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 (my travelmate and bromantic partner in crime) 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 in pieces. But we were in freakin’ France! They had 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, . 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, , 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 sneaking into the Notre-Dame de la Garde to watch the sunrise over the city with a mysteriously striking Dutch woman. When in Rome.
● ● ●
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.
● ● ●
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.