The day began with me being cheerfully clueless and without a plan, as many days of my travels seemed to begin. I disembarked from my ferry at St Malo in the grey rain of a spring morning without a map, any ideas for sleeping arrangements for the night or any useful currency. I also only had a very rudiment idea of how to speak the language. So I wandered. When in doubt, walk around until something happens.
I was lucky and stumbled upon the right bank to get my first euros from. My quest for a hostel or wifi failed rather dismally however. I wandered St Malo trying to find the Old Town, soaking in the details of the place as I went. It had a different atmosphere then anywhere I had been before. It really hit home again just how big the world is – how strange and marvelous, and different it can be.
I eventually got tired of walking in circles up and down the streets and went for tea instead. That was an awesome experience. It gave me this great rush of confidence to successfully order tea in French (literally three words, but I was stoked at the accomplishment). I thought to myself “if I can order tea in French, I can do anything.”
Not knowing the language of a place is an incredibly humbling, odd, frustrating and sometimes lonesome experience, which has a tendency to bring about some wonderful moments despite, and often because, of this. It’s humbling because it really shows you how large the world is and how small you are – how much there is to learn. And it definitely made me want to learn, to deepen my understanding of people and of life. The realization that there are billions of people across the globe who I could not understand if they spoke to me made me want to pick up a French dictionary and memorize it, then pick up a Spanish dictionary and memorize it too… and so on and so forth. I wanted to understand.
Not speaking the language of a place isolates you into a tiny bubble, trapped by a lack of communication. My thoughts sounded incredibly loud and english in my head. It is kind of like being blindfolded – you have to rely on your less fine tuned senses of communication to guide you through the dark. It can be really frustrating, or it can be a wonderful journey of discovery. It’s up to you. Do you want to stand in the middle of the forest blindfolded, yelling curses at life and smashing violently into trees? Or do you want to get those hands out and start feeling your way around, mapping your surroundings with the finer details of sound and touch? It’s your choice.
From the cafe I found my way to the Old Town, with its ancient buildings encased by a medieval wall. St Malo is a dream. The Old Town is made up of narrow cobbled streets with very few cars and lots of pedestrians. From the top of the old wall there’s a view across the golden sandy beaches and the rolling waves of the Atlantic. There are also a series of small, rocky islands dotting the ocean, each fortified with old castles and ruins. The seagulls wheel, the passerby call to each other in French and everything looks like it came straight out of a storybook.
I wandered the streets with my big bag, knowing that I should seek accommodation but not wanting to. Instead, I followed my heart, which was aching to explore. I walked along a section of the wall and then along the beach and around the old Fort National, out on its rocky hill on the beach. When I got hungry I went out for crepes. There were literally dozens of creperies in St Malo. Every building that had food seemed to sell crepes.
Ordering food was an adventure. The waitress caught me looking at the menu for an overlong period of time and started talking to me in French. I stared at her blankly, desperately trying to get my brain to recognize the noises she was making as words. It didn’t work. Eventually, she realized I didn’t have a clue what she was saying. She tried to say something else I might understand. I didn’t. And yet she was laughing at her own incomprehension of me, and I was laughing at my lack of understanding, and we connected, briefly, over our want and yet inability to understand each other. Telepathically, without words or language, we both knew exactly how the other person was feeling. It was this blinding moment of connection made out of emotion and not words. It lasted but a second, and yet it seemed that someone was opening a door, briefly, into another world. I got to glance through the the doorway and see things with the eyes of another person.
The waitress eventually summoned over someone who spoke english and I got my food and dug in. Shortly after my arrival, a large group of loud Americans showed up and did something that I found astounding. They didn’t even bother attempting to speak French. They didn’t bothering looking apologetic at their inability to speak the language. They simply marched up to the waitresses and waiters and demanded a table in english, expecting them to understand, as if they owned the world and english was the chosen language of the gods. I was dumbfounded that anyone would do this, that anyone would throw away the precious learning experience that I had just had, and that anyone would show so much disrespect for the place they were in. They acted as if the town of St Malo was their disneyland and was only there for their enjoyment. This kind of thing happened again and again while I was in France. It was disappointing.
I spent a long time that afternoon dwelling on where to sleep. I considered sleeping outside, as the day had brightened up considerably. But there was nowhere sheltered or out of the busy swing of things. I didn’t want to be found by anyone while I slept. I considered going out to the nearby tidal island and spending the night there, separated from the town by twenty meters of ocean once the tide went up. I decided that this idea was either genius or completely stupid. In the end I came to the conclusion that it was the latter. Because nothing says safety like stranding yourself on a deserted island with nothing but an ancient tomb for company.
By three in the afternoon, I was tired. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired in my life. Everything seemed bouncy. Every time I took a step, the ground seemed to be in a different place then it was when I had lifted by foot off of it. I could hardly walk in a straight line either and was in danger of falling over into traffic. I decided that this was a bad sign and that four hours of sleep on the uncomfortable floor of a ferry is not enough. I thought I would walk to a hostel I hoped existed a half an hour walk away, but I was too damn tired to want to walk that far.
So I got on a random singing train and went for a ride. Yes, you read that right. There was a tourist train that takes people on tours of the Old Town. I was so tired when I stumbled upon it that I just had to get on and sit for half an hour to recover myself. It was either get on the singing train or fall asleep on my face in the street. So I got on. It wasn’t that bad of a tour, though by the time they got around to the english commentary after the French, we had already passed what it was they were talking about.
When the train ride was over, I stumbled back into the Old Town and found a cheap hotel. I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed at four o’clock and had a good two hour nap. Then I wandered sleepily for the rest of the evening and went to sleep again at nine at night. It was an insane day.