As busy as we were in France we did have some down time. That is, time just spent hanging around in the hotel doing not much of anything, usually when we had returned from a trip out or had decided to have a bit of a rest for a day or so. The French railway system can be a tiring experience.
It was during one such period of nothingness that I discovered that the television in our room had one channel which broadcast films in English. I found this strange. Despite literally hundreds of channels being broadcast on my Sky+ system at home there are precisely none which show French language films. The only place I have ever found those is on BBC2 late at night at the weekends when the schedulers think nobody is watching. They'd be right if I had a life.
One afternoon I decided that instead of falling asleep and waking up two hours later feeling like I had been hit by the 33, I would take the opportunity to watch an actual English language film. This isn't Sky Cinema where you have the choice of...oh....seven or eight films which were all broadcast the previous day and will be broadcast again on all subsequent days until you die, so there was only one option. The Invasion stars Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman and is a quite revolting tale of a zombie apocalypse. There is none of the humour of Shaun Of The Dead. This is a serious business. Whereas in Shaun Of The Dead victims would be zombified by being bitten (or having their insides eaten like Dylan Moran's character), the unfortunates in The Invasion become so by having one of the zombies basically vomit in their face. Apart from outraged revulsion there is no immediate effect from this. It is only when the victim falls asleep that they become an extra from Thriller as they awake.
Now, is it only me who finds the idea of vomiting into Nicole Kidman's face outrageous? Craig looks like someone has already vomited in his frankly, and no amount of smart suits, bow ties and girly drinks in any number of James Bond films can pull the wool over my eyes on that score. But Nicole? It's an absolute affront. What next? Taking a dump on Charlize Theron's marble floor? You're not going to bother to watch this terrible film so let me just tell you that there's an inevitable moment when Craig's character gets zombified and he tries to lure the sleep deprived Nicole towards him so that he can complete her transition. She's been trying to stay awake all night locked in some kind of warehouse, or maybe a supermarket, with her son. Whereupon she shoots Craig in the leg, which is apparently what you do when you really need to get rid of someone but you can't bring yourself to kill them because you love them. It was a load of old nonsense, made worse by the fact that when it had all come to its logical conclusion (Nicole having found some way to reverse the affects of the face-spewing which has by now escaped my memory) Craig was safely co-habiting with her and looking about as trustworthy as a Russian weightlifter. Perhaps they had a sequel in mind at that point. Perhaps there is a sequel out there somewhere. One can only hope not.
On Thursday we decided to visit Toulon. This meant a bus ride from the port to the Marseille St Charles station. Like trains, buses in France are accessible without actually being accessible. That is to say that the law says they must provide access features, but is fairly apathetic about whether or not those access features are operational or not. The theory is that a ramp should automatically slide from under the bus at the middle doors, leaving those not requiring access to board at the front as you would see on a traditional British bus. Only the ramps don't work. None of them. Of all the bus rides we took in Marseille (around four or five in total) the ramp was operational on only one occasion. That's according to an array of drivers who spoke little or no English, so in actuality I couldn't be sure whether the ramps really were broken, whether the driver did not know how to operate them or just could not be arsed to do so, or whether he was making an active stand and keeping my kind off his bus. Prejudice takes many forms. The likelihood of the latter is however lessened by the willingness of the Marseille public to physically drag a wheelchair user on to a bus when the ramp is not operating for whatever reason.
It's just a pleasant one hour on the train from Marseille St Charles provided you have the patience to get through the railway station protocol. On the way we took in Marseille Blancarde, Aubagne, Cassis, La Ciotat, St-Cyr-Les Lecques-La Cadiere, Bandol, Ollioules-Sanary-Sur-Mer and La Sayne-Six-Fours. None of which are pronounced anything like you might imagine from looking at their spellings. Helpfully the railway station is very close to the town centre meaning that we need not find out that day whether the bus services in Toulon were any better than those in Marseille. Having got up early to get through all of the railway station shenanigans we have had to skip breakfast and so by the time we arrive in the town centre finding somewhere to eat has become a top priority.
We cross the square (known actually as Place de la Liberte) towards a row of restaurants, passing the impressive Fontaine de la Federation as we head towards them. Built in 1889 it stands in front of the façade of the Grand Hotel and looks a little something like this. Except it doesn't normally have some behatted berk sat in front of it;
Photo opportunity taken we press on. At one end of the row of restaurants is a place called 'Ptits'n'Pins' which I find funny in a Beavis & Butthead sort of way. Yet we can't seriously sit in a restaurant with such a preposterous name so we choose the Brasserie next door. It's a choice we'll regret. Everything appears normal at first. We take a seat at a table and wait. Two waiters are hurriedly walking around tending to customers. They haven't even looked at us but that's ok. They're just busy. We wait, and we wait. Five minutes or so pass without either of the waiters even acknowledging our existence on the planet never mind within their restaurant until finally one of them comes over and offers us the menu. Though it is obviously going to be written in French I expected to at least be able to understand the basics of what was in each dish but with this I don't have a clue. My internal arty-farty food alarm starts ringing. I'm not going to find anything here that I would class as edible. Emma doesn't seem any more enthused at the options. So we leave, evoking memories of that cringeworthy moment in Palm Desert when we left a branch of Ruth Chris' because a piece of chicken, by itself before you get started on your chips and/or your vegetables, cost $23.
The waiter seems a little surprised, perhaps slightly offended. Yet neither of us have the linguistic skills to explain that we don't want to pay €15 for an item of food we can't identify. So we just apologise and go. Instead we find a small sandwich shop on the corner further down the road where we boringly eat cheese and ham baguettes but, boring or not, they're enjoyable which is kind of the point of being on holiday. After lunch we take a walk down by the harbour. It's just as stunning as that at Marseille. After a customary stop at one of the cafes for a beer we move a little further down and off the main promenade. We come out on to a road, and directly in front of us is the rugby stadium. Stade Mayol is a rugby union stadium, home to the town's RC Toulounnais Top 14 side. If you're acquainted with me, or with anything I have ever written either here or on redvee or the18thman, you will be left in no doubt about my loathing for all things rugby union. It's a quite tedious game played by lawyers and future Strictly contestants. But Stade Mayol is no less impressive for all of that.
Around the corner we find a place that is much more my sort of thing. It's a bar for starters, but not only that it is a bar called Le Saint. It even has a little stick man logo, harking back to the good old days when Saints logo looked like something from the credits of the old Roger Moore crime show. Those used only to the Super League era will know nothing of this but it's all a far cry and a safe distance from ludicrous animal nicknames and their associated logos which exist only to please the marketing men. The only problem with Le Saint is that on further inspection, having gone down a ramp to the side of the building, it is not accessible. There are two quite large steps at the front of it and well, it just isn't worth the hassle really. Not that I'd miss the opportunity to take a photograph like this one;
The road loops back around leading back to the harbour. We walk back along towards where the boat we have booked to sail on will be leaving. Unlike in Marseille there's no important tacky but brilliant film-related landmark to focus on. This will just be a nice, pleasurable cruise around the port area which looks magnificent. So much so that it is beyond my limited powers of description. This time we sit at the front of the boat, which inevitably turns out to be another mistake. The trip is accompanied by a constant commentary, entirely in French. In front of us a middle aged couple seem to find every part of the commentary wildly amusing. Worse still, they start throwing some of their own comments back in what can only be described as an attempt at banter, all of which is utterly befuddling due to the language barrier. What concerns me most is that nobody else other than this couple are laughing at the commentary or responding to it. This means that either nobody else on the boat speaks French or, more likely and mortifyingly, it's just not funny.
Compounding the lady's behaviour is the fact that the wind keeps blowing her skirt up above her waist so that you can see 'all the way to Florida' as Carrie Fisher once memorably described the main selling point of her iconic chain bikini from Return Of The Jedi. But this lady is no Carrie Fisher circa 1977 and there is no selling point. It all makes me feel a tad queasy if truth be told.
We snoop around the shops and I buy the obligatory souvenir mug. The awful truth is that our house is overrun with mugs but this in no way acts as a deterrent. Darth Vader, killer whales, Chicago Bulls, St Helens RLFC (three times), Barcelona FC, pandas, Disneyland Florida and Yorkie bars can all be found on mugs in our house. Add Toulon to the list. Another beer by the harbour later and it is time to head back to the railway station. We have a day of nothing much planned tomorrow except sitting around by our hotel pool which seems like as good a reason as any to get back in time to go and drink far more than is reasonable. If only the French railway system would co-operate.
Everything appears as normal as it gets in France at first. We buy tickets, book the assistance, all with no trouble at all. It is only when we get to the platform that our troubles start. On that subject actually, I just want to say how bloody rude it is that they send Emma down the stairs on her own to cross the track via the subway while I am whisked further down the platform to cross the track above ground. Why is it necessary to split us up? What harm does it do them if one more person has to be escorted across the track above ground? I'm not comfortable leaving her on her own like that even though she doesn't seem to mind. It's a small thing, but it's the small things that chip away at you and dehumanise you in my experience.
We wait on the platform but are informed by the staff member assisting us that there could be a problem with the train we are waiting for. They're trying to find out, something they fail to do fcr an eternity. Even when the train pulls in they won't let us board, still insisting that they are trying to find out whether it will be going on to Marseille or else terminating at Toulon. Finally it emerges that there has been an incident on the train in which the driver or the guard has been assaulted by a passenger. They don't say what they mean by assaulted but they do say that the police are involved and we are still waiting for an answer as to whether the train will continue on to Marseille. Eventually it transpires that it will not, and we have to board another train. There are trains everywhere, several of which looks suspiciously like they may be heading towards Marseille. Yet it takes fully an hour from the moment we arrive on the platform for us to board a train that we can rely on to take us to Marseille. It's a shambles but it's not their fault, it never is. They apologise.
I'm quite enjoying the views on the train ride back to Marseille when I see something startling and quite outrageous. A couple of things actually, though the first should perhaps be filed under ironic and annoying rather than startling and outrageous. At Bandol a couple board the train. Nothing unremarkable about that, until Emma points out to me that they are the same couple who had been bantzing with the commentator on the boat earlier. At least there is no wind on the train to interfere with the lady's attire but what are the odds? They must have taken a train to Bandol from Toulon immediately after they left the boat while we were enjoying our beers on the harbour. To be fair to them they are somewhat less annoying when they are not being egged on by a self-proclaimed comedian with a microphone on a boat, but their very presence is yet another indication that we are forever cursed by these kind of ironies and coincidences. At that point it would not have surprised me if we had been vomited on by Daniel Craig.
The second incident is much more troubling. A young man and woman board the train at a carriage further up from where we sit. They have a little boy with them. As they shuffle around towards our carriage trying to find a suitable place to sit the young man is shouting at the girl. Not loudly, but in a tone forceful enough to leave you in no doubt that he is not happy with her. She doesn't really respond and it becomes clear why soon after when he leans in towards her and blatantly headbutts her above the eye. She's clearly terrified of him and his psychotic penchant for domestic abuse. It is not clear whether they are a couple with their own child or maybe siblings travelling with their younger brother, but either way this kind of thing just appals me. Women go on and on about how infidelity is the worst thing that can be foisted upon them, but are quite happy to put up with this kind of bullshit. If I had the physical capabilities I would stalk the Earth ridding it of domestic abusers like some kind of vigilante superhero. Maybe someone will do something similar in that novel I have been promising to write since I was 21. Which works fine until you consider that a) I am now 40 and that novel is looking less likely than my presence in the 2017 TT Races and b) I hate superhero movies and stories and have not seen or read a good one since Superman II in 1978 when I was two years old. Oh alright, Watchmen was mildly diverting....
When the domestic abuser and his victim disembark the train at Marseille she has one hand over her right eye which is also hidden by the brim of her sunhat. He looks guilty but unashamed at the same time, and I want to punch him in the head repeatedly more thane ever. Instead we just get off the train and start looking for a bus back to the port. Except we don't find one. Somehow we have exited the station at a totally different point from where we were dropped off this morning and we can't find the number 83 bus for love nor money. Emma's idea is to walk back towards the port, the logic being that we will surely find an appropriate bus stop en route. Which we do, but not before we are within half a mile of the harbour and have been on the move for about 20 minutes to half an hour. We still manage to get out to the bars albeit much later than planned, but we're a little bit drained for anything more than the usual row of bars along the harbour. The next night is our last in Marseille. Perhaps we will make up for it then.