Aix, Trailer Trash, and Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys
Soundtrack: "Island in the Sun" by Weezer
20 April, 2002
We got up late.
Of course we did; we'd spent the day before guzzling bottles of wine and setting my hand on fire three times trying to blow fireballs with dodgy absinthe. As you do.
So we never should have expected to get out of Avignon smoothly. After all, we'd already been two days longer than initially planned; the only thing rousing us on Saturday to cross over into Provence was Ylva's friend Meghan waiting for us in Aix-en-Provence.
The early risers got the showers, leaving the rest of us to pack our bags and attempt to hide some of the mess we've made of the room. We finally decided to push all the trash and wreckage into as small an area as possible in an attempt to make at least most of the room look clean.
We left, doubly in a hurry to catch our train and to get out of our room before we could fall under the disapproving eye of the hotel staff. As it turns out, we were thirty minutes early for our train, so we thought it'd be a good idea to disperse and run a number of errands: Alissa and I, with Ylva in tow, to change money, while Elin went to get food for all of us. And Nick? Nick ran off to grab a frisbee, an item he decided was absolutely essential for us. We stressed to him exactly when the train is supposed to leave, and make him promise, promise to be early so we don't have to worry. Nick is infamous for his inability to be on time.
And he didn't do anything that day to dispell that infamy. Alissa, Ylva, and I were back five minutes early, with Elin showing up exactly on time. When Nick was edging up on ten minutes late, we gave up on him and went to board the train. He'd either make it or he wouldn't; I was starting to get irritable due to hauling my luggage around (which had by this time acquired the name Trailer due to its size and effect on my gas milage), and I secretly hoped Nick wouldn't make it. That'd sure teach him!
Literally seconds before the the train pulled away from the station, Nick stepped on board. With no frisbee.
The train trip, along the Provence coast, did its part to help cheer me up. In the tradition of mediterranean France, the blue sky, the azure sea, and the rocky red ground served to further increase my jealousy of the French. Maybe that helps explain their generally haughty nature; France is one on of the most beautiful countries in the world. It's wasted on the French.
In no time, we were in Aix-en-Provence, a former Roman military camp transformed into a laid-back large town over the course of two millenia. Aix has no single attraction, preferring rather to be an attractive French town full of parks, fountains, cramped cobbled streets, and open air markets.
It did turn out to be delightful, but not when we first hit town, tired, smelling, and looking for a place to stay. Things got really hard on me for awhile, so much that I can only remember two actually pleasant things happening that entire afternoon. 1) I had a couple bites of a delicious salmon panini, washed down with a swallow of coke (I was too poor to eat and had given up caffeine at precisely the wrong time), and 2) I spent time talking with Ylva's friend Meghan, as the two of us went off to an Internet cafe in a misguided attempt to book a room at the closed youth hostel.
But I get ahead of myself. We first tried the tourist office, which gave us the number of the only hostel in town--a complex two kilometers from the city centre closed until 5pm. Meghan and I went off to the Internet place in a devious attempt to try to electronically reserve beds at this place, since there was no one on desk to take our phone calls. We also went to handled assorted other Internet tasks (I needed to check my bank balance and to figure out how to respond to an email accusation that I was a "bad friend," among other things).
Meghan and I had meet before. We'd run into her two days ago on a day trip to Nimes, and months before I'd met her in Edinburgh at Ylva's Goodbye Party Ver. 1, but I'd spent most of the day in Nimes under the weather and withdrawn, and I couldn't remember meeting her in Edinburgh since I'd spent most of Ylva's Goodbye Party (in all three Versions) pissed as a ferret and my memory was a bit spotty. So I hadn't talked much to Meghan. She was good to talk to, friendly, funny, with an explosive laugh. The icing on the cake was that she wasn't one of the four I'd spent the last week with without break.
As nice as it was to have a break from the group, Meghan and I failed in our mission. When we returned to the group, we had no reservations, I failed to check my bank balance, and remained a "bad friend."
As we sat and discussed our options, I noticed the strap on my daypack was breaking under the strain I'd been putting it through. It was a simple matter to repair it with an overkill of safety pins, but an Aix bird decided to add its own contributions: a dollup of shit the color and consistency of guacamole strafed my daypack, coat, and trousers. I cleaned it off the coat in time, and managed to sponge most of it off my trousters, but my daypack was permanently stained by this roc's demonshit.
We decided just to show up at the hostel and hope they'd have adequate beds for us. I was given the choice for the group: do we walk or take the bus, since I was the most poverty-stricken, as well as having the Trailer. In retrospect, they probably understood that, with the daypack breaking and being shit on, along with the Trailer and the "bad friend," bit, it was probably safer to tiptoe around me rather than push me towards the edge.
"We can walk." It was my decision, and I can blame no one but myself for my misery. Since my hands were full and my French limited to "oui" and "non," Ylva, Alissa, and Meghan handled the map duties--my first time in years of traveling letting someone other than a tour guide handle the orientation. I was not happy about it.
The girls managed to get us to the hostel without getting lost but without ever really exuding the confidence that we weren't lost. It was in direct opposition to how I normally travel, striding confidentally off, getting resolutely misplaced without ever being concerned (usually if I stick with it and act confident enough, I eventually get unlost and no one's the wiser).
Ylva, Alissa, and Meghan demonstrated the opposite was possible: always knowing where you were and where you were going with no confidence of ever making it there. Or maybe I'm being uncharitable; I could only see them compulsively checking their map every block, while gesturing off in different directions each time. I was lagging too far behind to hear their conversation. It could have been some elaborate piss-take on me, and damn the tiptoeing around!
They led us on a shortcut (and, granted, looking at the map later I understand how they could have thought it'd work) on the least Trailer-accessible route possible: a steep gravel-strewn path leading us across a thin steep footpath over a motorway, into another gravel road in full view of the hostel. With an imposing barbed wire fence and a steep hill dividing us. With wire clippers and no luggage, it'd be no problem. As it was, it was the Cliffs of Insanity.
Our pathfinders led us around the fence and up a paved sidewalk to the gates of the hostel--a short jaunt up that transformed me into a modern day Sysyphus, with the Trailer trying to fulfill its role as Boulder.
Entering the hostel was like entering the Holiest of Holies. I was a Muslim on a Hadj. It was Paradise, and I wanted to kiss the desk clerk--I don't think he would have taken it well, but it might have saved us some later grief. Instead, I stood there, leaning up against the Trailer and beaming happily while the French speakers (i.e., everybody else) tried to check us into the hostel. My first indication that things weren't going smoothly was Meghan hissing at me, "What an asshole!"
"Nick? Oh, he's not that bad."
"No, the clerk. He's screwing around with us, taking a lot longer than necessary, and talking as fast as possible, except for when he stops and says, 'Do-you-understand?' like we're children. He's just being a dick."
Sure enough, when I moved to the front of a group the clerk was firing off staccato French with a superior smirk on his face--the look that George W. Bush gets when reporters are trying to get a coherent answer. So I stood there and nodded like I knew what he was talking about. He started addressing more to me, and seemed very frustrated that I was still so happy to be rid of the Trailer that no cheese eating surrender monkey French bastard could bring me down. We still have no idea why he was such a sanctimonious prick, but soon after I started paying attention to him, he gave us our rooms. Only a half an hour later than expected.
So we decided to flout the "no drinking" rule of the hostel as flagrantly as possible, passing bottles of wine around that evening late into the night, while discussing black holes and whether NASA faked the Apollo moon landing. The hostel was the opposite of Prince's St. It was a clean, well-lit place with single sex rooms, a midnight cufew, and no drinking allowed. I'd like to say we trashed the place with late night alcohol soaked orgies, but it wouldn't be true. Black holes and space travel are a bit too ephemeral to be proper orgy conversation (are there conversations at orgies?). And no, "black hole" is not some filthy euphemism for a nefarious nocturnal activity, thank you very much.
We started out a bit paranoid about the entire affair. I was back in my element, having spent most of university hiding alcohol in easy to reach/hard to find areas in my dorm room, and violating male/female curfew times (when I wasn't an R.A. enforcing said rules). I was almost disappointed to discover that the Aix hostel wasn't all that strict at enforcing any of their rules. Still, it was nice to transplant a bit of Prince's St in Aix-en-Provence.
In fact, mostly what we did in Aix was drink countless bottles of cheap wine in myriad locations. Sure, we went to a fascinating museum full of Roman and pre-Roman artifacts and two Cezannes, but that trip was bookended by hours drinking in one of Aix's lovely parks, wishing Nick had picked up that frisbee and getting repeatedly asked if we had any cigarettes.
Incidentally, this park we spent most of our time drinking in was found the way God intended: I was finally given a map and allowed to orienteer, and confidently got us lost looking for the aforementioned museum. We spent four hours in the park, eventually having to be kicked out.[This doesn't really fit here, but it doesn't fit anywhere, really, so since it happened in Aix I might as well include it as a footnote or an addendum: On our first full day in Aix, I woke up from one of the odder dreams I've ever had. I was on the D-Day beaches, it was a clear crisp day, and the Allies were landing. I could see the fleet disgorging troops towards the beaches, and I, as a German soldier, had to get back to my post so I could defend myself. But the canteen where I was trying to buy some Coca-Cola and water from was trying to give me a hard sell on food, and wouldn't leave me alone so I could get back to my machine gun.
[It doesn't seem particularly hard to analyze. A foreigner in France, getting screwed over by the inhabitants of the country, and yet needing what they have to give me. I suppose also the fact the German's killed a lot of surrender monkeys also appealed to me at the time.]
As nice as this place sounds, you would not believe how hard it is to leave. Maybe some will blame it on the good air, the pleasant town streets and parks, the fountains, or the daily open air markets. Those do contribute to making it more difficult to try to leave, but my problem was more mundane than that.
After two weeks on the road, I had no money.
When I went to the ATM our last morning with the Trailer in tow, it spat out my card with the haughtiness I'd come to expect from France. It wouldn't let me take out 100 euro. Nor 80 euro. Nor 60 euro. I finally managed to wheedle 40 euro out of it, but that put an end to my U.S. bank account. And while I had £600 in my Scottish account, no bank on the Continent would let me access that money.
So, after I went through my accustomed panic response (first, loud violent swearing as I fight the urge to shit myself in panic, followed by emotionally shutting down), I did what any self-respecting traveler would do; borrowed money from friends. After walking back and forth across the city three times (a more difficult task that it may sound, at first, with a full backpack and the Trailer on cobblestone streets) to find that there's no bus system at all to Paris, and the only train left that day would be leaving in a half an hour. But not from the train station I bought the ticket from (70 euro for the ticket), but at another one out of town and only accessible by bus. Said bus leaving from far away (nearly back at the hostel, actually, if you remember how fun THAT was to reach from the train station) in ten minutes. So I had one last lovely mad dash to the bus station.
Once that was taken care of, the rest of the day went fairly smoothly. The bus took us right to where the TGV train picked us up (since I don't speak any French, I've decided that TGV stands for "Train Goes Very fast"). And the train ride was quite pleasant and smooth. The only real problem was a couple annoying brats who were fascinated by the automatic doors connecting the train cars, who kept opening them every fifteen to twenty seconds to let a lovely blast of warmer air flow through our car. I slept fitfully most of the ride, waking up just in time to see us zip past the Pont Du Gard at 100 kilometers per hour, doubling the length of time I've spent looking at that rather amazing sight.
And, in less than three hours time, I was in Paris.
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