There is no better way to travel in Europe than by train. To go to Brussels from Hoboken I take a lot of reserve but actually one could be in time for a train connection with just one hour. From there leaving at 9:25 one arrives at Marseille at 15:05 having crossed France from north to south. Watching the fields glide by I realize once again France is the main producer of agricultural goods in Europe. The more one nears the south, the prettier and sinuous the landscape becomes. You pass Paris and Avignon and Lyon three cities worth stopping. Yet I am on my way ‘en direct’ to Marseille. It is a city at the sea, a wonderful city with sailboats from one to three masts, catamarans and yachts. There are over 3700 berths for pleasure boating and countless small fisher boats called ‘pointu’ for making a livelihood. Every morning a small fish market on the quay offers the local fishermen’s catch of the night before. I recognized mackerel, dorade (red snapper), squid and calamari… The anchovy is so rare this year that the fishermen decided not to fish for it for fear of extinction of that sought after produce of the sea. The city around the water is hilly and on each mayor hill a church has been build. The city is under the protection of the Good Mother of the Sea, La Bonne Mere whose golden statue is illuminated at night and can be seen miles away. Of course this is a version of the Virgin Mary. There are a few super wealthy, filthy rich quarters but much more interesting are the popular parts of town were the workers and worksters live.
Apartments with a view are extremely sought after and are passed on to friend or family if one goes away from one of these magical spots.
Today the public transport strike is in its sixteenth day. So everybody has to walk everywhere and out of fear of the traffic jams most people do leave their cars home. This lends the city a peaceable, slow pace in this late October light and warmth. The small streets past the Rue de Rome take one by surprise, to a different plane, a different continent. This is North Africa, no need to take the huge high boat in the dock behind the fort/church St Jean to Algeria to seek the 'souk' and to smell the perfumes of faraway spices. It is all here. I bought Rash el Haroun spices, the whole spices needed to make couscous, you see the cinnamon, cumin, caraway, cardamom, coriander, pepper fiery hot and mint and some others I couldn’t name, all still to be ground with a pestle in a mortar... People are open and friendly, willing to talk, to help you out when you loose your way or want to know something. It is Ramadan, the month of fasting. So, being white and not Islamic, I have eaten breakfast and lunch. The people around here however, during Ramadan can’t eat, smoke nor make love between sunrise and sunset. They can’t even drink, nor swallow their saliva, which is why sometimes you see them spit. It is hard; especially the heavy work without food, but it is also a peaceful kind of festive period.
Marseille as a city claims 11 miles of shores. In the old city center the sea is really present, calling to walk along the water. The sea and the people standing there watching her or in big strides breathing her in are totally oblivious to my existence: the man whose blue business suit is flapping in the wind stares hard - do I see longing for the other side, for Africa? A young black man practices the harmonica, the same short phrase over and over again until he has found the right warmth and tone. People are fishing for everything that is edible and is willing to bite. One doesn’t need a license to fish here in town. Old women take the last of the autumn sun, others read. Two people in a skiff row against the wind. Where tide and wind clash the water is troubled.
The food in this Levantine city is sensuous: fresh fish, Tajines, lam stews piping hot in pretty earthenware rich and tasty or vegetables smothered in warm scents. Salads taste full and have the right consistency like real life food: crunchy leaves, firm but ripe tomatoes and of course the mid eastern deserts: angle hair dripping with honey, filled with almond paste, anis and pistachio, cinnamon… Of course you can opt for a trip through history, visit museums like La Vieille Charité, newly restored, walk the Canebière so called because the hemp ropes for the moorings of the huge ships were made there on that road.
You can visit Castles and churches and when the strike is over take a bus to the wonderful free public beaches or take a ferry to some of the nearby isles. La Calanque is the steep rocky limestone coast line with what in Norway is called fjords but here is known as vallons: small inlets which will harbor a few fisher boats and on the shores cabanes (shack in the sense of our miner shacks) have been build without rhyme or reason or regulation. It is a beautiful chaos that spoke to my heart with the smell of the sea and the whiteness of the rocks and the sound of water to frame all this. Is it paradise? Almost. If there is a strike, there is reason for people to be upset: the looming privatization of the public transport system with the threat of people loosing their hard needed job. Also the problem of the incinerator that is planned and which will beyond doubt cause a rise of over 8% of extra cases of cancer trough the rest pollution of the smoke.
Americans have a tie to Marseille. The old, gorgeous apartment buildings of the eighteenth century, the so called Haussman buildings after the architect who had them built, have been bought up by an American pension fund and are in the process of being restored. In itself it is a good thing but it also changes the population of the area. The center of Marseille was a popular quarter and these usually lower income earners are being moved out and can’t afford the rent of the old restored houses. This fact might loosen the social tissue of the city where neighbors and can’t afford the rent of the restored houses. This fact might loosen the social tissue of the city where neighbors know each other and help each other, whatever race or creed they might be. The other link is Indian: Charging Elk, part of the Buffalo Bill show got terribly sick in Marseille. The show brought him to the hospital and left him here. He did get better and stayed in Marseille. You can read all about this life story in the recent ‘The Heartsong of Charging Elk’ by James Welch and you will see last centuries Marseille through the eyes of one totally isolated and astonished.
Did I do all the tourist things? No, I was there for work and was lucky enough to be invited by a friend and colleague in her cozy apartment with the most splendid view of seagulls dancing on the wind over the sailboats in the harbor and in front of and under the illuminated statue of the ‘Good Mother’. What I saw happened on the way from and to work and my friend’s knowledge of the city plus the pleasant ride through the mountains on the seaside road La Corniche offered by her cousin. In Arabic: Chukran: thank you for small graces…