Monday, April 4, 2016

Hommes en Noir (Men in Black)

Les Hommes en Noir (Men in Black)

For some time after Eric got the research appointment to go to Marseille, I didn't do a lot of research into the city. “South of France” was enough for me – you know, lavender fields, the Mediterranean, olive groves, good wine - I thought I knew enough. Only when it was hinted that Marseille was a big, busy, and somewhat “gritty” city did I decide I should learn more about it. And when I heard that it was the second most dangerous city in France, I did what every good researcher does: a Google search on “crime in Marseille.” (This is almost on par with searching: “Does this tingling in my arm mean that I have cancer?” Yes, yes of course it does.) As you might expect, I found more than enough evidence in my “research” to prove that Marseille was a dirty, crime-infested, urine-soaked hellhole and we would be wise to avoid it. Too late.

Fortunately, once again, the internet is wrong. Marseille is decidedly gritty, but like New York or Montreal, it has its uniquely gritty charm. Yes, there is traffic, and noise, and fast motos, and graffiti, and litter, and a whole host of other aspects of big cities that small town folks detest. But it also has lush architecture, a rich history, beautiful tiled roofs, iron-work balconies, and a truly diverse population who greet each other with genuine warmth. (And surprisingly – even with big, burly guys, a greeting of “les bises.")

One aspect of the gritty Marseille culture which I was not prepared for was the clear reaction to recent violence in France. I remember the moment in December after the Paris attacks when the response to my comment about living in France changed from an excited, envious “Oh!” to a decidedly concerned “ohhhh.....” We tried to shield Bea from the news of the attacks, but she saw  them when watching PBS kids on a Saturday morning and wandered into our room, still clad in pjs     and announced: “Mom and dad – something really bad happened in Paris so we can't go to France.”   Fortunately, she has been able to move past that, and the clearest sign we've personally seen of the recent violence is increased police presence.

There are armed police almost everywhere you look – often traveling in groups of four or more. We saw this immediately upon arrival in France at the subway station. Four armed men, each with two hands on a rifle, were stationed by the turnstiles. One of Eric's colleagues has assured him: “The French want to feel safe. And to the French, the best way to feel safe is to have lots of ever-vigilant police forces.” But to me, I had to acknowledge that the sight of four armed men in black made me more uneasy, not less. Fortunately, I was somewhat relieved to see that these were not nervous, trigger-happy forces. They seemed to be on guard for the real bad guys – they didn't bat an eye when someone brazenly jumped the subway turnstile. But they are seemingly everywhere you look, sometimes clad in black:
photo credit: JayDormer@globalsnewsroom 

Sometimes in Camo:

photo credit: Reuters,

And rarely - most frightening to me, in masks:

Thursday was an especially uneasy day. The transit staff were on strike, as well as many city services such as libraries, banks, and trash collection. The city had a palpable tension, as people wandered through the streets aimlessly, waiting for trams that would never come. Eric likened it to a zombie apocalypse, with more trash and less blood. There were several groups of protestors marching down the tram lines, shouting their demands through a crackly loudspeaker. Sirens pierced the air frequently, seemingly indiscriminately. Even the weather seemed to reflect the restlessness of the city, with a muggy leadeness to the air, while the "scirocco" wind whipped up bits of sand all the way from the Sahara, mixed with debris from the overflowing refuse bins. I witnessed my first true crime incident in the city, as two men ran around the corner at full speed, yelling "voleur!" (thief) I saw a shopkeeper come out to witness the commotion, and he simply shook his head, sighed, and said, "ah,...Marseille." I felt the same way.  For the first time, the level of 'grittiness' in the city exceeded my comfort level. I saw several tourists walking about and thought: "If this is their first impression of Marseille, they're likely to go online and write one of the reviews about Marseille as a urine-soaked, crime-infested hellhole." It was the first day that I truly didn't like the city. There was nothing I wanted more than to escape to go bike riding through the bulb fields in small towns in the Netherlands.

The next day, the strike was over, the wind calmed, and the city seemed to make a collective sigh.  A light drizzle settled the dust and sand in the air, and the refuse department worked overtime to pick up the huge piles of trash which seem to accumulate in a single day. (As Eric noted,  it forces you to recognize the services in your life that you never even think about until they're gone.) I awoke to the regular bell of the tram line outside my window. People resumed their regular routines. Libraries and banks were open for business. The city seemed bright and new, swept clean after a storm. And as I went to the bank to withdraw cash to pay our rent, I once again saw police forces roaming in large numbers. Four men were dressed in camo and green berets, gripping their rifles with both hands. They paced down the street, trying to re-establish calm. My knee-jerk reaction to this is always fear. But as a new-found peace settled in the city, I tried to convince myself of the assurance that I always try to tell my daughter: "It's ok, they're just here to keep us safe."

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