Saturday, April 30, 2011

Long way to Paris

I'm about to make the longest distance in one day during my French travels and I have quite late start, at midday. But if there are any problems, I'll think about it later.

Problems, yes, there were a few. Really slow ride with a truck driver who was too familiar with me, a succession of very short rides, misunderstandings caused by lack of common language, getting stuck maybe 10 km before Lyon for 1,5 hour. But there were good things too, as usual. First a couple coming back from the Mediterranean Coast rescues me from the horrible spot before Lyon. We share our love for the French countryside, since they live in a village close to Dijon, and I tell them about Provencal villages, totally unknown to them. They give me a longer ride just to spare me any problems with gendarmerie who is there just at the péage.

The second last driver is a Red Cross worker, working with problematic children. He says really enjoys his job, mainly because the contact with people, but the drawback is long working hours and unpredicted schedules. He studied in Brussels for 3 years and fell in love with its artistic side. He's very avid painter himself and has his own atelier at home. He describes his own style comparing it to Jackson Pollock, but his personal favorite is van Gogh. I get excited when I hear this name and tell him I went to Arles just to see places connected with him and now I'm heading to auvers-sur-Oise because of the same reason. He's heading to the Netherlands in the summer, planning to do the same thing.

It's getting late and I start to wonder whether I'd get to Paris at reasonable time. The driver goes to Auxerre, so I send messages to my friends asking if they could find any cheap accommodation there, still hoping that I manage to find a ride to Paris. I get some responses with campsites and cheap hostels, but I don't have to use them, since when I get to the péage, it's still very bright. In this way I save money for 3-9 days of traveling and plenty of time.

The final ride comes quickly. The driver comes from French Guyana and moved to France when he was 3, because of the job offer his father had received. He enjoys life in France, because of better job opportunities, chances to get a decent education, better life status. However, he'd still rather live in his home country - he feels people living there are much different than in a big European country, life is more simple but happier. It's only the problem with finding a job that stops him in France. We talk in English and he's very happy because he can practise and I'm very happy because the time is late and I guess if the driver were French who didn't speak English, I would be yawning and sleeping right now. He sometimes uses only French words and thanks to him and my pocket dictionary I memorize some new words. We talk about travels, important life choices, life in different countries, relations between people. At the end of the journey he tells me that people like me are the future of Europe - open-minded ones, not restricted by any prejudice, eager to experience the unknown. He's very upset that so many people are racists and because of that his life in France is sometimes harder. I tell him that for me the skin color doesn't make a difference; on the contrary, I'm more happy to get to know such a person since I know their background is totally different from mine and they have some story to tell. The driver makes a detour for me, describes main sights of Paris by night and drives me to Arc de Triomphe. After the adventurous trip, I'm happy to finally be there. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

My family gets bigger

More days bring more joyful moments. I meet Thierry's daughter, Jehane. She's exactly as I've imagined her from Thierry's descriptions, very active, running all the time, never restless and cute to everybody. She got a new bike and rides it all over Éric's garden. She's really into playing and talking to people and even despite the language barrier between us, she shows that she can have a good time with me. I get a picture from her, signed Jehane, 8 ans et demie.

Jehane's very fond of horses and Thierry drives her to her riding classes. You can imagine how big passion for her it is - she loves the contact with a horse. She's very gentle in preparing the animal to riding, combs his hair, speaks softly as if the animal could understand every word. It's a beautiful example of very sincere relationship between a horse and human. 

In the evening there's a party at Éric's. Again, I meet a big part of the family and friends as well. One of the guests speaks a little Polish, so I converse with him in this language. It seems that my origin is of huge interest to the guests; they ask me about my town and other big cities, life in Poland. They talk about politics and I tell them the sad, ridiculous truth. The say something about president and aviation and  I guess they're talking about the previous president and I tell them I hate this guy. We drink some good pink wine and raise a toast introduced by the man who speaks Polish - to Poland! People ask me about my plans and I tell them about Iceland and Copenhagen but I also tell them that if I don't get accepted to the university, I'll make a life somewhere else. Choices are plenty.They comment on my plans, give advice, share their own experience. I manage to utter few sentences in my broken French. I receive tons of smiles, kisses and positive energy from people I've just met that I can barely hide my emotions, fortunately I suppress from sheding a tear.

I pitch up my tent in Éric's garden and love it so much. I hope it'll be a good house for the next 1,5 month.

On the day of my departure everybody is beyond themselves with emotions. It's hard to utter a word, but we don't have to, comfortable silence is enough to express our feelings. Thierry drives me to the entrance of the highway in Avignon. This time I want to keep it short, leave quickly and don't look back. There's no tears and only big grin on my face and I start the next step of the big adventure. I'll be back in July...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Back to safe harbor

I hate feeling like a coward but yesterday was a day I behaved exactly this way.

I was really anticipating hanging around in Arles and its surroundings for a couple of days. I wanted to see places connected with van Gogh, places he had painted and get to know what had inspired him so much that he created on average one painting a day during his stay in Arles. Only finding a host for these days was a problem. At first I wasn't worried about it since I have my nomadic accommodation with me all the time. But I didn't expect the weather to change so significantly. Almost no sun and bad forecast for upcoming days. I was rescued by Pascal from Beaucaire for one night, as he was leaving for a hiking trip to the coast. We spent short, but enjoyable time, talking about risky situations in the mountains, sports, relations about people and unconventional lifestyle.

I definitely didn't want to do any camping - either wild or organized - if the weather was so bad, neither did I want to splurge my money on a hostel. Fortunately my search for an emergency couch was successful. But eventually the other day I got no word, no sound from the girl who was supposed to host me. I hopelessly walked the streets of Arles and found no joy in my situation. Where has my unfearful spirit gone? There must have been some Easter celebrations because the centre ville was crowded with people and loud music could be heard everywhere. But among this crowd I felt totally lost, I felt as if somebody has put me in a cage after living in an open space for all my life. I had the urge to escape but actually nowhere to go. My backpack became heavier and heavier with every moment. Every time I leave a place I know I have less in it, but it actually feels like more. I felt like a big failure, wandering the streets of Arles, thinking that no matter which solution I choose, it would mean that I surrendered too easily.

A ship is the safest in a harbor but it's not the purpose of the ship. I knew my safe harbor for now was in Lagnes, but I kept telling myself that I can't take the line of least resistance, rather leave my fears behind. But this time it was too much. I was as happy as I could be when Thierry agreed to host me once more, when I saw the vineyards of Vaucluse again and when I finally arrived to Lagnes.

Ships sometimes have to rest...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Language exchange in Aix-en-Provence

I'm heading to Aix-en-Provence and since I'm fed up with highways, I decide to get there via Apt and make it in two rides. The road is very picturesque, with many switchbacks, crossing the Luberon Mountains. Once again, I feel I miss the Alps.

I'm staying in Aix with Alejandro. He's Spanish, doing his Erasmus exchange in France for one year. We talk about studying systems in Spain and Poland and I'm really surprised that they have to do compulsory two years at a foreign university during their study course. After his Erasmus in France Ale is heading to Munich, Germany for the summer and after this to Limerick, Ireland for another one year. He's finished with his classes and now he's expecting his final exams. Right the day after he's flying to Paris for five days and hopes to be successful at all his exams so that he doesn't have to think about retaking them during his holidays. He's upset because not many trips are organized for the Erasmus students and if there are any, they're high price for low quality, leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening. During this time they visit three towns and have very little time to see the place, take photos, have some lunch, etc. We both agree that such traveling is not traveling at all, since you jump from one spot to the other, don't take your time to really experience the place, but focus on taking cute photos. We say strict "no" to "one hour here, two hours there".

We're both passionate about languages, so we make a language exchange. We're joined by Fatima, Ale's French friend of Moroccan descent and together the three of us speak nine languages: English, Spanish, French, Polish, Danish, Arabic, Greek, German and Korean. We write words using different scripts and I realize that learning a language that uses different script doesn't always have to be difficult. We use google translate and then correct its mistakes, laugh our heads off when the other person struggles to read some freaking tongue twister in another language, talk about different hacks to learn a language. We can't stop talking and finally go to sleep at 4.30 in the morning. Just before going to sleep Ale shows me his birthday gift, a German dictionary with mainly dirty expressions. I come to a conclusions that German is definitely not the most romantic language and hearing "Ich will dich ficken" would make me want to laugh rather than make love.

The next day we wake up quite late so our walking tour of Aix also starts late. We see the cathedral, main walking street, mairie, Fatima's faculty. Ale gets really excited when he sees that a store with Spanish products is open and can't resist the temptation to buy some sweets, four times more expensive here than in his home country.

Aix reminds me of Paris, with its big walking street, stores with the most fashionable brands and heaps of tourists. It reminds me of it, but doesn't impress me so much. It also reminds me of Poland, because of big blocks of flat whose condition is not the highest. It looked much nicer at nighttime, when we walked from Ale and Fatima's friend's apartment - all illuminated with lights, in much brighter colors than during the day, with people enjoying their dinner outside at the tiny streets. Maybe when you discover it better, it becomes a beautiful city? Nevertheless, I really enjoyed passing time with Ale and Fatima, and Ale really enjoyed the cake I made for him.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ochre-colored paradise

Throughout all my couchsurfing experience I've never written personal requests for tomorrow and never to so many people living in places in a close proximity to each other. This first time turns out to be one of the best experience ever.

My host Thierry immediately offers to take me to see the hill in a nearby village. The hill turns out to be Gordes, a charming village nestled into a hillside that you can perfectly see from the road leading there. Striking is the fact how much the architecture differs from what I saw in the Alpes - no more wood, here only used material is stone, with terracotta roof tiles. From the roadside you can barely see any street going through the village, you have a feeling that there are no connections between houses spread across the rocky outcrop.

We make a short stop in Roussillon and admire the yellow, orange and red rocks, cliffs and houses. I know I'll be back in a day or two, but I'd never expect visiting the village again would be so easy. We drive to Thierry's brother, Éric, who lives 3 km east from the village. Two kids of another brother are staying with him for the holidays -Marie and Benoît are playing in the garden all the time, helping their uncle a little with redecorationg the house. It's a medium-sized property that is almost entirely refurbished, intended to be rented for the summer. I tell Éric about the painting jobs I had but he unfortunately tells me the painting is done. It's also the task he dislikes the most.

It's lunch time, so Éric prepares somes grilled meat and potatoes. I can only eat the latter one, it's a modest dinner but passed with big-hearted people who are always ready to receive new visitor. Not an hour passes when their parents Vivien and Roger come. They understand English, but can't speak, so I talk to them in English and Thierry translates their answers.

Both Thierry and Éric share the same values as me, so finding a common language is not a problem. Neither of them does a job that is connected with their education path. Thierry started in the army, but ended as a social worker in a hospital for disabled people, mainly providing human and compassionate care for people in the last phases of incurable diseases. He talks a lot about his job, which he treats more like a privilege than obligation. It's not the easiest one, but what he values most about it is the very sincere relationship between patient and counsellor. In spite of knowing that some of his patients are about to die soon, it doesn't stop him from making friends with them, creating a bond that brings mutual gains. He says that many of his incurably sick patients have given him the most valuable life lessons he'd ever received. I listen to his stories and hardly suppress from tears. Other people are important for me, it's the greatest joy when I can help them, make them happy for a while. But there are some situations I'm too sensitive for and working with people who can't be fully helped seems to be one of them. Weak people need others' help, but how could you help another person if you're weak yourself? You have to be strong, otherwise you both are going to fall down.

Thierry has just returned from Southeast Asia, so he shares his impressions about Thailand and Cambodia and I try to find, if some of my favorite books about these places written by Polish authors are also available in English.

Éric has a wanderer soul. At an early age he got piloting license but he never wanted to be an airline pilot who only sees airports and nothing beyond it. So he left for South Africa at an early age and only flew in small planes, which gave him the opportunity to see a lot of the country. He spent there 7 years and really misses it, especially the freedom and lack of rush in whatever people do. He spent some time recently sailing a boat, another form of slow travel he cherishes so much. We talk about life choices, striving to happiness, following your own path and prividing others that you CAN.He can't stay too much time motionless, he likes the freededom that his job gives him, but he can't wait until he can sail a boat again. Just in two months, direction Corsica.

The other day Thierry takes me and Marie on a trip to the Mediterranean coast. We go to a tiny fishing village Méjean, around 25 km from Marseilles. Among many villages of that kind on the Côte Bleue, this one kept his primary character, the fishermen kept their land, on the contrary to other villages where they were compelled to sell it. Thanks to this fact it escaped hoards of tourists and I must say that's what makes you feel cozy here and forget that you're at the Mediterrranean Coast, so close to one of its most famous cities.

This place used to be Thierry's favorite during his university days - when he had a break, he took his sleeping bag, climbed to the top of a rock and stayed there overnight, having the astonishing view of the calanque, yachts entering it, still emerald and dark blue water, the yellow houses and the far horizon. I decide I have to check it when I'm back in France someday.

I also want to discover the surroundings on my own, so I head to Roussillon, just 3 km from my present home. The road is leading through wineyards and cherry tree orchards. Green color dominates, there's not as many ochre-colored houses as there will be when I get to Roussillon. Provencal countryisde never fails to amaze me, every tiny chemin leads me to another marvel.

Roussilon has the image I've associated with Colorado before - same hues of orange and red, spectacular cliffs and sun, sun, sun. I climb and descend, explore every secret spot, look at details, color my skin with ochre, touch thick cacti, pet friendly cats lying in the sweltering sun, try orange marmelade with lavender, smell the air that smells like strawberries and cheese, try to speak French to some road workers, find a place where I can be alone and read my book, speak in German with some visitors, try to find my house from the top of the hill and imagine how the big red spot surrounded by green fields and forests looks from above.

I learn something new! We talk about driving and Thierry asks me if I've ever driven a car. I've never done that, never needed or wanted to. But if I have a chance to try, why not? Thierry gives me lessons every day and I realize that it's not as difficult as I imagined. No problems changing gears, no problems using the pedals, only problems with turning. I'm moving like a snake, but Thierry praises my improvement in such a short time and is happy that a short practice convinced me to take the driving exam. So now I'm thinking where to take it. For sure it won't be the country where for every 100 accidents there's 11 deadly victims and good roads are as sparse as bad roads in France.

It was an exceptional experience to pass time with such welcoming people, feel like being a part of a family, help them with prettifying the garden, repair the curtain for the kids' room, cook for them and with them, see their smiles, communicate non-verbally with their friends who didn't speak French. Next time when I come, because I come for sure, I'll understand them more. Next mission - to learn French!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Enchanted with Provence

Just after the first day in Provence I realized that was the right place to hang out for almost my entire time I have left in France. As beautiful as Rhône-Alpes, but in a different way. Ever-present sun, blaze of colors, stretching vineyards and tiny houses. One of the marvels that I discovered was Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The surrounding region has a very interesting hydrography - it features the strangest ever source of a full-flowing river, appearing from under a tremendous rock cliff.

The water in a deep pool seems still, and it's unbelievable that just after a few meters it turns into something so powerful. The white water rapids crash down over black rocks, covered with dark green moss.Below the rapids the river extends and becomes tamed by numerous dams and waterwheels. Walking around the village, you can see water is everywhere, deep, clear, its color emerald green. I trespass on some private chemins and discover more and more ways to see the water. From every angle the view is truly amazing. I have no doubt I want to stay in Provence for as much as I can, and no doubt that I'll be back

What I'll remember most about Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is three colors: emerald green water, sand cliffs and pink blossoming trees.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On the road again!

Parting with Alan was long and heartbreaking but it was high time to leave the sorrow behind and enjoy a new chapter ahead of me.

First ride - starting from the ordinary spot we used whenever we wanted to get back to Les Houches - Les Pèlerins roundabout. I'm happy because of the new adventure starting but also a little sad because of being on my own again. Yet I know that once the real adventure starts, all my sadness will vanish. I'm sometimes looking behind me to see if any car has stopped and one time I notice two teenagers approaching the pull-off. Hitchhiking is very common in the valley, used to get from one village to the other. They can't be going very far.

A car stops after around 15 minutes and  both I and they approach. With my broken French I manage to understand that he's going to Chambéry. I get in, the youngsters continue to wait. I wish them good luck and get no reply.

After around 1,5 h the driver drops me off at péage. He tells me in broken English about two options that I have - either going to Grenoble (our side of the road) or to Lyon and from Lyon to Valence. I choose the first one. Thumbing for 15 minutes gives no effect, only some weird looks of people and drivers passing me, so I'm starting to think about the other side of the road and heading to Valence. I run across the road, which is as busy as the highway itself and trying to get a ride here seems even more futile, so I have a look at the map and realize  I'm not on the right side of the road!!! So I run again to where I was before, trying to not get killed by speeding cars.

This time I have more luck. A car stops almost immediately, we manage to communicate in French and I have a ride to the nearest péage. Asam is from Turkey and has lived most of his life in France. I use my little dictionary to tell him that I have a few Turkish friends who had lived in Poland. He's very fond of that and talks about Polish-Turkish friendship. I tell him that I know how to say "thank you" in Turkish and a big grin appears on his face. We listen to Turkish music and I tell him that I really like Turkish singer, Gökhan Kirdar. Asam opens his car compartment and gives me 2 CDs with around 300 songs. My backpack is already too full, but I accept the gift. He gives me a friendly hug for goodbye.

Next ride turns out to be a situation I've never been in while hitchhiking. I see a car with 3 guys inside slowing down and pulling over right next to me. I'd never expect I'd get in a car with 3 men inside, but my instincts tell me I should trust them, they don't look like lecherous perverts. Nico, Robin and Guillaume are brothers living in Annecy, but they often head south, this time only to drive Robin to Grenoble, from where he'll hitchhike to Valence to see his girlfriend. His English is the poorest of all of them, but he makes up for it with his witty jokes. Guillaume has lived in Czech Republic for two years, he speaks some Czech to me and I reply in Polish. Nico shares a profession with me, he's also a painter and can't imagine having another job. We laugh and joke and I don't have any regrets about accepting this ride. Plus, I have a companion.

We finally get to Grenoble, I say thank you to Guillaume and Nico, while Robin and I will spend some more time with each other on the road. A young couple pull over, Robin talks with them and tells me they're going to Avignon. Sweet! No sign and I have a ride almost to my destination! Even better, when Bastian asks me where I'm going, I tell him the name and he says "That's exactly where we're going to. I grew up in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue." He and his girlfriend are seasonal workers in Méribel, Bastian sells skiing equipment and Karine works at newsagents'. She's originally from Brazil, but was adopted at young age. In love with her car, she's driving all her friends around. We have a little picnic in the car and make it to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue at 18.30.

450 km and the only reason why I'm tired is waking up at 7.30 and hectically getting ready to leave. I miss the Alps but I also feel that I'll have to hitchhike a longer distance soon. Hitchhiking bug reactivated!

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's time to leave

So now it's over... Almost 6 months have passed and I can still remember that day when I came to Chamonix, burning with excitement all the way down there from Martigny, hoping that every village we passed with my hitchhiking driver was my destination, getting to Chamonix, seeing the sign "Bowling" and my heart pounding with joy of finally being there!

Three days ago I thought "it's still some time left" and now it's less than 12 hours until we move out and hit the road again, sooner or later. There less days remained, the more interesting things there were to do. Yesterday we met Lucie for the last time this season, same about Jim and Karine. Today we visited Helen and her sons in Vallorcine. We left early to pack and tidy up. But my backpack is still empty and the studio looks as if we weren't moving out, as if tomorrow was just another day of living here. I didn't suppose I would get used to a place so much. Six fantastic months during which...

I lived in Cham-Sud!
I shared space with another person.
I almost burnt an electric kettle and got told off for this.
I learned that I am egoistic and don't care about other people.
I agreed with this.
I was a couchsurfing host for people from Italy, USA, Germany, Latvia and France.
I shaved my head and at the same time did another thing on my to-do list.
I got 120 euro for 8 hours of doing something I had never done in my life.
I learned how to find G on the ukulele.
I first ate anything that was discounted in Super U.
Then I ate anything that the guests had left in the chalets.
I fell off a 30 m rock and only had few scratches and pain in my ass.
I stayed in the most expensive hotel in my life and that was the hospital in Sallanches (one night - 170 euro!).
I slept in a room where it was around 5 degrees C at night for two nights.
I babysat a child without seeing her even for a minute that night.
I got fired and found a better job in one day.
I realized that can't imagine living in Poland again, never mind living there.
I enjoyed 15 degrees in February and it wasn't even somewhere in the south of France.
I hiked all the trail from Servoz to Vallorcine, in 4 steps.
I learned to imitate Cartman from South Park.
I found a tree house with my friends and stayed there for a dinner.
I donated my blanket for this tree house.
I went from being single to it's complicated to in domestic partnership to it depends.
I lived and loved life in Chamonix.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Here we go.

Well, this is a first. First blog, first post, first time preparing for an all-by-myself trip. Instead of sending tons of mails, I'll post updates about my current whereabouts here, so that anybody who feels like knowing more about me can read my notes.

It's been eventful 6 months in Chamonix Valley, it passed like a wink of an eye but now it's time to leave. I'm 4 days away from setting off for a 2-month trip - first heading south to Provence, after that surroundings of Paris. I still don't know when, where exactly and actually, I don't care too much. Life is much more exciting with surprises and I've already figured out that there's no point making any plans, if eventually they all change. Then comes the thing that makes me most stirred - backpacking, hiking, wild camping and exploring geological wonders of Iceland. Not to forget about couchsurfing, meeting local people and getting to know the Icelandic culture. 1,5 month and the less days are left, the more I think that's not enough. Some areas of the country are still inaccessible, the roads of interior are impassable, so I can forget about seeing some places this time. However, I'm happy that I'll have a chance to see the marvels of this country in the off-season. Even the most beautiful sites can be easily spoiled with hoards of tourists and I'll avoid them.

In 4 days another adventure will begin, meanwhile I'm still savoring the life in Chamonix Valley and from what is left, I'm not going to miss any second!