Marseille

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Imagine Paris in a nightmare or a dream, post-apocalypse, with graffiti splashed across its pretty face, all the Haussmann buildings nine stories tall with the paint chipping off the shutters. Riveted steel bridges stretch across the streets, hanging in midair, connecting one building to another or else there are winding staircases between them, marching up the hills, twisting around corners, like Montmartre after the bomb, the Ice Age, all the steps going the wrong way. Imagine Paris with “Guantanamera” blasting out car windows and the smell of pizza and curry and tapas everywhere. Imagine Paris with 85 percent humidity every single day of the year. Imagine Paris sunk on one side into pearl blue ocean and rimmed by scorched white cliffs. Imagine it with a man in a doorway singing a prayer in Arabic and a kid kicking a red rubber ball on a playground and two dogs fighting in the same playground, biting each other’s faces but cautious, as though they’re trying to find the line between “play” and “hurt.” Imagine Paris with trash pickup at 9:00 on a Monday night, the truck setting off one, two, three car alarms as it passes. Imagine it with homeless people and school kids and an empty fountain full of liquor bottles that are full of piss. Imagine tiny shops here and there, hidden but not, their owners laid back and a little defiant, young, bespectacled, and the signs in the windows that say No Photos, Please in English. A dumpling house. A bistro with a full vegetarian menu. A hostel with free WiFi. Buds on the vine, a new guard creeping in, bringing new money to the empty boulevards, a new paradise sprouted out of the old one than died and everything it left. But just the murmurs of it now, something that everyone knows is coming, the looming shadow left by a gleaming city on a hill.

*

Postscript. The Cours de Civilization et Langue Francaise de la Sorbonne?

Right. I passed it.

*

J____ is sick in a bad way so we’re staying another night in Marseille, until she’s able to walk.

*

The boat tour of the Calanques — the shear white stone cliffs that rim the southern coast of Marseille — takes three hours and could probably make its point in two. The cliffs loom above and stick jagged into the sky like the fins of giant sea monsters and reach into the ocean like wrinkly toes. There is the occasional village of pastel cottages or a sandy beach between them like multi-million dollar toejam — a boat lazily at anchor, a naked Italian sunbather. Purple jellyfish traverse the lightening blue water. Sea caves, hundreds of feet above, hide twigs, old sweatshirts, cigarette butts in their shadows.

And maybe three hours of Calanques would be amazing if the weather was not sweltering and oppressive, if the entire city was not blanketed in smog. If it was a sunrise tour, maybe. A middle-of-the-night tour. I spent the second half of the trip dozing on the boat’s shady bottom level and wanting to swim.

*

It’s weird being so lonely right now.

But it’s weirder telling you about it.

*

“You can go to this beach,” he says, pointing with a ballpoint pen. “It’s like California, maybe. But if you want to go to a real Marseille beach, go here.” He circles a knob of coastline and tells me which bus to take.

*

Within Marseille proper there is a fishing village like a thumb print, a perfect little half-moon, carved into the coast, and surrounding it are stone cornices that reach into the ocean and I step over one, over the sleek white rock, and plan to pick a spot with a view until I realize that they all, in fact, have views. Of the pale coast. Of the ruined Chateau d’If, the fabled home of the Count of Monte Cristo, glimmering on its little island. Of the horizon line, shifting and sparkling in the late-afternoon sun.

And all around me, the Marseillaises chatter and swim and soak in the sun. A woman, not a day younger than 70, sports a chic haircut, a bootleather tan, and an astonishingly pert pair of breasts. An old man in a cap shouts about the economy to a friend while he steps back into his clothes — pleated dress pants, collared shirt, socks, dress shoes. A couple enjoys the surf. A woman nuzzles a giggling baby’s nose.

And I’ve wondered so many times. Do I really love this country or do I just love what it symbolizes to so many Americans — cultural awareness, style, elegance. And will I want to come back after this? After seeing so much of it. Does it make sense to come back to a place three, four, five times?

In that moment, against a watercolor sky and hemmed in by white cliff and smog and murmured conversation that sounds like a song. I thought. How could I have thought. Honestly. That this was the end of something and not the beginning?

*

Two things:

Out of nowhere, J____, all green and sick on the bed, tells me that Anne Murray’s son was in her limo at her senior prom. I’ve known her for three years, and she tells me this now?

Later, while she’s watching the BBC, she points at the screen, at a bald-headed reporter with a major Scottish brogue and says, “Hey, that’s my ex-boyfriend.”

And so he was.

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