Thursday, February 28, 2008


Marseilles, the oldest and second largest of French cities is often referred to as a French Naples. One industrious German guidebook even goes so far as to call in the Chicago of the Mediterranean, which is getting there except that Chicago only wishes it could be half as crazy as Marseilles. The Ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseilles and used it as one of their principle trade ports to the riches of North Africa. It has subsequently morphed into a crusader capital and finally, one of the focal points of Byzantium before modernity yielded the traditional maritime empire null. Marseilles is filthy, colorful and fantastic. Its is well over half made up of immigrants, mostly from Italy, Greece, Spain, The Middle East and North Africa. People tend to have about them that Southern olive complexion that comes from spending the year working in the sun. Dark features and complexions. The women have about them the sense that they used to look stunning before befouling their looks with pack-a-day smoking habits that leave them looking ravaged. The city literally sweats the smell of seawater and anise.

The fist thing you notice about Marseilles are the colors. While France as a whole presents itself in shades of grey and black, Marseilles is a flash of yellows, reds and blues. Europeans, especially Northern Europeans love to go on about “the mentality of the south”, which one must admit, has been useful in explaining some of the personality quirks of certain Spaniards that I’ve known, and this is clearly on display in Marseilles. With this though comes a certain grittiness – its very much like its portrayal in the French connection. I spent a couple of hours in a bar watching Italian football with some of the locals, not one of them who had French as a first language, which in many ways made me fit in better, except the local pidgin of Arabic, French and Italian is so much more complicated than French that you have to be from Marseilles to speak it.

As an avid people watcher, Marseilles proved to be almost too much. The denizens of Marseilles are not necessarily attractive, but they are distinctive and that is worth far more. Marseilles even has its own fashion sense – either athletic jackets and leather or expensive, though highly baggy suits with ornate vests and occasionally, fez’s. The town as a whole has its own flavor. Like Chicago it is enormous and sprawling, however, like San Francisco, its growth is controlled by geographical constraints, with the sea on one side and mountains on the other. Mediterranean societies all seem to have their particular quirks. Looking out at the sea, you can’t help but think of the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Greeks and the other great Mediterranean Empires. I’ve been hungrily devouring Herodotus in the hours since I’ve been back, looking for something I’m not quite sure of.

I came to Marseilles only after a winding road trip through the south of France, lateral movement from one provincial tourist trap to the next. The town of Aigues-Mortes is nice and all, and very interestingly contained within a 13th century castle that looks like a leftover from the battle of Agincourt, but its name, more or less speaks for the town, which is, after 8:30, decidedly post-mortem. We also passed through what felt like half a dozen other Mediterranean tourist towns, none quite as decadent as, say, Cannes, but all of which lacked that particular lunacy that makes Cannes appealing in the first place. The beech was of course nice, but I couldn't help but shake that feeling of artificiality that one gets from those types of places. The French then do plastic resort towns almost as well as Americans then, they just haven't quite discovered, or are blissfully culturally incapable of comprehending, the marketing mechanisms that make American tourist destinations so lifeless. It gives one hope that perhaps, the American cultural empire, for what it is, has yet to become all pervasive.

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