Having never been to Marseilles before, all I know about it is what I’ve gleaned from The French Connection, which I’ll admit isn’t much of a starting point.
Indy and Scarlett are bone-tired from our early-morning train trip from Brianny, dragging their feet, always three steps behind Greg and me as we roll our suitcases through the glass-and-concrete train station, which is actually both (marginally) cleaner and less seedy than I’d been led, cinematically, to expect—and with no obvious gun-toting drug dealers or strung-out hookers in sight, which is a bonus.
And so my very first impressions of Marseilles will always remain of what it actually isn’t. And as it turns out, it isn’t a lot of things.
Scarlett finally stops in her tracks. “No more walking!” she wails and throws herself face-down on the ground.
I double back and pick her up quickly, lest she contract anything nasty from the grimy tiled floor, and balance her precariously on my hip. So encumbered, together we lumber downstairs to the taxi stand, me cajoling Indy—who’s now begging Greg, of course, for a lift—the whole way.
From the taxi window, rolling through the windy streets where litter blows down the sidwalk, you can get a pretty good look at what else Marseilles isn’t.
For example, it isn’t Paris, the only French city where I’ve ever lived. There the streets are grandiose. Marseilles’s streets are, I hate to say it, plainer, narrower, a little ugly even, having been reconstructed in the 1950s after the retreating Nazis blew up most of the town. (It was high times for concrete and stucco.) And Paris is all gray and white. Somber colors, for sure, but when the sun is shining, those old stone buildings glow as if they were lit up from within, wrapped in lacy ironwork; and in the mist of a cold, wet winter, they are positively majestic. Marseilles’s buildings are all chalk-toned pastels, pale and bleached. The trees lin- ing the sidewalks are bare. We pass a bus on the road and our driver points to a grainy picture of Barack Obama plastered on its side, already looking confident and presidential on the cover of the weekly L’Express, though the election is still months away. The driver grins in the rearview mirror, flashing me a thumbs-up, the international symbol of “We like this guy.” “He’s going to win, yes?” he asks.
“We hope,” I say, but without my usual enthusiasm. Drab Marseilles just isn’t stoking my optimism at the moment.
The city isn’t the opulent, fleshy Côte d’Azur of my previous imaginings, either. For the most part, the women I see shuffling down the streets look nothing at all like Brigitte Bardot. They’re all older. Grandmotherly types in black skirts wearing flimsy plastic shoes, carrying food in colorful plastic shopping bags. I elbow Greg, dozing with Scarlett on his lap. “No bikinis,” I observe wryly.
“It’s January,” he retorts, yawning. But then looks around at the grandmothers and adds, “Thank God.”
Our travels have officially begun.
On our way to the hotel the taxi drives through Marseilles’s commercial port, swarmed with ferries and cargo ships, but it isn’t as imposing or impressive as the waterfront I remember in Genoa, another old Mediterranean city. And then we’re passing through the old town, the Vieux Port, which isn’t as crowded with wizened fishermen selling their morning catch as I’d heard it would be, either. There are just a few scrappy-looking boats, a few tourists taking pictures. “What time is it?” I ask, and Greg checks his watch. “Nine,” he answers. We’ve been on the road from Brianny for five hours—an hour to drive to the station in Montbard, four more hours on the train—and away from San Diego for seven days.
Just past the Vieux Port we finally reach the coastline, and it isn’t the string of soft, white beaches or sublime cliffs that I’d imagined, either.
And now I am officially starting to freak out.
It’s true that I have a habit of great, some might say impossible, expectations, but frankly, I have a lot riding on this trip. Because we’re not just here to buy a car, though that’s the reason we’re in Marseilles. We’re here because this is stop number one on a journey intended to save our marriage. We are recuperating from a truly awful, horrible year, and from what I think can fairly and empirically be called a betrayal. Besides some five hundred pounds in suitcases and a behemoth crate bearing Doobie, the family dog, we arrived in France a week earlier with a lot of baggage: several years’ worth of bad, marriage-toxifying relationship habits to unlearn, some wounds to lick, and two small kids who are still a little gun-shy from a year in which the big, bad d-word—divorce—has sadly been aired frequently and volubly.
But how we’re going to fix things, exactly, well . . . actually . . . I still have no idea.
But a beautiful setting would surely help, right?
So, no pressure or anything.
The taxi zips along the corniche road next to squat, narrow buildings constructed right up on the cliff’s edge, housing dive shops and pizza parlors buzzing with teenage boys. And as we fly past I can just barely make out glimmers of turquoise from the water beyond.
As we get closer to the hotel, the sidewalks are thick with strolling pedestrians: more grandmothers, the teenage boys, an awful lot of small children weaving expertly through the dense crowd on kick scooters. But amazingly, no one stands still and gawks, slack-jawed, the way I want to when there’s finally a pause in the buildings and a low sea wall and before me spreads the full beauty of the clandestine sea.
It turns out to be stunning after all.
I hadn’t even realized I was holding my breath, but when I see the water it all comes rushing out in a great big billowing sigh of relief.
Our car connection—the eighty-one-year-old grandmother of a friend of Marc and Sophie’s—has made us a reservation at the Hôtel le Rhul, directly across the street from the much more expensive and much more famous Petit Nice. The Nice is a modern whitewashed wedding cake right on the rocky calanque, replete with a swimming pool and on-site babysitters and a Michelin three-star restaurant and a coiffeuse. The Rhul looks like a sea captain’s turreted, balconied fantasy, especially on the inside.
In the interest of economy we are all sharing one room, and the kids, as kids will when faced with a clean hotel room, immediately jump up and down on the neatly made beds, strewing pillows and blankets willy-nilly, while I scoot our luggage into the closet. For me, I’m ready—more than ready—to touch the water. If in the taxi, my exhale was one of relief, the very next inhale was like a rush of nitrous oxide, euphoric but disorienting. I am a San Diego girl and the water, I hope, will bring everything back to normal. Considering our mission, it may even be like a baptism. Rebirth. “Okay, let’s go,” I say, ready to dash back out the door again.
But Greg, as Greg will when faced with a plethora of leaflets, is taking his time. “Just a second,” he says, happily making piles on the rumpled bed of the maps and literature requisitioned from the Algerian ladies downstairs. “Let’s get settled in first. No need to rush, right?” He rifles through the pamphets. Boat tour information: check. Map of the metro system: check. Sensing no immediate departure, the kids keep right on jumping—it looks like we’ve lived in this room for days already—so I clear my throat a few times until I finally break the leaflets’ potent spell over him.
“What?” he looks up, God love him, apparently not even noticing that Indy and Scarlett are now practically kicking down the hotel room door. It is covered in thick black skid marks from the bottoms of their shoes. Manic energy floods the room. Doobie cowers between my legs, ears flattened.
“Dad, let’s go-o-o!” Indiana whines.
“I’m ready!” I say. I grab Scarlett before she can aim another kick at the door, hoist her to my hip, and sling my purse over my other shoulder, jangling the hotel room keys enticingly.
“Oh, okay,” Greg says. “Just a second.” He digs through a suitcase, muttering, “Now, where’s Doobie’s leash?”
Lord, it seems as if it takes an eternity until he’s found it, snapped it on, and led us down the stairs and across the busy street, dodging whizzing buses and speeding scooters, and alongside the Nice to a stairway leading directly to the sea.
Scarlett flies from my arms as soon as we reach the bottom. “Let’s go!” Indiana shouts joyfully, grabbing her hand, and together they rush toward the waves that slap against the sun-bleached rocks. A moment later he doubles back and starts shedding layers of jacket, sweater, and sweatshirt, like a little Swede rejoicing on the first day of summer. “It’s hot here!” he announces in happy amazement. A pile of clothing—my own sweater included—grows quickly at my feet where I sit on a rock watching Greg skip rocks for Scarlett while Indy runs around in his T-shirt, slashing at imaginary ninjas with his plastic sword.
Slowly the knot between my shoulder blades relaxes as my fragmented, fragile calm resumes form.
During our week in Brianny, I had been so bombarded by satisfy- ing everyone’s immediate needs that I never let myself dwell on the monumentality of our move to France, no doubt why it finally all came rushing at me in the taxi. And maybe there had been an aspect of self-preservation in this, too. Keeping the monolith at bay. Because if I had stopped and thought, while standing in the green, grassy yard of the farmhouse, looking out over the lonely rolling fields and seeing the leafless, lifeless trees and the low, gray sky, I might easily have lost my nerve. (“Hello, Mom? Yeah. You were right: this was crazy. We’re coming home.”)
It was better to stay busy. So I unpacked our clothes and put everything away, which in itself took up the better part of about two days. And while Greg set up our computer in the freezing-cold office and started telecommuting to his job back home, I got to work acclimating Indy and Scarlett to their new room. We all had jet lag, the kind that turns days into nights and nights into days and makes three o’clock in the afternoon the single longest hour in all of human history. Slowly I got Indy to stop sleepwalking every night. And patiently, I broke Scarlett of her middle-of-the-night habit of padding softly down the hallway to our room and materializing, silently, by the side of my bed like a specter, scaring the bejeezus out of me when I sensed a presence and opened my eyes in the dark, strange room to find her hovering over me.
The first seven days of our trip were all spent solving all of our new life’s little but pressing problems, like how to build a fire in the wood-burning kitchen stove without smoking out the entire farmhouse. (It turns out—if the wind is blowing strongly enough, which it does, seemingly nonstop—that it actually can’t be done.) And occupied with these sorts of activities, Greg and I never even fought, although it’s exactly under these types of circumstances that lately we have been most notorious for breaking down into a vortex of hot bickering and finger-pointing, self-pity and accusation.
Instead, unusual for us, we divvied up responsibilities as dispassionately as a team of Vulcans: Logically, who should take the first work shift of the day? Oh, you? Okay. And logically, who should watch the kids in the morning? Oh, me? Okay. And logically, who should be in charge of the fire and who should be in charge of dinner? Oh, you and me? Okay!
If these questions and their answers seem obvious, well, they didn’t at the time to the two of us. This is the magic—and the promise, and the purpose—of Brianny: our own world, unsullied. Every decision a chance to begin anew, to prove to each other that we have indeed grown—well, are growing, at least—and are mutually committed to the brand-new, spanking-fresh start we have bought ourselves with the money we would otherwise have spent on our children’s college educations.
And now, here we are, finally on the road. And here I am, in Marseilles on the water’s edge, because even without the smoking stove (or the lonely fields, or the low gray sky), sitting around Brianny and staring at each other all day was bound to grow tiresome. Brianny is home, but France is the adventure. Besides saving our marriage there’s only one other thing we have to do here in France, let loose on the autoroutes: eat.
Greg comes up beside me when I’m investigating a tide pool with Indy and Scarlett. He has the glad look of a profiteer. “Did you notice that the parking garage at the train station even smelled like piss?” he muses.
“That’s what you are always going to remember about being in Marseilles for the first time?” I tease. I poke an anemone so that Scarlett can watch it shrink like a flower drawing in its petal-like tentacles. She squeals in delight and begs me to do it again.
“You shouldn’t say piss, Dad,” Indy scolds. “That’s a bad word.”
“I can say piss because I’m talking about pee, dude. I like pee smell.” He rises to his own defense. “Pee smell is the smell of France.” He fills his lungs deeply, nostalgically, at home here, then bends and reaches for a flat stone. “Watch this, sweetheart,” he summons Scarlett. He launches it across the water’s surface where it skips two, three, four times. Greg was born in France, in Paris, his mother a true-blue Parisian, equal parts cultivated and cliquish, his father a mild-mannered American doctor finishing his residency. Before arriving at his new home in Virginia at age seven and starting first grade, expatriated for his father’s practice, Greg had never even spoken English. He grew up in Montmartre, raised by his maternal grandparents until then, enjoying a French boys’ privilege to splatter the cobbles at will with his own golden stream. “Like how the metro always smells like pee. Remember? I’ve missed it.”
“Brianny smells like smoke,” I say.
“Or like mud,” Indy adds. “Because it rains so much.”
“Yup. Like smoke and rain,” Greg agrees, skipping another stone. At the edge of the tide pool Scarlett picks up a rock nearly half her size and chucks it, dousing herself in a cascade of salt water. Drenched, she begins to cry. “You know,” Greg says, wiping her face with his shirt, “I think we’d better be going or we’re going to miss the window for bouillabaisse.”
“Is it noon already?” I look up, see the sun high overhead in the sky, signalling afternoon.
He checks his watch again. “Nearly two.” Which is all I need to hear to start grabbing up all our shed clothing and dragging the bedraggled kids off the beach and back up the stairs toward the hotel. After all, there’s only one other thing we have to do here. And it’s time for lunch.
Excerpted from How to Eat a Small Country by Amy Finley. Copyright © 2012 by Amy Finley. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.