At Sea Level


On a hazy June morning in the part of France that cannot make up its mind about whether it is a Provence blossom or a Riviera jewel, I took a picture of a stone building perched on yet more stone—a corniche, they call them—on the very edge of the shore. I had just begun to move in a great clockwise arc around the Mediterranean Sea, a thing I had wanted to do for as long as I could think the words. To see This Place Where My Father Comes From. J was sick in bed with a stomach bug and couldn’t bear the beach, the sun, or solid food, so I took a bus out to a place where there was no sand, just little stone outcroppings that dropped into the sea.

Two days earlier, a man had circled the spot on a map for us with a ballpoint pen.

“If you want a beach like California, you go here. ” He touched a white strip of sand as wide as his index finger. “Now,” he said, “If you want Marseille, you go here.” And then he touched that little triangle of rock.

I knew exactly where I wanted to go because I had seen it from the window of the bus the day before. A little fishing village wedged into the side of the big screaming city, protected in its cove.

And I sat in my favorite dress, which I didn’t remove because I felt too pale and shy even though I was wearing a bathing suit, and I watched the panorama of mountains, sea, rock, old men, women rocking cooing babies, scattered beach towels, the handsome waiter from the hotel up the street in his bowtie. And I thought about J leaving me to go back to Paris and I thought, Oh God. What the hell am I doing. And I knew that whatever I was doing, I was exactly right to do it.

The little stone building I photographed, Le Maregraphe, is France’s point 0, the exact spot where an entire nation decides what is this thing we call sea level, the dot from which all altitudes rise, in that little bird’s next on the edge of the world. A while after I posted it, someone contacted me and asked if they could use it for an article in a student-run magazine about Marseille. It’s on page 15 of the most recent issue, if you’d like to peek. And that’s why I wanted to write this.

And maybe to dream, for one minute longer, about Marseille.

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