After a long week toiling away indoors at the archives, I decided to spend a day in Marseille, the marvelous, grungy, fishy, opulent, crowded port city. I took a morning bus from Aix and arrived 20 minutes later–and walked directly to the water, as if pulled by a magnet. In the port, fishermen unloaded the morning catch directly onto vending stalls run by wrinkled old women and one well groomed young girl. I watched skinny, tan, tattooed French fishermen de-scale small fish, cut off their heads, &c; one man wrestled with the bulk of a swordfish that was the size of a child. Tourists–families with strollers and couples welded together at the wrist and kids eating breakfast ice cream cones–roamed leisurely; I wove through the crowd to get to the beach.
I get out of the mass of people and walk down the port, by the marina which is filled with beautiful outing boats. A man about my age walked up to me, and thus ensued Hilarious Encounter No. 1: Steven from Guadeloupe. Steven is carrying quite a lot of luggage on his way to the beach, and tells me a confusing story about police and one missing shoe (he shows me the replacement), which I don’t understand because it’s heavily accented French. We talk about Paris, where he says he lives, and New York, which many French people like to talk to me about and which Steven has visited. And this drags on. So when Steven asks me where I am going, I explain that I’m actually headed just where we came from and I’ve got to turn around, “so good-bye,” or something like that. A confused Steven turns around to walk back with me; I couldn’t shake him. I end up shouting a final good-bye as I nearly run in the opposite direction, desparate for some peace.
With this detour, I end up going to the old city and wandering through the beautiful narrow streets that seem endemic to the Med coast. I walk to a beautiful cathedral and on a whim attend the service that is taking place on Saturday morning in honor of I forget what. The cathedral is half-full, and people freely walk around and admire the interior. We sing songs, and I try to figure out what is being said in French but am carries away by the musicality of the speech. Everything inside the old cathedral echoes and seems both majestic and hollow; I can see how church is a moving experience, but decide to leave sometime thereafter.
Then I really do go to the beach. I had heard that Marseille’s beaches are not great, but they are utterly stunning in comparison to anything on the east coast of the U.S. There is one beach very close to the port that I go to; other, probably more beautiful, beaches exist further outside the city, but the midday heat makes walking uncomfortable and this beach is not obscenely crowded. I lie in the sun, swim in the beautiful water, and thoroughly enjoy myself. The water in the Riviera seems holy; the graded blues, really exquisite waves, extreme saltiness–it is paradise. I swim far out to a buoy and cannot stop grinning and only grudgingly go back to shore to see that all my things are still there. Hilarious Encounter No. 2 occurs when I go back into the sea; there I meet Babel, the Italian-Algerian karate instructor from Strausberg. Babel lends me one of his flippers so we both swim lopsidedly out to a far buoy. The waters here are not entirely calm, so conversation is muted by mouthfuls of water. When we return to shore later, again, I have no peace; this man follows me everywhere, and asks questions about “our future” &c., so I am driven from the beach!
I escape back to the quiet old streets for peace. I buy grapes and limonade and two savory pastries from a street shop and eat a late lunch in a shaded bench on a park, amused by a group of Frenchmen and one pregnant lady swimming in a public fountain with their dog, who tries to bite the sprays of water. Later, I walk through shop-lined corridors and through a chic department store; but, tired, I slowly make my way toward the bus station.
Marseille is a very interesting city. I was happy to leave because I was sleepy from being in the sun all day, and I don’t know if I would return. It is a fascinating place and I would be eager to explore it further, see some of its beautiful corners and find some aspects of richness–not opulence–there; but at the same time, there was something that sort of put me off about the city. I can’t put my finger on it, but for instance it is not really a place where I would want to live.
And the markets in Aix this morning were a marvelous, calm contrast with the business-like ambiance of Marseille. This is a city of leisure rather than commerce, enjoyment over pleasure; I like Aix better. Ah, but that water… I have decided to go to Nice after this next week is done, for a few days before I catch my plane to Paris. A holiday, devoted entirely to relaxation in the Mediterranean Sea.
Hope everyone is doing well back home