Backpacker Befriends Homeless Community of Marseille, France

And eats pizza from the trash!

Photo by Viktoriia Popova on Unsplash

** Republished from 2017 **

“So you’re reading in English but you don’t speak it?”

I turned to the man who was sitting far too close to me in such a wide-open park in Marseille’s city center, surprised he asked such a question. He spoke in a quiet Englishman’s accent.

“No, I’m American, I’m native English,” I responded snarkily.

The man’s name was Chris; an older gentleman, most likely in his sixth decade of life with rapidly graying hair and a wrinkled face.

He was thin — scarily thin. It looked as if he hadn’t eaten in a week, and by the look of him, I could tell he had been living on the streets for a while.

“If you sleep rough for more than a week, you tend to make poorer decisions and take more risks. That’s the problem. I did that once in London and I got very sick and almost died.”

He had the kind of personality that kept you engaged in whatever he was saying even if you had to question its legitimacy. His appearance did nothing for his credibility; however, you had to at least believe what he said at the moment.

I found Chris to be such an interesting character so I did everything I possibly could to keep our conversation going. We talked about a multitude of things in only the span of an evening.

He spoke with confidence — like one of those friends from college that went on to get a big-time job in an industry you know nothing about — so you are forced to believe whatever they say. He could have told me anything and I would believe it.

The park was a lively place that afternoon; and, although spacious, Chris decided to sit very close to me. He looked me right in my eyes when he spoke and his brain didn’t wander. He was focused on our conversation.

His backpack was huge. So, I asked him what was inside. This was a rather personal question, but it served as an ice breaker into deeper conversations later on. He happily answered. Perhaps, he just wanted to be heard.

“Oh, well, I came here two weeks ago with nothing in it. Since then, I’ve picked up twenty pairs of gent’s underwear, a brand new pair of Nike trainers, and two towels that lads have thrown away.”

He had a bright yellow sleeping mat which he claimed to be the reason people could tell he was “sleeping rough”, as he referred to it. However, one look at his long, greasy hair and scruffy, untamed beard (along with his frail bone structure), you’d probably be able to guess that he was living on the edge.

I silently questioned whether he had really only been sleeping rough for two weeks in Marseille or if that had been an elaborate lie. It seemed that as proud as he was, Chris seemed to be ashamed or in denial of his situation.

He was a filmmaker from a small town in Northern England. He was a freelancer who seemed educated and knowledgeable about a lot of worldly things; a lot smarter than me, that is. He was an educated man.

Normally, people get a little on-edge or uneasy in interaction with the homeless — even in passing-by. I didn’t feel threatened at all by Chris.

He had come to Marseille to collect some money he was owed, but when there was a problem with his refund, he was left stuck in France without the money to get home until the refund came through; which led to him making a home out of the streets.

Being that he was in the situation that he was in, he had to do what he could with what he had. He proudly let me know that he hadn’t spent a single Euro of his own while he was in France as he pulled out an expenses chart he had hand-written.

“I wrote down on this bit of paper every item of food that somebody’s given me.”

Instead, he took up juggling as a way to fund his minimalistic life in Marseille. He had made quite a bit, but not nearly enough to make it home.

His business being in France

He had been told of an abandoned village not too far away. This kind of information intrigues even the novice adventurer, but to a filmmaker, this information is gold.

“I was almost involved in a film here called the Taxi Five the other day. I met a really rough guy from Germany; an alcoholic. He was in the film because he was so rough.”

This guy, whom Chris said was “extremely intoxicated”, told Chris about the village.

Supposedly, it was long abandoned and now completely forgotten by everyone. The man tried to give Chris directions. Chris pulled out a hand-drawn map of the mountains and forests he had to cross that were nowhere close to scale.

“That’s Montpellier and it’s thirty kilometers to the West — now, this is all I got — see the place is called Malville and it’s next to a place called Larzac. So you get the bus to Larzac and you got roads that weave through the mountains but you have to walk that part. This is all I got to find it.”

A daunting task; especially with no money and no real idea if the place even existed. Still — intriguing. The exploration of this village was the subject of most of our conversation. I wanted to go with him.

I mentioned wanting to follow him and write a story about it.

“I’ve thought about doing a film — with me and this German fella along with another Rasta guy. Together, we look like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly — we could almost do a film.”

Meeting the Rough Sleeping Community of Marseille

“So what are you going to do for the rest of the night? Are you exhausted? If you want to do something for the next couple of hours, I can show you something; I’m meeting one of my mates,” Chris graciously invited me to tag-along.

On our way, he introduced me to several other ‘rough sleepers’ (including some who were in the middle of their street performance act.

I’ll never forget when I timidly asked him for advice about rough sleeping. I’ve slept on the streets before; I’m an extreme budget traveler and I’m not opposed to saving money however possible. Admittedly, sometimes it can get pretty scary all alone at night. I’ve always wanted to introduce myself to others I see sleeping homeless around me. Just as an added layer of protection and comfort to know that a familiar face was with me.

“You don’t look like us. You look like you came straight from the Hilton,” he told me. He said it wouldn’t normally be a problem (because, overall, all of the community is friendly), but to be received extra positively, maybe I should adopt a rougher appearance.

He told me this after I hadn’t shaved for a month or showered for three days; how much rougher did I need to look before I’d be automatically well-received? I was more interested in how he found himself in the situations of the stories he had shared.

“You just stay out — you got to be out late. You’ve got to be a man of the night to meet these sorts of people. You’ve got to be able to talk to people — have a good story yourself and don’t be afraid in engaging in conversation with characters that other people avoid,”

He had so many fascinating stories from his youth and I can tell we had the same ideologies. I felt comfortable with Chris and opened up to him sooner than I do with most people.

“Oh my son’s called Adam,” he said at the beginning when I introduced myself. However, little did I know that I’d make such a grandfatherly-like connection with Chris.

I asked him about his kids, his love life, and asked him if he had ever regretted not marrying his entire life. These are very personal conversations that normally I don’t have with people within an hour of meeting. But there was something about Chris that was inviting. He shared his wisdom.

The Diet of a Rough Sleeper

Still on our way — Chris told me he was taking me to a secret cove of the Mediterranean that people from all walks of life would congregate at and get along with each other no matter their social standing. It sounded cool.

Before we got there, Chris finally admitted that although his expenses chart may look like he’s eating quite a bit, the truth was he hadn’t eaten that day. I, too, had been surviving off a single baguette in the previous 48 hours. I was starved for some food, but didn’t find it appropriate to flaunt money in front of Chris while he didn’t have any — and I was in no financial position to feed someone else as I was hardly feeding myself.

Ridiculously enough, as we passed a dumpster on the curb of a pizza restaurant, Chris saw out of the corner of his eye some uneaten food on the top of the trash pile. There was leftover pizza that had been thrown out — cold, so obviously previously refrigerated. In addition, he dug down a bit further than I could handle and pulled out an entirely stale baguette.

“The inside of this guy should still taste pretty good,” he said.

I was moved when, just after speaking about how long it had been since he last ate, he offered half of the leftover pizza to me. Although I had told him that I’ve spent nights rough sleeping as well, I’m sure he still saw me as a guy ‘straight out of the Hilton’. Perhaps, he didn’t believe that I hadn’t eaten that day or, perhaps, he did. Not to be rude, I accepted. And we ate all of that garbage pizza. Something about that meal was one of the favorites I’d ever have in Europe.

The world has a funny way of putting people together

When we finally reached the cove, I was hard-pressed to understand how so many completely different individuals were gathered in one area as if they were all family. I looked around and saw men and women of all ages, religions, and races sharing the sunset together with smiles and laughter.

Chris introduced me to Mark — a former French Diplomat who has traveled to over 160 countries and owns three homes throughout France. And yet, there they were; a man who is likely a millionaire befriending a homeless man, acting as if none of that stuff matters. It restored my faith in a world that is struggling to get along with one another.

I enjoyed the rest of the evening with the two until the sun went down and Chris and I retired back to the community where we would spend a quiet night. It was quite an excellent happenstance; all of it.

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