I impressed myself by finding my way back to the Gare De Lyon station for my overnight trip to Marseille, but once inside I could only stand in a dazed state of confusion bordering on panic. People, platforms, more people, exits, entrances, signs in French … I had no idea where my train might be hiding and was terrified I’d board the wrong one and end up who knows where! I tried asking a few people for directions, but their response was the usual Parisienne shrug.

Then, my knight in shining armour materialised. 

Not only did Jean Louis speak a little English, he was on leave from the air force and on his way home to Marseilles. He took my suitcase, accompanied me to the train and located my compartment.

As we pulled out of Paris I stretched out on my couchette – I would have called a bunk bed, but couchette certainly sounded more exotic – content in the knowledge I was indeed heading to Marseille and not back to London with a side trip to Turkey.

Suddenly, the other 5 people in the compartment all started addressing me in French. I had no clue what they were saying, so responded with the Parisienne shrug and “no francaise. Parle anglaise? ” That really set them off. They started yelling and waving their arms about in a most alarming manner. Suspecting my life might be in danger, I made a hasty exit and took off down the narrow corridor hoping to find Jean Louis. Fortunately, he responded to my call and once again came to my rescue. We arrived back in my compartment and a 6 way conversation revealed that my crime, no doubt punishable by guillotine, had been to occupy the wrong couchette! All was solved and once again, peace reigned supreme on a night train rattling through France.

Well, all was quiet at least until the people in my compartment got hungry at about 2am. Then they all started talking, singing and sharing food and wine around. Of course (and perhaps fortunately, based on the smell) none was offered to the ignorant couchette-stealing foreigner!

It was still pitch dark when we came to a ear-piercing, metal grinding halt in Marseilles at 5.15 am. I staggered sleepily down the steep steps onto the platform and wondered how I would fill in the time until daybreak, but my luck was in. Jean-Louis caught up with me and said (I think) that it was not safe for a girl to walk around Marseilles in the dark. He helped me store my suitcase in a station locker, explained to me how to retrieve it, then escorted me to a cafe, bought coffee and pastries and stayed with me until it grew light.

That was to be the first of many kind gestures I would encounter from strangers during the months I spent on the continent. We left the cafe at daybreak and exchanged a kiss on each cheek, then Jean Louis and I said goodbye and good luck on a deserted wind-swept street at around

We were never to cross paths again, but I’ll never forget his kindness.

It was early March. I shivered in the icy wind coming off the Mediterranean. Then I reminded myself where I was! This was the south of France! I’d seen the Pacific and the Atlantic, and now, I was about to see the Mediterranean. I remembered the words of an old song …

I’ve seen the Pacific and the Atlantic

and the Pacific isn’t terrific

and the Atlantic isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Well, I loved ’em all!

I had only allocated a half a day in Marseilles and wondered if it was enough, but after Jean Louis went on his way, I wandered around for a few hours and thought I’d seen it all. My train wasn’t due to leave until 11am, so at around 9o’clock I decided to visit the imposing Notre Dame de la Garde monastery that overlooked the city.

I asked a man how to get to it— or rather, I shrugged and pointed to a bus and said “Notre-Dame?” and he wrote #59 on a piece of paper. I could only hope we understood each other.  I jumped on a number 59 bus and when I disembarked, I found myself in a whole other world … a town built entirely on the side of the cliff.

It looked as though the 20th century had never touched it. Old stone houses crowded together on both sides of narrow winding streets. It was so steep that each house was above instead of behind the other. I had to climb about 50 cobble-stone steps between each street.

The shops had craftsmen working on their wares in shopfront windows—cobblers making shoes, tailors sewing suits, glass blowers, potters, milliners, etc.

The sky was a glorious vivid blue. and The air was so clear I could see right over Marseille, across an expanse of the Mediterranean and as far as the mountains of northern Italy! Breathtaking!

Time stood still as I wandered around in awe of this ‘Brigadoon’ type township. I was so entranced, I forgot my original intention had been to visit the monastery. Suddenly I realised it was time to head back to the station.

I could have kicked myself for not heading up there earlier. Perhaps … another time.

I collected my suitcase, unaided. I boarded the correct train – again, totally unaided. I settled into a window seat and silently congratulated myself. Yes, I was starting to get good at this!

Next stop, just 3 hours away, was the famous French Riviera! Yippee! What a life!

franceFrench RivieraMarseilles

PARIS (part 2)

I was awoken by the shrill ring of the telephone. How does one answer the phone in Paris, France, I wondered. I picked it up and before I could come up with a French word that sounded like ‘hello’, a woman started prattling on in high-speed French until I interrupted her and said “I’m sorry, non parlay .. um … French. “

So she hung up!

I had no idea who it was or what she wanted, but a few minutes later there was a knock on the door and I was handed a tray with the longest bread roll I had ever seen  (french stick), accompanied by lots of butter and marmalade, and a big pot of hot coffee.

My tray also included the newspaper, Figaro, which gave me a giggle. It seemed like a lifetime ago – but had only been five years earlier –  that I had written asking them to print my letter in the hope of finding a penpal there.

I already corresponded regularly with about 20 penpals around the world, but there was always room for more. l received an avalanche of letters in response to my ad. Every envelope I excitedly ripped open contained pages of scrawled French. I never did get a French penpal.

There was also a street map of Paris and one of the Paris Metro on the tray. No doubt they figured that my inability to speak their language meant I’d become hopelessly lost. How thoughtful, but frankly, just looking at the chaotic Metro (underground railway) made my brain hurt after being familiar with the organized and simplified map of the British system.

After my delicious breakfast, I headed off to see the sights. With only one day to cover everything, I decided to book a Cityrama bus tour. On the way to join it, I stopped at a souvenir shop to buy an Australian badge to pin on my jacket to let people know I was merely an ignorant tourist and was not responsible for my mistakes, but they didn’t have an Aussie one. I thought promoting myself as British might be asking for trouble, so I opted for USA and it worked!  I occasionally got a smile when I asked “parlay anglaize?” Just a smile. Then a shrug and a head shake.

Chandris facebook memberJennifer Bowler worked in Paris as a waitress at the Sheraton Hotel and apparently didn’t have the problems I had making herself understood. In fact, she even taught one of the French waitresses to speak Aussie when a group of Australian ladies arrived for a meal. The waitress greeted them “G’day, Ow ya gowin?” The Aussies loved it and insisted on meeting the teacher, then promised to call Jennifer’s parents once they were back in Australia.

The 3 hour bus tour was expensive – 23 francs (about $2) but hang the expense, it was worth it.  Earphones provided  commentary in every language with the mere push of a button. Wow, talk about high tech! How I wished I had one of those wherever I went. It really helped bring Paris to life. I learnt that nearly everything here has something to do with Napoleon, and if not, one of the Louis’. It seems there were hundreds of those.

We had a brief stop at the Eiffel Tower, but were not permitted to leave the bus due to the light snow, so I could only take a photo through the window. I’m still amazed that the Europeans I’ve encountered so far all seem terrified of a little dampness! Still, I was excited to see it even from that distance, it was like one of my old swap cards had come to life.

We viewed the Palace d’Opera, the Place de la Concorde, Avenue Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe (which I’d already seen in all its glory last night ), but the rain and occasional snow prevented most passengers from disembarking for a closer look at anything. I was also excited to see Notre-Dame cathedral and tried to imagine Quasimodo swinging from pillar to post.

It’s a pretty city, although I confess I found some parts drab and uninteresting, and some too ostentatious for my taste.

At the end of the tour we were all presented with a voucher to collect a bottle of perfume. Whacko, Real French perfume! It smelt glorious, but of course, the bottle was so tiny that I dared not remove the cap in case the few drops inside evaporated.

I doubt some of the participants on one of Chandris member Neville Fenn’s tours smelt like French perfume.

Neville took some of his tour group on a trip through the Paris sewerage system! One has to wonder why, but according to Neville, they enjoyed it immensely, even when a large rat ran over one girl’s foot and her shriek echoed throughout the tunnels.Then, in Neville’s own words: “when the guide showed us the ladder that Louis XVI climbed to his execution at the Guillotine, I started to climb it. A couple of the girls made a grab at me and screamed that they were worried about the guillotine at the top. Of course, all three fell in. They spent an hour or more wandering around Paris wearing what was definitely not a Christian Dior perfume … perhaps more like Eau de Sewerage d’Paris … until they made it back to the camp and were able to shower and change their clothes.

Chandris facebook member Brenda Broad opted for something a little more glamorous than a sewererage system. In May 1979, Brenda was only 22 and travelling alone, so she chose the security of a Contiki tour. They visited the Palais de Versailles and she became so engrossed, she didn’t realize her watch was slow. She hurriedly headed off to re-board the bus, but could only stand and watch as it disappeared down the road.

Did she panic? Not our Brenda! In her words: “Using my limited school French, I asked directions from a French lady, a policeman, a bus driver and beautiful Dutch woman. I travelled by foot, bus and metro to the Champs Élysées, eating lunch on the way. I walked up to the Arc de Triomph where I ran into a fellow passenger who told me where to meet the bus later. I then had such a lovely time wandering down to the Louvre through the Jardin Drs Tuileries.”

I was brave, too … well, at least a little. After my Citirama tour was over, I dared to spend the afternoon walking around Paris alone, without anyone to guide me or translate for me. Apart from a quick walk around the block the previous night, this was my first time alone in a European city where English was not the native tongue! I headed in the direction of what I hoped was the left bank … and incredibly, I found it! Or perhaps it found me! For centuries this area has been home to philosophers, students and intellectuals, including writers Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Sartre and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. I was totally charmed by the cobbled streets, the open air markets and the quaint art-deco houses, their balconies adorned with pots of brightly-coloured flowers. It was still snowing lightly, yet people were in the streets, talking, laughing, hugging, even drinking coffee in open air cafes, fearlessly exposing themselves to the dreaded swirling snowflakes. This was the Paris I’d hoped to find.

Everyone seemed friendlier than in the more expensive part of Paris, and I was fascinated to see men kissing each other on the cheek 3 times on meeting! It was certainly not something men would dare to do back home and I found it utterly enchanting.

I fell head over heels in love with the policemen in their flat caps and capes, and when I asked one for directions, what a delight it was to hear him reply in English. He sounded like Maurice Chevalier and I almost expected him to launch into a rendition of Thank Heavens for Little Girls. 

My train was due to leave at 8.40pm and as I wouldn’t be arriving in Marseilles until 5.15am, I booked a couchette (2nd class sleeper) for 20 francs (about $3).

French Riviera … here I come! YAY!

Photo by Kay McEwen

You can read the ‘story behind the story’ in ‘Yesterday: A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage’. available at Amazon and all good online bookshops.