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After getting lost in Les Calanques for 3 hours, we found a lovely small port as the sun was setting.

Marseille was relatively unknown to me before going there. It was out of luck rather than choice that I ended up settling in for an initial seven months there. I would love now, of course, to claim that I sought out Marseille, since I could not have asked for a better city to live in during my Year Abroad. I taught English as a language assistant through the British Council scheme in three collèges in the quartier nord of Marseille. This produced countless memories. The teachers were almost exclusively marseillais themselves, and at the prospect of speaking to an English student discovering the culture, city, and colloquialisms, were so eager to explain, teach, and recommend. Such unwavering pride is not something I had tackled before[1] The kids at any slight break in lessons or in the corridors were keen to get me involved in talk about l’OM – which is the beating heart of the city – and the songs to which that heart beats: Marseille’s very own rappers in 13’Organisé.  With schools staying open until late April, this of course meant that I avoided the dreaded télétravail. It’s fair to say that things went my way in this respect.

With the relaxed 3 day working week that I had, I had plenty of time to explore a Covid-hampered city. A city which selon les profs had been robbed of its usual buzz and liveliness; a characteristic irreverence and relaxedness, however, meant that the alternating confinement and couvre-feu did not bring the city to a standstill. Cours Ju and the Vieux Port may not have kept the city awake through the night during my time there, but Marseille had me spoilt for beaches, mountains, and sport. The small port of Vallon des Auffes still shone beneath the southern sun, perfect for swimming in the early springtime. I played padel for the first time in Luminy, surrounded by greenery and without a cloud in sight. I hiked Garlaban with a group of teachers who knew the route as well as they knew the stories of Marcel Pagnol, the history of the ports, and the atmosphere of the city on gameday for the derby versus Paris – a rivalry often amusingly captured by, but not exclusive to, the football. With a group of friends, I paddle-boarded along Les Calanques, discovering The Blue Cave (Morgiou), where the water shimmered a bright blue, lit up by the sunlight which broke through the small opening to the grotte. Days spent like this simply did not need a Covid-free world, the boutiques and cafés of the centre-ville felt worlds away. It seemed at points ridiculous that all this existed under the same headline of Marseille.

For me, with the change in year came a change in coloc as I moved in with a French business school student I had met by chance in a local park – something we still both laugh at. To him I owe a lot, with a chaleur that he believed to be typical of Le Sud and not of his native Paris, he welcomed me into a great network of international students, all doing their exchanges in Marseille. It was in this bubble of international students that we all shared a love for Marseille, often speaking at great length about how fortunate we were to be in Marseille with all it had to offer despite restrictions. Numerous were the soirées meeting French students who had all been drawn to Marseille, praising it as the ideal spot to be a student. The afternoon version of this was in fact pétanque – a surprisingly popular get-together for students over some pastis. Admittedly, I took more of a liking to the pétanque than to the anise-flavoured speciality. It is also through friends that I heard about a local rugby club, SMUC, which had hosted the All Blacks back in 2006. This is possibly my takeaway story of Marseillais friendliness. During les vacances de février, I decided to go down to the club and see how I could get involved – keen to help out despite Covid cancelling the men’s rugby season. Within ten minutes I had met the head of the youth section; within twenty I had got to know a group of people and lunched; and within thirty, I was helping coaching their holiday camp for students during the half term break. I did this every day for a week and kids were thrilled at the gimmick of an English coach. Everything done at a slightly slower pace, with a shrug of the shoulders, and with a rippling chorus of « ça joue » and « allez, ça va ».

Yet as I said before, this was the first installment of a two-part visit to Marseille. I went back on holiday in mid-July to stay with friends still living out there. The bustling streets that I had left were now brimming with even more people during the day. Beneath the sun, the streets were now lined with those enjoying re-opened restaurants. It was all very familiar heading back, but ultimately still quite different. No more so than in the nightlife. The Vieux Port and Cours Ju, deserted when I left, now well and truly alive. An undying energy that stretched long into the early morning, Marseille finally moving au rythme I had heard so much about. Taken in by its beauty, its charm, and the bubbly friendliness of its people, c’était un plaisir de vous voir et de vous revoir, Marseille.

 


[1] https://www.tf1.fr/tmc/quotidien-avec-yann-barthes/videos/parce-que-marseille-ce-nest-pas-que-limage-negative-quon-sen-fait-71007425.html - I was sent this by a prof with whom I worked (a very good interview on Marseille’s reputation vs reality)