Saturday, December 07, 2013


I eat breakfast with the other couple here, at Les Acanthes. They're French Canadian and so the conversation is in French, but everyone kindly translates for me the words and phrases that push the boundaries of my comprehension.

We talk for a while about yesterday's Mistral wind. Odile tells me it follows a three day pattern, so that when it comes roaring down on Provence (I am in the district of Provence), it stays for one, three, six, nine, or some other combination of three days. She said it was hell one year when it stayed for 21 days. People went nuts.
My mother tells the story that one day, her grandmother, dressed in the usual puffy long skirts of the day, was picked up by a gust of a Mistral! Up went the skirts and she soared with them a good many paces!

The Mistral brings with it many many good legends!

As we munch on croissants and breads with regional honeys and homemade jams...

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...I ask Odile if this is her family home.
Yes it is. And my sister still lives in that half -- she gestures toward the other wing of the house. My mother also lived and died here. At 95 she would sit in the garden every day -- it was nice to see her stay at home until the very end.

They ask me what my plans are for the day (the other guests are tied to family activities -- they're visiting relatives in the area) and I tell them -- at least three things: the markets, the climb up to the Notre Dame de Garde, and a stroll through the old town.

You're walking up to Notre Dame? The church towers majestically over the city -- perched on top of a hill that juts out maybe 700 meters above the waters. Marseille is very hilly.
I like hills.
Odile shakes her head. Too steep. Some of them are too steep.
That's good! It keeps people moving!
Again she shakes her head. It's good for people between 20 and 60 -- not before and not after and certainly not if you have children. My oldest sister, when she got to be infirm, she never left the house because the walk up to it was to much for her to climb. 

How quickly every conversation eventually leads to age. And then to retirement. Or is it that every conversation in my mind simply plays out that way?

I leave them all to their third and fourth cup of coffee and walk down to the metro stop.

(Here's how blue the skies are today. And by the way, we had a one day Mistral. All is calm, all is bright now. No, no, it's not a crooked photo. It's their crooked chimney. With a lovely old owl weather vane.)


So, markets first. The fish one, at the waters edge, is hugely interesting, because it literally brings to the tables fish straight from the boats.  Many customers come up, pick up a few fish (some cleaned and gutted, others whole) and head home with them. The pleasures of living by the sea!



Then I turn into the belly of the city and head for a market that brings out, in my mind, the old Marseille. Here's where she is hiding!

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Shoppers, vendors -- they represent the world out there! The shouts and exchanges carry up the street of produce stalls. At one point all the vendors let out a chorus of Ohhhhhhh! -- triggered by something one seller called out to them. I try to take a photo or two, but the crowds make it tough going. And twice I am gently nudged to watch my purse. (I do! But I suppose even keeping it under my jacket isn't enough. I transfer my wallet to a zipped pocket and proceed with my photos.) Grapes from Sicily, tangerines from Corsica.

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Alright. So Marseille remains complicated. They say it is the only European city that is comfortable with a diverse demographic. It has never been without a diverse demographic and no one is surprised to see couples of mixed races and nationalities or families with children who resemble a mom or a dad or some relative who lives far away. And yet, you can go to most any restaurant along the water's edge and you wont see that same diversity there. It may be that the waterfront eateries are tourist places. I hear French, but it may be that it's not a Marseille French.

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I begin the climb toward the Basilica. Let me first show you the building as it presents itself just before you take the last steps up to it:

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The Basilica (or some portions of it) will be 800 years old in 2014. Like Sacre Coeur is to Paris, this is the emblematic church of Marseille. The views from the top of the hill are predictably grand. I watch two ferries pulling out of the newer port. One is going to Algiers. That can't be a short trip!

the entrances to the old port and, toward the rear -- to the new port

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the Marseille hills

the islands

The typical older church is, in my opinion, severe inside. Not so this Basilica!

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(With a distinct nod to the sea.)

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Okay, follow me down now. Narrow streets, few people on them. The occasional shopper. In this case -- a father and son. With a Christmas tree.



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All the way down. To the old harbor again.


What is referred to as Old Marseille lies behind the second prong of the harbor's U shape. It's hilly here as well, but only slightly so.


I can tell that this is a frequent tourist destination. Not much of the grit remains here. Renovation and restoration have done wonders to Marseille's old face.


And here's a key building in this section of town: the old hospice for the poor and homeless.


I am a little unnerved that this building was to provide care and shelter for the homeless some 400 years ago. Here we are in 2014, stuck with the common cold and still inadequately addressing the problem of homelessness!

Back to the old harbor. It's nearly 2 p.m. and I'm tempted to sit down and eat at one of the many many waterfront restaurants. In fact, I do sit down at one. I look at the menu, I look at people's plates. I see shellfish, I see lobsters. No, this is wrong. The listed bouillabaise too is cooked to be a people pleaser: bouillabaise with langoustines. Bouillabaise with Atlantic lobster.

Bouillabaise -- a fisherman's stew -- is a Marseille invention. I'm obviously going to order it during my stay here. But let it be the fish soup that uses what I saw at the fish market this morning. None of this fancy import from other places, other oceans. For just this one time, let the bouillabaise speak Marseilleise! (It must, therefore, be served, with toasts and a rouille -- a mayonaise mixed with olive oil, garlic, and just a touch of cayenne and saffron.)

I sit down at another restaurant by the water. Not for long. For the second time, I get up and leave.

Finally, I go to a restaurant recommended by Odile: Les Arcenaulx. It doesn't have the sun-bathed waterfront tables. In fact, it's through this courtyard...


...and into a muted interior. The walls are lined with shelves of old books.  I'm given a good seat for observing the comings and goings of the people here. I'm guessing the woman in red (below) is the owner. Her family must be eating dinner at the big table to the side. The little girl was sent to get the after dinner coffee.


Closer to me, another woman sits alone. She's older than me and she knows a number of people who come here today. Like me, she is busy with her writing.


She is nearly done with her meal, I'm about to begin mine. I have to tell you, I stay at the restaurant for 2.5 hours (it converts to a cafe after lunch service and so I am not forcing them to stay open on my account). And still, I leave before she does. She orders another glass of wine, writes some more. I do the same. Two older women, committed to the text of life.

But let me show you my authentic and excellent bouillabaise. With three fish, potatoes and a few mussles. And the toasts with rouille -- which you leave floating in the thickened broth.


Toward the end of lunch (which also comes with a wonderful arugula salad and a coffee with a plateful of dessert nibbles), I take out my iPhone and check for email (there is WiFi at the restaurant). My students are about to take the exam. I need to be tuned in just in case there are problems.

There are no problems. And there will be no more student questions. This is it. I am truly done with addressing student needs.

I turn off the phone (being somewhat surprised that during my entire stay at the restaurant-cafe, not one other person took out a phone or a tablet) and continue to watch, listen, scribble notes.

At another large table a family sits down for a coffee and dessert. Two young boys are part of the group. The older, maybe ten, puts his arm protectively around the shoulders of the younger (who is maybe five). He does it in such a matter of fact way. As if saying -- this is my job. This is what I do.

The woman who, like me, is writing, is oblivious to the world. Not me: I am taking it all in. Every table, every story that unfolds around me. But eventually I force myself to pack up and exit. Just a peek, that's all that I can give myself here.  None of the people around me are part of my world. And I cannot ask her, or the others -- who are you really? What is your life like?

So I put away my notebook and move on. To the harbor again! The sun has set...


The colors are striking!


And there are so many people now, out for a walk in the cool but still pleasant winter evening! (The temperature reached the fifties during the day. At night, it will dip down to the mid thirties.)

Just a few steps away from the port, a goofy group of musicians is continuing to play for the public. I had seen them earlier in the day and now, in the evening, they're still at it. They'll start with a traditional song and after a few verses, they'll jazz it up in a way that makes you want to bounce with them.

Here they are, playing/singing an old French favorite -- La Mer (the sea).


Here's a typical onlooker: parent and kid.

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But wait. Did you notice in the previous photo the women to the left of it? As the musicians picked up the beat, one of the women broke away from the group and started dancing to the music.


As their beat got perky, she swung her cane and did a spin  and then another and it was so deliciously unexpected that really, I have no other story to tell you that can top that one: an old person, enjoying life. If ever I want to reach for an image that will make me smile, this surely would be in the top of the stack: cane swings, woman spins and laughs and laughs.

The thick sliver of a moon shines brightly over Marseille tonight.


Again I skip dinner in the evening. I stay in my room and munch on cookies and try to make sense of the notes that I scribbled during the day.