The real inhabitants take up no space.
James Salter on Parisians
What I wanted most from my trip to Marseille was to be inconspicuous. I’d just finished another year in New York selling books on the street where each day I was victim to every imaginable harassment and lunacy the city had to offer. Here I vowed to bother no one and in return I hoped no one would bother me. Thirty years old, I still had the majority use of both legs, a pair of contact lenses which rendered my eyesight passable and enough knowledge of French to get by. My plan for my two, possibly three, month stay in Marseille was simply to get by. But my luggage concerned me.
When I was young I traveled with a backpack. The backpack and I never made plans; we just went, always in the direction of adventure and trouble. Through arrest, hospitalization, detention and deportation, we’d been wet and cold, sick and homesick, lost and very, very lost. After nearly a decade of this kind of hard travel I was tired. I was tired and—I liked to think—too old and sophisticated to further bear the stigma of the “backpacker”. I’d long since taken out my piercings and I’d even started packing an umbrella.
I said hello several times, abandoned my search for a light switch, then banged into a sofa, a mound of dishes and a bicycle carcass.
My first foray into the world of “adult luggage” came when a friend gave me a rolling suitcase he no longer wanted. While the handle broke, almost immediately upon arrival at the airport, I liked the feel of the bag, especially when I looked around and saw all the other inconspicuous travelers—people just trying to get from point A to point B without making a show of it—carrying similar luggage. For my next trip, to England for a friend’s wedding then France for food and drink, I bought a ten-dollar rolling suitcase from the Salvation Army. Again, the extendable handles gave way at the onset of my trip creating such a cumbersome, awkwardly proportioned burden that in Paris I nearly lost my life when it collapsed in the middle of Boulevard Saint-Martin.
For this trip to Marseille, a friend gave me a nice, new suitcase on wheels. I told her I’d had enough bad suitcases on wheels and only wanted a good functional adult one. She said she’d only used it once then added, for further reassurance, “It’s European.”
So it was with my new “European suitcase” that I took the bus into the city and set off to find the squat where a friend of a friend told me I could stay while I looked for a place.
The Saint-Charles train station stands high above downtown Marseille with views so vast and sweeping they defy a first-time visitor’s apperception. One can see the city center brimming with trams and traffic along the Canebière, the blackened chimneys and enduring romance of the old city in the Panier, and the boats coasting in and out of the famed harbor, the Vieux Port. This is the puckered lip of the Bouches-du-Rhône, cloistered by the plateau of the La Plaine district, the towering basilica, Notre-Dame de la Garde, and, to the south, the cliffs of the awe-inspiring Calangues. There seemed no limit to the natural height and majesty of Marseille, all of which stands monument to the sea, the numinous entrance to Africa, the Middle East, the unknown.
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Pretty, yes, but I just wanted to get to the squat and drop off my luggage. From the station’s esplanade, my direction was clear: the massive staircase that drops like a gangway into the city bustle. This would be the first test of my bag; I’d learned the hard way not to carry it by the retractable handle but instead to hold it like a proper suitcase from the leather straps at its base. At the bottom of the stairs, I was greeted by the smell of coffee and warm bread; small cars and motorbikes buzzed by and people sat inside cafés watching the streets, reading newspapers, stepping outside for cigarettes. I released the handle and began to roll my suitcase. Easy. Casual.
According to my map—a grainy overview of the city hastily printed before leaving—the squat wasn’t far from the train station. A twenty-minute walk, max. It was over three hours before I arrived.
I began my ill-fated search by zigzagging through the tiny streets of Noailles, through the Maghreb markets where the ground is covered with clementine peels, pizza crust, crushed dates and tomatoes; where lank, quick-eyed men in tracksuits hawk cigarettes and hash and where the smells from the butchers, fishmongers, spice shops and Moroccan bakeries alternate instantly from the nauseating to the divine. I stopped at the Vieux Port for a coffee and admired the sailboats and fishing vessels resting after a long morning at sea. I found the library and duly noted its location and made a mental list of the best looking boulangeries.
Throughout this journey the suitcase was an immense burden. Its wheels ripped loudly across the cobbled streets and textured sidewalks. The older, narrower and more charming the street, the more uncooperative was my suitcase. Far from inconspicuous, my presence was offensive. The tired, splenetic faces of the old men sitting at café terraces drinking mint tea and smoking cigarettes stopped talking and turned to me as I passed; young couples promenading in the sun cringed and held each other tighter at the sound of my wheels’ threatening rumble. Baby carriages make this noise as well, I thought, but at least they’re carrying life. I carried nothing but fatigued dreams, books, clothes and vanity.
And who was I, I asked myself at each difficult curb and pedestrian tangle, to burden these venerable streets with my weight? The streets that in 1792 first sung revolution as volunteers gathered to march on Paris, the streets were Edmund Dantes began his epic courtship of Mercédès, where Cezanne carried blank canvases to the sea, and where Zidane got his legs knocking headers during childhood pickup matches. How dare I lack the humility and respect to bear my burden on my back? Desolee, Marseille. Desolee!
When I finally arrived I rung the bell several times before a pink haired woman called down to me from the 3rd floor. I guessed she was asking who I was and what I wanted. I stammered an introduction then butchered the name of the contact I’d been given who lived there. She dropped a key on a rope and I unlocked the door.
Inside, I was greeted by stale cold and darkness. I said hello several times, abandoned my search for a light switch, then banged into a sofa, a mound of dishes and a bicycle carcass. Light and noise dribbled from the stairwell. I pressed my suitcase handle down and carried it upstairs. On the third floor I encountered several people, each busy with his or her life, as real people who live real lives often are. I said hello and some of them said hello back.
Evidently there was nothing curious about me. I’d been in this position before in German squats and South American flophouses. Standing in the doorway and brimming with expectation; moments that—for the traveler—are so weighted with significance are utterly forgettable for everyone else.
Once, in New York, a Bangladeshi man who spoke poor English stopped at my book table and asked for directions. He began by saying, “Hello, I am the new guy.”
“Oh, you’re the new guy! The new guy in New York we’ve all been hearing so much about. Great! We’re so happy you could finally make it. We’ve been waiting for you. If only we had known you were coming today…”
I realized that without saying as much, as I stood agog with my adult luggage and foolish grin, I was basically making the same absurd “new guy” proclamation.
“Do you want something?” the pink-haired girl finally asked.
“Yes,” I said, repeating my contact’s name. “Je peux rester ici pour quelque jours pendant…” I did my best to continue my request for lodging but she’d stopped listening and was already leading me down the hall.
“Here is the guestroom,” she said, speaking to me in English for the first time. I thanked her in French and sat down wearily on the least stained of the five or six mattresses that covered most of the floor.
Aside from the mattresses there wasn’t much else in the room: a night table with a small lamp, a pile of dirty clothes by the window, several toppling ashtrays and a crime novel. It was when I was thinking how remarkably uncluttered it was for a squat guestroom that I began to smell dog shit. Had one of the squat’s dogs chosen the guestroom to hide his business or had I gotten some on my shoe?
There was no squat dog, however I did get some on my shoe. I got some on my shoe and a lot more on my pants and suitcase. Actually I’d somehow managed to smear shit, thick brown clumps and slabs of it, all over my suitcase and pants. I was incredulous. How was this physically possible? It was as if my suitcase had, after rolling over the largest canine bowel movement from Marseille’s largest dog then somehow dispersed that shit, remarkably uniformly over itself and both pant legs.
Electrified with a primal shame, I got to work quickly, using the two or three remnants of snot-soaked tissues from my pocket to begin the extraction. There was no garbage can in the room, so as soon as they were completely shit logged—now more shit than paper—I threw them out the window. I chose a moldy shirt from the pile of moldy clothes and used it to wipe off some of the largest globs. The pants, which were corduroy (of course!) still had plenty of shit caked deeply in the grooves of each cord. I cautiously opened the door then crept outside, shitty shirt in hand, looking for a bathroom and garbage can. Down the hall I found a room that was only a toilet. No sink. No problem, I assumed there must be another room with a sink nearby. After a fruitless search that left me hovering outside a kitchen filled with smoke and conversation, I decided to try the downstairs where I knew there were fewer people. There I found a dank, disused bathroom with a sink that gave no water. I tossed the shirt in the darkest corner then went back upstairs. On the stairwell I ran into someone and asked where the bathroom was. He pointed, without a word, to the toilet. At least, I thought, there’s water in the toilet. I went inside the small room, no bigger than a tiny closet and searched for a light. No light switch on the wall, perhaps a chord overhead? No. The toilet seat was down and when I opened it and peered into the dark bowl, the stench that hit me was stronger than the guilty one I’d been carrying around. I tried flushing but the handle was broken.
As far as I could tell the only sink was the one in the kitchen where the squatters were drinking wine and preparing fish. I couldn’t walk in there, covered in shit, and ask to use their sink. How did one even say sink? Or shit? Oh yes, mierde. Mierde!
I resolved to flee in search of a bathroom and strong drink. Before leaving I took my passport and cash from my contaminated suitcase. I had neither a key nor plans. I felt like a guilty teenager who’d tried smoking for the fifth time. Again, I’d coughed and felt nauseous. Again it hadn’t worked for me as I’d seen it work for so many others. Again, my luggage had betrayed me.
Next time I’d take a backpack, or better yet, stay home.