The stories of a couchsurfer

Béranger, Paris

It’s a nice problem to have – that of having so many acquaintances that it can begin to be hard to juggle them and find time to see them all. When you fly to the other side of the world, you want to ensure that you can at least see your friends for a coffee on one occasion, as you never know when you’ll need to be going back home or if the opportunity will ever present itself again.

It’s one most evident for me in the city of Paris where, naturally, many French spend some stage of their life, either gaining an education of carving out a career for themselves. Julian wasn’t a Parisian, but he was here because the opportunity knocked.

Neither was Béranger, my next Couchsurfing host, who comes from regional eastern France but descended on Paris for job prospects. My stay with Béranger typified my juggling of contacts in Paris.

Béranger was a former Couchsurfer of mine in Australia. He passed through with his friend Mélissa around Christmas time of 2012 and we kept in touch over Facebook. He wouldn’t be considered as close of an acquaintance as Julian, but I considered him a friend of mine nonetheless and so wanted to ensure that I took the opportunity to catch up with him when it came.

So although I was more than comfortable shacked up in Julian’s apartment, when Béranger offered to host me for a few nights in Antony – an outer suburb of the Parisian metropolitan area – I couldn’t refuse.

To make things easier we decided to just meet in Paris on the first night, and we did it at one of the Café Oz bars they have here. There are actually three or four Café Oz bars in Paris and they are Australian themed bars. Stereotypically, that is. Wooden interiors with boomerangs and kangaroos plastered all over the place and a scattering of cricket, AFL and rugby photographs on the walls – a pretty typical scene for an Australian pub here in Europe.

While I couldn’t say that the décor was the most genuine, I did like the bar itself. Here in France, it’s very hard to find a true “pub” like place – unless it’s an Irish pub, which are everywhere. Café Oz was by no means that, but they were large, spacious bars that facilitated both a dance floor and a more relaxing outdoor area. This was more my scene.

The prices here are through the roof, but I guess that’s just sticking with the Australian theme of it all. I was delighted to see that you can buy Coopers ales here and although they were export varieties and didn’t quite taste genuine, it was still a nice throwback to my days back home.

Everyone here, though, gets the “true” Australian beer of Foster’s Lager. I try to tell them all that it’s simply not the case in Australia but they don’t seem to care. Ultimately, even I succumbed to high prices of the legitimate exports and drank my very first Fosters in my life.

Terrible stuff, that.

When we took the transport back to the suburb of Antony, it was a stark difference to the confined spaces of inner city Paris that I had learned via Julian. The properties were were more like standard houses, something that is inexistent within Paris itself.

Béranger’s place was still actually part of an apartment complex, but his apartment was large and spacious and the complex had a front yard and a gate.

Having grown up in quieter regions, Béranger preferred living in the outer suburbs for this reason and said that he didn’t often go into Paris itself anyway. The fact that his job was in a nearby suburb only further contributed to the advantages of living here as opposed to inner city Paris.

The following day, while Béranger was at work, I decided it would be nice to explore the suburb instead of going back into Paris. I hadn’t really stayed at a suburb this far out of Paris before and so I was interested to see how independent it was of Paris itself.

The answer was pretty much completely independent. The commercial district here seemed sufficient enough to serve the standard daily requirements and so there didn’t really seem like a need to go into Paris too often. Perhaps there was a lack of bars here, and it seems like most of the suburbs are content to allow Paris to be the provider of the nightlife scene.

I also spent quite a bit of time in Parc de Sceaux, quite a large park nearby and was quite impressed by it. While it didn’t display the same grandeur as Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon, for example, it’s location meant that it could be spacious, clean and, most importantly, quiet. Even though there were other people enjoying the park, it felt as though you were the only one there and had the entire area to yourself. Large, open lawn areas for picnics and a man made lake where locals relaxed fishing. It was a really nice place to sit for a couple of hours and just reflect on the world.

That night the juggling of contacts began. I had already organised a few days earlier to catch up with another French contact of mine, Kévin, to have a few drinks in Paris. I invited Béranger if he wanted to come and he did. We were to catch up at the Canal St. Martin, an area of Paris quite well renowned for catchups of this sort.

Here, on any night of the week – but particularly on a Friday or Saturday, you will find the canal lined with people sitting alongside it drinking and laughing. They bring their own drinks and food here, although there are plenty of bars to choose from that are right next to it also.

We caught up with Kévin and his friend in one of these bars, a chilled Irish themed pub. It was a great night, consisting of Guinness, darts and reminiscing about Couchsurfing in Australia.

The entire night consisted of French dialogue, and while this was not a first for me, it was probably the first time that I was able to realise the progression that I had made during my time in France. At the time of my arrival in France, never would I have been able to get through ten minutes of French conversation comfortably, let alone with multiple participants and in a loud environment such as a bar.

Now, I was understanding (and making) jokes and retelling stories of days past. I though to how frustrated I would have likely been in the same circumstances six months earlier when I couldn’t understand those jokes and I couldn’t input my own stories to the conversation. One of the primary reasons that I enjoyed this night so much is because I was able to understand what was happening around me, otherwise the night could have just been filled with self frustrations.

Perhaps this is the main reason I didn’t enjoy Spain that much, and that other people have recounted horror stories of traveling in France whereas I’ve done nothing but enjoy it.

Like it or not, the fact is that a knowledge of the local language can make or break a visit to a place. It takes a lot of time and effort to get there, but when you do, it’s probably one of the most satisfying realisations that you can have.

Later that night Julian even came along and joined in on the fun.

When I embarked on this journey to France and indeed Europe I tried to curtail my expectations so that they would be realistic. It’s far too easy to become overexcited and concoct up fantastical visions of what is going to eventuate.

I couldn’t, though, dampen probably the most desired of them. The expectation that the people that I had formerly hosted on Couchsurfing in Australia would be happy to catch up with me, to sit in a bar and to enjoy those memories. The ultimate aspiration was that I could do that while speaking French.

That night didn’t contain everybody that my “ultimate aspiration” would have, and nor did it contain perfect French coherence, but having those three guys – Kévin, Béranger and Julian – in the bar, enjoying beers and telling jokes and stories in Paris, was pretty damn close.

La vie est belle.

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