The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Labyrinth of Hidden Treasures

Thursday, April 30

We left Marseille around noon and arrived in Montpellier in the early afternoon. As usual, we didn't do a whole lot of planning beforehand, and intended to find the hostel by relying on our usual method of picking up a free map and navigating ourselves there on foot. Any time I go somewhere unfamiliar, I always allow for a certain amount of time to be lost and wander around. I like to call it the “confusion factor,” and depending on the place it can be large or small. The confusion factor is usual the main variable in determining how long it will take to find the hostel in whichever city I'm visiting that day. There are other vectors and variables in the equation, of course. A good example of a vector would be the distance between the train station and the hostel; a variable would be public transportation and its efficiency. Thus, the Estimated Time of Arrival to Hostel (ETAH) equation looks something like this:


In which:

Ts = Stated arrival time of train
T = Actual arrival time of train
L = lateness of train (in minutes)
Pd = Distance South of Paris (in km)
Hd = Distance of Hostel from Train Station (in meters)
W = Minimum time to walk distance between station and hostel (in minutes)
F = Confusion Factor

T= (Ts+ L)
L= (Pd x .07)
W= (Hd ÷ 117)

Therefore, where Ts, Pd, and Hd are known vectors:

Ts + (Pd x .07) + (Hd ÷ 117) + F = ETAH

Simple algebra will come close to giving you a solution; however, the “F” variable is never known in advance, so estimation must be used. Collapsed, the formula takes this basic form:

ETAH = W + T + F

For this reason, I sometimes call the Confusion Factor, and the resulting formula, the WTF Factor.


Anyway, the WTF factor was unusually high when we arrived in Montpellier, which resulted in us wandering around for a long time nowhere near our hostel. This (as the formula will indicate) resulted in an ETAH that far surpassed expectations. By the time we got to the hostel we were hot, tired, and a little frustrated, so we were happy to just chill out there for a while. When we ventured out again some time later, we went straight to the Place de la Comédie and hit the tourist office. We ended up scoring a free restaurant guide and a map (which actually would have come in handy about 3 hours earlier). We sat down in one of the outdoor cafés in the square and had drinks while we waited for it to be late enough to conceivably get into a restaurant for dinner. We were still in the south, which meant that most places wouldn't even consider serving you food before 8:00 pm, and they still looked at you a little funny if you tried to order something before 9:00.
Our hostel was situated in the old quarter of the city, within the old fortress walls. We would end up spending almost all of our time within this quarter, as it was the most charming part of Montpellier and very nearly empty of cars (though there will always be someone who tries). For dinner we decided on an Italian place near our hostel, called Via Pila, which the restaurant guide had recommended. I had decided before we got there that I wanted to splurge on a good meal that night, and I'm really glad I did because it was one of the best meals I've ever had in my life. It was my answer to Daniel's experience with the Confit de Canard in Avignon. We started with a buffalo mozzarella salad, which was basically a large mozzarella ball surrounded by spring mix greens and served with basalmic vinegar, olive oil out of a can, and fresh bread. I tried not to fill up on the appetizer but it was hard to stop eating. For the main course I had Pâtes à la Crème de Truffe, or Pasta with Truffle Cream Sauce.

Can I describe for you the delectable scrumptiousness of this meal? I'm not sure I can. The taste of truffle oil is difficult to convey. Never have I encountered anything so unique; the singular taste of truffle oil is powerful yet subtle. That is to say, it's not obvious and flashy the way the taste of a tomato or onion is. When the flavor of the truffle first graces your tongue, you are not even sure of what you're tasting, or indeed if you're tasting anything. It seems almost neutral at first, like a smudge of room-temperature butter. Then the layers of the truffle's essence begin to unfold, slowly, until its ambrosial waves are filling your mouth, your mind and your soul. Its flavor is so comforting that it is at once enveloping and unobtrusive. The only thing I can equate it with is the sensation of eating a really delicious chocolate dessert, like a flourless chocolate cake. It's not just a flavor, it's a spiritual experience. Truffle oil is like really amazing chocolate, only it's savory rather than sweet.

I ate my pasta slowly, trying not to weep with pleasure, while Daniel dug in to a veal steak with mushroom pasta, which he also found quite delicious. We shared a bottle of 6ème Sens (6th Sense), which was a Vin d'Oc Rouge. We ordered it because it was the house red, but it was completely perfect for both the meal and the evening. It was smooth and a bit bright, not too heavy, and I swear to you it tasted like happiness. Even the name was perfect for the evening; the whole meal was all about the senses. Even though I couldn't finish my pasta, delectable though it was, I felt the need to order dessert. I just didn't think the meal would be complete without it. It had to be chocolate, of course (what's the point, otherwise?) so I ordered the nutella mousse with vanilla ice cream and chantilly (whipped cream). It was sort of like a reverse hot fudge sundae. The mousse, which had quite a strong chocolate and hazelnut flavor, was on the bottom, while the ice cream and chantilly were on the top. I think it was a bit too sweet for Daniel, and I was so full that I couldn't manage to finish it on my own. Still, it was well worth ordering because I don't feel right unless I have a taste of something sweet at the end.

We floated back to the hostel, which was fortunately quite close. I was a bit giddy from the wine and sugar as well as the thrill of having experienced such an incredible dish. Daniel, however, passed out almost immediately. I wanted to stay up a bit longer, but soon found that I was not as alert as I thought I was; I was out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Friday

We started out with a coffee and pastry in one of the nearby squares. The weather was perfect and the trees were blooming all around. It was a beautiful day, and Montpellier had already charmed its way into my heart. We covered almost all of the old quarter that day, and saw most of the sights to be seen. There were a few old churches, but then there are always a few old churches. There were some lovely parks, but then there are always lovely parks. There was even an Arc de Triomphe, but as we were quickly discovering, there is almost always an Arc de Triomphe as well. Aside from the aqueducts and neo-greek Antigone complex (which I found devoid of charm), there really wasn't any specific “sight” that is unique to Montpellier. What I loved about the town was simple its atmosphere; the winding streets, the Space Invaders on the walls, the droves of students, the tiny hippie shops, the shady squares, and the trompe l'œil wall paintings. On our way back to the hostel, we passed a street band playing gypsy jazz. I absolutely adore that style, and I had to stop and listen to them for at least a few songs. They were a five-piece comprised of a drummer, guitarist, acoustic bassist, violinist, and accordion player. They had a really jumpy classic style, and the front man was great at engaging with the crowd. Everything about them, much like Montpellier, was just so delightfully French. I stayed to listen as long as I reasonably could without boring Daniel to death, and dropped some coins in for them when I left.

Montpellier just had a style I really enjoyed. The whole old quarter was bedecked in garlands of charm, all narrow winding streets opening into hidden squares. Other sections had a more majestic feeling to them, such as the very French, yet slightly whimsical architecture of the Place de la Comédie. Of all the places in France I've visited, I think I would have liked most to be placed as an assistant in Montpellier. I could easily imagine myself living there, strolling through the alleyways on my way to a shady spot to read or write. I could also picture myself running through passages, darting down a well-learnt route through the labyrinth of narrow old streets when I was late to work. It was easy for me to imagine what my year in France would have been like, had I only been placed in a town like Montpellier, full of students and full of life.

However, now is not the time for regrets. Berck has charms of its own, grey and derelict though they may be, and the isolation I endured there leant a certain dreary poetry to my experience.

We ate that night in a Japanese restaurant, which didn't come remotely close to the epicurean revelry of Via Pila. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. Daniel was a bit bothered by the fact that none of the staff were actually Japanese (though I didn't really expect they would be), and that they seemed to take a more French approach to the pace of the meal and divided his order into courses when it should have been served all together. His annoyance made me ill at ease (for no reason, of course, but my neuroses must have something to do or they get bored), so I was feeling a bit odd myself and was glad when we headed back to the hostel.

Unfortunately, my nerves were not going to get better before they got worse. When we got home I decided to take a shower while he caught up on blogs and emails. It was not the soothing ritual I was hoping for; on the contrary, it ended up being a very strange and frightening experience. The shower cubicles were a little elevated and had swinging doors on them with about 3 inches of space between the bottom of the door and the elevated floor of the cubical. The swinging door opened into the half of the cubical that was meant to be a dry sort of changing area, then to the left was the actual (typical 2x2ft) shower. I was minding my own business, washing my hair, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something strange. I looked down and saw tan fingertips and a nose poking underneath the door. My first instinct was that someone was trying to figure out if the cubical were occupied or not (I realized a little later that this idea was completely stupid). Panicked, I said “occupied,” in English instead of French. The fingertips and nose went away, but I could hear someone moving around in the bathroom, using the sink and such. My mind started racing and I quickly realized that it was no simple mistake. First of all, it's not hard to figure out if a cubical is occupied or not; the door was locked and it's a freaking shower, you can hear it. Secondly, it was a women's bathroom and the fingertips I saw were definitely male. The simple idea that someone was trying to peep at me was more annoying than anything else, but as it was the situation was a bit scary. The bathroom was otherwise empty, and I considered the idea that the guy could be more than just a creep. I decided that if he tried to force the door open I'd just start screaming, as sound carried really well in that hostel. Perhaps illogically, more than anything else I was afraid that I'd be so terrified that my voice would desert me and I'd be unable to scream. My heart pounded and I froze as I waited to see what would happen next.

I couldn't hear anything else after a few moments, and he seemed to have gone, but I was still rattled enough that I didn't bother conditioning my hair; I just wanted to get out of there and back to the room with Daniel as quickly as possible. I dried off hurriedly and wriggled back into my pajamas. In the hall, I ran into the guy from the reception desk and he said hello to me as he passed. I glanced at his fingernails. It definitely wasn't him, of course, and in fact I probably should have said something to him about the creep in the bathroom, but at that point I didn't trust anyone. Furthermore, I was too panicked to have explained the situation in French. I walked quickly through the halls and didn't feel safe until I was back in the room. I told Daniel what happened and hugged my knees for a while. I was frightened and angry at the same time, but the fear I felt just made me angrier. Not that my experience was any major incident compared to what many other women endure, but I think that the worst part of any sexual crime is the feeling of victimization that comes with it. I was so angry that the creep had made me fear him, that he had made me feel sexually victimized. It wasn't the peeping itself that was jarring, but the sudden awareness of myself as a vulnerable object. The way I shrunk from the receptionist in the hallway just compounded that feeling. Suddenly I was viewing every unknown man as a potential aggressor. Fortunately, the feeling only lasted a few minutes, and I let it pass. Daniel made me feel better and I was able to let it pass.

Saturday

We checked out of the hostel and had a coffee and pastry at the same place as the day before, then headed to the train station to buy tickets to Carcassonne. We had left our bags in lockers in the hostel, as we didn't want to be weighed down while we walked around town. Our train was in the early afternoon, so I wanted to walk around in search of more trompe l'œil. We walked for a bit, then went back to the hostel to collect our bags. Daniel intended to do some typing while I walked around some shops. However, when we got back to the hostel we were unkindly met by a big iron gate shut over the front entryway. It turned out that the entire hostel, not just the rooms, was completely shut in the middle of the day. We were locked out, and according to the sign, we were still going to be locked out when our train was supposed to leave. We decided the only thing to do was wait on the steps and see if some member of the staff happened by. I knew that someone was in there because they were cleaning the rooms, so I figured it was only a matter of time. Daniel was a little less sure, and we were both worried that we'd end up missing our train and losing the money we spent on our non-refundable tickets. Luck was with us, however, and we didn't have to wait long before some of the staff came out with the trash. They graciously let us in to retrieve our bags and we were on our way. We went to the park near the train station to eat a bit of lunch before hopping the train to Carcassonne.

As mixed as my experience in Montpellier was, I still can only think of it fondly. I loved it despite the lockout and the peeping tom; fortunately the town itself was great enough to make up for the headaches of the hostel. I really want to go back again, eat a sensuous meal, and float through the alleys on a gypsy jazz melody.

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