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.
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.