“There? Why there?” “It’s a disgusting city, don’t go. There’s trash everywhere, it’s covered in graffiti, go anywhere else.” “I mean, work there if you have to, but try not to live there.”
It was the end of summer in the south of France. And as the north wind carried in the scent of the pine and olive forests just outside the city, I sat on my Airbnb balcony in the city of Nice with decisions to make. I had left New York City to finally make the leap to try and cement a career and live in Europe like I had always envisioned for myself. I worked my ass off that summer to save as much as I could, and gave myself a time frame of two weeks to try to find some solid work prospects. If I didn’t by then, I would have to kick into a second phase plan and find a different way to stay.
By the end of the first week, nothing had come. I knew I needed to initiate phase two. Okay, I thought to myself, I know I won’t go back to the US. At the time I had been planning to stay in France, so I spent my days scanning every webpage and sending out my newly made French CV. Finally, two days before my two weeks ended, I got a response from a random listing I had answered for an au pair position, in the city of Marseille.
I had contemplated going to Marseille a few times before even leaving for France. It was large, it was on the Mediterranean, it was well connected to other areas, why not, right? But the second I mentioned it to any of my connections in Europe, they shot it down. They’d comment on how it had crime, how it was dirty, how it was ugly, even a passively racist comment about how “African” it was.
But in the back of my mind was another opinion of Marseille that I couldn’t fully ignore. That of one of my greatest inspirations, Anthony Bourdain. He traveled to the city for his second series Parts Unknown, and had absolutely loved the city. He had praised its multiculturalism, its openness, and the beauty of its grit and reality. He exclaimed how it was a real city. Yet even with his voice in the back of my head, I admittedly avoided it when I went to France. I let the negative opinions taint my perception. But now, it was my way to stay. So two days after the email, I stepped on a train leaving Nice to try it for myself.
And for the next two and a half months, I fell absolutely in love.
Let me brush you up on some history kids. Marseille was founded as the Ancient Greek colony Massalia somewhere around 600 BCE, making it the oldest city in France, older even than Paris herself, a fact that some of the French willingly ignore. Since then, it remained a significant port and trading city for the Romans, the Visigoths, and eventually the Kingdom of France, where it connected France to the rest of Mediterranean Europe and Africa. And like many of the world’s historic port cities such as Istanbul, Singapore, or New York City, it became a multicultural mix of the working class.
We as travelers need to take all travel recommendations with grains of salt; the good ones and the bad
And like many port cities, it also grew a bit of a gritty reputation. It was a tough place, made by sailors and immigrants and traders. This aura of the city was only fed when the Corscican mafia began to intervene during the 1900s, as well as an influx of North Africans in the 1950s and 60s after the independence of French colonies, notably Algeria but also Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal. Thus was created an image of Marseille as the crime ridden, the dark skinned, and the dirty.
Reputations can be hard to shake, especially when they’ve existed for at least 1000 years. The Marseillaise and their city have been generally looked down on by the rest of their countrymen, and while that’s notably changing with younger generations, it has yet to leave the minds of the older ones, and even people from other European nations. To this day American oriented travel websites insist that while some neighborhoods are fine, much of the city is “unsafe” and should only be considered as a quick stop through, never a main destination for a South of France itinerary.
But the reality is that Bourdain was right. Marseille is a gorgeous city. And not just in the cliché way that all French cities are, with rows of Mansard-roofed apartments, wide avenues, sculpted churches, and brick streets, though those are all present as well. Marseille just has a different flavor than the rest of France. It’s over 2000 years old but it still feels young and vibrant. People of every color walk the streets, speaking French in the regional way, slower and drawn out and relaxed. Unlike most of the country, where proper manners and using vous to all strangers is essentially mandatory, you can use the casual tu form basically everywhere. Along with classic French boulangeries and patisseries you can just as easily find exceptional pizzerias, turning spikes of shawarma, and trendy modern cafes spilling into squares dripping in street art. I also never during my time in the city felt threatened or unsafe, even at night and even in neighborhoods well off the tourist path (though in this regard, my opinion may not be as valid as I’m a young and in-shape white man, so this may be taken with a grain of salt).
Certainly the city does have its problems, as any large city, especially one of that age, will have. It does have random sections with a noticeable trash issue, though as someone who’s lived in New York City I would consider it overall pretty respectable. Public transit doesn’t run 24 hours, which I find to be problematic when the culture is quite partial to having dinner at 8 or 9 pm and staying out even later for drinks. There are also sections of the city where the traditional architecture wasn’t maintained, not necessarily to the fault of the Marseillans, but because the French government hasn’t invested as nearly as much money in upkeep as it has for other cities (looking at you again, Paris).
But as I mentioned in a previous piece, I don’t think these kinds of flaws make it wholly a bad city, and if anything provides more intrigue and awareness for why the French government treats it this way, and the more unsavory parts of “French” culture that are equally important to learn about. What the city inevitably suffers from most is a bad reputation, one created by people that have never visited or lived there, and have seen it only in passing, on the news, or in history books.
But what I feel is the most important lesson I learned during my time in Marseille is that we as travelers need to take all travel recommendations with grains of salt; the good ones and the bad. Because, as I have come to realize the more I travel, places need to be experienced by individuals, on their own time and with open minds, and only then can a judgement of the location can be made. We all click differently in different places, and I believe it’s our responsibility as travelers, not simply tourists, to visit any and all places that spark our curiosity, regardless of stereotypes, because each area of this little earth has its own nuances that can only be felt when you are there in the flesh. I believe that, once the tides of the pandemic calm and we are able to travel freely again, it is our responsibility to travel outside the well worn paths of the cities like Paris or Rome and take risks going to the cities or towns or places that very few people, if any, have gone before.
Eventually, my 90 days in the Schengen came to a close, and without a long term visa I had to take my leave of Marseille. I learned and experienced a lot in France, both about the country and myself, and while my sights are set elsewhere to try and live long term, if I’m in France again, I would choose it in a heartbeat. It’s one of those cities where the weather is gorgeous, and you can always slightly smell the sea, and where even as a foreigner you still feel strangely like you’re home. But I have other plans. There are some points on my map that I’ve never once heard mentioned on a travel article, and they’re calling my name.
Meet Austin: a 25 year old from California chasing the dream of living in Europe. Keep up with his adventures and writing on IG.