Friday, December 06, 2013


The Marseille Meal

I'll introduce Marseille to you through her food. Not because it was so over the top that it left me speechless (though it definitely was very, very good!), but because it was my breakfast, lunch and dinner -- all rolled into one. It just sort of happened that way.

I'm not sure the proprietors at Chez Madie (where I ate) where thrilled to seat a new diner at 2 p.m. That's a late hour to start churning out food (France eats lunch between 12 and 2. Not before not after.) But, they sat me down and in the end, one of the waiters even cracked a smile. And almost apologetically, they treated me to some small extras, as if to say -- we want to go home, but, as long as you're here, we want you to have a very good meal.

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(at the table next to mine, winding down the meal, in that rich Marseille sunshine)

And I did have a very good meal. Artichokes, stewed with lardons.

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Fish. (As always in this country -- it's all in the sauce.)


Creme brulee. With thyme.

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So now that we're all satisfied and satiated, let's roll back the clock to the travel part of the story.

The Trip

Why does it feel like the middle of the night? We are only beginning to cross the Atlantic. It seems like we've been bouncing around the east coast for a very long time.

I am on an Air France flight from Atlanta to Paris and it's with a 3 - 4 - 3 seat configuration. Rare. Most of my long flights are 2 - 4 - 2. Where would you sit, had you the choice, in a 3 - 4 - 3? For me, it's always going to be window, toward the front. But it means that I have to climb over the laps of two to use the facilities. So, who are my two seatmates? One 42, the other (guessing here) 16. They don't know each other, but my oh my do they have a common thread going: one is traveling to Moldova to set up a youth bible camp and the other (the younger one) is traveling (with parents who are elsewhere on the plane) to Africa to establish Christian camps. I ask him where in Africa. He says tentatively, as if he weren't sure, Tanzania.

Why do I choose Air France going to Europe and Delta coming back? Well, because Air France serves abundant champagne with quite okay food and I get to listen to the captain (and anyone else who commands the loudspeaker system) speak French. On the way back, Delta gives me good old friendly American pilots who explain every bump along the way and, too, superb flight attendants. (But the food is on the low end of indifferent.) A flight attendant has to have real seniority on Delta to get the coveted Paris route. So on Paris flights, you get the best of the best.

And here's the truth (because maybe you haven't yet figured this out): I really am only a fair weather flyer. I only like it when the plane doesn't shudder, shake or do other things that in my mind, planes should not do. For example: on this flight, we had a lot of initial turbulence. Now, I know that only one Air France plane in recent history managed to plunge into the ocean when the bumps got out of control, but still, I prefer relatively smooth rides. When the bumps get crazy (this is rare: 95% of my flights are just fine), I remind myself that at least if the pilot messes up,  my daughters will inherit life insurance proceeds, should the unexpected happen. And really, this is the best time EVER to crash, because once I officially retire (January), my life insurance will disappear. So -- crash now or crash later? Obviously now is the preferred choice. I sit back and enjoy the rest of the flight.

Here comes an attendant, all ready to pour the champagne. I once read a story authored by a seasoned reporter who wrote that his idea of a good flight was to drink lots of champagne at take off, fall asleep thereafter (presumably as a result of all that champagne) and wake up when the landing gear is engaged. Okay, but as I grow older, I realize that all that Air France free wine and champagne are probably what keeps me from sleeping for more than a few minutes -- between Greenland and Iceland, but not otherwise. Life really does seem to be all about choices.

On this long flight, I do eventually have to climb over the laps of the two men heading out to instill God in the hearts of people living far away. It's awkward, but I do it. And then I get stuck in the aisle behind the cart that's slowly moving down to pick up trays. As I pause by a row, waiting for the cart to resume its journey to the back of the plane, a passenger leans over and asks me to ask the attendant for more white wine. Ha! Guess who wont be sleeping well tonight! Dutifully though, I ask, but the Air France attendant says they ran out.
Would you like red wine? -- she asks the thirsty passenger and it sounds French even though it's in English.
The passenger answers - how about a gin and tonic instead?
Can you blame her? Here we are, in the air for two hours, with some violent turbulence thrown in for your entertainment and we have yet to start crossing the Atlantic! Overseas flights from Atlanta are always discouraging: it takes a while before the plane actually begins to head east.

But the transatlantic flight, though long, wasn't really causing me headaches.

 Nor am I too concerned about the short connecting time at the Paris airport. I plan on picking up a coffee and a croissant, even if there are only a handful of minutes between flights. I do a lot of running between terminal E and terminal F.  And I do pick up the coffee and the croissant, but then I kick myself for stupidly risking the connection and abandon the project in mid-bite. I post this picture as living proof that I really did try to grab a breakfast, and, too, because it is the first time that i am holding a copy of the International NYT (it was still the International Herald Tribune when I was last in Europe), and because the front page story and photo are about the winds blowing through northern Europe. But these are not the Mistral. The Mistral is purely a southern France deal.

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And wouldn't you know it, the vicious Mistral has been in the forecast for this one day for a long time now. With gusts upwards of 50mph.

The captain on the final Marseille bound flight comes on to whisper to us (Air France captains whisper; French people must have better hearing than Americans) that the flight will be a short 60 minutes, but the landing will be rocky. The Mistral, he says. You need go no further. Everyone knows about le Mistral.

But here, luck is with me: the wind doesn't kick ass until after noon. We land with a few shudders -- nothing more than that.

So do I really love going overseas so much that I can toil through these flights that are so long and so often not without issues? Yes. I love it that much.

The City

When I stepped off the final flight and looked up at that wonderful blue sky, I really, for the first time, understood how tightly I'd been wound up in the past months. It took that ocean crossing for me to finally begin to stop clenching my gut, fist and brain all at once.

Of course, I did not sleep much and so I arrive in Marseille tired. But the good news is that I combat tiredness by walking. Walk walk walk and look and think nothing at all, just look and walk and slowly the life of the city (or village or wherever I may be) will take over and the tiredness will recede.

But first, I must find my Bed and Breakfast. I take the metro to almost the last stop. Here's a photo of probably the busiest station (Saint Charles is Marseille's train station). Different from Paris, isn't it?

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Les Acanthes

I'm staying  at a tiny (3 rooms?) bed and breakfast: Les Acanthes. And it's a wonderful place, run by the ever chipper and helpful Odile.

By accident, I got a splendidly sunny upstairs room (in a moment of absent mindedness, Odile gave my lesser room to another visitor). Thank you, Odile!


Marseille, like all the Mediterranean towns and villages, boasts 300 days of sunshine. I'm getting plenty of it this weekend!

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(from my window)

Along with the wind. Odile says -- we had all the leaves on the vines yesterday! Today, they are mostly gone.

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Back to the City

I'm settled, I'm washed up, I'm ready to go. But first the meal. You read about that already. Next comes the walk.

Do you know Marseille? The focal point is the old harbor, extending like an elongated U around a protected water. You can't help but think -- are there this many boats in the world? Really this many?

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I could have headed into the narrow streets of the old town, but I put it off. Instead, I walked a long long way along the water's edge, pushing against the devilish Mistral. Not surprisingly, there weren't many people out and about. But every once in a while, a car would pull up and someone would pop out with a mobile phone or i-tablet to take a photos of the raging waters. The hair is flying, the wind slashing at the face... and still, you want to get out and get that photo!

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You don't often see the Mediterranean in such an agitated, hazy crazy state.

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Even as if you looked inland, you'd never believe that we are having a monstrously windy day.

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If I continued walking along the coastal path, in about eight hours I would come to the town of Cassis. Five years ago, Ed and I spent a terrific winter break there. It's tempting to do the hike tomorrow or the next day, but I'm resisting the impulse to always leave a city that I am visiting. Marseille was named the European Cultural Capital of 2013. She is in her glory now. I should give her a fair hearing.

Even as I am a little disappointed at how cleaned up Marseille is. My associations have always had this city on the edge. Sort of like a European version of Tangiers: spilling over with commerce and trade from Africa and elsewhere. With cheap rents and rickety chairs around wobbly tables in cafe bars. And neighborhoods to avoid, like in Miami. Instead, it seems so... orderly. Eh, I need to walk inland more and save my judgment for when I will have figured out what it means these days to be from Marseille.

In the meantime, a few last photos for you. Of the bakery where I bought cookies for evening supper back in my room. Not these cookies, but still, close enough.

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...Of a fragment of a skyline, picking up the hues of the setting sun.

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...Of the ferris wheel, now adding light and movement to the old harbor...

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Time for me to get back to Les Acanthes. Nearly fifty student emails to attend to. And a post to write.

The moon -- or a quarter slice of it -- shines brightly over this windy city tonight.

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