I caught the Eurostar to Paris with no problems, and after stashing my bag in a locker (I had bought a massive black backpack for the trip from the Army/Navy store in Twinsburg, Ohio, and it was almost as big as I was when extended to its full length!), headed out to enjoy a day in Paris as I had nothing more to do until my night train to Venice…or so I thought… Regular readers will know that I actively dislike Paris, but I didn’t have anything against the city at this point – in fact, I had a lovely day of wandering around and stuffing myself full of pain au chocolat, and I headed back to the train station with what I thought was over an hour to spare. This was to be my first experience with Interrailing and I had a lot to learn! I had my Eurail pass, so I assumed all I had to do was turn up and board the train. I didn’t realise that you had to reserve a spot on most services, particularly overnight ones, and an hour before the train departed was too late to do so. To add to this complication, I also didn’t realise I was at the wrong damn station until I noticed my train was nowhere to be found on the boards, so went to the ticket window to enquire, which took ages because everyone kept pushing in front of me until my mounting panic meant I started pushing and shoving right back, only to discover that I was at Gare du Nord and I needed to be at Gare de Lyon, all the way on the other side of Paris, as the ticket desk woman pointed out with a little too much obvious relish.
So I had to fight my way through rush hour traffic on the unnecessarily confusing Metro, and somehow made it there just in time to catch the train, though I still didn’t have a seat! In retrospect, I’m sure I could have just sat in a normal seat for a long uncomfortable night that would have at least gotten me where I wanted to go, but at the time, I thought I couldn’t board at all without a place in a couchette and since I didn’t have a room booked for the night anywhere, I was having visions of myself stuck on the streets of Paris all night (again, I’m quite sure I could have found a hostel room somewhere, but I was not at all a seasoned traveller at this point!). So I ran up to a guard and basically begged him in broken French to let me on the train – I think I was almost in tears. Fortunately, he took pity on me, and with the help of what I’m convinced was a 25 euro bribe (since I wasn’t issued with a ticket or receipt of any kind, he just pocketed the cash), he let me have an empty bunk in a couchette with what turned out to be a nice group of French teenagers who shared their champagne with me, which was very welcome as I needed a drink after that ordeal!
Having survived the first real trial of the trip (other than jet lag), I made it to Venice in one piece. However, I hadn’t booked a hostel, and Venice’s labyrinthine streets got the better of me as I spent a whopping three hours wandering with the aforementioned massive backpack in search of a room for the night. At the point of collapse, Domus Civica, one of the hostels recommended in my guidebook, appeared before me, which felt almost miraculous. This is perhaps a fitting description, because the place was a former convent that rented out rooms to travellers who didn’t mind the curfew and religious decor – I sort of did, but at least it was a clean and safe, albeit spartan place to spend the night, and I was not about to carry that backpack for a second longer. With that accomplished, it was time for gelato! I scoffed at paying 13 euros for a boat pass, so I found myself wandering again to the other side of the city for the famous gianduiotto de passeggio from La Gelati Nico – a block of ultra dense chocolate hazelnut gelato dropped into a cup of whipped cream. That was worth the walk!
Thus fortified, I did a bit of touristy stuff, then wandered into a mask shop, because as cheesy as it was, I really wanted a plague doctor mask for myself. And thus I unwittingly walked into my first experience with a creepy man on this trip (certainly not overall – I’ve already mentioned my former pervert boss). The mask maker took a keen interest in me as soon as I walked in, what with me being the only customer (and I guess young and therefore easy prey), and though I spoke no Italian and he very little English, we managed to communicate via our joint limited knowledge of French and a lot of pervy hand gestures on his part. Though my thigh tattoo was covered by a skirt, he somehow managed to catch a glimpse of the edge of it, and asked to see it. I obligingly (and foolishly) lifted up my skirt a bit, and he whipped out a camera and took a picture of my thigh, telling me he would make a mask of my tattoo! Then the following exchange happened:
Mask maker, making twisting gestures around his nipples, “Percé, percé, oui?”
Me, horrified, “Non!”
Him, “You come ma chambre dans moi, [gestures towards the plague mask I liked] for free, oui?”
Me, even more creeped out and edging desperately towards the door, “Non! Je n’aime pas ta chambre!”
Whilst this was happening, an old lady came in and started piling euro coin after euro coin on the counter, until it was overflowing. He looked at me and said, “for protection,” implying that he was in the Mafia. I was basically panicking at this point, but I grabbed a smaller, cheaper version of the plague doctor mask, and offered to pay for it in the hopes he would let me leave. Fortunately, some other customers came in just then, so I completed my transaction (and the mask was heavily discounted, presumably because I flashed him my thigh and let him photograph it. I shudder to think what he did with that photo), and I got the hell out of there immediately after and didn’t walk that way again for the rest of my stay. I’m still not sure why I actually bought something from him instead of just running out of the shop, but that mask still lives in my old room at my parents’ house as a memory of the unsettling experience I haven’t shared with many people until now.
After that, I was more than ready to hide myself away for the night, so I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza from an excellent by the slice place I found on my way back to the convent, and called it an early night. The next morning, I headed to the train station bright and early to catch a train to Rome, where I was reluctantly meeting my mother and aunt (I had learned my lesson from Paris, and reserved myself a seat immediately after arriving in Venice the day before). As I was sitting on the steps of the station eating a Nutella croissant (probably with chocolate smeared all over my face), an older man in his 60s or 70s approached me and said hi. He seemed harmless enough (in the eyes of young, guileless Midwestern Jessica who didn’t like being rude to strangers), so I returned his greeting. He was Canadian, and apparently living in Venice. However, a friendly chat soon turned into him asking me to stay with him for a while. “You and me could have some fun, girly,” he kept saying (even if he wasn’t old and gross, the “girly” would have been enough of a turn-off). Fortunately, I at least had the valid excuse this time of a train to catch, so I declined his offers of both a cappuccino and a sex romp, and went to wait on the platform instead. Having escaped the clutches of numerous horny old men in Venice, I boarded the train, where I was at least lucky enough to share a compartment with some nice Canadian girls my own age (no connection to the train station lech) who played cards with me and helped take my mind off the week ahead of me. Next time: exploring Italy with my mother and aunt. Was it as bad as I thought it would be?