No sooner than my nightly arrival at the hotel, somewhere in the proximity of Lycee Perrier, I started my walk around the port city of Marseille. Marseille may not be so famous to common travellers; at least it does not reach the glitter of Paris. But to people who love French culture, Marseille is something like a gospel. Probably because Marseille is more real than Paris, in the sense that it has not adopted a glamorous image, but they way the city presents itself to the tourist is closer to its reality, rather than try to hide its problems under the carpet. Other than that, Marseille is by nature multicultural, and some of France’s most prominent faces in sport and culture (like Zinedine Zidane and Rashid Taha) were born there, or made their name there. Other than that, the city has to show a great old quarter, the Mediterranean coast, the cosy old port, and one of the most famous fests of modern art in Southern Europe.
As the night was beginning to settle down, I went for a ride in the Old Port. The place is full of people taking a walk across the bars and restaurants of the area. In Marseille you can find just about everything edible. After sampling prices, I decided that the local fish soup plates were too expensive and that I would rather sample the more exotic tastes offered to me in town. This meant Tunisian, Moroccan, Vietnamese or Corsican food, maybe even some of the fine products of Provence, like its salami and cheese, and, of course, the wine. In the end these were an economic and tasty solution, especially Briq and the lamb kushkush. I decided that I really loved Tunisian cuisine. Madre de Dios que linda! The night went on with no further incident, just me walking along a taking a peek of the local nightlife. In the end I danced to some lounge dj set near the museum of modern art, drinking beer I had just purchased from the kiosk there, and listening to some French deli owner boast that “French girls are the most beautiful because they have this sweet and very little pussy”. The stereotype of French people not speaking foreign languages has become some sort of a joke. Some do not speak any other language than French, that is true, but here this one was talking to me in almost perfect English. In other areas I heard French people speak Spanish or Italian, and some of them even speak German (let alone Arabic). I will leave behind the sexism behind this comment, because I have heard sexist remarks all around the world, so why should a port city like Marseille be left behind?
The next morning was somewhat late in its arrival. I slept practically until midday, before opening the rooms TV set to get a small glimpse of French TV. And what was the first thing I saw there? It was her. She was talking on a talk show dedicated to France and the French the way foreigners living there saw them. She was sitting next to Charlotte Rampling and Carl Lagerfeld, but she was probably the shining light throughout the show, despite the fact that she was no actress or singer, or either a fashion icon. In fact she is a comic artist that turned her life and times in Iran and Austria after the fall of the Shah and during the Iran-Iraq war. Marjane Satrapi. With just a smile she was sending out waves of good vibes, even though I could not understand a thing she was saying. It was just her bright smile and nothing more. I decided to close the TV and visit a delicatessen, to buy some food. Delis in France look very much like a de-louxe edition of the general stores that one can meet in small villages or neighbourhoods. There you can buy food, but for anything else one has to visit the store next-door. I bought some salami, baguettes, cheese Provenciale and wine, and returned to the hotel to make some sandwiches for my next trip. Then I went back at the museum, to see if there was anything happening there. Actually there were some pieces of performance art going on there. In one, some Japanese artist was moving hanging inside what looked like a huge nylon bag that was practically wrapped around him, while breathing from a tube. After two hours of this performance, a Basque took over, with a show of moving table-like objects across a small pitch with a wooden floor. As the objects were spinning around the Formica-wood pitch some suspicious moves made me look around. A group of guys that seemed out of place in the area. They were wearing wide jackets, and they seemed to wear the colours of some gang. As I observed them move around the small crowd, they seemed to fit into my idea of them being gang members. I kept watching them with one eye while they were getting closer and closer. They stopped at the when they reached a girls standing near me. One of them yelled at her something that I could translate into “Bitch”, ant then he reached out and grabbed her earrings, before disappearing almost into thin air. Crime is raging in the streets of Marseille. Not any kind of crime. Petty crime. This is not really a sign of moral decay or anything that your run-of-the-mill conservative would say. This is a sign of people living in poverty and not seeing any other chance in getting out of it, than getting involved in crime of any sort. Most of these people are the children of migrants living in France. These young men and women probably have no rights under French law, and thus have no chance of getting away from their poverty or becoming full French citizens. And, even if they manage to gain citizenship, whenever they get to deal with anything that has to do with any aspects of the French State, they will be treated as second-class citizens, since this is the way the state sees anyone coming from the banlieu, the French ghettos. This fuels these kids with anger, and despair, a pair of very evil and treacherous advisors. And crime does not really come alone. There are drugs running around in the city, and to the extent of my knowledge, it is not the recreational drugs that make high sales around town, but drugs that cause a serious addiction, like heroin and crack. Drugs that go with poverty too. And people that are under the influence will usually stop at nothing in order to get their dose. Again moral decay has nothing to do with this situation. The aforementioned advisors do. But for people with virtually no way out, and have to cope with the idea of having no job, or money, or decency, drugs and crime seem to provide a solution, or a way out of their problems. Nevertheless, I returned to the hotel, listening to the soundtrack of sirens blazing and while patrol cars were muscling their way through the evening traffic to respond to some urgent call.
The next morning I decided to go to the beach, and maybe visit the “more prestigious” part of Marseille. So I took my towel and my swimming trunks, and went for a walk alongside the coastal avenue, looking for a suitable beach, meaning a public one and not one of those “exclusive club” things. To my surprise, exclusive beaches were a rare sight along the boulevard. On the other hand I saw a lot of public ones, swarming with people of all colours, nationalities, sexes and religions. The second thing that surprised me was the lack of rented umbrellas and armchairs. Back home all these are something of a prerequisite for any “decent” beach, especially when they cover the whole of it. I found the ideal spot and went down. The first thing I did notice was the amount of good-looking guys and girls that where there. The girls from Marseille seem to be the most beautiful girls in the whole of France. Sweet faces and incredible bodies, that turned them into a feast for the eyes. Some Magrebine beauties especially captivated me. The African girls looked gorgeous too.
I got lost in the waters of the Mediterranean, only to resurface after about an hour. And then, I swept into the sweet hug of Morpheus, with the help of the red-hot beams of the Mediterranean sun. I woke up hours later, checked out my wallet and cell phone. Though crime is raging in the city, and even though I was not in an exclusive beach, nobody had even dared to touch them, probably because there were a lot of people around. I left early in the afternoon for the hotel. There I packed my bags for the next day’s trip to Barcelona, slept a bit more, and then left for a night in town.
On my way to the beach, I had stopped at a building that I thought was something like a cultural centre. In it, there was an invitation-only jazz concert, but when I was passing by, the band was outside the building playing for the people that where coming in, and of course the passing onlookers. And at the entrance, one of the promoters told me that it was “part” of the European Music day. And that meant that I had the opportunity to take a peak of the city’s music scene. There was nothing happening at the museum, but all the action seemed to come from the old town. I followed a steady stream of people that was heading up towards the old town. After one point, the whole ride through the narrow streets of the old town, looked like a huge moving street party. Every small bar and deli of the area had a grill, or a big PA system, or both, out in the street, and was adding to the enjoyment of all the punters around. The local communities where taking part in the celebrations to, with benches around the area serving specialities from each community. I sampled some Arab food again, and moved toward the central stage where a group of local drummers was performing. The beat was complex but altogether very solid, and the crowd was responding well to that. If someone was looking from above, I am quite sure that he would see a crowd of people moving spontaneously and harmonically to the beat. Then a Latin band took to the stage. The party became wilder and the dancing became more spontaneous. Marseille has a very vibrant music scene. There are jazz bands playing around town, but you can listen to ethnic music from a lot of regions of the world. But the big deal here is hip-hop, dub, and electro music. Most of the PA systems outside the small venues where manned by selectors and disk jockeys (that’s what MC’s are called in dub music). And there are a lot of dub bands coming from Marseille and Provence in general. But the most amazing thing about these bands is that they have a crossover appeal. Outside any of these places I saw white, black, Arabic and Asian youths dancing to the music. This was one hell of a groovy atmosphere that is hard to find outside the Mediterranean coast.
The next morning I woke up, I was feeling a little sad, because I was leaving the town. But my destination was familiar and way too tempting. I was visiting Barcelona again, trying to chase away the ghosts of my previous trip there, and to see what I had missed on my two last prolonged stays in town. The stay in Marseille had to end at the central station. And it ended with mixed feelings. At first, a feeling of disgust and resentment towards really ugly situations that one could see there. As I was waiting for my train, I witnessed an extremely vulgar sexual attack on a girl sitting close to me. He was definitely touching her in places where she did not want him to, and she at one point, while he was trying to complete his actions with a rape in public, was about to burst in tears. Then there was a feeling of being amazed. While I was making a move to try and make him move away, she managed to get her hands in her bag. When they re-emerged, she was holding a canister of pepper spray. She aimed it directly at her attackers eyes, and sprayed him without any hesitation. I do not have the slightest idea how she found the courage to pull this off, while this guy was trying to humiliate her in public.
But the final feeling was that Marseille still is a party town, with its bright and dark spots. And maybe Marseille has to face all the problems creating those dark spots, in order to keep the good vibes. It was a match-day, and not any match-day, but the day of the final of the French rugby league. And the teams of Clermont Ferand (in blue), and Perpignan (in red). And, although rugby is a violent sport, its’ fans are not violent. In fact most of the people going to rugby matches are just fans who go there to support their teams and have some good clean fun. So any confrontation between groups of rival fans lead only to….taunts and nothing more, while some of the fans of both teams found the chance to renew old friendships, or to share the fun with their “rivals”. As both groups slowly left the station, I could only see some actions of friendship and kinship, like the scene when two groups of fans of both teams joined and shared their wine and sandwiches with each other, exchanging jokes and hugging each other. This was only a part of the contrasting images and feelings I got from the city. Marseille is definitely a long way from being the city of sin and crime, but in contrast to every stark image it gives you, there is scene, or a moment, that turns things around and puts a bright colour in the picture. However a visitor must handle the place with caution, but without any prejudice, if one wants to “survive” there.