The sidewalks of Marseilles murmured murder. Malevolent hawk-eyed haggards brushed too near. The dank streets were awash with hatred. Below garish signs, storefronts stood dark. Behind grimy windows were old vacuum cleaners, rusty tools, dusty manuals. Ollie picked up his pace, easy enough on the steep incline. The climb back to the train station would be arduous though. He looked nervously before he crossed the broad intersection with its numerous streetcar tracks. And sure enough, a screeching trolley, wobbling wildly, whipped around the sharp corner, barreling straight toward him. Ollie’s shoelace caught in the track; he jerked hard, only just reaching the curb in time, sweat dripping as he caught his lunge before slamming into the pavement. A blind man stood, grinning. Before Oliver could completely regain his balance, the organ grinder monkey on the blind man’s shoulder reached out and grabbed Ollie’s shoulder with his deep claw. Ollie slipped his free hand into his pocket and dropped a coin in the old man’s cup. The monkey grinned, curling his lips above his expansive yellow teeth as he disdainfully released Ollie’s shirt.
Further down the street, small hordes of beady-eyed beggars lingered under the awnings of two-bit businesses selling lottery tickets and liquor. By the time Ollie reached the port at the bottom of the slope, his preconceptions of movie stars sauntering about in smart sailing attire and dark sunglasses had vanished. The port confirmed this dashing of illusions. It was a hardened sailor’s port, not a French Riviera beach. Shysters held out cups. When Ollie looked the other way from a cloaked man with a midget on his shoulder, the burly man flashed a dagger at Ollie as the midget thrust the cup in his face. Ollie moved away, heading down to the seaside where the fishermen had hitched their small boats and were filling large blue plastic bins with their catch to show the housewives and chefs who had gathered there with buckets of sea water. These were surely the ugliest, most unappetizing living creatures Oliver had ever seen. Bulging, bleary eyes scrutinized him from blobs of slimy tentacles. Bodies pressed in. Killers and loathing victims. An octopus eyeing Ollie reached over the side of his bin, quickly touched the pavement, shifted his weight down and slid deftly toward him. Oliver was too terrified to move. He could feel the slippery arm slithering up his leg when the fisherman grabbed him and tossed him back in the center of the tray. Ollie moved on, shaken and with a radically changed attitude about experimenting French culinary offerings from the sea. He walked briskly into the open space under the mirrored dome covering the subway entrance. He steered clear of its foot traffic and headed up the narrow broken street toward his hostel.
The sidewalk was too cramped to walk two abreast, so each time someone approached, Ollie had to weave out between the iron posts lining the walk into the heavily trafficked-street. The iron projectiles were groin level and spaced evenly, a few meters apart. Whether old hitching posts for horses or serving as a division between vehicle and pedestrian, Ollie wasn’t sure, but they added to the treacherous feel of the steep, cracked sidewalk. Ollie peered into the dark doorways searching for a street number, but on high alert for shady characters that might emerge from their shadows. He was stealing a glance across the street at a neon sign advertising a bar when a hard thud, a spray of blood and a horrifying moan from the mangled body of a woman directly in front of his boots stopped him. He looked up in time to see a shadow retreat from the open third floor window. The door of the bar across the street slammed and two bikers, dressed in black leather, bandana headscarves with skulls and steel-toed boots were on the scene in seconds. Ollie watched the tattoo bulge on the biceps of the monster angrily unhooking the heavy chain from his belt loop. The other was staring down at the woman whose face was bursting blood and whose leg was twisted entirely backward. Her eyes rolled from one to another. “Non, non!” she moaned. Then she said something in French to cause his attacker to retreat and head up the fire escape to the third floor. The other broke through the doorway and disappeared. Now Ollie was across from two nuns in long black habits peering down at the woman. One whipped out a cell phone from under her cloak and spoke in rapid staccato. The other leaned over using her crucifix like a wand across the woman’s injuries as she murmured healing prayers. Ollie looked longingly at the bar across the street, but decided instead to get farther from the scene. He stepped cagily around the woman, hedging the crowd that had begun to gather and walked steadfastly up the street, hoping he had not passed his hostel.
“European City of Culture?” he muttered under his breath. “Seriously?”
“It said online this place was twenty-two euros,” he told her flatly. “If there is an issue, I will email hostels.com right now.”
“We don’t book with them. Are you a member of scnfa?”
“Are you a member of sncfa?” she demanded.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“All French hostels and most European hostels book only through them. They give a ten percent discount. Write don your information and you can buy a membership now. It will save you money now and in the future. It is good all year. I cannot give you a room unless you book through them.”
“Fine,” said Ollie, turning on his heels and not knowing of another hostel in Marseilles.
“It will be twenty-nine euros without the membership,” she called after him. You can buy a membership for fifteen and then it will cost you only twenty-two.”
She was busy pulling a membership card from her top drawer and writing a receipt adding up to thirty-seven euros. Disgusted, Ollie provided the information and his credit card. Her French accent was thick, but her skin was dark and oily and she had a thick mustache. “This city is filled with the descendants of the barbarians who plundered and raped during bloody conquests over the centuries,” thought Ollie as he thrust the meaningless card into his wallet.
“No one in the living room after 2200,” she scolded. “The person who works here sleeps there. And whisper only in the kitchen.”
The door to the room I front of him was open though he saw no one in it. His was down the hall. There was no handle and the door was ajar. Ollie was still holding his wallet, so he shoved the door open with his shoulder, bumping over a young woman who ha been standing on one leg on the other side of the door as she pulled a pair of panties up under her short white dress.
She eyed him up and down and answered, “No problem. I can hardly expect privacy if the door doesn’t even close.”
“You’re from America then?” he asked, dismissing the thought that his French accent was so poor that he was busted after only two words, determining instead that it was his rugged cowboy demeanor that gave him away.
“Portland. Though I feel I belong here. I just graduated from the University in Paris and am traveling before I must return. I would do anything to stay.”
He contemplated that a moment.
“Well, not anything, “ she giggled. “But just about.”
She reached over to her bunk and picked up a pair of glasses which she donned and a book. “Uglifying myself so no one bothers me,” she commented casually.
“Do you trust leaving your things out?” he asked. A few backpacks were strewn about.
“Oh, no,” she answered curtly. “Those are not mine. The locker is small, but I managed to pack my things in it.”
“Where are you headed?” Ollie was quickly thinking of ways to delay her. She was pretty, in a bookish way. She held herself elegantly. She probably did belong in France.
“To a café to read,” she said lazily. She began to pry at the handleless door that was now vacuum-sealed shut. Ollie did not make any move to help her.
“A café?” he asked, a bit astonished. Was she not in the same neighborhood he was? “Do you know of one? This area seems a bit rough. I can’t imagine a café here where I wasn’t wishing for eyes in the back of my head.”
She laughed, still clawing at the door. “I know what you mean. It is different than I anticipated. I thought I would be reading in a slingback beach chair among move stars on a crystalline beach with a backdrop of the tide rolling in and out.”
“Crystalline sand or water?”
She smiled as the door pulled open, pushing her into Ollie. “Ooops, sorry,” she mumbled, a bit flustered at landing in his arms, but deftly pulling away. “Both of course,” she answered as though she hadn’t just been in his arms.
“Have you looked eye to eye with the creatures who swim in these waters?”
She looked confused.
She lingered, holding the door.
“Here, let me show you.” Ollie opened the photos on his phone and tapped. “I met these guys down at the port.”
She peered into his phone. “Oh, god. Oooooh. Oh, my. They are horrid. That one looks like a leering pedophile. And that one, a true sea ogre.”
“Well, maybe it’s better I can’t find a swanky beach,” she acquiesced. “Besides, I’ve enjoyed so many ridiculously sublime pastries this past winter I would doubtless spill out of my bikini.”
Ollie smiled. Her sundress was short and low-cut and he liked what he saw. “I can’t see any harm in that.”
“Haha. You are behaving very much like a French man.”
“I am guessing since you want to stay so badly that is a compliment?”
“Haha. I said that I like Paris, not that I like the way French men behave toward French women.”
“Well, do you like the way the French interact? The overt sexuality certainly seems to be a defining ingredient of the culture here.”
“Haha. I suppose that I do like it. I like it very much. You have caught me in my own game, you clever American.” She turned to leave.
“Wait!” he called behind her. “Seriously, where are you going? I am afraid to go either left of right when I leave here. Do you know of a more inviting part of town?”
“I do not. I have only been to the cathedral. I can recommend that.”
“You mean that behemoth on top of the hill?”
“Yes, the basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary who watches over the sea. It’s called the Notre Dame de la Garde. It was once a fort and has a fabulous view. The sculptures are cool, the bell is quite impressive and the ex-votos are pretty wild.”
“You know, gee-gaws people leave for the Virgin Mary in gratitude for her saving their lives or healing them? You know, like all of the crutches in that church in Canada? So there are a lot of fishing boats and nets and some war memorabilia, a shot-up helmet and some medals, even some sports jerseys. I really like that sort of thing,” she added more softly. “You know there’s a story behind it. Something that really means something to someone. And someone intensely believed She saved him. I have to say though that I was disturbed by the picture of the slave ship. I mean, I’m glad it survived a bad storm, but it doesn’t seem right that a sea captain of a slave ship should feel okay about asking for the Blessed Mary’s protection without showing some repentance for his evil deeds.”
“Maybe he did,” suggested Ollie. “Maybe he freed them.”
“Mmmmm.” She sounded doubtful.
Ollie looked her curiously.
“Well anyway, you should go. It’s a hike to get there,” she cautioned as she turned again to leave. “Your legs will burn. And when you see the size of that bell you will totally get why it took two days to get it up the hill. And I have no idea how they possibly got that gold statue of the Mother and Child on top of the belfry. Legends are unanimous: it was a miracle!
“Au revoir!” She breezed out.
Ollie fished through the compartments of his backpack “Ah, there was the compass. And there were the aspirin powders.” He knew he shouldn’t take them on an empty stomach, but he was still unnerved by the suddenness of the bloody body thumping down. He noticed the dried blood on his knuckles and pulled out his towel for a shower. The bathroom across from the check-in was cordoned off. A bad aroma drifted down the hall. “Autre toilette?” Ollie inquired of the girl working there.
“Non,” she shook her head.
“Ce qui? Pas un autre?”
How many people were here? Had to be between a dozen and two dozen. He did a quick scan. Surely twenty-five. His stomach was tenuous. He washed his face and hands in the kitchen sink much to the dissatisfaction of the young woman preparing a salad on the counter next to him. He returned his towel to the locker, loaded up his daypack, crammed the rest of his stuff in, locked it up and headed out, opting to go back down to the port to get his bearings before tackling the hill.
Warily, he crossed the street to avoid the crime scene, but couldn’t help looking toward it when a door slammed in front of him and a leather-clad man stumbled out onto the sidewalk. When he saw Ollie, he flashed a toothy grin, slung his arm over Ollie’s shoulder and dragged him into the dark cave. Oliver had barely recovered his balance when the bartender handed him a pastis. He made out the silhouette of a jukebox and three burly bikers who had circled him and were holding up their glasses to toast him. He nodded and downed the yellow syrup. Before it could fully slide down his throat, he was holding two more. His stomach lurched with each new splash. His legs seemed numb and the creased broken-toothed faces in front of him were morphing into rodent faces. Ollie commanded his deepest voice and firmest resolve. “Cheers, fine gentlemen!” he declared and left. He marched straight out and into one of the iron hitching posts, deeply bruising his abdomen. He groaned and turned toward the port, determined, despite the doubling-over pain to make a resolute, yet speedy exit. He took a deep breath and quelled the rising vomit. The street reeked of garbage. He staggered forth, at last emerging from the dark labyrinth to the open port where the sun was blinding and mercilessly hot. Wandering about trying to find that view of the basilica he had seen that morning, he came upon an expanse of cafes in a long courtyard. He scanned the tables for her. She was not to be seen. He approached each of the menus, dismissing any options he did not know as possibly containing fresh seafood, a/k/a his friends from earlier in the day. Interesting fare, but too pricey for his budget. He’d find something along the way.
He approached an old fisherwoman sitting on a bench just watching the catamarans bob in the sea, her head bobbing along with them.
“Donde la Notre Dame de la Garde?” he asked sweetly, nodding toward the top of the hill.
She looked perplexed. “Non.” She shook her head.
“La Notre Dame de la Garde?” he repeated. “La basilica?”
She squinted and tilted her old head quizzically, her babushka slipping from her matted and knotty grey hair. She began mumbling.
Ollie reached for his evil eye and was turning to bolt, muttering, “Help me Blessed Virgin Marie de la Mer.”
“Ahhhh! La bonne mere! Oui, oui!” She laughed, now pointing to the sprawling cathedral at the top of the hill.
“Ah, silly me,” laughed Ollie. “Merci, Mademoiselle. Merci beaucoup.” He rewarded her with his most charming smile, wondering if he had washed all of the blood from his face and hands and strode quickly away, letting the city absorb him. As soon as he was at a safe distance, he lined his compass with the church, knowing that once he was swallowed up in the neighborhoods he could easily lose direction and this was not a city whose byways he wanted to traverse unnecessarily.
The neighborhoods were vastly uninteresting. Ollie wasn’t sure what the businesses were below the apartments, but they mostly had the border town ambience of stolen car stereo outlets and shoe repair businesses cluttered with years of unclaimed shoes. He couldn’t make out a restaurant and there were no street vendors. In fact, the only people on the street were weathered old women carrying totes, looking down at the ground as they walked and shifty-eyed men of all ages who appeared and disappeared, leaving their shadows in the doorways. At every intersection, Ollie discreetly checked his compass. An hour passed. He had to eat something. Anything. His daypack was getting heavier. There were no benches. He sat on a curb, not caring if a car ran over his feet. He opened his pack. Maybe some crackers?
“Oh, that’s why it was so heavy!” He pulled out a bottle of wine, half full, a chunk of cheese and a bag of olives. The cheese had not fared especially well in the heat, but what was bleu cheese anyway? It probably wouldn’t kill him. And in fact it was quite delectable. As were the olives. And he gave deep thanks to the Blessed Mary for the Cotes du Rhone. When he finished, he discarded the empty containers in the garbage bins halfway down an alley. In another town, he would have explored the alleyways, but not here. He doubted opera arias would be spilling from open windows.
At the next intersection, against his intuition but in accordance with the compass, he turned left. The last block must have angled. The street was short, ending abruptly into a wall. He had to go back downhill to find an opening. But at last, there she was. The number of stairs to reach her was dizzying and the serpentine path through scrub brush was less than inviting. Ollie wondered about snakes. Still, he could see his target.
She was right. A hundred stairs into it, his thighs were burning and his lower back hurt. He couldn’t make out the bell, but above its belfry the gold baby Jesus stretched out his arms and the Mother Mary beckoned seafarers with her warmth. He wondered how it was possible to get the heavy gold statue up there. “A miracle,” the girl had pronounced.
He needed shade and water badly. Fewer than a couple hundred more stairs. Sweat was dripping from his forehead. He wiped it from his forearm. He wished he’d worn shorts. Heat was rising in waves from the scraggly hillside. Ollie saw a cool, rushing stream along a green bank and reached to untie his heavy boots. Losing his balance, he looked up in alarm, realizing that he was succumbing to a mirage. The cheese was no longer agreeing with him and he was hopelessly dehydrated. His head was pounding. He tasted the pastis rising. He was going to die on this hillside.
He looked up and his eyes met the Mother Mary’s. She was looking directly at him, deep into his eyes with a knowing compassion. She knew how he felt. She would help. The baby’s arms reached out for him. In that moment, Ollie understood her power.
When he reached the top, a tour group from India was leaving. The guide looked at him with the Mother Mary’s eyes and wordlessly handed him a bottle of water. He nodded.
It was late in the day by then and the basilica was nearly empty as Ollie explored the ex-votos. He thought of the healing miracles he had heard, the church with the crutches, the blind gaining sight and wondered how belief alone could alter a well-defined physical reality.
Searching for a toilette down the stairs, Ollie wandered into the dark, cool crypt filled with the wavering flames of votives. It was a little creepy, but he welcomed the chill and sat down. He was alone, but he did not feel alone. Tentatively, Ollie looked over at a shadowy recess. Two grand figures stood there. Eight feet tall at least, with wings by their side. Iron sculptures?
At that moment, they turned toward him. “We are angels,” they told him soundlessly.
Ollie froze. They turned back around. Ollie mustered the courage to slip out.
When Ollie arrived back at the hostel, someone was using the shower. He took a bandana and soap to the kitchen sink for a sponge bath. Several people were mulling about preparing their dinners, but thankfully, no one spoke English, so he pretended he had no idea what they were saying to him. The receptionist came in upon a complaint to tell him that his behavior was unacceptable, but by then he was done, so he just shrugged at her and went back to his bunk to lie down, relieved that he had a morning train and grateful that one grim February day he had come across a great deal and booked a seaside hotel in Barcelona for four nights, starting tomorrow night.
He was barely dreaming when she tapped him on the shoulder. “Robert and I are going to dinner. Would you like to come?”
Robert piped up just then. “Hullo, Mate!” Ollie cringed, recalling the jerk in Istanbul.
“Robert,” she laughed in a scolding voice. “Don’t mind him,” she told Ollie. “He’s just a goofball from Chicago. He does that so people don’t know he’s from America and don’t hate him for starting wars and destroying their culture just for oil and money. We thought you might like some authentic French cuisine at a place where the only English spoken will be at our table. And you wouldn’t be feeling lonely and wistful because the women at all of the other tables are murmuring dirty nothings in their partner’s ears.” She giggled.
“Does that mean you won’t then?” asked Ollie.
“Well, she’ll have one up on those French women then, seducing both of us.”
“In your dreams, boys.”
Ollie welcomed the immediacy. “Sure, that’d be great. How soon?”
“How about now?”
A couple hours into the dinner, she began laughing. “Look how long we have been sitting here, just eating slowly and talking, and no one is trying to rush us out.
“Even though it’s late on a Wednesday night,” she added.
I ran into Robert today at the café. She looked at him and they both began grinning. “How long were we there, Robert? Four hours? And we’d only ordered coffee, no meal at all, which is probably unheard of here. And yet, no one batted an eye. We talked about it and we both felt totally comfortable. It was so strange not to be hypersensitive that the waiter glaring at you wanted you to leave. Everyone seemed on the same page; they didn’t care at all. If you wanted something, you’d let them know.”
“I think I’d like to try the tiramisu,” offered Oliver. “I know this isn’t Italy, but there was something about the way the waitress rolled here eyes when I asked her if she’d had it - that made me think I wouldn’t mind feeling that way. We may be wanting to save our cash to make our adventures last longer, but four euros to go there….”
They shared three desserts.