Inconclusive psychogeographical report of 10 days spent wandering, following people and living in Marseille. (part of the Marseille en Juin 1998 event)

Out of the train station into the suffocating summer heat I'm taken downhill by some majestic staircases which come completed with a bold stone monument dedicated to the African Colonies on the left hand side. And one to the Asian Colonies on the right. This is France and its shameless attitude towards a brutal colonial past at its best (worst). This is Marseille, France gateway to North Africa. Ships went back and forth from here to Algiers carrying soldiers, French colonialists (carrying them back angry and black-footed after the Algerian independence war) and scores of immigrants. So much for my little history. Now, I was here for geography: Marseille looks well placed at first sight.. A semi-circular range of mountains holds the city like a bowl, half tipped into the sea. The city is crammed inside this semi-circle, its suburban high-rises reaching the footsteps of the scorched proven(al mountains. Zen city, mountains at the back, sea at the front.

The gallery is in Rue St. Pierre, a narrow downhill lane half filled by an unbroken line of parked cars: the rest of the road being left free for drivers to roam down at top speed. Pedestrians got to watch out for themselves as the small pavements are used as parking places. The Rue is a seemingly anonymous street orbiting around La Plaine, the market square at the top of the hill and Le Cours Julien, a playful tree-lined car-free oasis unfortunately spoiled by trendy shops and restaurants. Off we go. Cars and small lanes suffocate me and I instinctively start wandering eastwards towards the mountains that I see rising high above the skyline at the end of the Rue St. Pierre. Like a rainbow. I have no notion of how far they are and after an hour I change my mind as the road turns into a nasty urban motorway and I quite suddenly find myself surrounded by huge carriageways, roaring traffic and shopping warehouses. This is carland. The monster that surrounds and suffocates every modern city like an unbroken siege ring. This is psychogeographical hell. The mountains still popping up on the horizon now look like an unreachable mirage through the haze of the heated exhaust fumes. I turn on my steps and head towards the sea instead. Up the St Pierre again and down the gentle slope I reach the Vieux Port, what I heard is the historical cluster of the city. Wandering from any roads on the Plaine one seems to inevitably end up on the Vieux Port. The old harbour. Nothing much vieux left in this potentially wonderful assemble. A rectangle of water flanked by two gentle hills and forts, opening up to the sea at its westmost side. But the water is polluted by a myriad of boats, mainly belonging to the expensive-status-symbol kind. The buildings on its sides, laying heavily behind two traffic-ridden roads crammed with yet more metal toys (of the four-wheeled kind), have been turned into a monotonous sequence of bars and restaurants providing refreshments for idle tourists consuming holiday time. I'm sick with anger so I do a sharp turn on the left, behind the restaurants, behind the Mayors Palace, up some steps. And yet more steps, kids playing football in a narrow lane, a mint tea brewing right in the middle of the street, no-one to attend to it. I'm in a different world, just five minutes from the vieux port. An old quarter covers the whole of this gentle hill. A square at its top, old people sitting in front of crumbling old buildings, youths hanging about: "ehi le blond, t'a pas un sigarette?" surprise surprise, someone asking me or fag, seems to be the Marseillians favourite catch phrase. They called me le blond, the blond one, and I suddenly become aware to be the only white person around here. It doesn't seem to be a problem though, this area feels good, stairs and narrow lanes, hardly any cars around and not a policeman in sight, quite a relieving change from the gun toting cops standing at every corner of the city centre. Up and down those steps I find the natural boundaries of this people's stronghold: a new modern port in the west flanked by a huge Police station and a Catholic Cathedral. Le Vieux Port in the south and a wide anonymous boulevard in the north-east. From the top of the hill I take a look at the hill on the opposite side of the vieux port. A huge church at its summit. I make my way there down and up again. The church is high up over the city and is crammed with small paintings of accidents (cars crashing, boats sinking) and plastic models of boats and aeroplanes. They were donated by people who received grace from the Virgin in a moment of need. From this isolated hill almost on the shore line I can embrace the whole city basin. A huge city sprawling from all the way up to the first slopes of the encircling mountains. From here I take a good view of what looks like the new half of the city, littered with spawns of Le Courbousier inspired high rises, unorganically erected everywhere.

I had enough of walking and I head straight down towards the nearest calanque, natural inlets dotting the rock face onto the sea. The bigger ones are provided with what was once a small fishing village, now just another borough of Marseille. The one I end up in is a well hidden small pebble beach flanked by blocks of reinforced concrete covered in tags. Barbed wire around the lot. It looks like the back yard of an housing estate that happens to be in front of the sea. There's a few kids around smoking dope and plunging from the concrete blocks in the water down below. I join them for a sample of this form of local entertainment. Stoned and sunburnt I make my way through a few more calanques before I stumble on the rest of the festival people performing on a stone jetty. I watch a funny-goggles swimming race, Nicolas blowing up a suitcase with home made explosives (not a good idea in a city under weekly Islamic fundamentalists bomb scares), a girl piling sugar cubes and tossing them into the sea and Manu playing his round metal bowl from India to the police in a phone box. Not far from here others are playing Jason's Fortitude: 3 players dressed in dirt grey business men clothing bashing each other on the ass with a cricket bat and doing a funny run when the music stops in a spiked-up version of musical chairs. 'Ils sont fous ces anglais', is the laconic verdict Asterix style I hear from some casual passers-by. Actually, the performers are mainly French, but madness is always presumed to be foreign. I try to see it trough their eyes though: 30 people sitting lazily on an almost empty inlet port taking in turn to perform some kind of meaningless action painstakingly planned well ahead, cheering and clapping. Yeah it looks like madness all right. But, would it be madness if we where doing it for charity? For television? Or simply for a bet? Probably not. So fuck them, I'm not gonna bother explaining why in this age of useless jobs and occupations, we spend our time nurturing some very personal obsessions. We end the day in the basement of a small African restaurant decorated with a puzzling painting portraying a black man with whitish skin dressed in shirt & tie levitating over a meek mud-huts village. 'C'est le patron' is the waiter's answer to my query on who is the big guy. I feel uneasy to financially support the capitalist dreams of an African émigré' with the wrong ideas of what's good for his people back in the village: concrete and ties. Does it make sense? Not quite. I'm rambling on a bit. It's the sun. And this ridiculously over grown fishing village. But I'm hungry all right. So I might as well dig into a bowl of red rice with Mr. Leviticus hovering over my head. Bon appetit.

D. Fasic for NPU Stories, Issue 4, August 1998