I arrived in Marseille on Bastille Day, but not, sadly, in time for the fireworks. The lateness of the hour - in strange, urban-gothic symphony with a lad trying to sell me hash the very second I stepped out of the Gare St Charles and a man scowling at me from his car as I crossed the road and the slightly sketchy dimness of the two or three streets between the station and my Airbnb and, let’s not forget, my naturally skittish tendencies - was a bit disquieting.
Further, more reasonably-founded anxiety came with the discovery that the apartment’s keys were not where my host Thierry, who’d decamped to the Alps for the festive weekend, had told me they would be, i.e. in a bar just below the apartment. The barman here, presiding bored over an empty interior and a couple of pavement tables of men drinking demis, met my enquiry with a frowning shrug that suggested he’d not only never heard of ‘Airbnb’ before but had also never heard of ‘keys’ (or ‘clés’).
I called Thierry and he, in fairly fluent English and in that shrill and indignant tone so commonplace in the fretful tourist realm, (which I’d probably addressed him in first to be fair) insisted that the keys were behind the bar. So I went back and said as much to the guy and it turned out yes they were, they were hidden behind a glass.
The apartment, a few floors up a steep spiral staircase, which served as an atrium for the many-levelled utilitarian tenement building, almost broke from the ‘bourgeois interior’ template observed in each city theretofore. Upon entry, the air was still and warm, and it was heavily dark, until I found the switch and the apartment’s suddenly over-lit characteristics revealed themselves: somewhat pokey, a little untidy and furnished in a basic, even, homespun way, with bricks and planks for bookshelves and tatty, little curtains instead of cabinet doors. For all of this though, it was not ‘unhomely’.
There was no living room, just a large open space, skirted with worktops and shelves and boxes of what seemed to be artist’s tools, paints and materials. Strewn across a large desk were pencil-drawn design sheets, apparently for sculptures and installation pieces. On one wall were painted humanoid figures, men as if seen via an x-ray-type device, with, it looked like, large (literal) boners.
In the corridor, a male mannequin, wearing only a cowboy hat and boxer shorts, with a ripped torso, daubed with black paint, had stuck to its arm a piece of paper with the customary Airbnb host’s slogan ‘WELCOME HOME’ written on it in sharpie. Thierry had left several such hand-written notices around the place, denoting: my room, his room, the bathroom, the toilet, the kitchen, the fridge, how to turn the gas on, how to turn the gas off, the wifi details, and several other useful points of domestic information. At no stage in this (or in any other) feat of communication, however, did he say anything along the lines of: ‘btw my flat is quite weird’. And, in the end, why should he?
I sat down to carry out my ‘safety in Marseille’ Google search, having neglected to perform this important duty in Madrid, and quickly discovered a familiar kind of forum-mediated consensus: the city centre is pretty safe, save for a few streets around the station, which are better avoided at night (tricky, I reasoned, as that’s where Thierry’s apartment was). One forum poster suggested that women might not wish to dress up nicely and walk around in the evenings as they could be mistaken for prostitutes. Another had it that the city is run by gangsters and the police serve only an ‘ornamental’ presence. Further consensus came with the observation that the Quartiers Nords are the most impoverished parts of the city and that it might be dangerous for tourists to go there, but, as one poster, asked ‘why would you bother if it’s so far away from the centre’?
Further reading revealed these cautionary notes to be the tip of an iceberg of journalistic reporting into Marseille’s endemic, heavily institutionalised poverty. One article suggested that the city is ‘more like Britain than Paris’ in that social housing is contained within the city itself rather than being shoved out to the suburbs. But many others talked of Marseille’s outer cités being damaged by under-investment and effectively being cut off from the rest of the town by the Metro and Tram lines.
I went down to the bar beneath the apartment and drank a demi while trying to figure out whether the place was owned by gangsters and whether the other drinkers were gangsters and whether the men drinking at another similar looking bar over the road were rival gangsters. I remain inconclusive on every count.
The bar closed at 11 and I wandered towards the centre-ville. My first impressions of Marseille (quiet, too quiet, and a touch sinister) were belied as soon as I stepped onto the Boulevard de la Libération, which was a dynamic picture (a video?) of people strolling and people sitting and people standing, outside bars and restaurants and on benches and on fountains. Trams shoved through the happy crowds, which swelled still more as I joined La Cunebière leading to Le Vieux Port (old port), where the fireworks had been. Here was L’ Église Saint-Vincent de Paul, standing gravely above the merriment, there an art-house cinema, vomiting l’hipsters all over the pavement.
My Foix Airbnb host, Eloise, had felt it important to warn me that ‘there are a lot of Muslims in Marseille’ and I could see that, in the raw veracity of her statement, she was correct. The majority of people on the streets that night did seem to be of Arabic or North African heritage. But guess what: the cautionary element was blatantly unnecessary. At no point during this evening, nor at any point during my stay, did a Muslim (or indeed anyone) attempt to do anything bad to me at all (except for one (white) waiter who was rude and didn’t give me free crisps but did give them to everyone else).
It was almost as if those Muslims that they had there in Marseille were just human beings walking around, taking the evening air, pushing prams, eating ice creams, taking photos, just like us non-Muslims do!
I wouldn’t be so flippant in assessing whether the forum post about the city being unfriendly to women dressed up and walking around at night had any validity. I didn’t see any kind of harassment taking place but then I wouldn’t necessarily be attuned to its happening, and, as observed elsewhere, I must resist drawing grand conclusions about these places based on the specific low-level happenstance of my short visits.
More trustworthy are repeat themes across conversations I’ve had with people in various cities. And twice now have I spoken to women (not including the conversation with Eloise) who live in Europe - namely in the cities of Paris and Rotterdam - and have been harassed or made to feel threatened by men they perceived to be immigrants. It’s not a totally unfamiliar issue to me, your archetypal, would-be engaged, metropolitan, liberal-leftist white male, but it remains one I habitually meet with a dumb confoundment. N.b. Neither of those women seemed to be arguing that anti-immigration policies represent a solution to the problem.
That night, at least, in Marseille all seemed well on the streets. More than well, blithesome in fact, The crowds surged around the old port. The lights of the bars, restaurants and the big Ferris wheel played on the water, and everyone was smiling.
The next day, Saturday, would at last bring the opportunity to get hold of some cash (as I’m still without a bank card). Or so I thought. It turned out that all central Marseille branches of my bank (I’m too paranoid to reveal which it is online; is that stupid?), which has basically no presence in Spain, were closed for Bastille weekend. They’d re-open on Tuesday 18th, the day after I’d leave the city.
So it was off to the Western Union again to undertake the drawn out process of having funds transferred from my account to the Union and then given to me in cash. The big headache with this operation is that you’ve to confirm with the WU branch that they are able to conduct the transfer, as some branches are not, and on this particular Saturday lunchtime in Marseille, as it had in Barcelona, it entails a half hour wait - mainly because of a boorish Italian family who push to the front of the queue and, speaking only Italian, demand to be served before everybody else, a woman with a small baby included, because they have a taxi outside – to be told: ‘no sorry, we are not doing it ‘ere’.
It’s a twenty minute walk to another branch, which, mercifully, uses a ticketed queue system, like at the butcher’s, and I spend an actually quite pleasant half hour sitting down and reading my book (still A Time of Gifts; I’m a slow reader) before being told by a very friendly woman that she does speak English and she would love to help and I just need to get the transaction code from my bank.
So then follows maybe another half an hour on the phone to the bank, being tossed around different departments and having to explain the situation to every different advisor I speak to, all of whom then ask whether I have a bank card with me and whether there might actually be a branch of [bank] open nearby, and, if not, whether there might be someone there with me who can lend me the money, and after I’ve told them NO! on every count, feeling ashamed at myself for actually allowing anger to leak into my voice, they eventually try to connect me to their ‘Western Union team’, keeping me on hold for ten minutes, before coming back on the line to say that the department is closed for the weekend and to try again first thing Monday morning, which, of course, is when I’ll be leaving Marseille.
Foiled for the weekend and determined not to waste my only full day in my next stop of Genova going through this not quite Kafkaesque but still pretty annoying process once more, I decide to just eke out what’s left of my cash reserves until I get to Florence, where a friend of a friend has kindly agreed to let my new debit card be posted to her house. This means getting by on about eight euros a day until then, which realisation sends me into a self-pitying fury, lasting as long as it takes me to walk 10 metres down the street and see at least three people who look like they’d be delighted to live on eight euros a day (with or without the pre-condition that they have a pre-paid Airbnb room to retire to whenever they please). And I remember I’m in a city where the percentage of people living below the poverty line must be well, well into double figures, and that soon I’ll be in another fancy-arse city, with access to money again. And then I pull myself together.
In fact, eight euros a day proves more than adequate an expenditure. A walk up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde costs nothing and affords not only stupendous views of the city and coastline but also quite a fun chat with four 18-ish year-olds, originally from Tunisia. When I ask them whether they now consider themselves French (a latent, reactionary ‘intergation not immigration’ thirst at work here?!) they emphasise ‘Marseillaise!’, not Français. It’s not unusual, I later read, for Marseille’s immigrants to feel this way.
Their group dynamic felt somehow reminiscent of the little crews who’d wander around the Leeds suburb I grew up in: three lads - one cocky and loud; one more polite and nervous; another reserved, almost catatonic - and one girl, (girlfriend of the confident one seemingly) apparently brighter than her male confreres (in this case, the best English speaker anyway) but also prone to giggling self-apology.
They roll a spliff and I ask if they’re not worried by the presence of several armed soldiers patrolling only a few metres away. ‘They are only here to shoot terrorists’ the confident one states bluntly. I half-hope they’ll offer me a toke but they do not. They do, though, tell me I look like Wayne Rooney.
‘Parce que mon visage est très blanc? I ask.
‘Oui’ the leader replies, ‘et très rouge’.
Before traipsing off down the hill, they also tell me that there are more fireworks at the port tonight. So, after making a sub-three euro dinner of pasta and vegetables, I buy a couple of Cans for Melenchon and go and enjoy this free spectacle from the vantage of a side street off the Vieux Port, where I have a conversation with a middle-aged guy who also happens to be drinking cans in the street. I say ‘conversation’, but it’s really just him saying ‘C’est beau! C’est beau! Bravo Marseille!’ over and over again and me saying ‘oui’ and smiling. He offers me a cigarette and looks heartbroken when I decline.
More costless joie the next day in the form of a visit to one of Marseille’s famous ‘Calanques’, which are narrow Mediterranean coastal inlets with very nice beaches in them..
I go to Calanque de Sormiou, known apparently as ‘the lazy’s man’s Calanque’. It disturbs me to imagine how hard-to-reach the other Calanques must be, given that my reaching this one represents perhaps the most gruelling beach trip I’ve ever undertaken, necessitating an hour walk to a bus stop, where I discover I’ve missed the bus I need, so have to wait half an hour for another one, which doesn’t take me quite as far as the other one, so I have to walk half an hour to the edge of the Calanque road (where traffic is restricted due to the prevalence of wild fires in the region), which then leads me onwards sweating for 10 near-shadeless minutes, and then up and then down a steep hill, in a circuitous contour, and all of this in 38 degree heat. But from the moment the sea, with its sparkling and mobile blueness framed by the limestone horseshoe of the Calanque, becomes visible over the crest of the hill, the reward more than justifies the effort.
Improbably here, in the Mediterranean, on one of the hottest day’s of the year, the water feels as cold as the North Sea holidays of my childhood.
On the way back into town, when I go to pay my fare, the female bus driver, presumably picking up on my shambling and self-pitying demeanour, bats my hand away. I’ve mentioned her being female not with some regressive, ‘it’s weird for a woman to be a bus driver’ motive, but because I felt somehow that this timely act of kindness might have had a gendered significance. But then a few days later I read in some essay an assertion that the idea that ‘women are inherently nicer than men’ is a patriarchal lie. So, I suppose, in the end, what I’m trying to say is this: that bus driver, who just happened to be a woman, was the nicest bus driver I’ve ever encountered.
Moreover, because of her, I could afford to treat myself to an Orangina on the way home.
This I drink outside a bar in Notre Dame du Mont, which, with its many chalkboard bars and cafes, large rectangular plaza covered with colourful awnings, and wall-to-wall upbeat graffiti, is surely the Shoreditch of Marseille.
Notice that in the main I’m managed to resist the tic of identifying ‘The Shoreditch’ of every city I’ve been to, but here it’s just too irresistible (or perhaps I’m just being lazy because I’ve been on a hot train in Italy for seven hours and the train has now stopped because of a ‘a fire on the tracks’ and there’s been no indication how long the delay might last and I’m feeling woozy (but once again a fellow passenger is being extremely nice to me, giving me food and biscuits and explaining the Italian announcements. I’ll let you guess her gender).
Needless to say, the prices are a good 20% cheaper here than in Shoreditch. And sitting with my ice cold, corporate-branded soft drink on this sultry Sunday evening I begin finessing my Take on Marseille, reckoning the city to be Up There With Barcelona as My Favourite of All the Places I’ve Been To So Far. I can picture myself living in Marseille, perhaps bombing about on a little moped with a shoulder bag full of hash, and bae on the back, smoking in Adidas flip-flops. Or, more realistically, I’m sitting alone outside the salon du thé, reading Le Canard. Either way, it’s a happy picture.
When I get home I meet Thierry who’s returned from his Alpine retreat. A friendly, tall and slightly nervous man, verging on middle age, he’s relieved to hear that all his signs were helpful. I ask him about his life and work in Marseille. He’s an artist, working with the media of ‘paint and the body’ but for a day job works as a social worker in a prison.
He is astounded that I can afford to go round Europe like this for 10 weeks and is even more so when he learns that I’m a fellow artist (his word) and don’t have another job. ‘Do you earn a lot of money?’ he keeps asking and I try to explain that I don’t really, not enough to think seriously about trying to buy a house or bla bla bla anyway, and that I just happen to have had a good year this year, whereas the year before was bad, and that there’s no knowing which way any given year is going to go.
He just seems too distracted by the fact I don’t have a day job and it brings home to me quite the quantity of privilege that’s underwriting this trip. I try to change the topic and ask Thierry about Marseille but he seems a bit down on the place.
‘When I came back from the Alps,’ he tells me ‘I thought to myself: oh why do I have to come back here? But that’s life.’
That’s the reality I suppose I’m fleeing from (and occasionally being reminded of), as I dart around Europe on my mega-holiday: people coping (with varying degrees of success) with dissatisfaction, repetition and the sense there’s something better out there, in some inaccessible elsewhere.
Whatever happens, I’ll definitely come back to Marseille.