While waiting – why Marseille?

As of this writing we are still waiting to hear from the French Embassy regarding approval of our long stay visas. The embassy web site states it takes up to two weeks to process  our applications.  At this point we have no idea whether or not our applications will be approved. In the meantime here’s a bit about why we ended up with Marseille as our potential new home.

Our criteria for where to stay to stay in France were:

  • a large enough city to have good public transportation so we would not need a car
  • not Paris, which would be too expensive, although if we had the means we would certainly stay there
  • preferably in a warmer climate, so we would have to pack fewer bags. Moving a family of five overseas for a year with no corporate or government assistance means we have to pack very carefully
  • preferably near the water:  we like being near a coast, and enjoy water sports (sailing, swimming, surfing or stand up paddling)

Using the above criteria with map in hand, we found ourselves looking at either Montpellier or Bordeaux.  During our initial search, Marseille was not on our list. The city was not intentionally excluded from our search, we just didn’t think about it.

We spent many hours searching Bordeaux and Montpellier  for an apartment (furnished, at least one thousand square feet, three bedrooms,  utilities included) at a number of French real estate portals (Vivastreet, Pap, Leboncoin, Alouer, many others). The available inventory for what we were looking for was very small, and usually out of our price range (up to one thousand euros per month).  The prospects were not good.

Annie then hit upon the idea of using the keyword ‘sabbatical’ as a part of the search. This lead us to the website Sabbatical Homes, an online rental forum catering to academics but open to everyone. The listings are world wide, usually furnished, and are for those who want or need to move to a particular locale, usually with their families, for periods of several months, up to a year. The prospects were looking better.

Searching through the listings in France on the Sabbatical Homes web site, we found many places that looked right: furnished with utilities. The prices were sometimes a bit over out budget, but we thought that by offering to stay longer, we might be able to negotiate a lower monthly rent.  But as we began sending out inquiries, we were finding places either rented, or the actual cost was more than what the owner had posted on the listing (there are a number of fees and taxes that landlords pass along to tenants, so the real rent was usually higher than the advertised rent). The prospects started to look less good.

We then found a few places in Marseille, a city which, as noted, we had not previously considered.  What I knew about Marseille was anecdotal and second hand. It was a port city, industrial and grimy, sort of like Long Beach or Norfolk. I think there as some communist workers song called the Marseille, or maybe that was the French national anthem. I’ve probably seen a couple of movies set there, too (e.g. The Bourne Identity). In all, that was not much to go considering we wanted to move there for a year.

Research  shed some light: Marseille was France’s second largest city, certainly its most diverse, and probably its oldest, being a former Greek colony. We learned that additional public transportation had been added, the city was on the coast (something I did know already), and in 2013 Mareseille was designated the European cultural capital (click here for details).

But research also clouded the picture: some people complained about the crime, the North Africans, and how dirty the city was. This last one is hard to get a feel for; around the web there are horror stories and counter stories about just how fine the city really is.  I don’t think it’s as bad as Detroit, but if our visas are approved, we’ll find out.

And that’s what it’s going to be in the end: walking the streets there, living the life, finding out for ourselves. Why Marseille? Why not Marseille?

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