Excursions d’été: Marseille

What comes to mind when you think of Marseille? Crime? In fact, in 2012, one third of all murders committed in France were in the city. Drugs? A short boat hop from North Africa means all the illegal hashish you might possibly want ends up in the streets of Marseille. A large poor population might be why thefts and vandalism are real problems.

Actually, it seemed to me that Marseille is the French city with the strongest New York City vibe. It’s an immigrant city of outsiders, hustlers and survivors, with a global cultural power. Iconic French films have been set there, such as “Fanny,” “Borsalino” and “The French Connection.” The city gave its name to the national anthem.

In the two days in June that I spent there with a friend, you couldn’t help but notice that compared to Nice it is a young, dynamic and vibrant city. It is noisy, grimy, covered in graffiti, and many of the grand 19th century buildings need a renovation, but it is a city of the future. A future very different from the past.

Marseille is an ancient city, founded by Greeks who were perhaps the first to see the site’s strategic advantage as a major port on the Mediterranean. They weren’t the last. Its economic fortunes rose and fell with regular sackings by invaders (including Nazis). Attacks of plague brought by sailors wiped out a large proportion of the population more than once. You can imagine that the descendants of inhabitants past are made of hardy, proud stuff.

One used to go to Marseille to eat bouillabaisse, and take the little boat to the Chateau d’If, the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Or, to walk the Corniche out of the city towards the brilliantly hued “calanques” of La Ciotat or Cassis, where the French Riviera begins.

There’s even more than all that to draw tourists today. (who were notably absent on our trip due to the pandemic). Architecture by Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma and Jean Nouvel modernize the 19th century cityscape. MuCem, a museum that was still closed “par nouvel ordre” of Covid-19 when we were there, is a draw in and of itself. North Africans have settled in the center and populate a large open air daily market dotted with inexpensive eateries offering Moroccan tagines, Tunisian briks and Algerian couscous.

Baker, Marseille

Some French refer to Marseille as “France’s first Arab city.” And that reveals another dimension to the place Marseille holds in the French mind today. As Europe diversifies, some see only problems. France needs the immigrant energy, in my opinion. By the way, those round loaves are great toasted, sprinkled with olive oil and a little oregano, topped with fresh creamy cheese, a la Marseillaise.

 

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Excursions d’été: L’Esterel

For a long while, we’ve wanted to visit L’Esterel, in the neighboring department of the Var,  westward along the Côte d’Azur. From the Promenade on most days one can see the outline of one of the massif’s biggest peaks jutting out in the distance, and it’s always called to us. We rented a car and took off to explore it for four days.

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It’s difficult to do it justice in photos. Plus, we had some cloudy skies. Nevertheless, we spent every dry, sunny (and windy) moment on a path high above the Mediterranean, alone except for the rare cyclist zooming by, enjoying the colorful contrasts of red rock and blue sea, the rustling of eucalyptus and cork oak tree leaves in the breeze, and the singing of ecstatic birds.

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Just outside the Esterel park, pushing northwards, are a dozen or so villages, worthy of the hour-long drive through lush hills of olive trees and pine forest. In the towns, plane trees shade the sidewalks where fountains faintly gurgle, locals read their newspapers at café tables and neighbors hobnob.  A relaxing desultory air hands over it all and I get deliciously sleepy.

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Seillans, Fayence, Bagnol-en-Forêt are not forgotten and dying towns. They’ve become bolt holes for second-home owners who want to preserve the landscape and traditional character of the area, while also having access to natural wine and great olive oil.

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Notably, we did not see any tourists. So the timing looks good for a further exploration of the area in early July. No airports involved, zero crowds and open air markets for food to keep things safe, and that sleepiness can be indulged in a nap locally.

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Les Bestioles

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The “déconfinement” continues. Restaurants and cafes will open June 2nd. The retailer streets are choked with shoppers. Parks are filling up with walkers and picnickers.

My mind is on something else. The other day, inside the apartment, I spotted the first mosquito of the season. A few hours later, a small welt on the inside of my right ankle started to itch madly. The next day, my fingernails were digging at a much larger welt between my neck and left shoulder. Up and down, up and down, scratch, scratch.

Mosquitoes love me. If I am in a crowd, everyone else is safe from bites as I’ll attract them all. I detest the critters, and, for that matter, all bugs.

But the “moustiques” pose more than just a nuisance here on the French Riviera. We are one of the many regions in France on red alert for tiger mosquitoes. They are responsible for the small but growing number of cases in France of dengue fever and chikungunya, two deadly tropical diseases.

The heating planet is to blame, so this situation is unlikely to improve. In fact, by 2030, all of France is expected to be plagued by the large, striped insect. By then, the tiger mosquito won’t be the only warmer earth problem, but for now I am on vigilant guard against them.

There are other insects to ward off during this season, of course. Flies, ants, hornets, strange little things with wings that I can’t name. In some buildings, cockroaches. Let’s not talk about vermin.

Outside of the hot months of May through October, our tall French windows open to a lovely view over a garden. In early spring, they are open all day for the breeze and bird song. Starting now, the watered rose bushes, palm trees and linden plants become dangerous breeding grounds.

From now until the first drop in temperatures, long after the stunning heat waves of summer, those windows will remain shut. Soon, the air conditioning will be on — indispensable during a Nice summer. Sadly, we will probably not be going to mosquito-free Brittany this year due to coronavirus reasons (who wants to take a plane anywhere?) but we might take a road trip to the French Alps and escape all that for a short while.

That all depends. So far, we have been told we are free to travel within France for July and August. But anything could happen, couldn’t it?

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Posted in climate, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Tiger mosquitoes | 15 Comments

Le déconfinement

window at home

window, at home

The sea was shining brilliantly early this morning when I ventured down for a look. Under normal circumstances, there would be swimmers in the water, but, in this seventh week of confinement, the sea remained unperturbed. I crossed the street to the beach side, avoiding the forbidden area of the Promenade itself, and drank in the glorious unbroken sight. By the official arrival of summer, the joggers, walkers and circus acts certainly will be back. Already, a few brazen scofflaws were biking or walking, far out of sight of the police.

It’s summery hot outside. Oh yes, it will be punishingly hotter before long, but shorts, sandals and sunblock, for whatever part of your skin is not covered by a mask, are de rigeur already. Thoughts turn to summer travel, but the Interior Minister has advised everyone not to make reservations, at least not outside France.

From May 11 to June 2, the first déconfinement period begins, following the downward slide in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and fatalities. We will be allowed to travel 100 kilometers without the “attestation de déplacement” which means long walks will again be possible. Since our department of the Alpes-Maritime has just been designated a green zone, the safest of the three colored categories, the parks should re-open too. Soon, we’ll be walking regularly to our local favorite, the Estienne  d’Orves hilltop park filled with ancient olive trees and populated with wild boar.

School will resume, on a parental volunteer basis. We’ll see how successful that turns out to be. The two mothers with small children who I have spoken with have told me they will not risk their children returning for the rest of the school year. Elsewhere in France, mayors are asking for a delay.

Retail stores, hair salons, dry cleaners, small museums but not restaurants, cafes or cinemas, will open under restrictions guiding their operations. The government has published 48 different guides, covering as many professions, outlining their particular safety protocols for staff and visitors. I assume that will mean just a few people entering at a time, personnel wearing masks, plexiglass barriers at the checkout, hand cleansing gel dispensers, as is the case at grocery stores at present. The open-air markets will resume too, a welcome sign of life renewed.

The Promenade, for now, will remain off-limits.

Masks are appearing in pharmacies and grocery stores and selling out. We have a small stash, to save until the next lockdown. I’d say about half the people outside are wearing them, sometimes pulled down over their chins to expose their vulnerable mouths and noses. That makes it easier to smoke, though.

The government has extended the health state of emergency through July 24, meaning if there is a Covid-19 uptick after déconfinement a quarantine can be slapped back on quickly. Because it seems everyone believes there will be another one.

window, at home

window, at home

 

Posted in confinement, Coronavirus, COVID-19, déconfinement, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, quarantine | 10 Comments

Point de Situation (update)

 

Still life, days of confinement, Covid-19

Days of confinement, Covid-19, 2020

Today’s menu item was chicken stroganoff. It’s never been a favorite, and I associate it with cheap meals cooked up in university housing, but I had leftover sour cream from my previous, more typical household menu item, a Persian reshteh, or bean stew.

I have been doing more cooking than usual during this lockdown, and apparently I am not alone. Social media is full of people sharing their quarantine meals, including some very creative dishes rustled up with pantry basics. I plan mine depending on my appetite and mood, seeing as how grocery stores are open and I can get most of what I want in my local marché. Happily, Russian, Armenian and Persian grocery stores are also a short distance away, within the one kilometer radius of home that I am allowed to wander once a day.

Baking is way up. Flour is actually difficult to find. I needed two tablespoons today, and was lucky to find one of two small sacks of it on a shelf. The rest of my supply will be donated to our friend Christopher, who generously has been sharing his moist little banana cakes with us.

Outside of the welcome diversion cooking provides, I am pretty busy and haven’t felt cooped up. My morning one-hour walk in the sun is a “can’t miss” and gives me a  lift for the rest of the day. Under the one-kilometer radius rule, I can walk to the sea, scan the coast to soak up the view, before winding my way back home with intermittent stops for groceries as needed. Sometimes I arrange with a friend to meet on a corner for a non-virtual sighting, and we wave to each other.

I do stretching exercises or Qi Gong, I shoot still lifes in a tiny corner of the apartment, I hold virtual coffee and aperitif get-togethers. Opera, theater, ballet, concerts, documentaries, vintage French films are all available for free on the Internet during this period, and I’ve enjoyed my share. Often there’s a mid-afternoon nap. Evenings are for streaming. In-between, I am reading that old chestnut, Albert Camus’ “La Peste,” or, “The Plague.”

We always wear home-made masks and cotton gloves when we go out. The former are trashed and the latter are washed upon re-entry.  Now the French government is mailing fabric for masks to every household within the next ten days, after which wearing one will be obligatory. Finally. Pharmacies are free to renew old prescriptions, to keep people away from doctors’ offices. Telemedicine has arrived in force.

Meanwhile, restrictions tighten due to the flagrant flouting of existing ones by the assholes among us. Permission to take our daily exercise is now confined to 8-12noon and 6-8pm. More areas of the city are closed off to walkers. Airbnb is forbidden to operate during this period. Police at freeway entrances to the city stop people attempting to move into their second homes now that the warm weather has arrived.

The lockdown has been extended, to which date I am not even sure anymore. Is it April 15, with a likely extension again to April 30? Whenever. I don’t expect we’ll be free to roam until sometime in June. Regardless, there is no doubt in my mind that the lockdown is indispensable to this moment.

Officially, more than 10,000 people in France have died from Covid-19 and there have been more than 100,000 cases. The infection rate has not peaked yet, but is expected to in the next two weeks. One doctor has committed suicide (two medical personnel have in Italy, one in Germany).

France is officially in economic recession. What comes next could make this early period of confinement look like a party.

Ah, yes, the warm weather I referred to earlier. David broke out his shorts today and I’m wearing sandals inside. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

 

Posted in Coronavirus, COVID-19, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France | 11 Comments