Marseilles (Days 4, 5)

5.13.2014

The views were spectacular on that train to Montpellier, stunning countryside dotted by tiny villages and old stone towers and little dirt roads; I half-expected to see Don Quixote de la Mancha and Rocinante trotting over the horizon at any second. We left Spain and we entered France and the language turned over quickly, my Spanish now useless in understanding the conductor or the route's newer passengers. I brushed up on a handful of French words along the way—please, excuse me, thank you, that sort of thing—putting a few of them to immediate use as we rolled into what I thought was Montpellier, confirming with a fellow traveler that it was, indeed, Montpellier with a simple "excusez moui," point-to-window, "Montpellier, oui? Merci!"

I transferred trains, another downgrade, this third train dirtier than the second and much dirtier than the first. But c'est la vie, as they say in France; this was my first train without a compulsory reservation, so I could hardly complain. I squeezed in next to a boy and his guitar and, at the table next to us, watched a French love story unfold before my very eyes. It went like this—

Act I, The meeting. Boy meets girl. Boy faces girl and girl faces boy, for girl and boy sit on opposite ends of the same train table. Boy and girl sit in silence for ten minutes until train starts moving, then boy asks girl in clumsy English if she smokes. Girl yanks a headphone from her ear and boy repeats his question; girl replies in French that she does not, and boy seems pleased that girl speaks French like him. Boy and girl continue a brief but not very mutual conversation in French, in which girl attempts to replug her ears after every sentence while boy tries futilely to keep the conversation going. Boy fails. More silence.

Act II, The courtship. Boy pulls a small tin from his pocket and unscrews the tin and the smell of marijuana fills the train car. Boy smiles at girl. Girl rolls her eyes. Boy removes rolling paper from his other pocket and begins to roll a joint in his lap, but not before boy begins to play Wiz Khalifa's "Roll Up" (clever, right?) at full blast through his headphones. Sound joins smell in filling the traincar. Girl rolls her eyes, boy with guitar rolls his eyes, I roll my eyes.

Act III, Unrequited love. Boy messes up joint twice, unrolls and rerolls. Boy's one-song joint-making playlist draws to a close and is replaced by an equally loud but more violent and offensive flavor of hip hop; Eminem features prominently. Finally, boy rolls a successful joint and looks around proudly. Boy smiles at girl, but girl has nearly fully receded into the cushiony back to her seat, so desperate she is to melt away from boy.

Act IV, 808s & heartbreak. The train stops and girl springs up and heads toward another car, as though maybe this is actually her station, as though not to hurt boy's feelings, but as though she really needs to get away from boy. And these star-crossed lovers never speak again.

Act V, More fish in the sea. Girl is replaced by new girl and seat adjacent to boy is filled by new boy. Headphones still dangle at boys neck, and DMX takes control of the airwaves. New boy exits the traincar. New girl rolls her eyes. Fin.

So, there was that, and then there was Marseilles, which really wasn't much better. Upon exiting the station, I was jarred by how loud it was, loud and fast-moving and dirty, so very different than Barcelona; I missed her dearly already.

I came to Marseilles because it was the setting of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, perhaps my favorite story of all time, a beautiful tale of love and loss, of adventure, of vengeance and values, of redemption. Dumas spoke so beautifully of his nineteenth-century Marseilles, but things had certainly changed over the next hundred years. The city now had a reputation for crime and grime; my Lonely Planet guide warned that muggings were "common." Even the grand boulevard had fallen from splendor. In 1844 Dumas had written of the street of La Canebiere: "If Paris had La Canebiere, Paris would be a second Marseilles;" in 2013 the staff of Lonely Planet wrote: "Walking La Canebiere is annoying ... expect to encounter kids peddling hash."

And it was windy. I had planned to camp in Marseilles, finally putting my tent to some use, but the 40KPH gusts were a tad much, so instead I found a pricy but redeeming hostel, huge rooms with exposed rafters glowing with the warmth of an old convent, and I set down my things and walked about the streets in search of food; having only a muffin that morning and being on trains without food most of the day, I was positively famished.

My search for sustenance brought me to a vacant public square, a few bodies milling about the edges, but along an inner wall something caught my eye: a man and a woman, both in their twenties, the woman crying and the man tugging, pulling her toward the opposite end of the square. She was clearly resisting, swatting at him with hands and purse. I got close enough to make out the tears, close enough to discern that this was a lover's quarrel, but if hardly mattered to me, for no one has the right to handle another against their will no matter the familiarity.

I looked around to see if anyone else would protest—the last thing I wanted to do was impose my American self onto personal French business, but the distant bodies kept milling and a few passerby feigned only fleeting looks of concern. I hoped nearing the couple would bring the man to his senses, pressure him to compose himself, but still he pulled and tugged, still she fought, still he yelled and she cried.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Hey!" again, more angrily. The man looked at me dismissively, shrugging me off with my English interjections. "Non!" I shouted, "hey, stop!"

Again he looked at me, rage replacing indifference. I had become an annoyance, and he spewed a venomous string of French in my direction; if its tone was any indication of its content, I gather he was telling me to mind my own fucking business.

I ignored him and turned to the girl and asked if she was okay, which was a dumb question because she both didn't understand English and clearly wasn't okay, and she just continued crying and trying to pull away. We were now on opposite sides of this wall, a short barrier maybe four feet high and two feet wide and thirty feet in length, them leaned against one side and me right on the other. A few others neared, friends of his it seemed, sensing a situation and hoping to calm him down, attempting to alleviate the conflict from their side of the wall. One of them looked at me and smiled reassuringly and flashed me two thumbs up, as if to say "it's all okay," and I narrowed my eyes and nodded and backed away slowly, doubting whether it really was all okay but wanting to trust that it would be.

But then tempers flared again and the man was back to grabbing the woman and dragging her about, and I had enough of it, and I rushed back to the wall and threw my arm across it and grabbed onto his shoulder, restraining him from so brutishly handling this distressed woman any longer. Everything moved at once: him whirling around toward me with fire in his eyes, a friend pulling him back in restraint, me unclasping his shoulder and stepping back as well, the girl breaking free and retreating a few feet, a safe distance for the moment. We all paused for a breath.

I received another reassurance from the friend and began to step back slowly, ten feet, twenty feet, back to the edge of the plaza. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a police car, and still not comfortable leaving this woman in the care of the brute and his friends, I hurried toward it. There were actually several police cars, and they were actually parked aside a police station, and so I hopped the small gate cordoning them off and caught the eye of an officer inside the station who rushed out to see what I was doing trespassing in his fleet.

Hastily, I asked him in French if he spoke English; he said no. I asked if his fellow officers spoke English; he said no, but called for the four or five of them to come out and join us. I did my best to act out the predicament to no avail, tugging at my shirt and wiping invisible tears from my face and pointing again and again back toward the plaza, all for nothing more than puzzled looks.

I felt how Lassie must have felt, frustrated that my barking was going misunderstood, so finally I just did what Lassie would do: racing back to the square with the officers in tow. The friends quickly scattered as they saw us approach and the police hopped the wall and rushed toward the still-arguing couple, pulling the man back and patting him down. They waved a thanks in my direction and I turned to go, catching the glare of the man as I did and feeling a chill as cool hatred flowed in my direction from his dark eyes.

I felt uneasy, agitated, perhaps even a little embarrassed for my cultural insensitivity, for sticking my American nose where it maybe didn't belong, for causing such a scene, for dramatically escalating a situation I clearly couldn't understand fully. It would be fair to judge my actions, sure, but I knew I wouldn't have felt okay acting in any other way.

Cultural consequences aside, there were perhaps much more immediate physical consequences to fear. I was in an unknown city (one already with a reputation for crime), I spoke no more than a dozen words of the language, and I had just become the target of a man's hatred, a man who clearly didn't care much for other's personal boundaries. Moreover, his friends had scattered in all directions when they saw the police coming—when they saw me bringing the police to them—and they knew my one face better than I knew all six of theirs. I doubted I had anything to fear, but then again I feared my doubt, and so I rushed away and hid out in the most touristy restaurant I could find a few blocks away, the kind of place that plays the Grease soundtrack through its establishment and probably keeps locals far away. I ate and sat and then hustled back to the hostel, thankful I had booked myself a safe hideout after all.

***

I slept soundly in a quiet room with soft sheets, bunked with only one other traveler that night. I woke the next morning to her smiling across the room—"good morning" in a raspy Israeli accent.

She was beautiful, her accent even more so, her words coming up from the throat the same way a sip of cola would go down it, cool and bubbly and refreshing, but sharp. She made small talk as she dressed and asked if I'd like to join her for breakfast downstairs. She had cereal and I had some jam on a crusty baguette, and we talked about little things. She taught me some more French (she knew about ten words more than I did, which is to say double), she told me about her time in the Israeli army and about the time a Turkish family saved her life on the outskirts of Istanbul after she jumped naked into a freezing lake. She told me how much she disliked the French and all of France, really, how the hostel receptionist had been rude to her earlier that morning, Israeli temper flaring.

We finished our breakfast and she asked if I cared to join her for a little sightseeing, and figuring we'd be hitting the same sights anyway, and keeping in mind that she was beautiful and well-spoken and pleasant to talk to, I agreed.

The receptionist, a new one, a lovely girl from Armenia with a toothy smile, was happy to draw us a little map of the best Marseilles had to offer. We thanked her—merci becoup!—and went on her way, following her itinerary from cathedral to basilica to fort to museum. The structures were impressive, the views great, but the wind was still in force and the streets didn't really compare to the others of our respective journeys.

"This city is so dirty," she spat, "And the people so rude."

I was amused by her frank nature, by her in general. She was kind yet cold: she didn't smile  but her words conveyed friendliness, she spoke bluntly but her attitude conveyed a little more appreciation than she was maybe letting on.

We parted ways around lunchtime. She was going back to the hostel to cook some food, and I was off to Chateau D'If, or so I thought.

As I mentioned, my main reason for stopping in Marseilles was to see the city through the eyes of Alexandre Dumas, or perhaps his fictional protagonist Edmond Dantes, to paint a better mental image for my next reading of The Count of Monte Cristo. So there was no better excursion, touristy as it was, than to ferry out to Chateau D'If, the real-life island-fortress-turned-island-prison Dantes was falsely sent to in the pages of Monte Cristo.

Alas, as I rounded the old port and arrived at the ferry dock, a French sign with a rough English translation read "In the windy day, no ships to the Chateau." I frowned. I thought about staying longer, waiting out the wind, but those gusts had been going since my arrival in Marseilles the day before, and I had no sense of when they would end. Besides, I had gotten a great view of the island and its formidable prison from the terrace of the Notre Dame Cathedral, perched high above the rest of the city, spectacular views of the Chateau and the Med and all of the city below us. Yes, it would have been nice to tour the island and the cells, a second Alcatraz, but I didn't mind saving the fifteen euros and moving on from Marseilles; I wasn't crazy about it to begin with, and besides, I still had a potential gang of locals to worry about from the night before.

So like Romeo after slaying Tybalt, I fled. Perhaps not so dramatically, but with haste nonetheless; my timetable told me a train was heading east in thirty minutes, and I was a thirty-minute walk from the station. I hustled up those Mediterranean hills and found myself in the station twenty-nine minutes later, sweaty and frantically searching the departures board for trains toward Nice, but my route wasn't there, no train with passengers boarding parked along the rails.

I signaled a conductor and asked in garbled French if he knew what platform my train was at (to be clear, "asking in garbled French" here means a lot of pointing and frequent repetition of pardon, pardon) and he informed me in slightly-less-garbled English that the route I was looking for had actually been canceled that day, that if I wanted to head east, my best bet was to take the next train to Toulon and catch a transfer from there.

I thanked him and followed his instructions and found myself in Toulon an hour later, where a friendly conductor told me not to worry about securing a reservation for the overbooked and soon-departing train east, that I could just hop right on and find a spot in the snackcar.

The train was headed to Nice, which seemed as lovely as its name would have one believe, but not really interesting enough to warrant a stop. Either way, I wasn't passing Nice just yet. The night before, a friend back home had suggested I make a stop in one of France's southeastern coastal cities en route to Italy, a quick trip to Cannes, perhaps.

I hadn't actually given much thought—any thought really—to a stop in Cannes; I didn't know much about it except that it was the home of one of the world's most esteemed film festivals, overwhelming the small city for two weeks of every fifty-two. On a whim, I did a quick search of when those two weeks were, and as luck would have it, the Cannes Film Festival had begun that very day.

As serendipitous a coincidence as arriving in Lassen Volcanic National Park the day before it opened for the year last June, I figured a quick stop was in order. To be sure, I couldn't actually go to the festival, for it was an invitation-only, black tie, Hollywood affair, and having neither packed a tux nor received an invitation, I could do little more than wander about. This alone would be a treat for many, a chance to stroll down the streets of Cannes bumping shoulders with movie stars on their way to dinner, but I didn't actually care much for the notion of celebrity, always found myself hopelessly bored by stories of Hollywood sightings, and so my decision to check out Cannes was out of a sheer lack of reasons not to; I had time to spare and my train was stopping in the middle of town with others to pick me up whenever I was ready to go, and, well, the timing just seemed so perfectly coincidental, so why not?

And with that, I went to Cannes.

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