There are cockroaches on the mattress. The mattress is on the floor. I’m spending the night here. It’s a cement floor in a windowless basement that smells like feet and wet towels. It’s not how I planned to end my day. This morning, I got on the train in Paris, heading south. This afternoon, I arrived at the station in Nice. I’m on my way to villa, where I’m invited to go waterskiing this weekend with—swear to god—King Juan Carlos of Spain.
I’m traveling with three other guys—my friend Alex, and his two fraternity brothers. We’re all studying for a semester at Cambridge, we’re spending a week in France with our stupidhuge backpacks, and it turns out Alex’s family is doing very well: his dad is summering at what they call The House. It’s a 20,000 square foot estate in Monaco on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, with an Olympic pool and a butler and a chef and a nine car garage, and they share a boat dock with King Juan Carlos of Spain. And His Majesty is taking the boat out this weekend, and we’re going.
Alex calls his dad from a pay phone at the train station—I’m 22, there are no cell phones yet—and his father informs him the staff has only prepared for three guests, not four. So after an uncomfortable silence the three frat boys look at each other, then look at me and say, sorry bro, and they drive away with le chauffer.
Suddenly me and my stupidhuge backpack are at the train station in Nice with nowhere to stay. Fortunately, there were two American girls on our train and they’re still here. Fortunately, they have a hotel room near the casino in Monte Carlo, and they’re planning to dress up and drink and gamble all night. And fortunately, they say totally, come with us! And I say thank you to them and thank you to jeezus, because now I’m shacking up with Stephanie and Michelle from Miami which is so much better than boating with three frat boys and an aging monarch.
I wait outside while they check in because they only paid for two guests, and you pay per guest at this hotel, so technically I’m crashing. We spend the afternoon at the pool sipping cocktails and later that evening we’re getting dressed for our night at the casino and there’s a knock on the door. Boom boom boom. “Open the door! Gendarmes!” And I don’t speak a lot of French but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to parlex vous with no fucking gendarmes in your hotel room. There are two of them wearing these super snappy uniforms, and they’re with the hotel manager, and they throw me out.
So now me and my stupidhuge backpack are walking down the hill, past the port with all the yachts owned by the sheiks, and I find a small bar down by the train station, and I order a baguette with ham and cheese and a Belgian ale. It’s getting late, and pretty soon my beer is gone, and my sandwich is gone, and my villa is gone, and my girlfriends from Florida are gone, and the bartender says he’s closing. I say do you know a hotel? He tells me the hotels are sold out for the holiday. It’s a holiday in Italy and all the Italians are in France. I say, my friends left me behind and I have nowhere to stay. He says, “Well, if you like you can stay at with me for one night. I have a very large home that belonged to my grandmother. I live in Beaulieu, it’s only two train stops away. My name is Claude.”
This is astonishing good luck. I help him clean the bar then we ride the train 20 minutes and walk a mile or so through winding streets with trees on both sides until we come to a storybook French manor home surrounded by a stone wall, with a path leading to a side door that opens into a huge kitchen, bigger than my apartment in LA, pots and pans hanging above a giant butcher block table, the sink has a water pump, like nothing has changed in 200 years. Claude says, “You can wait in there”—it’s a sitting room with couple of couches—he says, “Here is some wine”—he hands me a glass—“I will come back and show you to your room.”—and he leaves.
The home is exquisite—the kitchen, the artwork, the décor, all this Louis XVI stuff . . . this is what I want! I want to stay here, and hang out with Claude, and meet his friends, and work in the bar, and be like a local . . . this is so much better than trying to talk those girls at the hotel into a threeway.
I’m looking around the sitting room. There’s a stunning antique writing desk and on the desk there’s a stack of polaroids with a rubber band around them. The photo on top is a little boy, like 10 years old, smiling, in a swimsuit by a waterfall—I think maybe it’s his kid—Claude’s super old, he’s like 40. I pick up the stack and the next photo is a different boy with his shirt off lying in the grass—oh, maybe he has two kids? The next photo is two boys hugging each other. The next photo is another boy who’s a little older blowing a kiss. I look around and I notice on the bookshelf there’s a crate full of polaroids, and on the coffee table and the windowsill there are more. I’m 22, and there’s no pornhub yet. This room has hundreds of polaroids of little boys.
I don’t say au revoir. I set down the wine glass, grab my stupidhuge backpack, and book it—through the kitchen, out the side door. I get to the street . . . I’m pretty sure the train station was that way, so I start walking. It’s totally dark, and totally quiet. I hear a few crickets, and then I hear a door slam, and then I hear Claude yelling, “Come back! Come back now!” I walk faster. I hear a car start. I see headlights through the trees coming towards me, so I start to run. When the headlights get closer I duck off the road and hide in the woods. He drives past me and turns a corner. I think he’s headed for the train station, so I follow him.
At this point it’s very clear that I will not be enjoying the royal waterskiing entourage, and I am not enjoying Stephanie and Michelle in a Monte Carlo ménage à trois, and I’m not enjoying the hospitalitè of the local bourgeoisie—because I’m running through the woods on moonless night to escape from a bartending French pedophile named Claude.
Eventually I find the center of town and there’s some shitty little pensione, and I’m sweating and out of breath and I ask the night manager, do you have a room? He says, “No rooms,” and I’m like dude, por favor, anything. He says, “Fine, the housekeeper is not working today,” and charges me 50 francs for a mattress on the floor in the basement that’s crawling with cockroaches because, c’est la vie.