There was talk among the American kids to go to Lyon this past weekend, but as an ever-sandy child of the California coast, I pushed for Marseille. Saturday was forecasted to be the last sunny day that France would see for basically eternity. I managed to drag a couple of new buddies along: Alex, Zoe, and Darcy.
Because I was asleep for the duration of the journey, the 6:38 am train from Grenoble to Marseille was quick and pain-free, and COULD have been money-free, since not one soul came by to check our train tickets.
We arrived in Marseille around noon, and scampered out of the station like grunions to the sea.
I maybe should have done some prior research about Marseille, beyond discovering its gastronomic specialties (Pastis! Bouillabaisse! Aioli!), because the beach was not actually across the street from the train station as I had imagined it to be. Zoe and Darcy were on a different train that arrived later, so Alex and I embarked on what ended up being a three-hour hunt for la plage. We began near the station, in the part of the city which looked a lot like Grenoble, and I guess a lot of other mid-sized European cities: a mélange of old cathedrals, hyper efficient Le Courbusier modernism, and typically French white-washed apartments with tall dark shutters and red-tiled roofs laced with iron moldings. All very charming, and appropriately smelling of fish!
The non-famous cathedral in Marseille.
After meeting up with the girls and another two hours of marching, we made it past the touristy Vieux Port and to the beaches. There, Marseille turned into this pseudo-Miami Beach-fantasyland with sleek resorts, topless babes, and enormous 18 Euro cocktails served at low-slung outdoor bars with purple-cushioned chairs with names like “Equinox” and “La Dolce Vita”. We passed these up in favor of a well-deserve collapse on a pebbled beach, although later that evening Alex and I set fire to potential retirement funds towards “La Planète Bleue”, a gin and citrus monstrosity with a blue raspberry-colored solid ball of ice upheld by pineapple slices positioned firmly on the rim of a glass that I can describe only as a chalice. All covered in silk flowers.
All of this Spring Break-ery was pretty unsettling contrasted with the amount homeless people I saw roaming the busy main drags, far more than I’ve seen in Grenoble. They were mostly Maghreb women, many with babies in their arms. Apparently, the unemployment rate in Marseille is considerably higher than the national average. And, since it is the largest port city on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille has historically attracted waves of immigrants from North Africa. For that same reason, it also remains a center for commercial freight and transport. AND for ultra-wealthy American and European vacationers.
Marseille seemed to be full of these uneasy contrasts. We could kind of feel it in the air. There was, however, a spectacular crimson sunset that night.
La Grande Roue
We had a slow start on Sunday afternoon, but managed to squeeze in a cheerful repas of the worst bouillabaisse in Marseille. I suppose bouillabaisse is the sort of thing you want to pay real money for, and not as part of an astonishingly inexpensive 15 euro fixed menu (which is what we did). Because, as we later learned, the Marseillain seafood delicacy originated as a fisherman’s stew, comprised of all the pele-mele parts of the catch in which discerning fish buyers were uninterested. Our soup lived up to its humble beginnings (although the chef did include an apparently decorative crab perched whimsically on a mussel shell. The crab later made a dramatic flight across the table when our waiter cleared the dishes. Highlight of brunch).
A Melancholy Meal
I keep telling people in emails that I “sailed” to the Chateau d’If later that day. So, I did not “sail” per se; I actually paid ten euros for a plastic seat aboard a fully motorized, 196-person capacity shuttle boat replete with other tourists. But “sail” does better justice to how glam and daring I felt aboard the Edmond Dantès as I leaned devil-may-care over the gigantic bow. Of course, I was wearing my uniform of filthy denim cutoffs and purple backpack, but with the wind whipping my hair and turquoise flecks of the French Mediterranean splashing up from our wake, I was jet-setting European nobility sailing on a private schooner. Then I felt a firm tap on my imagined golden euro-shoulder, and a petty officer on the Frioul-If Express asked me nicely to please get down from there.
Marseille, in the wake of my fantasies
He probably wasn’t a petty officer, because I don’t even know what that means. As you can see, riding around the French Riviera in a boat fills me with fanciful delusions of both worldliness and intelligence. On the boat-ride back to Marseille, I substituted the first daydream for another: I was the Indian rhinoceros who, in 1515, wisely jumped off a Portuguese ship bound for the Vatican City, where the Pope was intended to receive the rhino as a gift. The rhino, aka me, washed ashore at the Chateau d’If (which is a lot better known as the setting of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo). There, you can now purchase postcards bearing Albrecht Dürer’s famous/fantasy-inspiring woodcut of the very same odd-toed ungulate.
The very same odd-toed ungulate. True story, by the way
I am now wondering what these maritime fantasies reveal about my personality. I invite all theories.
So after something like four consecutive euro-sapping dinners eaten out, I had practically forgotten what Claudie (it was only yesterday that she corrected me – I have idiotically been calling her Claudine for two weeks) and the kids looked like. By which I mean, I couldn't remember if Celestine usually parts her luscious French locks to the left or to the right. I was glad to return to my Unforgettably Beautiful French Family and my homey garret/triangular tree house of a room.
My triangular tree house garret
Right now I am at the dining room table, working on an assignment for my French language class: 400 words in the various forms of the passé about a fond childhood memory. I am writing about the risks of raising baby chicks (they will only betray you later in life, as I experienced in a traumatic and bloody incident at a tragically young age. Naturally, it is a feminist allegory, though I suspect my professor doesn't really understand my subtle genius).
My French academic life is about to transition from funny baby haha school to Incredibly-Demanding-And-Still-In-A-Language-You-Don’t-Know-School. For example, I have a long and serious paper on Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or which is due this Friday. In French. Yes. So, for now, I am indulging myself in the joys of the good ol' passé compose and basic farming vocabulary. Which is, of course, what my chicken paper actually is.
Célestine is also at the table, working diligently on a (school-assigned?!) drawing of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni boarding an airplane. Claudie just put the kettle on the stove and Bob Marley on the stereo. Much of the music French people listen to is in English, and so, much of what French people sing to themselves while they chop zucchini or boil water is sung in really cute phonetic English. Claudie is singing along now as she dips a tea strainer full of Earl Grey into her mug: “Leht’s! Geht! Too gezzah and feeeel ahhhh rrrightt!”
It is the most absurdly perfect soundtrack to the first rainy afternoon of many. In fact, it is still awfully surreal that I am here at all. And I feel incredibly lucky that I am.
Amen to that