I am at the other side of the country, in the south. Marseille. A southern city. I won’t mention Milosz, his southern cities, except to say that his words return often to my mind …
I’m here for a few days, the usual no good reason, a conference, and actually quite a few people are here that I’ve known for a long time, friends from when I lived in Canada a decade and a half ago. I’m here in my sixth floor hotel room, a few streets back from Vieux port, it’s the evening, from my window I see the bone-white illuminated spires of the Panier, and although now it’s dark in the daytime I see red rooftops and a shard of water through the gaps between buildings. A few bars of accordion can be heard from time to time, drifting past, but it’s the end of the evening, the tourists have left, there’s no point playing much longer. Maybe there is the sound of water. And a few lost seagulls.
My relationship to the city is a complicated one. I came here in 1999 from a subterranean existence in England and lived here for two and half years. You must first imagine a sky deeper and bluer than any sky you have seen before. A deep, clear and perfect blue. Each morning in my apartment high on the hill near the Notre Dame de la Garde the very first thing which entered my consciousness in the morning was the blue of the sky. I opened my eyes and through my window my line of sight intersected a clear and faultless square of sky. On most days the breeze, the endless wind, clears the atmosphere of particles, renders everything luminous. I was very grateful indeed after the heavy skies of the north of England to find myself here. I remember a recurrent thought almost every morning for the first few months after I arrived – that I had left for good the place I had come from, and I did not need to return. I felt immensely relieved.
Once again today, crossing the Vieux Port at the middle of the day, I felt almost overpowered by the amount of light streaming down from the sky. No ghosts could hide here in this light. I felt nostalgic for the weak, diluted rays of Parisian sunshine, always coming from the sky at a long oblique angle and casting tall shadows in the street. That was always the first thing I noticed when made the trip between Paris and Bologna – the long shadows on the Parisian buildings.
But it does no good to keep one’s eyes too closely on the sky, as anyone who has ever visited Marseille will tell you. Back at ground level, the city is chaotic, disordered, and hazards may arrive from any direction. It’s best perhaps to fix one’s gaze at point somewhere in the middle distance and walk towards it as fast as you can.