The Good Life, à la Marseillaise

Saturday, July 25, 2015 | Marseille, France

Dining seaside with the crew, including gracious hosts Mendouh and Mohamed, in Havana hats.
Mendouh thinks big. An Algerian Berber raised in southern France, Mendouh now lives in Algiers, running in the same mixed crew of Algerians and expats with whom I spend my evenings and weekends. He was one of the ringleaders of last November's memorable Marseille odyssey—an experience that weighed heavily in my decision to accept his latest invitation.

For his 31st birthday, Mendouh invited 120 friends—childhood buddies from France, drinking buddies from Algiers, plus his mother, brother, and seven sisters—to spend an extended weekend at a countryside villa he rented near the family home in Provence, outside Marseille. Nearly everyone invited made an appearance at some point during the weekend's events, which sprawled over several days at a scale more reminiscent of an extravagant Indian wedding than of your average birthday party.

At any given moment, someone seemed to be enjoying the villa's many amenities. Laughter rang out constantly across the grounds, along with the screams of kids in the swimming pool, the barbecue pit's sizzles and crackles, popping balls and squeaking shoes on the tennis court, grunts from below the basketball hoop, the rhythmic cloppety-clop of a ping-pong game, a skitter of gravel each time a pétanque ball landed, and the endless pops of corks and clanks of empty bottles at the bar. Barbecue smoke, chlorine, and the sweet smells of lavender and grass clippings floated through the heavy summer air.

Various friends drifted in and out all weekend, each one heartily welcomed by an open-armed Mendouh, and each one bringing a dish or bottle of rosé to throw more fuel on the party's fire.

Unlike those who boarded chez Mendouh, the prudent among us managed to secure a few hours of sleep each night by staying down the road at our friend Mohamed's family beach house, our jumping off point for day trips to the beach or evening forays to Mendouh's villa.

Besides the good friends from Algiers who we accompanied, Nina and I also had a chance to catch up with others over the weekend. Dave and Sophia, Canadian friends of Nina's, came into town. My sister Maggie, passing through Paris on a work trip, extended her layover long enough to come to the coast for a few days. Nick and Candice, close friends from my years in DC, were in nearby Arles the same weekend, and joined us for a day at the beach on the Frioul Islands, just off Marseille.

The Calanque d'en Vau, seen from the cliffs high above.
This stretch of the Mediterranean coast had been on my itinerary during my very first visit to France, a formative summer exchange trip way back in high school. The highlight of that trip, as of this one, were the calanques, a series of narrow bays extending east of Marseille to the small port of Cassis.

We first visited the calanques by foot, hiking the rocky shoreline under the scorching July sun, almost shouting to one another over the roar of the locusts. During Maggie's visit, we returned by kayak, dodging yachts and sailboats to reach an aqua-blue bay we hadn't been able to access on foot. We snorkeled in the clear, ultra-salty waters. We pick-nicked on the shore. We leapt, screaming, from high upon the limestone cliffs.

Before coming, I was worried that nostalgia may have warped my memories of the calanques. But my fears were unfounded; they were every bit as beautiful as I had remembered.

* * *

Those five days in Marseille were probably all the vacation time I'll have this summer, but I know that fact won't elicit much pity from folks back home who are convinced that this expat's life is all fun and games. It's surely not, but trips like these are a reminder that living next to Europe, among good people who practice true southern hospitality, is a real blessing.

A selection of my Rolleicord shots from the trip:

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