.

And that is, basically, it. I didn’t learn music, I didn’t learn Esperanto, I didn’t learn basketball, I didn’t shoot a movie, nor wrote a script, nor anything of substance for that matter, apart form a couple of satire pieces and a bunch of philosophy essays.

Then I landed in Paris, started a Monday to Friday full-time job, and the way I conceive time changed. The time and energy I had for myself was drastically reduced. Weekends took on a completely different meaning. It turned out I wasn’t getting any emotional nor intellectual rewards from the activity I spent 40 hours of my week into, and I had to get it elsewhere, i.e. in the peninsulas of free time, now colonized by the work routine, their borders delineated by the anxiety of not going to bed too late because I have to be in decent lucid shape the next morning.

It’s May 2010, I’ve been in Paris since August 2009, not getting much done except getting my emotional and intellectual self-esteems trampled by the vengeful angry elephants of reality whose stolen ivory was used to build the towers I lived in. Those beasts being a protected species, fighting them is not an option, but escaping is.

And on a Thursday 2010 minus 35 years ago, when they (the elephants) weren’t looking, Jesus Christ went up to heaven and gave the Common Era a four-day weekend if and when the Common Era negotiates the Friday off with their boss. I was given four free days. Not two, FOUR. Four, bitch, FOUR!!! I should add,en passant, that interns in France are not allowed holidays, and apart from some pity days given to me in Christmas, I didn’t get days off. Let alone a healthy long break from work! So I was intent on capitalizing on these four days.

Yet all of a sudden it was Wednesday evening and I hadn’t got anything planned. I decided I wanted to go to a particular hostel on a dutch beach, but return train tickets were 400 euros by then. Buses to there were full. Holland wasn’t gonna happen.

I knew this was precisely why trips outside town, if you don’t own a car, are planned weeks, if not months, in advance; and I was stranded like a traveling rookie who can’t tell the difference between that tourist brochure he disposed of upon his arrival at the airport three days ago and his passport.

Then I recalled the stuff they say about achieving stuff. Half of success is showing up. Luck smiles to audacious people. The former formula is by Woody Allen, the latter is by francophones who get a kick out of literal translation (oh baby).

Fuck premeditated traveling, I thought, I’m traveling when and how the fuck I want, world, and if it implies leaving my comfort zone, well there could be no better time than now. I’ll go to the coast, find myself, write a novel, win the Nobel prize, and I’ll be back on Sunday evening just in time to sip my camomille and refuse Time magazine an interview about the new ages of literature, self-discovery, and spontaneous travel I heralded. And the generation I inspired. And the secret behind those eggs.

It’s Friday afternoon now, my travels are over, and Time magazine still hasn’t called. You’ll have to read the story on Facebook.

Thursday, 2h38pm. Just bought a ticket to Noyelles-Sur-Mer, a town on a northern bay of France, where nature is wild and thoughts can run free. The train leaves in just over two hours. Solal and Lisa live near the station, I’ll go say hi tell them about my vision, and see if I can book a room somewhere there.

3h10pm We’ve called fifteen different bed and breakfasts, lodges, and guest houses in the area and everything is fully booked out. Except for an 80 euros double room in a bed and breakfast. Solal suggests I take it and bring someone along to share the costs.

4h10pm I refuse the 80 euro room. Complete spontaneity is the key to true traveling. I’ll fend for myself when I get there. I’ll rely on people’s natural hospitality and sense of fraternity. I’ll make friends with people and they’ll lend me their sofa. (Hopefully their daughter too). Come on, you hear those stories all the time. Guy lost in the middle of nowhere is given a bed to sleep in by warm-hearted villagers. People finding places to sleep by just knocking on people’s doors. You hear these stories all the time. Why did it never happen to you? Well because you never dared go for a taste of true traveling, of course!

5h03pm The train leaves the station. It’s half-empty, and all the cool people sat on the other side of the wagon. They’ll probably get off in Noyelles too, maybe I should talk to them. I don’t.

7h00pm The train arrived in Noyelles. Nobody gets off apart from me and an unfriendly-looking girl with earphones I don’t dare talk to. I can count about fifteen houses plus a bar, and grass. The bar is closed. There’s a bike rental place right next to the train station, manned by an incredibly friendly old couple who recommend I go to Le Crotoy, on the other side of the bay, 6 km away, if I want to see sand and nature. They give me a brochure detailing all there is in Le Crotoy and a list of B&Bs there. Incidentally, there is a jazz festival going on over there this weekend. Awesome. The proverbs were right.

Noyelles train station

7h50pm Hitchhiking. No French car stops, an old Belgian couple gives me a ride. They’re going to the festival too. And they’re happy to find out I know a thing or two about Django Reinhardt.

8h00pm Le Crotoy, approximately 2000 souls. I wander around in the streets and on the coast. The place is quiet, and if it weren’t for the tourists that came here for the long weekend, it’d be pretty empty too. It’s a cute coastal village, on the shore of a big-ass dried-up bay (the tide is low), displaying restaurants and seafood restaurants. And a sort of amusement park with a merry-go-round and some of those machines where a joystick-controlled hook dives down to grab the object of your desires.

This is Le Crotoy. 8h20pm I try to strike up a conversation with two girls busy at the joystick, the only people my age I’m able to find so far. They’re shy, very freaking shy. They recommend a restaurant and a place for a beer later on, but won’t share one with me later on because they’re heading back home to another village soon. Either girls here are stuck-up and shy or I come across as a serial rapist…

8h45pm I find out that the temperature will drop to 3 degrees tonight. I try calling/walking up to about eight different b&bs/hotels, they’re all fully booked. I try to imply that I really need a bed or somewhere to sleep, don’t they know of any other place I could go to? No, sorry sir, good luck to you.

9h04pm Moules a la crème et frites at a low-key restaurant. “Table for how many people?” “One?” “One?”. Nobody comes here alone. Couples and families everywhere. Not a single backpacker in town, except for me. The couple at the table on the left talk about their jobs. The one in front of me talk about the salt shaker. The rest are families. Odds seem to be against me, but not to worry, the jazz festival will be full of cool people.

9h43pm Le Crotoy rented a mobile amphitheatre to hold its jazz festival. Tonight on the show: Tap Dancing! Average age in the audience: 54! Pretty good show nonetheless.

The mobile ampitheatre

11h04pm Show ended, everybody left, apart from a couple at the bar. I don’t dare talk to them.

11h10pm Le Crotoy is getting dark and cold, with less and less people on the streets. Bars are closing down. I walk up to two bars asking if I can still have a drink. Nope. Know of a hotel I can sleep in? That one and that one. I tried, they’re full. Oh well sorry sir. Know of an alternative, wink wink? No sir sorry sir.

11h32pm In the middle of the nothingness, a girl smokes a cigarette on bench. I try to spark up a conversation. She doesn’t seem interested. I ask her for a cigarette. It’s all or nothing. If she offers me one, I have a chance of sleeping somewhere warm tonight, if she refuses, I’ll probably have to sleep on that bench as it’s the only one that’s covered by a sort of roof. She refuses. I wander off.

11h45 Wandering reestablished the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe, said Anatole France, but after wandering through the empty, cold, and indifferent streets of Le Crotoy for a good while I fail to grasp the harmony between me and the universe. What fucking sort of wandering was he on about? The one you do at Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in shorts and crocs with a 2 euro ice cream cone in hand? Seriously, did that guy really win a fucking Nobel prize?

11h46pm On a bench by the sea. A van parked thirty meters down the road. Two guys get off, turn the radio up full volume, and start wrestling and shrieking on the beach. Wild night out in Le Crotoy. Where are those four friendly Australian backpackers playing guitar on Le Crotoy’s beach, stopping over on their road trip down the French coast? I showed up. Where’s the other half, Woody?

11h47pm Woody?

11h52pm The bench it is. I put on the three t-shirts and pairs of socks I brought, and lay down on the bench. It’s cold.

12h45am A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving, said Lao Tzu, but he probably didn’t sleep on too many benches by the north sea when it’s 2 degrees out. Did I need Lao Tzu to remind me that I had to book a fucking room if I was gonna wander off by the north sea when it’s 2 degrees out? What the fuck did he mean by “no fixed plan“? My upper body is fine, but everything from the waist down is very cold, I can’t actually feel my toes anymore, and that’s preventing me from sleeping.

2h23am The cold from my toes spread to my upper body and I’m fucking freezing. I get up and walk to generate some heat. Birds are singing around me, one song sounds pretty much like human laughter. Probably someone from the Nobel committee.

3h08am Too cold, can’t sleep, toes hurt too much, must make fire. I cut some branches off some bushes, tear the Le Crotoy brochure to pieces, not without some satisfaction, and try to light that shit up. The wood is damp and the paper just won’t light up. Nothing catches fire and the lighter dies out. Despair.

brochure remainsWhat remains of the brochure. I tried to wrap my feet in its pages to see if it is a good insulation against the cold. It isn’t..

5h11am The next train to Paris leaves at 6h27 from Noyelles (yes, I did bring my iPhone). It’s 1h40 minutes away by foot and it’s fucking freezing. I’ll hitchhike.

5h45am Noyelles train station. Purchased a ticket. Have 45 minutes to kill before train comes. I kill a six-pack of Oreos, salt crisps, and shortbread cookies from a vending machine instead.

9h30am Home. Relief.

Cat Stevens took his time to reach a place miles from nowhere. It took me two hours, twenty euros, and a ten-minute ride in the back of an old Belgian couple’s car to reach Le Crotoy and watch a tap-dancing show, admire a bunch of sand, observe two chimps wrestling on a beach, and freeze my ass on a bench. By the sea. How’s that, Cat?

What do I make of this..?

1) Traveling without any sort of planning is about luck rather than wit or social skills. Survival skills come in handy.

2) The good stuff that happens to you when you travel without planning is somehow more rewarding than the stuff that happens to you on a trip you planned three weeks in advance.

3) Success stories about travelers who didn’t plan their trip and ended up finding hospitable people might as well be true, but for each success story you hear there’s probably a dozen stories of unlucky travelers facing people’s indifference and ending up sleeping on benches. In the cold. With a boner. Those are the stories worth hearing, and those are the stories people don’t often repeat.

3) Proverbs about traveling and achieving your dreams are less reliable than a crackhead’s parrot. Somehow, phrasing them right will earn you a Nobel prize, don’t ask me why.

4) Escaping from the aforementioned elephants is a better option than fighting them. Later on it’s hard to tell whether it is them that come after you or if it is you that come back to them.

proof of travel Proof of travel. Chanceux a tous les coups = Lucky at all the hits (oh baby) = All your shots go in because you’re lucky. Assuming you are.