Marseille is a place of magnetism, made for salty skin and picnics. But I don’t know it yet. I’m on a train from Paris to Marseille and I know nothing of the city that awaits me, or the people I will meet. I am drawn here and I don’t know why. I know only of my intuition, and the pull is strong and incessant.
As a woman traveling alone I am always alert, cautious, feigning an attitude of confidence and insouciance. And in this way I protect myself, but at the same time I close myself off from the world, from the opportunity to give and receive, from the whole reason for living. In Marseille, I vow to open my heart, to believe in the inherent goodness of others, to trust.
As the French countryside reveals itself through my window, I feel like I’m flicking through the pages of an enormous flip book. Scenes flashing, frames changing, manipulated by my perspective. Ephemeral glimpses of beauty creating motion, one leading to the next. Rust-soaked reds and clover greens make a patchwork of the rolling hills; the quilt of the countryside is warm and comforting. I am oxidized, and I feel lucky. Stratus clouds leave wisps suspended in the sky like pulled apart pieces of cotton–God’s handiwork. Little villages are in perfect harmony with their surroundings: simple, rustic, lovely. I want to stop at all of them. To live at least a lifetime here. Why is life so short? I have so many places to be and so many worlds to live in.
There aren’t many cities that leave an impression at the train station. I disembark and discover that Marseille is the exception.
It is here that I meet David, who invites me for Pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur and apéritif typical of the region. Mixed with water and a few ice cubes, it tastes of licorice, and restores my bones on this warm day. After, we head to David’s flat to meet his lovely roommate, Nolwenn. She wears thick glasses and has a nest of chocolate curls atop her head. She is gentle and cares deeply for others–I could tell this within moments of meeting her. We make plans for a picnic, one of many I will have during my time in Marseille. At the market, we buy baguettes, fine cheeses, cured meats, and a bottle of red. We then walk to Vieux Port (the old harbor), the epicenter of activity in the city. From there, we catch a bus to Endoume and we are off “to see the sea,” as David says.
Marseille is a hilly city and walking to the coast is a trek, but my legs welcome the burn. We are to meet another friend, Antoine, at Anse de Malmousque–a cove that grants easy access to the sea. Antoine is already there waiting for us and greets us with an enthusiastic, waving arm. With the last few minutes of daylight, we slip into the cold, choppy water with glee. It’s my first time in the Mediterranean, and the salty taste on my lips and the weightless feeling of my body surprises me.
We eat on jagged rocks as the sun sets, then the moon takes its place and illuminates our conversations. We make plans for the following day, and the boys invite me to go fishing. At the end of the night, I feel warm and full of life, invincible.
We spend the next day lazily. It isn’t until after 6 pm that we make moves to go fishing. Antoine’s friend Arno has a car, which simplifies our journey to Les Calanques, a stunning string of cliffy coastline that forms coves along the Mediterranean seashore. We will explore Les Goudes, a part of Les Calanques known for its spectacular setting and proximity to Marseille. In the back seat of Arno’s car my mind wanders with the winding streets of cobblestone, my eyes rest easy on the bright color palettes of passing buildings, and my ears perk up with the crashing of the waves. The turquoise sea reflects on everything, bathes the scene in a glow and purifies the air we breathe. L’essence de la Méditerranée.
Another day: While Nolwenn is at work, her boyfriend Max and I decide to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde. A Neo-Byzantine style basilica and once a fortress during WWII, La Bonne Mère (the good mother) sits high on a hill, overlooks and protects all of Marseille. You can still see wounds in her facade, the bullet holes she endured in battle, defending her city. Max, I discover, knows even less English than I know French. So we communicate like two French 5-year-olds playing charades. When communication is simplified we are able to purely enjoy each other’s presence, remarking only on what we see and how we feel about our immediate surroundings.
When Nolwenn gets off work, she invites me to a girls-only picnic she is having with her friends on Île Frioul, a tiny, largely uninhabited island and a 30-minute ferry ride from Marseille. Waiting for the boat, six of her friends arrive, each with bags on their arms. They are all beautiful and sun-kissed, gregarious and laughing innocently and often. I understood very little at the picnic, but I was happy to be in good company. When we found the perfect spot among the cliffs, they spilled their bags out with their gifts of sustenance: Cheeses, breads, hummus, olives, spreads, jams, fish, Belgian beer, and three colors of wine. I am never wanting, never without in Marseille.