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Sunday, June 24, 2012, still in Toulon, France

Hi all. Well, we’re here for a month in Toulon, another week after this, so we’re taking it pretty easy. Last time I wrote, we had been here for a few weeks already. Toulon, being a good-sized city, is a good base for going to other places, so we’re trying to take advantage of that.

Marseilles had remained elusive to us. We���d tried to get a reservation to visit during our first season in France, and they swatted us away by telling us that there was a regatta filling up the harbor. We tried again in the spring, and they turned us down again. We were feeling personally rebuffed.

When we’d last visited this area, Art had found a French sporting goods brand called Aigle, and the shorts they made met his cruising needs: large, deep pockets with Velcro closures, light fabrics, and a good fit. He found an Aigle shop in Marseilles, and, with time to spare in Toulon, we used that errand as an excuse to take a day trip by land to France’s second-biggest city.

I had wondered aloud whether Marseilles had rejected us because it had to wash its hair that day. Well, as it turned out, the city dock didn’t have space for us, and it was because it was indeed grooming. Several of the docks in the large port were under renovation. No doubt, the lack of visitors’ berths was due to permanent residents being exiled from their contract spaces. That we hadn’t been singled out for banishment was comforting.

Marseilles apparently hadn't suffered the same bombardment that Toulon, the navy base, had endured during World War II. Many of the buildings downtown and at the waterfront retained that belle-époque sensibility that gives Paris its landscape. Stone buildings ornamented with carved heads of nobles or graphical borders lined the broad boulevards. Apartment balconies were adorned with wiry cast-iron decoration. The train station evokes the grandness of European departure scenes from black-and-white movies.

A quarter of the city’s population is of North African descent, and the streets bustle with a blend of Middle Eastern cultures. An all-day open air market boasts harissa, flatbreads, and tagine. Men wear a variety of meaningful but mysterious headwear and women are in a variety of states of covering, from western garb indistinguishable from America to brown tents that leave only the eyes unconcealed.

The area around the docks was scaffolded and noisy. This didn’t keep anyone from sitting at cafés and restaurants alongside, chatting over the din of jackhammers. Traffic rerouted around a circle at the port was heavy and possibly a little bit cranky. It’s clear, though, through the fog of redevelopment, that Marseille will soon be a glorious European destination in summertime. I hadn’t left yet, and I already wanted to come back.

We decided to devote the day to our Aigle errand and a stroll around the city, finding excuses to window-shop as we wandered about. Though the origin of bouillabaisse might be in dispute, there is no severing the connection between the stew and Marseille’s old port, and most of the portside restaurants included a bouillabaisse option among its prix-fixe lunches. We didn’t mind being taken for – and treated like – cruise ship passengers with limited time to spare on shore, and both of us sprung for bouillabaisse for a main course, with its garnishes of croutons, raw garlic to spread on the toasted bread, and rouille, one of the many mayonnaise products I loathe outside of France, but slurp up in spoonfuls whenever I come across it on the western Mediterranean coast.

Aigle didn’t take long; the shorts Art had been eyeing were in stock in two colors. We wandered through the Galeries Lafayette department store without a single item on our wish list, and stopped here and there while we wiggled through the town map on our way back to the train and Toulon.

When you visit a place with a mind filled with expectations, it’s surprising how often the expectations are met, and doubly surprising when they aren’t. Toulon is a multi-cultural center of Provence, and women in headscarves make up a visible proportion of Provencal market shoppers, but they are absent from the teahouses filled with curly-haired men. Kebab places and “Oriental” bakeries appear in a similar proportion to restaurants and patisseries to the proportion of identifiable residents of Middle Eastern origin in the population. And yet, in nearly a month of residence in Toulon, I haven’t heard a single Muslim call to prayer. Nor, I might add, church bells.

Another preconception I’ve carried around is that ubiquitous navy-and-white horizontally-striped shirt that is the caricature of the southern France sailor. It turns out that everyone really does wear this: sailors, babies, housewives. Many shop windows – the ones that aren’t the giant European clothing chains – will have at least one striped shirt of this type represented. There’s a kiosk at the weekly open-air market that’s blue striped shirts from end to end.

And then there’s the French paradox. It’s true that the portside eateries attract ferry-goers and cruise ship passengers who’d like to touch the earth in Toulon without making a day-long commitment. But we’ve eaten many lunches in the heart of town (and overlooking the harbor surrounded by people who have reserved tables for lunch). These people are not vacationers. They’re locals. And nearly everyone eats a real dessert when we see them at lunchtime. We do too. But I can’t figure out how they all still look lean under their horizontally-striped shirts.

Scandinavia has its Midsummer celebration on the first summer day (maybe in Swedish “mid” means “just-arriving”; on second thought, maybe it never arrives). Toulon has its own, newer tradition it calls “La fête, c’est nous”, or what I suppose is “we’re the party!” There’s nothing like a street festival to make you think that summer has begun, and the old city of Toulon is chock-full of tiny plazas between pedestrian venues just perfect for the occasion.

Indeed, there were 27 planned venues for musical acts, and late in our wanderings, we found an unadvertised and sparsely attended 28th. Though the official theme was 50 years of post-Beatles rock and roll, many genres were among the choices. Some tiny stages held hard rock, others grunge. European electro-tech was well-represented. There was a Latin dance venue and one for reggae. The giant square at Place de la Liberté had a marquis band of seven performers called Mascara, who moonwalked through Michael Jackson covers and vogued through Madonna. I was intrigued by a band Woodman Beatbox, who described themselves as a human beatbox and made a concert out of, essentially, the non-instrumental portion of the theme song to Seinfeld. The streets were energized and the cafés were filled. It felt like summer, as if we wouldn’t be going back to our unitary lives after this; we’d just spend our evenings out in the street.

The city publishes a monthly booklet of activities, and it’s nearly the size of a community college course catalog. The next night, we went back to Place de la Liberté for another concert. This one commemorated another fiftieth anniversary, the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of French families to Toulon from Algeria. The artist, Enrico Macias, was among those who resettled in France. His career is having a fiftieth anniversary as well, and the audience filled the large plaza. His guitar music ranges from French chanson to Spanish flamenco, to plaintive Arabic and Turkish strains. The lyrics that I could understand pined for the country of his birth and paid tribute to loved ones. The audience sang along, recognizing even the introductions to his songs.

We walked back through the crisp air – it isn’t hot yet in Toulon – and stopped at a waterfront café where a rock band was playing to a dozen empty tables. By the time we finished our beers, the café was filled. The band played American rock-and-roll, in English. The lead singer read the lyrics from a notebook and sounded a little like I do when I sing Adeste Fideles in Latin, reading the sounds of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” without comprehension. “Very super-stee-shus, wry-ting’s on the wull.”

It’s officially summertime, but it still isn’t Med-hot, and evenings and mornings are decidedly comfortable. We’ll be here about another week, and then we move on. Hope you’re all having fun too.

Love, Karen (and Art)