I wanted to learn French in Dakar. Then ebola broke out more quickly than anyone was used to. I don’t like to let scares impact my travel choices, but this time I paid heed. Ebola seemed a bit too serious if contracted so I decided to learn French in Marseille instead.
I’d been to Marseille before. It’s an enchanting, confusing place. Very much Mediterranean and still very much French. The food is exquisite, any wine is guaranteed to be wildly drinkable, at the very least, and the folks are — perhaps surprisingly — warm. The streets are overflowing with people, which, in a typical North American city might feel a bit suffocating but in Marseille feels dreadfully alive. I love Marseille and I will always choose it over Paris.
Why? you ask.
Some aspects are simple. The sun is out, the shore is afoot, and the streets are in your face. More, the people are as fresh as the salt from the sea. The jagged cliffs accentuate the bare sun bathers, the occasionally rude fighting for entry to the bus, and the overpriced boardwalk fare. The myth of the incomparable bouillabaisse floats through the air like the smell of oars and the mischievous giggles from the shadows of Le Panier. It doesn’t rival Paris in culture and experience; it’s another world entirely. Another country. Just a day trip from St. Paul de Vence where James Baldwin lived and died. A stone’s throw from Nice which most would be advised to avoid except to amble through the wonderfully affectionate Matisse museum. A short train from Antibes, Cannes, and even Barcelona for those with a bit more time and wider aspirations.
I wish to say very little about Paris lest I give the impression it’s a terrible place. It’s fine after all and I understand the romance over the city with the whole of my heart. But Marseille is a monster on its own; a dirty, sun-bleached monster made to be reckoned with.