As Mary Claire put it, today was a big day.
This morning, we traveled to the outskirts of the city (the last stop on the Metro) to go to the Marché aux Puces de Marseille: the Flea Market of Marseille. A friend - shout out to Kristin Werp - who traveled here a few years ago spoke of a market featuring many vendors from Africa, and after some Googling, it seemed surely this was the place she went. An hour away from our apartment, after leaving the Metro and walking down some off-the-beaten-path streets, as well as some very industrial roads next to a highway, we wondered how Kristin had “happened” upon this market.
The flea market was impressive. Similar in size to the City Market in Kansas City, we walked first by vendors selling used goods, then wholesale new items and finally fresh food of every kind: fruits, vegetables, fish, spices, nuts, baked goods and the largest garlic I’ve ever seen. Most of the vendors and many of the customers were Muslim, and we considered trying to interview them; in a commercial setting, though, it was clear that wouldn’t be the best way to hear someone’s life story.
As we walked away the flea market, dodging cars and dumpsters and running across streets busy with large trucks and few crosswalks, we talked about how this community of immigrants, Muslims and people from lower socioeconomic classes was located so far from the city center, visible under the mountains in the distance. Why was this flea market so diverse and yet so inaccessible to people in the city? Two days ago, Dr. Carl Jubran told us that, contrary to many European metropolises, the slums of Marseille are located in the middle of the city. While that might technically be true, this hardly feels like the center. After all, we had to go to the last stop on the Metro, signaling that at least some forms of public transportation gave up at that point. Why is this lively spot so separated?
We headed back toward the Vieux Port (the Old Port) to meet with one more professor from IAU College, Yumna Masarwa. True Americans, we grabbed coffee with her at Starbucks (her suggestion). Born and raised in Israel, Yumna studied at Princeton and has lived in Paris and Marseille; she teaches about Muslims in Europe and relations between people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, among other subjects. We covered a lot of territory with Yumna in that Starbucks: demographics, history, politics, generational differences, identity, terrorism, you name it. We have felt like we’ve seen a lot of Muslims here, and we were right. One in four people in Marseille is Muslim, yet they have no mosque - only prayer rooms scattered throughout the city.
Now we’re getting to the “hidden in plain view” part. We left Starbucks, and Yumna gave us sort of a lightning-speed tour of the city center of Marseille. She pointed out a prayer room set off from a main road, marked with a small sign above the door. People were leaving the building after their Friday afternoon prayer. This room was nearly invisible to us, yet the doorway was piled high with shoes removed for prayer. She took us down several alleys, through upper and middle-class shopping districts. The port within earshot, we turn down a street that held many of the same types of vendors we saw at the flea market this morning: produce, meats, fish, spices. (This was clearly the market Kristin had found when here several years ago.) It is only a couple of blocks from where we’ve eaten several meals over the past few days, but once again, it was invisible to us. Instead, we have seen the upscale seafood restaurants, the souvenir shops, the churches, the museums, the residential streets of Marseille - but we were missing (at least) a quarter of the culture in this city.
We have spent four days in Marseille. While this is a whirlwind trip and we knew we wouldn’t be able to do everything, why are these markets - and these people - so separate, so invisible to casual tourists? Why are they pushed to the outskirts of the city or hidden in between shopping districts that cater to wealthier visitors? Why did it take four days for us to reach these communities, when they represent a quarter of the population here? (Why is are the white neighborhoods so geographically distinct from minority neighborhoods in Kansas City? Why, when we cross Troost, does it seem as though we are in a different city?)
It’s so easy to see the differences among people and the problems they cause. As someone who loves traveling to new countries, I enjoy getting to know cultures foreign to me and studying our differences.
Now, I’m starting to want to look more at how we are similar.