An Old Story Newly Deployed:  Aix

Posted on August 12, 2010

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I love a good coincidence.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have encountered my laments about not being able to find a computer with a 3&1/2″ disk drive. I needed a computer with a disk drive because my old laptop preserved a few old short stories that I didn’t want to lose — in particular, one story inspired by my trip to Europe when I was nineteen.

A recent Android O/S update allows my mobile phone to act as a wireless hotspot. Eureka! Thanks to an old wireless card, it was now possible to transfer the stories to my Gmail account and save them forever. Woot again!

(Um, yes, this means I could have gone to a cafe with wireless internet but I needed an outlet and, of course, they aren’t always available. The thought of lugging my computer down to a cafe only to be denied because of inaccessible outlets was enough of a disincentive to this course of action.)

Last week, I transferred the stories to Gmail and had a walk down memory lane. I was also pleased to discover that one of those old stories stands the test of time — the story about my time in Europe.

I was pleased because I recently realized this story is part of what I will henceforth call my Paris Triptych: 1) the story posted below, 2) this poem, and 3) this play. And if you read all that, you should probably check out this Afterword as well.

Then, my friend Jessica of the The Most Exquisite Moments wrote this post about her own experiences traveling in Europe right now.

And I thought, “That’s a coincidence worth acting upon!”

I wrote the heart and soul of the story below in the months following my return to Canada. I revisited it several times over my university years but the revisions only concerned grammar and sentence structure. The overall tone and structure always remained the same.

I’m not sure who the guy in this story is but he’s probably the guy that the person-I-was wanted other people to think he was. He’s not Freud’s Ich but he is probably the work in which Hegel’s spirit first comes to see the possibility of itself.

And now I can’t help but wonder, “What will Jessica come up with in the years to come?”

Aix

I was sitting on a park bench in Aix that was situated on the Las Ramblas of the town. It was a large tree lined street with a fountain for a heart. The town was the body, the fountain the heart, and the Las Ramblas the artery. The Las Ramblas and all the wide boulevards of the town met at the fountain, and all the quaint little streets ran off that artery, and the town filled the spaces that the capillary streets created with those quaint squat European buildings. Later, I would call it the Las Ramblas street, after Spain, but now it was just a large bright street where all the couples strolled to be seen and to enjoy the soft autumn air with its Mediterranean accents.

Aix is a smallish university town filled with beautiful French girls studying to become beautiful French women, I guess. I watched them go by in jeans and their woollen pullovers in groups or as the interesting part of a couple. They looked at me and saw a tourist. I could not hide that, sitting on a bench, eating my supper of bread and cheese that had spent the better part of the day in my pack. I took a long pull off my bottled water and reminded myself only tourists eat like this in Europe.

I was currently hanging with a Quebecker from Montreal who actually thought of himself as a Canadian. He was a nice friendly kind of guy. He was a little round from his love of food and he talked a lot with his hands, particularly when he mentioned food — like maybe if he said the right things and made the right motions, magic would happen and the food would be there. We had met in Nice in one of those casual, hostel-hopping relationships, but we bumped into each other again in the Marseilles train station. I was sitting there on the platform waiting for some shit local train, reading, and eating Brie and bread with bottled water. I was making a mess from the crumbs because it was that crusty baguette bread that has almost no food value but is as cheap as piss — which in Europe is cheap, but sure as hell isn’t free. Come to think of it, I left a lot of crumbs in that station. I mean, you pass through that station a lot kicking around the south of France. I don’t know much about the town itself because I never really looked around, but it’s just a big dirty port town as far as I know.

The first time I passed through it I was with this South African chick and we were hungry so I went foraging for food, fulfilling my man role or whatever. You can’t buy shit at a train station unless your planning to take out a loan. The closer you get to a train in Europe the higher the prices of everything gets and the farther away you get the cheaper it gets. So, I actually left the little bubble in reality that a train station is and moved out into the world of Marseilles.

It was a dirty, grey, hilly, urban landscape that I encountered. Everything seemed to lay flat against the air in a monochrome palate. I found this little shop that seemed small enough and far enough away from the station that it would run on local prices as opposed to European standard tourist pricing. I think the Greenwich of the pricing zones is Paris and the farther away you get the cheaper things get. The shop itself was an open hole in some typically old European building.

The shopkeeper was really nice and he made a big deal about me for some reason. I tried my best to speak my mandatory high-school French and he tried to speak his English. His English was better then my French, but I won because the French always prefer to speak their own language. The place ended up being cheap. The water was a good price and so was the bread, but it was a little stale.

When the Quebec guy came upon me in Marseilles, my provisions were from a tourist town on the coast. It wasn’t a bad stop because it was terribly off season and the place was deserted. After Nice, I wanted to go to a quaint small town and swim in the Mediterranean. I could have done it in Nice, but I wanted sand between my toes, not little boulders that dogs have pissed on. I wanted to swim in that big beautiful Mediterranean that stretched on forever in one big slate of blue that I stared out over and made believe that I saw Africa when I knew it was only storm clouds low and way out at the end of the horizon.

When I reached the town, I headed right for the beach. It was a grey cloudy day that carried with it a heavy mist that was  dense enough to qualify itself as a light rain. It was the sort of day that justified the existence of an off season.

I had bread, Brie and water that I had bought in Nice. The cheese was bought on sale in a supermarket for a really good price, but when I opened the package there was a bug squashed into the white Brie skin. The American that I was with looked over from his driving and said: “Yep, that there is a tick.” Well, maybe he didn’t quite say it like that, but he did instantly recognise its species after my expert opinion had classified it as a squashed bug. The water I had with me was bought super cheap at a drugstore and I bought like three of them, but when I tasted it, on that little grey beach, sitting on some rocks with waves breaking themselves at my feet and throwing spray over me and my bug amputated Brie, it made my teeth feel funny.

I sat and ate and stared at the grey churning sea that flung itself against the rocks and caressed the sand. Each rush from the sea threw spray into the air over me and my clothes in an angry break of noise, but as the sea withdrew I listened for the movement of the fine sand as it slid and melted into new symmetries of shape, line and colour. The sand was a rusty muddle of colours, the sky was a mat grey and the sea barely a blue. It should have been dark, but the movement and life of the sand was a source of light powered by the residual energy of its soft steely movement that followed the caresses of the sea whenever the sea saw fit to throw itself against my rock. It wasn’t like Nice where the thick pebbles and stones rattled and cracked like billiard balls and each crest of the wave brought a break and then the balls were reset and broken again. It was loud and overbearing. That was Nice. Here, you had to listen for the symphony of the sand. You could think here.

You could think of the South African girl who you had travelled with for three weeks. The girl for whom you stole a grocery cart in Paris so she could carry her luggage. You could think of this girl who told you she had been raped by a friend of her father’s and once had a nervous breakdown on the second day you knew her because you had shared a bottle of cheap red wine with her.

Or you could think of the British girl in Florence. You could think of this girl who had given you a smile so warm and clear and natural that your heart had actually warmed. It was the only time you had ever felt that from something like a smile or anything. You could think how you turned down her offer to go to Venice because you still hurt from the way the South African had left, leaving only a note, like it was some cheap thing and not three weeks in Europe when you never touched her or made a move or anything, though you knew you probably could have done anything because she already had been raped and hadn’t told anyone that time, and now you were in a foreign country and because she wrote long letters to a fiancee whose picture you saw and thought was her father. You could think about her fair skin, which had never seen freezing temperatures, glowing with the slightest soft radiance of pink in Vienna when the temperature dropped suddenly and you wanted to keep her warm, but you kept your distance like a brother, and joked, and pretended, and tried to hide it all. You could think of the British girl who you should have followed, but turned from for whatever stupid, childish reason. Or, you could think of any of the girl’s eyes who you have met and could have entered, but never did. You could think of the faces of girls. You could always think of girls. They were always there to think about. You thought of the girls back home. You thought of all the ones you were sure you had loved, but never told because you were a coward or enjoyed being a martyr too much. There were always girls to think about when you sat on the beach in the rain, listening to sand re-entering the sea and eating Brie and bread and water and leaving crumbs everywhere.

When the rain got heavy, I returned to the station, but first I picked up this shell that had been deposited by the sea and was sitting on the beach. I took it because I had hoped that it might become some sort of memento. I always collected stuff like that and accumulated it all until I junked it feeling kind of guilty. I felt that way, not because they were important, because I had hoped they would become important and they never did.

I was lucky when I got to the station because the train on the track was on its way to Marseilles and I had to go there to get to Aix. I heard it was a nice university town, so I thought I would hit it as I worked my way to Spain. I wasn’t so lucky with my connection and had to wait and that was when I bumped into the Quebecker. I think his name was Sebastian, but I can’t remember names very well. He was going to Aix so we went together. I had to brush a tonne of crumbs off myself when I got up to catch the shit local train when it finally arrived. I thought I felt better.

It’s good to have company when travelling. The superficial travel friend is the best friend you could ever have. You can be whoever you want to be, be as honest as you want to be, and never worry about anything. They always have stories you have never heard and you can tell all your stories again. You don’t really have to say anything; you can just tell cool or funny stories. You can end up telling the same story so many times that it becomes a part of you as much as a novel is part of a writer and then it becomes part of your own folklore and you are the master story teller. You can meet up with them again and say stuff like: “I’ll meet you in Madrid in three days.” Sometimes it works and other times you find someone else to hang with. Sometimes, you can slip into real friendships, but that is dangerous and has few rewards, usually ending in an unanswered letter.

After a bit of struggle we slipped into the story telling conversation which fits perfectly with the atmosphere of a train as you sit surrounded by your bulky bags and layers of dirty clothes. You feel like real travellers. It had turned into a nice day outside as it is apt to do when you‘re stuck on the train. I sat with my back to our point of direction and I could watch the land we crossed slip away beneath the sudden glare of a semi-Mediterranean sky. I could watch the land already passed that others had already forgotten instead of getting caught up and nervous about the land that was coming. I was pleased to tell stories because at first, since we were both Canadians, he tried to talk hockey. I faked it for a while, but I lost interest in it as quickly as I lose interest in the real game.

We rolled into the station and I forgot what it looked like by the time we left it. We got a bit lost, but he asked directions. It was great to be with someone who could speak the language. You could sit back and let them do the talking. Although, I had to try to speak French in the interest of national unity and to demonstrate how committed English Canada was to Francophone culture.

I convinced the Quebecker to walk to the hostel which was on the outskirts of town. He wanted to take the bus, but I always walk when I can. Fifteen minutes in he started grumbling. He was a good guy, but he wasn’t a real traveller. He was only in France for a week and was planning on spending as much money as I had set aside for three months. It was all right though because it was a vacation for him and he knew it.

That night we walked to centre town. He didn’t mind so much this time because his pack was back at the hostel. We walked around in the lights watching the people and the old buildings getting a feel for the town. We found this nice little square that had outdoor bars on all sides. There were trees and a gentle autumn breeze. He bought me white wine by the glass for eight francs. It was a good thing to do and he insisted on paying. It was a real clean wine and it fell down your throat and all the way to your stomach in complete comfort.

It was night and the foliage shook with the evening breeze, under the sound of chattering French voices. We watched and discussed the pretty girls, trying to get enough nerve to go talk to one, but we sat and enjoyed the wine instead, sitting European style, side by side looking out over everything. The tables where everyone sat were  scattered out in the enclosed cobbled square so confused that we didn’t even know what bar we were being served by. A waiter came and brought us wine. It was confusing later when we had to take a leak. We laughed over movies we had both seen and I told stories of the places I had been and he told stories about the food he had eaten. He would have been a fun guy to hang with for awhile but he was headed off to the wine cave tours, which — although free — were too expensive for me because you were expected to buy the wine at the end.

The next morning we wandered the streets looking at all the little bits that were displayed in windows. He decided he had to buy me a specific chocolate and he insisted on paying and almost got insulted in that fake French way when I tried to refuse. It was a really chocolatey pastry that was a speciality of the region and was too rich for my palate, but I ate it gratefully. We went to an old church because they’re always free and interesting and stood staring at tapestries of saints doing saintly things. It was a monastery, too, with a guided tour in French, but I wandered around looking at the flowers and the architecture noticing little windows with open shudders and the shadows they cast way up on the matte brown walls, wondering about the faces that had peered out of those thousand year old orifices.

We walked the streets until evening came. He wanted to go have a real meal because that was what he was here for after all. We wandered from restaurant to restaurant reviewing the posted menus with him telling me all about the different cuisine and me admiring the wonderfully expensive prices. We waited until the restaurant opened, so he could go eat and we agreed to meet later. I looked for a good place to sit to eat my pack food. I sat and wrote bad poetry and had a bum come and talk to me in broken English and drunken French. He said a lot, but he kept saying “Be careful, be careful,” in French that I can no longer remember and offered me an orange and wanted to buy me a coffee. I sat on that bench and thought of a lot of things eating my Brie, bread and water, and watched beautiful people go by in the terribly French night.

Posted in: Short Stories