The morning was a foggy, lucid mess. I felt like my entire body was vibrating. And I guess it was a good thing I didn’t see Anouk again because I hadn’t changed my clothes from the night before. But I was pleasantly surprised by a lack of wrinkles, so I was able to at least confidently – not necessarily coherently – roll out of bed in record time. Breakfast was as good as any free breakfast could be, but the coffee was instant and apparently they don’t always feel the need to refrigerate milk in France, so imagine our faces when we both took our first overly-excited bites of warm Cocoa Krispies. When Harman and I finally made our way out the door by about eleven o’clock, our first destination was the Three Brothers Bakery for a proper pastry filled start to our day. We sat on the curb and dined on a loaf of campagne bread and more beignets. It was delicious.
Now, being a relatively inexperienced traveler, I pride myself with not falling victim to the usual tourist traps, countless of which you walk past the moment you enter the heart of the city: Expensive trips or guided tours, fast-talking pickpockets that ambush you out of nowhere, and the endless souvenir shops that make you forget that you’re there to experience the culture of a foreign country and not sink all of your savings into cheap trinkets or tchotchkes or keychains. But dammit, the soap in France smelled remarkable, so I bought a few bars to use for the remainder of the trip. I recommend the ‘cotton’ scented bars from the little fishing boat docked in the port, named Lefada Marseille.
Soon we began to roam outside the main stretch of tourists and restaurants, stumbling our way into what we figured what the more ‘historic’ part of town; A stretch of storefronts and roadways that were some of the most colorful and architecturally beautiful we’d see on the trip. Of course, many of those old buildings are occupied by modern retailers and thrift stores and pharmacies and salons. But it was nice to imagine what it would have been like to shop here just a few decades ago, if not even further back. As we got further into Marseille and all but lost the smell of sea water, Harman and I came across a multi-block-long outdoor market full of vendors selling everything from vintage Levis and Zippo lighters, to dusty books and jewelry, alongside a remarkable amount of absolute junk, not unlike that of which you may find at any garage sale in your hometown. Although neither of us sprung for the 5€ antique postcards, it was still interesting to be picking through the past lives of a bunch of French strangers. Turns out that they, too, hold the very-human inclination to hoard old toys and cassettes and shoes just like anybody else. I also came to realize that the French will only smile at you if they have a chance to take your money, and even then there’s no guarantee. A polite bonjour to a total stranger is most often met with a supreme look of disgust that screams, “Who gave you the right to say hello to me!?” While in Milan, a French roommate of ours would confirm my theory that nobody smiles in France (and hardly anywhere in Europe, for that matter) because, to quote her directly, “We’re all assholes.”
It was sweltering again and we both had conveniently run out of water at the same time. Straying off even further away from the city centre, we became a bit lost. Mapping it out, we found that the nearest grocery store was only a few kilometers away – nothing we couldn’t handle on normal occasions. But in 90 degree weather we were beginning to have our doubts. Scattered all around the city are those Lime brand electric scooters. Harman had used them a few times on the trip so far and daily when back home on campus. I never used them and wanted to give it a shot, but have a terrifying fear of embarrassing myself at any given time. Call it a character flaw. But it was unbearably hot at that point with the sun aimed directly above our sweating heads. Within minutes of downloading the app we were both up and scootering through the streets of Marseille at speeds of up to 20 km/hr – and I don’t think I ever had so much raw, unadulterated fun in my life, even though we were both nearly hit by at least a dozen cars on those impressively narrow cobblestone roads. It wouldn’t be such a bad way to go out, I reasoned: Zipping through the streets of France with my best friend and not a care in the world. Plus, there was plenty of wine and fresh baguette close by if we happened to get flattened like a crepe; A worthy last meal. And what is life without a bit of recklessness? (Boring, that’s what.) We spent at least 45 minutes just rolling along, not necessarily going anywhere at all, just seeing the city in an entirely new way.
Eventually we resupplied our water, got a few snacks, and headed back to the hostel to escape the sun for a bit. I was still in shock that I watched the sunrise over the city just a few hours beforehand, and even more surprised that I was functioning as well as I was with only a few hours of sleep. I could feel the first twinges of paranoia and psychopathy that accompany a severe lack of rest creeping up on me in the back of my mind. My head felt heavy yet empty. It was only a matter of time before my body began to cruise on auto-pilot, if it hadn’t already been doing so the entire morning. But a little crippling exhaustion wasn’t going to stop us anytime soon. We headed back out the door only about twenty minutes later, found two more Limes, and began scootering our way to the French Riviera.
It was summertime in Marseille. How pretty does that sentence look, let alone sound when said out loud? The air was washed out and hazy, like photos from an old roll of 35mm film. But the beach just outside the city centre of Marseille is actually rather small. It was crowded and surrounded by your usual array of restaurants and hotels and heavy traffic, simultaneously being swarmed by waves of families and small children. The sand was rocky and unfortunately had a decent amount of trash and debris; A gallon-sized Ziplock bag actually floated to the shore and wrapped around my foot in the process. The water was also entirely too cold to swim in, despite the fact that I didn’t even have my swim trunks with me. But I still dove my hand underneath the water and grabbed a handful of sand and rocks, and pushed them around the palm of my hand.
Just off the edge of the beach was a sun bleached concrete stairway which led to a lookout point that reached out into the water, so I figured if I wasn’t going to swim in the Mediterranean I might as well get a better look at it. Hooking around the coast was a series of playfully colored buildings and apartments that stretched into the water, as well. I could hardly believe that I was standing on the shores of the French Riviera, let alone imagine what it would be like to live here and wake up to the water everyday. It’s one of those places you hear about in movies, a location that only the likes of James Bond ever gets to see. I wrote in my Moleskine over the course of those few days in Marseille that I was beginning to have a hard time determining what was staged and scripted at this point in my life. A few weeks later in my trip, someone would tell me that whatever I saw in-front of my eyes could, in fact, be my reality. It came to mind once again that sometimes life could be as simple as buy the ticket, take the ride. I was certainly proud of myself, that day, to be standing in the sand in Marseille.
Adjacent to the lookout point was a breakwater constructed of giant boulders that offered a perfect way to sit and tan and just take in the view. Harman and I carefully crossed the network of stones, stepping over the crevices that would have easily swallowed a cell phone or small child, and sat down. It was also the point in which we realized we were at a topless beach, and the woman just about fifteen feet from us was making perfect use of it. Squinting back into the crowded beach, now about 100 yards away, we noticed she wasn’t the only one, either. We didn’t see any signs and wondered if every beach is like this in France. But even if it wasn’t ‘officially’ declared as such, it was interesting to see just how casual nudity (and I guess sexuality, although the two aren’t always the same thing) could be in another country. In this case, there was no fear of what someone might say or think; Here, there was nothing taboo about being a human who was enjoying the sun and city. Male or female. I now appreciated that, “Who gave you the right to say hello to me!?” look a bit more. Everybody is just living their life the way they would like to, no need to intrude or question or stare. As long as it’s not harming you, for lack of a more eloquent way of saying this, who gives a shit?
After staring directly into the sun for what felt like a few hours, we both began to feel the effects of four days of travel washing over us. But we also felt a wave of hunger beginning to grow, so we hopped off those rocks and headed back to the city centre. It should be noted that on our way off of the beach I swung by a delightful churro cart aptly named 12 Churros (I couldn’t find a web page for them, unfortunately,) in which you got – wait for it – 12 churros for only 4€. I was partly hallucinating at that point in the day, but watching the man behind the counter drop the fresh batter into the pool of bubbling oil then coat the newly fried dough in at least an entire cup of sugar was nothing short of a religious experience. I couldn’t have picked a better first dinner. We walked back to the city instead of Lime-ing to account for the churros in our hands, and only exhausted ourselves more. It was about 7 o’clock at this point (I think so, at least) and our brisk, naïve, first-time traveler walking pace had slowed to a crawl. “What do you want to eat? I’m good for anything,” one of us would say. “I’m down for whatever,” the other would lazily offer back. And so we spoke ourselves in circles for at least another hour before finally settling on an Indian restaurant near the Vertigo. We both ordered the chicken tikka masala and both agreed that Harman’s mother’s rendition of the dish was far superior. We each threw our 15€ down on the table and slumped back to the hostel.
We were absolutely depleted. We left for Nice the next morning and both still needed to pack. I didn’t even entertain the thought of lingering in the courtyard or common area that night. Sometimes you just needed rest. Instead, I chose to write a bit before my eyes sealed shut. Travel fatigue had finally set in. I began to feel unusually panicked, worrying about anything and everything that flooded into my mind. Money, jobs back home, women who most definitely weren’t thinking this much about me. I didn’t know why I felt that way – I was with my best friend in France. I had no reason to feel that way. But it was like a veil was being lifted, or rather, pulled over my eyes. Was anxiety the fabled truth teller or the joker in our hands? I couldn’t tell the difference at that point. Much like ‘drunk thoughts,’ late-night feelings are simply a disguise for the truth, too. Your mind can’t be trusted when it hasn’t been properly taken care of. At this point I stopped writing and willed myself into bed and was attempting to will myself to sleep. But I couldn’t shake those images from my head that I didn’t want to see; The life I was desperately trying to leave behind instead of the life I was aching to find. I felt alone for the first time in the trip, an energy that would find me more often than I thought possible over the coming weeks.
I already realized that you couldn’t run away from yourself, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I didn’t know who I was or what I was trying to become. I didn’t want anything to do with the version of myself that I had fled back in Ohio. I never wanted to go back. I was excited to find who I was supposed to be, or at least take the first few steps on my new path. The thought of trudging to the airport in Paris in only a few weeks terrified me; The fact that Harman would be flying back in two weeks (one week earlier than me) – and the trip that we’d spent months planning would be coming to an end – didn’t feel real. I loved the Frenchness of the Vertigo and our specific room: The lighting, the chair, the desk. I loved that desk. I didn’t want to leave that place, to leave Marseille, or roam any other streets. But the next day we’d be in Nice, and in only a few more, Cinque Terre of Italy.
Sometimes you have to kill the part of yourself that you don’t want to carry anymore. This isn’t always the solution, but there are moments when you just have to tell yourself I’m not going to feel like this anymore – and that’s that. To face yourself truthfully and authentically; To ask yourself if your future is worth more than your past.
We still had a lot of trip left. And I would be damned if I didn’t make the most of it.