You might be aware of my ongoing love affair with Paris. From the first time I stared down the endlessly beautiful streets in 2015 to my right-in-this-moment Paris visit (my ninth trip here), she just never disappoints. I’m currently in Gray Paree where, for the second time in 30 days, I’m enrolled at a language school and taking four hours of French each day. I’m also partaking in museum and restaurant visits and attempting to sample a wide swath of the cafes that comprise Paris’s delightful “cafe culture.” I’m staying with my Foreign Service friend in her tres Parisenne apartment, just a few blocks from the Seine, a few blocks from the Hotel de Ville, a few blocks from the Pompidou. She has an enormous guest bedroom that I am calling Le Chambre du Emily and would it be going too far if I put up a picture of Adam and the Diplocats on the bedside table? (Here are some pics from my last visit, in October, when I finally made it to the Louvre. It seemed too overwhelming so I always put it off!)
After finishing up a week of French classes in October, I took the train to France’s second largest city, Marseille, and met up with Adam, who flew in from Algiers to meet me for a fun weekend in the arty and unassuming city. Coming from Algeria to Marseille was kind of funny because there are so many Algerians living in Marseille that Algerians call it “Little Algeria.” Adam delighted several Marseille cabbies by speaking Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in Algeria (and Morocco). We stayed at an Airbnb that was decorated really cute and it had great views, but with those great views came the price of it being located on floor five of a walk-up with uneven winding stairs.
I brought two suitcases with me, one basically empty one to be filled with French goodies unattainable in Algeria. And pulling those suitcases up to the Airbnb and back down a few days later was a sweaty, sweaty, endeavor.
We had a couple of really good meals, the best of which was at Ourea. It is a beautifully designed space, with coral walls and dark green accents, a color combo I’ve been thinking about ever since I poured coral paint (which I used to paint a guest bedroom) into a paint pan stained with dark green paint (from when I painted our study).
It’s an unexpectedly warm and modern combo and it works. And you know what was just as lovely as the decor of Ourea? The food and the wine! A crisp bottle of Chardonnay and a price fix menu that wasn’t expensive. I’m still thinking about a cauliflower in black curry with a side of cauliflower cream.
After that boozy lunch, we hiked up to the Notre Dame de la Garde, which reigns over the cityscape. The views from the top were worth the sweat to get there. (There’s also a train that will take you up).
We also strolled by the Vieux Port, the ancient harbor around which Marseille was built, and over to the MuCEM, a huge and gorgeous complex on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
The MuCEM is currently presenting an interesting exhibition on the idea of islands. I was taken with the stunning work of Aurélien Mauplot who stamped islands onto the pages of Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne and pinned them to a wall, mostly because I think this is a genius idea for inexpensive/big art.
On our last full day in Marseille, I had a mission: To fill my suitcase with delicious foodstuff. There are certain things that are hard to come by in Algiers: a good variety of cheeses, decently priced French wine, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, to name a few. We stopped at a really nice ethically- and locally-sourced cheese shop called L’Art de la Fromagerie and picked out a few hunks of Frenchie things like comté and camembert and a massive block of my everyday staple and let’s be honest – favorite – cheese, cheddar.
After a trip to the wine store for a few bottles and a box of wine (read: won’t break in your suitcase, although I’ve transported A LOT of wine in my days, and that’s never been a problem), we discovered the secret every French person already knows: Picard, the frozen food wonderland. I first heard of this store years ago when I read the excellent essay “Bringing Down Bebe,” by Danzy Senna. In it, the American recounts her year in Paris and her striving to be like other French moms who shop at picture-perfect organic produce stands only be told by a real French mom that everyone just buys frozen food at Picard. Even though Senna described the interior of Picard as “morgue-like” I was still surprised by just how lacking in charm Picard is. But then I saw the offerings. Fresh mushrooms, perfectly cut sweet potato fries, Thai carrot soup flash frozen into ice cube sized chunks that cook in a jiffy. Tons of substantial meals too, like lasagne and stuffed salmon.
After we stored our goods in the fridge and freezer of our Airbnb, we strolled some more and then read/napped in a park, where we were not the only Sunday snoozers sprawled out on the grass.
A very early flight on third morning and voila, we were back in our lovely Algiers house. With all this good stuff (the peanut butter and the maple syrup were from the commissary at the U.S. Embassy Paris.).
So basically Paris is not the only city in France worth exploring. If you tend to think Parisians are cold and closed off, you’d be delighted to find the opposite in Marseille: We found its people to be open, warm and chatty. And the city to be pretty, sunny, and interesting. Would definitely return, even if it means less time in my beloved Paris.