I am coming to the end of my month-long travel stint. It’s been a wild and interesting adventure: Edinburgh to Almeria, Almeria to San Jose, San Jose to Roquetas de Mar, Roquetas de Mar to Granada, Granada to Malaga, Malaga to Marseille, Marseille to Aix-en-Provence, Aix-en-Provence back to Marseille again.
I saw the greasy, grimy poverty of Spain and the horror of over-tourism, courtesy of booking dot com and its hideous like – hotels dot com – airbnb dot com.
I was freezing in southern Spain in winter, flooded and wet, and roasting in November in Marseille. I was bitten to pieces by mosquitoes in Provence with tropical temperatures in winter. There was uncollected rubbish everywhere and crying children. People had sunken and stressed faces. Everywhere from Spain to France the feeling was one of utter despair and defeat.
I managed to start speaking Spanish, stringing sentences together and not being afraid. My French went from rusty to nice and shiny thanks to being on the street and on the ground, not sat behind a blackboard trying to learn.
I stayed in a hotel with hats (the Marquis Urban, Granada) and did the Irish River Dance down the streets of Marseille trying to avoid the dog crap. I invented the phrase ‘Are you taking the Pastis?’
Of Marseille, the city is filthy, covered in dog poop. No one picks up; the rubbish is left lying everywhere, people are stretched and strained; buildings fall down and people die. (65 Rue D’Aubagne on Monday 5th November.)
I lived in a Marseille I did not recognise it from 18 years ago, a city now more like Tangier or Algiers than any French city I have ever known.
I wondered where the French people were, and they were nowhere to be seen. I thought on Colonialism and Racism and Cynicism and decided that the world is running fast towards its ultimate demise.
I saw the poverty-stricken North Africans huddled in cafes everywhere plotting and planning their resurrection, the anger at colonial domination coursing through their veins, living the horror their ancestors lived through, hating the French for what they did to their native lands, and thinking. ‘Hey you, France, you invaded us so now we are going to invade you and you’re going to pay for what you did to our ancestors, slave-drivers that you are.’ It’s all Karma, this demise of the human race.
I lived in same clothes for a month, washing bits and pieces as I need them. I wrote not much at all but burned it all into my heart, like the music of sadness that sings along in my soul every day.
I saw sad faces everywhere and spoke to many people. ‘No one is happy anymore’ said a lovely lady with a beautiful face from Djerba in Tunisia. ‘No one is happy’.
She runs a gorgeous tea and cake shop in the Panier, the trendy area of Marseille, called ‘Delices D’Orient’ at 19 Rue Puits du Denier, and her cakes are delicious, as the name of her tea room suggest.
‘It’s impossible to be happy. I work all day then go home and go on the computer, like my husband, to promote the shop. Everyone is a slave to the internet,’ she said.
Her little boy was playing while I was sipping black coffee. He was playing with a little wooden car and zipping around the terrace where I sat. He was gorgeous and he was make-believing, just as kids used to.
In Marseille, walk seconds past the Vieux Port and Panier and you’ll find filth, poverty, anger, simmering violence and the streets of Kabul or Tangier or Algiers. Men are everywhere, women are rarely seen without their hijab. When they are seen, they are always with children. The men stare and stare and stare. It’s not a safe place for a western woman, and yet this is France. In the Panier I met a woman who’s fire and charm dazzled me. Agnes runs a clothes shop in Panier and we talked and talked and talked. She hates Macron, hates the way France has become, admires the Brits for Brexit because she feels that Europe is over, finished. She wants to leave France and go and live on an island. She wants to live simply, grow vegetables and make things. She wants none of the politics that we are dished up daily. She says that Macron is a hypocrite and that he cares not one jot for Marseille. He comes to Marseille and there are the photo ops and the media coverage but he knows nothing of the horror of people’s lives in the northern suburbs, the crime, the drugs, the despair. Agnes believes that the problem with Marseille is the people of Marseille. They understand nothing of the predicament they are in. She loves Marseille, its grittiness, its artisticness, its creativity, but she says that France is finished. This is what I heard everywhere I went: France is finished. The world is finished. Europe is finished. In Marseille, the men rule, and they rule badly, from dirty cafes and from mobiles and from tatty shops selling Chinese rubbish that no one really needs.
In Granada and Spain it’s very different; women rule Spain and are vocal and passionate, not clamped down my men. Men never stare. They observe, only.
Spain is still Spain, a Spanish country, while southern France is now North Africa. I am observing only, reporting.
In Granada, I watched for a small price in the caves and saw an older couple in the crowd touching and stroking each other like they were twenty years old. They were in love and didn’t care who knew it. My heart was filled to bursting with the music, the passion and the beauty of Flamenco. In Marseille, in France I felt no such beauty. There is no beauty beyond the light of Provence. It’s so terribly sad.
I stayed in nine hotels over four weeks, ate badly, lost weight, feel inexpressibly tired by it all, and came to the sadder-than-sad realisation that Europe has lost its way. Big time.
But between the two countries, Spain and France, the one that shone with smiles and happiness was definitely Spain where poverty is not shameful and people still believe in looking out for each other.
La Vie et Belle, Monsieur. La Vida esta bonita, Senor.