Marseille is like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it!
I don’t want to sound like I am making excuses for myself but I need to say this. I did write a number of blogs since the end of the exams and they have all ended up deleted or lost in cyberspace. I fear that the blogs that I am now going to write will never live up to what I originally wrote however I will prevail.
I will start from my most recent experiences and work backwards. Since the exams I have been having a lot of fun in Grenoble with Erasmus friends. We have been to Marseille, Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Montpellier and Nimes. I am planning another trip down to the south and would then like to stick in the Rhone-Alps region to enjoy some days hiking and all the mountains have to offer. The weather is good even when it rains which is rare.
Marseille is something special, a rare stone that must be appreciated with eyes both wide open and curious. There are so many parts to Marseille life and so I think I will keep going back for more just like a good dessert. My first visit was during the March reading week where I stayed with a friend in Aix-en-Provence. We visited Marseille several times and the first time was for a Kurdish soirée where I spent a night I will never forget. It was a night that heightened all my senses. A night which left me with one thought, ‘I have truly lived.’ The event was held at an association called Equitable Cafe where you pay however much you want for the entrance fee. It is a community space and hosts a lot of interesting events. There was a Kurdish band composed of a singer, guitarist, unknown instrument player and drummer. I didn’t understand what they were singing because it was in a completely different language however the passion was portrayed in ever tremor of his cry. Their music sent shivers down my spine as I shared in an expression of their liberty in France. Their liberty to express their culture and hopes through their music and to bring people together. There were people of all ages and colours together dancing. My friends and I started by dancing on the chairs and then joined the rest on the floor where we joined pinky-fingers and rubbed shoulders turning in spirals with foot-work that went beyond my abilities. You may be noticing a theme in these blogs, foot-eye coordination is not by forte. The rainbow line spun around the dance floor making an intricate pattern of joy and laughter. By the end of the dance my little finger was ready to fall off! What life!
There we met a Kurdish illegal immigrant who spoke to my friend of his hopes and fears. She told me later that his mentality was that he hated Marseille and France in general. He wants to move to Cuba. I don’t understand the logic. My friend then went on the share with him her views on immigration from an immigrants point of view. Her parents are both Kurdish and they have all lived in Germany all of her life. For her happiness is a choice and she urged him to be content with the place he has found himself in because otherwise he will never be content even if he goes to the end of earth and back.
Marseille has so much to offer culturally but equally in terms of natural beauty also. The Calanques (rocky coastal area in Marseille) stretch along both sides of the city and reach all the way to Cassis. You can go hiking, climbing or simply take a boat road along the whole calanques. We did part of it by car and part by foot and train. It is so beautiful. The city also has a lot of architecture which is reminiscent of Mediterranean and North African architecture. With 12th century forts and an the château d’If made famous by Dumas ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ These buildings plus the injection of 15 million euros into the city for the capital of culture gives Marseille a real buzz! The collision of history and modernity, but the story remains the same… Marseille is a melting pot.
So why mention marmite?
Marmite in French actually means large cooking pot. Which brings together all that I want to say about the city. It is a large melting pot of cultures but not everybody likes it when cultures ooze like a good smelly camembert. The smell might make you uncomfortable, the cheese tastes good but how do you know that if you only smell it. (At this point I have to say sorry to my dad because Roquefort just goes that step too far, it smells bad and it tastes bad.)
When walking in the North African markets in Marseille the narrow winding streets and the hustle and bustle of the market has a truly authentic feel. The spice shops, the exotic fruits, extraordinary breads and colourful sweets all make you feel like you gave stepped into another world. For a young female tourist it can also feel slightly daunting walking through streets with a lot of men who are staring at you and trying to speak to you. I am not used to that and neither were my friends. The roads are dirty and there is rubbish dotted around the place. You find yourself not in a sterilized, secure and western environment but somewhere that makes you feel unsafe and at the same time wonderfully curious. One night it got dark and we were buying olives in a little stall there (SO CHEAP and SO DELICIOUS!). We passed a crime scene next to the markets where there were armed police men surrounding it. One police man said to us, ‘girls, it’s not safe here, go home.’ I am sure he was right as Marseille has many social problems including serious crime and housing issues. But strange thing was that we were only a couple of streets away from the main street, la canibiere. My friend described this contrast as a parallel universe. You step into one street and you are in North Africa and then next and you are in France. Very interesting but also I think this explains the marmite.
I dare you to taste the city for yourself and see how you like it. Don’t just see the surface, see how it was created and how the flavours come together. See the dirt and grub of the city alongside the greenery and blue of the calanque and take the city for what it is.