Walk Down La Canebière

17 April, 2021


Jenine Abboushi 

In down­town Mar­seille, one can­not walk down the same street twice. If you make your way along La Canebière, once an ele­gant boule­vard, now still the main thor­ough­fare, though pop­u­laire since the 1960s, every kind of per­son and jam­boree pass­es by. They are French or new arrivals, orig­i­nat­ing from all over the Mediter­ranean, West Asia, and Africa, main­ly work­ing class, but many from diverse social milieux. Unlike Mar­seille’s more homoge­nous neighborhoods—the poor quartiers nord, and the rich neigh­bor­hoods to the south and along the Corniche—this city is bejew­eled with one of the last remain­ing cen­ters in Europe that holds mul­ti­tudes. Every­one gets to be here. La Canebière is live­ly and fas­ci­nat­ing all day and even past mid­night towards the Vieux Port, bewitch­ing curi­ous peo­ple who them­selves tend to con­tain mul­ti­tudes (as Whit­man wrote and Dylan sings). 

Walk­ing down La Canebière is a new expe­ri­ence each time, with such unex­pect­ed inci­dents and hap­pen­ings, scenes and com­port­ment, out­fits, hair­styles, lan­guages, music, odors, and signs. It all unin­ten­tion­al­ly forms a per­for­mance space of sorts, like a French Jemaa el-Fna, if it were not for the grand, neglect­ed build­ings, that par­tic­u­lar light and briny balm stream­ing upwind from the Mediter­ranean Sea, or its Vieux Port and blanched sails.

Jericho, Marseille's Vieux Port by Jenine Abboushi (all photos by Jenine Abboushi).
Jeri­cho, Mar­seille’s Vieux Port by Jenine Abboushi (all pho­tos by Jenine Abboushi).

Walk down La Canebière then. If attuned and a trav­el­er (even at 100 meters from your home), this expe­ri­ence can be par­tic­i­pa­to­ry. For me, La Canebière is teem­ing — not sim­ply with all that I actu­al­ly encounter on my prom­e­nade, but also all that these encoun­ters inspire me to recall from oth­er times I wan­dered through this artery and its branch­es. Seem­ing­ly insignif­i­cant scenes or anony­mous peo­ple can take me, in turn, else­where, to oth­er lives. These visions (actu­al and remem­bered) coex­ist and min­gle by Mar­seille’s edgy diver­si­ty. It is a down­town that allows for impro­vi­sa­tion, simul­ta­ne­ous lives, for places and peo­ple to peek through from the dis­tances of time and rec­ol­lec­tion. Such engage­ments with oth­er times and places — mean­ing­ful, some­times baf­fling or emo­tive — exist in pri­vate thoughts, form­ing a sep­a­rate aware­ness. Yet in walk­ing down La Canebière, I have come to rec­og­nize and respect how utter­ly human is this habit of thought and expe­ri­ence, this man­ner of con­scious inter­ac­tion with tan­gi­ble and social worlds, achieved through prac­tice or tem­pera­ment. Homoge­nous human gath­er­ings, chore­o­graphed move­ment (of peo­ple and vehi­cles), uni­form archi­tec­ture and struc­tured urban space, which can be coher­ent and pleas­ant to the eye, do not allow diverse peo­ple to ful­ly exist and coex­ist. You can remain on the curb look­ing on, as if at a post­card, and as if you are not quite there, not yet part of the world around you.

Couple on a date walking down La Canebière.
Cou­ple on a date walk­ing down La Canebière.

Trav­el down La Canebière body and soul. Per­cep­tive­ly, car­nal­ly, lay your life and worlds open, like books and pho­tographs strewn across a desk. You can, like I do, let your thoughts, here and there, wan­der nat­u­ral­ly with the move­ment of your body and the street. All seems par­tial, digres­sive, and by the way. If you are obser­vant and reflec­tive, flash rec­ol­lec­tions will more read­i­ly come to mind and trans­form your experience. 

Rue Consolat.
Rue Con­so­lat.

I head towards the sea from Rue Con­so­lat. At the top of La Canebière, at the seedy ter­rasse of Bar du Chapitre, next to the foun­tain of the Danaïdes, I step over the spot that held a table of six friends drink­ing and smok­ing weed, and where I sat with a Syr­i­an poet and Ara­bic teacher to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lessons for my teenage son. Sud­den­ly a woman with a blond pony­tail stood up to crash an emp­ty bot­tle over the head of a man at her table. The bot­tle shat­tered with­out vis­i­bly cut­ting him, and he got up to holler. Every­one stood up and moved back, at least tem­porar­i­ly, and we left. As we walked away on my first night in Mar­seille after mov­ing here, the poet said that he had nev­er seen any­thing like that here. I’ve also nev­er wit­nessed any­thing like that since.

I cross the street at Stal­in­grad Square. Just before cross­ing La Canebière, I glance down Allée Léon Gam­bet­ta to catch a quick glimpse of the unem­ployed men drink­ing cof­fee togeth­er in cir­cle for­ma­tions, recall­ing the Roma women and girls in long braids and bloom­ing skirts, laugh­ing and talk­ing, moth­ers’ hands placed on their daugh­ters’ shoul­ders. I can see the front of Gallery Fotoki­no where I had cof­fee with my first friend in Mar­seille, who invit­ed me to her home to dine that same day.

For an instant, I almost veered off La Canebière down Gam­bet­ta, fig­ur­ing I could rejoin La Canebière at the cor­ner of Boule­vard Dugom­mi­er. That way I can glance to the right up Boule­vard d’Athènes and see the majes­tic stone stair­case lead­ing up to the train sta­tion, just across from one of my “offices,” when cafes were still open, L’É­co­mo­tive. Or I could turn down Tapis-Vert street to pass by the his­toric Église de la Mis­sion de France Saint Pie X that I once vis­it­ed with an archi­tect friend while on a Sun­day walk. Inside the church that morn­ing, we saw a con­gre­ga­tion as if from anoth­er era. An old­er woman with a thick, black-cro­cheted scarf laid over her head sat with her hus­band, and we thought her touch­ing, imag­in­ing some­one had recent­ly died. As we made our way out the door, we wit­nessed a prim moth­er in a large car swift­ly pull up to the church door to drop off her five daugh­ters. They all were dressed in fine pleat­ed skirts, white blous­es, and patent­ed-leather shoes, and wore shiny, tight braids. They poured into the church as their moth­er drove off to find a park­ing space. We con­tin­ued on, and my friend showed me the stun­ning top half of anoth­er his­toric church, now cov­ered by a store­front built in front of it. I had nev­er noticed it.

The police and the cigar.
The police and the cigar.

I popped into the same church a few days lat­er on the way home from an after­noon of writ­ing in Alcazar Library, and a small­er con­gre­ga­tion was receiv­ing the priest’s words. I sat briefly on a bench, and noticed a much younger woman with the same hand-knit black piece laid over her long hair, and won­dered if she and the old­er woman from that Sun­day were part of a fun­da­men­tal­ist group. She was pale, melan­cholic-look­ing, and unex­pect­ed­ly took me back, in my thoughts, to the Wail­ing Wall in Jerusalem, where I had wan­dered with my chil­dren after they vis­it­ed the Dome of the Rock. We were sur­prised to be let in unques­tion­ing­ly. We decid­ed to tour under­ground, where guides explained in many lan­guages to vis­i­tors about the sandy, dark, emp­ty tun­nels and the mas­sive blocks of stone that formed the back wall. Our guide alarm­ing­ly sug­gest­ed that the wall before us, declared the foun­da­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple, would one day be free of the mosque above ground. On the way out, we passed a pale teen with long hair, stand­ing alone in a back cor­ner. For an instant, the chil­dren and I looked at her in awe as she pressed her cheek in anguish against an enor­mous stone block. 

Allow­ing these thoughts to drift through my mind, I decide to con­tin­ue along La Canebière, glanc­ing briefly over to Patis­serie Plauchut’s come­ly, gaudy dis­play. I miss see­ing the dark­ened murals in the back par­lor when I would fre­quent­ly buy tartes or snacks for my son. And the sweets and paint­ings are blocked from my con­scious­ness by the sight, from just two weeks ago, of two police­men con­vers­ing out front, one with his mask pulled down to his chin to smoke a fat cig­ar. This sight turned my head all the way around. I advanced a few more steps, looked back, and saw they had just flagged down a passer­by with no mask on him. Search­ing for the cig­ar, I spied it still in the police­man’s hand, but tucked behind his back for the occa­sion. Step­ping briefly onto the tram rails, I quick­ly snapped a pho­to. The police­men had turned away from the street and towards the cha­grinned man con­test­ing the 135 euro fine they may have imposed on him.

La Canebière becomes the Rue des Gilet Jaunes.
La Canebière becomes the Rue des Gilet Jaunes.

The weath­er is warm, balmy, a relief from the cool mis­tral winds that swirled bois­ter­ous­ly around us in the past few days. Even if walk­ing fair­ly quick­ly, the street scene evokes brief glimpses, in the imag­i­na­tion, of the scenes and peo­ple I noticed in the past weeks and months in down­town Mar­seille. On the cor­ner of Boule­vard Dugom­mi­er, there was the beard­ed man with long black pig-tails and a pink tutu danc­ing in front of traf­fic. I have not seen such ran­dom, street spec­ta­cles since my grad­u­ate stu­dent days in Man­hat­tan, before it became expen­sive and homog­e­nized. There ahead of me I remem­ber the exot­ic man I picked out by his rapid, mechan­i­cal gait and stuffy, pow­er suit. His white socks drew my atten­tion, shin­ing in the sun­light from under incon­gru­ent­ly short trousers. He had stopped in front of the majes­tic Sociéte Générale bank up ahead, now rather dis­rep­utable, appar­ent­ly. They had long washed off the “voleurs” (thieves) graf­fi­ti from their glass front. I took a pho­to of him, but since it did not rep­re­sent his remark­able gait it was a dud. 

Pom-pom slippers.
Pom-pom slip­pers.

For a few months last win­ter, I liked to notice women in fash­ion­able bed­room slip­pers with pom-poms of dif­fer­ent col­ors that I saw in store win­dows on Rue de Rome. I had learned from liv­ing in Moroc­co how unique, afford­able fash­ion styles are often cre­at­ed in poor but strong soci­eties that are in fact not design­er knock-offs. Most young Maghre­bi and African men down­town wear sweat­pants and train­ers not as alter­na­tive fash­ion, but more as a cache-mis­ère, a way to dress more inex­pen­sive­ly than one can in jeans or pants. 

See­ing peo­ple queued up in front of the Com­mis­sari­at at the Noailles Metro sta­tion flashed me back to scenes from my four-hour wait last July to declare my 16-year-old son miss­ing. He had tak­en a train to vis­it a friend I had not met, stay­ing in a vil­lage with her fam­i­ly out­side of Frank­furt. They went on day trips and he had a mar­velous time, he lat­er report­ed. He was in touch with his sis­ter in NY, but would not tell us where he was. The police offi­cer I talked to called my son’s num­ber, as I had many times, but from their trans-Euro­pean phone sys­tem an auto­mat­ic mes­sage blared in Ger­man. “C’est pas bon ça,” I remarked dry­ly to the offi­cer. Dur­ing my wait, I watched a man and woman exit the sta­tion, halt on the street island, tram­lines cross­ing on either side, and argue in sign language.

The family band of La Canebière.
The fam­i­ly band of La Canebière.

I con­tin­ue down towards Noailles mar­ket, with voic­es and music sound­ing con­tra­pun­tal­ly all the way down La Canebière. Only frag­ments surge in clar­i­ty: a woman say­ing over and again, loud­ly in Ara­bic on her phone, “Tu m’é­coutes? Khala3ni!” (Do you hear me? He fright­ened me!), or the père et fils trio play­ing a der­bakeh, accor­dian and clar­inette near Hema store, mak­ing me feel like shak­ing hips. I always glance over to the majes­tic Mai­son Empereur found­ed in 1827, which it took me some time to dis­cov­er after I moved to Mar­seille (“but what if I don’t want to vis­it a hard­ware store?”). With­out going in, I can see the blocks of dark green olive soap piled high, the enor­mous one I once bought for my daugh­ter and her boyfriend, and the scent­ed bars on rope, all arranged on the wall near the stair­well, which I mount, in my mind’s eye, to browse the linens and dish­es and lit­tle antique toys. 

By the time I arrive at the Bourse, that liq­uid sea light fills our world. I feel elat­ed each time I near the con­gre­ga­tion of masts, the sea and sky beyond the port open­ing between Jardin du Pharo and Fort Saint Jean. I turn to the Mer­ry-go-round as I pass it, and recall the hair­cut par­ty plant­ed there for a time dur­ing quar­an­tine, with sev­er­al stools set up to make fan­ci­ful dos for will­ing vic­tims. I arrive at the edge of the port where I can­not walk fur­ther, and where every morn­ing the fish­er­men and women sell inter­est­ing sea crea­tures from light blue and white tables. I remem­ber a poor octo­pus that kept climb­ing off one table. I bought eels last Sat­ur­day, not know­ing I should select a big one to avoid tiny bones. The gnarly fish­er­man put bloody change in my palm. I assumed it was from cut­ting up the eel, but he cor­rect­ed me, mat­ter-of-fact­ly remark­ing that he had cut him­self ear­li­er. I slipped the change into a plas­tic bag and soon after cleaned my hands with sanitizer. 

In down­town Mar­seille all the strange and mem­o­rable sights you take in remain present, for the tak­ing by your imag­i­na­tion, each time you explore the area. Mar­seille has a rugged tex­ture, col­or­ful, elat­ing, forg­ing a place for diverse peo­ple and worlds. Many seem to be strangers in a strange land, who may para­dox­i­cal­ly find a place in this unruly space. I move to the front side of the port, now know­ing to sit down, let­ting my legs dan­gle above the water. The whole world rad­i­cal­ly changes when you sit down on the edge and look out to the port and boats and sea, as opposed to stand­ing or walk­ing around.  You will soon ask your­self why you do not come sit here to relax at the end of every day? It’s so pleas­ant and sim­ple and instant­ly calm­ing. You feel con­tent, pulled togeth­er by pri­mor­dial sources, old­er than the Vieux Port itself: the hum of voic­es around you, the warmth of bod­ies around you, the sea scent and sunset.


Marseille centre-villeVieux Port

Jenine Abboushi is a Palestinian American writer, freelancer, and traveler, especially around home. She lived for many years in the United States, Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon, and now in Southern France. A TMR contributing editor, you can follow her on Twitter @jenineabboushi.


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