Submerged and Enveloped, a Case of Enormity and Intimacy

Travel Blog 10: The Secret of the Ooze

Marseille is a bowl, its edges made from the lips of mountains, one side cracked and has spilled its contents out into an empty expanse and spawned the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient and puckered, its continuous use over centuries has made it the second largest city in France, but so much older than any of its rivals. It’s a city that feels its age, whose crowded streets and constant motion seems to make the entire metropolis burst at the seams with the pains of modernity and enormity. 

That’s why from atop the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the highest natural point in the city, everything then comes into a better perspective. Up there, city sprawls in every direction, and a sea of salmon-colored roofs and winding alleyways disappear all sense of that oscillating urban life. 

Yes, I’ve talked about epic views from great heights before on this blog, but for the sheer scale of what Marseilles is, there hasn’t been a comparison. It’s like the surrounding mountains and sea are the only thing containing this great beast, and there is an immortal struggle between nature and expansionist development. Humanity probably thinks it will win that war, but with climate change and the encroaching seas, it is no sure thing. 

There are very few ways to make us “feel” ourselves, to be bodily present in the moment, or really to remind ourselves that we take physical form within the world. 

Because how many of us live solely within our heads? So much work now is done in white collar settings, where our muscles atrophy and our eyes and fingertips are the sole forms of interaction? I do that often, I forget my body and a sense of numbness takes over. 

One has to be submerged or enveloped to be fully present. Even in times of physical exertion there are parts of our being that become forgotten as we tailor our bodies to the task of hand. Our feet and legs may burn, but the body and arms are like rocks propelled forward. 

That is why I love the wind and the water. Standing at the top of the Notre Dame de la Garde or on the mouth of Mareille’s old port into the Mediterranean, the wind pummels every struggling body come to look down or out. There is a small spot on the south end of the old port called the Palais du Pharo containing an old 17th century building as well as a statue dedicated to all those victims of the sea, all those souls killed or drowned by harsh waters over the millennia. These are winds you can stand at half-tilt and not fall over. These are winds that make shirts cling to bodies and men stumble when they walk across it.

The wind alights every limb and every follicle of hair on exposed arms and heads. There is nothing better in this world to remind you of your own presence, because here it is not oppressive, not blinding or murderous. The wind tells each, individually, to mind ourselves, to smell everything scent that is carried on the air, to fight to stand and stand prouder because of it. 

The wind is much better than being enveloped in something as hazardous as a crowd. Yesterday was July 14, Bastille Day in France. I was talking to a few fellow travelers from California and was surprised they had never heard of it, so I described it as essentially their July 4. It celebrates the day in 1789 when the people of Paris rose up, where one crowd invaded an armory and another stormed the Bastille royal prison.

It holds enough significance as a day of revolution that around 3 p.m. a crowd of around 500 marched from the Old Port to the local governing office in protest over recent draft bills to require a negative COVID test or vaccine to gain access to bars, restaurants and cinemas. People in the crowd shouted “Liberte!” and held signs to the effect that it was imposing on their bodily rights. There were similar protests elsewhere. 

It’s not like its a sentiment shared by everyone. I spoke with one young traveller in Toulouse on Monday who spoke about his disagreement with the law, but admitted it might be the stick, rather than the carrot, which would finally stop his hemming and hawing and force his hand to get the vaccine.

But still, Bastille Day has an atmosphere that would seem extraordinarily familiar to many Americans for their own independence day. Throughout the afternoon, young people and other dull-eyed people were setting off fireworks and firecrackers in the open squares and streets, despite the fact that of course you couldn’t see any light show in the brightness of daytime. I ate a wonderful, small French/African restaurant in the area known as Le Panier, a very old part of the city known for its amazing street art as well as intimate restaurants, cafes and shops. The eatery overlooked a small square behind a railing. Below, several groups were sending up fireworks bursting above the heads of people sitting down for a meal. Twice, small fireworks came up over the railing and burst among the patrons. I still don’t know if it was deliberate or an accident, but as annoyed as I was I was more incensed for the poor people who ran this small restaurant trying to make the best of what is likely a very busy day. I walked down steps, trying to find the kids who were doing it, but just like mice they scurried away into alleys. As I went I heard more fireworks behind me. 

I went down to the old port to see the real fireworks display. Marseille, like so many cities in France, wanted to put on a show for the people who were denied such attractions last year during the start of the pandemic. The docks and wharfs were absolutely packed shoulder to shoulder. More fireworks from random strangers burst somewhere else in the crowd. The vast majority of people standing close enough to taste each other’s breath were not wearing masks. 

Bursting stars above our heads, music like Queen’s “Don’t Stop me Now” to make the city feel they were coming out of something horrible, more people firing their own roman candles into the water, another man sits on a ledge holding a small rocket in one limp hand. The firework flits down to rest against a tree surrounded by people when it bursts. Nobody seems hurt, and those who fired the rocket disappear into the crowd.

When it’s over, the thousands gathered turn to leave. This is a different kind of submersion, one that tears at the soul, to become one of a shuffling crowd, where parents hold desperately onto kids’ hands to keep them from being separated, where I’m carried in the opposite direction I want to go, until finally somebody creates a new eddy, a stream that I follow in the right direction. I step like a mountain climber walking a precarious ledge, making sure my feet don’t crush any small toes. I make room, I use my body like a plow for the people behind me. A man stumbles, probably drunk, and I grab onto his arm to keep him from tilting all the way over. He looks at me, a man utterly confused. He too disappears among the mass. Another person lights a firecracker right next to me, and all of us have only a second to dodge before it goes off. The man who lights it smiles like an idiot. 

And I’m on the street, alone finally, or as alone as one can be among such crowds. 

The experience makes leaving France a bit easier. Today I will be in Switzerland, and from then, onto Germany and Denmark.

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