Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Three:
I finally got up, utterly unable to sleep. I knew I had to eat something. Unfortunately all I really felt like doing was vomiting. Nervousness and lugging too much baggage all over God’s Green Earth had left me weak and nauseous. I got dressed and visited a nearby convenience store. It was now evening and I was wearing my glasses, which I wasn’t accustomed to. That and the dark in a strange locale contributed to my feeling of dislocation. I picked up some fruit juice and an apple. The cashier, a young man, saw that I spoke English and asked me if I was an American. I said no, Canadian, and he perked right up and told about his brother who lived in Canada. He was quite friendly and again I thought how different people seemed to be here than I was led to expect.
Back in my room I got the juice and the apple down and tried to sleep again. I gave up and tried to watch some TV. It was all French, of course. There was a movie that looked interesting, a war film, but I couldn’t get into it understanding nothing of the dialogue.
I worried about making it to the train station on time in the morning. I worried about catching the right train. I worried about money again. I worried about catching the right train again. I worried about accommodation in Aix. I thought what if this just doesn’t work out at all? What if I have to go back home with my tail between my legs? What would my friends, family and colleagues think? What if I’m robbed? What if the school in Aix doesn’t let me in for some reason? What if I feel this nauseous for the rest of my life? It was the most nervous I’d ever felt in my entire life. One of the most anxious nights I’ve ever passed. Most of my fears proved to be ridiculous but boy they can be hard to control when they’re upon you.
I felt marginally better in the morning. I had gotten up quite early to make sure I didn’t miss the train. The front desk clerk was quite friendly, calling me a cab and chatting with me. He didn’t alleviate my fears about Aix, though. He told me to watch out for the people down there, that they were different in the south. Not like Canadians, he smiled. He’d been to Canada and found it so different from France. He’d loved it. Couldn’t wait to go back.
Another friendly Parisien. The stories I’d heard must have been about another city named Paris.
The cab took me straight (as near as I could tell) to the Gare de Lyon where I was to catch the TGV, those super-fast French trains. It was still dark and there were few people around. I walked inside, happy that my strength had returned a bit, enough to carry my bags. I wasn’t long finding the trains.
The Gare de Lyon is a huge, cavernous place. The trains rest side by side like giant sleeping snakes. I was there at five in the morning and they were all lined up waiting for me. I had about a two hour wait to figure out which snake was mine and how to get on it. I didn’t know if my ticket was good as is or whether it required stamping or what have you. I camped out by a set of stairs in good view of the arrivals-departures sign and nervously kept an eye on some rough looking types hanging out not far away.
Soon the place began to fill up with folks like me and I began to feel more secure in like company. I saw people stamping tickets in orange posts scattered about, found someone who spoke English and got the scoop on that. Yes, I was supposed to stamp the thing. I did so, glad I’d settled that. Later someone asked me the same thing, a fellow from India, and I felt happy to be able to instruct him.
The trains were quite long and I didn’t relish the thought of lugging my bags around trying to find out where I was supposed to be. I still wasn’t feeling all that well. There were carts around similar to the ones they’d had in the airport so I decided to grab one. I didn’t know how much they cost as they weren’t free like at the airport. I saw a woman about to return one so I thought perhaps she wouldn’t mind if I just grabbed hers. I did the “vous parlez anglais?” thing and lo and behold she didn’t. But she understood that I wanted her cart. I asked her how much and she waved a ten franc piece in my face. I dug out a ten franc piece and tried to give it to her but she wouldn’t take it. Instead she insisted on locking the cart back up with the others. We had a little bit of a tug of war, as I hadn’t completely understood how the system operated and feared that if she locked the thing up I’d never get it back again. But my manners soon got the better of me and I let her do it. Then, just as I was thinking, oh darn, there goes that thing, she grabbed the ten franc piece from my hand, inserted it into a little slot on the cart, and unlocked the contraption again. I was mystified why she hadn’t just taken my ten franc piece and let me have the cart to begin with, but I was grateful just the same. I suppose she just thought she’d teach me how the thing worked. (Such carts became common after I returned to Toronto, but this was the first time I’d run across them). Anyway, it was great not to have to lug my luggage around anymore.
I found my place on the TGV (which stands for train de grande vitesse, or Train of Great Speed). I was the first one on my car. By the time we left, though, the coach was packed. This bothered me as I had a window seat and I was still feeling nauseous. I could visualize some ugly things happening, worst case scenario speaking. I popped one of the gravol Ron had insisted I buy, kept an eye out for an ever-elusive Eiffel tower, and an hour into the trip managed to get to sleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later feeling much better.
We were about an hour outside Marseille. I’d probably slept about two hours and the difference in how I felt was incredible. I was able to sit back and enjoy the sights.
It was quite picturesque in this area. The landscape was quite rugged, lot of rocks and hills. The forestation was sparse and shrubby. I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. I don’t remember being struck by the colour of it at this time, but I saw it again on a trip to Nice and marvelled at its truly remarkable shade of blue.
The architecture of the houses was quite a bit different from what I was used to. They used uniquely shaped shingles made from what looked like baked clay in a variety of colours. I later discovered that this rounded type of shingle is unique to Provence.
We made it into Marseille around noon. The day reflected my improved mood. It was hot and sunny, just as I had expected the south of France to be (at least, when I wasn’t worrying about being stuck outside all night). I was still nervous, but now my nervousness was focussed: how to catch the train to Aix? It wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My ticket had specified a time, but when I scanned all the platforms in the Marseille St. Charles station I could find no corresponding trains. I did find one platform with a train leaving about an hour later than the indicated time.
I found an information booth and asked the young woman there if she parlayed anglais. Brusque and businesslike, she informed me that, “Non,” she did not.
Somehow I conveyed to her what I wanted to know and together we determined what platform my train was supposed to be on. I carted by bags to the platform (on another one of those great carts) and began waiting. I kept a close eye on my bags as I figured I looked like a pretty easy mark.
Half a year later a friend from Calgary told me the story of her arrival at the St. Charles station.
Suzanne was an experienced traveller, having already spent thirteen months seeing the world from the deepest heart of India to Europe and North America. Nevertheless her mental state upon arriving in Marseille was not unlike mine. Flying from North America to Europe pretty much requires being up most of the night, and if you’re travelling again the next day you’re going to be pretty knackered. Suzanne had been smarter than me, having flown to Nice instead of Paris, so she didn’t have as far to go. Just the same she was still pretty tired when she got to Marseille. Like me, she was feeling nervous about what was going to happen in Aix.
As she was waiting for the train, she noticed a seedy looking guy checking her out. She didn’t pay much attention until she went to use the washroom and the guy followed her. He waited just outside and was there when she came out. Scared, she went back inside, waited a bit, and then checked again. He was still there, leering at her. Again Suzanne went back inside the washroom, by this time quite scared and worried.
How to handle this? As she put it, she completely forgot that she was already a battle-hardened world traveller. It had been a year since her world travels so perhaps she was a bit out of practice. Unnerved, she shed a few tears, but finally managed to pull herself together. There was a woman washroom attendant present, so Suzanne confronted her with the problem. Fortunately Suzanne already spoke enough French to make herself understood. The attendant was helpful and fetched a gendarme who told the guy to beat it. He disappeared and Suzanne was able to finish her trip uneventfully.
Another friend, Tove from Denmark, told me that she found the trip to Aix quite unnerving as well. She worried about everything just like Suzanne and me. One of Tove’s main concerns was “wondering if anyone would like me.” This might sound silly but it was true. You do wonder whether you’ll be able to get along with people.
Tove told me that when she got to Aix she went straight to the hotel she’d booked only to find that, just like my hotel in Paris, they were all booked up, despite Tove’s reservation. Frustrated, she insisted that they phone around to find her another place. They did so, but apparently not very willingly. It didn’t do any good. She was informed that every hotel around was booked solid, sorry. Alone, with more bags than she could easily carry (just like me), she became quite concerned about her possible fate. She set out on foot to try to find a place to stay. Luckily, she met some other students outside who offered to help her with her bags. As it turned out the first hotel she tried had plenty of room (suggesting that the previous hotel hadn’t tried very hard). Relieved, Tove stayed there, and the students who had helped her with her bags became her roommates for the first term.
As I stood waiting for the train, I was approached by a tall, athletic, bearded fellow. He had a small backpack and carried another small bag. I thought, boy, that’s the way to travel. He’d have no trouble getting around. I decided that the next time I’d do it that way: nice and light. Anyway, this guy was everything I felt I wasn’t just then:
Joe: Dishevelled, pasty-faced, too much luggage.
Guy: Confident, tanned, fit.
He’d seen my Canadian flag on my backpack and asked me if I spoke English. I said yeah and we talked for a bit. He was going to Aix too. He was from California (I’d never have guessed) and was on a two month trip around Europe by himself, though he was going to meet up with a female friend later.
I told him my plans and he seemed to think it was an interesting idea, studying French in Aix for the year. We talked about travelling around Europe. I asked him if he made reservations in advance at the places he visited. I was still worried about finding a place in Aix and was looking for reassurance. He laughed and said almost never. In all the travelling he’d ever done, he said—and he’d done a lot—he’d only found himself stuck once, in Bangkok. And it hadn’t been that big a deal to spend one night outside.
Eventually a train arrived but it turned out not to be the train to Aix, even though I had been informed that it would be, and the sign at the head of the platform said that it was. This prompted some scrambling around as we hastily tried to discover the correct platform. At the far side of the station we discovered the appropriate platform. I boarded the train as the Californian went off to look for a sandwich somewhere, and I didn’t see him again until Aix.
It was a forty-five minute trip to Aix. It was beautiful, sunny and warm—a good sign, I decided (as an optimist, I managed to consider both rain and sunshine auspicious). We crossed over hills and trestles that allowed me to look down into Aix as we arrived. All the buildings seemed to be white in the suburbs. I wondered what kind of people lived in them. I wondered whether I would fit in.
We arrived at the train station and suddenly there I was, in the place I would spend the next six and one half months of my life. I lugged my bags into the station and ran into the Californian, which wasn’t hard to do as the station wasn’t very large. I was kind of hoping that he’d be looking for a hotel and that I could sort of tag along, making my life easier. I didn’t want to be a leech, though, so I said nothing, except, “So, what are your plans?”
He replied that he didn’t even know if he would stay the night. He was scanning the big overhead schedule for train times back to Marseille in case he didn’t like Aix.
I said, “Oh,” and “Well, I guess I’ll go and find a place to stay.”
He wished me good luck, and I had the distinct impression that he meant it. He looked at me with a sort of pity, as though regarding a particularly scrawny stray dog, wondering if it would still be alive in a day.