21 November 2010


Since the big garbage strike is over, tourists from Singapore no longer automatically get heart attacks when visiting Marseille. But Marseille, especially the Cours Julien area where I live, is covered with graffiti. In Singapore, they cane graffiti artists. Here they don't. Graffiti is on the walls, the street, road signs, sometimes across windows and doors. Nobody paints cars; cars are sacred even here. It's very rare to see graffiti being removed, it just covers entire street blocks from one end to the other. Some shops pay graffiti artists to paint their steel shutters, so at least they decide what people see.

A good deal is actual interesting, not the mindless tags thrown up in seconds by vandals elsewhere. People take pictures of the graffiti, like me:

Well done, but of course nothing can touch the master. Search Google for Banksy:


15 November 2010

How to spot a Frenchman

The stereotype says that all the women here look like Brigitte Bardot (big sunglasses, big hair) and communicate by saying oh la la, while the men play Petanque, drink Pastis, and drive Citroen 2CV cars. None of this is true but you can tell by looking a little closer.

Nobody here in the south uses backpacks or waistpacks, except the tourists. Locals don't wish to get mugged. Instead, they carry everything in thin plastic bags. And because they have their hands full of plastic bags, they carry their baguettes under their arms. If you see someone with a kilt and bagpipe, that's a Scot. If you see someone with a baguette, or a whole bundle of baguettes, under their arms, that's a Frenchman. The previous sentence ran out of political correctness halfway through.

You'll find street musicians anywhere. But only in France will you see an old lady with a clipboard and a microphone, dressed in red velvet, belting out French chansons. She is aided by the fact that chansons are customarily sung with a throat cancer voice.

Contrary to common wisdom, the French don't refuse to speak English to foreigners out of arrogance. They aren't arrogant, they truly don't speak English. They have learned it at school, of course, but forgot it. They don't speak any language other than French because it's not necessary. The French like to spend their vacations in France, especially at the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, where only French is spoken. (They all have their vacations at almost the same time, which makes the holiday season the best time to visit Paris and hell everywhere else.) English-speaking businesspeople, and even English-speaking tourist information staff do exist though, the French economy does not consist of hermits.

The French are much more polite than Californians. This is not the synthetic politeness of a Californian waitress who waits until you have your mouth full to ask "is everything ok" with her widest grin, watching you sputter. The French, when boarding a bus, will always greet the driver with a friendly bonjour (unless it's after 18:00, in which case it's bonsoir), and the driver will return the greeting. Shopkeepers will go beyond that and say both bonne journée and au revoir when you leave. (Although here in the south it comes out as à revoir.) In California, excuse me often means get out of my way, while a pardon here means my sincerest apologies, I didn't see you, of course you can enter the line before me. These people even pay attention to zebra crossings!

However, the French language is also good at swearing. I have waited at the checkout of Marseille's posh Galeries Lafayette department store, listening to the loud conversation of the cashiers punctuated by putain and other potty language. The literal translation of putain is whore, but overuse has worn it down to a mild expression of disapproval. And to bust another stereotype, I haven't heard anyone say merde yet.

03 November 2010

Got into a fight today

I am writing this on a computer that is chained to my desk. You see, Marseille has a reputation for very high crime rates, but it's actually a very safe city. At least according to people I have asked. A friend who helped me choose my apartment, for example. While I was admiring the view, or (usually) the lack thereof, she would inspect the three-point locking system, the steel plating on the door, and opportunities to break through a window. But don't worry, she says, nothing can happen, Marseille is a very safe city. I half expected her to recommend a gun rack next to my door, so I could dissuade unwelcome visitors by spraying them with bullets.

Shopkeepers have a somewhat different perspective on the matter. While ground-floor apartments protect their windows with cast-iron bars, most shops have steel shutters that would stop a tank. I don't know the percentage of burglars who drive to work in a tank but it must be significant. A few months ago, some guys tried to stop a Brinks van by very literally spraying it with bullets from their very literal AK-47 Kalashnikov submachine guns, right down at the old fishing harbor, a ten-minute walk from here. There were bullet holes everywhere, it's a miracle that nobody was hurt. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. But Marseille is a very safe city, trust me.

Just now I got into a fight with a pickpocket. I was walking up rue d'Aubagne from the Marché des Capucins (a major tourist attraction in the Moroccan quarter close to my house) when a dark-skinned unshaven young guy started chatting to me under a pretext. I caught him when he pulled my wallet from my front pants pocket, attempting a distraction that alerted me. Rather than going for the wallet I attacked the guy to wrestle him down, and it quickly turned out that I was bigger and stronger. He dropped the wallet and I didn't lose anything and wasn't hurt.

When I told the story to my friend, she asked if I punched him and hurt him badly. She was disappointed that I didn't, because I am in Marseille now and that's what people here do to pickpockets. But Marseille is a very safe city. For Karate black belts carrying AK-47s and sufficient ammo, maybe.