An Adventure Worth Telling (Part 1)

“It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Though there were certainly points of my trip where I was struggling to embrace this mindset, I do wholeheartedly agree with Tolkien. Stories, and the conflicts that make them, are what make adventure so much fun. And what is life without a bit of danger? My mother probably cringes to be reminded of such risk-taking life mottos, but I am but one of the children she raised–who, for the most part, all enjoy a bit of adventure.

This past week’s adventure was a very last-minute trip to Paris. It was a trip that a friend (Friend Z. so this doesn’t get too confusing) and I had been dreaming and talking about for months, but our original intention had been to travel France and Spain together for a week in April 2017. Things happened, as they tend to do, and that wasn’t going to be a possibility, so the next best thing was for me to fly to Paris during my midterm break, spend as much time as possible hanging out together in Paris, and make the best of it. So a week before the start of midterm break, I went online and booked some surprisingly cheap tickets from Dar to Paris. In the days that followed, I attempted to make some kind of plan for my trip. One friend, another teacher in Tanzania (let’s call her T. for simplicity), offered to let me join her at her AirBnB reservation for the week. Friend Z. ended up having to work most of the week, so we could only hang out for one day. I googled (I think that’s a word now? If its not, it should be…) things to do in Paris for free or for cheap, as well as potential adventure-ish activities. Less than 24 hours before my departure, I purchased train tickets to Italy and Germany to visit friends. With something like six hours of sleep in 48 hours, I boarded my overnight flight to Paris via Addis Abba on Saturday afternoon with only a vague sketch of my plans for the next week, but eager for whatever adventures the week held.

I arrived in Paris early Sunday morning and immediately bought a SIM card and data coverage for my phone. If I was going to navigate a city where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have any pre-planned destinations, I needed Google. Once I was online, I contacted both Z. and T., and arranged to drop my larger backpack at the AirBnB apartment before meeting Z. for our sole day together. Getting from point A to B to C should have been relatively simple–after all, I had Google Maps (which, btw, is AWESOME in cities with public transit!). The trouble began when I attempted to get an Uber to the apartment to save time. Having never used Uber before, I found myself on a street corner waiting for a car that never came (and that I somehow paid 3€ for), unable to explain my situation to the French passerby who stopped to see why I looked lost, and wondering if I should have just walked in the first place. Eventually, I tried again, and the second Uber driver appeared, was a complete gentleman, and even spoke a bit of English! I found the apartment, dropped my larger backpack, re-packed my small backpack for the next three days, and walked with T. to Gare de l’Est to meet Z.

Gare du l'Est in Paris
Gare du l’Est in Paris

Z. had moved from Dar to a village just outside of Paris about a week before my trip to Paris, and still did not have a SIM card for her phone, but we had planned to meet at the train station at 10:00. I arrived just before 10:00, and discovered there was wifi, so attempted to contact Z. just in case she had arrived before me and was online. No such luck. I wandered around the station for about an hour, eventually planting myself near the free piano (France has a brilliant thing going with the pianos in public spaces!) that was being played by some fantastic pianist who took a bit of time out of their day to give everyone a free concert, hoping that when Z. got to the station, she would be drawn to the music and find me. The surprising thing about that plan is that it worked! We found each other, Googled the address of the climbing gym that was our destination for the day, and took another Uber to the gym. We climbed until neither of us could climb anymore, then slowly walked back towards the station, stopping for sandwiches along the way. I left Z. when she boarded her train, and then made my way to Gare de Lyon, where I got a coffee and croissant before boarding my overnight train to Italy.

Climbing at Mur Mur in Paris with Z.
Climbing at Mur Mur in Paris with Z.

At some point during the night, curled up under the blanket provided by the train as well as the masaii shuka that I brought with me from Tanzania, I opened my eyes and peered around at the other six bunks in the small space where we were all sleeping. As I did, I realized that there was someone standing in the door handing passports back to the other passengers. But my passport was still in my jacket. No one had asked for it when I boarded, nor for my ticket. I knew that we had already stopped at both border crossings, so at this point, I assumed that I was now traveling somewhat illegally, not having gotten any entrance or exit stamps in my passport. However, I didn’t know what to do about it, nor was I able to ask questions in French or Italian, so I just kept quiet. (I later learned that passport stamps aren’t required or given when traveling by train between countries due to the European Union agreement, or something like that.). One by one the other passengers disembarked, until, at our final destination, I was the only one of the six passengers left in our “cabin” (I don’t know what the little boxes on the trains are called). I was now in Vicenza, Italy.

I turned the data back on for my phone and contacted Friend J., one of my younger brother’s best friends, who was stationed in Vicenza for the time being. We found each other at the train station, and set off to find breakfast, see the city, and hang out for the next six hours before my next train. At this point, I was very relieved to see someone from home and someone who spoke English. We stopped in a small cafe near the Basilica for croissants and expresso, then made our way to the Santuario di Monte Berico, a church on the top of a hill. As legend goes, during the time of the plague in Italy, a woman had a vision from God that if she built a church on the hill, the plague in Vicenza would stop. So she did. And the plague stopped. There’s a stone stairway going up the side of the hill to the church, which overlooks the entire city. After enjoying the view for a bit, J. offered to take me back to the base for some more rock climbing. We spent a few hours climbing, until, I, once again, couldn’t climb any more, then went back to the area surrounding the Basilica for pizza and gelato. When it was time for my next train, we went to the train station, where we confirmed the time and platform for my train to Munich. When a train came to that platform at that time, we assumed, as seemed logical, that it was the correct train. There was nothing inside or outside of the train to tell us differently, so I boarded the train, and was on my way. Or so I thought.

The stairway to the Santuario di Monte Berico in Vicenza, Italy
The stairway to the Santuario di Monte Berico in Vicenza, Italy

Something around thirty minutes later, the train came to a stop at Verona, Italy and made the first announcement I heard in my two days of train travel, that this would be the final stop for this train. At this point, after traveling for two nights, and with very little sleep, I realized that I had somehow gotten on the wrong train, and that getting to Stuttgart, Germany by midnight as planned was now impossible. Though I hate to admit it, I succumbed to exhaustion-induced tears, feeling completely helpless in an unknown city where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. Dragons. Thanks to the help of a kind English-speaking couple, and workers at the station, I managed to find a new train to Munich, then Stuttgart, which would get me there by 2:30 a.m. No one could promise that the new train would accept my original tickets, but, even if it had to be for a price, it would get me where I needed to go.

When I boarded the new train, I found myself traveling alongside a woman from Cameroon who had been living and working between Italy and Germany for the preceding ten or so years. Besides being on a train that was heading the right direction, it was comforting to travel with someone who was from Africa (I know its a continent…) and spoke English. We talked about Cameroon and Tanzania and life for a bit, and I had almost forgotten my previous predicament when the conductor came by to check tickets. I explained what had happened and he said that it was fine, but I would need to pay the difference in ticket price between trains. He then attempted to do something with the little machine he was carrying, but apparently failed, because he told me to wait for his colleague to come by later so I could pay. He stopped in several more times along our journey, but never had me pay, which was awesome–I managed to get all the way to Munich without having to pay extra because of my mistake in Vicenza. I did get interrogated by a German police officer, however, which was actually my second police encounter of the week. On the way to the airport in Dar, a police officer hitched a ride in my bajaji and forced me to give him my phone number (and to take his number, which, unbeknownst to him,  I entered in my phone as “Crazy Dar Police Dude”). On the train, just after entering Germany, the police were doing passport checks, and when he examined my passport, he looked suspiciously at me, and then asked if I preferred English or German, where I had come from, where I was going, what was in my backpack (smelly climbing clothes), etc. Eventually, he seemed satisfied that I was indeed the American with the punk rocker mohawk pictured on my passport, and continued on his way. Despite being a bit strange, it did seem a bit fair finally, as my Cameroonian friend’s passport was always closely examined, despite the fact that she was the one who actually lived in Europe. I, however, because I had an American passport, was almost always just waved on without a second thought. Not fair.

We arrived in Munich, where it was REALLY cold (Paris was cold, Italy was chilly, but nice, but Germany was FREEZING). I went into the Starbucks and bought a coffee because it was the only indoor cafe open at 10:30 p.m., and I needed to sit somewhere warm while I waited for my next train. Just after midnight, I boarded the train to Stuttgart, again explained my mistake in Vicenza, and once again did not have to pay for any sort of ticket change (hallelujah!). I forced myself to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss my stop in Stuttgart, and disembarked just after 2:30 a.m. to meet yet another friend, C., who had been a senior at HOPAC my first year teaching there. She was joined by B., another former HOPAC student. We drove to C.’s house, where we crashed for the rest of the night. In the morning, C. and I walked around her small town for a bit, then returned to the house to watch a movie, eat lunch with her family, and nap. It was nice to just chill for a bit. Later in the afternoon, we went into Stuttgart with S., her younger brother (also a former HOPAC student), and his girlfriend, ate some German food (I don’t remember what it was called, but it was delicious!), and then went to small group. Though I didn’t understand most of the discussion (despite C.’s attempts at translating parts of it), it was really cool to be a part of the prayer, worship, and Bible study of a group of German young adults!

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The Neues Schloss in Scholssplatz Square, Stuttgart, Germany

I left early the next morning for Paris, enjoyed some beautiful scenery from the comfort of the train, and arrived back at Gare du l’Est around 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

To be continued… (Read Part 2)

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