French Retreat

When I wrote “run away” on my to-do list for the day, I was mostly joking about being frustrated by the extremely disorganized registration process here, “mostly” being the operative word in that sentence. While sitting on a bench with some other frustrated internationals, I joked audibly about just leaving the country instead of sitting around waiting for the international office to process our paperwork. Maddie, Alyssa. and I made lunch at Maddie’s place and skyped Amy, while half-heartedly looking up ways to leave the country. Soon, however, the idea became more than a joke as we started seriously looking at options to get away from our oh-so stressful lives in Spain ( 😉 ). After finding flights to be too expensive at the last minute, we found a reasonably-priced bus to Nimes, France. The only catch was that it left at 20.00 that night – less than three hours from then. I knew that some of my family friends had a flat there, so tried to contact my parents to see if we could get access on such short notice. Ultimately, we decided to leave without having a definitive answer in terms of lodging. Heady on the spirit of being ridiculously spontaneous, the three of us asked Brendan and Nick (Maryland Bros) – who had over heard me joking about leaving earlier and had voiced their support of the idea – if they’d want to join us. About two hours before the bus was supposed to leave, the five of us were definitively in. Just as we tried to buy bus tickets online, I realized I didn’t have my passport, because when I went to go open up a bank account earlier, the teller forgot to return it and I forgot to ask for it back. Fortunately, the bank was still open, so in my limited time, I ralked back to the university, caught the metro home, packed in half an hour, and hopped on the metro again to get to the bus station, not even alerting Philippe before I left (Okay, I told him later! … when we were on the bus… plus he wasn’t home soooo….). Insanity, in every sense of the word. Meanwhile, Maddie’s online attempts to purchase tickets had failed, but we coursed onwards, nevertheless, buying the tickets after reaching the bus station, just about 30 minutes before the bus left, and… voila! Just like that, we were spontaneously off to France for the rest of the week.

The bus ride was about 12 hours, spanning the entire night, so after some time and a quick dinner break, we all fell asleep. Around 5 in the morning, Maddie woke me, alarmed because her bag was open and her wallet missing. After searching frantically but throughly through both of our bags, we began to worry. Just then, one of the other passengers tapped Maddie’s shoulder and handed her her camera (which she didn’t know was gone) and wallet, saying that he had “found” them laying in the aisle. We knew he was lying because this was an impossibility – Maddie had placed her bag far underneath our seats, but had found it unzipped and lying half in the aisle. Also this guy (let’s call him Andre, because he looked a liked a younger, Spanish version of his namefellow from the League) had been strutting up and down the bus for quite some time, acting like a downright hooligan. Maddie knew instantly that her wallet was unreasonably light (she had earlier been plagued with a plethora of change – silly Europeans and their 1 and 2 euro coins!) and, indeed, her money was all gone. We asked Andre where he had found the wallet and camera and where all the money had gone. Just then, the bus had stopped, so in addition to flat out denying everything, he attempted to get off the bus. Luckily by this time other passengers had noticed the kerfuffle and now helped us detain Andre and get the bus driver’s attention. Several other passengers and the driver himself vouched for us (and against him) and helped us by yelling at him in some sort of Arabic, trying to reason with him or to give Maddie back the 140 euro she was lacking. The bus driver commented that Andre was without a doubt culpable; before, he constantly wanted to take breaks to drink coffee or smoke, but all of a sudden, he was in a hurry and was complaining about us wasting his time. The driver had called the police, so we awaited their arrival while the other passengers intermittently tried to talk some sense into Andre. He feigned ignorance at first, saying it wasn’t him, but as time went by, his tune changed as he offered us money – first 40 euro, then 100 – if we let him leave. Seeing as he wasn’t willing to return the full amount he so clearly had stolen, we refused, with the support of all the other passengers, to whom it was also doubtlessly his fault. Minutes before the PoPo came knocking on our door, he gave back most of the money, barring 15 euro (not sure why he kept that, at this point…). The man sitting across the aisle from us insisted on making up the difference. He was a particularly kind person and had, in fact, moved at the start of the voyage so that Maddie and I could sit together. Thankful to have the money back, Maddie didn’t insist on pressing charges when the police came and talked to her, Andre, and a few of the other passengers that had been helping us. While searching Andre for the remaining money, the cops actually found weed on him. As Nick commented, “You win some, you lose a LOT.” So ultimately, Andre’s getting charged not only for pickpocketing and possession, but also smuggling, as we had crossed an international border. BAM. Don’t mess with us – especially if you’re going to be so stupid about it (I mean, why would he give the wallet and camera back?! Ladron tonto!

After reaching at last, we used (verrrry) broken French to find a nearby cafe with WiFi, order coffee, and find a hostel for the next few days (other housing options fell through). We walked casually through the city, determining how we’d entertain ourselves there, then returned to the hotel and watched Doctor Who in French for a while before venturing out to get wine and delicious pizza for dinner. We spend the night talking and playing cards, before falling asleep out of exhaustion.

The next morning, our first stop was Les Halles, a large old market in the city center that came highly recommended by my favorite chef (Rahul, haha). The market was wonderful, with shops selling all sorts of fresh fruits, meat, seafood, cheese, dried fruits, and many other delicious-looking goods. Everyone was incredibly friendly and it would be amazing to shop there on a regular basis. I saw an adorable old man and his wife eating at one of the little stalls and asked to take his picture in broken English before realizing they were actually from Seattle. They were staying there for a few weeks and gave us a few suggestions on where to go during the rest of our stay. After walking around for quite some time, we bought lunch from one of the stalls and ate sitting outside and observing the passersby. The rest of the afternoon, we walked around the city, taking in the wonderfully sprawled streets that lazily stretched across the city center. After going back to the hotel for a bit, we scoped out a cute little Italian restaurant called Mercadante, also suggested by Rahul. The restaurant was tiny and we were the first people there, but the food was incredible and wonderfully fresh. On our way back to the hotel, a guy overheard us talking and recognized us a fellow Americans. A recent college graduate, Preston is now an English teacher in Nimes and invited us to hang out with him and a bunch of other American and British people at a bar later. We went for a little bit and it was okay, but nothing too special.

Friday we ventured out of Nimes, taking a bus to the nearby town of Tarascon, which had been recommended to us by the man from Seattle. We met yet another American on the bus, who accidentally made us get off at the wrong stop and walk through the city before getting to the main attraction, the castle. In legend, the castle was occupied by a mythical creature called the Tarasque, to which there were several references throughout the castle. The place was largely deserted, probably because it was off season, not because it wasn’t worth seeing. The view from the top especially made the trip worth it; the town was wonderfully picturesque, with crowded buildings and a church littering one side of the Rhone river and windmills in the distance. After grabbing pizza from a restaurant near the train station, we waited for the bus, which didn’t show up until an hour later than it was supposed to. Meanwhile, we tried to avoid the drunk/high creeper that decided to strike up a conversation with us. Back at the hotel, the guys napped while we chatted and lounged around until we left for a delicious and surprisingly cheap dinner at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.

Our last day in Nimes we woke up extra early, hastily packed all of our belongings, checked out of the hotel, and took the 7.30 am bus to the Pont du Gard, the largest Roman aqueduct, located about 45 minutes away from Nime. We were there before the area opened and ended up sneaking in without paying (unintentional – we didn’t realize this until after!). The aqueduct itself was magnificent and after walking up and down its length, we sat near the river that ran beneath it and skipped stones for a while. The next bus wasn’t until that afternoon, so we killed a few hours playing cards and eating Speculoos (cookie butter… so delicious) at an on-site cafe. Returning back to the city, we went to some of the bigger attractions of Nimes, walking around the Jardin and Temple of Diana, the Maison Carree, and the Arene. The view from inside the Arene was fantastic and we spent quite some time walking around there, learning about the bullfighting that makes it famous. For dinner, we grabbed a few baguettes, a tomato, and some mozzarella from Carrefour Express. We tried to go eat in the hotel we stayed at, but they wouldn’t let us back in, so instead, we returned to the train station and ate awkwardly on some chairs there. We looked like hobos, huddled with our mini sandwiches, taking swigs from a 2 liter bottle of Fanta Limon. An older Spanish lady was sitting next to me and kept shooting me dirty looks and talking to her husband about us in Spanish because she thought we couldn’t understand her. We grabbed a coffee at a nearby cafe before getting on the bus for our long voyage back. Luckily, the bus was much less crowded than before and we had space to sprawl out. At one point, I had to use the bathroom and hurdled over 5 pairs of legs before getting to my destination. Clearly the Bus Olympics need to exist. The only other eventful part of the bus ride was when the bus turned somewhat suddenly, sending an elderly woman careening down the flight of stairs to the bathroom. Luckily, she was mostly okay and the event was funnier than it was scary. We got back to Valencia around 5 am and took cabs back home before passing out.

Overall, the trip was pretty great and a perfect first trip out of the city. It was relaxing, but we were glad to be back and start being real people again (sorta, haha).

– from Feb. 25

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