The Homeless Dutch Girl on the Seine Bank

Continued

The City of Joan d’Arc

When I woke up, I was stunned by how beautiful the river was. It was as wide as a lake, with reeds, shrubs, trees and grass flanking it. The first thing I saw in the morning was the reflection of the clouds, red like fresh cherries. The surface was so quiet, only occasionally disturbed by passing herons and egrets. A thin mist slowly rose above the river, enveloping everything, the reeds, the birds, the tent and myself.

I took off my clothes and slowly moved into a water to have a morning bath. You know, I had not washed myself for 102 days as I counted.

Just kidding. 😀 I did not take a bath since I left Cyril’s place in La Rochelle, which was 3 days ago. The water was as cold as melted snow, stimulating all my senses.

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I took the tram and arrived in the city center of Orleans, in front of the cathedral. Just as Santiago de Compostela was most associated with St James, Torun was most associated with Copernicus, Orleans was most associated with Joan d’Arc, who won her first victory here in Orleans. There were at least 3 statues of her in Orleans alone.

When I was walking around the city there was a procession of hundreds of dressed-up gentlemen. Some were carrying chairs, some carrying tables and others vases. Some were holding other odd objects. The guys were all dressed in dark suits. I thought they were all moving to a new apartment on the same day, or they just returned from IKEA?

Nope, they held the banners with the sign ‘Les Compagnons du Devoir’, a companionship for educational purposes. The procession was very much like the initiation ceremony for young people to be admitted into professional communities.

I had a nap in the local library, where on the top floor one got a lovely overview of the city. When I slowly woke up and moved to my hitchhiking spot, I passed the train station. I started my hitch to Paris. For two hours, although I maintained my dashing pose of thumbing up, nobody stopped. Everybody who saw my sign told me: ‘Paris is really nearby. Take the train man! Don’t worry! They never check the tickets!’

Finally a young dude picked me up and brought me to a better spot and gave me his phone number so I could call him in case I got stuck there. I almost lost hope but 3 decent Moroccan guys picked me up. They were going to …… Paris!

I was saved.

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However, when I arrived it was already really late. I had a friend living in Rueil-Malmaison but that was in the northwest outside of Paris. I decided to find a place to camp…… in the center of Paris. I asked the Moroccan guys to drop me along the Seine, near Notre Dame de Paris.

Basically, wild camping was the easiest in places with less people, less noise and less traffic, because, obviously, I wanted to sleep. Therefore, countryside is better than the edge of cities, which is better than parks inside cities. I do not see any public park in view. While I walked around, among the traffic of cars and boats. I saw an unattended boat anchored on the Seine. I seriously thought of camping on the surface of this boat, although the boat was swayed up and down all the time, and it was way too near all the parties.

I walked on the river bank and I noticed some people going to a dark corner and minutes later they would reemerge into the light.

‘What was that place?’ I thought. When I went to check it out, I was stunned by the pungent smile of urine…… One side of the corner was a low wall, the other side was open to the river while the third side was heavily fenced. I looked into the fences and found out that there were two patrol boats of some river administration parked in a fenced space. Obviously this fenced space belonged to a governmental institution. There were security cameras hanging above the fences. I entertained the idea of climbing over the high fences and camp inside, under the security cameras and maybe even on the patrol boats.

Luckily I did not do that, as it would have severe consequences, as I later found out.

I walked around and  crossed a low fence on the other side of the bridge. I found several tents just 5 meters away from a major road of Paris. When I was in Paris on St Patrick’s day in 2013, I saw even more tents. The refugee situation was just a bit lessened.

When I finally arrived at the lower bank of the river, I saw a perfect camping spot. There were already two tents over there but still much space was left. To be exact, one of them was more of a makeshift ‘house’ rather than tent.

This place looked so surreal. 5 meters up was the major motorway D103 with all the luxurious cars and just across the Seine there were several high-end hotels. The music and lights were sending the whole Paris on a sway. However, just 5 meters away, there were the refugees living in those thin tents. The sarcasm of modern civilization was that there had never been so many poor people in a time that was so rich.

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This Is My Home

I walked around the Seine bank. Under the street light, I looked around. The makeshift house was walled by some metal pieces. Inside there was a house like an igloo, but built of carton, wood and plastics instead of ice. I had a close look. Suddenly I heard something……

A face suddenly stroke out of the makeshift igloo. I was astounded and jumped up like an electrified frog for 5 meters. Yes, for that moment, I was like a superhero. The difference? Instead of jumping forward, I was scared to death and jumped backward.

A person appeared, she was about 1.80 meter tall, in her late 20s or early 30s. She had long brown hair and a nice face. I had a good look and she did not appear as a serial killer. So I walked forward for 5 meters and asked: ‘Hi! So you are camping here? Eh.. you do not look like a refugee to me.’

She: No, I am not camping here. I live here. This is my home.

Let’s call her Anna as I do not want to reveal her real name.

Once Anna started speaking, I immediately recognized her accent. There was no doubt that she was Dutch.

She: Yes, I am Dutch. How do you know?
Me: I lived in the Netherlands for 6 years and had perhaps the best time of my life there.
She: I am from somewhere near Hoofdorp.

Anna talked like a normal person to me. She was standing in front of her igloo inside the metal sheets while I was standing outside the metal sheets. We talked for hours like that.

She was indeed a normal person. However, she had problems with sticking to plans. With her, plans never worked out as they should. This was a remarkable trait, especially considering that most Dutch people were super organized. Another problem was that she could not handle pressure well. Therefore, jobs, houses, marriages were not something for her and about 3 months ago she simply started wondering, from Netherlands to Paris. The weather was warm at that moment in Paris so she would like to stay around for a while.

Wait, how did she feed herself? She showed me some metal works she made by hands, metal artifacts, small souvenirs and so on. She sold them on the street and used the money to buy food.

Wait, how did she clothe herself? She sewed things herself. One could find so many free or discarded resources that one could make enough clothes for a battalion. There was also a place where one could get free soup a few blocks away.

So she was a homeless wanderer. People started wandering for different reasons. The old teacher I met in Bordeaux airport started wandering because he wanted to enjoy his freedom. Anna started wandering because this was the only status in which he could live comfortably. I started wondering because I wanted to explore the world and enrich my experiences. I also know of people who started wandering simply because of some severe mental difficulties.

She had experienced extreme difficulties while on the way as this was her first time to really travel by herself. She was scared, scared to death at first, then she started gingerly reaching out her antennas. Soon she found out that there were so many kind people around that her fear was not necessary. The biggest danger, to her, had been stray dogs.

Yes, if you do not camp much, you perhaps do not realize how annoying and dangerous stray dogs can be. When I was camping in SEA, I was harassed by them so many times. When I wanted to go camping in Transylvania, Romania, I asked friends what I should prepare for. The number one answer coming up was ‘dogs’!

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Happiness or Peace

The other tent not far from hers belonged to a wandering Polish guy. They met 4 weeks ago and was pairing together. They were like a couple. However, this Polish dude suffered from some mental disorders. One day he took out a knife and threatened her: ‘If you ever think about leaving me, I will cut myself into pieces!’ He actually hurt himself many times already. One time he even tried to cut her. They quarreled, many times. She swore to leave him. He followed her. Every time she talked to a male, he would get jealous and take out his knife. That was why, although she much disliked it, he was still camping just a few meters away from her.

I: Where is he now? Is he listening to us talking?
Anna: I don’t think so. I have no idea where he is. Every night he goes out to the streets and sometimes comes back with some strangers. He sleeps with these strangers, guys, girls, women, men, anyone, just to make me jealous.
I: But you can not leave?
Anna: But where to? Is there really a place which is much better than where I am now? I am not old, but I have seen my fair share of life. It involves much suffering and endurance, to endure boredom, to endure routine, to endure how other people think about you. Of course, there are better moments and we call them happiness. The problem is, if you think about these moments of happiness, they only make up a tiny part of our long life. I have long learned to be content with what I have and can find. I stopped making plans only partly because I can not stick to them.
I: And what is the other reason?
Anna: It’s not happiness that we should seek after. It is peace. I’ve found my peace on the road. Peace lasts much longer than any fleeting happiness. I have my sufferings and difficulties, but I make peace with them. I do not have any doubts or confusion anymore. I’ve found my way.

So that was the philosophy of her life. That was what kept her alive.

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I: It is summer now and Paris is lovely. However, when it gets cold Paris is ugly. I know a place where you can spend the winter and people there have big hearts. I heard from many a street artist that it was the best place to make a living.
Anna: Where?
I: Andalusia, southern Spain.
Anna: That is really far and I’ve never been to Spain. Above all, how do I get there? I spent all my money already when I was traveling from the Netherlands to Paris.
I:  Don’t worry. You can hitchhike. I just came from the south, otherwise I could hitchhike with you to Spain. It’s not difficult. If you go to any public library, you can use the computer there to check out a website called hitchwiki. It has a lot of useful information.
Anna: I don’t know. If I plan it, it will not work out. If I do not plan it, then I will encounter trouble sooner or later. It’s a paradox.

There were about 7 ducks floating on the Seine. They landed, flapped their wings and started walking around in single file. She looked at them and said: ‘This place starts growing on me. I see these ducks everyday. Their quacking wakes me up every morning, really every morning.’ She looked at those ducks as if they were her children. Then she pointed to the fenced space and its iron gate: ‘That place belongs to the water administration and they have security cameras there. I met the water management police several times. They are kind people and not snobbish at all. Every time they see me, they would say ‘Bonjour mademoiselle’. When I felt danger, I would run to the gate and shake the iron gate. Then they can see me via the camera and come to my aid.’

I looked at her and I did not find any kind of sorrow or ecstasy. She was as calm as the surface of the Seine. There would always be ups and downs, but she would always found her peace.

The music from some night clubs afar diminished every minute, finally disappeared into the humid air in Paris.

To be continued

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