“Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”
When people talk about Marseille, there’s no grey area, it’s either black or white.
On the “love” side you hear things like: “one of the great cities of the world!”; ”a beautiful Mediterranean melting pot”; “it’s becoming an art and design center on par with Barcelona”. On the hate side we’ve got: “I would rather watch every episode of the Kardashians than go back to that God forsaken place”; “Filthy” (ironic for a place famous for its soap); “It’s like the middle east without the charm”; It doesn’t feel safe!(this from a guy who feels comfortable in downtown Beirut). And we’ve also got good old Jean-Claude Izzo up there, scaring the crap out of me.
I visited Marseille once about a gazillion years ago (I’m avoiding telltale numbers). I was with my parents and we drove from Aix to Marseille to go to Galleries Lafayette to find a certain tablecloth that my mom had to have. Construction was going on near the port and they had just dug up an ancient boat. We had lunch somewhere along the port. I remember my mother felt sorry for the multitude of African guys trying to sell carved wood animals . My memory sees it then as being a little run down, but I didn’t really form an opinion one way or another except to watch my purse. And while I survived, a vague sense of foreboding rises inside of me when I think of it. But that could have been the fact I was a teenager on a family vacation.
Since I’ve lived in the South of France, the closest I’ve been to Marseille is looking down on it from the relative safety of the Marseille St. Charles train station. It’s a pretty great view and it has made me long to venture down the hill and into the heart of it, however dirty and dangerous it may be. But then fear takes over and I decide to go back later when I have more time and a flak jacket. Which of course, I never have on me.
It’s a bit of a slog for a day trip (2:15), but hell, that’s a one way commute in the Bay Area. And since I’m taking the train, the stress level is very low. Well, as long as I don’t think about the danger I may encounter in Marseille. Dirt. Disenfranchised North Africans. Germs. Ebola. Did you know the plague probably entered France here? Racial unrest. Violence. It seems the only thing I fear that isn’t here in Marseille is the IRS.
I’ve got to say, Marseille is beautiful. I visit the old port, Fort Saint Jean, the brand new MuCEM (MUsee des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée) and its phenomenal building and public space designed by Rudy Ricciotti in collaboration with Roland Carta, and the old town, which is called “le Panier” (the basket). I’m tempted to ascend to the omnipresent Notre Dam de la Garde perched on top of the hill, but it wasn’t long ago I was downed by a cathedral and I’m already pressing my luck by even being here, so I skip it.
Except for the prospect of climbing the cathedral, I feel no fear. I have a perfectly lovely day puttering around aimlessly smelling soaps, admiring views, looking at art, taking pictures, eating lunch… I don’t get food poisoning. No one mugs or murders me (that I know of). No terrorists attack. There are no race riots and by the end of the day, I’m still not convulsing with fever and bleeding from every orifice. I made it!
I board the train home triumphantly. I plop down into my seat with relief. I made it! I congratulate myself in between looking at the scenery and the photographs I took of Marseille on my phone. Jean-Claude Izzo was wrong! Beautiful pictures. Nothing terrible happened.
But when I get up at the Antibes stop, I realize something is wrong. I feel a slight pull, look down and realize tragedy has indeed struck. Goddamn merde de putain, somebody left gum on my seat! My cute skirt is ruined!
While Izzo was right about Marseille-related tragedy, he was still wrong about Marseille not having beauty that can be photographed. As you’ll see in the pictures below. Fortunately, he was also wrong about the death thing.