Au revoir Marseille

13 August 2012 21:02 

July was our last month in Marseille. After spending August in Berlin, we moved.  Now we are living in La Garde – a small, quiet village between Toulon and Hyeres. In La Garde we have a larger home on a very quiet street, all within an old French village.

Living in Marseille was a mixed experience.  Renting the apartment on the Boulevard d’Athenes enabled us to meet all bureaucratic requirements to get a long stay visa for France: no residence, no visa. As I wrote about before, there are some pitfalls to renting a place site unseen, or viewed only through photos. Still, rented over the internet, we didn’t do too badly.

There were advantages. Living downtown I had no need for a car. It was, and still is, wonderful not driving, especially after twenty-five years in Carifornia. The train, metro, tram, bus, and inter-city shuttle were a five minute walk. Only twice in recent months have I driven:  when we  rented a van to move our stuff to our new home, and when we flew back to Marseille from Berlin, and rented a car to get to La Garde.

I’ll miss the convenience of the Marseille apartment. In particular the Noailles open air market was all of five minutes away. For meat and produce it was always a fun hubbub. The selection of produce matched that of California, but at much cheaper prices (think: not Whole Foods).  Most guys running the stalls were not born in France; they were as helpful and fun as anyplace I’ve been. If they didn’t have something, they’d point to a stall that did.  Food shopping, not my favorite chore, was always tolerable at the Noailles market, and at times fun. The boulangerie nearby was always open and made great baguettes. As if to foreshadow our leaving, our bakery closed for our last week in Marseille. The owners had gone on their annual and much deserved vacation.

But there were more disadvantages. Marseille grated on the nerves: the incessant car horns, the dog shit, the trash, the sirens, and the beggars. The city is a wad of varying humanity compressed into too small a place. While Catherine was in an excellent pre-school, it’s not a place we wanted for our kids. City living is best only when you have enough money to insulate you from the surrounding environment  – a large apartment placed on an upper floor or a large townhouse in a quiet section of the city. With money you would also enroll your children in private schools. Anything less means exposure to a life that is unpleasant, even harsh, where you feel you are squinting all the time.

There’s the bigger picture: there’s a joke that Marseille is the northernmost African city.  While that’s an exaggeration with regard to racial distribution, Marseille belongs more to the Meditteranean community than to France. A spectrum of writers from Lonely Planet to National Geographic to The New York Times all observed that in recent years no riots or uprisings occurred in Marseille because of the city’s diversity. But what is the value of this diversity? Just because Marseille didn’t riot means the city is a success. While Europe flounders in its experiment of one currency under many governments, France in general and Marseille in particular, face the problems of integrating numerous distinct immigrant groups. In turn the immigrants face the problem of integrating into France. There are many questions, not so many answers. What should France’s immigration policy be? What does it mean to be French? What is the right balance of assimilation and fidelity to one’s heritage?

There are similarities to California. Both France and California have large economies but suffer from self inflicted financial problems. In both the existing white establishment confronts changes because of immigration, inlcuding, to borrow Peter Schrag’s characterization, the browning of the population. Certainly in Catherine’s school and around town there are many dark skinned light haired children, offspring of mixed race marriages  – signs of unity and hope. But France, its traditions and culture far older than California’s, will have the harder struggle. Immigrants to California, mainly from Central and South American, face less of a cultural gap than those from the Middle East or Africa going to France. Unknown is how things would be if the poor from Africa and the Middle East were able to immigrate to California.

On our second to last day in Marseille I went for a haircut. The shop at the bottom of our building has a place for men in front, women get their haircut in the back. The man who cut my hair I had seen around the shop for months. He was young, in his mid-twenties, and looked to be from North Africa.  When not working he sat outside, smoking and looking at his smart phone. Passing the guy on the street, I would have thought him just another dude, maybe there to mooch off the system. But my haircut got us talking. In my lousy French and my barber’s broken English, I learned he was from Algeria.  He had been in Marseille only for a few months.  He asked where I was from (there aren’t a lot of Americans there, so he assumed I was British or German), and said he loved the United States. A friend of his was visiting New York, and he showed me his smart phone call log to prove he had received a call from New York city. I asked him how he liked Marseille. He shrugged and said it was only okay; he was there because he needed a job.

Damn, the baguettes in La Garde are good.


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