A Traveller’s Working Notes
May and June 2013
In Anglospeak, it’s Marseilles, pronounced as if to claim that one’s dear old mum takes part in the Fastnet races, or the Sydney-Hobart. It is in fact Marseille, pronounced Mah-say. The city is as deserving of appropriate diction as Paris (Pah-ree), Lyon (Lee-ohn), Orleans (Aw-lay-ohn) and sundry other Francophone places. For that matter, it is possible to fly to Marseille from London or Edinburgh (not Londres or Edinbourg) so it’s fair to say the chaussure is firmly on the other pied too.
Neither is it genuinely a question of the difficulty foreigners are said to have with the etymologies of the places they are in. I was in Paris (Pah-ree) with a chap called Paris (Pa-ris) for a time, a while back, and no one thought his name was Pah-ree. (I should mention that I have never been to Paris, Texas, pronunciation unknown; though I did enjoy the movie.)
These random thoughts come to mind while we are beginning to absorb the unfamiliar culture and ambience of Provence. There is never much value in travelling if you’re going to pack your shibboleths, your cultural presumptions and your ignorance in with your smalls.
We are in the city for a month, domiciled in a fine beachfront apartment obtained via a house-swapping exercise. Without that defrayment of accommodation expense, we should not be able to be there at all, so we’re immensely grateful. The place turns out to be slap bang in front of La Grande Roue de Marseille, a huge Ferris wheel that at night lights up like a mad Cyclops, or a giant kaleidoscope, and flashes malevolent mixtures of light through one’s windows.
It does bring to mind the disturbing works of Stephen Donaldson. I briefly consider, at one point, silently calling the name “Nom”, just to see what might happen. But it’s not really a problem. Within a day or so we hardly notice it, unless we want to have a laugh or count the people on it. A ready supply of vin rouge (rooghz-uh in the local patois) is to hand to assist with the laughter and complicate the counting.
I have brought Plato along on the holiday. Now I have a Kindle he travels everywhere with me. And it seems rather fun to have brought him to Massilia, the ancient Greek city upon which the Romans, followed by assorted Goths, Vandals and other barbarians, then built their own facilities. Plato was an exploring Greek, after all.
Marseille has many attractive women. This is no surprise, since it is in France. Several such adornments are distracting in various ways at the luggage carousel at the airport after our plane arrives from Amsterdam. French women have a mysterious zest, éclat, élan, a deliciously promissory air. Possibly this is a fiction: the product of a diet of French films and French presidential reputations. The French girls I knew in the days when pursuit was permissible and dealing with the prey, were it willing, simply a matter of course, were all eminently sensible people. But this is why everyone I knew at school, whether or not they were a linguist, left that establishment able to ask: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
Be that as it may. No woman from any other culture wears her Follow Me Home’s or flicks a hem to greater effect. A Frenchwoman can be old or young; she may be black, brown, brindle or of standard Frankish pallor; she may have blonde or red hair, dark hair, long hair, short hair or even no hair; she can be mucking out the stables or bathing in champagne; she can be short or tall, thin-line or broad-point, rich or poor, loud voiced or a whisperer, even – though this is admittedly, even with a French woman, at a very long pinch – either educated and erudite or the obverse. It doesn’t matter. Whatever their circumstances they seem to possess a level of allure that eludes others.
That is, I mean, in this context, to men. The heterosexual ones at least, which according to glossy magazines and the internet now form a disastrously declining cohort. One might say decimated, in the modern way, signifying near extinction; but since the word actually means reduced by 10 percent that might not be high enough.
The attractiveness of other women is, however, among the many things that are generally left unmentioned in discourse with distaff associates; even those who are French. This has more to do with self-preservation than with natural courtesy.
It is better, and far safer, to appreciate with the dispassionate, distant eye of the landscape artist than to seek to emulate Titian. Only the foolhardy would risk acquiring a black eye, for example, by citing the chief claim to fame of Tiziano Vecelli (or Tiziano Vecellio) in other than very familiar company:
While Titian was mixing rose madder
His model reclined on a ladder.
The position, to Titian, suggested coition;
So he ran up the ladder
And ’ad her.
Of course Titian was Italian, not French; he was a citizen of Venice, the Serenissima, which also has many attractions, not least among them being that it was the only Italian republic that was never an Italian republic.
On our drive from the airport to our temporary digs there is a signpost pointing the way to the French Foreign Legion recruiting office. Good lord, do they still do that, one thought. But the location was noted as a precaution, lest a criminal or social embarrassment, whether inadvertent or otherwise, cloud our stay and make a Beau gesture an option.