Marseilles by night, not at its greatest

A few days ago, I found myself stranded in Marseilles at night, after the bus I was supposed to take turned up full. Not a problem; I could always hop on a rented bike and make my way back to the train station. The streets were mostly empty of cars at that time, although lots of people were still leaving bars on foot. I couldn’t follow the traffic, and so I ended up fumbling a little to find where I was supposed to be riding, and that’s how (as I later discovered), I failed to notice the traffic light.

I rode about a hundred metres before a police car slowed down beside me. I didn’t realise they were stopping for me at first, and I just ignored them. It was only when the man on the passenger seat angrily shouted at me to stop that I realised there was a problem. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what it was.

‘What do you think I’m stopping you for?’ he shouted. ‘To look at your legs?’

He let me stand there completely puzzled for a couple of minutes before he deigned reveal that I had ridden straight through the red light – which I hadn’t seen, having come from the wrong side of the road. When it became obvious that I truly hadn’t seen it, he didn’t relent. I should have taken a taxi if I was in ‘that state’, he said. I was putting myself in danger, I deserved to be fined, and later at night when I took off my makeup (I wasn’t wearing any), I should really take the time to think about what I’d done. After a couple of minutes, I tried to cut him short by telling him that I had my walet with me and was ready to pay the fine, since I’d obviously made a mistake. That was not what he wanted; he told me one more time how irresponsible I was, and then drove on.

I then cycled all the way to the train station, pausing at every light (as I always do, at least when I see them) and watching other cyclists gleefully ride on every time the light turned red. I missed my bus by just a couple of minutes and had to wait for half an hour before I could finally go home.

The part that nnoyed me about this incident was not that this policeman stopped me. He was right to do so; I’d made an honest mistake, but it was still a mistake. I’m fine with the fact that he shouted, too, although I have absolutely no illusions about it – if I had been a man, I’m positive he would not have taken the risk of entering a shouting match. But what was the need to mention my legs? Or my (visibly non-existent) makeup? To imply that I was an irresponsible party girl who should take a taxi instead of riding home on her own? I’m quite certain that in this case, he would have done better to hand me a breathalyser. Instead I had to stand still and bow my head through five minutes of angry lecture that eventually made me miss my bus home.

I know that policemen are understaffed and that they put up with more aggressiveness than they should on a daily basis. The thing is, that’s the story of my life, too. I’m a teacher. I put up with bullshit all the time. Do I start shouting at students even when I don’t genuinely think they deserve punishment? No. I punish them when I need to and give them a friendly warning otherwise. And I certainly don’t humiliate them based on their gender.

I know that these people didn’t know about me. They don’t know that I’m one of few cyclists in the area who actually take the trouble of respecting traffic regulations, instead of acting like I’m some sort of cross between a pedestrian and a car and therefore I get a free pass everywhere. They don’t know I’ve grown up around here, and therefore I’m always careful whatever the lights look like, because I’ve seen so many drivers fail to heed them anyway. But still. I’m doing my best, all the time. One of the reasons I don’t want to drive is that someone has to use public transports, if we want to get rid of the dictature of cars one of these days. Very often, it’s a pain in the backside to wait for the bus or take a bike when it’s late at night and I’m tired, but I still do it. And I insist on going wherever I want at whatever hour I want precisely because I’m a woman and I’m tired to hearing that I shouldn’t be allowed to go out on my own because of my gender. And the one time I make a tiny mistake, what do I get? A humiliating dressing-down by strangers who call me a drunk bimbo and tell me I shouldn’t be allowed outside on my own, and who tell me I should shell out for a taxi, all because the city can’t be arsed to have enough fucking buses circulating at night.

 

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Rappers on the bus

Got stuck in traffic yesterday, so badly that it took us an hour and a half to extirpate ourselves from Marseilles. Fifteen minutes after the ride started, two blokes behind me started chatting each other up. Well, chatting each other up in a ‘bro’ sort of way, I mean: becoming friends, all the while carefully mentionning their love of pretty girls just in case there was any ambiguity, in a way that reminded me of what so many women do when getting acquainted with a man–mentioning The Boyfriend as often as possible in case someone accused them of sending mixed signals after the first 94827 mentions went unnoticed.

Funny how so many men sound the same when trying to get into someone’s good graces. ‘Chatting up’ often amounts to a long, very long sales pitch. What they do now. What they’ve done. What they like. What they are like. There are questions interspersed in the middle of course, most of the times (after all, most men are reasonably competent when it comes to social interaction), but they’re not the focus of conversation. What they’re really here for is try and get out as much information about themselves as they possibly can. That’s how I learned that both these young men were rappers, that one of them MC’d for a crew with a name in the form of a disreputable pun about a famous landmark in Aix, that they both were very proud of drinking like fishes, partying like there’s no tomorrow and shagging like rabbits (but only girls, remember), that one came from the Alps and was recently back from Paris where partying had wrung him dry, that they loved travelling, especially to faraway, exotic places, that they wrote very deep shit, man, that they knew the value of keeping calm and carrying on even in the direst and most exhausting circumstances like their bus being late, and that one of them was performing this very night. I also leaned their names and the name of their crew, which I subsequently googled because I had nothing better to do (I considered adding one of them on Facebook just for giggles, but I’m not that stalkerish). They talked quite loud and, entertaining as the conversation was, I considered politely asking them to shut the fuck up at some point because I’d had a long day too, when one of them exclaimed–

‘Look! Over there! A rainbow! Crap, it’s behind the building, you’re going to miss it. No, no, it’s back! Look!’

And that’s how they started talking about how cool rainbows were and comparing the best rainbows they had seen in their lives in the most impressive locations. They still had the same teenage world-weary tones, but they were talking about rainbows. Just like that, they went from annoying to endearing. I suppose I’ve been spending too much time around teenagers…

That Internet being the wonderful thing it is, here’s what the first one’s music sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLt5bJIz94

Marseilles

I arrived at the bus station after a rather crappy morning (even if I’ve got used to it, giving my students a thorough dressing-down is still not my thing), intent on enjoying a long peaceful week-end away from school. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman waiting for the bus with a cigar in his hand–carefully combed white hair, curled moustache, long dark jacket over a suit, shiny shoes, the very picture of old-school elegance. A rare sight at the bus station, and in many parts of this city as well.

As I walked by him, he started muttering to himself–

‘Fuck the son of a bitch, I’ve been waiting for five fucking minutes! Motherfucker!’

Marseilles…

Back to school

Summer is over: mornings and late evenings actually feel a little chilly now (lace-shawl-chilly, not jumper-chilly). Also, we’re back to work.

In the first week of school, students are, as a rule, uncharacteristically nice. So far I would be tempted to say that mine are abnormaly so. They are smiling, polite, they raise their hands before speaking, hardly ever speak out of turn, and with the exception of one particularly challenging group, they’ve been making faster progress than I’m used to. If it goes on like this, this year is going to feel like a holiday.

Marseilles is its usual stinky self. The smell of piss in the stairs leading to the bus station is a bit overpowering. At the same time, dirt, eviscerated rats crushed under passing cars and litter dotting the streets are such a normal part of life here that I struggle to imagine it as a clean city. I don’t mean I wouldn’t like it to be clean. ‘Gritty’ is not something I particularly value, and I’m certain Marseilles would manage to remain fascinating even if you could walk through its streets for half an hour without stepping into something nasty, being almost run over by a car or getting cat-called by someone with too much alcohol in his system.

So many things we haven’t tried. I avoid the bakery across from the bus station even if they make delicious, extremely cheap pizzas, and have since I tried eating at the counter and saw sparrows happily feeding off the pizza slices with their little feet firmly planted in their food (has no one ever told them it’s rude to put your feet on the table, I wonder?). Now, however, I’d rather see sparrows defiling my prospective pizza than no sparrows at all, as sparrows slowly disappear from our cities. Maybe we could install pizza counters in the streets with nesting boxes underneath, so sparrows will find shelter and food. I’d love to work in a city with sparrows and redstarts sharing terraces with humans at cafés, and gulls keeping to the port instead of coming to feed off food leftovers tossed on the street by people who don’t care what the city looks like. Although if gulls find themselves out of work cleaning off the streets, they could always be taught to swoop from the sky on people who let their dogs crap in random places and give them the scare of their life. Maybe we could also place buckets in strategic spots so that human waste can be processed for nitrogen fertiliser, instead of, well, going to waste (if people insist on viewing the city as a giant public toilet, why not make the most of it). We can always grow rosemary or mint nearby. As for the cat-calls, perhaps we could train actual cats to respond and come rub themselves frantically in the legs of anyone trying to annoy a woman in the public space, long enough to give the woman time to escape if she wants to (of course we’d have to build extensive cat shelters in every underground station, but I’d love to pet a cat while I wait for public transports).

Didn’t we say we were going to imagine solutions?

Last school day

Getting off the bus in Marseilles, very late for work, I heard voices call me from the other side of the street: ‘Madame! Madame!’ Turning around, I saw a group of students waving at me, the very same students I was supposed to be in class with at that moment. They were smiling and waving happily. I suppose I wasn’t such an appalling teacher to them, even though adjusting to high school was a massive challenge…

We exchanged news. I congratulated some of them on the documentaries they shot for their cinema class. We talked very little about the upcoming baccalauréat, which they will be thinking about soon enough. We didn’t mention the fact that all of us were supposed to be in class together; it was the last day of the school year after all. It made me smile to remember that the exact same thing happened to me during the last year of high school–I was taking a walk in the city during a history class, when I was greeted by none other that my history teacher, which triggered a very short moment of panic (‘Oh crap, he’s caught me skipping class–Wait a minute, what is he doing here?’). I left them to go to school, where, in a completely unsusprising turn, I spent the rest of the day in front of a computer, waiting for students who I suppose comfortably sat out Ramadan at home.

They’re right. It was much too warm to study anyway.

And sail into the sunset

Three weeks ago, my brother departed on schooner Sonate as part of a crew of five, for a round-the-world trip that may not bring them back until next year. They left from the Old Port of Marseilles, on a white-skied morning with just enough wind to flap in the sails. There were two hours of hesitation and near-stillness in the harbour as families and friends took coffee on the deck, the stocks of fuel were replenished and a hundred little details nobody could see except for the sailors were fixed. Then they navigated out of the harbour, motor growling, sails unfurling little by little until they glided past the levees. Then they took out their violins and accordions, and sang a goodbye song which said something about a harmonica, even though none of them had one. They sailed very close to us one last time, waving their hands. With that, they were gone.

There are few real goodbyes left today. Usually, you hug and kiss and almost walk backwards as you leave so as not to lose one precious second together, only to storm back through the door five minutes later because you forgot your coat, blow a hasty kiss and go. Or you follow people through a window pane when they go through security at the airport, feeling vaguely stupid as you look at each other in the eyes but can’t hear anything and wonder how long the awkwardness is going to last. As soon as you’re out of view, you exchange a couple of text messages, or skype each other as soon as an internet connection becomes available. It’s goodbye, but watered down.

As that ship grew smaller on the horizon and we grew further apart with every passing minute, we knew there would be no turning back, no forgotten mobile phone in the car. It’s not the first time I’ve hugged my brother goodbye. He’s left before–to Antarctica, to Norway–and I’ve left too, and we’ve ended on opposite sides of the globe quite a few times. One year will just barely be the longest time we’ve been without meeting. And yet, there will be no skyping out on the open sea. He’ll have no solid ground under his feet for a while. I trust the sea, and yet there’s something more poignant than I imagined about a ship putting wide golden waters between you and your brother.

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Before he sailed away, he came to visit my school and tell my students about his travels and his future work on sea life. He told them about young albatrosses dying of hunger after being unwittingly fed plastic scraps by their parents, about chemical pollution and the gigantic plastic maelstroms twirling at the center of the oceans. But what one of my students really wanted to know about was the whales.

‘What will you do if a whale crashes into your ship? Will you sink?’

‘Well, there are very few whales left today,’ my brother said. ‘It’s very unlikely. They also have a sonar to help them swim, so they won’t crash into us unless they have a big problem. If it does happen, we’ll sink. But then it would also mean fate is after us and we’re meant to die, so there’s no point worrying about it.’

I’m not sure this is what she expected to hear, but she was still all ears for the rest of the conference.

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A few days ago I dreamt of a river, frozen over and quite still under the snow. But when the current broke again, the ice went away one chunk after another, and under there in the deep, large shadows were revealed, monstrous, quiet catfish placidly weaving under the ice.

They swam away, in one slow swarm, huge slithering shapes too large to pay attention to us.

I hope the whales swim clear of my brother’s ship.

A new life

The thing about not blogging for a long time is that it becomes harder and harder to come back to your blog after a while, because there are so many things you want to say and you have no idea which one to say first. So as the saying goes, I’m just going to spit everything out on the carpet and let you sort it out. Ready?

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The Marseilles high school I now teach in is situated in an old building with no corridors, where every classroom opens directly on the playground. It is right next to the bus station, which is pleasant enough, because I already have an hour-long bus ride to get there. It also means we have to keep the windows closed in class because the noise soon becomes unbearable, which, in turns, means a few minutes of negociation with the students approximately every day. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, many students prefer to keep their coats in class and leave all the windows open, energy savings be damned. Go figure.

I’m not a novice teacher, but so far this job is the most intense I’ve had. Most of the students are really nice people, but they are not exactly the most organised I’ve had, either. When you try to break up an argument between two students in the middle of the class about one of them alledgedly tossing the other one’s pen on the ground on purpose, only to turn around and see that another student is doubled up in pain in a corner because he’s got up without your authorisation and managed to smash a sensitive part of his anatomy on a table corner in the process, you discover a whole new set of directions life can take you in. I’m glad I’ve ended up there. Exhausted, but lucky.

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There has been a Halloween party in my appartment building. I’ve finally decided I’m not that fond of Halloween. There’s an element of false conviviality that bothers me. We got a note pasted on the front door, saying ‘Remember to buy sweets for Halloween!’ without so much as a please or smiley face. If we chose to give out sweets, we’d have to buy individually wrapped ones so that parents won’t have to worry we’re evil child poisoners; we’d see the thildren for all of thirty seconds; and then if we were lucky, they’d forget about us instead of forming an opinion of us on the basis of whether we’ve been generous or stingy. I’ll pass, thanks. I’d love to have a celebration where we get to do something for the children in the neighbourhood, like a giant collective birthday party or something, but giving out industrial crap while parents will worry I might just be a danger to their children is not my idea of fun. There must be some much more interesting celebrations to import from abroad.

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And then there were the attacks.

My students were terrified. I don’t know if they still are. Being right next to a major train and bus station logically means that we’re next to the sort of place that could be targetted. I’m not scared, personally, and even if I felt a little uncomfortable when I learned that Daesh was demanding of their French followers that they withdraw their children from schools and murder the teachers, it didn’t last. First, the fact is that there have been as many aborted attacks as successful ones, and even the ones that were carried out were far less lethal than they could have been given the circumstances. Second, it’s no use being scared, I’m going to work anyway. I’m not leaving my students alone with maniacs.

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Winter is coming for good. There has been frost in the grass and everything. I had not waited to gather the olives from my dad’s garden, as I thought that it wouldn’t freeze until January anyway (apparently, olives are betst gathered after the first frost), but I might have after all. Today we gathered olives in my mum’s garden, to take to the mill and make oil. We don’t have that much practice gathering olives, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to climb up into the tree, the best way to shake the branches to make the olives fall, and how not to step on the cat in the process (he was incredibly excited with the whole operation, and ended up playing with the fallen olives and mewing happily). I wonder what the oil will taste like…

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It occured to me lately that one implication of the theory of parallel universes branching everytime a situation can have several possible outcomes is that in the end, we can’t die.

Our consciousness is one. If we hit a situation where we might very well die by accident and just as well survive, our consciousness will be erased in one universe and survive in the other. The universe where we die stops existing for us, but we still live on in the other ones. Consequently, by definition, we only exist in the universes where nothing fatal happened to us. Consequently, we will go on, forever, or at least until whatever limit nature has set past which human life cannot continue. By this theory, we should all live past one hundred and twenty or so. Other people may die around us. We, however, will live on in whichever universes we got the luckiest.

I’m just playing with thoughts, of course. I don’t actually believe this. At least I think I don’t, or I wouldn’t have much of a survival instinct left. Now I’ve thought of it, however, I still have to decide whether that’s incredibly optimistic or heart-breakingly tragic.

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What I do know is this: getting up at six every morning and getting on the bus at half past six is not fun at all, but at half past six in the morning, for a few weeks, Venus, Mars and Jupiter waited there together with the moon, almost perfectly aligned in the East, to give the early risers some courage. And that was beautiful.