The streets of Marseille are as quiet as any after midnight. The air was thin and cool. The streets that led to the cathedral were lined with Renault cars and Vespa scooters and a surprising amount of Harley Davidson motorcycles, all crammed onto the sidewalks or wherever their owners could park them. Anouk led the way at a pace that made me think she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. She seemed to bounce with every step, walking on her toes, carefree in a world just waiting to be explored. There was an energy about her that I would have followed anywhere. But the Notre Dame was only about a fifteen minute walk from the hostel, with the final push of the journey coming in the form of a road so steep I was convinced it had an incline of at least 102°. Like some sort of pilgrimage, it may have led directly to the cathedral, but it was so endless in it’s assault on your calf and thigh muscles that it could make even the most devout of priests resign themselves to the bottom of the road with a bottle of communion wine, vowing to try again tomorrow while secretly praying that one of those precariously parked BMWs would accidentally be relieved of its parking brake and would come speeding down the cobblestones, accidentally relieving the priest of their obligation to walk up the damn thing the next day.
Anouk wasn’t short of breath once during the entire trek. I, on the other hand, thought I was dying. And when we finally reached the end of that road, having climbed all the way to the top of that hill, we were greeted by a set of at least one hundred similarly inclined stairs that would bring us to the side gate of the Basilique. Thank god she was walking at a considerable pace ahead of me out of conversation distance. I wouldn’t have been able to muster more than a few pathetic gasps for air before sliding back down the road to join the priest at the bottom. When we finally ascended the stairs – which were those extra wide, oddly spaced ones that don’t allow for any sort of rhythm when making your descent – I leaned hard against the wrought iron fence and thought to myself that, if god is real after all, he’s got one hell of a sense of humor.
Anouk was already scaling the ten-foot-high fence that surround the side entrance of the Notre Dame. She took off her jacket so she could swing her body over to the other side without having to worry about the extra fabric getting caught on the spikes at the top. She waived me up and I waived her cute little Dutch butt right back down. “C’mon, it’s not that high up!” she argued. “And it’s not that far down,” I retorted. She relented and came shimmying to the ground. I handed her the jacket that she wedged in-between the spaces of the fence that she had been using as steps, and she told me there was another way in. Around the immediate perimeter of the cathedral is a small mess of trees and shrubs, laced with single dirt path that runs like an artery around the entire structure. The building was originally an old Medieval church but in the 1800’s was remodeled into the cathedral we have today, carved literally on-top of and into the side of hill. We followed that little dirt path all the way around. Thankfully there wasn’t another sky-high fence to keep angsty travelers at bay; It was a stone wall no higher than my stomach and we both swung our legs over to the other side.
From the ground the Notre Dame is a mirage in the far-off landscape, something that you can squint and stare at and only fantasize about. From that far away it is nearly impossible to appreciate its sheer magnitude. Over a hundred years ago people had to climb all the way to the top of that hill and build it in the first place. There was an energy in the bedrock and limestone, and in every one of those trees and shrubs. Now, sometimes things can be even more inspiring if you get close enough. But other times things can be a bit disappointing when face to face. That grand, ornate, gold statue that stood on top of the entire church – while a massive engineering feat – was surprisingly human. And without the collective drones of tourists from daytime tours or churchgoers during a service, it was all very still. Empty churches are always so still.
I wish I could say, ‘I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all and fell to my knees at its footsteps,’ or something like that. But I was still practically catching my breath from the climb up. And because it was so dark, save for the handful of strategically placed spotlights, the whole structure was more difficult to admire even though I put my hands on it. I was also a bit distracted. So I just snapped a quick picture and went over to where Anouk had found a place to sit. If I ever make it back to Marseille I’d love to give it the attention it deserved. But at that moment there was something else I wanted to give my attention to.
We sat there for a bit, in the shadow of the Notre Dame de la Garde (which had a surprising lack of security, I mind you), staring out into the Mediterranean Sea that reflected the soft orange glow of Marseille after midnight. Paired with the unbelievable view of the stars draped above us that comes with sitting nearly 500 feet in the sky, it was all very romantic. We had the entire place to ourselves, the entire city to ourselves. We didn’t say a lot – in fact I don’t remember us saying anything at all. But after awhile we hopped back over that low wall and followed the dirt path that led to a small rocky outcrop which offers a 180° view of the entire city and all that surrounded it. We spoke about things like what we wanted to do with our lives and what we planned on after we left Marseille. I’d be heading back East in only a few weeks and was trying to make it as a writer. Her next stop might be the States, or maybe working on some sort of ship to see the ocean for awhile, or something completely different. That same carefree bounce in her steps followed every word she spoke. I told her I really admired that, and we spoke about the frequency (and normalcy) at which Europeans put off university for years at a time in order to travel and get a better idea of the world we are all an equal part of. She was amazed that I had never left my country before.
The ground was so rocky that it was almost uncomfortable, but when she suggested we lay down and just look up at the stars I said that it sounded like an excellent idea. At this point it was roughly four or five o’clock in the morning and we were both, to put it lightly, freezing our asses off. Our bodies took turns shaking and shivering like kites in the wind. In spite of all of this, I was hoping that there might be some newfound spark between the two of us to keep us warm, given the circumstances: She was remarkably pretty, her small face coming together in sharp Dutch lines. I like to think of myself as more handsome than your average sonofabitch, and had cleaned up my beard earlier that day. We were in the hills of France watching the stars and waiting for the sunrise. And we had both been flirting with the idea of flirting with one another all night.
Now, for a moment, I want you to imagine a jet plane with two huge Dreamliner engines. Don’t worry, nobody is in it. Hell, nobody is even flying the damn thing. I don’t even know how it got up there in the first place. It’s just floating and drifting alone through the sky, minding its own business, when suddenly it takes a dive and crashes nose-first into the mouth of an active volcano, which subsequently spits it out into a mess of molten metal and tiny bags of complimentary snacks.
That’s when I kissed her. And she kissed me back, but only somewhat enthusiastically. Let’s just say it left a severely burnt taste in my mouth, not much unlike that of freshly charred airline peanuts. I apologized for making her uncomfortable, but she stopped me. “It’s OK. I just don’t know anything about you,” she offered almost regretfully. She was being honest, which I admired. Honest moments are hard to come by. “Well, you could,” I said with a hopeless smile, “What would you like to know about me?” But she said that I wasn’t allowed to ask that, however, because I would just be giving her the answers she was looking for, nothing that I volunteered myself. I laughed it off in an attempt to put out the fire, but she persisted, so I started rambling on and on about…well, I don’t really remember. But she laughed from time to time and was still radiating energy. That energy you feel from someone – the energy you recognize instinctively in your gut – is more important than anything.
At that point I was talking too much so I turned the spotlight on her. She began discussing grand philosophical ideas, why certain things happen in our lives but others don’t, and left me to ponder, “How can we tell if anything is real?” I said I didn’t really know, save for Descartes’ I think, therefore I am credo. I started to ramble about consciousness and reality and perspectives, and how it’s much easier than we think to fool ourselves into believing something that we want to. But, looking back on the moment, I don’t think she was talking about any of that stuff at all.
Soon the sun began to creep into the background, casting our shadows down the hillside in-front of us. We moved from the little garden area to the rear-most point of the Notre Dame, the parking lot that had similarly shallow stone walls. There were those little coin-operated telescopes but neither of us had any change. So we sat on the edge just waiting, occasionally making small talk, and waiting some more. Finally the sun fully emerged over the distant mountains and flooded Marseille with streams of gold and orange light. A few of the morning shift workers pulled into the lot but didn’t give us a second look. They’d probably watched this scene countless times before. Such a cliché, they’d mumble to themselves. But there is still truth to be found in these cliché moments! I’d shout back.
It was now just after six o’clock and we were both beginning to drift. I felt a slight nudge and realized Anouk had fallen asleep with her head resting on my right shoulder. I thought about her, and then about some of the women I knew back West. It’s strange, the memories that sneak into your mind when you’re trying to forget everything. I imagined who might be thinking about me, too, half the world away. I thought it would be nice. But, as Robert McKee once said, “All fine stories flux with the rhythm of life.” As the sun continued to rise over France, it had set on our evening together.
We walked back down that inexplicably long cobblestone road, thumping and laboring with each declining step. Anouk was still bouncing, it seamed, albeit a bit slower. My hands were in my pocket trying to stay warm. Back at the hostel I walked her to her room, but she was still a few paces ahead of me and I think she once again forgot she wasn’t alone. I waived goodnight and spit out some words, thanking her for sharing the night with me. She smiled but was silent as she walked through her door and closed it. I went back to the room Harman and I had just two halls over. I found him in a deep trance-like sleep, and for a moment was deeply jealous. I crawled into my top-bunk fully clothed and collapsed onto the squeaky mattress, still in disbelief that I just watched the sunrise over the city, let alone snuck into the cathedral grounds. And we were in freakin’ France! I reminded myself. How can any of this be real? This feeling would follow me for the next three weeks. But I wouldn’t see Anouk again. I didn’t ask for any form of social media or way of contacting her. I wonder if she had been real all along, either.
Anouk, if you are somehow reading this, I hope your travels since have been everything you hoped for. Oh, and please tell your friend I’m terribly sorry for still not remembering her name. It was lovely meeting you.
I eventually forced myself to sleep and when I woke up just three hours and thirty seven minutes later, Harman and I began our last day in Marseille by having a breakfast of baguette, cereal, coffee, and orange juice in the kitchen of the Vertigo. Thankfully, Rémi was nowhere to be found.