As the half term holidays are upon us, France seemed to take a bit of a chill-pill this week and the chaos of the last fortnight subsided slightly. But this is still France, so any holiday activities would have been disappointing had things not gotten a little bit lairy. The chosen venture this week was a trip to Marseille between Tuesday and Thursday. I will gloss over the two days before that by saying only that my state of vegitation was comparable to that ‘Friends’ episode in which Joey and Chandler get free cable and do not move for days on end, except worse.
This ‘meditation period’ was ended abruptly at five o’clock on Tuesday morning when we rushed to the train station to get the first train, only to find that the train station was closed. After nearly two months here, any panic we may once have felt now gives way to an exasperated lack of surprise, so we waited quite patiently until the man in charge of the station rocked up an hour late for his job to tell us that there was no train. Of course there wasn’t. We made polite enquiries as to whether it would even be worth going to Toulouse, or whether all the trains to Marseille would meet a similar fate to our poor local service and, having received a response which equated to ‘anything’s possible’, we boarded the replacement bus service not feeling too optimistic. Luckily we only missed our train to Marseille by two hours and were therefore early enough to get the next train at no extra charge. Even more fortunate was that this train was actually a train and not just a bus that they tried to pass off as a train. This meant that, despite having suffered the slings, arrows and kitchen sink of outrageous fortune, we reached Marseille at around four o’clock. It was important that I established that this story had a happy ending before I continue. While it saddens me that the first piece of substantial advice I have given in this blog is a dire warning, I feel I must council all students who are in France during a strike and planning to travel to take the journey time predicted by the transport authorities, multiply it by five, get to the station early, take a good book, lots of food and a small sawn-off shotgun, and pray to Chuck Norris that there are enough scraps of a public transport network to put together a complete journey. Or just stay at home.
But we got there and Marseille is actually a stunning city; built into the southern coast of France, it sprawls into the mainland from the impressive port. This said, we did not see in its normal state; the blockade by the protestors on incoming fuel supplies meant that a lot of the really massive boats had been left just sitting outside the main harbour like a real-life game of ‘Battleships’ (although in France I believe it’s just called ‘I surrender!’…take that France). The binmen have also been on strike for more than a week, which means that there were gargantuan piles of rubbish engulfing the street every couple of blocks; to add my mandatory, smug pop-culture reference it looked like the poor parts of ‘Gothem City’ in ‘Batman Begins’ – except Christian Bale isn’t here to pick up the rubbish.
After getting settled in to our hotel we went out to find some dinner and a hearty watering-hole, which proved slightly difficult. We eventually ate in the French version of ‘China Buffet King’ which was pretty decent, although it was disappointing to find out that the French do not have their own word for chopsticks and just call them ‘baguettes’. Our search for aforementioned watering-hole went just a little pear-shaped as we unwittingly (or so I told the others) walked into a street made up entirely of bars advertised with flickering, red neon signs and the letter x, outside which heavily made-up women (women in the same sense as Lady Gaga, in that some of them may have been smuggling sausage ) gave every gentleman who walked past a covert nod and flicked their eyes towards the abandoned alleyway adjacent. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether the train had accidently taken us to downtown Amsterdam, or even the sixth circle of hell, we turned the corner and found the docks. And it all made sense. Eventually we found a decent little place that sold cheap drinks and stayed open until four in the morning.
The following day we went to the tourist office to ask if there was anywhere to go out in this city without being propositioned by possible transvestites and were told to stick to the newly developed harbour. In order to kill the time until it was socially acceptable to drink, we took a bus and then walked along the coast in the sunshine, even paying a brief visit to the beach, before heading up to the top of the hill to visit the cathedral, which was closed, obviously. Despite this it was really awesome to look down on the city from hundreds of metres above; in the darkness all the streetlights and buildings surround the sea in a horse shoe shape, like the conurbation is a huge army of tiny, torch-wielding figures, about to spill out over the tiny pocket of nature which remains unmarked.
This breathtaking view behind us we did as all cultured and inquisitive students do and got drunk in some of the pubs along the harbour. Not too hungover the next morning we headed to the station just in time to see another extraordinary sight; Thursday was a protest day, which meant thousands of people snaking their way down Marseille’s high street pumping their fists in the air and chanting while vans followed them releasing clouds of smoke and French punk music blasted over it. We spent most of the day after this travelling, with a brief delay at Toulouse station for a bomb scare. Again it was not in the least surprising to find a fully armed soldier standing in exact the spot we vacated five minutes before to go and get a kebab. Another bizarre turn of events in the x-rated Dr Zeus story that has been France so far; having establishe that there was no bomb, the only option was to crack out the beer and laugh about it.
Since then I have returned to my state of pseudo-hibernation in which I intend to stay until at least Tuesday.
And that’s the way it is.