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 Four:
Cabs pulled up outside the Aix-en-Provence train station about once every ten minutes. I nobly let an older lady grab one before me while I checked out my Berlitz book of French phrases. It had been a gift from a friend at the CBC, Claire de Visme, who hailed from Lyons. She knew what it was like to be suddenly immersed in a foreign culture where you aren’t comfortable with the language. Although it’s my understanding that her English had been much better when she first arrived in Canada than my French was now.
I located and memorized the words, “Un hotel, bon marche!”
And that’s what I said to the cabby who picked me up. He didn’t have a problem with this, and before I knew it we were whipping through a crowded, festive looking Aix. He drove me through what I later learned was the Rotunde, around la Grande Fontaine, and down a wide, busy street to my cheap hotel. Hordes of people clogged the streets, strolling, relaxing in sidewalk cafes, everyone in shades and shorts.
I wondered briefly (as I always do in a cab in a strange place) whether the driver was taking me for a ride. Obviously, I was a foreigner. But because I’m generally an optimist and believe that most people are good, I decided that, nah, he was probably honest. I still winced at the end of the ride when it came to about forty francs. I was watching every franc I had until my bank draft came through.
We pulled up beside a one star hotel. “C’est bon marche,” the driver told me.
It was a dubious looking affair called Hotel Vendome, located above a pharmacy. You had to pass through a decorative arch and climb a set of stairs on the outside of the building to reach the hotel door. I paid the driver and thanked him, then wrestled my luggage through the arch to the stairs. I got my stuff up in two trips, pausing briefly in between to pat the head of a black cat that was resting on the landing. Afterward I tried the hotel door. It was locked. There was a note affixed to the door in French. I took a moment to decipher it.
It said “ouvert a 1600.” My French was pretty poor at this point but this was fairly obvious. It was currently three thirty, so I sat on the steps to wait until someone showed up. The cat did its best to make me feel welcome.
A heavyset man about forty years old showed up right on time at four. His looks, I would learn later, were typically Provencal—dark and swarthy. He nodded at me and I at him. He parlayed anglais assez bien. My fears around finding accommodation in Aix proved groundless (for me, at least). He had plenty of rooms free. He led me inside and around a corner. My room turned out to be quite spacious with a large bed and a huge window. It also included a shower, a bidet, and a sink and mirror. It had everything, was reasonably clean, but somehow still felt rather seedy.
I may have decided that because it was a one star hotel it had to be seedy. Or maybe it was the threadbare sheets and the dark and dusty hallways. If I’d had my druthers I’d have preferred to stay someplace else. But just then I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend the night outside on the street. Not only that but I’d managed to find the place quite effortlessly.
Here’s the embarrassing part. Checking out the room, I must confess that I was confused by the bidet. I realize that this is the classic (unsophisticated) North American’s mistake. Also I have no excuse having seen Crocodile Dundee 2 in which the eponymous Australian confronts a bidet, so I should bloody well have known what the thing was for. Just the same I didn’t recognize it. I just saw what I thought was a vaguely urinal shaped porcelain object resting on the ground beside the sink.
It gets worse.
As there were no other objects in the room resembling a toilet, I naturally concluded that this object must serve some purpose related to that. So, feeling the need, I took a whiz in it and the process seemed to go quite well. However, I couldn’t imagine number two going quite so smoothly. The hole seemed too small. The fact that you couldn’t sit down on the sucker (it was too low to the ground and had no seat) didn’t bother me; I just assumed the French were more than happy to squat (hey, I wasn’t completely ignorant). And how would you flush it? There was a faucet, you could run water through it, yet…
The mystery was solved shortly afterward when I returned to the hall and discovered a door nearly opposite my room. Behind it lay a small chamber wherein lay a comfortable, conventional toilet. Clearly then, my floor model was something else altogether.
I was bemused by the key to my room. It was a skeleton key, such a simple affair that I wondered about the security of my room. It seemed to me that the lock would be easy to pick.
I took a shower, which felt great. I had no shaving cream so I was stuck with about two day’s growth. But I looked fairly respectable with a black blazer I’d brought along, and it was thusly attired that I first ventured out on my own, in Aix.
Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I hadn’t eaten a good meal for a couple of days and figured I’d better eat something to keep my strength up. As I walked, I kept an eye out for someplace where I could get a healthy dinner.
In the cab on the way to the hotel we had passed what looked like the main street of Aix, featuring a prominent fountain, which I recognized from reading about Aix before leaving Canada. I later learned that this street was the Cours Mirabeau. I judged it to be within walking distance, so I set out to find it.
It was late afternoon but still quite warm. It felt good to be walking somewhere while not lugging more baggage than I could carry. In fact I felt pretty good period at this point despite the thousand concerns still on my mind.
I noted that there was a large supermarket near my hotel. Walking up my street to what I hoped was the centre of town I observed bars, travel agencies, other hotels, shops with signs such as “Boulangerie” and “Patisserie” (bakery and pastry shops respectively).
It turned out I was seven or eight minutes from the Fountain. Hanging a left from the fountain put me on the main street, the Cours Mirabeau, which is famous as one of the most beautiful, breathtaking main streets anywhere in the world. Don’t feel bad; I hadn’t heard of it either. But it is quite something. Bordered on either side by stately plane trees (I didn’t know what they were either—apparently before they were planted along the Cours Mirabeau it was all elm trees, but they died, so the city fathers replaced them with plane trees). Plane trees look similar to Maple trees when they have leaves, but look gnarled and strange when they don’t have leaves, in the winter. The Cours Mirabeau itself is a street bordered on one side by cafes, restaurants, a fast food restaurant called Quik, a record shop, more cafes, a department store called Monoprix, a bank or two, and more restaurants and cafes. On the other side is mostly large, stately bank buildings. At one time many of these buildings had been the homes of the French elite.
I walked up and down the length of the Cours Mirabeau three or four times, thrilled to be there. The street was packed with people. Everyone seemed carefree and happy.
Menus for the restaurants were placed outside on the sidewalk so you could peruse them before going in. Very few people sat inside the restaurants—almost all of the patrons sat around tables arranged outside, crowded together so that you could barely move amongst them. I examined each menu as I strolled past the restaurants, trying to glean from what might as well have been hieroglyphics to me what exactly was being offered and for how much. Each menu offered a plat du jour (I understood that much). But when I finally settled on one for 55 francs at Les Deux Garcons I had no idea what I was going to get.
All the tables outside were full so I went inside where there was plenty of room. A black and white uniformed man with a thick black moustache served me with what I thought was an air of slight disdain.
“Le Plat du Jour, s’il vous plait,” I ordered, with what had to be among the worst accents he had ever heard.
But he understood me and soon I was eating a dish of lamb, served with a thick, sweet sauce. Although it was delicious, I had absolutely no appetite and had difficulty finishing it. I forced myself to finish it anyway. I drank water with it because I didn’t want to spend too much. I just ordered the water in English because I didn’t know how to in French. The waiter had no trouble understanding me.
On my way back to the hotel I checked out a phone booth because I’d been meaning to call my parents and my girlfriend to let them know that I was okay. From outside, the phone booth looked fairly North American. Inside, the phone itself was slightly different. The main difference lay in the fact that it did not take money. I was surprised and dismayed to see this. There was a slot that accommodated a card of some kind. I thought, okay, it takes credit cards, maybe. But I didn’t try it at the time. I was eager to get back to my room to see whether anyone had broken into my room and stolen my stuff. A little paranoid, maybe, but I figured that with the way the locks were it would be easy enough to do. I wasn’t really worried but the possibility crossed my mind, and I was in a bit of a “worst possible case scenario” frame of mind during those first few days.
But when I got back everything was cool. All my stuff was untouched. I reclined on the bed and read a book I had brought along: a fantasy, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan. It was the fourth in the series, so I was familiar with the characters and the general storyline, and I liked it well enough. It helped me get my mind off my fears, so I was glad I had it.
After a while I got up to find a convenience store or somewhere to buy shaving cream to get myself cleaned up. I found a gas station down the street with a little store where I bought some. I shaved back at the hotel, then went out again to try the payphone.
I still couldn’t believe it didn’t take change. I just wanted to get a hold of an operator to call my folks and my girlfriend using their calling card numbers, or failing that, collect. But it needed some kind of card. There was a grey display panel on the phone that produced words in black letters when you took the phone off the hook. I didn’t understand any of the words. There were operating instructions on a sign in the booth, again all in French, which I didn’t understand.
I tried my credit card. The panel told me to “decrochez.” I took the phone off the hook and the panel told me to “raccrocher.” I dialed numbers but got nowhere. In the end it was all a bust. I thought, I’m stuck in the south of France, I don’t know a bloody soul, my money will run out, I won’t be able to get any more money, somebody will steal all my stuff, and I can’t even figure out how to use their damn telephones to call home and say “help!”
I went back to my hotel room and read some more Robert Jordan. When I tried to go to sleep, I lay awake some time wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been the night before in Paris—I wasn’t feeling physically ill anymore—but I was still kind of panicky. Whenever I thought what’s the worst case scenario here, it kept coming up DEATH. I’ll have no money, I’ll have to sleep on the street, I’ll have no food, I’ll simultaneously freeze and starve to death. To make matters worse, the pillow on my bed was strange and uncomfortable. It was hard and round, about half a foot around, and ran the width of the bed. It was not an acceptable pillow.
I managed to get to sleep anyway.