Sitting in our apartment in Florence, we were desperately trying to figure out where we were going to go next. We only had another hour of internet and we hadn’t the faintest idea. Venice? Still a little on the pricey side. Turin? What does one do in Turin? Genoa? Ditto. Milan? I don’t think so. Monaco? Cannes? Riiiight. Nice? Still a bit pricey. Fine. Let’s just go to Toulon. I don’t know why, let’s just do it.
Everything was fine until we got to the Italian border. At this point the train that we were supposed to take all the way to Nice stopped because of a strike that would not allow the Italian train to cross the border. There was a French train leaving for Nice in the next 45 minutes, but everyone seemed quite confused about which train it was. People walked briskly up and down the platform poking their heads into the train shouting, “Nice?” and “Nizza?” I followed them hoping to get an answer without doing any work. Most people said only, “I think so,” so the exercise continued. Finally a couple of people agreed that this was, in fact, the train to Nice, although they probably had heard it from someone else who didn’t really know either. It did turn out to be the right train, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable journey. The screaming kids. The profoundly drunk man who burped in my face. The other drunk man who seemed to have had some issues with excrement. After one more train change we reached Toulon and checked into our rather uninspiring hotel room.
Toulon may or may not be part of the French Riviera – it depends on which source you consult. Whether it is or not, it’s close enough. It is set in front of a mountain range and the old town is charming and filled with walking streets. A daily farmers’ market takes up several blocks each way and made us sad that we didn’t have a kitchen to cook in. The marina is filled with restaurants with tables that look out at the water and the insanely expensive yachts that are docked there. The beach is respectable if you can look past the extraordinarily fat old men in Speedos. Toulon is a comely little city, but there isn’t a whole lot to do there. I spent most of my time honing some sweeping generalities.
What the French don’t like:
Shower heads that are mounted on the wall. It very well may be that French people have mounted shower heads in their homes; I haven’t been to anyone’s house in France. But in all of the hotels, the shower heads are hung from a hose and dangle into the tub. This seems strange and inconvenient to me. I agree that it is nice to have the ability to handle the shower head in this manner, but in matters of washing one’s hair, for instance, it’s much easier to have the option to fix the shower head to one spot, preferably overhead. It’s a mystery.
Making change. In fact sometimes they will just flat out refuse. At the grocery store I went to pay with a 10 euro bill. The woman shook her head at me and said something that I didn’t understand. I finally figured out that she didn’t want to accept the bill. She wanted me to give her correct change. I could see that she had the change, she just didn’t want to deal with it. Not having the vocabulary to argue with her, I managed to scrounge up the few euro and change that she wanted. I was reminded of my friend Rachelle’s attempt to buy some postcards at the Eiffel Tower and being refused for not having correct change. The woman refused to sell her the postcards. I don’t know the genesis of this odd fascination with correct change. Just make sure that you always have some on hand.
Eating between the hours of 3 and 7. My body is enigmatic. I never know when it’s going to cry out for a tasty morsel of food. I feel so terribly restricted when I know that unless I want something that rhymes with “RcFonalds” I’m out of luck.
What the French do like (at least in the South):
Talking to random people on the street. I don’t know how many times strangers approached me for one reason or another. “Excuse me, is this the train to Bordeaux?” “Do you know where the hardware store is?” “How about this weather?”
Of course I am only imagining that this is what they were saying because I haven’t had a bit of French education since I took a semester of it in 7th grade. (The other semester was wood shop. I think the only people crazier than those who want to teach middle school are those who want to teach middle schoolers to use circular saws, lathes, and drill presses). So twenty years ago I took French for a semester and there are really only two things that I remember. The first is my teacher’s nasty feet. Her toes were badly misshapen and covered in dense corns. Her toenails were thick and yellow and dangerously long. Of course she insisted on wearing sandals daily so that when she came by to stamp your homework you couldn’t help but look down and stare with morbid fascination. The other thing I remember is that if you answered a question right, she would ask you, “Plus ou bon bon?” which meant that you were to choose whether you would like extra credit or a piece of candy as a reward. Invariably I chose the “plus” since I was still stinging from my first B+ ever in math the previous year. Besides that, there isn’t much else to recall.
My lack of language made it absurdly difficult for me to discourage the advances of a particularly eager young French man who tried to woo me on the way back from the grocery store. He spoke not one word of English and no matter how many times I told him that I didn’t understand, he was persistent and pulled out his cell phone as a sign that I should give him my phone number. I wanted to make him understand that things would only be worse over the phone, but instead I ran across the street against the light and ditched him. Because let’s face it–sometimes that is what you have to do with French guys.