At the hotel in Marseille. Obviously not out living it up, because a) there’s not a lot of night life between Christmas and New Years, b) I don’t want to spend any more money while I can avoid it and c) I have to get up at dawn tomorrow to go to Barcelona. I’m actually rather nervous about Barcelona because my mother and I both speak only baby Spanish and no Catalan.
I like this hotel. I like the guy at reception who is from Burkina Faso. He reminds me quite a bit of Athanase. We’ve had interesting conversations that have swung from religion to East African politics to snow. He was a physicist in his home country.
Marseille is wonderful. It’s a vibrant soup of sensory overload. All senses. Those packed, narrow European streets with the fruit, shoe and plastic-Chinese-junk stalls spilling out into the streets. Soap shops you can smell from across the street– lavender, lily of the valley, orange flower. A profusion of chocolate shops and patisseries. Middle Eastern stores with huge, colourful sacks of spices and couscous, orange, red, green, brown, yellow– an artist or a perfumier could use these shops for a palette. Stalls of seafood on ice- sea urchins, shrimp, mussels, clams, dozens of sorts of fish, some of them fresher than fresh, still thrashing around in trays of water. Oysters, which you slurp out of the shell, like eating the ocean, salt and fish. So good with pastis, the strong-tasting yellow-gold anise liqueur of these parts.
The serenity of the churches, with their gold inlaid mosaic ceilings, normally filled with a scattered few of the old and desperate but temporarily filled to their former glory by Christmas. Hymns spilling out on speakers and the smell of incense filling the air this time.*
The blue of the sea, the forest of white boat masts, the caw of the gulls. The sun, which almost never leaves, and the bright washed out cast it gives the sandstone.
The feel of the wind on your face when the boat is going out.
The rough, craggy islands that dot the harbour a short boat ride out from the city. With the sandy soil, the cliffs, the rocks and the low-growing rosemary and other rock plants, you might think you’re in Arizona. You could spend hours here climbing up and down cliffs and boulders, exploring Second World War bunkers and finding endless hidden little beaches and coves where the clear blue water laps up.
Marseille is a busy port; it has been since long before the coming of Christianity. The basilica is called Notre Dame de la Garde–“garder” means to keep. On top of the basilica is a gold statue of the Virgin Mary, which glints in the sun. Notre Dame de la Garde. She’s visible from everywhere and watches over us all.