The price I paid for the airfare I purchased in May was ridiculously cheap, and instead of taking another road trip for my birthday (this time to spend the night in a former insane asylum turned tourist ghost hunting destination) I would fly across the ocean and get a few more stamps in my newly christened passport and see Europe for the first time.

With only a week to see the city, there isn’t a timeline where it would be remotely possible to see everything it has to offer, so I decided there were four major things I wanted to do.

Visit lifelong friends in Lyon.

Pay my respects at my grandfather’s grave in Luxembourg.

Set foot on the sands of Omaha Beach at Normandy.

Walk through some of the only remaining trenches from World War 1 in Belgium, visiting the town of Ypres quite literally 100 years to the day after the Third Battle of Ypres ended, and witnessing the famous ceremony at the Menin Gate.

Eat a Belgian Waffle with ice cream as birthday cake.

After reading about the horrifying conditions which soldiers that fought and died in the trenches and mud in the towns of Ypres and nearby Passchendaele, I was fascinated, and decided this was a place I needed to see.

The eight-hour flight left at 11:45 pm, the latest I’d taken to that point, and it was 1:00 pm when we landed at Charles de Gaulle. I was legitimately surprised when the flight attendant told me there were no Customs forms to fill out upon arrival. I had no idea this wasn’t a thing in certain countries.

I’d hired a car service to take from the airport to my hotel, after finding one which had overwhelmingly positive reviews, BT Transfer. 110 euro seemed a small price to pay to avoid catching some taxi at random and risk getting taken to the leaners, or god forbid actually renting a car. The driver’s name was David, and he spoke impeccable English. He helped me locate an ATM at CDG to take out all the cash I’d need for the week instead of screwing around with the Travelex desk. Once we got into downtown Paris, I realized just how bad the idea of renting a car and trying to navigate the city would have been.

It’s a hybrid clusterfuck of overwhelming New York volume, narrow, winding Boston streets and an aggressiveness that makes your average Florida drivers look like the most pleasant, forgiving and graceful humans on the planet. David could have charged me 110 euro each way and it still would have been worth it. He let me sit up front and was pleasant to talk with. He asked me what I thought about Trump, and I told him that nothing that man does surprises me anymore, and every day there’s some new embarrassment to facepalm about.

We arrived at 31 Rue du Roi de Sicilie, Hotel le Compostelle, in the heart of downtown in the 4th Arrondissement, right off Rue de Rivoli, a major artery of Paris traffic. I’d picked it after doing extensive research on, reading a litany of reviews, trying to find one which was the perfect balance of price, reviews and location. Hotel le Compostelle fit the bill. I paid and thanked David for his service, hoping he’d be the one to pick me up on the return trip.

The woman at the front desk of the hotel spoke decent enough English to where we were able to understand one another, and she threw me for a loop by telling me that every time I left the hotel, I would need to leave the room key. At first, I was a bit confused, however it made sense after thinking about the fact that it was not an easily reproduced electronic key (a strange punch card-type thing I’d never seen before) and this was my first time in a foreign city where I barely had a rudimentary understanding of the language (clearly, I learned nothing from Costa Rica in this regard), so it made perfect sense for them to be all, “Yeah, how about you let us worry about the key, so you don’t have to, in case you’re a complete idiot tourist and lose it doing something stupid.” I walked into the tiny elevator, cramped but grateful that I had chosen a hotel with an elevator.

This was, without a doubt, the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in. The Mamaroneck Motel in Westchester, NY came close, but I’m fairly certain you could have fit the surface area of the room into my bedroom at home. I also now understand why bathrooms are referred to as ‘water closets’ in France. I didn’t walk into the bathroom once without knocking into something. Still, I found it more amusing than any kind of actual hindrance. What most certainly was a hindrance were the European power outlets, of which I had no plugs to fit. This instantly moved ahead of all trinkets, chachki and foodstuffs to Priority One on the list of things to buy.

Once I settled in, I headed to my first objective – the Arc de Triomph. David had told me it was much too far to walk to from my hotel, but I told him it was only five kilometers, and I routinely walk farther than distance back home, as well as run races of that same distance – 5K. I needed to move and get some exercise after spending eight hours in a cramped airline seat next to a mother and daughter trying to sleep for the entire flight.

I left the key with the front desk and headed out, having waited for this for six months and studying Google Maps to find out what directions to go in… and the very first turn I headed in was the complete opposite of where I needed to go. Right out of the gate, I was lost. It would be the last time I tried to find my way around, until the final walk back to the hotel six days later, without using Google Maps.

Much like New York and Boston, everyone in Paris has places to be and gives absolutely zero fucks if you’re in their way. It was one of the better aspects of going alone, dodging people as they barreled past, moving as fast as they were, and not having to worry  about anyone trying to keep up. More than a few people had zero spatial awareness, hopelessly glued to their phones. What stuck out to me the most about the pedestrians, however, is that every other Parisian woman to walk past me was just fucking stunning – tall with a scarf around her neck, dark hair and a smile which curves up at the ends.

The Louvre was only a few blocks down the road. It’s hard to describe the scale of that building until you’re right up against it and walk its length. You can see some of the exhibits from the windows, though they look much better at night. I reached Place de la Concorde, finally starting to get a feel for the real history of the city, just how old it is and the events it’s seen. I try to imagine what it must have looked like as the Germans marched in. I later read this is the spot where King Louie XVI and Marie Antoinette got the guillotine, among many others.

The Champs—Elysees reminded me of Times Square, with a line of fancy stores, huge ads, wall to wall traffic, restaurants and tourists everywhere. Later I would be told, “you cannot find any actual French people on the street – it’s all tourists!” But at the end, I could see the Arc. It felt wonderful to finally reach it after looking forward to it for months. I didn’t have the DSLR on me, so the only pictures I got were with the underwhelming iPhone camera. I decided that I wasn’t going to post every single thing I did from this vacation, and instead just check-ins of the major events and locations.

Taking my time heading back down the Champs, the hunger in my stomach after having not eaten since a few protein bars on the flight gnawed at me. I’d passed more than a few street-side Crepe stands on the way to the Arc, so it was time to find out if my shitty, basic French was up to the basic task of negotiating a food purchase. Turns out it didn’t need to be, because after speaking “Un banan Nutella crepe, si vous plais,” I asked for a bottled water by pointing at it and the man cooking my crepe immediately had me pegged for a tourist, holding up his fingers and saying “Four.”

I sat down a nearby bench and my life was forever changed biting into this ambrosia. I did not realize how much of a staple of Paris these crepe stands are, you cannot go more than two blocks without walking past one. It would be the first of many I’d eat during the week. The first and the last were the best ones I had.

Lazily strolling back to the hotel, my playlist was on Edith Piaf when the streetlights came on. I know it sounds cliché, but how exactly was I supposed to walk down the streets of Paris at night without listening to that woman’s music? Whatever your answer is, I assure you, it’s wrong.

Even without the time change, I’d been awake for over 24 hours. After stopping in a small café for a smoothie and Pain du Chocolat (a croissant filled with chocolate, hell yes). When I got back to the hotel, I laid down and passed out almost immediately, waking up at around 1am Paris time. I didn’t have much trouble staying in bed until 7am.

I felt so impossibly Basic getting Starbucks that morning on the way to Gare de Lyon. Really, I didn’t want to risk missing my train by sitting down for breakfast proper, but for God sakes, you came all this way to a foreign country, and you’re going to get coffee at the largest, most popular American chain there is? “Bounjour, Venti vanilla shame latte, si vous plais. Merci.”

The architecture of the rail stations is amazing, with the slanted ceilings and frosted windows letting in the natural light. The first destination of the journey was Lyon via TGV, better known as the Bullet-Train, and trying not to look like a complete greenhorn figuring out the rail system. Having purchased all my tickets in advance, I wasn’t sure if I had to use the machine or not. I tried and failed miserably.

The ticket machines in Paris rail stations DO NOT have an English language setting. Even with the little icons and avatars, if you don’t speak French, you’re fucked. I hung my head in shame and went to the information office. They confirmed with the App that I used, all I had to do was show the person checking tickets the QR code on my phone. Of course, it didn’t work at first, only because the brightness on my phone was insufficient.

Pro-Tip: for future US travelers coming to Paris and other counties in Europe – buy your tickets in advance through It’s simple, legit and the prices are good. The Eurail and RailEurope pass are somewhat of a scam, as the SNCF (the transit authority in France) does not provide as many reservation slots for Eurail passholders, and if you do not make your reservation well in advance, your $500 pass is all but worthless. Without a reservation, you’re not getting on a TGV. Trainline reserves your seat, gives you the ticket to show on your phone — it’s totally legit, no bullshit, and they’re hooked into SNCF directly.

The TGV. Holy shit. For someone who geeks out every single time during takeoff with a window seat, gradually going from zero to TWO HUNDRED was fucking intense. I must have stood out like a sore thumb on the train, with all the residents lazily reading a book, eating their breakfast, staring at their cell – there’s me gazing out the window like a five-year-old with saucer plate eyes and a shit-eating grin, listening to synth-wave industrial.

Anne was waiting for me at the Lyon Part-Dieu station. She’s known me since I was 11 years old, a foreign exchange student who came to stay with us in 1989 and became fast friends with our family, coming back to visit and stay with us on her own dime. After her countless visits to the US, there was no possible way I would come to France and not visit. I’d hoped to see another lifelong friend who initially came the same first year she did, Alex, yet he was busy all day at work — all the more reason to return.

We started by having lunch at a restaurant called Bouchon Les Lyonnais, and I had what might be the smallest cup of coffee I’ll ever drink. We then rode a rope-pulled tram up a large ridge in Lyon, which led to an old Roman church, La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, the architecture of which was breathtaking. Even if you’re not a religious person, it’s hard not appreciate and be impressed by the meticulous levels of detail which were put into just the stained glass, let alone the rest of the interior. The ridge overlooks Lyon, and you can see the where the city turns from old to new.

(Note that I’m having to go back on Google Maps to get the names of these locations, my memory is not what it once was, as evidenced later on.)

One of the things I really wanted to see in Lyon was the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater. Walking through history like that was an incredible feeling, but it was only a preview of what was to come later in Belgium — one in particular which gave me instant chills, and not the good kind.

That night in Lyon was the evening of a large, well known race which concluded right in front of the ancient auditorium stage. Anne said it was a once per year even that occurred at night, and was a 70 kilometer race through the city up and down it’s steep, winding roads. That’s longer than a marathon, for those of you keeping score. She said that sometimes it snows during this race and many of the participants wind up with broken ankles from slipping. I told her for as much as I enjoy running, that sounded like utter madness. She only runs to stay in shape for tennis.

Later, we walked down the ridge through Old Lyon, with narrow alleys and cobblestone streets, stopping in one store so I could buy a unique candy made in Lyon using a form of silk. I tried them, and I’m now a little upset I won’t ever be able to find these anywhere in the US. As time wore down, we went back to the train station, and she helped facilitate translation so I could buy a power adapter. Once the TGV back to Paris had its platform specified, we bid each other adieu, thanking her for a wonderful afternoon in the city. Back in Paris, I stopped for another street-side crepe on the walk home from the rail station. Walking back through the city at night was not as worrisome as I thought it might be, at least not yet.

The next morning, I had to wake up much earlier than before to reach Gare de L’est, to get the TGV to Luxembourg. The area around Gare de L’est is not as nice as that of Gare de Lyon or St. Lazare, which I would visit the following day. However, they all pale in comparison to Gare du Nord, which is near Gare de L’est. Nord was to be the final station destination a few days later. It has a reputation, to put it nicely. ‘Gare’ translates to ‘Station’, if you’re curious. Gare de L’est, however, was not too bad.

I saw a shabbily dressed man walking around with a dog on a leash, carrying a small puppy in his arms. The second I made eye contact with the puppy, any heartstrings being tugged at were instantly cut when he began speaking to me. Before he even finished his sentence, I said, “Non, merci,” and walked again (shamefully) into Starbucks. I would come to say this phrase quite often during my stay to anyone who approached me on the street. It was only a few minutes before the platform was marked for my train. I had barely touched my coffee.

After another two hours of gazing out the window, I arrived in Luxembourg to the dreaded two words on my cell: No Service.

I had done my research in the months before about how best to reach the Lux-American Cemetery where both my grandfather and General Patton are buried. Get off the train, take the bridge across the rail lines, and pick up the #15 bus, get off at the second to last stop, and follow the signs down Val du Schied to the cemetery. But without cellsignal, I couldn’t look up whether or not I could pay the two-euro needed on the bus itself or at some hub. To add to everything, that morning’s coffee was not sitting right, and my gut was being twisted in a few different directions at once.

Doubled over in pain in the freezing cold at a bus stop with no idea how to pay and no cellular service whatsoever was not exactly how I’d planned to start the day.

I hear my Rick & Morty “That’s a three-pointer!” text alert. It’s a message from Verizon TravelPass saying, “Welcome to Luxembourg!” Four bars and LTE service. Crisis Averted.

One of the other buses had shown up in the meantime, and it looks as though the Luxembourgians did not do anything other than just get on, without flashing a card or dropping money in a slot. I’m typically not the “ask for forgiveness instead of permission” type, but sometimes exceptions have to be made. I figure if anything, I’ll get yelled at in French, have no idea what they’re saying, and just wait for the driver to point to the door, sheepishly get out and hire an Uber.

The #15 bus arrives. I follow the lead of the lady who gets on before I do and just sit down. With Google Maps now accessible, I know what stop I need to get off at. As it would turn out, apparently bus rides are free on weekends. Again, Crisis Averted.

By the time we arrived at my stop, I was the only one left on the bus. From there, the signs were easy to follow, and took me down an idyllic, empty road lined with trees and leaves of varying shades of burnt ember and yellow hues. Another small perk of visiting Europe in the fall – the seasons actually change, unlike Florida, where it’s green, brown or dead.

Reaching the cemetery, I entered the Visitor’s Center to sign the guestbook, writing only “Grandrather” as the note, and walked out. I would find out the next day during my guided tour of Normandy that it was an absolutely monumental oversight to not inform the office of whom I was and why I was there.

I knew how to find the grave, as it’s listed on the American Battlefield Monuments Commission website. Plot A, Row 3, Grave 5. Up to that point, I’d been fighting the emotion and holding it back, not wanting be a sniffling mess in front of total strangers who I couldn’t reasonably communicate with.

Once I reached the grave, I collapsed in a heap and everything broke loose.

William Francis “Billy” King fought and died in the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945, killed by an artillery shell. He fought in Patton’s army, thus fitting they’re buried in the same cemetery. He only saw my father once, an hour after he was born, before shipping off to France. I have a picture of him taken standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

I sat with him for about an hour or so, mostly either in silence or listening to music, and later having a chat with him as I set up my camera on the grass to get a proper picture. I would not defile his grave by taking a selfie. Despite that the few pictures I posted while in Europe at the various locations were all selfies, part of me despises them. I don’t consider a framed shot with the timer to fit their category, and taking a selfie with a headstone is only a few notches up from those other-worldly trashy pictures people take with open caskets and loved ones dying in hospital beds.

I walked around and photographed the cemetery, including Paton’s ornate headstone, roped off so it’s not continually trampled by visitors.

Leaving, I walked back to the bus stop and caught the same #15 back into town, famished by this point. Thankfully, Luxembourg City is rather small and most of the restaurants nearby had good reviews on Google. I found a place that seemed like it would work, but it ended up being rather pricey when I checked the menu outside. It also looked a bit too fancy for how I was dressed. Next door seemed much more reasonable in terms of price and décor.

I also found out, only after I was seated, that there was a crying baby on the other side of the restaurant. A loud one.

It’s not lost on me that infants have no other way to communicate other than to cry. Dogs bark, cats hiss, birds chirp and babies cry. It’s just how it works. It’s also not lost on me that new parents aren’t supposed to just sit around at home all day and never go out in public. Babies cry in restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, theme parks, laundromats, and pretty much anywhere except places they shouldn’t be, like bars or MOVIE THEATRES. However, at this particular moment in time, having not eaten breakfast proper and after a very emotional morning, hearing this kid cry was the not far from the absolute last thing I wanted to hear. To the mother’s credit, she tried to calm it down before giving up and letting the rest of us in the place tune it out. It cried itself out after a while and just turned to whimpering.

Since beginning to travel in earnest, I’ve tried to make it a rule to try the local food (I know, Starbucks) wherever I am. I can get pizza, burgers and chick-parm anywhere. Reading over the menu (which mercifully had English translations) I noticed under what I could only assume translated to “Luxembourg Specialties” some dish which comprised of potato dumplings with bacon fat, and applesauce on the side. This ended up being a wonderful decision.

Dumplings at Asian restaurants will never be quite the same. And this of course was followed by a special crepe dish, Crepes Fontaine, where they’re basically filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate.

Needing some serious exercise after ingesting God only knows how many calories, I set out for Casemates du Bock, and old fort built into a cliffside, dating back to the 900’s, and used as a bomb shelter during World War II. Open seasonally, but as luck would have it, that Sunday was the final day it would be open for the season before re-opening in the spring.

I walked two and a half miles, up and down steep hills, before reaching it. I got my money’s worth out of both lunch and working it off afterwards.

The castle itself was fascinating. Steep, compact, winding stone steps leading down many floors, to small rooms with bars and old canons overlooking the city, including a well that  looked like something right out of It. Deeper into the floors of the castle was a long, narrow hallway illuminated only by installed lights. Trying to imagine what it must have been like either in pitch black or only torches was rather unsettling. I loved it and immediately put Lustmord on my earbuds.

It led to an impossibly narrow winding rock stairwell and gate-locked dead end with no exit, and I ran into a British tourist couple coming back the other way. They turned around when I told them it was a dead end, and they turned around with me. The girl remarked how spooky it was. I told her I was from Florida, where all we had was fake Disney spooky, so it was nice to visit something actually spooky for once. She laughed. Later we helped each other find our way out of the castle after getting lost. Little did I know the truly unsettling, instant-chills spooky experience was yet to come a few days later.

Once out, I still had four hours until my train left, so I walked around taking photos of the architecture and enjoying the cold weather. With it being Sunday not much was open past 5pm. By the time I got to the train stations, I still had three hours, but my feet were absolutely fucking dead after walking a total of eleven miles according to my Fitbit.

A few paragraphs ago I mentioned how I always want to try local fare in new places. When exhaustion starts making decisions instead of only hunger, this rule loosens up considerably.

There is an Italian restaurant across the street from the rail station, Vapiano, and it’s not your typical restaurant. When you enter, you receive a card, and walk to one of three “stations” to order either pizza, pasta, or other dishes, including a full bar. You tell the cook what you’d like from the menu, scan your card, they make it right there, you find a table and eat, and at the end, you take your card to the front and pay for whatever you’ve had.

Seems simple enough, right? Not when the host does not speak English.

Most times up to that point when I’d asked, “Par le vous engles?” the other person had answered yes. This time, the host threw his hands up with a “Sorry bro” expression and said something I didn’t understand. Shit.

Thankfully, one of the patrons cashing out at the desk pointed at me and said something to the host, who answered yes, a blonde-haired lady in a red puffy jacket. She spoke perfect English and explained exactly what to do. Merci Beaucoup, mademoiselle.

I had a chicken veggie pizza, which was so loaded I had to eat it with a knife and fork.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to keep my dining card as a souvenir. I did, however, walk out of the restaurant and forget my camera bag, not realizing it until I was across the street and almost in the rail station, running back in a panic.

The train was early, much earlier than the other TGV’s I’d taken to that point, so I got on at around 7 and waited. For about 10 minutes, I was the only one in the carriage, and it was a glorious peaceful silence with just the humming of the engine.

The train arrived back in Paris late, around 10:20, and this was again not the nicest area. No earbuds, tight grip on my camera bag, and walked like I was being followed. It ended up being an extremely late night, but thankfully my train to Bayeaux the next morning didn’t leave until 10am.

Walking to St. Lazare took the longest of all the walks to the rail stations, about 45 minutes. I was determined to not have to rely on an Uber or taxi, as my hotel was strategically located a relatively short walking distance from all four major rail hubs – this wasn’t planned, either, just an insanely good stroke of luck. St. Lazare was the cleanest of all three stations I’d seen thus far; it reminded me of a two-story mall on the inside.

However, once again, I got “Sorry bro” hands trying to order breakfast. Café? Oui. Bottled water? Oui. Jambon Beurre (ham sandwich, thanks Christina) at 9:30 in the morning? I don’t know what the clerk said to me after I asked for it in a poorly spoken accent, but I’m guessing the translation was something along the lines of, “We’re not serving sandwiches yet, American clownshoe. Eat a croissant.”

So, I drank my coffee… and did the walk of shame down to Starbucks at the other end.

The (very attractive) barista equalized my prior awkwardness when the cup slipped out of her hand and bounced around the counter into mine. A woman standing next to me in line smiled, and then as we sat at the same table outside, she asked me to watch her coffee for her while stepping away. Even if you don’t speak the actual language, body language still works wonders. When she said ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘Merci’, I answered with ‘avec plaisir.” I have Anne to thank for that when I asked her what the proper way to say ‘You’re welcome’ was. The literal translation is ‘With pleasure.’ She gave me a thumbs up.

The train to Bayeaux was an IC (Inner-City) train rather than a TGV, and I had 2nd class pleb seats instead of first. Not that it was much different, really just smaller. The bitch of it was the sun was coming up next to my window side, and the dirty window made for a horrific glare.

I had about 20 minutes to wait outside the station where our guide would be picking me and a few other people up for the half-day tour of Point du Hoc, the Normandy cemetery, and Omaha Beach. I hate that I’ve forgotten her name, she was a red-haired older woman, who likely knew more about World War II than the majority of most Americans who aren’t historians. I wasn’t the only person on the tour from Florida, either. David, a Cuban man and his father were also taking the tour. They live in Miami and often come to Orlando to visit. It was good have another native there with me.

Once we were all in the van, she started by asking if any of us had family or relatives who died on D-Day. I told her about my grandfather and the previous day’s visit. She wasn’t sure if the 6th Armored Division had arrived through Normandy, but likely not.

We started out at Point du Hoc, and important defensive positions for the Germans on D-Day, with gun emplacements still in place, and the remains of a gigantic concrete bunker which exploded from the inside. She started by giving us all a history of the location from the car, and really, I’d be lying if I said I felt like we spent too much time at this location, as we later only got about 30 minutes on Omaha Beach. I will say that the construction of the gun batteries and command center were no joke. Craters from the air raids to soften it up prior to the ground assault by the Rangers are everywhere, deliberately left as reminders.

Roughly two hours pass and we head for the cemetery. Our guide wants us to get there by 4pm so we can see the lowering of the two flags and the playing of Taps over the speakers. It’s an extremely somber moment, despite being a recording and not played in person.

Afterward we walked down the rows of graves with our guide explaining how they treat visiting family members of the fallen soldiers – revealing my aforementioned monumental oversight.

If I had told the Visitors Center at the Luxembourg cemetery who I was and why I was there when I went to my grandfather’s grave, I would have gotten the proverbial VIP treatment, where they rub dirt into his name on the headstone so it contrasts against the white, laying flowers, placing both a French and American flag, taking a special photo and then giving you the two flags to take home. At first it was just something the Normandy cemetery did, but after a while, all American cemeteries adopted the practice.

I had said nothing to them about whom I was, only signed the guestbook with “Grandfather” before walking to his grave listening to Adagio for Strings.

Unbelievable. Sometimes being a loner is just dumb.

The cemetery closes at five and we head for the beach, driving past the memorial coming out of the sand. I was hoping we would have stopped there, but we didn’t. Our guide tells us it was put there illegally. Still, it’s not like they can remove it without major blowback.

What became most apparent to me is that the French people take the sacrifices made by Americans in World War II very, very seriously and it is deeply meaningful. To them, the men who died did so protecting and liberating France. It was a completely new perspective I’d never considered.

Finally, we park and set foot on the sand. She’s showing us pictures of what it looked like the day of the landing, including the famous Robert Capa photo, but by this point, I’m checked out and want to walk down the water. At low tide, it’s easily 200 yards out. Now, she had told us we would have “free time” at the beach to walk around, much like at the cemetery. Cue the “determined that was a lie” meme. As soon as she was through with the pictures, everyone headed back towards the car. I asked if I could walk down to the water and she said yes, that they were just driving a bit down the road to the remaining German pill boxes.

As I mentioned in a comment, I’m a shameless, unapologetic movie geek, so when I finally got to head for the shore, I put my earbuds in and had the landing scene from Saving Private Ryan queued and ready.

That part where all you hear is just the ambient noise as Tom Hanks looks around shell-shocked — I can’t even begin to describe it. I know it’s a movie, and could never possibly do justice to what the men who were there actually went through. Still, it’s the closest we have, and the location she took us to was Dog One, the exact spot depicted in the film. Looking around and trying to process what had happened in the middle of where I was standing was fucking mind-bending. The line is spoken, “Every inch of this beach has been sighted!” and you look up to see the actual remaining gun emplacements built into the cliffside.

Unbelievable. Sometimes being a loner is breathtaking.

I walk over towards the remains of the concrete pier built by the Allies after the landing to get a picture, and I see David gesturing to me and waving his hand that it’s time to go. I run, grabbing a pebble from the shores, snap a few shots of the pillbox and sprint back to the car. If I‘d had the presence of mind, I would have run starting from as far away from the shore as possible.

Back in the car, everyone is waiting and some of the other folks on the tour are mean-mugging me. As much as I wanted, I did not invite them to Kindly Go Fuck Themselves before saying I’ve been looking forward to that for six months. I understand they had trains to catch, but they needed to understand I was promised free time at the beach, so goddammit, I was taking it.

David and I add each other, and with two hours to kill before my train, I head into Bayeaux for dinner. I ended up getting a fish burger which was so big I basically had to disembowel it and eat it with a knife and fork.

The train ride back to St. Lazare was miserable. My sinuses were fucked and I was in a shared room, with bench seating that was shitty and uncomfortable. Though I was slightly amused when I noticed the man sitting across from me was reading The Three Musketeers.

Now came the most difficult night in terms of time.

I didn’t get back to the hotel until close to 11:30. I had to pack an overnight bag to spend the next night in Belgium, my TGV to Lille left at 8:46 the next morning, and it was leaving from the most notorious rail station in Paris.

Gare du Nord.

The oldest and smallest rail station in the city, by volume the busiest station in all of Europe, and arguably the one of the most dangerous.

I’d read articles about things for tourists to avoid in Paris, and each one of them included Gare du Nord right up top (though mostly after dark) as overcrowded, with pickpockets, aggressive beggars, the enchanting smell of urine and trash – just a disaster. Though I had an early departure, since I was spending the night in Belgium, I would not arrive back after dark as with all the other stations, but early afternoon. That still didn’t keep me from securing by bag over-the-top tight.

Walking to the station was largely the exact same route as Gare de L’est, so I didn’t have to keep checking my phone for directions. I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare, and in this particular station, it was not too early to get a jambon buerre. Go figure. After all the build-up, it wasn’t any worse than the other stations, really. Everyone stood and waited for the announcements of rail platforms, and headed to their train once they were. No hassle, no pickpockets, no shady characters with shifty eyes. I didn’t even smell any piss. I went all DEFCON 1 for a Hype Train that never left the station.

Of all the rail journeys, the trip to Belgium was the only which required two transfers. After some confusion from Google Maps in terms of where it was, the helpful Belgians of Reddit in the week before I left assured me that the train I was transferring to was indeed in Lille-Flanders and not the middle of some random intersection. Google Maps doesn’t fail very often, but when it does, it fails spectacularly.

Upon arrival, the gentleman at the information desk showed me where the IC trains were separate from the TGV trains and I transferred with time to spare. It was interesting seeing the language on the train change from French to Dutch, and as if it should have come as a surprise, the ticket checkers on the Belgian rail line were devastatingly gorgeous.

The transfer at Kortrijk was running 30 minutes behind, the only rail delay I’d had to deal with up to that point. I’d scheduled a private tour of the Northern Salient of Ypres, and my guide, Lionel, was to pick me up from the hotel at 12:30, figuring I’d arrive around noon, and have 30 minutes to catch my breath. The delay turned that 30 minutes into about 10, and that was after emailing him to get me at 12:45 instead.

This did, however, give me plenty of time to purchase waffles from a vending machines at Kortrijk. That’s right, vending machine waffles. At first I just snapped a photo for the novelty of it. I took three steps, went “really?” and turned around to purchase one. It’s probably a good thing we don’t have that in America. We have enough problems with sugar as it is.

The Hotel Ambrosia in Ypres is about two blocks away from the center of town and an easy 15 minute walk from the train station. It’s extremely cozy, and the bed was infinitely more comfortable than the one in Paris. If I wasn’t careful, I might have passed out and missed the entire tour. Thankfully the walk to the hotel from the train station went right past the small waffle restaurant I’d seen on the map, where I would later get my Belgian Waffle with Ice Cream. Walking past it reminded me of what it used to be like driving past the Merida Bread factory before it closed.

With only 10 minutes to rest, running on sheer willpower, I got up and met Lionel downstairs. Like my tour guide in Normandy, he brought with him many laminated pictures, quizzing me about World War 1 to see how much I knew. He was pleasantly surprised at some of my answers.

It was an extremely satisfying moment when he mentioned a book on WW1 written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and I immediately produced my copy of ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ from my bag, which I’d brought with me to read on the various long rail trips. He was impressed. He was obviously very passionate about the history of WW1, his father having fought in the conflict, and very theatrical in his presentation, sounding like he should have been narrating an A&E documentary.

We decided on an itinerary for the day. First, we would visit Essex Farm, the site where the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written, the German cemetery Langemarck, various  memorials around the city, and ending at the Hill 62 memorial, site of the only remaining original British trenches. I’d wanted to visit a spot north of the city called ‘The Trench of Death’, a very long trench stretching out over almost a mile, however Lionel told me these were not the original trenches but reconstructed, and that we would lose at least an hour on the drive. We’d already lost 15 minutes due to the rail delay. I decided to skip it, and have more time at the real trenches instead.

Essex farm was named by the English soldiers who fought there. Included among the headstones is a very famous one of a 15 year old boy who lied about his age to go to war. The ground leading to it had to be replaced with astroturf, as all the visitors to it had worn down the grass. A plaque with the ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem is on the side of the crude makeshift hospital structure where it was written.

Lionel also pointed out how some of the graves were newer, smoother. This was due to the fact that as of today, there are still estimated to be at least 40,000 undiscovered deceased throughout the Ypres Salient. Remains are discovered routinely with construction, and their headstones only read “A Soldier of the Great War.” Many of the soldiers were killed as soon as they arrived at the Ypres train station, the same one I arrived at, as it was constantly being shelled.

We stop at a crossing and he tells the story of a famous Irish poet who was killed only a few feet away, with a monument flying the Irish flag, as well as two sisters who lived in a nearby house, separated on their way home by artillery fire. I have never seen a town with so many established monuments to a single conflict.

Our next stop was Lagenmarck Cemetery, exclusively for German soldiers. With the visit to this place came what was one of the most chilling and unnerving moments of the entire trip, much more than the caverns, and second only to Omaha beach.

The entrance to the cemetery is a large,  brown archway with two rooms on both sides, and thousands of names inscribed into it. Beyond it is a mass grave of 7,000 German soldiers, flanked by large stones including their names, many of which were young, inexperienced volunteers in the German army, who were eager to head into war to defend their country. The first opposing troops they encountered were the battle-hardened, seasoned British Expeditionary forces, who slaughtered them. Lionel goes over the history which followed, and how the sacrifices of the soldiers buried at Langemarck was used as a rallying point for Germany as World War II was beginning.

He then produces a photo of Hitler entering the archway that I just walked through.

I legitimately cannot remember a time in my life going from zero to absolutely fucking spooked so quickly.

I’m given a few minutes to photograph the cemetery and we continue on. As we drive through the farmlands, Lionel points out how rusted gun barrels and unexploded munitions are often found by farmers living in the area. “Let’s visit the farmer,” he says, and we stop at a seemingly random home. He opens a garage door, revealing a table overflowing with rusted rifle barrels, unexploded grenades and other various pieces of shrapnel. He picks up a piece of artillery shell maybe a foot and a half long and hands it to me.

It weighs as much as a 45 pound barbell, and it’s only a relatively small piece of it. I can’t imagine having these things landing around you in every single direction at random.

At this point, the extra money I paid to have a private tour becomes immediately worth it. I’m never too comfortable with all of the focus being completely on me on tours, I’m more at ease being part of a group, even if it’s only a few people. But being given the chance to hold a piece of history like this, and Lionel taking a picture with me holding it, all of the anxiety is gone.

Our next and final stop is Hill 62, the site of the only remaining original British support trenches. Already we see signs up on the road that in a few days, on the 11th, the roads leading to it will be closed for Armistice Day. It had never occurred to me that it falls on the same day as Veterans Day in the US, but it makes perfect sense.

Finally at the Hill 62 Museum, and Lionel tells me he’ll cover the entrance cost up front so I’ll have more time to walk through the trenches. We walk to the back behind the museum, and after a brief description of how this was a support trench, and not the frontline trench, he tells me I’ll have 20 minutes to explore on my own time.

This is what I had been waiting for.

Queueing up ‘Flight of the Pigeon’ from the Battlefield 1 soundtrack, into the trench I go. Even though it hadn’t rained that day, and was bright and sunny, the bottom of the trench was appropriately muddy and perfect. It was everything I thought it would be, and again became overwhelmed. Even better still, I was somehow the only person there walking through them, no other tourists to dodge.

I figure I should record the entire experience of walking through. Not long after, in my excitement I miscalculate the height of the one of the original metal archways overhanging sections of the trench, and bang my forehead against it. Hard. I felt like I was going to throw up. You can actually hear the whump when it happens on the recording. It hurt like a motherfucker, and I ended up with a splitting headache for the rest of the day, wondering how many soldiers had done the exact same thing a hundred years ago.

Despite that, I wasn’t going to let it spoil my fun, so I kept recording and walked through the rest of the trench, still somehow grinning. Stepping out, the original holes of artillery fire remain intact, as well as a handful of tree stumps decorated with crosses and flowers.

When my time was up, I practically ran through the museum interior snapping quick shots and met back up with Lionel and we headed back into town down the Menin Road, driving past a few more memorials, complete with original duck boards which soldiers used to cross the treacherous mud. The last point of interest on the tour we drove past was the infamous Hellfire Corner.

As we passed under the Menin Gate, Lionel told me exactly the best spot to stand for the Last Post ceremony that night, as well as the best time to arrive, which he recommended as 7pm for when it begins at 8. Pulling into town he produces a photo of the Cloth Hall as it looked during the war. Originally built in 1304, it was almost completely destroyed during WW1. Looking up from the picture, it’s a magnificent gothic structure in the dead center of town.

He dropped me off at the hotel and I thanked him profusely for the experience. I meant to get a picture with him.

I had a few hours before the ceremony began. Once I dropped my backpack off in the hotel room, it was time for my waffle. This was another thing I’d looked forward to for months. It ended up being a Brussels Waffle with Nutella, banana, ice cream, whipped cream and a tiny knife and fork. It was absolutely every bit as delicious as I imaged it would be.

The only thing missing was a candle.

After moving non-stop since 7:45 in the morning, I needed to rest before the ceremony, so I took a few hours back at the hotel to relax and make reservations for dinner. Since the ceremony typically ends around 8:15, every restaurant in town gets a rush immediately afterwards and I wasn’t about to left out in the cold both literally and figuratively.

I headed for the Menin gate around 6:30 to take my time and drop into various shops along the way, one of which was a chocolate store. I can’t even tell you how much money I wanted to spend there. This wasn’t some Godiva mall kiosk where everything is pre-packaged – no, this place made most of their stuff on-site. They even sold tools made from chocolate. Saw blades, hammers, pliers, cogs, screws, nuts, bolts – you name it. It was a Chocolate Hardware Store. I bought a chocolate wrench and ate it immediately. Belgian chocolate is no fucking joke.

Staking out my spot at the Menin Gate, I noticed the walls are lined with engravings of men who died but were never found or properly buried. There are thousands of them, corroborating what Lionel told me early on the tour. When no one else showed up for almost a half-hour, I thought I may have arrived too early, before a crowd of people descended upon the site almost at once. My highly coveted spot was indeed prime real estate, and all of a sudden standing in 37 degree weather for 30 minutes with no gloves was worth it.

The Last Post is a ceremony to honor the men who died defending Ypres which has been performed every night since 1928, except for the four years during German occupation of Belgium, in which it was performed in England. Descendants and relatives of soldiers are invited to lay wreaths at the gate; spectators are specifically instructed to not clap at the end.

A large group of British soldiers participated, and there was an amusing moment as they marched up the wrong direction before the ceremony began. During the proceedings, a small group of black soldiers sang “We have overcome.”

It was a somber, beautiful experience.

My timing was fortunate, as again with Armistice Day (only a few days away) reservations to witness the ceremony have to be made a full year in advance.

I made my 8:30 dinner reservation at In’t Klein Stadhuis with time to spare. The steak was cooked to perfection and the tiramisu looked like nothing I’d ever had, shaped like a croissant.

The next morning I finally had a relaxing, sit-down breakfast at the hotel, with the lady at the front desk personally cooking my meal. Not what I’d envisioned when they’d told me it was a continental breakfast. I was expecting a basic DIY, grab something out of a heated tray and off you go. She spoke perfect English and we talked mainly about Florida, Irma and its tourism compared to Europe’s. She was surprised at how much it costs for a single day at Disney, but even more when I told her how much of an addiction it is for some local residents.

Now, the original plan was simply to head back to Paris and spend the day sightseeing, as my train from Lille was due back in the city around Noon, however this was changed so I could spend time  visiting another long-time family friend, Ursula. (This is another wonderful feature of using – it’s a snap to exchange your ticket for a different time, assuming the one you originally purchased is exchangeable, and you either pay or are refunded the difference) She had come to stay with our close family friends a few years after Anne did, through the same foreign exchange student program. Likewise, we befriended and got to know her very well.

Ursula and her husband (forgive me, Ursula, I forgot his name) picked me up from the Lille-Flanders station, and though we only had a few hours, we walked through Lille and had lunch at a restaurant founded in the 1760’s – older than the United States – and who’s specialty was a desert treat called a Le Guafres, which are two thin wafers with a type of sugar in-between. I had four of them and could have eaten many, many more, but the best part was catching up with Ursula, as I’d not seen her in almost a decade. It was here that her husband made the remark about there not being any actual French on the Champs—Elysees.

They got me to the Lille-Europe station on time to catch my final TGV back to Paris, and this time, I came prepared with my dashcam. When I hooked it up to the window, I turned to see the young man sitting next to me looking at me with a completely baffled, raised-eyebrow “wait, what?” look. Thankfully he spoke English and I was able to explain how I wanted to capture the speed of the TGV. This will be uploaded to YouTube and posted later.

Gare du Nord was just as easy to get out of as it was to get into. There was no monster at the end of the book. I’m sure if I’d had a train arrive there at 10:30 like some of the others, I’d have had a much different experience.

Dropping my bag off at the hotel, I set out for my final night in the city and headed straight for the Eiffel Tower. It took about an hour to walk to, and I had just enough sunlight left to get a similar picture to what my grandfather had taken when he visited the city 70 years prior. On the way there, I passed over the Quais de la Seine, the bridge where people attach locks, write the name of someone they love and throw the key into the Seine.

I wanted to buy one from the street vendor selling them nearby, but I had no name to write.

The Eiffel Tower is quite tall up close. It’s hard to get an idea of the scale until you’re standing right next to it. One of the drawbacks to traveling solo is that you have to ask either tour guides or randos to take your picture. Lingering around on the dirt paths between the lawns, I had to ask someone for assistance, but without a firm grasp on the language, it was a dice roll. Thankfully a couple from the States walked up about ten feet away, and we traded taking one another’s picture. They were students studying abroad in Barcelona. By comparison, the shot of my grandfather and the one I got aren’t even close, but really it’s the idea of it.

I hung around the tower waiting for the sun to go down, to get a few shots of it lit up. What happened after it did was arguably the worst moment on the trip. I really don’t want to go over it, because it pisses me off when I think about it, I want to believe it wasn’t personal – and it involved Americans. Polar opposite of the students I’d just met 30 minutes earlier. It wasn’t until I walked back to the Louvre that I began to feel even remotely better, sitting down and waiting 20 minutes to get a perfect shot of the images being projected on the pyramid for a friend. I walked around the city’s art district for another two hours waiting for my dinner reservation time.

My last meal in was to be a fancy one. Not to say I hadn’t enjoyed the street crepes, but I wanted something special for the last night, since I really hadn’t spent a great deal of time in the city itself. I’d gone on TripAdvisor a night or so before after David, my driver on the day I’d arrived, told me to trust them over Yelp, and looked up the top-rated restaurants in the city. The highest rated with reservations available was the 7th, a place called Boutary.

The way the staff treated me, I felt like John Wick at the Continental.

I tried caviar for the first time. When they asked me if I wanted to use a spoon or the more traditional way of being served, I opted for tradition. Ten bucks to lick a small spoonful of salty Sturgeon eggs off the back of my hand? Achievement Unlocked. They weren’t bad. The server also included a five minute description of their caviar.

The main course, however, was one of the best meals I’d ever eaten. When you pay a hundred bucks for a meal, you hope that you’re not getting ripped off with fake-fancy,  underwhelming food, especially knowing it’s not a Texas de Brazil gorge fest where you’re just disgusted with your glutton-ass afterwards. Boutary was absolutely not fucking around. This was the kind of place I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see Gordon Ramsay walk in and sit down at the table next to me.

The next and final morning I woke up, packed and finally had breakfast at the small café across the street from my hotel, Le Pick Clops, after walking past it every night for a week. With only a few hours left, I found the nearest supermarket and went shopping for local coffee, chocolate and snacks, not unlike Costa Rica. It was there I found out that if you want to bag your groceries, you have to A) buy the bag or B) bring your own and C) bag them your goddamn self either way. The five people behind me in line were hopefully amused rather than annoyed as I looked around confused before grabbing a bag from the rack nearby.

Lastly, I went back out one more time for a few small souvenirs (a mini Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triompe for my desk at work) and one final street crepe with Nutella and banana. It was just as good as the first.

The driver was already waiting for me when I got back. I thanked the woman the front desk profusely and checked out. The traffic wasn’t as bad going out of the city as it was going in, and I got to the airport with plenty of time. Unfortunately it wasn’t David, yet he was still just as pleasant to chat with.

For the first time ever, I was subjected to a random extra security screening on the way out, where they tossed my bag. What pissed me off more than anything is they kept my boarding pass after finally clearing me. Yet, the fact that I had an entire row of seats to myself waiting for me on the plane somewhat made up for it.

Our flight chased the sunset going back across the Atlantic.

With so much to see and do in the city, as well as more time to spend with my friends, I can say with certainty this will not be my only visit to Paris, France or Europe as a whole. It was easily one f the best and most memorable vacations I’ve ever had.

I was going to end this with some hackneyed bullshit line like “perhaps next time there will be someone to share the adventure with,” but at this point, that’s so much wishful thinking. After this long, it’s truly begun to feel like taking trips like this solo is just the way it’s going to be. When I set foot in Norway next April to hike Trolltunga and celebrate five years sober, I’ve no illusions about anyone joining me to take dumb selfies with.

I’ll set my own itinerary, move at my own pace, go my own way, and try not to drink so much goddamn Starbucks next time.