At the end of the first week in France stand two major realizations: First, it is darn expensive here. In seven days here I have already spent more than half of the monthly budget. This means that if I want to have any money left in my account by the end of the trip, I have to decide to either go faster or to sleep outside if free accommodation is not available. Second, the French are not as strict when it comes to their language as I had feared. If one just tries to use her. And that’s a very good sign for me that I can in fact get to a good level of French by the time I arrive in Biarritz.
Day 64 – to France! (Florange in Thionville)
I leave the hostel in Remerschen just before ten. Not even an hour later a small difference in the color of the tar of the better dirt road on which I’m walking signals that I have just crossed the French-Luxembourg border.
That was easy.
From here on, the people do no longer greet with ¨Guten Tag!¨ (Germany) or ¨Morjen!¨ (Luxembourg). From here on it is ¨Bonjour!¨
I feel a little panicked. What had I not heard about the French and their language? The fact that they refuse to speak other languages. That they are equally offended if you don’t speak their language. Or if you speak it badly …
With interruptions I’m trying now for three years to master French. And although I believe that by now a lot of it must be stored in my little head, this same head is always completely empty when someone speaks to me in French. That is one of the reasons why a hike through France semed like a great idea. How do you learn a language better than by pursuing her in her natural environment?
But now panic rises up. An elderly man speaks to me. About walking, where I come from and where I want to go.
So part one works well: I understand.
But part two: What should I answer?
My head is empty.
I smile. ¨Oui, oui,¨ is initially the only thing I can think of. Three seconds later, however, ¨The viens de Remerschen. Et je vais à Thionville.¨
He smiles, nods and asks which country I come from.
He’s still smiling and wishes me ¨Bonne courage!¨
That was not such a bad start.
From the dirt road I very soon change on a departmental road and then another. The steam column above the nuclear power plant Cattenom is my point of reference for hours: There I have to pass.
I look around again and again, if I can find a shop that sells me a SIM card.
Without data connection on my phone I feel helpless. Luckily, I already have a destination for the night: On couchsurfing.org Florian has offered to host me. I have announced myself for 5 or 6 pm. But usually I send a text message when I get on the last 5 kilometers to let my host know that I really am on my way. Without SIM, I also can’t send the advance notice. At least Google Maps has my goal for the day (I had entered it when in Luxembourg I still had access to the German mobile network) stored in a larger resolution.
Since it is Sunday, the chances to find an open store are quite low. So it doesn’t overly concern me that there seem to be basically no shops until I get to Thionville.
The big supermarket I pass in a newly built industrial area is of course closed. But at least I can use the toilet at McDonalds without interference from the staff.
Behind Thionville Google Maps leads me through the old industrial district for one long hour. The abandoned street meanders past rails, fallow land and factory buildings that have seen better days. My head plays tricks on me: There is no way to turn right or left. I can only follow a street in front of me. There are barely any cars, let alone other pedestrians. If I were attacked here, I would be skrewed.
Of course I’m not attacked. I reach the little house that Florian shares with his father, at half past six to be immediately occupied the older man. Mr. Forster is visibly excited by the opportunity to speak German. My young host keeps respectfully in the background.
At dinner – steak haché, peas and carrots, elbow pasta, bread and cheese, and yogurt for dessert – we have a conversation ¨threesome¨: Mr. Forster and I speak German. Florian and I speak English; whereby he often thinks for a long time and searches deep in his head to find the right English word. That reassures me a little. I guess that is what it looks like when I’m fighting for a French sentence. Florian and his father, of course, speak French amongst each other. Sometimes when I realize that they discuss how they can best explain something to me I recognize the word and offer the English or German term.
Florian eventually bids us good night as he has to learn for an upcoming exam at the university. His father and I dedicate ourselves to the soccer matches on TV. First, we watch France vs. Panama. Then Mr. Forster proudly shows me the German channels his TV can receive. There we discover a friendly between Germany and Cameroon in preparation of the World Cup.
But my fatigue outweighs the interest in the outcome of the friendlies. So I head for my bed long before the matches are over.
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Day 65 – to Metz
Getting to Metz is easy: all I have to do is follow the D953, which runs parallel to the motorway from Thionville to Metz. The lack of complexity of the route leaves my mind free rein to circle around the new language. I read all the words that I discover on houses and on billboards, and try to work out their meaning. I translate phrases that could possibly be important.
¨Je suis en pélerinage et cherche un abris pour la nuit. ¨
¨ Je marche de Berlin à Biarritz. ¨
¨ C’est la 10ème semaine. ¨
This goes on for hours. At lunch time, me head is throbbing. But I can’t turn it off. Wistfully I think back to the meditative silence of German forests and try to focus on my breath. But that offers only short lived relief. Immediately I find another word and start repeating it in my head.
In Metz, I might be able to stay with Eric. I have also found him on couchsurfing.org. But I haven’t yet received his email with a final OK. So my first stop in the city is the tourist information.
I take a deep breath and blast out in my best French:¨I have two questions. One: I’m looking for the Carrefour Hostel. And two: Do you know where I can buy a SIM card?¨
The lady on the other side of the counter smiles politely, pulls out a small map and marks the hostel near the cathedral. For the second question, she turns to her colleague in the back room and then points to the Place St. Jacques. There I would find an Orange Shop.
I thank her and walk the little more than a hundred meters to the hostel. Hopefully, they have WiFi.
At the reception I try to stay invisible as I sit down to look for a WiFi signal. But the receptionist has quickly discovered me. Would I like to stay here?
I smile helplessly and say,¨I don’t know. Do you have WiFi? I have to read my e-mails. A friend … ¨
Without further ado my counterpart disappears briefly in her office and upon her return hands me the WiFi access code.
In my email I find a message from Eric. Sure I could stay with him. However, he was busy until nine. Relieved, I answer him that this was not a problem.
I thank the receptionist and go back past the tourist office to the shopping district of the old town. I see the Orange Shop, but ignore it in favor of the Virgin Mobile store. Virgin should be still cheaper than Orange, right?
In the shop I read about an offer that nearly equals the conditions that I had with my Fonic SIM in Germany: 10 € for 300MB internet and a quota of calls and SMS. I go to the counter and say that I would like to buy a SIM with that offer. However, I’m not from France (as one might hear) and therefore need a prepaid card.
I only understand half of what the saleswoman answers.
Unfortunately, the wrong half.
Ten minutes later I have handed the woman 25 € for a SIM card, which is now plugged into my phone.¨And what about the Internet? How does it work?¨I ask.
¨Oh,¨she says with her eyebrows pulled up. ¨That would be very expensive using the internet with this prepaid SIM. ¨
Unsure of what to do now, I leave the store. I can’t really say.¨Well then I return the SIM and would like my money back ”
I send Eric an SMS and ask him where we should meet. With couchsurfers I can at least communicate in English. He responds, and proposes the waiting area of the train station. On the way there I discover the shops of two other phone providers.
After having already shelled out 25 € for basically nothing today, I decide to look for dinner in the small supermarket at the train station instead of in a boulangerie. A four-pack of cream cheese dessert is on sale.
In the two hours until Eric’s arrival I doodle a few thoughts in my notebook, update my map and greedily consume one hour of free internet, which the book shop at the station offers.
My host arrives even a quarter of an hour earlier than agreed. We go to his apartment, which lies outside of the city center about ten minutes on the other side of the massive station building. He tells me in detail about the history of Germany in Metz and offers for the coming evening to give me a tour of the city. I promise to take him up on his offer, let him show me the washing machine, receive a key to the apartment and get comfy for the night on the sofa.
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Day 66 – in Metz
My first walk this morning leads me to the phone shops, which I had seen last night. SFR and Bouygues are according to Eric both good providers with good networks. With either of them I want to buy a new SIM. I have already filed Virgin as an experience. Especially since I have discovered that the other providers have covered the city with free WiFi networks, for which one, however, requires a customer number.
The SFR offer with 10 € for the prepaid SIM and 20 € for a month of free phone calls and SMS messages and 300 MB internet eventually convinces me. After five minutes the salesman even takes pity on me and asks if I would rather switch to English. I gladly accept. Unfortunately, I learn that prepaid customers can’t use the WiFi network. C’est la vie.
Relieved of another 30 €, but with a better gut feeling, I leave the shop looking for a cheap breakfast/lunch. I find it at “Flunch”.
As I helplessly stand next to the cash register in the self-service restaurant, and try to find the 5 € offer that had lured me into the store, a cashier approaches me and patiently explains the process: pick a main, pile up on salad, drinks and dessert, pay and show the receipt at the counter to receive the main.
For 6.85 € I buy a plate of pasta with salmon as well as a coffee and a macaroon. In France, it is unthinkable to finish a meal without dessert.
On top I discover that Flunch has free WiFi.
I stay for the next three hours, among the salespeople who spend their two hour lunch break here, and the pensioners who feast here for very little money – by French standards.
Afterwards I drift for a few hours through the old town; take this turn, then that one; wander through the covered market, past fresh seafood, all kinds of cheese, fruit and meat; and breathe in the silence in the huge cathedral.
I meet Eric at five-thirty in front of the cathedral. We drink a lemonade in the Plaza while he plans the route.
He guides me along the old city wall. For two hours he points out this building, and that one, and rejoices in sharing his detailed knowledge. These are perfect couchsurfing moments, when the host loves his hometown so much and knows it as well as Eric does.
For dinner, we head back into the Old Town to the “Le Mirabellier”. I try not to think about the fact, that this will cost me at least another day’s budget, and instead enjoy the delicious quiche Lorraine, the wine and the conversation.
Day 67 – in Metz
In the morning I take it slowly. My host also receives German television. So I zap through the channels, while I wait for my laundry.
Around noon, I’m hungry. In addition, Eric has no WiFi.
At the station I buy a ticket to Morhange.
It’s that time again: train time. I want to stay with a friend in Strasbourg. But she is there only for two nights after and before business trips take her out of the city: Monday to Wednesday is my opening. However, to Strasbourg it is almost 150 kilometers. Such a distance I can’t possibly cover in five days without completely exhausting myself with temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and more announced. So for less than 10 € I shorten the route by a third and even win an extra night in Saverne.
In the next Boulangerie I pass I buy a croque monsieur avec jambon to warm up. It is cold today. I would like to take my lunch to the old town to use the free internet outside the “Flunch” restaurant.
But heavy rain foils my plans.
Instead, I eat the sandwich in the train station, refresh my canned supplies at the grocery store, go back to the apartment and sleep a little, before I return to the train station to access the WiFi again for an hour.
That is just enough time to send out a few requests for the route to Strasbourg on couchsurfing.org and to write a reference for my last hosts.
Among other things, after thinking about it for a long time I have finally decided to leave Ibraheem from Koblenz a neutral reference. His reaction comes, as was to be expected, almost instantly: Although he doesn’t change his positive feedback for me, he gets a bit carried away in a rather long comment about my supposed rudeness.
Eric turns spaghetti, two kinds of hard cheese and pepper into a delicious Italian dinner. The meal is accompagnied by beer with orange liqeur and a bottle of Lambrusco.
Before going to bed we precautionary say goodbye to one another. In the likely event that I don’t wake up when he goes to work. Eric graciously allows me to spend the time until the departure of the train in his home and then simply drop the key in the mailbox.
Day 68 – to Morhange and on to Mittersheim
I leave the train in Morhange in the early afternoon. It’s sunny and hot. No trace of yesterday’s rain.
On quite short notice, I had sent a request sent to a couch surfer in Nébing yesterday. Although I haven’t heard back I decide that the 16 km there seem like a good stint for the afternoon. Also, getting to Nébing will only take me about two kilometers off my Google Mapped path.
I reach Nébing half past four.
Again and again, I look at my phone in the search for an answer by the couch surfer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come.
The place is bigger than I expected, or maybe just hoped. None of the houses looks like CouchSurfing. Instead, there seem to be mainly large families living here. I don’t dare to ring at any of the houses. But it’s still early, I try to calm myself.
In the next, much smaller village an old man yells at me from halfway across a vegetable field. “Isn’t it a little too late to hike?” I understand, because he points again and again at his watch.
I nod. “I’m seeking shelter for the night.”
He nods. “Bonne courage!”
In the next village I discover a friendly looking house in front of which a small car with lowered windows is parked.
I somehow find the courage to ring the bell.
I count slowly to twenty and finally move on.
In front of a large homestead a man checks his fruit trees.
“Sorry! Maybe you can help me? I’m seeking shelter for the night,” I approach him.
He thinks for a long minute. “There’s nothing around here. Maybe closer to Dom-Nom, they might rent rooms.”
I thank him and look at my phone. Dom-Nom looks neither close to this place, nor is it on my route.
In the next village I hang out in front of the church for about ten minutes. Maybe someone notices me and takes pity.
No one does. It is now almost seven.
At an intersection I find two abandoned restaurants.
I see that the library door is still open and cautiously step in. The cleaning lady tries to help, and sends me to the mayor’s office, back by the church. She is pretty sure that there should still be someone.
Or she wants to get rid of me. Because of course the mayor’s office is closed.
Examining Google Maps I see that there is a hotel in Mittersheim, which is on my route. That is another 6.4 km. One and a half hours. But this seems like the only option. And maybe I’ll find something else before.
6.4 km later the woman at the hotel barks at me: “We are fully booked. There is a restaurant and the Hotel Soleil in the city.”
I’m close to tears when I discover that the restaurant in the city has obviously been closed for some time. I pull myself up and follow the signs to the “Au Soleil” at the edge of the village.
But here, all the shutters are lowered. And there is no phone number to reach the owner.
Behind the hotel stretches a large campsite. It is unlikely that I will find anything there. However, I decide to look for the reception. My hopes are nourished by advertising for the “Domaine du Lac”. The sign promises not only accommodation but also a café.
The campsite reception is closed already, as expected. Before my inner eye, I now see myself either sleeping on the banks of the lake or in front of the church. The picture gets even clearer when I find the “Domaine du Lac” also barricaded.
“All right. So this is the first night out in the open,” I think to myself. “Well, it could have been worse. At least it is not raining.”
I haven’t quite finished the thought, as I find two anglers. They immediately realize the seriousness of the situation, but have no real solution. When I ask if there was a priest in the village, they refer me to another angler a few meters away. He is apparently from Mittersheim.
The friendly retiree opens his eyes wide when he understands my situation. He calls out to his wife, who, dressed only in panties and a wide vest, comes out from behind a hedge. She can’t quite believe that the “Au Soleil” should be closed and disappears behind the hedge to get her phone from the couple’s mobile home.
But she also can’t reach anyone at the hotel. Then she calls two other people. I don’t understand who. When that doesn’t seem to be successful, and she sends her husband away, probably to call on a neighbor.
Again I have no idea what happens. But I remain, as told, on the spot.
The man returns in search of his wife. I point to the hedge, towards the mobile home. He explains that he has another caravan to watch TV, because he and his wife can’t agree on the program.
I begin to understand, and in my mind, a broad grin starts building.
The woman brings linens and we walk around three corners to the caravan. There is a sink, a stove and a seating area in a tent attached to the caravan.
This would be good enough for me and my cot.
But the woman fixes the big bed in the caravan. The man explains extensively how the TV works, that there are even German channels, and that I may use the toilet. Oh, and what would I eat for dinner?
I’m overwhelmed by the hospitality that the two bestow on me. A short time later I sit in my hosts’ living room, with a cup of hot cocoa in my hand and baguette, pate and tomatoes on the table. German shepherd Shiva observes, that I drop nothing. Paulette asks me about my journey and tells me about herself and Francis. He declares, although I’m sure that this is not the case, that my French was very good.
Shortly after ten I say goodnight and retreat with a piece of cherry pie and two bags of tea (“for dessert”) to my guest caravan.
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Day 69 – to Saverne
Paulette has invited me back to her mobile home for breakfast at eight: baguette, hot cocoa, cheese, homemade mirabelle jam with cinnamon. While I finish all of it, Paulette packs lunch: three sausages, three eggs, two tomatoes, a pear, an apple, a can of paté, the rest of the cheese. I’m having trouble storing all of that in my backpack.
Then my hostess invites me into her car to show me the huge campsite before I go. We go to the “German Colony” which, ¨of course¨, is in the best part of the compound, see the “For Sale” sign in front of the “Domaine du Lac”, meet the owner of the campground and some of Paulette’s friends. We move on to the village, where she insists on completing my lunch with a baguette and on driving me about seven kilometers to the next village, so I don’t have to cover the entire 39 km to Saverne on foot.
One village eventually turns into three and I wave Paulette goodbye in Rauwiller. What a force of nature! What a hearty welcome!
Thanks to the support I get to Saverne at four in the afternoon. I’m now much faster on my route to Strasbourg than expected a few days ago. After yesterday’s experience I want to stay in the hostel in Saverne until Monday to play it safe. On Monday I will travel the remaining 37 km to Strasbourg.
The hostel is located on the top floor of the Renaissance castle of Rohan. So of course I want to stay there! But it only opens again at five. So I roam a bit around town. At the tourist information I ask for a map and, just to be save in case the hostel should be fully booked, the next cheapest place to stay. Madame Morere has guest rooms for 38 € per night, including breakfast. Almost twice the youth hostel price. But the lady at the tourist information thinks it was a better deal than the hostel.
Shortly after five the receptionist at the Auberge de Jeunesse delivers the bad news: the house is fully booked for tonight. In the same breath, she offers to call Madame Morere. “And if she has no place, we accommodate you somewhere else.”
Madame Morere not only has space, I’m the only guest in the house right by the canal. I could save 5 € if I booked the room without breakfast. But experience has shown that the breakfast at bed’n’breakfasts is not only a good foundation for the day. Most of the time I can also keep some of it for lunch. So I book the room with breakfast.
I once again tour the city to figure out where I can spend the day tomorrow. Even if I can take my things to the hostel at ten, according to the rules posted outside it is closed even to paying guests from 10 am to 5 pm. The library is coming to the rescue: To my great surprise and delight, it opens its doors on Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm.
For dinner I process the remains of Paulette’s generous lunch package into a salad. While I cut everything into bite sized pieces and eat, I watch with my hostess the French version of “Money Drop”.
Madame offers to put my laundry with hers in the washing machine. And then the day is already over.
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Day 70 – in Saverne
Madame offers all kinds of delicacies for breakfast. It is obvious that she also likes to eat. There is a chocolate brioche, rustic baguette, Nutella, jams, laughing cow cheese, yoghurt, a packet of orange juice and café au lait in a big bowl. She hands me ham and a glass of gherkins to turn the rest of the baguette into a sandwich for lunch. I wrap it along with three-quarters of the brioche in aluminum foil.
Over at the hostel the receptionist seems surprised, but not displeased to see me. After some back and forth, the receptionist, who had also looked after my welfare yesterday afternoon, decides to give me a single room. The fact that I did not stay at Madame Morere seems to awaken her pity. Not only do I pay for the single room the dorm rate, she also spares me the 7 € per night, which should be due for non-holders of a HI youth hostel card.
I’m allowed to immediately move into my room and even get a key to leave and re-enter the hostel during the day.
My room is at the end of the corridor, at the corner of the right wing and overlooks the front entrance of the castle. The thick walls make me hope that despite the location under the roof the announced 30plus degrees Celsius heat will not heat the room up too much.
Unfortunately, there is no WiFi. Therefore, I decide to spend the day at the library after all.
Although I don’t find WiFi there either the work atmosphere helps my concentration and I write until shortly before four almost the whole diary for week 10.
The hostel has a tiny little kitchen for guest use. While for today’s lunch I can once more fall back on the remains of Paulette’s packed lunch and then have Madame Morere’s ham baguette for tonight, for tomorrow, Sunday, I will need to buy something that I can heat up in the microwave.
I find my something in the small Coop in the city center: I buy a small can of ravioli for 1.38 €.
A hundred meters down the road I discover a huge Supermarché U. I feel like having some ice cream but don’t want to shell out the 1.20 € (or more) they are demanding for a scoop in the city center. ¨There has to be a better option,¨ I think and step into the temple of consumption.
A stroll through the pleasantly cool aisles ends only with the realization that things here are cheaper than in the Coop. But aside from ice cream (which they only sell in large containers) there is nothing I need right now. So I go through the self-service checkouts to exit the store.
But not so fast!
At the self-service checkouts, a member of the supermarket staff stops me. I could not go into the market with the backpack. I tell her I understand but that I was actually just on the way out. The woman says that she must search the backpack. I willingly open it and show her the content.
The lady pulls out my can of ravioli.
¨I just bought that at the Coop. I don’t even think you sell this here,¨I object.
She looks at me and pulls the can over the scanner at the self-checkout. The price here is only 1.09 €. Could I show her the receipt, she asks.
I can’t. I can well remember the price of a single can of ravioli. Of course I don’t tell her that. Instead, I’m doing an indignant gesture, as I realize that she is taking my can to her boss. She can’t be serious!
The boss takes my can to security guard and points questioningly at me. The guy shakes his head.
I stutter in a mixture of French and German and sweeping movements, that I would surely steal something more expensive than a small can of ravioli, if I were to steal.
She is not impressed. Instead she passes the statement on to her boss. He disappears with my can in the video room.
Which language I spoke, my accuser wants to know. German or English? In irritation I answer ¨German and English¨.
She pulls up her eyebrows and walks away. I wonder how much satisfaction one can get from catching someone who is desperate enough to steal a meal in the value of one euro (which I’m not).
Seemingly endless five minutes later the woman is back and coldly hands me my can. ¨You must always take the receipt. ”
Now I’ve earned me a 1.20 € scoop of ice cream in the city. My choice is coffee flavor.