Savannah McDermott
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Bumps in the road

October 10, 2010 @ 7:21 PM | Permalink

“Maybe we don’t need an itinerary,” I yawn as Lindsey pours over the hundredth Barcelona tourism website. After all, we’ve been at it for hours and are still unable to decide what we want to do with ourselves during our three weeks together in Europe.

“We could just get there and see how we feel,” she answers, a sympathy yawn drawing out her syllables. I mean, The Hangover is on TV, and really, all this planning is just starting to seem obsessive.

“We’ll have fun whatever we do, right? Maybe we should just let the road take us where it will.”

She puts the computer aside and rises from the couch. “You’re right, it’ll be fine,” she says with a wave of the hand. “Want a beer?”

The story I’m about to tell is long and convoluted but it has one very simple moral: PLAN AHEAD.

Six hours spent fighting sleep in the Dublin airport. The French transportation workers are on strike, and there aren’t enough air traffic controllers to keep watch on the sky. A very limited number of planes are allowed in the nation’s airspace at any given time. All flights are delayed, many cancelled. I feel lucky to get on the plane 3 hours late. I arrive in Marseilles and find my hostel largely due to the kindness of strangers. They seem to take pity on me and my 10-word French vocabulary, which sounds suspiciously Portuguese.

I check my e-mail and discover that Lindsey won’t be arriving until tomorrow. We’ve booked for two at this hostel tonight. She had suggested another Skype date for finalizing plans. “It’ll be fine,” I had responded nonchalantly with a wave of the hand.

I spend an hour arguing with a confused French twenty-something at the front desk. It’s out of sheer irritation and exhaustion that he finally cancels Lindsey’s booking without charging her. 

I take a walk around the city. It’s beautiful, unlike any place I’ve ever seen. We’re right off the Vieux Port, a gorgeous harbor full of glittering sailboats and lined with cafes, restaurants and bars. A fish market occupies its end, offering some of the largest and strangest specimens I’ve ever seen, and a towering fortress looms over its mouth, bearing a WWII monument and stunning views of the Mediterranean. I’m standing at a corner of the port, admiring a huge yacht, when a tiny dark-haired man starts jabbering at me in French. “Je ne….français,” I mumble. He switches to a broken English. “Are you from America?” He’s beside himself as he begins listing off things I have to see in Marseilles. His name is Magid, a remnant of the Arabic influence here. He was born here and sees himself as an ambassador of sorts. He grabs my arm and drags me into a tourism office, demands a map from the clerk, and starts frantically circling his favorite spots and marking huge Xs on the dodgy areas.

“I’m going to be late for work,” he says, laughing as he glances as a diamond-encrusted watch. “Oh well, I’ll show you around.” 

For the next hour we’re racing around the port, darting through traffic and weaving through pedestrians as he rattles off his surprisingly extensive knowledge of Marseille’s history, gesticulating wildly to the buildings and monuments that correspond to his stories. He’s checking his watch every five minutes, muttering desperately that he’s going to be late for work. He flags down a five-car, open-air sightseeing trolley, driven by a friend. The guy’s on his way to lunch, so he has no passengers. My friend offers me the first seat and hops into the cab with his buddy. It’s just me and twenty rows of empty seats as we wind through the bustling streets, Magid narrating the scenery through the loudspeaker. Pedestrians laugh and point, men whistle from passing cars.

The trolley takes us to the mouth of the port, where the tide crashes against huge boulders and fort walls. Across the water an enormous palace overlooks to horizon. Napoleon III built it for his wife, who had demanded a seaside home but never actually moved in. “Such is the caprice of a woman,” Magid says, the most well-constructed and cringe-worthy English sentence I’ve heard him utter. 

We’re racing back to the port’s end as his phone rings. Suddenly he’s in a shouting match. “They want to fire me,” he laughs as he hangs up. “I suppose I should get back.” He kisses me on both cheeks and disappears into a subway station, leaving me on the crowded street wondering what the hell just happened.

An hour later I remember that we’ve only booked the hostel for one night.

“You’ll have to switch rooms,” the poor reception guy says, literally pulling his hair as he tries to understand the messy calendar before him. His eyes are a bit bloodshot. “You’ll sleep in Room 4 tonight, then bring your bags back downstairs at 10am, then put them back upstairs in Room 3 at noon.” I decide not to tell him that my bags weigh as much as I do; I’m concerned any objections may cause an aneurism. 

I relax on the port most of the day, taking in the sunshine and fresh, salty air. Lindsey arrives on schedule after nearly 24 hours of travel, impressively conscious but visibly exhausted. Her eyes are starting to droop as it’s dawning on me that we have no place to stay tomorrow, and no plans whatsoever about the next three weeks. Our CouchSurf requests have all been rejected or ignored, since we’re newbies to the site and people are hesitant to host us. The hostels are all booked since the weekend is approaching. I ask Lindsey if she wants to go talk to the reception desk.

“In the morning.” She stretches, collects her things, and starts for the stairs. “It’ll be fine.” 

“Sorry, we just can’t make room for you,” the stoned receptionist mumbles, turning away from the computer screen and rubbing his eyes. 

We’re starting to panic. It’s 10am and we have no idea where we’ll be sleeping tonight, or any night for the next three weeks, for that matter. We send out about ten frantic CouchSurfing pleas and investigate every hostel in a 100-mile radius. Nothing. Two hours later we meet the miracle that is Remy, the gorgeous gay man who takes over when the confused wreck goes home. He seems amused by our utter lack of organization and is eager to take care of us, probably because it’s embarrassingly clear that we’re in need of rescuing. He makes a half dozen phone calls, rearranges beds and bookings, and voila! We have a home for one more blessed night.

“But what about tomorrow?” Lindsey asks. But the city is out there! There’s a cathedral on a hill with 360 degree views of the city! There is a cheap bus ride to the end of town where huge cliffs and hills bear long, beautiful trails to one of the world’s top beaches! We can’t waste a day in this wonderful place hunched over our laptops. I take a deep breath, steady my nerves, and push the lodging predicament from my thoughts. “It’ll be fine.”

It’s a perfect day—gorgeous scenery, friendly people, a long rest on a stunning beach. Lindsey sketches the cliffs and the water it as I try to capture them in words. On the bus home a bunch of teenagers stumble through their English textbook phrases to tell us how much they love Obama. By sunset we’ve forgotten all about the issue at hand.

In return, we spend the next five hours in blind panic. Nothing’s available. None of the cities we’ve wanted to see are options any longer. We’ve just waited too long, at this point we would have to get a hotel, an option far outside our budget. There are no trains, no buses, no hostels, no Couchsurfers available, and nowhere to go in Marseilles. We’re investigating places miles out of our chosen path, far from our interests and desires, just a bed, anything, anywhere will do. We ask Remy if we can sleep on the couch. His generosity doesn’t extend quite that far. 

“We just really aren’t allowed to do that,” he says awkwardly when he realizes we aren’t kidding. 

The beacon of hope comes from Nice, the playground of wealthy Europeans on the French Riviera. There’s a famous hostel there, a party spot in the hills overlooking the city, with miraculously low rates. It’s the wrong direction, the city is reported to be grossly touristy and overpriced, and neither of us is looking for a party. But it’s midnight and we’ve hiked miles of hills today. We take it, planning to catch the 9:30 train.

We oversleep. We have planned to get to the station an hour early to deal with what we assumed to be a minor problem. When we ordered our rail passes, a glitch in the online ordering system caused them to be delivered both bearing Lindsey’s name. “It’ll be fine,” I insisted. The pass is just a piece of paper, not even an official-looking card. They’ll just print a new one. No worries. But now we’re running late and have minimal time to handle the situation.

We find an English-speaking teller at the ticket office. She takes a look at the passes and our passports, nods in understanding, then shakes her head in apology. There’s nothing she can do. We’ll have to buy another pass. We insist she investigate further. Thirty minutes, three employees, and an exhausting language-blocked conversation later, the conclusion is the same and the train is long gone. Lindsey can use the pass, but I’ll have to buy a ticket to Nice, and the next train’s not till noon. I eat the €22 to make the day easier and we wait, deciding to deal with this in Nice.

The ride is lovely. We pass vineyards and castles, mountains and beaches. It’s the first chance we’ve had to just sit down and catch up, and I’m relishing the fact that I finally have a travel companion. 

The station at Nice, however, is a damn nightmare. Tiny, cramped, and bursting at the seams with tourists shoving, yelling, chattering in a dozen languages. We go to a ticket desk to try to sort out our pass issue. This woman is far less willing to help. She grabs our tickets, waves them in the air, and declares to the line of waiting customers that we are idiots for having made such a mistake, despite our insistence that the error was on their end. “This pass—stupid. Waste. Your travel agent should have told you.” We inform her that we didn’t have a travel agent, and she shouts down our objection, accusing us again of stupidity. We have should have had a travel agent, or we should have booked tickets individually because this pass is hard to deal with. Can’t afford that? Well, then we shouldn’t have come. We are idiot Americans and she won’t help us. As we’ve dealt with two days worth of wonderful, friendly, helpful people in this country, we decide that this woman is sole reason the French have a reputation for rudeness. We abandon the hope of solving this problem and head for the hostel.

We get off at the tram stop the (very sweet) girl at the tourism desk showed us. We’re at a roundabout where six streets meet. We’re looking for Gravier. Two are labeled Baudelaire and four are unmarked. We choose the wrong one twice before meeting a sweet old man who steers us in the right direction. “Up the hill, take a left, then to the summit.”

We look at the 100lb bags we’re carrying on our already weary backs.


There’s no other way to describe what we’re faced with after we take that dreaded left. It is indeed a hike to a summit. It’s a winding path curving up a hill at a 45 degree angle. We sit on our packs for a minute, just looking up at the horrible journey we’re about to take. It takes us thirty minutes, three breaks, and the encouragement of a half dozen laughing strangers on their way down the hill, but we make it. We’re panting, sweating, triumphantly throwing our packs to the ground as we approach the reception desk. The staff stares, shocked smiles. A couple of them laugh. One of the guys buys us two waters from the vending machine. 

“You two are brave,” he says as we gulp down the water. “Most people just take the shuttle up that hill.”

I turn in time to see Lindsey’s jaw drop to the floor.

Nice, it turns out, is wonderful. It is, without a doubt, a tourist spot. But the beaches are gorgeous, the city is clean and lively, and we feel safer after dark than we did in Marseilles. We spent today just walking, and the stress of the week melted away. We'll deal with the rail passes later. It'll be fine. 


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