Sometimes words feel unnecessary. I’ll have something to say on my next post, when I finally (!) wrap up the photos from this trip (you know, just over a month after going. Remember the days when people, myself included, blogged every single day??). Until then…
You know me well enough by now to know I’m not a nature person. I prefer concrete, crowds, and the noise of the city. I find the silence of nature unnerving, suspicious even. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy brief jaunts in small doses, but my comfort zone is certainly 100& urban. The same is true for beaches; I’m not a beach person. I don’t like the sun, the sand, the idea of laying somewhere for hours that isn’t an air conditioned room. I’m not really an outdoors person in any sense of the word, in case you hadn’t guessed.
So you’d think a town bumping right up against the Mediterranean sea, whose biggest draw was that it has both grand beaches and a majestic nature park with rocky calanques at either end, wouldn’t be a place I’d fall head over heels in love with. La Ciotat proved me wrong. I went to the beach both days and the calanques at the foot of Parc du Mugel, where I spread a blanket under a tree and read in the shade for hours. The water was remarkable: crystal clear and azur blue, and refreshingly crisp but not too cold (people were swimming!). The great thing about going to a beach resort town off-season was how few people there were; I know if I’d gone even a month earlier, at the end of August, it would have been impossible to have an entire rocky inlet to myself (something that normally would have freaked me out, but in these circumstances made me feel like I’d discovered a secret portal to heaven).
I’d seen pictures of Parc du Mugel and the calanques before I left, but nothing prepared me for it in real life. Photos can’t even do it justice. The air, the breeze, the sound of the water against the rocks, the complete isolation from noise and people, and, most importantly, the color of the water. I read, I stared at the sea, I napped, I lay there doing nothing. It helped that it was late September and the temperatures were in the low 70s. But by late afternoon on my second day, I had to fight to peel myself off of the rocks and get on the train back to Paris. I could’ve happily stayed there forever.
And the beach! It turns out, I don’t hate the beach, I hate American beaches, with the powdery, suffocating sand, the overwhelming smell of brine, and the filthy water. (Do you know how much trash I saw in La Ciotat? None. I saw zero trash, at the beach, in the water, in the park, or in the town itself.) The beaches in La Ciotat were made of teensy little sand pebbles, not grit, and the water was clean and smelled like fresh salt–like a candle, an almost artificial approximation of how a beach should smell. If you grow up thinking the beaches in New Jersey are representative of all beaches, no wonder you detest going to the beach. To not have to pluck sand from your bodily crevices for a full day after going swimming, did you even know such a luxury existed? Get thee to the south of France! Where everything, including the sand, is better.
My trip was over all too quickly, and by 5:30 I was in Marseille boarding a train back to Paris. If I didn’t love Sundays in Paris so much, I would’ve stayed an extra day. Could’ve, easily. Even though there isn’t much of anything to do in La Ciotat (and a character laments that fact early on in my book), that’s kind of the whole point. I felt more relaxed after a single afternoon reading by the water than any yoga or meditation class back home. There was something centering and restorative about that town, and I’m already dying to go back.
I want to tell you all about La Ciotat.
Four years ago, I closed my eyes and pointed at a map of France, aiming along the southern coast between Marseille and Monaco. I needed a small seaside town that wasn’t well-known, not overly touristy, a little less glitzy and moneyed that the obvious resort towns like Cannes and Nice. Somewhere working-class French locals went every summer. I ended up in La Ciotat, approximately 20km east of Marseille, near Cassis. Famous for being the town where the Lumiere brothers made one of the first motion pictures–of a train pulling in the station–and the birthplace of pétanque–French bocce–La Ciotat is a quaint, sleepy commune with all the charm of the Côte d’Azur, but little present-day notoriety. In other words, it was a perfect place to open my novel. Thanks to Google Maps, I was able to craft four or five chapters in the town; how hard is it to write about two characters spending afternoons at the beach when you can visit the beach in Street View, even if it’s thousands of miles away?
After a whirlwind 30 hour trip in real life, I can safely say I got it mostly right.
On my first Friday in Paris, I took an early morning Uber to Gare de Lyon, where I boarded a train to Marseille. It was raining that morning in Paris, a rarity this trip, but as the train pulled further and further south, the clouds cleared and the sun started shining. Three hours later (after a nap and some quality reading time), we disembarked at Saint-Charles station to balmy weather and a thick, glorious sunshine unlike anything I’d seen before. The light truly is different down there, and even someone as sun-averse as myself, I had a hard time resisting its glow. I bought a ticket for a local train headed to Hyères, and within half an hour I’d arrived in La Ciotat. (Side-note: no one ever checked my ticket on the local train, to or from Marseille, so I basically donated €8 to SNCF out of the kindness of my heart.)(Side-note #2: the French rail system is a thing of beauty and a model of convenience.)
All of my research and Google Earth stalking hadn’t prepared me for just how cute this place is; I couldn’t handle it. The bus into the center of town–which cost a whopping 90 cents for an all-day pass–played Stromae and Keane (!!), and as it rounded a corner and I got my first view of the glittering Mediterranean water in the early afternoon sun, I gasped out loud. Being late September, the town was mostly empty of tourists, leaving only locals around and all of the restaurant terraces facing the sea empty. La Ciotat is small, I can’t stress that enough; I walked from one end of the waterfront to the other in about 40 minutes. One the north side there are long beaches, and all the way at the south is a giant nature reserve, Parc du Mugel, with calanques and rocky inlets with shrubby swimming holes, and tons of fishing boats docked in the Vieux Port in the middle of town. It’s decidedly working-class and unfussy, there’s graffiti and the paint on every building is delightfully chippy. The age of the local population averaged about 60, from my brief study, and the pace there is just different, slower, more relaxed. Melted, even.
I stayed right at the end of the Vieux Port, overlooking boats bobbing in the dock, and the long pier that marks the end of the city center. At the end of the pier is a two-story dance club called Sûr Les Quais, which features a different theme and DJ every night, and also features prominently in the beginning of my book. Since it was the off-season and the hotel was empty, they upgraded my room at check-in, and so I was able to write on my large balcony the next morning, staring directly at the club. It was the eeriest thing, being in a place that for so long has felt fictional, alive only on the page for me. I half-expected my characters to come stumbling out of the club at 4am–when the town finally went to sleep that night!–and call for me at my window. (Does that sound psychotic?)
For dinner that night, I ate along the water at a crêpe restaurant, and brought a book with me. I’d started reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France” on the plane to Paris–I like themed reading–and she had been casually narrating my trip thus far, describing Paris in September as the weather changed, etc. As I tucked into my dessert, I was about 200 pages in when Julia’s husband Paul gets reassigned to a posting in Marseille. “Oh!” I thought. “How funny. Now she’s following me to the south of France.” Not a paragraph later, she and Paul take a drive along the coast with a packed picnic lunch, and stop in La Ciotat for the afternoon. My eyes bulged out of my head. There I was, sitting in La Ciotat, reading about Julia Child sitting in La Ciotat, a town I’d never heard of before randomly picking it off a map years before. Spooky!
The whole experience in the town felt like that, honestly. Like I’d made this place up and it had come to life on its own, existing exactly the way I’d written it, and only for me. To say I’d fallen in love would be an understatement.
Look! Photos of people! This trip I grew more comfortable taking photos of people, rather than waiting for everyone to leave my shot, and also not taking photos, rather than walking around with my camera glued to my face. This was my tenth trip, and I felt noticeably more relaxed about capturing the city; in ten trips, I think I’ve taken every cliché photo you can take of Paris, how many more shots of the Eiffel Tower or Haussmann buildings do I really need? I still ended up shooting plenty, but was also contented to simply look at things and experience them without immediately reaching for my camera. There’s an oversaturation of blogs and Instagram accounts and communities that highlight Paris, and with them, an unnecessary pressure to keep up and compete and feel included (at least for me). It was nice to break that reflex this time and not worry about missing the perfect shot of light hitting the dome of a grand building (if only because I already have hundreds).
And can we talk about those leaves? My daily trek through the Jardin du Luxembourg allowed me to watch the change of the season and the foliage on an ever-changing basis, and my god. I’ve now been in Paris in March, May, June, August, September, November, and December, and I used to think late May-early June was my favorite time of year here, but September swooped in and proved me wrong. Those colors!
To quote a little Doris Day: I love Paris in the springtime. And now I can safely confirm that I love Paris in the fall. I’ve been to Paris now in every season, this being my first trip during the arrival of autumn, though it certainly won’t be my last. It’s impossible to pick a favorite season; even dark, cold winter has its charms. The weather while I was there was beyond glorious: chilly in the morning and blue skies almost every single day, with the afternoon turning slightly warm. I slept with my apartment windows open, and would peel off my scarf by lunchtime, wandering with my coat open and basking in the incredible sunlight that seems to be somehow exclusive to the city. I didn’t think I could love Paris any more than I did, and then I went in the fall.
The French class I took at the Alliance Française added a structure to the trip that has been otherwise absent, unless you count self-imposed writing deadlines or my very strict macaron-consumption schedule. I was in class Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays for three hours every afternoon, and my route to class on the 85 bus took me through the city from Pigalle, past Les Halles, across Île de la Cité, and ended next to the Luxembourg gardens, where I would cross straight through and pop out on the western side of the park on Rue de Fleurus, where the class was. Not a terrible commute. I fell in love with that jardin, watching the foliage change from green to gold to orange in the two weeks I was there. And while the class was challenging, and left my brain exhausted juggling le mise en relief (level B2!), I absolutely loved it, and am already considering another longer stint there. The class I take at the Alliance Française in Philadelphia is only one night a week for two hours, while the Alliance there offers far more intensive options that I know would get me to my certification faster. That’s my ultimate goal: native fluency.
More photos to come (including lots of leaves, and a weekend trip to the coast).