What it feels like to be in Europe at last
and the weather roller-coaster
First of all, HOT ! Yay, it’s summer here, how wonderful to have escaped winter once again ! Although it was rather confusing at first to figure out what to wear with all the sudden changes of weather. I came off the plane with my winter coat, which served me well in the beautiful shady Munich parks, and then found myself buying a hat and burying my extra layers in my large Mathilde & Co bag, and finally sweating profusely in my jeans and docs under the metal roof of the regional train taking me to the deep northern french countryside. And then it rained and I’d left my very special umbrella1 in my suitcase so I piled on a few borrowed layers which all had to come off again half an hour later !
But all this doesn’t tell you much about my first twelve days on the old continent. Every moment has been wonderful ! I wanted to write a whole article about the trees and birds and plants and parks and mountains of my Munich week, and I wanted to write a whole article about the joys of reconnecting with family, and another one about travelling on trains that really work but like to be funny with nasty delays…. and about discovering a town that I’ve known all my life without knowing the first thing about it… Instead I’ll keep it short and give you a paragraph for each !
There’s so much to see and do, and still try to fit in a few hours of real work every now and then, as well as share photos on social media and write blog posts - if I thought there weren’t enough hours in the day and all I did was sit at home, well now crazy has gone through the roof and run down the other side of the planet.. But like the well-known story of the mayonnaise jar and the coffee, somehow it all fits in and that’s just the way I like it.
My first impression of Europe this year was with Munich. It was my very first time in Germany (if you don’t count the trip to West Berlin2 when I was a baby). I’d spent five months refreshing my skills with the language on the Duolingo app, which served me well - despite my shoddy memory I managed to remember enough to hold a few basic conversations with a taxi driver, a beer garden waitress, and other colourful locals during my stay ! What struck me immediately in Munich was the peaceful feeling - contrasting with Johannesburg from which I had just arrived - walking in the streets without looking behind my shoulder all the time, just enjoying the stroll… All the trees along the streets with bird song, even in the centre of town, and especially in the residential areas - so peaceful and welcoming, and above all doing great job of cooling and cleaning the city air.
There are so many parks, everything is so green (well OK I know it’s summer), playgrounds for children everywhere. Even spots in the Isar river in the middle of town where people go to surf ! You can’t help noticing how many of the roadsides and park meadows are also left wild and not manicured so that bees and other local fauna may live in the natural flowers. I had lunch on a large lake in the Englischer Gartens in a beer garden surrounded by trees and swans and ducks… Pure paradise. It must be a lovely place to live, especially with children.
I just had to visit the biggest Bavarian tourist attractions of Neuschwanstein and Hohenshwangau Castles before I left - the 9€ train ticket deal in Germany this summer meant I could travel the two-hour train ride both ways virtually for free so it couldn’t be missed :)) Here again it was the sound and smells of the forest on the mountainside that I loved the most. I just have to get myself a bird book and a plant book soon because not knowing the names of anything felt like being illiterate wandering in a library… I remember the smell of the plants from my holidays in France as a child - isn’t it funny how smells can bring back memories ?
From green trees to red trains - with two suitcases of 25 kilos each it was not going to be practical to travel around the country so reluctantly I left Munich on a train after a week. Well, it took several trains to get me from southern Germany to northern France, which was the single part of my whole trip that I had been dreading the most. In the morning when I awoke I took a few deep breaths and repeated to myself that everything was going to work out fine and I would manage to do this just fine. I had decided to walk to the U-bahn station instead of taking a taxi to the main train station because the uncertainty of morning rush-hour traffic seemed more stressful to me than the clockwork underground train schedule, and once that was done I knew I would manage. Chatting to fellow travellers to figure out what to do about catching the connection when the train arrived half an hour late in Stuttgart helped to keep my heart-rate down, and we were very lucky that the next train had waited for us !
I then had worked out that 45 minutes to take the Métro in Paris to change stations should be OK, but when we were left with 15 minutes I did my best and arrived way after my next train had left. Not to worry, I found the ticket office and sweet-talked my way to the front of the queue to be given permission to catch the following one (I must have made some sort of good impression because apparently that doesn’t happen??)
And that’s when I realised I need to work on my maths skills as well, because I hadn’t missed the train at all, in my panic I’d read 45 minutes instead of 1h45 so I really needn’t have gone through all that trouble. Felt really good to laugh at myself there… Another two train hops, between airconditioned high speed lines and regional oven hot caterpillars, the sweaty traveller finally landed on the beautiful platform at La Station in Saint-Omer !
Between family reunions where everyone talks at the same time and has three simultaneous conversations over local craft beers, cheese and spicy sausages, I hopped on a borrowed electric bicycle and explored the countryside with the wind blowing in my hair (OK I have short hair and the helmet didn’t look very romantic). But the rolling hills of multicoloured fields as far as the eye can see, dotted with church steeples, orange roofs and tall green trees were everything you could want from a countryside bike ride.
And again the smell of the earth and the plants were just heavenly and felt like home - is this a feeling that can be described? I felt very grateful for the privilege of this experience. I know I’ve worked hard all my life and if I’m here it’s because I chose to make it happen, but still I was lucky to have been born here and to have family to return to. I often think of refugees who have to flee their homes and land in a place like this but they have to figure it all out on their own…
So for now I have setup my portable recording studio in the town of Saint Omer, lucky to be a guest in my sister’s home while I explore these streets that I’ve only known as a place to cycle through while on holiday at the family country farmhouse when I was growing up. I’ve never experienced it as a place where people live and work, where there are museums to be visited and guided tours, it’s always been the local grocery shop or where the gang of teenage cousins would hang out and eat junk food between meals hahaha…
On Tuesday night, solstice night, it was the annual Fête de la Musique throughout France, and even in this small town there were bands, musos, DJs and crowds at every corner, the beer was flowing freely and the Gendarmes kept a watchful eye on all this. I loved the festival feeling wich reminded me of music festivals camping in the African bush, but in an urban setting, walking in the streets at night with nothing but a smile on my face and a tune in my ears. The town was metamorphosed, I caught a glimpse of who the Audomarois people are, when they’re not all hiding in their houses or offices: those that prefer the old french popular songs, others hanging out at the rock band truck, or jamming with the DJs. My favourite was the local vagabond band Dürba, fun original songs with an atmosphere !
Then there’s nothing quite like dipping one’s toes in the ocean, and that’s a feeling I’ll never get tired of. The northern France beaches at low tide go on for ever, and I was lucky this time with sunny weather, one can see the English coast a mere 33 kilometres across the channel. Tall cliffs and rolling fields and old mansions and sparkling ocean and pine forests and winding roads with motorhomes everywhere and the smell of fried chips and the smell of the sea (although with covid I don’t think I can smell as strongly as I used to !?) That’s the feeling of summer in this part of France.
I can’t believe you’ve read this far, what an epic article this is, just like what I’m living at the moment. I should feel like I’m on holiday, like last year, but because I’m HERE for good, it doesn’t feel like that, it’s different. I’m actually HERE. There’s admin to be sorted out in the middle of all this, but that’s OK, because I’m really HERE. All the planning and all the thinking and the doubting and the fearing and the actually doing, and HERE I am. I am very proud of myself for having done it, and it’s only the beginning ! There’s so much more to come and I know I can do this and because I’ve worked so hard to get here, I’m loving it all the more !!
See you next time, when Gaëlle Goes Adventuring writes to you from Jersey (Channel Island) - if you haven't subscribed yet, go ahead, you don’t want to miss the next episode :))
On my very first solo travel train trip last year as I arrived in my first french city the weather was threatening to turn liquid so I hurried into the first shop that had a display of umbrellas and bought a lovely pop-out yellow one which has not left my side since. Except when it rained last week, hahaha. D’you know I’d never owned an umbrella before ? because in joburg it’s only a quick hop between inside and the car so I really didn’t need one…
My uncle was stationed there in the 70s and it seems my parents were granted a pass through East Germany to go and visit the family ! If only I could remember what that was like…