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I’ve spent Easter time in Marseille. In 3 hours and 10 minutes the TGV takes you more than 800 km south from Paris to the Mediterranean city, through the French countryside, past a few villages, a castle or two on top of a cliff, a viaduct, blooming apple orchards, the river Rhone and loads of white cows. “Quite why, you might wonder,” the Guardian wrote in the heat of the CPE-affaire, “is a country with wonderful infrastructure, beautiful towns and countryside, world-class companies and highly productive workers tearing itself apart again?” I do find that paradox intriguing, and the comfort of the Train Grande Vitesse was an apt opportunity to give the transportational part of it a thought. Most major train itineraries in France take around 3 hours, an infrastructural feat I – perhaps because I come from a country made of massive granite - find very fascinating. I wonder how people can bother to take domestic planes at all from the capital in this country, not to mention to London, when they can just jump on the efficient metro to one of the grandiose railway stations and get on a double-decker TGV, and get off at an equally grandiose station at their destination a few hours later. (Public transport in this country is one of the very few things that run on time – after 6 months here I still haven’t figured out exactly when the TV news starts, and I’m still not sure how delayed the conference, demo, meeting etc. will be – but public transport is reliable indeed, as long as there isn’t a strike or a manif blocking the way).
Thinking of what I have planned writing about from Marseille I realise that this post could equally been titled “communication” (…which I add at this moment…). “Communication” can stand for all the three features that we noticed in particular on our weeklong holiday in Marseille. All the three of them are common in Paris as well, but in Marseille they’re somehow amplified:
First: I’ve got the impression that les Marsaillais are quite chatty. In Paris too people say things to strangers in public spaces. (This is perhaps normal in many countries in the world, but again, Norway is not only made of granite, it’s also very sparsely populated so we haven’t really discovered the finesse of human interaction yet ;-) ) I’ve written earlier that many people speak to themselves on meetings and conferences, apparently in order to get contact with their side-person so they have someone to share their opinions with (expressing opinions is undoubtedly very important in France). In public spaces people aren’t usually trying to enter into long term exchanges, they’re just saying a few words: In the supermarket today a boy around twenty commented that my nutritional intake today surely would be well-balances (I had some cartons of juice and a big bag of salad in my shopping basked, in order to fight of a threatening cold. He bought a packet of biscuits). And if people – kids, youth or adults – double you on a narrow pavement, chances are that they would say Pardon! or Excusez-moi! as they pass. If I carry flowers from the market, someone will possibly make a joke, usuallyare they for me? But particularly I appreciate all the passers-bys giving a Bon appétit! when they see someone eat in public. A couple of days ago, when we had lunch on the pavement outside a local bistrot someone even shouted bon appétit from a passing car.
These examples are from Paris, but my impression is that the Marseillais talk even more to strangers. When I stayed in France some years ago, I spoke more French in one week in Marseille than I had done the previous 4 months in Paris. This time, apart from all the ordinary bon appétit it was our small foldable pocket bikes that made quite a few Marseillais talk to us. Even a busdriver leaned out of the window at a red light and said he had always wanted such a bike and now he would like to know where we had got them. All the interest our bikes generated would probably have inspired someone a little more entrepreneurial than us to start a local import firm and live happily for the rest of our lives down there.
The second feature we noticed about Marseille is how calm people are in the traffic. It’s quite a Zen experience to cycle in Marseille, - but also in Paris, I should add, which I noticed when I unfolded my little green pocket bike and started cycling here as well. The contrast couldn’t have been bigger to cycling in London, which is almost an extreme sport experience (at least at the time I was there, which was just before Major Livingstone got to power). The bikes here are often older and of a more classical city bike posture than the typical off road or hybrid bikes in Oslo or London. That makes people sit more straight and almost backward leaning. In addition, many cycle really slow. And all kinds of people cycle; from elderly men and ladies to kids via businessmen. But this is Paris I’m talking about again. In Marseille there aren’t that many people on bikes, and the infrastructure for bikes are much worse than in the capital, with no bicycle lanes and at the moment the whole city centre is just a construction site for the new pride, the tramway. But despite all this, the drivers have surprisingly a lot of patience with us cyclists (perhaps they were just staring at our attractive foldable pocket bikes?).
I find it surprising that the city traffic in France give this Zen impression at the moment, because that was certainly not how I remember it from my first visits to Paris in the late 1980s.
Initially, I was thinking of writing a comparison between “multicultural” Belleville (social demographer Patrick Simon’s description) and cosmopolitan Marseille, but the only thing I’ll say about the cosmopolitan feature of the city for now is that les Marseillais apparently see it as some kind of public duty to make metissée babies. It wasn’t even the anthropologist, who is supposed to notice such things, but her companion who remarked the high number of people of mixed origins in the city of 2600 years of immigration.
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