The Vertigo was surprisingly empty that early at night. Save for the front desk attendant we seemed to be the only ones there. The WiFi wasn’t reliable in our room and Harman needed to get some paperwork filled out online, so we relegated ourselves to the common area next to the kitchen. Nobody was cooking anything, either, save for a rat I saw scamper under the sink as soon as I turned the corner. All I wanted to do was thank Rémi for his work in Ratatouille.
However, as someone who doesn’t quite know how to sit still, I quickly decided that while Harman was busy I’d go hangout in the courtyard with my Moleskine and bottle of wine in tow. Outside there was a small garage full of chairs and tables, but it, too, was vacant and airy and very, very French, so I sat down and began to write, sip after sip. But I quickly realized that I just wasn’t in the mood to form any sensible thoughts – even if I was the only one reading them – and that the wine the man behind the counter at the convenience store had recommended was actually, unfortunately, absolutely disgusting.
Instead of brooding alone in the empty garage I began to pace around the cobblestone courtyard. The sky was fantastically clear. I smiled knowing I was looking up at the starry night all the way from France. I took another few sips out of principle but decided to cork it, and I set it on the ground for anyone who came along and was more desperate for a drink than I was. I turned the corner to go back inside when I nearly collided with two women who simultaneously burst out laughing, mumbled something in another language in my general direction, and proceeded to walk passed me to go sit inside the garage which had just recently become vacant again.
If nothing else in life, I have to say that my timing nothing short of impeccable.
But rather than going back into the hostel or going to introduce myself (or to see how they’d both respond to the encore presentation of my brooding writer performance,) I just wandered the courtyard, back and forth, hoping that I’d either be struck by a stroke of inspiration or a stroke of lightning to finally put me out of my pathetic misery. Whichever came first. But before that could happen the two of them meandered back into the courtyard and up the staircase that led to the rear entrance of the Vertigo. It was dark and I could barely see the two at the top of the stairs, but one of them shouted through a smile, “What are you doing?” I said I actually had no clue and that I was basically just killing time. And before I could begin to question if we all are just killing time on some existential level – and before I could realize just how ridiculous I must have sounded – they both laughed again and went inside. I was really hoping that lightning would hit sometime soon.
A few minutes later I gave up all hope and wandered back to find Harman who was just getting ready to go upstairs to to bed. And who would you think just so happened to be coming downstairs at the exact same moment? Again, my timing is nothing short of impeccable. Both realizing that it was, in fact, I, the weird pacing guy from the courtyard standing at the bottom of the stairs, they decided to take pity on me and try again to start some sort of a conversation. One of them had long hair made up entirely of frizzy black coils. She told us her name, but I couldn’t understand it under the cloak of a foreign accent and felt awkward asking her to clarify it a thirty-seventh time, so I simply said “Nice to meet you.” The girl standing next to her, who looked undeniably Dutch with shoulder-length blond hair and gentle blue eyes, said her name was Anouk. My mind was able to decipher what she said just enough that I perked up, “That’s a very pretty name.” But she responded, “Actually, it’s pretty common in The Netherlands,” and I think I heard a rumble of thunderclouds beginning to form outside.
The friend with long black hair mentioned something about getting gelato and seeing the city at night. I said I still had no clue what I was doing but just smiled politely at both of them, not wanting to be the weird guy who tried to get himself invited, or worse, tried to invite himself. I figured my pacing the courtyard alone just moments before was odd enough. Then I noticed the cute Dutch girl with that innocent, airy laugh just so happened to be shifting her view from my eyes and lips to something on the floor every few seconds. She was clutching her left arm with her right hand, too. But we all just ended up stumbling through some sort of goodbye and they left, remaining silent as the door closed behind them. Oh well. Getting rejected when you could only partially understand what the other person was saying felt more like a misunderstanding than anything, so I followed Harman upstairs. But I quickly realized I wasn’t actually tired, just a bit unsure as to what I wanted to do with myself at 10 o’clock at night in France. Remember, I’m not very good at sitting still, and decided to go try and find some more wine – this time a bottle that didn’t taste like I was drinking a cocktail of grass and dirt.
One thing worth mentioning is the ease at which one could find themselves a bit lost in a city like Marseille, as well as many others in Europe. Away from the city centre, so many of the streets are nothing more than glorified passageways that all somehow connect to each other in a varying assortment of ‘one way’ postings and stop signs, barely wide enough for a car and scooter to be next to each other at one time. Turn down the incorrect street and before you know it you’re six blocks away in the opposite direction you were originally headed, dodging unpredictable traffic like our aspiring F1 Uber driver from earlier in the day. Most of the streets surrounding our hostel looked identical and bore no way of identifying just exactly where you were at any given time. Probably designed to deter tourists. As with any place, if given enough time you could at least make a sort-of mental map of your immediate area. (It also doesn’t hurt if, ya’ know, you actually speak the language.) But Harman and I had less than 48 hours in most of the cities we would visit, and I would come to discover that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to get lost every once in awhile.
I ended up navigating the city for about an hour, eventually coming across one of the only convenience stores open that late, and purchased one of those pint-sized bottles of a Cabernet-Shiraz blend. It wasn’t much better than the other one, but it was only 2 Euro so I really couldn’t complain. My steps were now a bit hazy, however, my mind was absolutely clear: I was wandering under the stars in the streets of France, with a bottle of wine and no definitive direction in which I needed to be going. All I needed was a baguette in my hand and my night could have ended there, and it would have been close to perfect.
At that point I had no clue what time it was but eventually decided that I should probably get back to the hostel and attempt to sleep. As I weaved my way back through the winding cobblestone roads and side streets, I emerged back at the city centre, just blocks from the front door of the Vertigo. As I made my way passed the bars, shops, and restaurants, I noticed two women were staring at me and smiling, sitting under the outdoor umbrella of what looked to be a very tasty gelato shop. I think I heard them giggle to themselves, too. Impeccable.
Anouk and the friend who I still didn’t know the name of waived me over, and after about twenty minutes of small-talk invited me to share some wine with them back at the Vertigo (boxed this time, and as refreshing as I could have hoped for.) Before I knew it, our group of three had grown to more than a dozen, mixed with fellow American, German, and Italian travelers. Everyone was friendly and sharing stories of their lives back home and their travels thus far. If I had been looking for any sign of life in the hostel that late at night, I had found it. The couches were comfortable and the coffee table was full of boxed sangria. We were all just happy to be there. I could have sat all night talking with the Americans from California about life on the West Coast, roaring with the Germans who had the most bellowing laughs I’d ever heard, and trying desperately to understand and impress the lovely Dutch woman who was sitting next to me.
At around midnight (give or take – who was actually keeping track of that sort of thing?) one of the Germans addressed the entire group, commanding almost, to figure out who among us had ever seen the Notre Dame de la Garde. I didn’t even know what it was. “That big cathedral on the top of the hill!” Anouk proudly contributed. The group had begun to whittle away, with Anouk’s friend sneaking off with one of the Americans and most of the Californians having gone to bed for their early departure come sunrise. But despite the loss in numbers, our group of six or so planned to make the late-night journey to the Basilique, which turned out to be not much further than a few winding, curving, and inclined cobblestone roads away. But after a combined near-twenty minutes of assorted bathroom and smoke breaks, and after realizing just how much sangria had actually been consumed, the entire group seemed to come to the consensus that it was time to go to bed. I nodded along even though I wasn’t really that tired, all things considered. But if the night had to end at some point, that wouldn’t have been the worst place to do so.
As the rest of the group began to make their way out into the courtyard and back to their rooms, Anouk asked me what I was doing for the rest of the night. It was late, obviously, but I refused to check my phone to see just what time it actually was. I also wanted to make sure I understood her this time, so I naïvely asked, “Who, me?” and batted my eyelashes. “Do you want to go see the Notre Dame with me?” She batted her lashes right back, those soft blue eyes making their way around like they did when we first introduced ourselves earlier in the night. She didn’t have to ask me twice.