On the bus, in mid-afternoon, two men in their early twenties:

‘A hundred thousand? Man, it won’t last. You have that money in your pocket, you spend it, that’s just how it works. It’s not so much. I knew this guy, he ended up with two hundred thousand, they were gone in a month. Partying, cars… You just have to spend it.’ (don’t know if they were Narcos fans or real drug dealers. I’d guess the former)


Another bus, righteous-looking old lady blurting out to her neighbour, in the middle of nowhere:

‘I don’t understand why there aren’t more people who commit suicide!’


In class (I heard whispers while I was talking and stopped for a second, the words rang loud and clear in the silence):

‘I tell you, he’s not circumcised!’


In the street at night, walking back home, a man on his phone:

‘I wouldn’t lie to you. Who do you think I am? I’m not like that. I don’t lie. (pause) Yeah, well, to the cops, yes, I lie. In court, all right, I lie. But not when it’s important. Not to you.’


In class again; I was asking them for examples of stereotypes and one of them had just given me ‘Black people like chicken’:

‘Aw, that’s not a stereotype. Chicken is SO good. Oh my god. The thighs? They’re so, so good. Crap, I’m hungry.’


The bus again, a couple of very proper old ladies, disapprovingly watching a group of shrieking teenage girls on the pavement:

‘Girls today! They’re louder than boys. It’s incredible. You know they even go after boys these days? Boys don’t go after them, they don’t!’

(fifty years after the sexual revolution… glad they finally caught up)


Good deeds

A now-familiar sight in front of the train station: volunteers hand out foodstuffs to a crowd, queuing in the morning chill on Saturday mornings, on the square between the stairs leading to the station and the walls of my school. On week days, it’s people coming out of the bus, dressed for work, getting started with their day as the sun finishes to rise. But on Saturday, real business starts.

Behind the crowd, there are usually two or three people standing with their hands in their pockets, and a display full of copies of The Watchtower and booklets about the real message of the Bible. They don’t do much. They don’t annoy passers-by. They just stand there, spending their free time waiting for people who might be ready to hear the message of their faith, while others spend their free time giving out bread and tins of food.

I can’t help being a little uncomfortable every time I see them. I hear religion is about being good. It’s very strange to see people who care enough about that to spend their early mornings talking about God with strangers, but who still stand by with their hands in their pockets while others take care of giving basic necessities to those who need them. You’d think there’s a great opportunity to be virtuous waiting right in front of them. Is it so much more important to give religious booklets to strangers?

Obviously, I’m in no place to judge. I don’t spend my mornings there myself, although I do try to make myself useful in other ways, when I can. I suppose religion merely confuses me. Do people really think so differently when they’ve made a place for God in their head? I’m certain there’s a very good explanation for all those things I don’t understand.

Still, this is Marseilles. There are so many things here that seem more urgent than whether people believe in God.

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 wallet 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 annoyed 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.


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


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!’


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.