After the incident with the weird guys on the train, the people in Marseille only got weirder. We dropped our bags off at our "family room" at the Hotel Montgrand near the Vieux Port, and our first mission was to find food. After surviving six to seven hours on a train on only chocolate cookies and "salty nuts," we were famished. Apparently one Asian cuisine meal wasn't enough, and after about a few minutes of reading menus at restaurants along the waterfront, we decided on Zen Zen, a very clean and new-looking Asian fast food place. While it wasn't the best, it was cheap and pretty good, and thus became our official Marseille hangout for the next four days.
Following our late lunch (by American standards), we stopped in the Office du Tourisme to get free maps and information on local sights, and then we stopped in a few stores along Marseille's main shopping drag. Amy wasn't feeling too well after the long day, so the remaining three of us decided to forge on anyway. We headed up the hill to Cours Julien, the Lower East Side of Marseille. The main part is a plaza at the top of one of Marseille's many hills (very reminiscent of San Francisco), but as we noticed along our walk, this city is very sketchy. Not to mention filthy. (I later found out that their garbage department was on strike - typical - but I don't think it would have been THAT much cleaner anyway.) When we got to the top of the hill, we decided on a Pakistani cuisine restaurant. And after 45 minutes of being ignored (the waitstaff really tried to avoid eye contact with us after they simply told us to wait by the door for a table), we were finally seated. Then the waiter messed up our Naan order, which led to a very confusing discussion in both French and English, and even in English their answer didn't make any sense. It was definitely time for drinks.
We first hit up Dan Racing, which was hosting a punk rock concert with mosh pits and everything. There were two weird things about this bar: one was the CA-Interstate 280 sign on the refrigerator, and the other was that their unisex bathroom had neither a toilet nor a urinal - simply a hole in the ground. I just couldn't do it. I pleaded with Rachel and Liz that we find somewhere else quickly, and after about five minutes we found Planet Mundo, a much cleaner, upscale (but not too upscale) bar and club holding a reggae concert. They also had very clean toilets. While I was in the restroom, Rachel met a new friend named Bernard (I think), who was a local and seemed very nice. Although I didn't really talk to him much. More on him later. After a very long day and readjusting to a new city very different from Bordeaux, it was time for bed.
On Saturday morning (also Halloween), we went back to Zen Zen for brunch. For € 5,99, one could get orange juice, hot chocolate/coffee, a croissant, two pieces of bread and jam and a very large yogurt. It was nice having a refreshing breakfast after eating grocery store pain-au-chocolat for the past four days to save money. The four of us munched in our breakfast in the outdoor patio seating area on a warm morning, sitting around the table like we were in an episode of Sex and the City. Breakfast was pleasent until we were getting up to leave, when two boys ran up to our table and started trying to grab things off our already-finished trays. I'm used to them coming by for money when I'm eating, either from other cities in Europe (Paris, Rome and Barcelona all seem to come to mind first), but some in Marseille are exceptionally more aggressive than in any other European city I've been to so far. We were trying to ignore them at first, but then one of the boys (perhaps 10 years old, if not younger) grabbed the receipt off of Liz's tray and started waving it in the air and laughing at us. Liz started to get understandably upset, asking for her receipt back, to which the kid refused. Although I wasn't sure what kind of information was actually on the receipt (nor did I know that she had paid in cash so he couldn't really use it against her), it was still wrong that the kid took something that wasn't his and then taunted us with it. When he stopped for a second, I managed to grab it out of his hand, to which he looked at me as if he were going to cry and then tried to grab it out of my hand. I said nothing, stared him down and him and the other boy ran away, picking up chairs and annoying people at other outdoor restaurants. I gave Liz back her receipt, and after the morning entertainment, we were ready to hike up the city hills to the Notre-Dame Cathedral (every French city has one).
Marseille hills are just as steep as San Francisco's, and after a few months of being away, I wasn't quite conditioned for them in the same way anymore. But, nevertheless, we made it to the top, with views of the entire city and the surrounding islands, including the Château d'If (from The Count of Monte Cristo). The Notre-Dame itself was gorgeous, and appropriately for Halloween, we visited the church crypt, although it was less crypty than other crypts I've been to in France. My favorite moment at the church was watching two little toddlers meet and then chase each other around, her chasing him first and then after he fell, he chased her. It was like watching a metaphor for life. After marching back down the hill, we tried to go to the Musée Cantini, where we were looking for a Kandinsky exhibit, mentioned in the guide book. However, when Liz and Amy asked the ticket agent if the exhibit was still there, we were rudely brushed away, as she said something to the effect of, "Look behind you and read the list. Do you see his name there?" Well, then. We decided to give up on the Cantini and walked over to the Quartier Le Panier, the oldest established district in all of France. It certainly looked its age. And while it was dirty and smelly in parts, we managed to find a very nice, quiet square with a few patio restaurants for lunch.
After lunch, we rushed back to the Musée de la Mode, which was less than I hoped for, but it was free so I'm not going to complain. I also found a piece of green straw that I used for my Halloween costume: a French pumpkin. That is, I wore an orange dress and a beret, to which I tied the green ribbon in the same fashion as the berets from Madeleine. I really should have just bought a green beret, but I can't afford any fancy extras at the moment. We then rushed to the Office du Tourisme again to get information on getting to Les Calanques on Sunday. However, none of the agents seemed to really know anything about getting their by boat, as all of them gave us different information. But someone told us how to get there by city bus, which turned out to be the easiest and cheapest option.
Halloween isn't very big in France, but there were some traces of the holiday, either chocolate ghosts in store windows or waiters dressed up as different restaurants in Cours Julien. Plus, it was Saturday night, so there were plenty of people out and about. We had dinner at a tapas restaurant, which was one of the best meals I've had in awhile, if not the best since I arrived in France. Spanish food was the best meal I've had in France so far. Ha. Three pitchers of both red and white sangria later, we went on a mini-pub crawl, before which we ran into Bernard again. He tagged on to our group for the most of the evening, first buying us a round of mojitos at at bar called "Oogie." We all tried to buy him a drink, but he refused, so that's that. We eventually made it back to Planet Mundo again, where there weren't too many people on the dance floor by 1 AM anymore. Except us. Eventually, the four of us stumbled back down the graffiti and garbage-strewn streets to our hotel.
Now, in Lille, most of our hangover brunches take place at McDonalds, as its the only thing open on Sunday mornings (or Sunday at all). Not to mention that this Sunday was also November 1, All Saints' Day or Toussaint, the holiday for which we had this lengthy vacation. But luckily for us, Zen Zen was indeed open to the public on Sunday morning. However, in the middle of our breakfast, we were interrupted by a middle-aged woman pushing her stroller right up to our table. She was asking for money and food, but we tried to politely tell her we didn't have anything to share. But she didn't relent, instead standing there for at least a full minute. Then, she grabbed at Rachel's chicken nuggets, which prompted all of us to start screaming at her. She sort of laughed at us like it was OK for her to do that, and then continued to bother other patrons. Rachel still ate the chicken nuggets, which I would have done too, although she joked that we might all have swine flu now. Or possibly some disease never discovered by scientists.
We then headed to the main street to catch the bus to Les Calanques. Now, I didn't really know much (if anything) about Les Calanques before this trip. I thought we were going to a group of villages, after I heard talk about us having to walk through centre-ville (downtown) somewhere, maybe something like Cinque Terre in Italy. But I really didn't expect that we'd be hiking through a national park. So wearing my flats that day turned out to be a bad idea. Although, I've seen a woman climb the Eiffel Tower in stilettos once, so I figured I could manage this. I almost made it on both paths we took, one towards the top (seen in the group photo) and then to the bottom by the beaches and Mediterranean. I couldn't make it down to the water as there was one part that looked too slippery, and I wasn't going to risk falling and breaking my neck over the beach and my shoes. So I decided to chill while the others continued on, breathing in the fresh Mediterranean Sea air and basking in the southern France sunlight. After several hours of getting in touch with nature, we went back to the hotel and then back out in search for dinner. Most places were closed since it was both Sunday and Toussaint, but eventually we settled on dinner at a Reunion-cuisine restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was, especially noticing the obvious Indian influence on the style.
On our final full day in Marseille and of our vacation down south, we took a bus ride to Aix-en-Provence, just 50 minutes away. The only thing I really knew about Aix was that the region is famous for rosé wines, but as it was November and we were in the middle of the city (not the countryside where its made), we didn't really have much clue as to what to do or see. There was also a very rude welcoming, as some very weird middle-aged guy started harassing us when walking to centre-ville from the bus stop. And he just wouldn't leave us alone! We kept telling him to go away, then he said our French was bad and apologized for saying our French is bad, and he wouldn't get out of our faces. I walked into the middle of the street to try to get away from him, and he wouldn't go away! I have no idea what his agenda was, other than being a complete jerk, but somehow we lost his interest.
We then wandered a bit, spending some time in a comic book store (comics are REALLY popular here), and then lunch at a diner. We tried to find a museum, but as I suspected, it was Monday and all museums were closed. I think it turned out to be a good thing, as we found a very delightful antique shop, where all four of us left with something. I bought a set of old-fashioned playing cards decorated with European monarchs and nobility (i.e. Marie-Antoinette, Joseph I of Austria, Catherine the Great, the Duke of Marlborough, etc.), Amy bought a blue belt, Liz got a French film magazine from the 1960s and Rachel got a weekend-getaway suitcase. We then rushed back to the bus depot to get on the bus back to Marseille, which was confusing in itself as we had to search for both the correct stop and then get in line (or more like behind the mob) getting on the two buses back to Marseille.
Appropriately, we ate Provençal food the last night. Amy and Rachel shared a Niçoise salad and the Bouillabaisse, which looked like art when the waiter brought it out and prepared it for them right there on the table. When we got back to the hotel, where cleaning staff had removed our shower door for some bizarre, unknown reason, Rachel and Liz passed out from exhaustion while Amy and I watched some French reality TV. Both of us really wish we had TV here, as I think it would really help in learning the language even more. The programs were really entertaining and its more fun than just talking at work each day. First we watched a show about a mom looking for new love, and then a makeover show about a couple getting married called Une Nouvelle Look, Une Nouvelle Vie. I was captivated.
Alas, our fun had to end some time. After a week in the south, it was time to return north. But I think all of us were ready as we all missed friendly people, even if it did mean cold and rain awaited us. Passing through Aix, Avignon, and Lyon, the five-hour TGV ride went smoothly with the exception of a 20-minute stop at EuroDisney again when the car door couldn't open and they had to reboot the train. When we arrived back in Lille, I realized the date was November 3. Hard to believe that it was only one year ago on the same day I was finishing packing for my trip to Asia, Barack Obama was about to be elected president...and I started this blog!