Memories of Marseilles, Part Deux

We stopped first at our hotel, where coffee stains on sheets (or what we hoped were coffee stains) were commonplace and where the cleaning staff didn’t care. Then we were off to the visitor’s bureau and up the hill to the Abbaye. The staleness of that ancient house of worship and its tombs was a cool respite from the high July sun. From there, we trudged ever upward into the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde, the most unabashedly gaudy piece of architecture I had ever witnessed. Its steeple was the virgin and child, in gold.

By then it was time for dinner, always my favorite time of day. We settled on that waterside café with the prix-fixe special, and were less than enchanted when the waiter opened our bottle of wine with a series of grunts and tugs between his thighs. After the rubbery calamari had been ingested, my husband asked the sidewalk accordion player who was thrumming away behind us to play “Happy Birthday,” which would have been nice, had his song not been followed up with no less than four gypsies and assorted street hustlers trying to sell us a product line ranging from roses to cigarette lighters. Eventually, our waiter proved his limited worth by demanding that they leave his establishment alone so his patrons could enjoy a good meal. I’m paraphrasing, here. It’s funnier that way.

In Marseilles, only the moonlight is soft in all the right places. Darkness falls on dirty streets and lonely cafes, while a pale yellow glow shines on the virgin and her son before shimmying low across the ripples of the bay. That night, I sat with my new husband on the old stone edge of the water, feet dangling and my handbag protected by my armpit. The breeze stirred the heat of the Mediterranean air that was all black and golden before us. It is easy to remember the bad parts, of course, but in Marseilles it is almost impossible to forget midnight—a black slate, not clean, but completely open to possibility.

View from the old stone edge of the water, Marseilles, July 2004
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6:58 AM  

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