If Auvergne is green and brown all over, Marseille is blue by nature and black by spray paint. Reserved, Auvergne is surrounded by volcanoes and mostly unknown. Marseille is the loudest person in the room, the life of the party. The former smells like mushrooms in the fall and cows in the spring, the latter of sea and brick-oven pizza, but also trash flying in the mighty gusts of the mistral wind. In Verne, our neighbors were gentle, quiet souls who knew about self-reliance, building with their hands. When the city speaks, it’s a babble of Mediterranean tongues, a spectrum of tones in cheeky Marseillais accent; garlic and sea-salt give character to the breath and coarse hair to the passerby. The pizza man down the street is a genius, a descendant of Italians who dreams of moving his business to Brazil, dropping statistical and critical knowledge on the past 30 years of French political economy while putting mozzarella and cayenne pepper on the white dough. In the massif central the woods have soft, mythical names such as Montregard and Saint-Bonnet le Froid, while warm southern tones in Castellane and La Joliette over here make me think of the traffic, the noise, or the platters of fresh seafood served in a terrace while a guitar player sings Santana, cruise ships gliding behind.
Leaving our cottage back in Haute-Loire, Mr. and Mrs. Rabeyrin were sad to see us go. As we loaded things in the truck they pulled up in their van and I came by the window. Mr. Rabeyrin had a brown paper bag with some goodies from Verne: a glass jar of rare autumn honey (only found once every six years) and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône Villages that he called un petit canon, which I interpreted as a “little boost”. But canon is actually a unit of measurement for wine that dates back to the 16th century. Other friends also came by and gave us some laurel leaves and a pumpkin that is for now decorating our living room.
On one of my first aimless walks around town, I stumbled upon Marseille’s music conservatory. Strangely, even though music has been such an important part of my life, I don’t think I have ever spent quality time in a conservatory! I guess those European temples of tradition sound a little bit daunting and austere from afar.
But on that Saturday it happened to be open house and the place was filled with families and teachers playing music and talking about classes, styles, and ensembles. I felt like one of the giddy little kids sitting next to me on the floor watching the adults play and trying to pick which instrument I would like to learn. Cello? Percussion? Electro-acoustic composition?
A maze of aged rose and white halls reminded me of something between the Sorbonne and Hogwarts with its unexpected turns, ornate wooden doors, ballet dancers, hidden passageways, sideburn-donning fathers holding their daughters’ hands, empty practice rooms, silence, steps, windows revealing a courtyard full of rowdy children, a couple of teenagers flirting by the entrance, the boy taking his shoes off for no apparent reason and pretending to swim belly-down on his chair, parents lining up nearby to see a lecture on drama.
My head spun and I found myself in a large room, a library full of old leather-bound books, clean but slightly rundown, spots on the ceiling revealing the missing chandeliers of another time. A husky asian boy was singing an aria from a French opera, I don’t know the composer but it was a comic scene with a chorus of boys and girls that rehearsed a call and response, alternating jeering and cheering the soloist. I lost track of time and hours went by like this, going from door to door…
When I finally left to get fresh air outside, the sound of a James Brown groove from the block above summoned me to a park where a pétanque tournament was going on. A wide view of the city revealed the Notre-Dame de la Garde church standing at the highest point on a distant hill pointing to the sky; the mother saint that welcomed the sailors of yore still looks over a city that is easy to call home.
Saké and honey roasted asparagus puff tarts
with goat cheese & basil + cured egg yolk | Serves 6
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