At twenty-two, I wanted badly to explore the world so I saved up waitressing all summer after college and flew to France. I’d been there about a month when I took up a job at une petite auberge de jeunesse, Hostel Smith, in the center of the old town in Nice. It was a small family-owned business with a largely absent owner. I worked front desk in exchange for a bed and made a couple euros every time a guest came in without a reservation. It wasn’t much, just enough for a beer or a bunch of apples so in the beginning I was content and made friends quickly.
Beatrice, a teeny skin-and-bones French woman was the first guest I met. With a bleached blonde bowl cut, a long face and sunken eyes, she looked like a washed-up ballerina. On the day I arrived, she divulged that she came here to rest. She’d been seeing a good man, “a charming prince,” but alcohol and drugs made him bad. She made a fist and punched her palm to show what kind of bad. “So no, no, I pack my things in a hurry and go.” At this, she stiffened her lip and turned up her chin, “I have to and now, I have to rest. I work, I work and now I rest.” Beatrice rarely left her bed or ate. She spent most of her time under the blankets obsessively reading her tarot with a standard 52-card deck.
Above Beatrice slept Elijah who’d just spent two years at a Buddhist monastery and woke, without fail, at the crack of dawn to stretch out on the cold tile floor next to Beatrice’s bed. He was pale with kind blue eyes and golden curls and when he meditated there, he bent open his legs so they made a rhombus. I don’t remember how we met, probably over a bare-bones complimentary breakfast of toast, coffee, and confiture in the kitchen or at the front desk as Elijah checked in. I imagine I met Marc, David and the Aussie girls in much the same way, in passing, but our lives quickly entwined and we relied on each other for companionship. Each of us hankering for a sense of belonging in a foreign place.
All 14 of us—guests and staff—slept in the same squalid room. Seven sets of metal-framed bunk-beds lined the crumbling eggshell walls, each equipped with a flimsy mattress, pillow, and mis-matched faded linens. Overflowing suitcases and monstrous duffle bags swallowed the floor. Jeans, T-shirts, and sun-bleached towels dangled from the railings of the top bunks while tennis shoes and sweatpants crawled out from under the bottom. Smack in the center of the ceiling hung a crooked chandelier.
One wall with all the windows faced the street so at night when the room fell dark and we squirmed in our creaky beds, streetlamp light lit up the corner of a room with orange blocks. It sort of goes without saying but there was no privacy. It wasn’t uncommon for couples to hook up—moaning and everything—while the rest of us lay trying to ignore it. I didn’t mind the living conditions much, though. How could I? I was only working 14 hours a week and got to live on the Mediterranean.
From Hostel Smith, you descend a couple flights of stairs before stepping out onto a cobblestone street. You’re gobbled up by shadow at this point—the streets are so narrow and the buildings so high you won’t catch sunlight until you hit the square. Hang a left, walk directly south through the square with a church past the smell of spiced chicken and baked bread. Then, it’s bewilderingly bright. Heavy British tourists in flip flops and sun hats with salmon-colored skin plod past. Pillars and arcs slice apart a panorama of the boardwalk. Cross the main street and there’s the mediterranean, a shimmering soul-awakening blue.
Like in any beach town, days crawled forward in a sleepy way and melted together. I’d shake through a tepid shower, eat the meager breakfast provided, walk to the beach, draw, try to write and check people in for two hours a day. At night, we’d drink beer in the kitchen with someone (one of the French) hunched on the windowsill smoking a cigarette. Each of us laughed, explained where we came from, where we were going, and tried to speak the other’s language. We wanted everything from the world. Bet we still do.
About a week into this excursion, I sat with Elijah on the beach, me in my swim team one-piece and he in turquoise trousers that drew the eye to his slender waist. He looked extremely European but he too was from California. We splashed around in the water before sprawling out directly on the rocks. We picked out ones we liked and shared them like show and tell. Then we stacked them into mini towers careful not to let them fall. It was a clear day that held promise.
Elijah was telling me about his knee injury, how his doctors operated because they thought it was a torn meniscus but in the end, it wasn’t. “I really wish it was,” he said raising a searching gaze to the cerulean sky. “It really bothers me that even now, I don’t know what it is. Just by naming it takes away so much of its power.” I probably mumbled something like “yeah” in response. I’d been trying to name my own condition: how everything could be fine and my feelings would suddenly dip into something murky and dark. If there was something wrong with me, what was its name?
My second week there, Marc, two of the Aussie girls, and I took a day trip to Cannes. Marc had been at the hostel for a while now. Story had it that David, another staff member, found him drunk on the beach dragging a suitcase through the pebbles. David from Burgos had boyish good looks and Marc was bald with a nose that drooped with blotches of red collecting there and in his cheeks. He was lanky with hunched shoulders, bloodshot red eyes and a cockney accent. I pictured the two of them passing a cigarette back and forth as waves crashed under a jet black sky. Marc told him how he and his wife had shared a bank account and she left him, disappearing with all the money. He had no idea where she went. David said, “I know a place you can stay” and Marc started working at the hostel.
In Cannes, Marc showed us the bars where he used to drink, his favorite pizza spot (the manager came out to greet him), and the hotel where he and his wife would stay. “This was my life,” he repeated over and over, tossing his hands up in the air as if cursing the gods that brought him this fate. We walked through the town for hours, him losing himself in nostalgia. The Aussie girls and I watched from afar as he stole away at the beach to stand in the water with his trousers rolled up to his knees.
I can’t say when things started to turn bad. It might have been when Beatrice started reading cards for other hostel guests and staff. It might have been when one of the Aussie girls told Marc she had a boyfriend and he went out binge drinking. Or when a woman came to the hostel demanding to speak with Marc. He hid in the dorm room while she complained loudly to the rest of us: She’d met him at a bar and lent him money he claimed to desperately need to fly home and get clean. But weeks later, she saw him at that very same bar getting trashed. “You tell him I want my money back!” She stamped her foot, her flip flop landing on the ground with a thwack!
Sometime in the midst of this, the Bataclan attack occurred in Paris and our friends and families frantically messaged us to make sure we were safe. Beatrice slept through all the news, only waking up when a guest was yelling in the lounge. I quieted him down. “Really, Cinn?” Marc asked. “Yeah, she pays for a bed here. She should be able to sleep.” I didn’t tell her about the attacks, not wanting to add to her nightmares.
Marc drank every day for a week and the Aussie girls and I conspired about it.
“I think he needs rehab or therapy or a combination of both. I guess that's just rehab,” I offered.
“I think he just needs love like he needs to be with his family,” said the blonde with the boyfriend.
“I think he just needs to find something he really loves doing and do it,” said the brunette. For all our observations, it felt like we couldn’t do a thing to quell Marc’s temper. Each day, he’d pick a new target (guest or staff) and attack while repeating, “I’m trying to help you! I really care about you!” Elijah pointed out that Marc should help himself first.
The night before I was set to leave, Beatrice read Marc’s cards and shuddered foretelling something ominous ahead. He exploded, “It’s bullshit! You’re just using those cards to escape where you are!” Beatrice squeaked, flinched and somehow shrank even smaller in her bunk. The cards slid off of her blanket and spilled onto the tile floor, collecting at Marc’s boots. Elijah and I leapt into action. I screamed at Marc, “Stop terrorizing the hostel!” and Elijah worked on calming Beatrice. Marc called me a rude little shit and stormed out for a drink. That was the last time I saw him.
I left Nice earlier than anticipated, unfulfilled by living my life in this sun-soaked purgatory and unsure what to take from these people’s transient lives. I still couldn’t name what was wrong with me or what I’d been looking for in France that I couldn’t find at home. I’ve got a soft spot for Nice and the friends I made there, however fallible we may have been.