Monthly Archives: October 2014

My 2 cent on Marseille.

Photo I took of Vieux Port, Marseille

Photo I took of Vieux Port, Marseille

I feel compelled to give some semblance of cents on Marseille since it’s the place I’m calling home right now. The lady in the boulangerie told me Marseille is “the new Chicago” because the city has a lot of murder and crime. Fortunately or not, I can’t quite speak to that. Marseille doesn’t have nearly the same industrial (read: desolate) feel as the US cities it’s often compared to, namely Chicago and Detroit. I guess there’s a mafia scene here since that’s what I keep hearing. They must be doing a great job keeping it underground.

While I wouldn’t describe Marseille as particularly gritty, it is incredibly harsh. It smells like any combination of trash, sewer, and rotting corpse at every turn; there’s dog shit everywhere; and the whole city is under construction. One of my first years in New York, a friend scolded me for wearing headphones on my walk to and from class. “You’re going to leave the city not knowing what it sounds like,” she half-asked. Admittedly, I found the suggestion profoundly obnoxious at the time, but somehow it’s stuck with me and I tend not to listen to music when I walk in new places. After a week in Marseille though, I realized that music drastically improved the quality of my daily 90 minute walk. Getting to and from places in Marseille is already an obstacle course – you’re dodging cars, bulldozers, super rude French people, dog shit, and trash all over the place. Mouthing along to Future is the least one can do.

There are a lot of other things I could say about Marseille. It’s great in a lot of ways – access to the sea, good weather most of the year, immigrants, occasional really nice French people, food, wine, mountains.. It’s a hypnotizing place, in a way that I can’t quite pin down as ultimately grounding or slightly traumatizing, and I think that’s part of why I maintain a fondness for it.


On Public Transit


Many people who know me know I believe strongly in robust and free public services. It’s one of the least anarchist things about me besides the fact that I appreciate bathing. It also differentiates me from libertarian types whom I have very little in common with anyway.

I judge cities. A lot. And one of my measures for how great a city might be is its public transit. In general, I like cities that have good public transit. By good I mean semi-reliable, affordable, smartly designed, and reasonably convenient. For example, New York, in my opinion, has one of the greatest transit systems I’ve experienced. You can get around relatively quickly with few transfers and popular routes are 24 hours. Contrast this with Chicago where it’s difficult to have more than one destination in a day and my biases begin to take on the shape of reason.

What is interesting to me about transit systems is the fact that some rely on the rider to self-regulate. I would be overestimating officials if I said this were an encouragement to steal. But, I think it presents an opportunity. Transit, like other public services should be mostly funded by those who can afford it. The metro works because, if there is a self-regulated payment system, 80% of people can and will pay and 20% won’t and shouldn’t have to. This is connected to my belief in stealing public transit when possible. It’s how I ended up with an ear infection and a €60 fine in Paris two years ago, but that’s a story for another time.

My point, because I suppose there has to be one, is that public transit systems that depend on self-regulation make for better transit in my opinion. Not coincidentally, I find these systems more common in European cities, wherein you buy your ticket and are expected (or trusted) to put it in the machine on the platform or once you board the vehicle. The only US city that I’ve noticed is similar is San Francisco, where you can board at the back of the bus and maybe or maybe not pay. I’ve also had good experiences with the buses in Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon, with drivers not really caring whether or not I had the fare. On another hand, I almost got kicked off of a bus in Los Angeles — with a suitcase — because I was $1.50 short. I’ll concede that bus drivers’ moods likely have something to do with this, but I think the asshole-bus-driver-to-nice-bus-driver ratio in certain places is a bit higher than in others.

All this to say, the U.S. doesn’t care about people who lack discretionary income and especially not their mobility. There’s little room for testing, bending, or breaking the rules, which, in my opinion, makes for boring cities. Forcing me to absolutely pay before I get on public transit has social consequences not unlike forcing me to board and exit a metro when the unseen operator opens the doors. Give me an “honor” payment system and a manually-operated door handle on the train any day. I would much rather have the option to pay or steal and stumble out of the car while it is in motion and risk my own ankle or life than be obliged to abide by someone else’s risk analysis. Because without spontaneity and occasional unpredictability, how great can a city really be?

Pis in Brussels: A Photo Essay

“Brussels is a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” – a French expat in Brussels

Before I went to Brussels, I, for some reason, expected it to be something like Vienna: tall, clean and Art-y, very possibly boring and a little pretentious. But instead, it felt more akin to Berlin: village-like, quirky and slightly confusing. Refreshingly, Brussels is largely a non-grid city, with meandering streets that swoop and roll from one focal point to the next. There is abundant greenery with a forest just at the edge of the city, as well as a (seemingly) competent public transit system that includes metro, tram, and rail. There is also more than enough cheap beer to go around, ancient and modern buildings literally plastered together, and a captivating history of the clashes and compromises between the Dutch and French-speaking populations. As an English speaker whose French is practically non-existent, it was somewhat helpful that the common language was English. I got by fine though I have, in large part, a magnificent host to thank for that. I should also mention that the fashion in Brussels is among my favorites in Europe — everything appears exquisitely tailored with plenty of cleverly monochromatic shade combinations.

The topic of this “photo essay,” anyway, is pissing. And I think it summarizes the playfulness of Brussels quite well.

Manneken Pis (1618), one of Brussels’ prime tourist attractions. Translates from the Brussels dialect Marols into English as Little Man Pee.

Jeanneke Pis (1987). Translates into Little Joan Pee. Jeanneke is behind iron bars, apparently, to protect her from vandalism. (See cage-free photos here.) Jeanneke is Manneken’s little sister, I guess. Gender equality, right?

Zinneke Pis (1998). Roughly translates into Little Mutt (i.e., of uncertain or mixed origin) Pee.

And so on.