Friday evening and we were jumping up in the air for joy at the prospect of a mini-break to Marseille, a weekend away from the rain, cloud, dirt and piss that seems to constitute Paris, ‘city of love’. Though not originally on the agenda, a heart-wrenching sprint across the city motivated by the potential loss of hundreds of euros was an inevitability considering I’d been the one to organise the trip. (The first rule of Laura club is – you do not trust her when it comes to organisation. The second rule of Laura club is – you do not trust her when it comes to organisation. The third rule is…You tell her to shut up when she gets too annoying…)
Apparently checking out a Myspace profile for signs of the cringe-worthy character I used to be in my young and naiive days (two years ago, no less) isn’t entirely worth a near-on heart attack and the mowing down of old women in metro stations (the inevitable result of being late, and therefore of my life). And the sight of three youths darting in and out of poor passers-by simply minding their own business, in zig-zag shapes that would confuse even the wisest of bears, is apparently likely to cause more than a few judgemental stares – ones that I could only describe as quintessentially French.
But, heart racing, toes tingling, friends fuming, we made it onto the train with what turned out to be an impressive ten minutes to spare. Not bad for someone that didn’t even make it in time for her own birth (and, needless to say, being 5 days late seemed to set the standard for my whole future).
Stress over, we braced ourselves for what we knew would be a whirlwind weekend away, bathing under the blue skies of the south and soaking up Marseille’s rays (alongside predicted pervy glances from leering men). And whirlwind it was. A thirty minute delay seemed like a blessing when we discovered the train before ours took a total of nine hours to reach the city (somehow we managed to overtake it and arrive five hours before – how that worked I am not inclined to attempt to understand, but merely to accept with a pinch of slightly malicious joy).
One jolly taxi driver later and we arrived at our hotel, head full of dreams – and premature remarks on the friendliness of the Marseille people. Our arrival was surprisingly smooth and, other than a minor revelation that our two days were going to be filled with gale-forced winds and a fair amount of lightning, all was good.
So bright and early the next morning, we went gallivanting off to discover the city coined the ‘ville poubelle’ (‘rubbish town’). No poubelle in sight, however. And guess what? No lightning either. All we could see was a glorious sun and a beautiful blue sky, in fact – maybe it was going to be the weekend we’d been dreaming of.
We hit the beach and took a dip in the water, whose splendorous colour concealed, I was aware, sub-zero temperatures which were more than likely to cause a severe case of hyperthermia. Nevertheless, anyone worth their salt (sea-salt, of course) was going to give it a go, so give it a go we did, toute seule as we were – Brits abroad strike 1. Roll on six hours alternating between relaxation and exhileration at near-death-due-to-drowning/physical-freezing experiences, and we finally took a fateful glance down onto our shoulders, arms, and entire skin surface – a lobster transformation had occurred. Brits abroad strike 2.
But our traffic-light redness didn’t get our spirits down, and we returned to our pad to prepare for what we were sure was to be a wild night out in ‘rubbish town’. I’m aware of the paradox, but I took mindless faith in the belief anyway, convinced this was to be the case…
A bottle of vodka later, and we decided it was time to hit the town. But trouble hit us as equally hard as we were prepared to hit that town when our friend suddenly realised she was relatively incompetent in terms of not only walking, but unfortunately in general functioning. Suddenly fluent in Spanish (I’d never once heard her speaking Spanish), she rambled on for around 30 minutes on the subject of the shoes of the man sitting next to her – to my deaf-to-Spanish ears I gathered none of this and assumed she was talking about something far more a) relevant and b) exciting, but an enquiry the next day revealed the shocking truth. One racist remark and ensuing threatening response later, and we were out of the metro and into the open air of the south and of safety – or so we believed. We were, in fact, accosted on three separate occasions by slightly scary-looking passers-by on the prowl for ‘un roulé’ – the essence of which was only established after we innocently asked for a synonym that we might better understand. They were looking for weed, and we were asking for an alternative French term to express their desires – I think they gathered we didn’t have any.
Roll on half an hour and I found myself locked in a very small toilet cubicle, closing my eyes to replace the sight of my friend being sick by the highly appealing sounds accompanying it. Brits abroad strike 3. After thirty minutes in my equivalent to Orwell’s room 101, a burly French bloke began thudding on the door. Was I going to open it? No, I was going to be brave. He carried on knocking and I started to have a sickening fear he was going to punch a hole through the door, through my head and into the unfortunate Zoe, still wretching over the toilet. So eventually I opened the door, ready to take on one very angry French man. And take him on I did. Tutoying me as if I were a naughty school-child who’d forgotten to tie my laces, he firmly told me and my friend to f*ck off – or words to that effect. I firmly told him in reply that I’d be happy to leave, and that, unfortunately for him, I therefore wouldn’t have the time to clean up the mess. Spouting out the word “bâtard” more times than my friend had spouted out the contents of her stomach in the past half an hour, I succeeded in disciplining a forty-year old man, all in French, more successfully than I’d ever disciplined anyone else, my fourteen year-old students included. Now there’s a sign of language improvement (I’m sure my tutors will be more than proud.) Though I think that might put us on a Brits abroad strike 4…
Eventually we made it back to the hotel after a night that was wild in a slightly different way to the one we’d imagined. Well, we might not have made it to a club, but we did make it to several toilets and a stroppy French man, so I suppose we should try to look on the positive side (or at least imagine there is one).
Now you might imagine that the rest of our weekend was a little less eventful – you’d be wrong. A call from a friend confirming she’d been followed in Paris and threatened with a teenager bearing a pen-knife set us up for what was to be another rather adventurous day – involving a ride on a children’s train to take a tour around the town, a mark in itself, of course, that we truly are some very brave souls…
Our day ended with a relaxed meal by the harbour… and, surprise surprise, yet another sprint for the train which involved mowing down the population of Marseille and eventually jumping through those fateful train doors within a minute of them slamming shut on ville poubelle, and carrying us away forever.
All in all, ‘rubbish town’ was a lot less rubbish than it’s reputed to be and, despite spending three hours of my life dodging in and out of toilets for the sake of a sick ami, I had a great weekend away. I also learnt that three Brits in Marseille should a) learn what ‘roulé’ means, and b), be less British. Three near-death experiences taught me to value my life. But has the near-on heart attack encouraged me to stop being late from now on? Well, since it’s proved excellent training for the obviously inevitable moment when I’ll have to run away from a bear (and that will involve speed, stress and a whole lot of zig-zagging.), I’m inclined to say no.