The hostel used for the school trip in July fulfilled all of the requirements, no fault could have been found in its food, cleanliness, efficiency and courtesy, the only question mark that might have been raised was that of location.
A ring road with constant traffic noise passed nearby, as did a railway with trains rolling through the hours. There was a cacophony of noise one night after a football victory, car horns and fireworks included.
Across the road from the hostel, between the large triangular building that accommodated the hostel, and a number of other businesses, and the concrete pillars of the ringroad flyover, there was a piece of open, waste land. Among the clumps of long grass and scrub bushes, people lived in a variety of tents and shelters. Some were from among the homeless of the city, some seemed to be from a hippy New Age community, some seemed to be itinerant workers, remaining as long as they could earn a few Euro from casual work.
Each evening as we returned from the day’s visits, in the boot of our double decker coach, there would be boxes filled with unopened packed lunches, lunches eschewed by members of our party. James, our driver, possessed of a feeling of solidarity with those on the waste land and a capacity for French derived from numerous trips to the Continent, would gather up the boxes and take them among the tented community. A cluster of people would form to share out the free food, chatting with James as the baguettes, cartons of juice, bars of chocolate, pots of yoghurt, and bags of crisps were passed around.
One evening, stamps were wanted. I volunteered to walk to a tabac, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes away. A colleague, a namesake, who stood a good six inches taller than me, offered to come with me. The streets were those of the outskirts of a northern French industrial town, the blocks characteristic of the banlieus. Walking along a street toward the tabac, we passed four men sat on stools in an opening between buildings, hubba-bubba pipes stood on the ground in front of them. “Bonsoir,” I nodded as we passed. The smokers nodded in response. It was not a street I would have walked alone, but with a six foot-plus colleague who was the veteran of many rugby matches, there was no sense of there being any threat.
On the journey homeward, another colleague spoke of my namesake’s description of the walk to the tabac. He said he would never have gone there, but that I seemed to have no fear. The other colleague told him that he thought O would have walked far more dangerous streets. I tried to explain that I had only gone there because my namesake had accompanied me – the explanation was brushed away. It was odd being perceived as someone who lacked fear, who would walk in dangerous places. It was odd being perceived as someone I was not.