The French trains are brilliant, efficient, the fastest in the world I’ve been told, and likewise expensive.  I was heading from Nice to Paris, and with great optimism, I stood along the entrance ramp of the highway to Marseilles.  I stood for hours, sweating, smiling.   People waved, laughed, shrugged their shoulders; one car full of French boys pulled over as I gleefully shouldered my pack and ran to them.  As I approached they drove off, laughing.

Finally, in the afternoon a middle-aged man in a working van pulled over, and after some confusion about who was going to Marseilles (we both were), I hopped in.  What joy! What relief to get a ride! 200 km straight to Marseilles.  The man, whose name conjured North African royalty, spoke very little English, and my French being no better than my Italian, we were largely silent for the 3 hour trip.  He was swarthy with a bit of a beard, and the dust of his van and clothes colored Marseilles as a rough and tumble, hot, brightly ethnic Mediterranean industrial city, whose grungy hard worked streets are a counterpoint to the deceptive cleanliness of the rest of the Riviera.

I never truly made it to the city though.  I got dropped off a little ways out by the highway which runs north to Paris, via Lyon.  It was getting on in the day now, and the streets were plenty dusty, in fact, as I made my way to a produce shack and bought a couple apples for dinner.  There were policemen on the entrance ramp so I decided to bide my time, making a sign for “LYON”, and enjoying my apple.

Presently, the policemen left and I assumed my spot.  It was a really good position with plenty of traffic, going slowly up the ramp, and with plenty of room to pull over.  But still no one stopped. Two hours passed, and I began to envision a night spent in the slums of Marseilles.  Finally, a music teacher pulled over and asked me if I would like to go to Aix-en-Provence.  Not very confident that this was on the way to Paris, but having heard it to be a very pretty town, surrounded by quaint French farms, the site of many Cezanne paintings, and with the hitching mentality of grateful whimsicality, I got in.  It was a short ride, and back towards Nice, and where I got dropped off, it was an “hour’s walk from Aix”, at the entrance ramp back to Marseilles, which had almost no traffic, and a chill of evening in the air.  I felt I had been almost deliberately side-tracked.  My sign read “LYON” after all, I thought.  Cursing myself for taking the ride, I reluctantly thanked the music teacher and got out.

Still hoping to catch a ride at least somewhat north, I moved from the ramp to the highway.  This was a great deal less comfortable.  Great trucks barreled down on me and the wind was so strong it became difficult to stand in one place.  My sign was blown from hands periodically.  Two police cars passed and I sighed with relief.

Then, after sometime, while I was contemplating calling it a day, an imposing red and yellow van slowly entered the highway and drove silently down the shoulder.  The thought “it is coming right at me” ponderously made its way through my head.  Then, that age old instinct hit me, which has struck so many unlucky teenagers, and I nearly turned and bolted towards the nearest field.  With no desire to be “on the lam,” I stayed put, and this absurdly colored “highway patrol vehicle” came level with me.  I stood to the side, and the chunky driver rolled down the passenger window and started shouting at me in French.  I threw up my hands in an exaggerated Italian apology, got out a “Je neh parl pah Frawncwious” or some such thing and quickly began to walk back towards the ramp.  He caught up to me quite easily in reverse, and motioned for me to enter.  So I threw my sign in the back seat and got in the passenger’s seat.

The driver seemed extremely perturbed that I didn’t speak French, and gesticulated that “autostop” was not allowed.  I thanked him profusely as we drove down the highway.  I became exceedingly cheerful, watching the countryside fly by (going the direction I wished) and I asked him if he were in fact taking me to Lyon. He was unphased.  We passed several exits, and I began to really wonder where the hell he was taking me, when we got off at a local road, and he explained that “autostop” was legal everywhere but the national highways.  I thanked him and, for the fourth time that day, waited for a ride.

It came beautifully, swiftly, after about ten minutes and three cars.  A young man in a beat up car with all sorts of little charms and souveniers lying about pulled up, asking quite simply “Aix.” I took the ride back into town, curious at life’s waywardness, its confusing circularities; so grateful not to be in Marseilles or a French police station; and generally amused by the whole act of living, light-hearted and certain to make it to Paris soon.

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