Your hometown never looks so attractive as when you're about to leave it. The night before my flight M and I drove to Rosemont, a desolate concrete village northwest of the city, to see Leonard Cohen in concert. It was sublime, despite the less than grand venue of the Rosemont Theatre - a round monolith off the highway that has carpeting imprinted with the Greek masks of tragedy & comedy, recessed lighting and a smokey quality to the air that made it seem like we'd been transported to a sales convention in 1985. It was raining when we left, and the city sparkled on the drive home.
In the morning I took care of some last minute details, and packed everything I would need for the next two and a half weeks into my official Rick Steves carry-on sized backpack that I bought especially for this trip. M is such a nervous traveler that he became anxious for me and got me to the airport before 3pm even though my flight wasn't until after 5. Near the underground terminal entrance a musician played Neil Young's Harvest Moon, which I took to be a good sign. I had attended the concert of one Canadian performer the previous night, and here was a musician playing a song written by another. Why Canadian musicians should be a good omen I'm not sure, but I'll look for the patterns in anything. I had no change to drop in his open guitar case, so I said "that sounded really nice," as I walked past. He looked up an said "thank you, thank you very much."
As I walked to the American Airlines check-in counter, a familiar figure walked towards me. It was my French teacher Tim, who was on his way to Seattle. I took that to be another good sign, as the first leg of my journey was in France.
I went through security and towards my gate, conveniently located right next to a Gold Coast Dogs concession. I was feeling nostalgic for Chicago already, so I indulged in a char-dog with everything: bright green relish; mustard; a dill pickle spear; onions; tomatoes; sport peppers; and celery salt. It sounds like a mess but its delicious, and I'm proud to say that in Chicago there are more hot dog establishments than all other fast food combined. Perhaps this is linked, so to speak, with Chicago's meat-processing past. The Union Stock Yards - which are the subject of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, processed a huge percentage of American meat from the end of the civil war until 1971, creating fortunes for men like Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift and George Hormel.
I ate my hot dog at the gate, where my fellow passengers spoke in a cacophony of languages. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a group of French-speaking passengers to brush up on my skills. Is it possible for non-verbal vocalization to sound foreign? Even the laughs and the sneezes sounded different.
I made a connection in Brussels from an airport that featured Starbucks and Pizza Hut as well as Hermes, Burberry and a BMW that was on display as if on a showroom floor. It was eerily quiet for an airport, and I realized that unlike O'Hare there were no TVs anywhere. I fell asleep on the flight to Marseille, my mouth hanging agape until my throat was completely dry. The Marseille airport was small and calm, and had palm trees and a few birds hopping around the main floor. I ate a sandwich near a terminal where flights arrived from Ouagadougou, Tunis and Casablanca.
I took a shuttle bus to the train station, and watched the scenery of cypress trees, graffiti and dilapidated buildings with laundry lines hanging out the windows as Lady Marmalade's Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi? played over the sound system. At the train station I bought my ticket to Nimes, and boarded a train heading for Bordeaux. On the platform outside my window a family was seeing someone off, waving and miming to an unseen person on the train. When the train started moving, one of them - a boy who looked about 18 years old, ran alongside it until he couldn't keep up any longer.