The Freelance Mentalists.
Monday, August 11, 2008
  Marseille Express, Denver spur
m. le bOB Flaneur writes:

greetings, Fellow Earthlings!

Just two weeks ago I myself surfaced here:

The 6-hour trip from Brussels on the "Train of Great Speed" passes
through the God-Part of Lion and X-in-the-Province (I'm translating
here for your convenience) before it reaches its final destination.

As cities go, Marseille is delightfully BRUTAL: in terms of port-town
grunginess, parts are way beyond Rotterdam and Antwerp, falling
somewhere between Thessaloniki and the west side docks of Manhattan.
Even the women speak French with a kind of tough-guy accent. When I'd
mentioned to various people that I'd be going to Marseille, a couple
of them reacted as though I'd said I was going to vacation in Newark.
Now I know why.

The guidebooks and newspapers and travel websites call it "France's
most cosmopolitan city". The adjective is a code-word, however: Paris
is obviously the most cosmopolitan. What Marseille is, is the most
racially integrated. On the one hand, some tell me that the North
Africans there are mostly Algerians (unlike Brussels, where most of
the North Africans are Moroccan Berbers which, strictly speaking, even
makes them non-Arabs). On the other hand, I've also heard and surmised
that in Marseille they seem to have come from all over -- Algeria,
Morocco, Tunisia, also Egypt, and also some Lebanese (who no doubt
feel some affinity, since the place was supposedly first settled by
the Phoenicians 2600 years ago) -- basically, everywhere around the
Mediterranean where the French had some kind of colonial presence.

But mention must be made of the Greeks in all this, since they were
the ones responsible for the expansion from a trading post to an
actual port and the actual planning of the city: this accounts for
the presence of Greek surnames among families in Marseille to this
day, some traceable back to the original settlers, and it also
accounts for my feeling uncanny similarities between some of the
dodgier hillside neighborhoods in Marseille and the working-class
residential quarters up the hill from the port in Thessaloniki.

Since the Arabs began arriving not long after World War II, even
before Algerian independence, most of those now in Marseille are
totally assimilated -- which in France also means impeccably groomed
and dressed. It's somewhat startling, like the Arab version of being
in a Texas town where half the population looks like Alberto Gonzalez
and Jennifer Lopez.

Also, rather fewer Africans in Marseille than I expected. In Brussels
they're mostly Congolese, whereas I got a sense that in Marseille most
come from Senegal.

By the morning of Day 2, I already caught on to the HUGE number of
mixed-race couples: Arabs with Europeans, Europeans with Blacks, Arabs
with Blacks. It got to a point where I would see an ethnically mixed
couple with a stroller approaching and I'd try to guess what their kid
would look like. Ergo, the ethnic mix that Marseille is currently
undergoing must be like that of New Orleans and the Caribbean two
centuries ago.

The food is a chapter unto itself. It lived up to one's expectations
of being in France, but you do have to seek out the right stuff. I
spent a huge part of Sunday afternoon and part of Sunday evening
wandering (and lounging) around the Cours Julien neighborhood
highlighted in the NYTimes article, and damn if I could find a place
that was open on a Sunday, not closed for vacation, with a cook on the

I had bouilliabaise twice. The first encounter was in a tourist-trap
restaurant where what they served up bore as much resemblance to the
real thing as a platinum-wigged transvestite hooker does to Marilyn
Monroe. The second time I dropped by a place patronized by locals one
generation older than me. The bleached-blonde MILF Arab waitress
cheerfully read the description of the joint in my copy of the Lonely
Planet, yelled out the gist of it to the cook in back, who approved,
and then in order to recommend other places for bouilliabaise she
quickly marked at least 8 other addresses in the gastronomical section
of my guidebook. And if what they treated me to was merely their
everyday run-of-the-mill offering, I'd love to return some evening
with three other people and order up a big batch with at least 7
varieties of fish and shellfish.

HUGE percentage of assimilated-Arab staff in Marseille restaurants of
all classes. It's funny to walk into a place, inquire as to the plat
du jour, and have a flawlessly clad, steamy-sexy Arab woman make
unfaltering eye contact with you and enumerate the specials of the day
and their most notable ingredients in perfectly enunciated French and
a tone of steely utter seriousness. When it comes to food in France,
there's no room for kidding around.

As tourists in other places, the French have acquired a pretty bad
rep. I recently saw an article reporting the results of a French-run
poll for some travel publication, and they were the most consistently
disliked by other countries when they're tourists there. HOWEVER: in
the course of a couple days, I figured out why:

After my experiences in Central and Eastern Europe, and the sullen,
indolent indifference usually demonstrated by Belgian service
personnel, in Marseille I was amazed. The sudden shift in diet
(morning espresso instead of tea, very few dairy products, etc)
necessitated some unscheduled trips to the loo, and on several
occasions people let me use their WC even when it was clear that I
wasn't going to be a paying customer. (Of course, using a public
toilet in France is an adventure in itself, but never mind.) I walked
into a pharmacy because I needed to check a phone number & address,
and the woman behind the counter retrieved their phone directory from
the back with no complaint -- whereas in other countries, the staff
would huffily claim that they don't have one and send you on your way.

And therefore, when they go abroad, the French probably (quite
reasonably) expect service personnel to be equally accommodating and

If you're ever there, pray that it's not a summer day when the fog
accumulated overnight just hangs over the city: worse than mere
mugginess, it's essentially a fetid, airborne mix of mildew and algae.
Every city in Europe has its characteristic odor that's at its worst
in the summer; Marseille's is like a tropical shower stall or hammam
that hasn't been cleaned for three weeks. But when it does clear, the
sea air is most salubrious. You can get a sense of all the balmy
gemutlichkeit by having a look here:

And in conclusion, some literary notes:

I wish to set the record straight: recently, when I identified various
influences on my GASTRONOMICAL HAIKU and cited GEORGES BATAILLE, I did
*not* have in mind the early 20th-century
surrealist-socialist-pervert, but rather the well-known contemporary
traiteur in Marseille who is mentioned on these webpages, par exemple:

On my next trip to Marseille, I will be going with the stated purpose
of researching a potential remix-remake-remodel of this story:

Finally, if any French Symbolist poet were to ever try to claim that
Marseille is a great place to die, the guy wouldn't have a leg to
stand on. ;)

Mark Sinker respondez:
I *love* Marseille -- it's the most exciting city I've ever been in
(admittedly I was travelling with the most exciting woman I know, back when
she wasn't safely coupled up with a er er very sweet young fellow boo bah).
You can feel the crackle of 2500 years of negotiating the multi-cultural
shove and pushback, and the physical geography reflect it: it's a big bowl
of a place, the twoerblocks marching off up the semi-distant mountains, with
knobs of volcanic rock punching up through the plain, every single on built
on for centuries, AND the whole lot riddled beneath with a crumbling
rats-maze of catacombs. Vick tried to by a house there -- the first someone
said to her, "This is house is TAKEN" very meaninfully (meaning gangsters
were kindly letting her know she should look elsewhere); the first the town
surveyor said "Well, it's a lovely house, but it could fall thorugh the
crust of this rise into the underground Roman ruins AT ANY MINUTE, so I
can't approve the pruchase)
. Frank Kogan adds (in response to M. Le F.'s PS:
I thought of you when I looked at the NYTimes site this morning and saw
this: )

"Be grateful that about the only species not represented in the form of
taxidermy on the walls (or the menu) of Buckhorn Exchange, billed as Denver's
oldest restaurant, is the donkey (1000 Osage Street; 303-534-9505; Here, steak can be ordered by the pound, about
$45 per."

My friend Mara works there! (But I've never been to the place, my weekly
food budget itself being about $45.)

As the article itself demonstrates, tourist offerings in the city are pretty
slim. Most tourists who come through here are on their way to the Rockies.
Good zoo and good botanical gardens, however. And the baseball stadium is
thought of highly, though I've never been in it.

Also, of the four cities I've lived in (Rome, New York, and San Francisco
being the other three), Denver is by far the least integrated.

I read a NY Times article six months or so ago about ethnic relations in
Marseille, the thesis of the article being that civic leaders there make
ethnic understanding and peace a high priority, and have been by and large



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