My first visit to Europe was when I was assigned to conduct a pilot project in Belgium for a huge contract, which was eventually signed and is still in force after more than 13 years. During this trip, Srinivas and I had a lot to do and our work was very critical for our company. However, for the first time in my life I made a rule that we would not work on Saturdays and Sundays. We worked extremely hard during the rest of the week and kept ourselves free during the weekends. Every weekend, I would visit one of the cities in and around Belgium. Initially Srinivas used to join me in each of my adventures. However, after a few weeks, he found these adventures expensive and preferred to stay in Antwerp while I would roam around.
When I planned a trip to Paris, Srinivas was instantly interested and forgot about expenses. Initially, we planned to travel by Thalys high-speed trains from Antwerp to Paris. However, we had to drop our idea as Thalys arrived in Antwerp in the afternoon and this would mean we would loose one full day. So, we booked tickets by our trusted Eurolines bus. On the appointed day in early Feb00, we boarded the bus in Antwerp at around 4AM. In about 1 hour, we were in Brussels. Around 6AM, our bus from Brussels started for Paris. The ride through the countryside was thoroughly enjoyable as I saw lush green fields on either sides stretching for miles in every direction. We had a brief stop at the French border where our passports were checked. We arrived in Paris at around 9:15AM. We found a McDonald and ordered breakfast. This was the first time I paid to visit the toilet and found spending 50 cents extremely expensive.
From the Eurolines bus stop, we took a regular bus with no idea about where it would take us. We were just enjoying our ride through the Paris city. All of a sudden, I saw Bastille appearing on the display. Assuming that we were at Bastille, we got down from the bus. I could see only regular buildings around and referred to my Lonely Planet guidebook to understand that the Bastille had been razed to the ground during the revolution. We walked around aimlessly and suddenly found ourselves on the bridge leading to the inner Paris city. We walked across the bridge. Then I saw the Paris Bus heading in our direction. We boarded the Paris Bus and purchased the day ticket for 12 Francs. The Paris Bus was wonderful and we climbed on the upper floor, which was without a roof; each seat was fitted with a headset in which commentary was in progress describing the place we were passing through. We were enjoying our ride in the Paris Bus when we heard that we had reached Louvre. We got down from the bus. The whole place was so picturesque that I was clicking away in every direction. I had loaded myself with 6 film rolls and thus could take as many as 216 photographs using my Canon EOS 888.
We went around the palace and then finally entered Louvre. It was an experience of a lifetime. There was so much to see. However, I could not understand most of the things. So, I targeted to find out the Cesium-Iridium watch and soon found it. We came out Louvre shortly after noon and again boarded the Paris Bus. We next got down at Trocadero having passed many wonderful palaces and other tourist attractions. After taking photographs, we walked to the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower mesmerized us. I wanted to climb to the top. However, we dropped the idea seeing the long queue. After spending some time at the Eiffel Tower, we again boarded the Paris Bus. We got down at a spot where we found a series of restaurants. I ordered sandwiches and coffee while Srinivas ordered French Fries and Coke. After having our food, we again boarded the Paris Bus and this time got down at Notre dame.
I was in awe of Notre dame and we spent a lot of time here. We walked around and along the river. We wanted to take a speedboat ride. However, we restrained ourselves, as we did not have too much money on ourselves. At around, 4PM, we decided to head to Rue La Fayette to catch our Eurolines bus back to Antwerp. Now, Srinivas was a huge Hindi Film fan. During work, he would open the Filmfare web site and keep himself updated. He was now vehemently complaining that he had come to Paris and was not able to spend the evening in Paris like Shammi Kapoor. I was only hoping that he did not consider me as Sharmila Tagore.
I was very confident as I saw Rue La Fayette very close to Notre dame in the map. We tried to follow the map in Lonely Planet and found Rue La Fayette. However, I could not find the Eurolines Bus Stand. At around 5:30 PM, I was slightly panicked and so asked a Policeman for the direction. However, after trying all my antics, I could not explain my need to the French Policeman who did not understand English. We kept trying. At around 6:15PM, we met a Sri Lankan and he understood what I spoke. He informed us that the Eurolines buses started from a place called Gallieni and this place was about 1 hour by the metro. Now, I was certain that we had missed our bus back to Antwerp as it was scheduled to start at 6:30PM. The Sri Lankan gentleman showed us the way to the nearest Metro station. We thanked him and headed in that direction. Soon, we found ourselves at Opera Station. We entered the station and purchased our tickets for train number 12. Gallieni was the last stop on this route and so that was not to be a challenge. We went past the gates and entered the platform. To my surprise, we found that train number 4 arrived at the platform. I told Srinivas not to be worried as Paris Metro was more advanced than Calcutta Metro and thus more than one Train Number could arrive at the platform. We kept waiting and Train Number 4 kept frequenting the platform. After 30 minutes, I was convinced that Paris Metro was not that advanced after all and decided to ask a gentleman about where we could find Train Number 12. He informed us that we needed to go down another level to find the platform for Train Number 12. We soon found the platform and found Train Number 12.
We boarded the train to arrive at Gallieni at around 8:30PM. We went to the counter to be informed that our bus had departed. However, the lady at the counter agreed to change our tickets for the next available bus without any extra charges. The only challenge was the next bus to Antwerp was to start at 9:15AM the next morning. So, now we had to spend the night in Paris. I informed Srinivas that we would not only spend the evening in Paris; but a complete night in Paris.
We had dinner at McDonald. Next, we bought tickets at the Metro Station and boarded the Train Number 12 in the reverse direction to get down at Opera Station. We came out of the Metro Station and started walking. Soon, we found ourselves in Champ Elysees. It was magnificent with all the lights and wonderful shops. Srinivas was expecting Sharmila Tagore to appear out of nowhere. This did not happen. We walked to the Arc De Triomphe. It was more beautiful than in the daytime with all the lights on. We kept walking and reaching the banks of River Siene. We were totally exhausted by now. However, I could not afford to stop there as I was afraid if any Police nabbed us loafing around in the night. I could see Eiffel Tower at a distance. I told Srinivas that we would go to Eiffel Tower and take rest in the grounds there. We walked to Eiffel Tower; and on reaching the grounds we just collapsed. Eiffel Tower was beautifully lit as it was welcoming the arrival of the new century. I kept talking to Srinivas so that we did not fall asleep. I was very confident that we could spend the night here. However, my assumption was soon proved wrong as we found lights being switched off at 2AM and Policemen ordering people to vacate the grounds.
Hurriedly, we left Eiffel Tower and started walking. We found a Metro Station at a distance. I planned on returning to Gallieni. On arriving at the Metro Station, we found that the station was closed and it would open at 5:30AM. So, yet another plan failed. We walked down the road aimlessly. I wanted to avoid this, as I was afraid if the Police would pick us up. It was already freezing cold by this time. After some time, we found a bar that was still operating. We entered the bar. Now, Srinivas did not touch alcohol and was very reluctant to enter the bar. I ordered a beer to spend the least and we sat in the bar. I was sipping the beer ever so slowly to avoid having to order again. At 4AM, the barmen informed that they would close the bar. So, we were out in street once again.
Suddenly, I got a brilliant idea. I reasoned that every place could be closed; but not the railway station. So, I told Srinivas that we would go to Garu De Nord and rest there till the morning when the Metro would start operating. We took out all the money we had and counted it. We had exactly 97 Francs on both of us. We found a taxi and boarded it with some amount of arrogance. I requested him to take us to Garu de Nord and kept watching the meter. The plan was that we would get off the moment the meter showed 85 Francs. However, we reached Garu de Nord and the meter showed 79 Franc. We paid the taxi and headed to the station. To my great surprise, the station was closed from all sides. We could see workers cleaning the TGVs inside. At the moment, I just gave up. However, I could not give up as we still had about 45 minutes before the Metro would start operating.
We walked out in the street and I soon found a Telephone Booth adjoining a Bus Stop. As it was freezing cold, I told Srinivas to enter the Telephone Booth and rest. I sat in the Bus Stop. At around 5:30AM, we started looking for the nearest Metro Station and soon found it. By now, I was an expert in finding the platform for Train Number 12. We boarded the train and arrived in Gallieni. We had money to pay to use the toilet and did so. We then sat and waited for our bus. At around 9AM, we boarded our bus and slept.