Saturday, June 27, 2009

not your usual travel journal - PART 4

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

* * * *

May 28, 2009

"The very long road to Barcelona"

I don't trust the French transport system.

We have been sitting in our first class Eurail coach for almost 4 hours now, and the train stops several miles from Montpellier, where we are supposed to take a connecting train to Barcelona.
Someone jumped on the tracks to end his life. The police made all French Eurail trains stop as they investigate. God knows how long this will take. We have a train to Barcelona to catch, and if this takes longer than 30 minutes, we're going to be left behind.

In a French town we know nothing about.

With no hotel.

This is not good.

* * * *

It has been 40 minutes. We are still in the train, in the middle of farmland.

I consoled myself with some hot chocolate and Vittel mineral water.

A young French guy with a Macbook
and a yellow unicycle (really) is translating for us. He says that Eurail management may arrange either a hotel for stranded passengers, or at the very least another train.

I decide to panic.

* * * *

(Two hours hour later....)

We are sitting on our bags in the tiny Montpellier station, and the Spanish train has left. It is unclear how we will get to Barcelona now. The station smells awful. Too many people are breathing.

At least we are not alone. We are in the company of our
new multinational friends - travellers who, like us, are trapped by the inefficiency of the joke that is the French train system, and are also going to Barcelona. There's:

(a) an affluent, semi-retired Australian couple
(b) an Australian tax collector
(c) two backpacking Malaysians, and
(d) a young Dutch woman.

Each of them has a story.

The Aussie couple just sent their kids off to college, and are now doing what empty nesters do - they travel. A week before visiting France, they spent time in Italy, which they described as "a place you should never visit without an interpreter." They are not new to the inefficiency of the French train system; apparently all their Eurail trips since the start of their vacation have been delayed for some reason or another.

The two backpacking Malaysians (both girls) are younger than us - just fresh out of college. They have been backpacking around the EU for a month now, after a short stay in Turkey. Like me, they think that Paris is overrated. They are so happy to find out that
I am Asian, and want to team up with MSP and me in figuring out how to get out of France. They have no faith in the intelligence of other genetic stocks, and would prefer that we Asians stick together and leave the others behind. Yes, they are somewhat racist, but also very smart. A Malay racist is always more interesting than a Caucasian racist, don't you think? :)

Meanwhile there's the Australian tax collector, who is also a mom to two boys. This is her "great adventure." She says that this trip is part of her prenup - that is, she and her husband agreed to let each other take some time off (alone, away from each other and from the kids) whenever they want. She has always travelled as a single woman, she says, and cannot survive without taking off every few years. I like her. She's cool.

Finally there's the Dutch girl, who is a student and a part-time waitress. She says she had to negotiate with her boss and other colleagues to get a week off, and is very excited to see Barcelona.
Lotsa cute guys, she says. (She was right). This delay is eating up her very short vacation. She wants to cry.

And then there's us. Two Filipinos stranded in a train station in Montpellier, France. We own a small company, and this is our first time in Europe. We have been dating for eight years. We had to apply for a visa to get here - a process that took more than a month. The EU wanted to know everything - how much we were worth, what kind of people we were, what we usually have for lunch. With the money we spent to be here, we could buy a suburban house in the Philippines. This delay pisses us off, of course, but isn't this what travelling is about? New people, new experiences, same old baguette?

The next train to Barcelona will be tomorrow. NO, there are no free hotel rooms. NO, there are no "special" trains. We'll have to sleep in this dingy station.

At this point we decide to take the Malaysians up on their offer.

* * * *

We figure out that there is a bus to Barcelona. No one tells us this crucial information, as no one in the train station speaks English. We learn about it by brute force and a lot of hand gestures.

Here's the plan: We just need to take another train to another French town nearer the Spanish border, and there should be a bus to Barcelona from there.

Off we go. (We take everyone with us, even when the Malaysians wanted to leave them behind.)

* * * *

On the connecting train, we meet an elderly French woman who refuses to talk to us when she finds out we are from the Philippines. "
Cultures très différentes," she says while signaling "NO" with her hand.

That's okay, old lady. We have nothing to say to you, either.

P.S. I also find elderly racists interesting, like Malay racists.

* * * *

It is almost 10pm and we are in a bus to Barcelona. Like everything French, this vehicle is anything but first-world. The buses in Manila are much better. This one is cramped and smells like moist socks.

I want to sleep, but the people behind me are talking too loud. A passionate Barcelonan is trying (and failing) to befriend a Japanese couple. A Nigerian is talking about how hard it is to find work in this continent. I can hear an American complaining. It's a f*cking circus.

* * * *
May 29, 2009


MSP wakes me up. I fell asleep on his arm.

We're in Barcelona. My last memory was crossing the Spanish border. I must have dozed off right after.

* * * *

We walk from Estacio de Sants (Barcelona's central station) to wherever the crowd was going. The metro was closed, and we have to take a cab. The Australian tax collector agreed to share one with us, as our hotels were close by.

The wind is cold (it IS almost 3am, after all) and I feel the chill. I put on my red bonnet, and people look at me like I'm weird.

Now I understand the signs - even if they were Catalan. This country made more sense to me.

"¿Es esta la estación de taxis?" I find myself saying to a woman wearing the Barcelona futbol jersey. They just won an important match yesterday, and people here are still festive.

"Si, aqui," she replies. Oh my god I can live here.

* * * *

The cab driver is very polite. I already love Spain. Everyone is so nice, just like Pinoys.

We are not in France anymore :) Amen.

We expected another dimly lit, three-star hotel and completely forgot that we booked ourselves to a more posh establishment - the Ritz Barcelona. When I saw it, I wanted to cry. It was beautiful - certainly many many stars away from the dump we called "hotel" in Provence.

Our neoclassical-style hotel was built in 1899 was recently renovated. Hitler used to stay here a lot. It is right in the heart of the Eixample district, surrounded prestigious shopping and tourist areas. We can be in the avenue Passeig de Gràcia, the Plaça Catalunya, or the Las Ramblas in just a few minutes by foot.

While MSP and I resolved not to be picky during this trip, we appreciated all the luxury. After all, we just went through the hell that is the French train system.

The bathroom is nice and big. They gave us several bottles of shampoo and several bars of soap - unlike in France, where people never seem to shower. There is a huge flatscreen TV, free internet, and a 1000-count sheets. It reminds me so much of the condo back at home.

Viva Espana.

* * * *

Tomorrow we walk around Barcelona, taste the legendary TAPAS, and visit everything Gaudi ever made.

Good night!!!


not your usual travel journal - PART 3


Part 1

Part 2

The Musee Rodin

The next three days in Paris was a dizzying succession of museums after restaurants after obscure street names. We were thrown in what seemed like a nonspatial confusion of buses that didn't arrive on time and signs that didn't make sense. Within 48 hours, though, we got the hang of it. Finding places became much easier.
We endured queues to practically every touristy spot you can think of. We also got lost in the city's many narrow streets in search of Paris' "best baguette," and found ourselves lingering over hot chocolate in Le Cafe Pure. One afternoon, we somehow managed to get lost in the middle of the immigrant district, which resembled the local Divisoria.

"Best Baguette in Paris" Awardee

I didn't have time to write about everything, and the pictures - well, those I would really like to keep private, for MSP and I to enjoy. They remind us of chaos dotted by calm walks along the Seine river at 10pm - an experience that's only ours. No matter how disappointing the city, we would always have Paris :)
The next entries were written using this Asus EEE laptop (which is my travel laptop) usually as they happen, or a few hours after.

* * * *

May 25, 2009

On the way to Nice, Canne, and Monaco”

4:00 pm

I'm on a train to Nice from Paris. It will be a six-hour ride. Jonas is sleeping, as always. I thought the train would be romantic, but it's not. The coffee cart is closed. People aren't that beautiful. Balding men, crying babies. I'm so bored.

The Gare Lyon station, where we took our train from Paris to Nice

Paris was underwhelming. It felt a bit contrived, like sentences rewritten to sound better. Champs-Elysees was polished to perfection, but the rest of the city was swarmed with underpaid immigrants / vandalized walls / dingy subways. The native French and the unwelcome colored people walk around each other, never quite meeting. I don't have to understand French to know they despise each other.

It is a city of tourists; it is for people who want romance so bad, they can find it in this dirty city. If you are pragmatic, then nothing of Paris is charming. The Notre Dame, the Eiffel – every supposedly historical site has been turned into an amusement park ride, with mile-long queues and 8-euro entrance fees to complete the experience. France's national income must be 80% from gullible tourists, 18% from Louis Vuitton, and 2% from truffles.

We paid P500,000 to see this part of the world. So far, only the museums have been worth the trip. This is turning out to be a bad investment.

* * * *

View from the bullet train / French countryside

We're exactly halfway between Paris and Nice now, three hours from each city. Out the window there is a castle on a hill. It overlooks the little cabins for peasants, just a few kilometres from a suspicious-looking factory. Welcome to the French countryside.

* * * *

At almost 11:30pm - an hour later than our scheduled time of arrival - we are finally in Nice. Never trust the French train system. Something ALWAYS goes wrong. To save money, we decide to walk from the station to the hotel. The scale of the map makes it seem doable; it is only after 20 minutes of walking - heavy bags slung on our shoulders - that we realize we should have coughed up the 10 euros and taken the cab, or at least the tram. And then it just appears on the forked road - Hotel Harvey. There is a Quick outlet right in front of it, where we buy an unhealthy dinner of burgers and fries. We are too tired to eat out. Nice will have to wait until tomorrow. The hotel is a dump, but livable. It doesn't matter now.

* * * *

May 28, 2009

The South of France is a laid back version of Paris,where everything is cheaper and people are warmer. It's quite a kick just sitting out in our balcony and watching this little city tick. And with the beach literally steps away, MSP couldn't be happier.

One of the public beaches in Nice, France

We could almost smell Italy from here (the Italian border is just one hour away by train). On most days we just eat authentic Italian pastas and pizzas from the neighboring ristorantes. We also feast on authentic BRETON crepes and $6 bottles of wine, which were surprisingly very good.

On the jampacked local bus to Cannes two days ago, MSP and I didn't get to sit together. A half-French half-Tunisian guy ended up sitting next to me, and he wasted no time chatting me up. He told me about his home in Cannes, his wife, and his daughter. I told him about our European adventure and about the Philippines. We also talked about food. All of this we did even though he spoke no English, and I spoke no French. Thank you,

We got to Cannes a day after the Festival, so the festive mood was still palpable despite the lack of celebrity sightings. The drizzle didn't help. We wore raincoats throughout our walking trip.

The day after Cannes, we decided to hop on a bus to Monaco just to see the Palais Princier. Did you know that literally EVERYONE is Monaco is a millionaire? That's because even the smallest apartment here is worth at least 1 million Euros, and all Monegasques own their homes. That's the beauty of being born in the world's biggest tax haven. This hedonist city-state can make you feel poor.

View of Monaco from the Palace

Yacht club

In between, we basked in the Mediterranean sea, took strolls along Nice's quaint old-world streets, and enjoyed little treats (like real gelato).

Rose gelato

We managed to figure out how the tram works. Shopping was tempting and very high-end (there's a Chanel, Hermes, and Loewe near the beach), but we only stocked up on H&M and Longchamp - both of which are remarkably cheap here. Just practical stuff. (I have lost interest in shopping).

While MSP swam, I sat around, dipped my toes, read books.

* * * *

Tomorrow, we get on a train to Spain.

Espana, here we come :)


who is the middle class filipino / pinoy?

We interrupt the travel journal series for some interesting data from the National Statistical Coordination Board. You can read the entertaining article here, or if you're lazy, just read my summary below.

- To be considered middle-class in 2009, you must earn between P 282,158 to P 2,296,582 a year


"In 2006, the middle income class may be defined as those families with annual income ranging from P246,109 to P2,000,072. However, in 2008, a family needed an income that ranged from P276,626 to P2,251,551 to be considered middle class. And in 2009, you would need to earn close to half a million pesos (mean/median income) to be in the middle class."

Picture from Business Week (Philippines), "Middle Income Housing"

- The average middle-class family earns P 529,483 a year

- As of 2006, the
average middle-class savings is P 100,047. The lowest savings rate is P 5,997, and the highest in the middle class was P 1,435,053.

- In 2006, 19% of Filipinos were middle class. This was BEFORE the crisis, of course.

- "Between 1997 and 2006, ownership by the Pinoy Middle Class of DVD/VCD/VTR/VCR and air conditioning unit rose from 48.7% to 86.2% and from 9.8% to 28.6%, respectively. (Is it the middle class that supports the proliferation of illegal, pirated videos in Quiapo?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

not your usual travel journal - PART 2

(PART ONE is available here.)

* * * *

May 21, 2009

"The First Day"


We arrive in Hotel Berne, a three-star hotel in the Opera area. While it's clearly more posh than a hostel, it is small and has that bed-and-breakfast feel. This Hausmann building was probably a high-end apartment complex before it became a hotel.

There are no bell boys here; you carry your own luggage to your room, and the elevator can only fit two people (with two carry ons). Nevertheless it is quite lovely, and is very near Rome station on Line # 2 (Porte Dauphine-Nation), providing direct access to the Arc de Triomphe-Champs Elysées station Europe Line # 3 (Pont de Levallois-Gallieni). That means we are about 1.20 euros away from everything.

Our room is more spacious than we expected. There is a big bed plus a sofa by the window, where we sit for a whole hour to soak in the view and get our bearings straight. The street was quite narrow, so we can peek into the homes of locals living in the residential building in front of us.

Households in central Paris are mostly single-occupant dwelling. Apartments are minuscule, much like condominiums in Metro Manila. (Suddenly, our pad doesn't seem so small). In one of the verandas we see a stylish woman washing clothes. Out the gate below goes a car (a compact Renault). The driver is probably late for work. Not that he should be worried. The French are known to "work to live" rather than "live to work." They are slaves for only 35 hours a week (no overtime), and get about 9 weeks of paid vacation every year. Shops close early (compared to Spain or to the Philippines), and work starts late. Without the pressure to make and spend money, Parisians have more time to build and enjoy relationships, sit pointlessly in cafes for hours, and basically just be "French."


It is while looking at this view that MSP gives me a 36-diamond Tiffany celebration ring, which he hid carefully in his jacket. The ring, he says, is a celebration of our eight years, of the dreams we realized, and of our future. It is now official: We would travel the world together, I as the official translator, and he as the map-and-compass reader :)
We would never get lost.

10:00 am

The front desk tells us that today is actually a holiday, and that only the Louvre and the restaurants are open.

With nothing much to do, we just walk around the Montmartre area to get a sense of our base in the city. The weather was nice and cold. We are literally on a hill in Paris, so it is chilly. I wish out loud that summer doesn't rear its head just yet. I want to enjoy spring.

We are standing in Opera. This formerly bohemian town is now filled with touristy attractions, not the least of which is Moulin Rouge (in boulevard de Clichy). But it wasn't so long ago that artists like Picasso and Van Gogh roamed the streets. I could almost imagine them tucked in one of the apartments, with the easels, going mad.


The Paris metro is dingy and inefficient. The French may be great lovers, but they clearly aren't the best engineers. Signs contradict each other. Tunnels lead to unexpected platforms. Even Columbus could get lost here.

I expected "first-world" trains and waiting areas, but got ghetto instead. Coaches are mostly old and unstable. There was graffiti everywhere (as always).


(Click to enlarge and see how dingy it is.)

Parisians are beautiful, however. They are slim, chic, and carry themselves well. They smell odd, but if you don't breathe, they are poetry in motion.


We somehow figure out how to navigate the metro and find ourselves in our first touristy district: the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, and Grands Boulevards area.
Countless domestic dogs and their owners walk the street. The book says about 200,000 of these pets live in the city, which may explain the smell. I am just guessing here, but I think dogs outnumber children.

We have only half a day today, and we decide to get the shopping and touristy dining out of the way. Tomorrow we could be more "local," but for now, we would be tourists. Filipino tourists.

12:00 noon

And what do Pinoy tourists in Paris do? They eat.

Lunch was at the pricey La Maison de la Truffe (19 place de la Madeleine). We stand out front at first to check out what they sell.


Inside, the place is divided into two: a takeaway store, and a formal restaurant. The English-speaking waiter leads us to a nice table.

We go for the big time and order the elusive black diamond truffles sprinkled generously on ravioli and veal. The bill is 88 euros for two (no wine), and is totally worth it. We'll have to eat cheaply in the next days, but what the heck. We already paid too much to be here; we might as well stuff ourselves with expensive Parisian food.


After a very short walk outside, we see the Eglise de la Madeleine, which is styled like a Greek temple (complete with 52 Corinthian columns). Unfortunately the church is closed, so we couldn't see the frescoes, marble, and gilt decor in the interior.

A nice Parisian man offers to take our picture, but we do not need help. We have Joby :)


The jet lag + time difference is kicking in. We figure we need sugar and head to Fauchon.


This black-and-fuchsia shop sells melt-in-your-mouth macaroons in the most inventive flavors. I could live here.


We eat the macaroons right outside the shop the moment we step out.


After more walking we stumble upon the Triangle d'Or, home to the historic haute couture flagships.

I am truly OVER shopping. Hong Kong still has THE best discounts even on French brands, after all. And shopping is boring now. I don't get as amused as I used to. But we're here anyway, so we might as well check out Chanel, Dior, Lacroix, Comme des Garcons, Givenchy, Hermes, Gaultier, Lanvin, YSL, and of course, Louis Vuitton. MSP's mom wants us to buy her one of the many LV bags. I am ashamed to even be in the store along with logo-hungry tourists (mostly Japanese), but what can I do? I get the bag she wants, patiently wait in line to pay, and hurry out.
I make a mental note of just how much time we wasted queuing for the bag.


We walk around the extremely capitalist Champs-Elysees and its surrounds. I do not see locals - just foreigners everywhere. Interestingly, Parisians don't seem to be interested in the luxury labels they export.

Just when we thought Paris has turned into one big mall for gullible tourists, we see an antique street market - certainly a nice break from all the big brands in the other street. Here I buy vintage postcards to give to my friends.


The line to the top of the Arc de Triomphe (place Charles de Gaulle) is quite long, so we decide to just take pictures outside and come back tomorrow, when we already have the all-access pass.

We just sit under the Arc, read names after names, watch a military rite being performed, and observe other tourists.

This monument was constructed to commemorate Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805. It stands right in the centre of Etoile, the world's BIGGEST roundabout. To get to it, you need to the take the underground pedestrian tunnels, which are oddly enough not connected to the metro tunnels. (Inefficient).


It is time to deal with the Paris metro again. The confusing tunnels that lead to multiple platforms, violin-playing beggars, broke tourists asking for train money - only in Paris, I tell you. Of the very few ticket dispensing machines, only one is working. Take me back to Manila.

Here in the madness of the subway, we meet an intellectual gone mad. She is about 45 years old and has a big bag with her. She looks like she hasn't showered in days, but this is not enough to indicate that she is crazy (many normal Parisians do not shower). However, she has really bad shoes and scratches her head like a kooky. Something about the shift in her eyes tells us she's a lunatic.

She approaches me speaking French. When I tell her that I don't understand and ask (in broken French) if she speaks English, she replies:

"I am sorry. I was just asking if it was possible to get 50 cents from you." (Exact words.)

I am awed. The FIRST Parisian to ever speak to me in straight English, with perceptible but minimal French accent. Unfortunately I do not have 50 cents, and I have to turn her down.

"I'm sorry to have bothered you," she says right away. A very cultured, very strange lady. I hold on to my Prada. She walks away.

MSP and I exchange curious glances.She then approaches three Spanish teens, also asking for 50 cents, this time speaking in Spanish.


She must have approached five more people speaking in tongues. A linguist gone mad. I never thought I'd ever meet one.


Two drunk Parisians jump the turnstile. Apparently this is a normal occurrence, as locals do not seem bothered at all.

The metro can be a very scary place. Were it not for the comforting nonchalance of people who ride it everyday, we would fear for our lives.

Next stop: St-Germain des Pres.


I am shutting down. I have slept only 45 minutes in almost two days, and I am starting to dream while I sit on this broken-down bench. In the freaking metro. In the bowels of Paris. MSP props me up, putting his finger in my ear from time to time. He is convinced that annoying me will wake me up. He hardly succeeds.


There she is: Cafe Le Flore. Built in the 1880's, this was where Sartre and de Beauvoir set up office during the Nazi regime. It's quite pricey but definitely less touristy than the cafe beside it (Les Deux Magots). Besides, The Barefoot Contessa recommended that we try the hot chocolate and omelet for dinner. That's why we are here.

We order two types of omelet, some fresh pomelo juice for our immune systems, and hot chocolate. The nice waiter gave us free salad. The bill was around 30 euros. Not bad at all, considering the quality and quantity of cheese in each bite.


I am convinced that I will die in the metro. We get a little lost (again), and I am running on emergency battery. I do not die, of course, and about 20 minutes later, we are back in Rome station. Home sweet home. Shower, change into my big shirt, sleep.


I am awake again. Why is the sun still up? In Europe, it never seems to set. We better close the curtains.

Half asleep, I plan out the next three days.

On Sunday we'll check out Marche Aux Puces de St Ouen and enjoy a local meal in Chez Louisette. But tomorrow, we better get the "big" things done - the Louvre, and the Eiffel. Then the Sacre Couer, then Dali Espace. We'll eat in the "best baguette in Paris" awardee resto, see Musee d'Orsay, the Grand Palais. Maybe we'll take the Seine cruise, and buy a book in Shakespeare and Company. We'll visit the Notre Dame, Sorbonne, Bastille Opera, eat felafels, find the Musee Picasso, Musee Rodin, and Le Cafe Pure (that cafe in "Before Sunset,"). I already saw the hop-on/off bus to take us to all these places.

For less then 30 euros each, it promises to take us to all the essential places in two days. Will it arrive on time? Will it arrive at all? I have no faith in the French transport system.

Back to sleep.
The converted wine cellar in the basement offers a decent breakfast buffet starting at 7am. I can't wait.

To be continued


Sunday, June 07, 2009

not your usual travel journal - PART 1

June 4, 2009

This is a travel journal written semi backwards. Blame me for not keeping track of the most important trip of my life so far. I only got this 3-euro Miquelrius notebook yesterday at one of the many El Corte Ingles stores in the chic Serrano area, Madrid. Now I sit in the Van Gogh cafe in Moncloa, recapturing two weeks, nine cities. How do I start? I can't even understand my own handwriting.

May 20, 2009

“Getting There – MLA to BKK to CDG”

11:30 pm

The Bangkok airport is just like Manila's. Security is strict, and the transfer gates are easy to find. In the waiting area, we start to look like “minorities.” Everyone on this flight is white, except for a Thai lady wearing too much makeup. The room is filled with Europeans on their way home and some Australians on a connecting flight to Paris, like us.

Flying economy is no joy ride. I am not getting any sleep. Meanwhile, MSP is sleeping like a dog (he's talented that way). The French man behind me has his light on. He's reading a big book and encircling words with a pencil. The French woman in front wipes her armpit with baby wipes. The Thai airplane smells French. It's going to be a long flight.

May 21, 2009

“We Are in Paris”


The CDG is an old airport. If it were in Manila, it would be called UGLY and SO-THIRD-WORLD, but this is Paris, where everything is “charming.”

Immigration is surprisingly lenient. There are no swine flu checks. We are never asked why our Schengen visas are Spanish.

Language instantly becomes a problem. We don't speak a word of French, and locals (even airport officials) don't speak a word of English. It takes us a while to find the train that links to the city. When we finally board one of the coaches, it becomes apparent why tourists are never made to take this train. It passes by the “real Paris” - those areas they never tell you about in glitzy brochures.

CLICK PICTURE TO ENLARGE - The "real" France, as seen from the train


This train ride should take 40 minutes. We are with locals on their way to work. Some are immigrants reluctantly heading to the grind of the city center. A few of them look at us curiously (what are these Asian tourists doing on this train? Don't they take the tour bus?), but most are apathetic. Today is their everyday; this is our once-in-a-lifetime.

To be continued