The New, and Surprising, Land of the Free

Written by on 25 Feb 2014

Ahhhh, Paris.

The city of love and the city of lights. The city that framed countless books and stories throughout the ages. The city that created some of the most recognizable wonders of human art and ingenuity in the entire world.

And coincidentally, the city that is home to…

Both the worst person and the best person…

I have ever met.


Yes, Paris is the city in which I went from losing all faith in humanity to once again believing that people are fundamentally good—all in the span of 15 hours.

I know, I know—it’s a teeny, tiny travesty that I only spent 15 hours in Paris, but that’s a story for another time.

Some context:

Paris, France was my second-to-last stop on a month-long backpacking adventure throughout Europe. The trip had begun leisurely enough, spending days at a time in places like Barcelona, Spain or Cinque Terre, Italy. I traveled with several different groups of friends along the way, and as our numbers dwindled and people returned home, the trip started to move faster and faster.

Near the end, there was a week-long period when my friend Josh and I changed cities at least once a day, if not twice.

It was a whirlwind, to say the least.

By the time Josh and I separated in Berlin, I was running so tight on time before my flight home from London that I had only 2 days to travel over 700 miles—all by myself.

No small feat.

So the hectic lead up to Paris looked a little something like this:

  • Board the overnight train from Berlin at 1:00am.
  • Arrive in Amsterdam at 10:00am.
  • Attempt to reserve a seat on train to Brussels—all booked.
  • Attempt to reserve a seat on a train to Paris—all booked.
  • Settle for a seat on a train to Antwerp, hoping to figure out local trains upon arrival.
  • Tour around Amsterdam for 2 hours in the morning (note: this is not recommended, by the way, for reasons that include, but are not limited to, length of stay and time of day… it is Amsterdam, afterall).
  • Board the train to Belgium at 12:55pm.
  • Layover in Rotterdam. Layover in Antwerp.
  • Attempt to reserve a seat on a train to Paris, but they are outrageously expensive and nearly sold out.
  • Settle for a seat to Lille Flanders, once again, hoping to figure out local trains upon arrival.
  • Buy and eat a cherry and chocolate covered waffle to prove I had, in fact, been to Belgium.
  • Board the train to Lille and pass out from the overwhelming deliciousness of said waffle.
  • Arrive in Lille at 6:20pm to find that the next train leaves for Paris in 15 minutes.
  • Run. Catch train.
  • Arrive in Paris at 8:00pm.


After having traveled from Berlin to Paris in the span of 18 hours with no rest except for my cramped, overnight train car with two random German men and my waffle-induced coma, all I wanted was a warm bed to sleep in and a confirmed ticket to London in the morning.

Neither would be easy to get.

The warm bed was my own damn fault. I partially blame HostelWorld, but mostly blame myself. The ticket issue, however, was due to one of the worst people I have ever met—the gate agent at the Paris Nord train station.

He. Le Sucked.

I like to live thinking that people are basically good and only occasional bad, but boy, did this guy almost change my mind.

As you can tell from the day’s travels above, getting around in Europe is sometimes difficult, especially between big cities and most especially during busy travel times. Taking the Eurail from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia on a Tuesday—no biggie. Taking the Eurostar from Paris to London on Mayday—not ideal.

And I was about to find out just how hard it would be.

From the moment I walked up to the ticket window, this guy was putting out the “it’s the end of the day, and I just wanna get out of here” vibe. Then, as soon as I opened my mouth and French didn’t come out, he started putting out the “I hate Americans, and it’s the end of the day, and I wanna get out of here” vibe.

Even his scarf seemed to dislike me.

But I thought I could turn on the Southern charm, and maybe, just maybe, get a ticket outta dodge.

Southern charm is universal, right?


This guy was absolutely, unbelievably, beyond unhelpful.

And sketchy, to boot.

His first answer to my inquiry was that there were no seats at all, on any trains going to London, at any time, for the next three days.

Three days?! But I pressed on… I just could not believe that was true.

His second answer, which came after a very sincere but clearly very disdainful, Really?!, was that there might be seats open if I was willing to go back to Lille, then on to London… but not for another two days.

What?! No way...

His third answer, which came after my plea that I absolutely had to get to London the next day or I would be sleeping under his desk at the train station, was a very unofficial-looking piece of paper that read:

Paris to Lille to London

Tomorrow 2pm

100 euros

Awkwardly handwritten and surreptitiously slipped to me under the window when his supervisor wasn’t looking.

Seriously, guy?! There’s no way that’s legal!

I refused.

I stormed over to the McDonald’s across the street to find Wifi and complain to my British friend about how ridiculous the French are. He agreed. But the more I complained, the more I realized that I was going nowhere fast. And after that interaction, the last place in the world I wanted to be was stuck in France.

So I thought I’d go back and try my luck at another window.

Maybe this other scarf would be friendlier.

You’ll never believe what Frenchie #2 said.

Two windows down from Sketchy D’Scarfman, I was told that not only could I get a seat on a train to London, but I could go straight from Paris, I could leave the very next day, and I could choose any time I wanted.

All. Day. Long.


Now that I finally had my ticket, all I wanted was a little food and that warm bed. I had completely resigned to the fact that I would see none of the sights and sounds of Paris. No Eiffel Tower. No Lourve. No Seine. No Champs Elysees. No Couples Making Out. No Crepes. Nothing.

And you know what, after that guy at the train station…

I was absolutely fine with that.

So I walked to my creepy hostel, dropped off my backpack in a room shared with 11 other people, walked to the grocery store for bread, cheese, and meat, bought the worst bottle of wine in France, sat down in the cafeteria, and tried to connect to Wifi in the hopes that someone, somewhere, was having a better time than me.

Then it happened.

No Wifi in my hostel.

Shoot me now.

I was forced to be present and confront the fact that I was having a terrible time in one of the least terrible places on the planet.

All because of that one stupid, scarf-guy.

But thankfully, the Parisian tide would soon change.

All because of a little bottle of wine.

There was a group of people sitting behind me in the dining room, laughing, eating, chatting, and most importantly, drinking. This was important because they had the only corkscrew in the entire hostel. And I had a full, unopened bottle of wine.

So, in my state of utter dismay with the human race, I was forced to be friendly.

Now I know why Jesus chose to turn water into wine as his first miracle. Or rather, why Mary asked him to do so, and he said, “Yes!”

Wine gets people talking!

Four hours later, I was sitting at the table with a guy from New Zealand talking about the recording industry and a pair of boys from Ohio who had unofficially decided they would try backpacking indefinitely. We swapped food and wine and stories, and of course, I told them all about my trip from Berlin and my encounter with D’Scarfman at the train station.

One girl at the table was particularly appalled.

But not for the reasons I thought.

Her name was Free. She was a native Parisian. She was staying in the hostel to meet people and make friends. She wasn’t upset about the train station incident, the unhelpful man, or the hateful scarf.

She was pissed because I hadn’t seen Paris…

…. And, dammit, she was determined to show it to me!

Apparently there is a shared bike system in Paris—think Citi-bike, but better—that has a particularly interesting loophole. The bikes are free to ride as long as you only have them out for less than 30 minutes at a time. There are bike stations all over the city, so in theory, if you plan it right, you can take a bike from station to station, in less than 30-minute intervals, and see the entire city…

For. Free.

And that’s exactly what we did.

It was already 2:00am by this point, but she refused to let that stop her.

We biked past the Sacre Coeur. We took pictures outside of the Moulin Rouge. We traveled down the Champs Elysees. We rode past the Opéra de Paris Garnier. We crossed over the Seine River.

And we took pictures underneath the Eiffel Tower.

Completely alone.

Three hours later, at 5:00am, we returned the last bike to its station.

I went from seeing none of Paris and hating it to seeing all of Paris and loving it.

All because of Free.

I’ll never forget her.

And unfortunately, I’ll probably never see or speak to her again.

She changed my time in Paris, and more importantly, she changed my outlook on an entire people. She taught me the power of true, selfless generosity. And she showed me just how profound of an effect one person can have on another, even in a very short amount of time.

Ahhhh, Pair-ee!

The new Land of the Free.


What kind stranger has appeared in your hour of need? Have you paid this generosity forward to someone else?

I believe that every greatness we enjoy right now can be traced back to one person, conversation, or observation that provided a turning point in our lives. I’d love to hear if you believe this, too.

Did this story resonate with you? Or did it make you think of a story of your own? Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.

Because sharing stories is an instinctual, powerful way to touch the hearts of others and change the world around us.

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  1. Ben Smith   On   03 Mar 2014 at 10:50 am

    A few years ago while I was still in college, my brother Aaron and I both had two weeks off between semesters. He would soon drive up from Austin, and I from College Station to our parent’s house in North Texas. We’d been kicking around the idea of a road trip of some kind. Our ambitions started out modestly enough; a hiking trip in Oklahoma. Then Colorado entered our realm of thought. Finally, we doubled down on Montana.

    So at 8 in the morning with a truck bed half full of tents, packs, sleeping bags, cooler, and groceries, we set out for our great western adventure.

    By lunchtime we had a hitch hiker riding between us on the bench seat of Aaron’s regular cab Chevy. With Aaron and me in the 6’5″ to 6’7″ range and around 240 lbs each, I’m sure our new friend felt well protected! We dropped him off in Amarillo where he thanked us in kind and waved us off as we pressed on, wide eyed and filled with wanderlust. Such was the tone set for our adventure quest.

    Now I’ll fast-forward to day two where we were west-bound across Montana, and making a pitstop at a McDonalds in the town of Columbus.

    Now we were just camping out in our truck bed wherever we would find ourselves at nightfall, so the purpose of this late afternoon stop at Micky D’s was to brush our teeth and just kind of spruce up a bit before finding a spot to bed down. We were road warriors after all and this is what you do!

    While Aaron was in the restroom I spied an man of about 60, clad in worn in rancher clothes, and eating an ice cream cone. I approached and asked him if he knew of any place nearby to camp. He knew a couple of campsites, told me where they were, and warned me not to have any fires due to the statewide burn ban. I had noticed smoke in the air so from there we got to talking about different wildfires, the drought, etc, and told him we were college kids from Texas just out seeing the sights. Then, it was my turn to make use of the restroom.

    When I came back out, there was Aaron and the same gentleman were wrapped in conversation.

    His name was Leo Shielter (pronounced like “Shelder”) and the three of us stood there just conversing for several minutes. When it was about time to head out, Leo said “Well you can try either of those campsites though they may be full this late I the day. Heck, you seem like good guys. I’ve got an 8000 acre ranch about 10 miles out of town. If ya want, y’all are welcome to come camp anywhere out there.”

    Aaron and I looked at each other for a second and didn’t hesitate.
    “Ok!” we said in unison.

    So we followed Leo’s old gray Dodge duelly down dusty gravel roads until we came to his old farmstead. Kind of a run down, “bubble gum & bailing wire” operation, it was apparent that Leo was running this entire ranch on his own. Still, it had charm we thought. Surrounding the farm was an endless 360 degrees of the same wild Montana you see in films like “A River Runs Through it,” only the movies obviously don’t compare to the real thing!

    Leo showed us around for a few minutes. He actually even had a guest house he offered us, but we knew we wanted to camp under the stars that night.

    Then he said, “Well, I’m going to head to the bar, meet up with a few friends, and have a beer. Y’all are welcome to go hike around and make camp, stay in the guest house, or you’re also welcome to come with me.”

    “Well… heck, we’ll go with you,” we decided. So Leo opened his garage, and there standing in it was a 1920 Model T Ford.

    That’s when excitement started to shine in Leo’s eyes! He told us all about how he found it, got it running & restored it himself.

    He said, “I’ve got about as much money tied up in this thing as you’d have in a nice 4-wheeler and I think this is more fun. Ready to ride?”

    So with Leo driving, Aaron riding shotgun, and me in the rumble seat, there we were; two brothers hitting the road without a plan in the world, serendipitously finding themselves two days later riding at top speeds of 25 mph through the rural Montana countryside in a Model T Ford with an old rancher named Leo. It was like we were living out “Legends of the Fall” only… with less dying.

    We knew in that moment that our whole trip was already a huge success. The little bar was in Reed Point, just about 3 miles from Leo’s ranch. The Yellowstone river cut right through town and rushed below an old truss bridge as we crossed it in the Model T.

    We had a couple of beers with Leo and a few other rancher pals of his.
    “Looks like you got yourself a couple bodyguards there, Leo,” one of them said as we walked in the swinging doors.

    Leo gave a couple tourists a ride up and down the street in his Ford and he gave them the same spiel about the car that he gave us. He was proud of the Model T! Also en entire truckload of Chickasaw Indian fire fighters were dropped off at the bar, where shots and slots were of primary interest to them, we noted. Before too long, Leo, Aaron, and I were headed back to the ranch in the Model T. Aaron and I camped under one of the most star-filled skies we’d ever seen that night.

    Without prying, we’d gathered from bits of conversation that Leo had gone through a rough divorce, had family in town with whom relations were strained, and was on his own with the ranch.

    In the morning, we helped Leo tend to some ranch chores. This old guy had over 60 miles of barbed wire fence to maintain all by himself! So we rode fence lines with him in his truck, chased loose cattle off the road and back through the holes in the fence, patched the holes, and checked water troughs… all in the great WILDS of Montana! We felt like genuine ranch hands. Perhaps this was Leo’s plan all along when he sized us up at the McDonalds but we were beyond happy to do such work in such a place.

    Around 11 am we were getting ready to head out. While gathered around and leaning on the bed rail of our truck, Leo was pointing out the best route on our roadmap to get to Yellowstone National Park.

    Leaning around the bedrail, it was about that time to shake hands and say our goodbyes when Leo paused and said, “Well… If there are any parting words of wisdom I’ve got for you boys, it’s this…” Heck yes! Leo was going to give us parting words of wisdom! This wasn’t going to be just a casual nice-to-meet-you. We listened up! Leo continued, “Right now, you boys are working on your educations and that’s great. You’re going to find work, careers, etc and that’s a big part of your life. But… boys, the NEXT big thing in your life is going to the woman you marry. She’s going to become at least HALF your life… that’s AT LEAST! So trust me, it doesn’t matter if she has a six-figure income, or super-model looks. No, what matters is this. Does she have a good heart? Boys, you each find you a good woman with a GOOD heart…”
    Then he paused. “Whatever you do, don’t go marry no evil bitch.”

    The poignance of the moment Leo had just created filled the sunny, crisp, morning air like the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. We knew Leo was speaking from his own experience. Our parting was with a hearty thanks, laughter had by all, and firm handshakes. Aaron, nor I, have ever seen again Leo since, though I have tried to look him up several times. His open generosity left a lasting impression on our hearts, and his sage advise has kept us “evil bitch” free to date. Thank you Leo, for your friendliness, and may this story serve as one small testament to your presence on this earth!

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