After settling into our seats on the TGV train in Geneva, an elegant woman draped in a fashionable tapestried print set her handbag on one of the seats facing us. She bent over and dug out magazines, sudoko books, a lunch sack of snacks and piled them on our petite table before poising herself in the seat before me. She looked up at us expectantly, as if noticing our presence for the first time and seeking an explanation. Some French phrases flowed out of her mouth and contorted our faces. After clearing up our lack of French, we discovered that she was, in part, a fellow American and was glowing with excitement that we were traveling in her native France.
Then she asked us where were we going, and that glow disappeared. We were destined for Marseille. Her bubbly demeanor faded to a frown or horror and confusion when her neurons processed our reply. She told us to go somewhere else. Why would a young foreign couple want anything to do with Marseille? Go to Toulouse, she said, or Aix-en-Provence. Just stay on the train a bit longer, and go somewhere else, anywhere but Marseille. The mere thought of it ruffled the edges of her eyes, her thin blonde brow, and her French dignity.
We politely nodded along with her and let her suggestions pass through our ears and blow down to the next train car. We were going to Marseille.
After three hours of traversing valleys dotted with stone chateaus and hearing the repetitive announcements of arrivals and departures at stations along the way, we were brought to laughter as we disembarked from the train in Marseille. Even if we had failed to hear the conductor announce that the train had arrived in Marseille, we would have known exactly where we were based on his stern warnings to be vigilant, watch out for thieves and pickpockets, hold onto our luggage at all times, and essentially act as if we were swimming through a sea of scum. No other stop from Geneva to Marseille had prompted any warning, even a measly “Watch your step as you exit the train.” Nothing.
Marseille’s reputation certainly precedes it.
For a city that is apparently feared by French and foreigners alike, seen as France’s East LA, we were ready to rent an apartment and move on in after just two days of wandering the streets and climbing the city’s hills.
In the middle of winter, the city was coated in sun. Harsh, jagged rock formed the cliffs of the coastline. Bright cypresses and junipers equally harsh and jagged in appearance, clung to the cracks in the cragged cliffs all around the city, giving contrast, color, vitality, to the pale sediment that formed the base of the city. This landscapes is simple, sparse, almost like desert converging with the turquoise blue of the sky and the sea. The numerous hills of Marseille provide vistas for this landscape, and, of course, there are the parks, streets, and pathways that linger along the city’s edge among the cliffs and the crashing waves.
The urban sections of the city mix something else into the landscape. The Vieux Port and the Panier neighborhood provide some quaint qualities, classic, historical, and attractive to the tourists. Then there are the ornate cathedrals, grand parks, narrow shopping streets, sophisticated museums, impressive fortresses, statues and fountains that litter the city, giving it a sense of grandeur and importance.
There is, of course, also a layer of grit. Personally, I like my cities with some grit. I know not everyone feels that same way. Graffiti colored walls as trash colored the dull asphalt and cement-grey of the ground. (Nothing compared to the garbage problems over here in Kosovo.) Down-and-outs sat on stoops and sidewalks, ready to receive anything and everything.
At no point, did I feel unsafe in the city. At no point, did either of us stop and say, ‘what the hell are we doing here’. We were delighted by every moment we spent in Marseille, where France meets Africa and weathered-desert cliffs meet the sea.