I almost didn’t make it to Provence. I had booked my Prague-Munich-Marseille flight on Lufthansa well in advance, and had planned to catch a late train to Arles for my first night in France. I had been vaguely aware in the back of my mind of some labour troubles with the airline, but didn’t really start paying attention until about 24 hours before my flight, when it all became very real. That was when I received an email from the airline telling me that I could check into the Prague-Munich leg of my flight, but curiously not the Munich-Marseille leg. How odd.
Closer investigation revealed that that second leg had been cancelled, as had all Lufthansa flights out of Germany for an indeterminate period of time, because their pilots were on strike.
I don’t want to bore you with the logistical nightmare my panicked mind had to navigate just to be able to phone the airline, not having a European phone, but it involved getting into both Mike’s email and Skype accounts despite not knowing the passwords for either and not being able to reach him. It also involved hours trying to get through to anyone at the airline who could help me, while morosely convincing myself that a trip to Germany could very well be just as good as Provence. (I’m sure it would have been wonderful, of course, and I have some friends out there, but Provence is Provence, and it would have meant losing most of the money I’d paid in advance for accommodations. It was not a sunny prospect.)
I got through to a human in the end, and a surprisingly warm and patient one with a gentle Irish lilt, at that. With a few efficient taps of her keyboard, she found the best possible alternative flight and booked me onto British Airways with no money changing hands and no picket lines crossed. I would arrive only a few hours later than planned, full of their very civilised free in-flight wine. Bless her helpful heart.
This did mean that I had to find last-minute accommodations in Vitrolles, near the airport, because I would be missing the last train to Arles. Having just faced down the possibility of the whole trip falling apart, this barely even registered as an inconvenience. I booked the cheapest AirBnB in Vitrolles with a song on my lips.
Day (well, Night) 1 – Vitrolles
If you tell someone that you’re on your way to France, especially if you’re travelling solo and planning to lean heavily on the kindness of strangers, the first thing you’ll hear is that the French are assholes. In England, conventional travellers’ wisdom is to avoid the cows. In France, it’s to avoid the people. This is nonsense.
Having landed in Marseille quite late in the evening, I wanted to get to my last-minute AirBnB as cheaply and quickly as possible. I wandered out of the airport and found the free shuttle bus to the Vitrolles train station, from which it would be a mere 5km walk to my accommodations. The driver was chatting with a friend as I came on board, and they informed me that we had a good half-hour to wait before leaving. Well, no use complaining. I was just about to settle into a seat for a quick nap, when they asked about my strange accent.
My French is near-fluent (thank Christ, after the Italian Difficulties), but my accent, an awkward combination of québécois and Prairie anglo, turned out to be quite a conversation starter. I never did sit down on that bus. I stood at the front chatting away with the driver and his friend for the entire wait, and then for the whole drive over to the station. They were both born and raised in Provence. They told me that they spoke no English at all. They told me that the people of Provence aren’t friendly; that they’re in fact the biggest jerks in France. They also earnestly informed me, as they dropped me off, that they would be back in 20 minutes, and that if I encountered any difficulty, I should get back on the bus and they would help me out. These men were emphatically not jerks, I reflected as they drove away, despite being from Provence.
The area around the Vitrolles train station is not in the least bit walkable, being surrounded by industrial wasteland, and I might as well come out with it right now and admit that I really made my peace with trespassing during my time in Provence. My headlamp came in handy as usual, though, as I crept through what appeared to be the dump for an adjacent construction site in near-total darkness. Anyway, no industrial accidents resulted, and after jaywalking across a few busy highways and clambering over some fences, I eventually stumbled into a suburban neighbourhood.
I arrived with little further difficulty at my AirBnB, just a room in a lady’s flat, and immediately upon opening the door, my host greeted me with ebullient stories of visiting her son in Canada. I stood on her threshold for probably 10 minutes, swept up in wide-eyed accounts of how strange baseball is, and how shocked she was when no one in Toronto spoke French, since she spoke not a word of English. I eventually entered the flat, and after only a couple more conversations about Canada, illustrated with cell phone pictures, I made it to my room and fell asleep.
The next morning, the host invited me out to the breakfast table where another guest, a businessman and repeat customer, was already seated with a coffee. She fussed over us with a smile on her face, proudly presenting the other guest with his favourite madeleines and urging me to accept a little more food, one more splash of coffee, to build up strength for my travels. The businessman, hearing that I had to make my way back to that confounded train station, insisted on giving me a lift, though it was well out of his way. In the car, he told me about how difficult it is to travel around Europe, because he speaks no English and hardly anyone abroad speaks French.
About 12 hours after arriving in France, I was perched on the edge of my train seat, watching the countryside zip by en route to Arles. To that point, I had had at least one prolonged, enjoyable conversation with every single person I had met in Provence. Each one, furthermore, had thought nothing of going out of their way to offer me whatever help and hospitality they could.
I promise you, the people of Provence are not assholes. They just don’t speak English.