if walls could talk

We can hear the bells from our living room. Every time they ring I get a tiny thrill. I glance outside at the pigeons and red clay rooftops and just for a second, it’s another era. It’s time travel (no sacrifice of electricity or indoor plumbing required). Our oldest, grandest neighbor, the collegiate church Notre-Dame-des-Marais of Villefranche-sur-Saône began to take shape in the 13th century.

I’ve visited many impressive cathedrals in many European cities, but I’ve only visited, that’s the thing. This one, in the town where we’ve purchased a home and committed to stay, feels personal. Ours. It’s what I see on my way to our favorite boulangerie, on the way back from Monoprix, when leaving the library, when taking Clara to the playground that’s practically in the church’s shadow. It’s a neighbor, a friend; it’s what makes Villefranche look like Villefranche.

Most probably, it will remain here long after we’re gone. Such a strange, lonely thought. It’s almost as if we are the characters in the church’s drama, and not the other way around. Made by men, yet this place will outlast us all.

We are small in its shadow. I have to crane my neck, up, up, to take in the spire. How indifferent the church seems. How above it all. How outside the cares and constraints of time.

Look how it has loomed here in times of plenty and times of paucity. It has seen horses trot down the cobbled streets and much, much later, twentieth-century trains whistling down the length of the Rue Nationale. Today it presides over a busy shopping street. Drivers blast hip-hop and pedestrians amble, arms full of shopping bags and sandwiches and cell phones. Pampered little dogs in jackets stroll with their smartly-dressed owners. In summer, there are sidewalk sales and gelato stands. In winter, crêpes and mulled wine and Nordmann pines.

What neighbors has Notre-Dame-des-Marais known? Stables, blacksmiths, apothecaries? Today, in a wonderful example of anachronism, the church faces a trendy bagel-sandwich café and an upscale men’s clothing store.

For how many eras will this gorgeous, fearsome thing stand? It has never lived and will never have that privilege…but it has lasted. It has weathered blizzards and heat waves and perhaps provided shelter from any number of storms. It has been a stoic host: baptisms, weddings, funerals–standing strong, immoveable, through all the rites of passage that mark a human life.

first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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