16 May 2012 08:47 

The walk to the Ecole Maternelle

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday I walk Catherine to her school, the Ecole Maternelle.  She has no school on Wednesdays. We leave our apartment at 8:10am,  take a right outside our front door heading towards the train station, then left on Rue de Convalescents  which becomes the Rue Nationale then turns into the Rue Colbert. A left on Rue Henri Barbusse and we’re at the school. Along the way there are a number of small businesses: sandwhich shops, cafes, and stores selling cosmetics and cleaning supplies. All the owners are of Middle Eastern or North African descent.  The tvs in at least three of the businesses are broadcasting services from the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, in Mecca. The volume is turned up loud enough to hear the lone male voice wailing.

The walk along the Rue de Convalescents requires attention; it is a narrow, one lane, one way street. The sidewalks on either side are one and one-half person wide. They are usually taken over my some construction project or parked car.  For this part of the walk we skirt between the sidewalk and street.  There’s the usual quota of trash along the way. When I drop Catherine off we go into the courtyard of the school, then up the stairs to her classroom. The open structure reminds me of the schools in the Bay Area. Mondays and Tuesdays the teacher is Mademoiselle Caroline; Thursdays and Fridays it’s Mademoiselle Virginie. In the classroom I help Catherine to put her name up on a board (à l’école or maison, at school or at home). Trois baisers and then I am headed back to the apartment.

A few faces stand out in the morning routine. One guy is about my age, drops of his son at Catherine’s school, then takes his older daughter to another school which Catherine and I pass on the way to her school. How is it that like me, he has the time to get his kids to and from school? Divorced? Retired?  I’ll see him again in the afternoon. A grandfather who always wears the kindest expression delivers two children to Catherine’s school. Most unusual, especially for this part of town, is a tall blond woman who looks Russian.  She carries a baby in one of those neoprene contraptions, and leads another child by the hand. She always looks rushed. I don’t see her in the afternoon.

School ends for Catherine at 4:20. The pick up is chaotic; the door to the school is locked until 4:20, and parents, mostly mothers, wait right outside the door. When the door is unlocked, the deadbolt makes a loud sound, there’s a typical rush to the door. In Catherine’s classroom all the children are sitting around in U, with teacher at the head. The kids are dismissed as the parents arrive. Walking home we break out a snack that was stashed in Catherine’s backpack that morning. We might stop at the food store, Fran Prix, to pick missing items needed for dinner. We usually see other parents there, with their kids, doing the same.

The walk back to the apartment is more hectic than in the morning. There are more people out on the street, hanging around, talking, not doing much. There’s more traffic, and now in late Spring the afternoons are hot. The sewer smell that was muted in the cool of the morning is amplified by the heat of the afternoon.

The pool

The city of Marseille has seven or eight pools. The one nearest us is the Piscine St. Charles, about a ten minute walk. It costs 2.50 euros. Shoes cannot be worn past the lobby. On the way to the changing rooms you pick up a little blue metal clothes tree that has a place for your shoes and racks to hang your clothes. After changing you give your clothes tree to an attendant the way you check your coat. With each clothes tree is a numbered yellow plastic bracelet that you take with you.

I take my pack with my wallet and keys, shower, then head upstairs where the pool is. At the top of the stairs is a barrier to the pool: strips of thick, clear plastic hang down like the hula skirt in a car wash. As you pass through the plastic barrier you also walk in some sort of disinfecting foot wash.

There is no order to the lanes, although the slower swimmers tend to stay in the far right lane. The pool is 25 meters long. Most swimmers stop at each wall, backing up traffic and making it hard to flip turn off the wall. If there is a slow swimmer, the faster swimmer will sometimes try to pass by going to the middle of the lane, risking hitting either the swimmer he is passing or the swimmer coming the other way. It’s chaotic and difficult to get in a long steady swim without running into someone or having your rhythm broken.

The pool is a little too warm for me. I usually sit up on the wall every three hundred yards or so to cool down. The pool is not over chlorinated, so I won’t have ten minute sneeze attack when I am done swimming.

It’s nowhere near to what I was doing at Menlo Masters, but something is better than nothing.

 Hanging out

Sometimes after dinner we walk up to the pavilion at the Gare St. Charles, the train station.  Different cities lend themselves to different arrivals. San Francisco should be sailed into, preferably in the Fall, when the wind won’t be so great but there will be no marine layer to obscure your view of the white city and the Golden Gate bridge. Washington D.C. is best reached by flying in a night when all the monuments are illuminated. The train is the best way to reach Marseille: when you exit the station, you have spectacular view of the city, Notre Dame de la Garde, and the white, chalky hills beyond.

After dinner, close to sunset, we walk the 104 steps to the the top.  There’s usually a scattering of green glass from broken beer bottles. The area outside the train station is in total about the size of a football field. Travelers stand outside smoking, waiting for the trains. Itinerant bums group together; they have backpacks and dogs, and sit  leaning against the wall; occasionally one will get up to try to get some money or a cigarette. New arrivals and first timers are obvious: they begin taking pictures immediately. There are some locals hanging out, at least I assume they are locals because they don’t have any luggage, not even a messenger bag or euro-guy manpurse.

If Catherine comes along she’ll bring her scooter – the marble is smooth and expansive and great for riding on. Sometimes I bring my camera and tripod; this becomes a magnet for all types to talk about Marseille, the USA after they find out where I am from, and why we are living there. After the sun goes down the lights on Notre Dame de la Garde some on. The view is spectacular, but we don’t stay too long after dark.

Thursday nights after dinner Annie and I leave the kids at home to go have a drink at Cafe Dugommier. It’s just a block away. Here you feel like you are in France. We usually get a pastisse, served in a glass with ice and a small carafe of water to cut it. Often we sit outside and watch the Marseille parade go by.


The routine is simple: we buy them, we eat them. Damn, they are good.


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