A white-haired man wearing an unbuttoned, Hawaiian shirt and fitted white pants greeted me at the door of La Cigla et la Fourmi and told me to walk upstairs where Jen would help me. It turned out that he meant Jean, but I heard Jen and went looking for a person that would be a Jen, namely a female.
I had read in my Lonely Planet Guidebook that the place is tiny with small stairwells. However, I wasn’t expecting this. Only one person can fit at a time on the stairs, and they are so steep in places that you nearly crawl up. The crawling was even more pronounced with my backpack on, and I trudged up the stairs with quite some difficulty. I had the sense of being in a cave. The stairs veered off into dark hallways. I saw dimly lit corners at the end of several. I continued to climb, not knowing where I was supposed to go. I passed a large room where three people sat talking. I kept going, assuming the three people where other residents. I found myself at a dead end and backtracked down to the foyer where I had seen the three people.
Turned out that one of the three was Jean, the man who runs the place. He looks about 50 years old. A Caucasian French man, he lounged on the couch smoking a cigarette. The other two were residents on their way out. Soon the man who had met me at the door also joined us. His name is Patrick. He lives in Greece currently and is here in Marseille helping Jean sell the hostel (turns out Jean’s emigrating to the Philippines to be with his Filipino son). A French Jew of about 65 years of age, Patrick immediately became the center of attention. He speaks English with a thick, French accent, and he’s usually drunk, high, or both, so his speech is slurred, making it all that more difficult to understand him. He dug into me right away, introducing me to newcomers as “The Terrorist.” I played along, not at all flustered. I think now that it was his way of testing me, to see if I was easygoing enough to hang with him. He confided that he had spent some time in Pakistan with friends and was well-aware of the culture and people. I asked him what he was doing in Pakistan. “Smoking hash!” he guffawed. “You ask me, I tell you!” He lit a hash joint.
Several more men trickled into the room. Some were residents, others were looking for a place to stay. Patrick yelled for a girl. She would show me to my room, he informed me. I could also pay for “more,” he suggested. Jean and Patrick smiled at me slyly. A brunette girl stuck out her head and looked down at us from a part of the ceiling (the floor of the upstairs bedroom) that was made of Plexiglas. I noticed it then and couldn’t help wondering what must go on in this hostel. Who has a see-through floor in their bedroom? Jean and Patrick were quick to tell me that the brunette wasn’t for sale, but the girl we were waiting for was. Patrick called her again, “Rebecca!” The girl shouted something back in French. She was in the shower, Patrick translated. The bedroom, Jean divulged, was for couples who liked to put on a show. He grinned mischievously. Finally, Rebecca, a blond girl who looks like she is 19 or 20 years old, joined us. She’s from northern France and barely speaks any English. She seems like a very friendly girl. Rebecca led me to where I would be staying. “Don’t take too long!” chortled Jean and Patrick behind us.
I showered and returned to the foyer with Katy, another American staying in the same building as me. Jean still lounged on the couch, but now a Dutch girl, Dika, sat next to him. Two other additions, Mattheas and Holly who are both German, sat at the computer. Patrick was still planted in his chair by the dining table. His speech had become more crude. He complimented the women on their “assets” and openly propositioned them. Jean, meanwhile, was intent on making a move on Dika. When Katy and I walked in, Patrick’s attention immediately shifted to her, and he began showering her with his ribald remarks. He produced a bottle of wine and soon Katy was drinking glass after glass. By the end of the day, she would be completely inebriated.
When I asked about a place to eat dinner, Patrick offered that he would cook instead. Rebecca vouched for the quality of his cooking, so I agreed to dine with them. Patrick asked Katy and me to contribute by buying most of the food though. I felt that I had been set up, but not wanting to cause any problems on my first day, I chipped in. Patrick, Rebecca, Katy, and I headed out to buy the groceries. The cooked chicken we bought cost me €10. Afterwards, Patrick swindled another €5 from me for cigarettes, promising to pay me later. I knew not to expect the money back. On the way back from the butcher, Katy and Rebecca went off separately to buy a bottle of wine. Patrick and I walked together. He took his time.
“So you like that girl?” he asked me.
“Who?” I played dumb. “Katy?”
“No!” he snapped. “Rebecca! You like her?”
“She seems fine,” I said cautiously. I had noticed Rebecca’s sidelong glances and smiles at me.
“Well, she likes you,” he continued. “And, Rashid (he was having a hard time with my name still), God will forgive you for everything.” He had stopped in the middle of the road. “He will forgive you for killing a man. He will forgive you for eating swine and drinking alcohol. But, Rashid, God will not forgive you for refusing a woman. If a girl wants to sleep with you, you sleep with her!” (His exact words were a bit more colorful.)
What was going on? I was confused. Was he pimping her out? Was this a ploy to extort money from me? For the first time since I started traveling, I felt unsafe. I had the uncomfortable feeling that there was something going on behind my back. Some game was being played, and I was an ignorant pawn. My senses were suddenly on high alert, and I decided to be very careful in how I dealt with this strange cast of characters.
“Sure,” I nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
While Patrick prepared dinner, I hung out in the foyer where I had first met everyone. It is the ad hoc lobby of this hostel, I realize. People check in and out here. Cash exchanges hands. Nothing more official than that. Jean doesn’t even ask you how long you intend to stay, and you certainly don’t make any payment up front. At the end of your stay, Jean asks you how many nights you stayed, you tell him, and hand over the cash: €15 per night. Not a bad deal as long as you’re willing to bear the harassment. And of course, the hashish. Hash joints frequently make the rounds, handed dutifully from one person to the next. I passed each time it got to me. Now, if ever, was not the time to experiment.
Dinner was a quiet affair. In addition to the chicken, we had a fish and vegetable dish. After dinner I returned to my room to finish doing my laundry. I am glad that I packed a clothesline with me before I left the US because there was no place otherwise where I could hang my clothes. As I was finishing up, Rebecca appeared at the door. I gathered that she was looking for something, but when she didn’t find it, she lingered in the room. We made small talk, trying as best as we could given the language barrier. She seemed nervous, and there was something odd about her mannerisms. Something did not click.
“Hey, how old are you anyway?” I asked her.
“No,” she laughed.
I wasn’t sure if she understood. I asked again.
“No, how old are you?” she replied.
“Twenty-five,” I said. “And you?”
“Guess,” she said.
“Nineteen?” I ventured.
She laughed. Something about the way she was acting made me uncomfortable.
“OK, I will tell you after the reggae concert tonight,” she conceded. She had invited me out to the concert earlier, and I had agreed to accompany her.
“No,” I insisted. “Tell me now.”
“OK,” she said finally. “I am 15.”