Slug Love

Amelie, it's a town, with hills and baths and older folk going up the hills to the baths, the under fifties steer well clear, you sit and watch the world go by and it doesn't. It's surrounded by green steepness and when it rains a nuclear klaxon goes off and everyone remains calm. I nearly dropped my sandwich in the river. Apparently it's for the emergency service, volunteers, it's cheaper than phoning them all.
The road to the farm is very up, very high, enough room for a car, plenty of things to ooh at, everywhere covered in trees dark green except for the ones sneaking into brown, rock poking out, water dropping down, bears rumoured, clouds being swept down the gorge.
They picked me up in an orange van and I met everyone and the animals and the building. It's three hundred years old and was a forge, then ruins, now a farm and some gites and a bit of camping. Spain is over the hill.
I went for walk on a Sunday. It's hunting season, time to start thinking bright orange thoughts and acting less four legged. Passing men with shotguns or rifles or blunderbusses. I was on a rock watching the cascades opposite and heard someone screaming in anger and the reverb rushing downriver, fading to silence and then he started again, gibbering bursts and long roaring notes. Something to do with the hunting, apparently. Letting you know they're there.
I ate the last of the amazing biscuits while sixty Citroens paraded past behind me, hooting and crunching, red and yellow striped flags, numbers, some kind of rally but not a race.
It was chicken week, for me. A short walk through the raspberry field and they put themselves to bed and when you put the lights on to count them they wince and grumble. In the morning they bustle behind the door and burst out like a magic trick. They try and swoop into the food bucket like chicken feed is incredible.

We saw slugs going at it. They form a squishy figure of eight and revolve very slowly. It's hypnotic, ideal for a tea break. Holes open in the hoops of the eight, then close, you can't tell where their heads are. Later there was no trace.

Three Days Under A Bush

With the pine-needle carpet. Twenty feet away there was a twenty foot drop to the sea.
I heard seagulls only once.
There was a shop round the corner, a church down the hill, sunrise to the left, sunset to the right. I ate salami, drank water, started reading Moby Dick. I wanted something putdownable.
It was a different bush every night, plenty to choose from and no need to get complacent.
Joggers went back and forth on the cliffs. Cruise ships came out of Marseille, went to the right, turned into shoeboxes.
One night after the sun'd gone but the light remained someone played acoustic guitar for an hour.
A woman said be very careful with your papers.
To describe someone traveling alone they say arsehole. A seul. It's something to think about.
I phoned a farm. They said when can you get here. I said about a week. I went to Aix-en-Provence.
Architecture was everywhere. It was unstoppable. Cobblestones and fountains too, exploding. Most of the walls were a shade of yellow.
Art history used to live there. If you were a fan of Cézanne you'd be bouncing. I went to the Matisse exhibition.

Perpignan was giddy and had hot wafts of bin-stink creeping round it. Plenty of narrow roads uphill with tall houses either side and white litter circling. Palm trees on the main roads, men on the corners. It's Catalonia. Signs in two languages. The paper said someone's set fire to an apartment block again.
I stayed in a hotel that would've been dilapidated but they'd painted flowers and leaves all over the walls and furniture. They'd painted a cat halfway up the stairs and painted tiles around the bathroom mirror.
Near the uni were two men, one with an acoustic guitar and one with a keyboard set to piano and turned up to distortion. He used all the keys, it was a rushing ascending noise, it followed me round corners, you couldn't hear what the guitarist was doing.

Port St. Louis to Carry-Le-Rouet

The beach was a mile long and had twelve people on it. They were all surprised to see me.
I walked up it, ate a sandwich, looked at the sea, looked at the industrial happenings, walked back down.
On the road back out I saw flamingos. I'm sure they were flamingos. If they weren't flamingos they were at least very flamingoid. They were pink and wading, doing that stalking kind of walk, almost in unison.
A well-to-do couple gave me a lift to a roundabout and murmured to each other.
Sylvain was next. I don't know much about cars but I do know a creamy walnut interior when I'm in one. He didn't talk because jazz-funk was blasting hard from the stereo.
At the next roundabout I waited an hour. The minibuses with no passengers are the ones that hurt the most. Someone stopped.
-Where are you going?
-Somewhere small, much better-looking than here, with somewhere to camp and preferably close to a beach.
I couldn't pronounce or remember his name. He immediately began to plan my holiday, saying all the things I'd said out loud, one by one, and hmming inbetween. Then:
-Yes! Carry-Le-Rouet! This is the place! Only twenty minutes from Marseille.
He picked up a pen and looked for something to write on. I gave him some paper. He started to write, with the paper resting on the steering wheel. We were doing 130.
I took the wheel.
He said thanks. The pen wouldn't work. He kept scribbling, the scribbling jiggled the wheel, we were going round bends, it was a good time.
He handed me the paper with Carry-Le-Rouet written on it and dropped me just outside Marseille.
People talk about Marseille like it'll eat you alive. They'll mug your hair.
I got in a small van full of cardboard with Mathieu and we went to Marseille. I could get the train from there to Carry. The sun was getting low.
Camille-ish music was playing. His ex-girlfriend used to work in boots in Bristol. He pointed at the tallest building in Marseille.
-They say Marseille has no very tall buildings, so it must have them, so they are building three. It is shit.

The train was sixty feet above the water. I began to see the beaches Pascale told me about, where the rocks meet the sea.
I walked through Carry-Le-Rouet to the next village, the sea was below to the left, the sun was gone, mopeds were about.
I went down a stone staircase to the water, tiptoed across the rocks, found a sandy section, lay down.
The fishermen came out, hollering, with their headtorches pointing out to sea. You couldn't see their faces, they were lights on legs. Shooting stars happened.

It was an orange morning. My back hurt. I went across the rocks, back up the steps, onto the coast road.
The water was clear blue, it showed everything it contained. The sun came up from behind Marseille.
I went through tiny bays with tiny boats, then long stretches of gnarled rock, no flat surfaces, pencil-sized holes in with many-legged thin things scuttling out. Snorkelers close to the shore, no clouds in the sky.
I reached Sainte Croix. Two beaches, a cliff in the middle, cliffs on either side, small, a red and white lighthouse away to the right, a church to the left. I settled, watched the sandy fun, lots of people were out.
I wished I had a book. As good as the Collins Gem French Dictionary is. Something story-like.
Or some headphones. Or two books.
The church had a bell the size of a football and a no-legged Jesus. It was shut.
The cliff-tops had carpets of pine needles and steep springy paths between the bushes. After dark I slept there. The what ifs came.
What if the sea comes in while I sleep and I wake up in Algeria or next to a massive ship or angry tentacled bastard.
What if two people pick me up and throw me off the edge.
What if a hog starts eating my face.
What if it rains and rains and rains.
What if the wind weaves my hair together with the bush.
What if ants find my nostrils delicious.
What if I get pissed on.

The pine needles were very comfortable.

Ship of Fools

It's where he painted Cafe Terrasse. Amongst much else. The café's still there, the terrace too. I went. We had it hanging on the wall, a copy of it, in the kitchen or the hall or the front room, in the first house I lived in. I used to stare at it. I thought it looked quite good.
There are eight other cafés around it now. You still get the picture. I stared at it. It's not a bad place, a leafy square, every house a different colour, flowers jumping out of windows.

Last night the rain attacked. My phone was swimming across the floor and moaning, I'd fallen asleep with the door open, a puddle was trying to sleep with me. I closed the door and moved away from the puddle. In the morning I put on the least wet clothes and turned the nearest tree into a sculpture of all my belongings. People came to look. The sun came out and started drying things.
A notebook was mush. I threw it away, and all the words and addresses and nuggets in it. I'd used a big pen, to fill the pages quicker, to bring a sense of small achievment closer.

One of the churches was full of trees and wooden limbs all pointing up from the floor. Some of them turned into glass tubes halfway up and inside the tubes were smaller worlds. Some of them had been shaped into swords. They were all lit from below.
I left.
Another roundabout. A lot of trucks passed saying sorry.
A small green car slowed down, a woman leaned out, asked where I was going, I shouted south, it stopped. I put my bag in the boot.
There were three of them. Marc and Seb and Chinez or Shainez or Chaynesse. Seb was driving and asking questions I couldn't answer, because I couldn't hear. I told them I was going to the sea, didn't matter where.
-Really doesn't matter?
After ten minutes we stopped to fill up. Seb went to pay. Chinez was talking about living in Paris, the theatres, living on boats. Marc was talking about working for a month then going back to live on a boat, not a normal boat, an eccentric one.
A while went like this. Seb didn't return. We ate brioche, Shainez skinned up. We craned our necks to see if Seb was in the shop or at the till. We couldn't see.
We hummed.
Five more minutes passed.
Marc spoke:
-Maybe he's having a monster shit.
-Or eating in the restaurant.
-Or doing drugs.
The spliff went round the car. Chaynesse started singing Tainted Love, quietly.
-Or kidnapped. You have this in England? Banditos?
-Most of the time no.
-He is lost. Marc, you can ask inside.
-For a man in a yellow t-shirt who disappeared in the toilet?
She laughed.
-Yeah. And get me a can of coke.
He went in. Five minutes passed. We got out of the car, milled around, looked thoroughly at everything there was to look at.
Marc returned, finished the spliff.
-They don't know! There is one cubicle locked, no answer.
We looked around again.
-Maybe he's in the female toilet.
I began to think about saying goodbye and getting another lift.
Then he returned, out of the main doors, we applauded. He was smiling.
We got back in the car and left. Shainez rolled another as they talked. It was something to do with a bank card and a phone call and the manager's office. He was laughing.
It was twenty minutes to Port St. Louis. The spliff went round the car. They talked more about Paris and work and asked where I was from and going and what I wanted to do when I got there. I still wanted to see the sea.
As we pulled into town they asked if I wanted to see the boat.
It was moored on the Rhone, by itself, it was the size of two houses and all the colours except pink.
The main cabin was bright yellow, it had Ship of Fools painted across it, in English, in bright blue Gothic. There was a six foot metal spoon and fork, crossed, at the very front. The mast had antlers on top, driftwood painted white, pointing backwards.
The deck was bottle green, the railings were dark red, the handrails were zebra-striped.
Seb said:
-I'll collect my things. We'll go to the beach in a minute. You want to see inside?
The captain was mahogany. He sat on deck smoking in a turqoise towel. He said hello. There were three other, younger people with him, they went out on bikes. We went down to a huge dark room with a wooden table the length of it in the centre. My eyes adjusted. There was a kitchen in the corner, Chainez pottering, pots and lights hanging from the ceiling, fat books, cushions and incense, brass lamps, maps, cans of paintbrushes, all neat, rugs on the floor.
Up wooden ladders, a bed to the left, a costume wardrobe in the middle, hats everywhere. A corridor to the right, paintings in red and blue and purple all over the ceiling and walls, animals, dreams, symbols, blotches.
Back out onto the deck and up to the cockpit, the bit with the wheel in it, what's it called, yellowing wood over a metal frame, bulbous handles, looking out past the fork and spoon up the Rhone.
-It was built in 1957 and will last for one hundred years.
We went back to the car, Marc stayed on the boat.
Five minutes down a long straight road with wetlands on either side. Marshes maybe, and beyond them a wind farm, and beyond that some giant industry, red and white striped towers, cranes, silos, barges, tankers. Chainez was singing something about gypsies, it was almost speech. Seb was eating a Mr Freeze.
They dropped me at the beach and drove back to their boat.

Avignon to Arles

It was calmer this time. I sat in a park and watched people photograph the sculptures and the church and each other. The pope's old house was across town. I didn't go. I wondered how the current old nazi pope is getting on, with his tour, has it happened yet, has he been arrested by Richard Dawkins.
I took a train to Montpellier. I practised my sleeping man impression and was unbothered by the conductor, if there was one. I remembered to dribble slightly, and twitch.
Montpellier was a cold grey bustle. It was ten past five. Rain was ready. Hotels were expensive. I walked through the end of everyone's working day, queues for everything, roadworks. My bag felt enormous. I got back on the train.
Frontignan sounded alright, it had that gn sound, like Avignon, which is also alright, and Beef Bourgignon, which is tasty. I got off there.
It was an industrial estate surrounded by water, with a bit of old town to bimble round, and plenty of wind to barge through. I bought a bottle of red wine and went back to the station.
It was five minutes down the line to Sete. I didn't bother faking sleep. I thought: How many chances do you get to camp near a backwater industrial estate with an ill wind blowing and a whole horizon to yourself, probably as many as you like, it's not an amazing idea, you don't have to actually go in the direction you're going, it's fine, it's noble, how short is life, not long, and not getting any longer, getting wetter and darker.
I went from the train directly to the other platform to wait for one in the opposite direction. I wished I had a guidebook or three. They'd tell me where not to go. That's why they're good. Why did I ever think it was cool to not have one.
The train back to Montpellier was lively. I dribbled and twitched. As we went out of the station the ticket police stopped the man walking next to me.
It was more appealing with the lights on. I went to an expensive hotel and asked them where a cheaper hotel was. It was round the corner, the hotel Edouard 7, the rain was a bastard, I gave the man some money and went to my room, ate a chicken sandwich, put on some more clothes and went out.
The rain did five minutes on, five minutes off. I felt decent. The O Saloon were doing pints for three fifty. I borrowed a pen.

French keyboards are not designed for the English. They've moved a and m and z and q and apostrophe and comma and full stop. I spend half my typing time pressing backspace. The m is the hardest to overcome, so I'm going to cut down on m usage.

The morning happened. Montpellier has stuff to look at and things to do. I walked around. I decided to go by train to Arles. The train drivers were on strike, or most of them. I waited an hour for a train to somewhere near Arles, where there was a rumour of a bus the rest of the way. I went there, sat at the bus stop, an hour passed, the ten people who got off the train with me gradually went away, as cars pulled up beeping and whooping, and bags were slung in boots, and radios turned up to fuck yeah.
The wind pummeled my face.
A fight started opposite me, across the car park, four or five men doing the about-to-fight dance, in the middle of the road, traffic honking. My bus was nowhere. I walked two kilometres to the next roundabout, then another two to the next one, across sunflower fields, they all had their heads down.
Akim picked me up. His car was all black except for the red seatbelts and he talked very quickly. I responded very slowly and he very generously finished my sentences with words I'd never heard before.
-Rainy times in England?
-Yeah, but it's
-Good women?
-Yeah, they're
-You like French women?
He took his hands off the wheel and stroked an invisible woman.
That was the end of the conversation.
He dropped me outside the walls of old-town Arles. I walked through and around and up and down. It was Van Goghy. I didn't know. I bought his book of letters last year but abondoned it soon after the start because he yelped so much about Jesus and nothing else.
I found a campsite, put the tent up, opened the wine from Frontignan. The sky was clear except for one dark cloud like a sunken ship, with a few more behind it, and as the sun disappeared it started flickering, yellow-white, every few seconds. It carried on for half an hour before any thunder happened.

Ruoms to Avignon

It took a while to properly leave. I packed incorrectly. Two bags is madness. I dragged them to the first roundabout thinking I don't need to be carrying seven shirts, three blank notebooks, two coats, army boots, two different shower gels...I'd forgotten how to move, six straight months, ish, in one place. I didn't have a tent.
The first car that stopped contained two people I already knew. I got in. They took me to their house and gave me lunch and a tent and asked why I had so much baggage. I didn't know.
-I hate baggage.
-There's a metaphor in there somewhere.
I made a bag of unnecessaries and left it under a table.
I walked from their house to Lablachére, it didn't take long, I was knackered and full to the face with sunshine and lunch.
I accidentally walked onto a campsite and gave a man eight euros for the use of some ground.
Paying for camping is not in the plan. But not planning anything is also in the plan. And his site was in the way of the woods I was planning to camp in. He immediately gave me a bunch of grapes and I felt like I hadn't made a bad choice.
I watched Lablachére. It was quiet, I was looked at. Much happened last week, at the fete, some people were refused service and became ultra-disgruntled and drove a car into the middle of the square everyone was dancing in. On the noticeboard is a letter from the mayor, it says paroxysm, unprecedented, barbarism and disgust.

Outside the campsite in the morning was a donkey in the back of a transit van. It was munching a newspaper. Across the road were more, chained up. The market was on. I squeezed through it on my way out of town. Then I squeezed back into it and bought a baguette and sardines and sausages. I started walking towards the sun. There were hills and valleys and trees and something smelled nice.
After however many miles twelve kilometres is I crossed the Chassesac. I sat down on a rock, ate some sausage and some biscuit. Half the trees were almost yellow. Finger-sized fish pointed upstream while brown leaves floated down past them.
A Heron was out, practising Heronry, taking off, landing and being massive.
I got in the river, then out, then in, then out, then sat with just my feet in. The Heron did the same, I'd like to say, but it was out of the way, I couldn't tell.
The river sounded like it was chewing. The shade slid around. I slept.

I walked into Les Vans when I woke up. I had a beer at a table. The Harley Davidson woohoo club were rumbling around town. A small boy was practising crossing the road, on rollerskates. After a few minutes his mother looked up from her drink and saw him, and the queue of vehicles on either side of him, and went over to smash his face off. He stopped where he was and covered his head with his arms. She dragged him to the kerb and put the skates next to a bin. He went back across the road and pondered. She went back to her drink.
I walked out of town the way I came in, to four stone walls surrounding some thorny overgrowth. A path went through a doorway in the back wall. It led to some trees. The ground was brown crunchy leaves. To the right was another doorway to another four roofless walls and some more thorny growth. To the left was the wall of someone's garden. I put my mat down under a tree and used my tent as a pillow. A dog wouldn't shut up. The tree dropped an apple on my shin. The leaves waved in front of the stars. I went to sleep.

After breakfast I walked up a hill overlooking the town and put my thumb out, at the correct angle, and after two minutes a 4x4 stopped.
A grey man opened the door and moved his luggage off the back seat.
-I'd like to go to Montpellier. Or Alés. Or Nimes. Or south.
-Ah. I'm going to Orange.
-Is that south?
-It is the same latitude.
-Okay. Good. I'll go.
His name was Patrice and he was going to work the wine near Orange. His family run a bed and breakfast on a mountain. It's called Stevenson, after RL, he might've stayed there when he wrote his donkey travels, or near there, I couldn't be sure, but I was enthused.
-It's a good book!
-I regarded it recently!
The hills and the grapes and the sunflowers flew past for an hour and he dropped me at a roundabout next to a train track.
-Many journeys here. Good luck!
I was still enthused.
Two minutes later a white car stopped. A blonde woman was at the wheel saying something about documents.
Her name was Pascale and she was going to Avignon so so was I. She was from Algeria and America and France. She was enthused because I said I was from Manchester. Twenty years ago she spent some time there, it's better than London, the bus system is good, and the theatres, the music...
-Yeah it's a great place.
-You live there still?
-Nah I moved out eight years ago
-I didn't like it.
She overtook everyone else.
-We are there in twenty minutes or I am late.
-This is good.
She told me the names of many beautiful places on the south coast. I didn't take any notes. I could feel my brain forgetting.
-You have a guidebook for your journey?
-You should have one, I think.
-I hate guidebooks.
-They tell you where to go.
-They only suggest.
-I don't like their tone.
She said the names of some good guidebooks and dropped me in the centre of Avignon.

Everybody Kurtz

The future is arriving in three days and bringing with it a whopping sense of freedom. It might also be windy. I'm getting a small tent or a jacket with pegs and pitching it in the places between places. I will spend a lot of time with my thumb out, on the side of a road, saying where is the work.
Three more days here and ten of us left. Tents down, poles bundled, pegs bucketed, bins battered. Summer left town one night last week, the next morning the shops stopped doing tourist hours and everyone had lost their flip flops. Brown leaves like baseball gloves, a praying mantis like a young banana with legs and a toad the size of your head. The future running in on cold legs. Interesting, I could write an awful book, or half a quite good one, or nothing at all. It could be like Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, without the donkey, without the Cevennes, 100 years too late.
Work was maybe on a farm in Corsica. But the bloke has been silent.