The Wild Boys
Leaving Provence, hostellers, and the exhultation of stone
Aix-en-Provence to Lyons
29th November, 2003
I pause on the mountain top. Above me, the cross of Mont St Victoire stands resolute over the limestone
ravines of Provence. I drink in the view. The cliffs drop away all around me into dark forests below. Aix en Provence
is a wide blur in the distance. I look at the sun. It distends an angle of five degrees from the western horizon. Dark in twenty minutes.
I have twenty minutes to get down. I look at the broken, twisted path below me, dropping for six hundred metres over sharp rocks
to the valley floor,
three kilometres away. An hour's work.
I laugh at the stupidity of it all, and start to run.
Les Mecs Sauvages
It was time to turn north, leave the gentle mediterreanean autumn and get back to the serious Altantic climate. Before
I did, there was time for one walk in the hills. Now there's a lot of talk about how tough the banlieues of Marseilles or Paris are,
and the big-talking street gangs of the 15th arrondissement like to strut their stuff. But if you really want to get capped by gun-toting homeys,
your best chance is to take a stroll through the gently wooded hills of southern France.
I could hear them all around. A long silence, then the sudden cough of a shotgun followed by excited barking as the
local check-shirt posses fought it out over possession of all-important quail territory. Someone was going home in a body bag
today, but I'd be damned if it was me. I was also damned if would let them spoil my nature walk. At the same time therefore,
I had to be relaxed, cheerful, taking long drafts of natures goodness, and ready to hit the dirt at any second.
Where Dogs Fear to Tread
That worked until the dog appeared. They love big dogs in France. An animal described as 'playful and house-trained'
means a half-tamed werewolf the size of a calf with wild, rolling eyes and blood still dripping from its unearthly maw.
The kind that has an owner who shouts, "Don't worry, he's only being friendly", after he's already taken off one of your legs.
The kind of dog that was now standing on the path in front of me, alone and ownerless. Huge, black and silent. By the size of him, he'd recently
eaten an entire bullock, so I hoped that might have taken the edge off his appetite. He gave me a look of incurious appreciation,
just like, well, an enormous killing machine sizing up a soft, weak ape creature.
I opened my hands and moved slowly in an unthreatening manner. Careful not to stare into his eyes, I murmured soft, confident nothings
and tried to sidle past. The dog regarded me first with bemusement, then lost interest, and finally trotted off with a faint air of disgust.
As relief swept through me, I suddenly realised the truth. In my attempt to be reassuring, I had tiptoed past like the sugar
plum fairy, staring into space and moaning like the damned. The dog probably thought I was a dangerous lunatic and gave me a wide berth.
Lyons Band Off
I took the TGV from Aix north to Lyons. We passed the flood plains of Avignon and the Rhone vinyards as we left Provence and the sun behind.
Halfway through the journey we seemed to pass an invisible line and the climate changed. The TGV sped into a dark cloud that
stretched over the horizon. I had entered winter.
Lyons was host to a festival of modern arts. There was a line of brightly painted busses with stuffed dummies and a jazz band
dressed up like monkeys. Modern art normally leaves me bewildered, and suspicious that I've been conned. Not this time. "It's because
they're French", I said to myself. "That's why I don't understand." I could read a sign that told me, for example, this
pink and green bus surrounded by dueling sock puppets in fact represented Pelicule de Salopes #9, but what
could that mean to me? Nothing. Happy with that, I went shopping.
Deja Nuthead #2
Sometimes I get a room in a cheap hotel. Sometimes I stay in hostel dorms. I've been trying to figure out why. Sure,
it's cheap, there are laundry facilities plus I have the chance to talk big travel talk with other backpackers. Those reasons are becoming less
and less compelling. Making new friends that I must dump a day or so later hardly seems worth it at the best of times, but in winter
it's even worse.
They're all weirdos. All the normal travellers are gone, they've gone back home or to sunnier countries. All that are left are
the strange people who choose to live semi-permanently at hostels, wandering around in their underpants, farting and refusing to open the
My normal rule in life is, never trust a man wearing a hat: he's either pretending to be someone else, or he's suffering from mange.
But now I add a new rule: never talk to anyone who chooses to stay more than a week in any one youth hostel. It's an unnatural life that warps
anyone exposed to it for too long. They become over familiar with the system, and the staff. They feel that it belongs to them, and
react against newcomers - in other words normal guests. The continual to and fro of transient friends destroys their social senses.
Death by Absinthe
Permanent hostel residents start wandering around, muttering angrily to themselves and making inappropriate gestures.
In summer they're just a minor annoyance. In winter
they are the majority of hostel guests. In Nimes youth hostel, a small group of students have decided to live there all term.
Two of them spend
their time hanging around near the kitchen, not to cook or do anything useful,
but to make sure that noone uses their non-stick frying pan. It's a 24-hour job, but they're committed to it.
In Lyons I was relieved to see two normal travellers come in. A Scotsman and an Australian. I could relax. They told me
about their last night. They went out for a drink in town. The next they know, the Scotsman is waking up in a police station, and
the Australian is in hospital, with electrodes attached to his body.
Scary eh? I agreed, a close call. What were they doing tonight? Going for a drink in town. All they needed was an Irishman
to make things really happen, staring hungrily at me. I had a sudden vision of floating face down in the Rhone, and
told them I'd love to, but I had to talk to one of the weirdos instead.
Halfway to Sunset
There's a savage freedom in running down a mountain slope, only a rock's edge between you and disaster.
Your body, your senses speed up as you know that any mishap now, alone here, minutes before nightfall in November will mean death.
You think, what a fool I am for doing this, again, but in your heart you love it. Loving the exhultation of the wind, the cold, the
hard stone under your feet. Exhultation in being alive right now, for this footfall at least.
I came onto the broad path into the valley just as the last light died. Total black of a starless night. But I had a good map, my compass,
my torch. In the distance, a dog barked. And nearer, a deep baying sound. Size of a calf, wild rolling eyes?
Huh. Just try it.
At the Cauldron
Vue Edmond Dantes
Hat & Spoon