Why Marseille and Why Blog?


As I write, Air France Flight 83 is rolling in line towards take-off.  Now the plane turns onto its final path, the engine roars as it accelerates and lifts off.  We are flying from San Francisco to Paris and then immediately on to Marseille.

My wife Peggy and I decided it was “time for an adventure.” Last January, brother  Larry – a warm guy everyone wanted to be around and whom I loved without hesitation – lost a brave battle for his life. Our experiences keep reminding us what we prefer to forget:  life is fragile and fleeting. Two presidential terms ago we had lived in Montpellier, France for two years and came home the day before George W. Bush took his first oath of office. Eight years later With a new President and new hope, we felt it was time again to explore and live somewhere else for a year.

But where?  Two favorites emerged:  Montreal in order to be close to my family there and closer to our daughter Johanna in Brooklyn and our most persistent travel destination, France. We listed our home online for an exchange, but despite inquiries here and there nothing solid jumped out at us.

So how did a middle-aged (60 and 61) American married couple end up renting a furnished apartment in the centre ville (city center) of Marseille for nine months?

Our previous sojourn in France was overwhelming positive, making the choice unfair to Montreal. We speak the language, respect the culture and the people, admire the varied beauty of the countryside, and appreciate the sensuality of the cuisine and wine. So how can France be an adventure for us?  The answer:  while Montpellier felt like home, Marseille would not. Arriving in a new city and working to create some sort of life in a place where you don’t know anyone would be adventure-enough for us.  (For others, I can certainly understand if you believe this is rather tame adventure!)

But why Marseille? We asked for the recommendations of friends. Knowing we wanted a larger non-Parisian city, French friends recommended Grenoble, Toulouse, Lyons and other cities.  Then friends from Montpellier emphatically recommended Marseille, saying it was the first and only place in France to which they would move in a heartbeat!

But why Marseille? After all, many people both French and American seem to think of it as a bawdy, even dangerous port city. Everyone has seen and formed opinions from “The French Connection.” We were directly warned against it!

In this age of American fear of Muslims and French North African immigrant unrest, why Marseille?

Peggy the librarian began to do some research. She learned that France and the European Union were investing in Marseille heavily in advance of 2013 when Marseille will represent France as the European Capital of Culture. She learned that the unrest in the North African immigrant communities in many French cities did not happen in Marseille. Both of us already had come to appreciate in Montpellier many aspects of Arab culture – the food, music, design sensibility and the kindness and generosity of the few Algerian immigrants we got to know.  However, this was all before September 11, 2001 and the American fear of Muslims continues strong eight years later.

Intrigued, we came to believe that the large immigrant population was a strong selling point for Marseille. Not only could we enjoy a vibrant Mediterranean French culture, but at the same time we could try to understand Arab culture better. Marseille’s other advantages were clear: fabulous weather, endless hiking opportunities, nearby proximity to friends in Montpellier and the glories of Languedoc.  Plus, sailings from Marseille directly to Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Marseille is not far from the Rhone Valley, the French Alps, Nice, and Italy — all enticements to us.

Why Marseille? Perhaps two Americans living in Marseille will be more unusual and will stand out more than in other more visited places, giving us more opportunities for contact.  

Another question: why blog? Perhaps readers might want to learn about the “other” France. Not the quaint village perched-on-a-hill France, but the France of diversity, of activist government, of solidarity of a sort that is different from the US.  Perhaps readers would like to learn about a French city striving to take the old and make it new and better while it remains old. (Did you know that Marseille, founded in 600 BCE by the Greeks, is older than Paris?) And as we experience Marseille and the region, so will you.

I hope to avoid writing about the good life in the South of France or show any hint of self-congratulation because I am lucky enough to live here.  Both you the reader and I don’t have time for that!


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8 Responses to “Why Marseille and Why Blog?”

  1. sue fink Says:

    I so admire what you are doing and will want to keep up. I am studying French daily and watch the TV cinq monde to get more fluent. I will come for a short while next summerbut who knows maybe you will inspire more! Love and great adventures, Sue Fink

  2. Genevieve Says:

    Je suis très jalouse! Amusez-vous bien.

  3. Lee Phillps Says:

    I love the story about talking to the guy in the cafe. I can almost smell the rain coming down. REALLY makes me miss Europe!

  4. Daniel Says:

    Ann from Sonoma sent your blog to Ed from SF and he sent it onto me. I have enjoyed the first days of your blog and look forward to the next 8 and a half months.
    We too are a Bay Area Family (Oakland) that have sought adventure in France. We tumbled upon the Lot, but are now seriously considering your old home of Montpellier…and the world turns. But why didn’t you return to Montpellier?

  5. Rafee Says:

    I really love the city of Marseille, I myself have visited may of times and at 30 living in Washington DC I find myself trying to find away to move to Marseille. I however am having a hard time doing so; I will keep looking though.

  6. Jeff Dielle Says:

    Rudy and Peggy, what an exciting adventure.

  7. Steph Brennan Says:

    I would just like to thank you so much for this blog. I am an Irish University student studying French among other subjects, but I confess French is a subject I have never been entirely confident in. I have to complete a semester in Aix near Marseille next year and I’ve been terrified until I read this blog! Not so much of living abroad as I have done before, more so actually passing my exams through a different language. Even though the blog naturally didn’t cover this, I am now more excited at the prospect of living in such a diverse and exciting city rather than breaking down periodically into tears as before! Of course this is no guarantee I’ll be an academic success but I’m learning now to relish the prospects of an adventure…That’s what life is I guess! Thanks!

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