Tuesday, 9 August 2016

France - From The Beginning

I’m not completely sure how to structure this epic tale of Marseille, Nice, Toulon, Monaco, Cannes and Antibes so let’s just start at the beginning.

3.00am, Monday July 25 2016. I’m up at this ridiculous hour to catch a flight to Nice from Manchester Airport at 7.30am. Emma’s been at her parents’ house for the weekend and since my uselessness includes but is not limited to packing for holidays it has been a bit of a scramble to get everything sorted. By about 4.15am we are as ready as we will ever be and on the road. We’re low on petrol, but not low enough to actually stop and fill up now. Resolving that we will be able to do it on the way back in 12 days time is the kind of giddy thinking that can only be inspired by the prospect of going on holiday. And is exactly what we do.

Predictably there is a problem before we get anywhere near the terminal building. We’re leaving the car at Ringway. We always leave it in a long stay car park and then get the bus they provide to the terminal. This decision was inspired by one particularly unpleasant experience in which the company we had hired called the day before departure to say that the lift on the accessible mini-bus was broken, making it an inaccessible mini-bus. Accessible buses that were actually inaccessible buses were to become a theme during our stay in France, but first things first. We’d had to drive to the car park on that occasion and have always done so since. Call it cutting out the middle man.

We board the bus, Emma lugging two large suitcases with her. Turns out I can’t carry suitcases either. She’s managed to store them safely and we were set to go. Except the bus isn’t. The driver has flipped the ramp down to allow me access on to the bus, but upon flipping it back he has found that he cannot then close the door. He tries and tries for possibly the most awkward few minutes any of us on board could remember, before finally giving up and asking for help on his radio. A man who looks the part as a mechanic turns up seconds later, fiddles with knobs knowingly and with authority, before deducing that the thing is actually buggered. We have to disembark which means more lugging for Emma, and then move down to the next bus stop in the car park to catch the next bus. Only the driver of that bus turns out to be the would-be mechanic on the buggered bus, so we then have to wait for him to finish his chin-stroking diagnosis before we can get on board the new bus and be on our way. Fortunately for all our sanity and the brevity of this particular story, the second bus is sufficiently functional to get us to the terminal.

The flight is as uneventful as it can be when you are unable to walk. That is to say that being dragged backwards down the aisle of an aeroplane without any trace of my dignity is now such a regular occurrence that it no longer warrants any further comment. There is a strange moment at the end of the flight when the girl sat next to me by the window decides to wait until my assistance arrives before getting off the plane, even though she appears able to do so under her own steam. I ask her if she wants to get past me to get off and she just shrugs. The thought crosses my mind that maybe she can’t because of some terrible unseen condition so I don’t push it any further. But then one of the cabin crew asks her about it and she squeezes past me, stands up and walks off the plane unaided.

We take a taxi from Nice Airport to Nice Ville railway station. The plan is to get on the train to Marseille where we are staying for the next six nights, before returning by train to Nice for six further nights before flying home. The taxi driver speaks enough English to speculate about whether there are any topless women on the beach as we drive by, to shout abuse at a man he claims is the 'Islam-loving' French Finance Minister (we were sceptical, and then to have a good giggle at the word ‘SEX’ written in enormous blue letters on the side of a building opposite the railway station.

‘I wonder what they sell?’ I ask.

Any train station where language barriers exist is going to be a challenge to negotiate. Add in the need for wheelchair access and you are into Crystal Maze territory. There are two separate desks, one for information and a ‘boutique’ which sells tickets. In the boutique you have to take a ticket from a machine and wait for your number to come up, which is reminiscent of how they carry out blood tests at St Helens Hospital. A ticket to Marseille from Nice costs €70 which after the Brexit fiasco is about £58.00. It’s about 99 miles which should take around two hours and 40 minutes. But this is us remember. It was never going to be that quick or that simple. But before we can even think about that we have to organise assistance on to the train. Bafflingly, this cannot be done at the desk at the boutique. That would be too easy and sensible. You have to take your recently purchased ticket to the information desk and book assistance through them. Turn up at the information desk without a ticket and they won’t take you on, so basically you have to take a bit of a punt that after you purchase your train ticket they will be able to organise the assistance for you in time to catch your train. Generally they require 30 minutes notice to be able to organise assistance for anyone with the temerity to turn up using a wheelchair. It’s not like Lime Street where you can just rock up three minutes before departure and shout ‘Thatto Heath’ at a bloke who is otherwise standing around doing nothing. If they don't get their required 30 minutes notice, you could very well end up waiting for the next train. Trains to Marseille from Nice are not all that frequent so it's not something you want to get involved in.

The lift they use to help me board the train is a real cutting edge piece of technology. It's square in shape and has a ramp that flips open at the front. Then when they close it up behind you they literally wind the thing up manually, like how you used to wind up the windows in your car in 1978. When you reach a suitable height to board the train there is more winding to enable two great fork-like ramps to extend in front of you so you can wheel on board. Sometimes this is necessary as some French trains have two giant steps leading up to the carriage. Other times it is complete overkill and they will just use a small ramp if the platform is closer to the level of the carriage. This one we could have boarded ourselves, so non-existent was the step between the platform and the carriage. But they weren't going to tell us that. It would interfere with their safety policies. The French railway service treats wheelchairs and their users in much the same way as they would treat a toddler wandering around the platform on his own.

There's lots of room in our carriage. It's a specially designated area for disabled people and wheelchair users which were I of a mind might inspire a rant about segregation. However, it doesn't really have that effect as the able bodied population are not shy about shuffling along and occupying the seats there. I jump out of my wheelchair for comfort, pleased that there are no jobsworth guards watching me do so, lest they physically drag me off the seat and dump me back in my wheelchair where I belong. The scenery is breathtaking. The bulk of the journey takes you right down the coastline so you can see all of the stunning beaches and sea views, albeit interspersed with trees and the odd tall building. Everything is so magnificently blue. The sky seems more blue than anywhere else, so too the sea. The scenic route was something we wanted to experience when we considered travelling on the Eurostar. We'd shelved that idea when we realised how long it would take to get from London to Marseille, bearing in mind that it is four hours drive down to London also and probably would have involved another overnight stay. So with that it is fabulous to be able to see France like this anyway, even if the train we are on doesn't quite offer the luxury of the Eurostar.

An hour or so into the journey we slow right down and before long come to a complete stop. We're not at a station so something has gone wrong, which is not altogether surprising in our experience. What is different about this is that it's a little unnerving to listen to announcements over the tannoy in French, particularly when you can only make out the word 'security'. The tension cranks up a notch when the driver, adorning his splendid Axl Rose bandana, hops out of his secluded bubble and begins doing the Peter Kay run that dad's do down the length of the train, all the while mumbling in French in what appears to be an agitated manner. The next minute he is off the train, walking along the railway still muttering away about something or other. There are more announcements that we cannot understand. Now normally this wouldn't be such a big deal but you may have noticed that over the last 18 months or so France has had some issues with terrorism and that public safety is a concern. If you start to think about that sort of thing at the point when Axl gets off the train gibbering away then you could concoct all sorts of scenarios in your mind. But a few minutes later a girl enters our carriage to use what appears to be the only toilet on board. She's French, but she has some kind of far eastern ethnicity also. I'm hoping she speaks English so that I can get her to give us some idea of just what is going on here. As she leaves the toilet and makes her way back to the seat I take a punt;

"Excuse me, do you speak English?" I ask. It's a question I will be asking repeatedly over the next 12 days, owing to the fact that my own French skills do not go beyond Sutton High GCSE experience. Grade fucking C. You're not having a conversation with a real life French person if you only have a grade C GCSE, that's for sure.

"Little." she replies, demonstrating just how little with her one word answer.

"Do you know why we have stopped?"

"Someone, they jump off the bridge because they try to die." She says.

And that is all we find out. Clearly the girl's English skills are too limited for me to press her any further on the matter and it somehow seems inappropriate to do so anyway. So I'm afraid I'll never be able to tell you whether the person who tried to die was successful. I certainly hope not, and can at least assure you that there was no evidence of any death as we finally got going some half an hour or 45 minutes after stopping. No body parts, no gore, no blood or anything like that. There are more announcements, probably telling us how late we are going to be arriving in Marseille, but we'll never know. I should have revised a bit more for that French exam in 1992, I know. But the 16 year-old me thought that revising was something you did if you thought you wouldn't pass otherwise. It never occurred to me that scraping a Grade C would be an issue on a train nearly 25 years later.

We arrive in Marseille around 30-40 minutes later than advertised, and are met by the train station staff with their high-tech lift. You have to give them credit for this part of their accessibility service to be honest. Many is the time (well twice that I can think of) that I have not been met at train stations in England and ended up in entirely different ones than I had intended. By and large the French are very hot on this and are there to meet you with the lift promptly. That's great, but then they have known about the need for assistance since at least half an hour before the train departed. Perhaps that is why they do it, and why they have a computerised assistance booking system at the information desk in the stations. It works, kind of.

Another taxi, another mad driver. He drops us at the Raddison Hotel which is right on the marina at Marseille. The harbour looks pretty spectacular as we drive by it, passing the endless row of bars and restaurants on the way. We're on the fifth of five floors which again could inspire another novel about how we always manage to find our way to the top floor of hotels despite requiring wheelchair access, but let's not spoil it eh? The hotel staff give us a voucher for a free drink, which after a quick refresh in the room we use at the café bar next door on our way out for an exploratory stroll. What we didn't know when we got the voucher is that there is no choice of drink involved. The waitress brings over our free drink which is an orange-looking vodka-based cocktail that looks as though it could take down a herd of buffalo. It tastes good, and it is pretty refreshing in the searing heat that still lingers even at around 6.00 in the Marseille evening.

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