Getting off the bus outside the station in Marseille left us a bit dazed and confused. It was hot – much hotter than we had expected after sitting in the conditioned air of the bus for the previous eight hours, and even more so with 20-40 pounds of clothing hanging from our backs. Harman and I scrambled into the station in an attempt to find WiFi in order to call an Uber to our hostel. It was about 20 minutes away by car and neither of us felt like intentionally torturing ourselves in that heat. After relieving ourselves of the weight on our backs for approximately twenty-three seconds, Harman perked up, “Shit, he’s going to be here in two minutes!” We immediately threw our bags across our backs much faster than we should have, nearly snapping both of our spines into pieces. But we were in freakin’ France! And they have great healthcare in Europe.
We hustled and ran around almost the entire perimeter of the bus terminal just to get to the front of the station, which wasn’t much more than a modest driveway that could have been mistaken for a service entrance. And then we saw our black Mercedes sedan zoom right past us. “Well, shit” was our collective response, but thankfully the man behind the wheel – who we would later find out was something of an amateur F1 racer – turned around to pick up the clueless travelers who had no desire to take the scenic route. I had never driven around the streets of a foreign city before (save for the highways on the bus, but that wasn’t very exciting) but if you think you know aggressive, speedy driving, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve driven through France. I likened it to that old show Whose Line Is It Anyway? – where all the traffic laws are made up and the signs and pedestrians crossing the street simply don’t matter.
The driver also had an awful taste in music. (Sorry, Kelly Clarkson fans.)
We quickly arrived at our hostel in the heart of the city, Vertigo Vieux-Port. It was so well disguised by scaffolding and the surrounding shops that we almost called another Uber, but we eventually saw the sign on the window and buzzed our way in. Inside I realized that we had stumbled into some sort of dream. The walls were all brick and stone, the ceiling had ancient exposed wooden beams running throughout each room – the arteries of the entire building, and there was just a sense of openness about the entire place. The hostel was actually a combination of three separate buildings all connected by a slanted brick courtyard, decorated with a handful of potted plants and one perfectly placed Vespa.
Our room was spacious, all things considered, and was outfitted with nothing more than a desk, a chair, and a few lamps. I wanted to sit at that table forever with a never-ending supply of paper and pens and coffee, just to see what I had to say. The floorboards even creaked the way I hoped they would. We also were able to meet our first new roommate, a delightful German man who went by the name of Steve. We would later go on to speak to him about everything from the ease at which Europeans travel their own continent to American politics. It turns out, we learned, that most Europeans are more concerned and informed about the inner workings of Washington than most Americans are. It didn’t surprise us, but we acted like it did. Like many things in life, it was something that you don’t really like to think too hard about for fear of hearing an answer you don’t really want to know. Then Steve said, “Auf wiedersehen,” and left to be a tourist, himself.
Having washed up (as much as we could given the surprising lack of hand soap in our bathroom, let alone most bathrooms we used in France) and successfully stuffed our backpacks into the tiny lockers beside our beds, we made our way to the heart of Marseille which was only a few blocks away. You could faintly see the water from the front steps of the hostel, and we aimed ourselves directly to the left and navigated down that narrow cobblestone street. When we reached the end of the road we realized that not only were we right on the water, but we also were in the direct center of all the tourist attractions, shops, and restaurants. It was then that I realized I couldn’t give my heart entirely to Spain just yet. From my eye, there was so much to be seen and loved in Marseille.
But we were both growing more ravenous by the minute. I was convinced that any passers-by were whispering to themselves, “Look at those emaciated Americans. And I thought all they did was eat at buffets over there?!”
We found a nice Middle Eastern restaurant that was also conveniently located near one of the highest rated bakeries in the city, Boulangerie Les Trois Frères, so we both were able to dine like kings. I, a baguette; Harman, a chicken sandwich. And after those we shared in one of our trip’s greatest pleasures: Mini chocolate beignets. Just read that again and let it sink in. Tiny puffs of light-as-air dough, surgically injected with Nutella, and coated in a thin veneer of glaze and powdered sugar. We seriously considered ditching the rest of the trip and sinking all of our money into a lifetime supply of those little heavenly globs, but we decided against it. (And I’m glad we did, because the ones in Nice ended up tasting twice as good. But I’ll just let you fantasize about those before telling you about them anymore.)
After that we figured what better way to end our first night in France than to head over to the water and watch the sunset. As Harman so eloquently describes himself, he’s a “slut for sunset pictures,” so we headed to the historic Fort Saint-Jean at the edge of the port. We traced the perimeter of the old stone castle which was now parallel to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, an intimidating structure that, while a stark contrast to the ancient architecture of the rest of the city, is beautifully composed of glass and lattice steelwork that make it appear as if it had been dropped there accidentally.
The surrounding walls of the fort that surely once housed canons and other artillery equipment were now just giant windows in the stone, facing the sea. But because there were no actual canons still in use, travelers and locals alike were welcomed to climb on-top of the five or six foot tall structures and take a seat, perhaps with a bottle of wine or two, and simply enjoy the spoils of living on the French Riviera during the sunset. So that’s exactly what we did. Except we didn’t get the memo about the wine – that would have to wait until later.
At the risk of sounding like every other starving artist dying for attention, the sun that set that night over foreign water finally made me feel that I was in another world, one in which I was convinced I should have been born into. Small fishing boats would sail in and out of the harbor. More couples could be found flung into each other’s arms, despite sitting on those slanted stone embankments that could drop you straight down thirty feet into rocks and debris if you got too excited. There were families enjoying their time together, families not particularly enjoying their time together, runners and elderly walkers, and even a few people who sat facing the sunset with a notebook in hand doing their best to capture a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Myself included.)
I’ve never understood how some people can say things like, “You can’t pick your home.” That never made any sense to me. You may not be able to control where or how or why you’re born in the first place, but why should that dictate where you truly feel comfortable, where you truly feel you belong? Circumstance is a tricky beast to conquer. But a view like this could convince anybody to sail off into the night over the edge of their known world, chasing lives they thought they were destined to find, searching for the treasure in the sand or the star in the sky. Just like all the people who are brave enough to jump off the cliff or board the ship, I, too, wanted to be lost, forever losing interest in the life I would come to know, always following the temptation of tomorrow. It was then that I asked god or whatever or whoever was up there to take me before I should have ever had to leave that place. I asked to be forgiven for loving so deeply those things I was never meant to have.
Then a group of teenagers directly across the harbor on the other side of the cliff took that leap of faith, their faint splashes and screams of joy pulling me from the trance that I found myself stuck in. How tired was I? I peered over the edge and wondered just how far down the water actually was, and if I could successfully and gracefully leap over the jagged rocks and debris and make a break for it swimming to that far-off shore, never to be bothered by student loans or Capital One again. I promised that I would send postcards. But I didn’t jump off the edge of the Fort Saint-Jean and I didn’t swim to some far off shore, and god or whatever or whoever is up there apparently isn’t ready for me just yet.
It was about eight or nine o’clock and even I had about had it with my own thoughts. Thank god or whatever that nobody could hear them except for me, or everyone around us would have wanted to leap from the side of the fort, too. And we were both beginning to freeze a particularly important part of our male anatomies off, as well. Harman would get some work done, I’d grab that bottle of wine on the way back to the Vertigo and try to make sense of the craziness that I had just spit into my Moleskine, and we’d both just spend the night relaxing in France. But this is not how the day ended. Because in only a few hours time I’d be convinced to sneak into the Notre-Dame de la Garde to watch the sunrise over the entire city of Marseille.