Solo travel, especially for women, can be worrisome. Yes, it is true, but only if one does not take precautionary measures. However, solo traveling can also be a lot of fun, adventure-filled, and tremendously worthwhile.
Recently, I went on a solo trip to the South of France, first to Montpellier and then to Marseille, France’s oldest city.
Armed with just a handful of French phrases such as bonjour (hello), bonsoir (good evening), oui (yes), non (no), merci/merci beaucoup (thank you/thank you very much), à droite (to the right), à gauche (to the left), tout droit (straight), où est l’hotel? (where is the hotel?), où est la gare? (where is the train station?), au revoir (goodbye), and fueled by immense excitement, I packed my bags.
It was my first time in France, and for a solo traveler, Marseille did not disappoint. As far as how the French people treat tourists, I am no authority. Many say they are unfriendly, cold-shouldered, etc., but everyone has their own opinion and perception of what’s unfriendly or aloof, right? But just in case, I got myself ready for it. If I get a frosty treatment, I know it’s nothing personal. Life goes on.
My train from Montpellier to Marseille scheduled to depart at noon got delayed an hour. Well, delays happen, no big deal. I would be more worried and if it got canceled. Canceled trains or flights on familiar territory is acceptable, albeit irritating. Cancellations, on the other hand, especially in a foreign land while traveling alone and not having a good grasp of the spoken language is very concerning, scary even. Not knowing how to express yourself if you needed to find alternate ways of getting to your destination can prove to be a nightmare.
Well, I forgave everything as soon as I stepped inside the train. The train ride to Marseille was quite an experience. The train was spotless and had very comfortable seats. There were even snacks and drinks included.
Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles
I love riding on trains, particularly long ones that pass through the countryside. Every time I see or hear a long-haul train, I always wish I were on it. The sound it makes is enchanting. It snakes along steadily, no matter the terrain. It never disturbs your food or drink, never spilling it on your tray table as it sways along the tracks.
“You must eat a real French croissant when you get to France,” I remember a text from a friend who had just recently visited France. And I did just that. Upon my arrival at Marseille Gare Saint Charles, I went to the first café I saw and ordered my first ever French croissant. It was also at the train station where I learned how to pronounce “croissant” correctly. From saying “kro-sant”, I got converted into saying it the French way – “kwa-son.” One could truly learn the correct way of pronouncing words by listening to the locals.
At first, I only sought the sights, the sounds, the flavors, the smell, and the colors of Marseille, but I never realized that my 24-hour stay there will be met and be surrounded by kindness. I think it’s fair to say that whatever unpleasant impression of France I had before visiting Marseille had dissipated. Strangers help you without ulterior motive, doing it simply because they are just the good-hearted creatures that they are. I will say that many travelers, especially those who traveled solo, also had, at some point, experienced kindness from strangers.
I had three encounters with three kind souls in this city. The first one was with a young coffee shop worker who was already about to close the cafe for the night. Before I entered, I saw him already halfway through cleaning the counter and collecting all the garbage. “It’s closed,” I muttered to myself, but due to an unexplainable desire for a slice of chocolate cake and a hot drink, I pushed the door open, expecting him to say any moment that the cafe has already closed for the night. And that he did, “Je suis désolé, madame, but the café is closed.”
I frowned and thought of saying something that will convince him to stay open for ten more minutes. I thought of something charming and persuasive to say, something along the lines of what Julia Roberts said to Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, but something more appropriate for this situation. This situation was about a cake. I was ready to tell him, “But, monsieur, I am just a girl in front of a boy asking him to serve me a slice of chocolate cake and a hot beverage on this chilly evening…” It turned out that I did not have to be Julia Roberts that night because upon seeing the disappointment on my face, he said, “Ok, madame, what do you want?” I told him I just wanted something hot to drink and a slice of chocolate cake. “Oui, madame.” As I ate, I was bobbing my head to the music he was playing. I liked the song a lot, and with the help of Google translate, I showed him my phone, so he can read the French translation of “What is the title of the song?” He smiled and told me, “It’s ‘Somebody to Love’ by Abhi the Nomad.” “You like the song!” he exclaimed. “Oui,” I said, “When I miss Marseille, I will listen to that song again and again, and it will immediately take me back here.” “Oh, madame,” he said, smiling. As I left, I waved my hand at him, “Bonsoir, Xavier, et merci.” “Bonsoir,” he said, waving back, smiling again.
My next encounter with kindness was with the hotel desk clerk on the morning of my departure. I left my room around 5:30 a.m. and headed to the front desk to return my room key, and as I did, I asked the clerk how to get to the airport from the hotel. He advised me that there is a bus that collects passengers across the street from the hotel, but the bus usually takes a long time to arrive. In the alternative, I could take the 5-minute Metro (subway train) ride to Gare De Marseille-Saint-Charles, the main train terminal, and from there, I could catch a shuttle bus that takes passengers to Marseille airport. He did not speak much English, but he explained this to me by drawing on a piece of paper a diagram of the streets where I would walk and the street corners where I would turn to reach the subway station. “Ou (or) if you like, you walk, euh…vingt minutes (twenty minutes), a Gare De Marseille-Saint-Charles,” showing his two fingers walking on the front desk counter. I thanked him profusely. “De rien,” he said, blushing. His effort and desire to help touched me profoundly. I knew he gave me his all in terms of giving directions, drawing and all, plus the walking fingers. I ended up walking anyway. His fingers convinced me.
The third encounter happened when I arrived at the train terminal. I had no idea where the shuttle bus terminal was. It was already 6 a.m., and my flight out of Marseille was at eight that morning. The train station was practically empty, with just a few security guards patrolling the place. I asked one of them where the shuttle bus terminal was located and he pointed to the exit door across from where we were standing. I thanked him and walked towards the exit door. When I got out, there only was what I would call a mini garden with benches, nothing that looked like a shuttle bus terminal. I felt a bit of panic because my flight was leaving in two hours, and I didn’t see any sign of buses, shuttles, or even taxis. The clock was ticking. I returned inside the terminal through that same exit door and looked for someone else to ask. I waited for a few minutes, and then I saw a man who was perhaps in his late 30s, seemingly half-asleep and wearing blue overalls with a ring of keys dangling on his right side. I got the impression that he worked at the train terminal.
“Perdon, où est le bus pour… Marseille airport?” I asked.
He turned and pointed to another exit door, but this time, on the opposite side of the building. He must have sensed that I was not convinced, so he motioned me to follow him. He led me to an exit door where I saw several parked shuttle buses as well as shuttle drivers and passengers waiting outside. Suddenly, I felt relief. I won’t be late for my flight, after all.
“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” extending my hand to shake his. As he shook my hand, he said, “Le billet” (the ticket), pointing with his other hand at the ticket counter by the door leading to the shuttle buses. Yes, of course, I needed a bus ticket. I smiled, nodded my head, and thanked him again.
“Bon voyage, madame,” he said.
“Merci et au revoir,” I said, almost teary-eyed. Here was a man who walked with me, who took the time to show me where I needed to be and who made sure that I got on that shuttle bus on time. And I didn’t even get his name.
Marseille at night
Savoring Moules Frites at the Le Petit Pernod on Quai du Port
This experience is what I’ll mostly remember about this city called Marseille. Not only did I see stunning places, taste sumptuous food, walk the city’s charming streets, marvel at the deep blue evening skies, I was also met with benevolence, enough to vanish my misconception of French hospitality.
I don’t understand or speak fluent French but it didn’t matter. I understood them because they spoke in a universal language: kindness. A simple act of kindness truly speaks volumes.
Given another chance, I would go back to Marseille in a heartbeat!
The scents of Marseille
The streets of Marseille