I HONESTLY THINK September 2014 - Page 70

Marseille, je t’aime...somebody has to.

Ask any French undergraduate what their favourite aspect of their degree course is and they’ll almost all say the same thing: the year abroad. Every modern languages student in the UK has to spend a compulsory year in the country of the language they’ve chosen - allegedly to work or study. Of course, when you set a 20-year-old loose in a warm country full of new people with nice accents, not a lot of studying actually occurs. This year I was forced to live in Provence. It’s a hard life.

Provence was my first choice of study destination by far. The promise of sunshine, natural beauty and cheap and plentiful wine was irresistible. My British friends could barely conceal their envy when I told them that I would be spending the summer months on one of the most famously beautiful parts of the Mediterranean coast. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, that every time I told a French person that I would be studying at Université Aix-Marseille, they recoiled in undisguised horror.

“You’re studying in Marseille?” they shrieked with fear and panic.

“No”, I reassured them, concerned. “I’m studying in Aix-en-Provence but the university has a Marseille campus as well.”

This was always followed by some expression of relief and the same earnest warning: “Don’t go to Marseille! You’ll get shot!”

Slightly alarmed by the adverse reaction that the city provoked in everyone I spoke to about it, I decided to do a little bit of research on it. What I found did not reassure me. Marseille’s reputation is bad. It started out as the city where the Black Death entered Europe and its standing hasn’t improved much since then. The government has spent several decades and millions of euros trying to change this but it’s proven difficult. It turns out that no matter how many times you tell people that it’s a European City of Culture, they will insist on bringing up drug dealers and gun crime.

Big, scary cities are a fairly new phenomenon for me. I grew up in an 18,000-population town in Hertfordshire, a county where the primary selling point is that it’s very easy to get on a train and go somewhere more interesting.

My university is located in the poshest part of Bristol where the biggest criminals are the bar owners (I once paid £6.50 for a double vodka). Aix-en-Provence, where I lived and studied in France, is small and upmarket. Marseille is 20 minutes away by bus and 10 by fast train but the reputations of the two cities couldn’t be more different. Aix is known for its beauty, its most famous former resident, painter Paul Cézanne, and its eye-wateringly high prices. Marseille is known for drugs, gang warfare and rats. Unsurprisingly, I felt no real desire to go there.

By the time I actually ventured into Marseille I was convinced that every mugger, meth-head and murderer in the city would be waiting outside the station, ready to steal everything I owned and stick sharp things into me. The busy streets and shabby-looking buildings surrounding the station did nothing to appease my paranoia and I wished I’d worn shoes more suitable for running away. But I was there now so I strategically placed myself in a hard-to-reach position among the 10 friends I had brought as a type of human shield and we continued on our way.

I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that the dangers of Marseille may have been slightly over-exaggerated. I suspect it was at some point during our gentle stroll down the Rue Saint-Barbe, a long and busy street full of shops and cafés that leads straight to the old harbour. The buildings were tall, pretty and made of that gorgeous brown-gold stone that seems to have been designed for blue skies and sunshine. There were fruit and vegetable stalls carelessly set up in the road by people with no fear of traffic and we stopped for a moment, transfixed by strawberries the size of our fists. A 5-piece jazz band, complete with euphonium-player, was playing upbeat music near a huge carousel adorned with happy-looking children. It was pretty clear that the biggest danger we faced was absent-mindedly wandering under the path of a tram.

We reached our goal: the Old Port of Marseille, simply known as the Vieux-Port by the locals, and the glittering jewel in the Marseillais crown. Once one of the busiest ports in Europe with around 18,000 ships passing through each year, it was obliterated during the Second World War. Fortunately, developers spared it from the

View from Gare St Charles, Marseille

Picture credit: Rowena Ball