It started with buying tickets in Nimes. We got to the station about 45 minutes before the train to Marseille was due to leave. That was where we’d be picking up another train that would take us to Toulon and then yet another that would go to Nice. There was a train that went directly to Nice from Marseille, but it was full. Bill knew this before he approached the ticket agent, a rather surly woman who wasn’t all that polite as she issued our tickets. We waited about 20 minutes or so just to be able to speak to her, since there happened to be a shitload of people trying to buy tickets that morning.
As we were waiting, I kept hearing banging on a piano. It turns out that a lot of train stations in France have a piano in the foyer. Anyone is welcome to bang on it or play… the vast majority who played that beleaguered instrument in Nimes did not possess any discernible musical talent. Needless to say, the banging did little to boost my mood.
We got on the train to Marseilles, fortunate enough to score a fold down seat facing backwards, since the train was packed. The Marseille train station, much like the one in Lyon, was a bit of a madhouse. Actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as the Lyon station, but it was a very busy, noisy, crowded place… and yes, there was another piano.
Bill and I rushed to get the train to Toulon, which turned out to be pretty full. We managed to find two seats, but there was nowhere to store our bags. Given that this was a two week trip, we had a few of them with us. We watched in amazement as the train filled up with people until the aisles and spaces between cars were completely full.
We happened to be sitting across from a French woman and her father. She spoke English and asked us where we were from and where we were headed. She apologized for the fact that France’s trains aren’t “comfortable”. For the record, I didn’t think the trains in France were that uncomfortable. Just that particular one was very, very crowded… it reminded me of being in Armenia, where all forms of public transportation are liable to be completely stuffed to the gills with people, safety standards be damned! And unfortunately, there were a couple of people standing in the aisle who really needed a shower.
At one point, there was an announcement asking anyone who could take a later train to get off, but of course, very few people chose to do that and it did nothing to alleviate the problem. Then there was an announcement that they were going to add more cars, which would delay us and cause us to miss our connection in Toulon. Then, the trip was cancelled altogether. All of these developments were kindly translated for us by the English speaking French lady sitting near us.
Bill went to find out what we needed to do and we were advised that there was a train going directly to Nice at 2:30. It was about noon, so that meant we had time for lunch at the train station. We went to McDonald’s. It was very packed, so we sat outside, where it was sunny, but actually very chilly because of a high wind. McDonald’s offered free WiFi, which entertained me for a bit. I took a couple of photos of the view into Marseille. It actually looks like a very nice city, even if getting in and out of there was hellish.
After McDonalds, we went back into the train station and visited a little cafe. It was a rather dirty, no frills kind of place, but the people who ran it were friendly and they had beer. While we were sitting in the cafe, an older black woman and young black man came in and took a table near us. Based on the way they were dressed, I guessed they were from somewhere in Africa. They wore very colorful, exotic clothes that appeared to be the style of some place other than France. They spoke French and the man drank rose wine, while his companion (maybe his mother?) drank coffee. They were loud, but happy and frankly very entertaining to observe. Before too long, they were joined by two other women, similarly dressed and similarly boisterous.
I enjoyed watching how people reacted to this group, who seemed to be having such a great time in this dingy little cafe. Quite a few people seemed bemused, while others appeared to be annoyed. I kind of liked it that they were there, because I love it when I’m near interesting or entertaining people. I have no idea what they were talking about, but I appreciated the fun they were obviously having.
Our train to Nice was also very crowded, though not nearly as much as the train we’d tried to take to Toulon was. Once again, we got seats that faced two going the other direction. I got up to use the bathroom, but found the toilet hopelessly clogged with paper towels and cigarette butts that some asshole had left there. I hate it when people do that, just because they need to satisfy their nic fit. It really messes things up for other people.
An Australian woman with two small children quickly claimed the seats opposite from us. Inwardly, I kind of sighed, since I figured the kids would make the trip more stressful. One of the kids appeared to be about seven or eight, while the other, a toddler, was still breastfeeding. I only know this because the kids’ mom boldly walked up and down the aisle with the girl under her shirt. I don’t blame her for doing that, by the way. I’m all for breastfeeding. I guess it was just kind of different to see someone so totally unabashed about it. You don’t see that very often in the United States.
Anyway, the mom sat with her kids for a little while and talked to us. Bill was very solicitous, helping her with her bags, offering her Wet Naps, and chatting with her. After awhile, mom got up and sat elsewhere with her toddler, leaving her older daughter with us. The girl was actually pretty well behaved, even though she’d been on the train all day. Her mom told us that they’d come from Bordeaux. She played with an iPad most of the time.
The Australian lady had a French woman with her who had a little boy. At first, we thought maybe the French woman was a nanny, since she seemed very solicitous toward the Australian woman’s kids. But it later came out that they had met during the Aussie lady’s travels. You could have fooled me. They really seemed like they were traveling together.
As the long train trip wore on, I was enchanted by the scenery out the window… lots of very blue water, charming towns, and palm trees, along with quite a few mountain tunnels. I was also enchanted by Bill, who proved that he was born to be a dad. When the girl unsuccessfully tried to open a packet of sunflower seeds, Bill took the packet for her and opened it. He kept his eye on her the whole time. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Aussie lady talked to us to make sure we weren’t weirdos and then totally hoped we’d babysit her kid for her. She correctly assessed that Bill is good with kids and, while I’m not as gentle toward tykes, I’m relatively benign. I suppose if you’re traveling for weeks alone with little kids, you have to take help whenever you can get it.
Toward the end of the trip, Mom came back to where we were sitting. Her younger daughter, an adorable child who appeared to have a different father than her sister did, was jumping up and down on the seat and squealing in very shrill tones. Aussie mom asked the toddler to stop jumping, since she “had a very full nappy”. She pulled the tyke’s diaper away and peeked in to confirm her suspicions. I was just hoping there wouldn’t be another big mess on the already messy train. Older girl was getting restless, jumping up and down, and flipping over the seat behind her, which had been vacated. I just tried to stay calm and quiet. People were looking at Bill and me, as if these kids belonged to us. Most of them looked a bit annoyed even though, truly, the older girl in particular had been very well behaved under the circumstances.
When we got to Nice, Bill helped the lady with her bags again. I was in a hurry to get off the train and have some peace and quiet. It had been a long, difficult day of travel and I was ready for a rest. I also didn’t want to get drafted into more babysitting duties!
Nice was a lot bigger, busier, and more crowded than I remembered it. It took a little time to find our lodging, a two star establishment called the Star Hotel. Once we got there, we were warmly welcomed by a receptionist with a remarkable American accent. It turned out she was American and had married a Frenchman while in France learning French. I guess this was her hotel, since she told us (and we observed) that she was there most of the time. She gave us a triple room on the top floor, with a nice little balcony that overlooked the street. The hotel had some strange rules, like you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in your room. Bill asked about that and the lady at the front desk explained that the hotel used have a different owner who was strict about such things. She just asked us not to be messy and thanked us for being considerate enough to ask.
Since we were tired, we went across the street to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner. I think we were the proprietor’s only guests. The food was good, and we enjoyed some wine on the little balcony. After a full night of comfortable sleep, we spent a great day in Nice. More on that in the next post!