I spent the night a block away from the massive St. Pancras International station, so getting checked in for my first inter-country rail journey was a snap. This was also my last opportunity to have an authentic full English breakfast before leaving the UK, one which I took *full* advantage of (easily one of my favorite things there).
I had heard that the Eurostar train went underneath the channel between the UK and France. Being slightly obsessed with trains, and with unique experiences, this was pretty much a no brainer. Though I had imagined a tunnel with windows (there aren’t any for structural reasons) it was still a really fascinating experience. Easily the longest tunnel that I have ever been in. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to spend a few hours studying my French phrase book in preparation for my new home.
I arrived in Gare du Nord shortly after 1 PM, with a short list of tasks to complete before I found my way to the hostel. First on the list was to activate my Eurail pass and book reserved seats to make my way down to St Jean Pied de Port by the end of the month.
Gare du Nord is listed as the only station in Paris with a Eurail visitors office. Because it took me some time to find it, the office is a single counter (#25) near the ticketing office for the high speed rail. Once having that completed, I felt much more at ease.
I also became much more familiar with my current go to phrase, “Je ne parle pas bien Français” (I do not speak French well). Most people have been very patient and understanding. I spent some time examining signs in cafes and in the station to pick up some new vocabulary. I find it is a very good way to get acquainted with new languages by bridging it with familiarity.
The second item on the agenda was to locate a local SIM card near the station. Unable to do so, I headed out towards the hostel using the signage along the streets pointing the way (how convenient!)
I passed through the Indian borough, full of open air markets and a Bollywood cinema before reaching the converted rail station that housed the Yves Robert hostel. At this point, I had been walking away from the city center (my intended activity for the night) and had to get a move on to prepare for the evening.
Switching into my rain gear to combat the intermittent showers in Paris, I left the hostel shortly after arriving and headed in the general direction of the Seine River. My mission, to reach the Eiffel Tower or (and?) get lost trying.
The streets in Paris have a very organic construction to them, like a river delta, or the chaotic trickle of a stream over stones. Streets fork, turn and split often enough that keeping a direct path towards your destination is often difficult. I was lucky enough to notice that the water from the rain seemed to follow the direction towards the river, and proved to be an unusual and helpful guide to navigating the city.
I stopped at a cafe to eat and dry off shortly after crossing the seine. I made an attempt to order in French (successfully!) and began trying to comment on the food in French. Interestingly, my first real conversation with someone in French mirrored my visit to Japan as well. In both cases, I was trying to say that the food was delicious, and got a very good lesson in using tenses in either language. In this case, I was trying to say that the food was delicious while still eating it (hence the issue). I love learning new things like this, and was very appreciative of my first impromptu French lesson.
I headed towards the Eiffel Tower, turning the corner around a large set of buildings just as the sun had begun to set. I had heard from numerous people that the tower was unimpressive, and I wholeheartedly disagree.
I climbed the stairs (the entry line was much shorter, and I love climbing things) to the first and second terraces and watched the sunset on my first night in Paris from the Eiffel Tower. The experience was extraordinary. I even got to watch the tower light up while I was still on it.
Paris comes alive at night, as if the cacophony of the city is but a bitter mirage of the miracle of light that displaces it when the sun sets. The Eiffel Tower sparkles, the buildings glow with an artificial hue, and the city more than earns its namesake.
The walk back along the Seine, though much longer, was a significantly more worthwhile journey.