Tag Archives: europe

Why I Will Always Choose Marseille Over Paris

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.

Epic Journey 1, or Flights, Ferries, and Buses through Europe and Africa

I don’t know if I can get into details right now, but I did an epic journey last year that I didn’t quite write about.

Croatia

Croatian coast on the bus ride from Split to Dubrovnik

The basics are as follows:

Flew into Brussels via Copenhagen. TGV train from Brussels to Marseille. This is a beautiful ride but the speed obscured the experience a bit. I’m also used to the US’s very slow and inefficient trains however. Flight from Marseille to Zadar. Bus to Split. Bus to Dubrovnik. Carpool to Kotor to Tivat. 3 days on a yacht (of special note). Carpool to Tirana where the pollution gave me a throat ache. Bus to Athens: huge mistake! Crowded. Only non-local. Only person of color. All of this, luckily, made me a friend or two but mostly made for a wildly uncomfortable 14 hour ordeal. Never again.

Flight to Cairo which was the first time my ears got plugged on a plane since I was of single numeric age. Bus to Luxor: another mistake! Long! Not scenic! Train to Aswan. Train back to Cairo. Flight to Istanbul where it was superrr cold and the food was shockingly unimpressive. Flight to Madrid. Overnight train to Lisbon. Train to Porto, home of port (nuff said). Flight to Barcelona (god bless Ryanair). Overnight train on Spain’s TRENHOTEL to Granada. Train to Algeciras. Ferry to Tangier: fun! Worth it! Highly recommend! Train to Fez. 1 night in mold-infested room. 2 nights in luxuriously-priced riad with accordingly comfy bed and la-di-da manager. Flight to Marseille. Train to Brussels. Depart for the good ol’ US of A, with a layover in CPH.

I will say more, I’m just not sure when. In the meantime, if you, dear readers, are interested in anything in particular, give me a shout.

Things to Try: Beer + Sprite in Prague

In which I suggest a thing to try in a place.

staro

Staropramen is the Czech beer I see most often in the states, and it’s also omnipresent in Prague. It seemed to be on tap everywhere. We were literally drinking probably every 500 steps – on a hill, in a garden, at a cafe, and so on.

It was hot and my host suggested trying what is, according to him, a popular drink in Prague. This entailed asking the bartender to add Sprite to my beer. I’ve since heard from other people, including those from the CR, that this is a bad look. But, to each his own; it was hot and I found it fun and refreshing despite disliking soda on its own.

Something to try, or at least to ask about, if you’re in Prague.

(Excuse my measly stock photo. My trip to Prague predated the ubiquity of high quality phone cameras and attendant photo obligations.)

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.

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.

Trip to Europe, forthcoming.

france_marseille
Marseille, France

I’m not sure yet how exactly I want this blog to turn out. I want it to be useful for people like me who are interested in getting more out of travel, but maybe aren’t sure where to start. I also want it to be a place where good writing happens. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of many of the points and miles blogs out there, but sometimes I want art, too.

For now, I’m going to post whatever, so bear with me as this blog, much like my life, figures itself out as it goes along.

I’m leaving in a couple of weeks, flying from Chicago O’Hare to Brussels Airport with a short layover in Copenhagen. I’ll be gone for three months, and mostly in Marseille, France. I’ve been to Marseille before and I liked it (more on why later), so I’m going back.

Other places I’d like to go on this trip:

Lisbon, Portugal
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Athens+, Greece
Istanbul+, Turkey
Barcelona+, Spain
Algiers, Algeria
Tangier+, Morocco

The figuring-out will come.

Till later,
V