The next morning we both woke up in much better moods than the ones we went to bed in. We actually got some rest and were eager to get back out on the road and continue our journey, that day making our way to Nice. We helped ourselves to the Vertigo’s breakfast, careful to prepare our palettes for a wave of warm milk and cereal. I also noticed for the first time a literal sack of fresh baguettes sitting next to the table of jam, butter, and Nutella. I don’t know if it was proper etiquette to take an entire loaf for yourself, but there were at least two dozen in the bag, so I grabbed one and carried it off to our room like the Olympic torch. There was still a decent amount of packing to be done, but thankfully our friend Steve the German and the other random guest who was sleeping above him were gone, so when we opened our lockers and everything sprung out like a jack-in-the-box we were able to spread all of our stuff out for a quick and easy departure. We were very, very wrong.
To our surprise, there was something called “traffic” that morning in Marseille – and an impressive amount of it. Our bus was scheduled to leave at 9:45 and by 9:15 we still didn’t have a way of getting to the station, despite our many attempted (and failed) Uber driver requests. One driver actually accepted our request then, realizing how bad the traffic was, promptly messaged us the ‘shrugging’ emoji, and cancelled our ride. Panicking, we rushed to the front desk to find a solution. Turns out there is a Metro station just down the street in the city centre. So, with at least 30 lbs of gear on each of our backs, we began running (it was more like brisk waddling) to the train. Sweaty, anxious, and hungry for more beignets, we somehow managed to get back to the Marseille bus station with, quite literally, three minutes to spare. Settling into the last couple seats on the bus, we reminded ourselves that it would be about six hours until we got to Nice, which allowed us plenty of time to stare out the window and think about ordinary things far too deeply than we should have. Driving along the coast of Southern France, I realized that since flying into Barcelona a few days prior I hadn’t seen one cloud in the sky. I wondered if the rest of the trip would stay that way.
But the bus began to get a bit bumpy and my already messy handwriting took a turn for the worse (pun intended,) and I am having trouble now deciphering just exactly what it was that I wrote during the rest of the ride. So let’s just fast-forward to our arrival in Nice and our run-in with the French authorities.
The station in Nice is nothing more than a medium-sized parking lot with no clear direction as to where to go once you get there. We followed a group of fellow passengers through a tunnel that led to the platform. A tram car was already there and about to pull away, so we made a split-second decision to jump on board. But it was the wrong one, and just one stop later we got off and tried again. Now, despite the severe lack of public transportation options in the United States (outside of major cities,) we know that you need a ticket to ride. In Spain you couldn’t get into the train station without first buying a Metro pass. In Marseille it was the same way. So standing on the tram platform in Nice we were a bit skeptical because, for the life of us, we couldn’t find a ticket kiosk; We assumed you just paid on the tram itself. They made us pay, alright. When the next car arrived we hopped on and had only five stops between us and our hostel, but on the fourth a group of tram cops came on-board like the gestapo and began checking tickets. Harman and I did our best to act casually, never looking them in the eye and even doing our best to move to the back of the car. But with our giant backpacks we were a dead giveaway for tourists, and after pleading with the officer that we would happily pay – we just didn’t know where to do so – our passports were seized and we were escorted off the tram.
In Nice, the cops don’t carry guns or batons or tasers. They carry credit card readers. And after once again explaining our situation to the officer, detailing our intent to pay – rather, our excitement to be law-abiding citizens – he smiled at us and said, “Yes, I understand. Everything’s OK. But you each owe 60 euros.” Once the transactions went through, our passports were returned and we were given receipts as pseudo-tickets to use for the rest of the day. But instead of getting back on we just walked the rest of the way to the hostel. Welcome to Nice. However, I had a very difficult time remaining angry at what had just happened once we began walking away. Nice was startlingly elegant, a definitive vacation destination, full of beautiful architecture, monuments, and people. We each just got robbed of seventy dollars, but I couldn’t wipe a smile off of my face. I came to believe that nobody could be angry in Nice. (Even if none of the French people would smile back at you.)
We booked our stay at the Villa Saint Exupéry, and both agreed that it was one of our absolute favorites over the course of the trip. Categorized as a beach hostel, the Villa is located right by Place Masséna and is only about a fifteen minute walk to the beach. It was one of the cleanest, most-welcoming hostels we stayed in, with a full bar that served very reasonably priced drinks and three stories of bright, airy rooms, albeit with bathrooms that still had no soap. The coffee was even free after 10:00 a.m., too (before that time it is sold for 1€/cup, but it’s not even worth that price.) Yet Harman and I were both more interested in getting out to actually see the city, so we we quickly washed up, and were ready to parole the streets of Nice. We wove in and out an endless network of side streets and alleyways, packed with restaurants, food carts, and shops, stuffed with tourists, pissed-off locals, and quite a few dogs prancing around. Hungry and exhausted, we stopped into a café. And let me tell you – our lives were changed forever.
Boulangerie Jeannot is about five minutes from the beach, and ten from the Villa. From the street it looks like any other pastry shop you might come across. But the line out the door will tell you otherwise: This is the spot that even locals are fighting to get into. The shop itself is narrow and only about thirty feet long, with a bakery case filled with sandwiches, quiche, flatbreads, cakes, macrons, strudel, cookies, crémes, and any other confectionary you could imagine. Harman and I were both so overwhelmed that we just stood in line (in the way, actually) while dozens of people floated around the speechless American tourists. When we finally got to the register, I motioned for a campagne loaf behind the counter while attempting to mutter, “Une baguette, merci,” under my breath. Harman scoped out the mini-chocolate beignets and ordered a handful. The bread was delicious – fluffy, yet it crunched with every bite. It was buttery and salty, with the perfect sourdough signature. I was in heaven. Then Harman turned to me and said, “Dan. Try this. Now.”
Remember the beignets I mentioned from Marseille? How delicious and soft and decadent they were? Yeah, those are like Little Debbies compared to the beignets from Jeannot. These were still filled with Nutella and as light as a feather, but along with the wafer-thin glaze that surrounded each glob, they were also dusted with powdered sugar. I took one bite and immediately said, “I’m sorry, I need the other half,” and wolfed it down. The trip could have ended right then and there and we’d have been content. I could have died at that very moment, looking the Universe in the eye and saying, “ I had a decent run. Those beignets were totally worth it though. Thanks for that, at least.” But instead, we vowed to return the following morning and we made our way to the beach.
Everything was blue. The water. The umbrellas. The sky. The bathing suits. There were dozens of people just lounging with books and enjoying the day. There was an old man sitting on the terrace that hangs over the beach staring out into the water, just writing and drawing in his notebook. I imagined I might be like him one day. There was the most picturesque cruiser bicycle I’d ever seen. Even another man who was sleeping on a bench in the shade seemed perfectly placed. Everyone was just coming and going, actually laughing and smiling with one another, each more beautiful than the last. Everything was so light and whimsical and happy. This place can’t be real, I thought. I once again began to question everything that I was seeing with my own eyes, the reality that I had found, and why the hell anyone would ever leave this place. But could things always be this way here?
Harman found a spot in the shade and I made my way onto the beach. It was crowded but the water was empty, so I found a spot and dumped my shirt and shoes, and walked proudly into the water. There was a reason the water was so empty: It was frigid. But I kept walking in further and further. For a while I just waded in the water, at one point finding myself about a hundred feet from the beach. Eventually my body temperature normalized and brain function returned: I was swimming in the French Riviera. I whispered it to myself about a dozen times and was surprised that my mouth could even make such a sound. I wasn’t just standing with my feet in the water, I was floating in the blue green waves of France. Forget jumping off the cliffs in Marseille; I could have drifted out to sea right then and there. At that moment I was happy that I was the only one in the water. I wanted that moment entirely to myself.
After about twenty minutes of contemplating the option of floating out to sea (given that I was already rather buoyant given the entire baguette in my stomach) I decided that it was, in fact, too damn cold. Getting back on land the first thing I realized was that the beach didn’t consist of sand, but rather was an assortment of sharp rocks and lumpy pebbles, and when I finally reached the sidewalk I was met with molten pavement. I then missed the icy water. After laying out for a bit next to Harman, we eventually decided it might be time to get back to the hostel. We’d had a long day and the bar sold whole bottles of wine for only 6€, so we shared a couple. It was a night for reflection. We were in Nice! I had never seen a more beautiful place in my life. After the wine we ended up walking around a bit longer, I found a late-nite café, and we watched a drunk man fall twenty feet down onto the rocky beach while a group of French teenagers screamed at us (in French) to call for help, despite the fact that neither of us understood a word they were saying. There was also a beach bonfire happening at the same time, a bunch of friends laughing and drinking and celebrating under the stars as the water patiently crept ashore. When we returned to the Villa again, we formally introduced ourselves to our roommates, both of which we’d get drinks with the next night. And in just about 36 hours we would be in Italy.
The trip was moving much quicker than either of us had planned for up to that point. We were in France, but it felt like we were in Spain. And a few days later when we arrived in Italy, for a moment it felt like we were back in France. Your mind is always a few days behind your body when traveling. Fatigue was no longer the issue: It was full travel anxiety. And in less than 72 hours, we’d be reminded of the lesson of letting go, once again. At this point in the night, however, I realize that I started to repeat myself quite a bit in my Moleskine and began to ramble on about The Stranger, written by French philosopher Albert Camus. So I’ll spare all of us those dramatics.
I’ll fast forward to Harman and I retreating to our room, chatting for a bit with roomies Max and Merih, passing out rather suddenly, and waking up to a spontaneous day-trip to Monaco to gamble at the Monte Carlo casino.