I awoke this morning, bid farewell to Ali and the Finnish boys, and headed to the station to catch my train to Marseille, France. I didn’t know what to expect in Marseille. I had heard that the Mediterranean Coast of France is beautiful, but Marseille has a reputation for being gritty and tough. When I got off the train at the Marseille station, one thing I knew for sure right away was that this was no Paris. It didn’t have the same pleasant feeling.
I had called ahead for a bed at La Cigla et la Fourmi youth hostel, and I had to take the Metro and switch to a bus to get there. When I went to buy a Metro pass, however, the agent denied having change for a €50 bill, even though I was buying a €10 pass. I asked around for change but had no luck. Finally, I trekked back to the platform where I had arrived and tried to buy something at the newspaper stand. The vendor there also claimed not to have change. Exasperated, I walked into a nearby pharmacy. There the male attendant was quick to inform me that they didn’t give change. I’ll buy something, I told him tersely. I bought a bottle of contact lens solution, and I got my change.
I was on the bus to Robespeare, my stop, when four men suddenly boarded the bus. They quickly dispersed amongst the passengers, barking orders in French. I watched the two women sitting across from me pull out some ID cards and hand them to a man. He had a portable device with him in which he swiped the cards. The machine emitted two beeps for each card, and the man handed them back to the women. I observed the exchange in puzzlement, not sure what they were doing. Then the man approached me and extended his hand. I fished in my pocket and gave him my Metro pass. Is this what he wanted? He stared at the card for a few seconds (during which time I wondered if he wanted my license or passport instead), then swiped it in his machine. I sat back, relieved. The machine emitted only one beep though. He swiped the card again. Again only one beep. He turned the pass around and swiped again. I thought I heard two beeps this time, but the man didn’t seem satisfied. Nevertheless, he handed the pass back to me and joined the rest of his crew. I realized then that I had just experienced a raid by the transit authority. These men were going around making sure the passengers had valid passes and weren’t trying to get free rides. It was my first raid, and it wouldn’t be my last.
I approached the bus driver and after greeting him asked about my stop. The driver was maneuvering the bus around an extremely narrow turn, edging around oncoming vehicles, when he finally understood what I was saying. “Robespeare!” he exclaimed. He brought the bus to a stop and jerked his thumb back. “Robespeare back!” I guessed I had missed my stop. The driver popped the doors open in the middle of the road and looked at me expectantly. I got the message. I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the bus.
Marseille has a dry, heavy heat. I felt like I was roasting as I plodded my way in the direction the bus had come. I wasn’t even certain how far back the stop was, and I dreaded having to walk far under the merciless midday sun. Luckily, the second stop turned out to be Robespeare. I wasn’t sure where to go from there though. Walking around a corner I came across a restaurant. I asked a man there for directions, and he was kind enough to lead me down a nondescript back road to La Cigla et la Fourmi, the weirdest place I have yet visited.