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finding something to fear in marseille

view from train station

view from train station

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.”

Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

 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.IMG_20140909_175111324

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.

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my new french teacher is a bitch

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Professor Iota

Up until now, the only person I felt comfortable conversing entirely in French with was my cat.

I babble away endlessly and she never corrects me, never judges, always understands.   However, like me, her primary language is English, so it’s really not much of a challenge and I’m probably not learning much.

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Romain, Iota, Vlad

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely, young French whippet.   Her name is Iota (pronounced e-yoh-ta, almost like “Yoda” with a “t” instead of “d”). She’s the daughter of my friends Romain and Vlad who are Belgian and French.   French is Iota’s mother tongue, so to speak, but being only seven months old, she’s still learning.

She impressed me immediately with her intelligence.   When Romain told her to assis, she sat.   And when he told her to debout, she stood up (and I learned a new word!).

Turns out, our French skills are very similar (okay, she’s a little better than I am).   We both know some words, but neither of us can conjugate or string together a sentence to save our lives.

While I’m still not good enough to confidently conduct an intelligent conversation in French with French humans, I think I’m ready to graduate from English speaking cat to French speaking dog.  The beauty of dogs is they totally live in the present, so I won’t have to deal with that pesky conjugation problem.

Today is our first session.  I’m taking her for a walk.

iota bisousI release her from her bedroom and she bursts out, happy to see me.   After the obligatory bisous are exchanged, I nervously speak.

“Bonjour Iota, Ca va?   Oui, tres bien!   Tres, tres bien!   Tres, tres, TRES bien!   Ou’est la…. Hmmm, quel est le mot pour “leash” en Francais?”

She’s too excited to answer, but she doesn’t roll her eyes or snigger at my accent. I consider that a minor victory.   I find her leash, attach it to her collar and she pulls me out the door.   This is going to be a piece of cake.

When we get to the sidewalk, I start to worry. Do I address Iota in the formal or familiar.? Do I tell her to viens, or venez? I don’t want to offend her right off the bat.   She’s pedigreed, so perhaps she demands formality.

As a rule, I always assume a certain level of familiarity with anyone who has already licked my face, so I opt for viens.  She seems okay with it.   On the other hand, she doesn’t viens, either. In fact, she kind of ignores me in favor of the much more interesting cigarette butt she finds on the grass. I chalk her reaction up to being French.

I speak to her sternly.

“Non!”

She looks at me and puts down the cigarette.   Ahhhhh, communication!

I pet her lavishly and shower her with compliments.

“C’est bien.   C’est tres, tres, tres bien.   Tu est une tres, tres bonne chien!”

She’s proud and very excited to be acknowledged.  I’m thrilled at the effortless exchange and meeting of the minds.

We walk along the beach, Iota occasionally pulling me towards bushes, picnics, cigarette butts and where ever the possibility of treasure lies.   When she does, I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind.

“Pas tirer!”

She slows down and walks with me.   Success!   I’m starting to feel like the dog whisperer…The FRENCH dog whisperer!

I’m not saying there isn’t the occasional language barrier. At one point, no amount of “NONs” and “pas tirers” can stop her from dragging me off towards a family picnic, forcing me to converse with actual French humans. But even this turns out to be a positive–it gives me the opportunity to try out a whole new French phrase: “Monsieur, je suis tres desole que ma chien a mange votre repas.”

After we say our au revoirs, I walk home alone along the ramparts. I’m feeling pretty good about my afternoon with Iota.   It was a lovely walk and I think it was tres beneficial.  Unlike my last French teacher, she doesn’t make me feel stupid.  I’m not living in dread of the next time I see her.   I’m looking forward to it.

I light a cigarette and look out over the bay at Nice and Cap Ferrat.   A child shrieks and shouts “NON” in the distance.   I reflexively drop my cigarette.

See?   I already learned something!

the sharks of monaco

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I’m just going to say it:   I don’t like Monaco.  I mean, look at it.    It doesn’t exactly ooze charm, does it?

It’s a shame, because it’s actually an excellent piece of real estate, nestled in among dramatic cliffs and the Mediterranean.   The views are spectacular, as are the famed Monte Carlo Casino and gardens. Even the old town of Monaco would be cute and picturesque if it functioned as anything other than a tourist trap.   There’s no butcher or baker, so dont expect to see locals picking up groceries and a baguette.  A Chinese family buying “royal” key chains and tee shirts, well, that’s another story.

Monaco is separate from France; its own little  0.7 mile country (hell, I’ve been to bigger parking lots).   It’s not only the most densely populated country in the world, but also has the most millionaires and billionaires per capita.   I’m not sure if they’re attracted by Monaco’s natural beauty or her status as an international tax haven (I kid).  At any rate, I should probably spend more time here if I want to marry a billionaire.

The Grimaldi family have ruled the principality since 1297AD.   Like most royal families these days, they’re pretty much the European version of our very own royal family, the Kardashians (with smaller asses, of course). We’re not sure exactly what they do, but whatever it is seems to be front page news.

Prince Albert, the son of Prince Ranier and Princess Grace (as in Grace Kelly) is running things right now.   His sisters Caroline and Stephanie used to be glamorous Euro playgirls and he was always a bit of a schlub (hmmm, this Kardashian analogy works on so many levels).   He’s not my idea of a fairy-tale prince, but he is a prince.

So, what brings me to this god-forsaken tax-free monarchy?  I’m visiting the residents of the Musee Oceanographique de Monaco.

The building is stunning on it’s own, perched on a cliff with the sea churning below.   Inside, there are over 4000 fish and 200 species of invertebrates (sea creatures with spimusée océan261010nes).   There’s also a museum of sea exploration upstairs and a roof that overlooks groddy old Monaco on one side and the sea on the other.   It’s a nice aquarium, but probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about except for one thing…well, dozens.

10364471_10152361994966928_1813794450_nBefore exiting into the obligatory museum shop, there’s a darkened room with a large shallow pool of water surrounded by people.   Bobbing in and out of the water are the heads of baby sharks (requins), no bigger than a foot long each. The way they pop their heads up and open their mouths reminds me of baby birds. But here’s the piece de resistance: YOU CAN PET THEM!!!!!!!!

10362667_10152361995386928_1623031024_nThis is almost as good as swimming with dolphins.   Better, because I don’t have to put on a bathing suit.

I ascertain that nobody is screaming and bleeding from the wrist and nervously dip my hand in the water.   The little sharkies kind of butt against your hand like a cat and swim by, rubbing against your palm.   As one would expect, they feel pretty slimy.   But damn, these future ruthless man-eating machines are sooooooooo cute.

After petting every shark in the pool, we head out through the gift shop.   We stop to admire/laugh at some ridiculously expensive bejeweled swim goggles.   Then we both feel it …danger. I can almost hear the Jaws music. We’ve got to get out of here. There are Russian tourists circling and we’re pretty sure they’ll rip us from limb to limb for these goggles.

 

 

 More pictures of Monaco

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a little lesson in french law

law_ebay_french_courtThere are somethings that just aren’t covered in the books on living in France and can be only learned from experience.

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Michel, learned something new just last Friday night.   This is his story.

What he remembers:   He went to a friend’s house, drank a bottle of champagne, a bottle of rose followed by ¾ of a bottle of Jack Daniels. He headed home around 3AM.

His final memory of the evening was singing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while performing an awesome air drum solo as he walked home.

He woke up the next morning in his bed with a bad hangover, which was to be expected. What he didn’t expect was to find himself wearing a pair of boxer shorts that he had never seen before. They were definitely not his.

Clearly, there were a few blank spots, so he called the friend he spent the evening with to find out what he missed.

Turns out, somewhere between the drum solo and home, he was arrested.   He was quite incoherent, but managed to give the cops the name and number of the friend who he had spent the evening with (merci a dieu it wasn’t me).   The cops called him and asked him to pick up Michel and to bring some pants.

His friend went to the police station and found Michel quietly playing poker with imaginary cards and opponent.  He also happened to be buck-naked from the waist down.   As near as Michel can figure it, he must have seen the bus station which is very close to his apartment, figured he was almost home and started taking his clothes off.

Apparently, the neighbors complained about the noise and the cops came to investigate and found Michel singing, without his pants on.   They brought him in, not because he was half naked, but because he was loud, and very, very drunk. They were worried he was a threat to himself.

As you might imagine, Michel was feeling pretty crummy as he told me all this.   Being the pain in the ass I am, I asked him if he learned anything from the experience.

He thought about it for a moment and I could see see the sparkle of realization in his eyes.

“Yes!   It’s legal to walk down the street naked in France!”

all hail the mighty lemon!

Monet's rendering of a branch of Menton lemons

Monet’s rendering of a Menton lemon tree branch

Last year in French class, there was a discussion about the Menton Fete de Citron.   My friend Michel scoffed at the idea, wondering how can they have a whole festival for a goddamn lemon?   He wound up going and returned a changed man, with a newfound respect for both lemons and the French who gave the lowly fruit the love and attention it deserves.

This year, my friend Angela and I embark on the same pilgrimage hoping for a similar transformation.

Menton is two or three train stops east of Monaco/Monte Carlo (about 10 minutes), on the French/Italian border.   You can feel the Italian influence as well as hear, smell and taste it.

IMG_6954For a place you’ve probably never heard of, it’s quite beautiful with grand buildings built in the 1900’s when rich nobles wintered here. It boasts a long pebbly beach fringing blue, blue water, an old town splashed in the warm sunny colors of this patch of the Mediterranean. It’s surrounded by dramatic cliffs that seemingly drop from Alps to the Sea in a heartbeat creating a perfect micro-climate (316 days of sunshine a year, they say).

So, what is Menton’s main claim to fame?   Lemons, of course.   Well, citrus in general.   But the Menton lemon is special.   It’s larger, often misshapen.   It’s also supposedly sweet enough to eat like an orange (I beg to differ).

Legend has it that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve grabbed a big, golden lemon from paradise and took it.   When they finally settled in Eden-like Menton (which was probably called something else back then), she planted it.   An industry and tourism hook was born.

Every year at the end of February-early March, the town of Menton holds a Fete de Citron.  It’s their equivalent of Mardi Gras except replace the beads, masks, great music and young people with lemons and oranges.

IMG_6812The place is packed.  I’m a little frightened despite the fact that half the attendees are walking slower and more laboriously than me (the median age here, appears to be about 70—I feel like a spring chicken)..  This is my first major public outing without my walking boot, and one pushy German could ruin my hard won, still tenuous mobility for me.

Orange trees line the streets, full of ripe oranges, festive in their own right. There’s something very reassuring about a place where food grows on trees.   I put Menton down on my list of possible places to be broke and homeless.IMG_6845

The theme of this year’s festival is “20,000 leagues under the sea.” I honestly don’t know what it has to do with citrus, but what the hell. The parade is the strangest combination of floats: ships, fish made of citrus, mermaids and the most baffling float of IMG_6797all, a kangaroo made of citrus.   Possibly left over from the Australian themed Fete de Citron, or maybe the Marsupial themed one?  There’s also a garden of displays (like the Eiffel tower and pagodas done entirely in citrus) and fireworks at night, and all kinds of citrus based products being sold.

Rumor has it, the lemons and oranges used in the floats and displays come from  Morocco—which I suspect is true, given their uniform, smallish size.  Some of these Menton lemons are bigger than a pamplemousse!

Possibly the most exciting part of the Fete de Citron for me, is the Menton lemon honey I sample in the one the stores, Mille et un Miels.   OMG.   Give me a straw.   Hell, I’ll chug it straight from the jar.  I’ll eat it with my hands.   Angela and I both buy a jar.

When I get home, I sit down to Google Menton over a nice hot cup of Lemon Honey (with a little water).   I discover that Jean Cocteau the French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist, filmmaker. and general post-modern Renaissance man was an important part of Menton.   There is a Cocteau museum showing his work, as well as that of his friends’ Picasso and Matisse.   You can see more of his art in the Bastion, on the waterfront.

Being a person of taste and culture, suddenly, I’m obsessed with going back to Menton.  I’ve got to get more of that lemon honey!

french vocabulary for the lame

les bequilles

les bequilles

Since my recent Strasbourg trip (in every sense of the word), I’ve learned some new French words and phrases that have come in handy.  This list should prove invaluable to anyone who plans to break a foot in a French-speaking country.

English:  I need a doctor.

French:   J’ai besoin d’une docteur.

 

English:  My foot hurts.

French:   Mon pied me fait mal. (or just point frantically at your foot and say:  “ce fait mal!”)

 

English:  I climbed to the top of the cathedral and when I came down, I fell.

French:  Je suis montais au les hauts de la cathedrale et quand j’ai descendu, j’ai tombe.

 

English:  X-ray

French:  Radio

 

English:  Plaster cast

French:  Platre

 

English:  My foot is broken.

French:  Mon pied est casse.

 

English:  I hate these crutches.

French:   Je deteste ces bequilles.

 

English:   Kill me now.

French:  Me tuez maintenant.  (this is when you’re addressing someone formally.   The familiar would be “me tues”)

 

English:   No!   Wait!  Don’t kill me!  I’m not serious.

French:   No!   Attendez!  Ne me tuez pas!   Je ne suis pas serieux.

 

English:  I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaning on you.

French:  J’espère que cela ne vous dérange pas que je me penche sur vous.

 

English:  Do you deliver?

French:   Livrez-vous?

 

English:   Great.   Please deliver me home.

French: Superbe. S’il vous plaît me livrer à domicile.

 

English:  Excuse me.   Can I borrow your wheel chair?

French:  Pardonnez moi. Pourrais-je emprunter votre fauteuil roulant?

 

English:   Do you have a strong back?

French:  Avez vous un dos forte?

 

English:  Please carry me.

French:  Me porter s’il vous plait.

 

English:  I’m sorry if I smell bad.   Bathing is difficult with this cast.

French: Je suis desolee si j’ai un odeur mauvais.   Baignade est tres difficile  avec cette platre.

 

English:  Are you blind?   Can’t you see I have a broken foot?

French:  Etes-vous aveugle? Tu ne vois pas que j’ai un pied cassé?

 

English:  I’m sorry.   I didn’t notice that you really are blind.

French:  Je suis désolé. Je n’ai pas remarqué que vous êtes vraiment aveugle.

 

English:  Help me!

French:  Taxi!

i’ve always depended on the kindness of cab drivers

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Where we left off: God just pushed me down the final step of the Strasbourg Cathedral stairwell and did something mauvais to my foot.  I’m in the lobby of the Hotel Gutenberg waiting for the doctor.

The doctor arrives.   He only speaks French so we communicate in the language of pain.   He taps my foot, moves it around and I yelp when it hurts.   He tells me he thinks it’s broken (casse) and I’ll need to go for “radio”.    He gives me a couple of pills, makes a few calls and escorts me (okay, drags me), downstairs to get a cab.

After a brief conference with the doctor, receptionist and cab driver, the doctor passes me off to the driver who pretty much holds me upright as I hop to the cab muttering “merde, merde, merde.”  He compliments me on my French.

Somewhere along the way, the pills kick in and I start to enjoy the chauffeured tour of the outer reaches of Strasbourg.   Woah, full moon.  We arrive at the Clinique St. Anne Urgences entrance and the driver gets me a wheelchair.

In the back of my mind, I believe that once I sit in the wheelchair, all is lost.   So it’s either that, dumb pride or that all-powerful feeling you get when floating on a schedule 3 narcotic that makes me refuse the chair.

I hop bravely up the ramp to the door…well, half way to the door.  Fortunately, the cab driver has the foresight to follow me with the wheelchair, providing a comfortable place to collapse.   He wheels me the rest of the way in.

off to get an X-ray

being chauffeured to my X-ray

I sign in, give them my insurance card, fill in a form and somebody pushes me to the waiting room.  I’m not sure, mais je pense I’ve been parle-ing fluent Francais and understanding tout ce qu ils disent.   Yaaaay!

There are a few people already ahead of me, so I fear a long wait.  Five minutes later, my name is called and I’m wheeled into x-ray.   An intern takes a picture of my foot and tells me to wait for the doctor.   Gotta love French healthcare.

In another few minutes, the doctor comes in and introduces himself as David.   Not Doctor David, just David.   Maybe he’s a night janitor.  I don’t care.  He’s cute.  He confirms that oui, my foot is broken and I will be getting a cast up to my knee.  Honey, you can put that cast as high as you want.

Then a horrible realization hits me.   I’m wearing skinny jeans.  There’s no way I can fit a cast under them.  I’ll have to take them off (well, at least one leg).   I haven’t shaved my legs.   I need a pedicure.   Dear God, what underwear am I wearing?   What will I wear back to the hotel?   What will I wear home?

After the cast is put on, the intern devises a lovely outfit by jauntily throwing the empty pant-leg over my shoulder.   She cuts some gauze as a belt and fashions a skirt out of a paper scrub top.   I feel like I’m on Project Runway. Fortunately, I have no photographic evidence of my one-of-a-kind look.   I’m pretty sure Tim Gunn would be mortified.

My cab is waiting, and I’m faced with a new dilemma.   In France, the hospitals don’t give out crutches, they’re prescribed.   It’s 8pm and god knows how I’ll deal with it.  It’s times like this I wish I was married.   Not that my husband would be of any use to me.   He’s probably back at the hotel watching football. Bastard!

bad

evil crutches

The cab driver, lady at the registration/incoming wounded desk and I discuss the problem and the next thing you know, the taxi driver makes a few calls, finds an open pharmacy and we’re on our way.

The pharmacy is in a huge complex set back about 30 meters from the sidewalk.   Both the driver and I know there’s no way I’ll be able to hop up there without taking several naps along the way, so he goes in and gets my crutches.

I had envisioned myself swinging breezily from the kind of crutches that rest under your arms, but in France these forearm wrapped ones are de rigueur.   I hate them.   The design forces users to rely on balance and core strength, neither of which I seem to have.   I’m more of a leaner.

I attempt a graceful exit from the cab.   The driver’s arms are out, ready to catch me as I stand up shakily and freeze like a dog on an escalator, trying to figure out what goes first, the crutch or the foot.

The trip to the hospital and pharmacy took an hour and a half.   It takes another hour and a half to get to my room.

I immediately start to pack (well, after a short rest).   My plane leaves at 7:30 AM and I have a lot to figure out before then. I’m happy to discover that I did pack pajamas.   I can wear the bottoms to the airport.   A thrill rushes through me knowing that for the first time ever, I will have worn everything I packed.  I’m also pleased to discover that I’ll save a lot of time in the morning because I can’t take a shower.

The next morning, I get to the airport (by cab) without a hitch.   The driver passes me off to the wheelchair and attendant he wrangled for me inside the airport.   I feel like a rolling baton being passed from person to person.

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At first, I’m a little embarrassed.   Yes, I’m that unkempt person in pajama pants being wheeled through the airport.   But as they whisk me through security, keeping close track of my passport, purse, coat and even wheel me over to the cash machine on the way to the gate.  I even get a whole row to myself on a packed plane (could this be because I can’t take a shower?).  They even fasten my seat belt. I could get used to this.  Maybe I’ll save the cast and crutches for all future travel.

Another wheelchair and attendant await me in Nice as well as my checked bag.  Once I’m comfortably in the cab, I realize a new set of obstacles await me.   Have I mentioned that I live in a third floor walk-up?

I’m pretty sure  I can get the driver to carry up my bag, which despite being small is way too much for me to handle with these godforsaken crutches.   But what about me?   I just fell down a stair.   The thought of three flights fills me with terror..   Maybe I can crawl?   Slither up on my belly like a snake?

In the foyer of my apartment building, the cab driver assesses the situation and has an idea.  First he carries my bag up the three flights.   Then he carries me,  piggy back.   He sets me down and holds me upright, while I open the door.   He carries my baggage in and helps me inside.   I pay him (HUUUUUGE tip).

I close the door and lean against the wall feeling an enormous sense of triumph and relief.   I made it!   I’m home!

A half hour later, once I’ve rested from the exertion of being carried up the stairs, I make the ½ hour trek to my couch   I begin to realize that getting home was the easy part.   How the hell am I going to get out of here?  How will I bathe?   How will I cook?  How will I get groceries?  How will I clean the apartment? How will I hang up my goddamn coat?   I’m alone now.  I have nobody to love and care for me. I’ll probably starve to death and my cat will have to eat me until someone discovers my remains.

Or, I can call a cab.

 ***

Postscript:   Don’t feel too sorry for me.   My niece, Alex came down from Switzerland and waited on me.   I’m so glad my sister had the foresight to breed!

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