This is chapter two of my short story, The Ring of Marseille. For chapter one, click here.
A hot shower and a collared shirt make a big difference in my mood and appearance, as does the night-lit phantasm of Notre Dame de la Garde as I head from the hotel back to the Vieux-Port and Chez Marmar. It’s a pleasant evening, cool but not cold by any means, and their canopied patio seems inviting, so I ask for a table there. Only a few other tables are full, though conversation is also carried on the light breeze from inside the restaurant.
A waiter, jacketed and with a thin mustache, approaches the table, and unleashes a rapid stream of French in my general direction. I show off my best blank look; I’ve mastered the art of being confused by more than just French in my travels, and you should see my blank look in Japanese to truly understand the art of feeling out of place. He rolls his eyes gently but noticeably, and switches to English.
“Welcome to Chez Marmar. Would monsieur care for wine with his bouillabaisse?”
Wine sounds good, but I’m on the job here, and my tolerance for alcohol is notoriously low. You can ask that mezcal bar in Guatemala what a single small shot of that mystical substance did, but that’s a story for another time.
“Just the bouillabaisse, please.” The look on the waiter’s face simply screams ‘uncultured American who doesn’t even drink wine or speak French’ as he nods and turns to head back into the kitchen.
I am the only solo person in the place. The rest seem to be couples and one group of five celebrating something or other; there is no convenient cake with candles to give it away. My waiter, who I’ve lovingly decided to call ‘Pierre,’ is handling all four of the other tables, stopping frequently to refill wine glasses – all white wine. Noted for next time. An old man, gray hair and a wiry beard sweeps the area outside the coverage of the canopy, gray cap tilted on his head, not even registering the jubilation of the bouillabaisse-eating patrons. Unable to understand any of the conversations on which I’m attempting to eavesdrop, I instead pick up the menu and read a bit about bouillabaisse, fortunately in an English translation, inside the back cover.
Bouillabaisse has been served in Marseille since Roman times. It is a fisherman’s stew, a dish of fish that were not worthy of being sold at the market cooked together with traditional Provençal ingredients until the combination became the most flavorful soup in existence. Today, food lovers come to Marseille for this regional delight; there are many imitators, but it is only bouillabaisse if it is local.
In 1980, Chez Marmar and ten other restaurants joined to protect the heritage of bouillabaisse from those who would destroy the tradition. The Bouillabaisse Charter sets which ingredients must be utilized for a traditional bouillabaisse. At Chez Marmar, we are proud to carry on the tradition, as our forebears have done for centuries. Bon appetit!
The description is accompanied by the same image of a ship topped with a golden eagle as on the sign in front. Is this simply an emblem of the restaurant? Or could it be a clue toward finding Napoleon’s signet ring? These questions remain unanswered as Pierre emerges from the kitchen with a steaming bowl of reddish-brown liquid, and a small tray of bread and condiments.
“The first course, monsieur. This is the soup of the bouillabaisse, served separately for you to taste. It is traditional,” he sneers the word traditional as though expecting that this American barbarian wouldn’t possibly know or care, “to coat the croutons in mustard and let them soak up the soup before eating. Bon appetit!”
I do as he says, partly because I do enjoy an authentic experience, lack of wine notwithstanding, and partly because I worry about being judged by my fellow diners, Pierre, and the old sweeper I have nicknamed ‘Maurice.’ I gently coat the pieces of bread with a generous slather of brown mustard, and let them float like glutinous islands in my lake of bouillabaisse soup. Not sure what to do next since that’s where my instructions ended, I pick up my spoon and dip it in for a taste.
There are three kinds of fishy flavors in the world, in my experience. There is the normal flavor of fish, a briny salty goodness. There is fish for those who don’t like fish – think of tilapia and all it lacks on its own. And then there is the feeling of eating the ocean as waves crash around your face. You know, the kind of fishy flavor that comes with eating an oyster straight out of the shell. Well, bouillabaisse is kind of like that, but taken up to a twelve on a one to ten scale. It is fishy in all the best ways and, not shockingly given my waiter’s insistence, even better with a bite of mustard-topped crouton.
I lose any ability to care what anyone around me is thinking of my barbarism, and my spoon becomes a shovel, guiding the heavenly substance into my mouth as quickly as it will go. I resist the urge to lift up the bowl and drink – manners, after all – but only barely.
After wiping my bowl clean, Pierre comes to take it away, returning soon after with another bowl of the incredible soup, this time with seafood in it. “Your bouillabaisse, monsieur.” He leaves without giving me any instructions.
I open the menu quickly, and glance at the description of the dish. Each bowl, it tells me, is made with more than four kilograms of seafood, and served with a combination of rockfish, mussels, John Dory, conger eel, and crab. It also has some potatoes in it, I find.
It is even more heavenly than the bowl of the simple soup. Each piece of fish is cooked to perfection, and though I miss my croutons and mustard, the seafood flavor is even more intense. So content am I that I miss Pierre emerging from the kitchen to watch, presumably to be sure I am satisfied, but likely also to make sure I don’t insult his country further. I put the menu away, but spot the image once more and beckon for the waiter to come over.
“I couldn’t help notice this image on your menu and on the sign out front,” I say. “Do you know what it is?”
Pierre looks at the menu and shrugs. “I do not know, monsieur. Are you finished?”
Dejected at both his lack of answer and my lack of more soup, I nod and he takes my bowl away. I pay my bill, €70 for my feast, and get up to walk away. I nod in the direction of my fellow diners, and give Maurice a friendly wave. As I pass the sweeper, he whispers, “I know that symbol. Come back in one hour.” He continues on his way, and I decide to walk off the caloric indulgence along the now-vacant waterfront.
An hour later I am back at the closed door of Chez Marmar. Maurice emerges and beckons me to follow him. I do so, and we move to a bench facing a row of sailboats docked for the night. I say nothing, waiting for him to begin the conversation.
“Three centuries ago, France was ruled by a king of the Bourbon family. Many were unhappy, but none more so than the men of the sea, for we knew that there was a better way. We had seen the republics of Italy, traded with them in goods and news, and we, too, wished for some of the power to be with the common man. When Napoleon came to power, we thought he would be the one to end the monarchy and restore the people to their place. None were more devoted to the emperor than the fishermen of Marseille, and we were rewarded with the creation of an Imperial Guild. That image was its symbol, a bond between the fishermen and the emperor, forever united.
“Today few remember that heritage, that simple men of the sea fought valiantly to ensure that all men shared in the wealth of the world, not just the king and his kin. When the emperor fell, we helped him rise again. After his second fall, it was not seen as wise to be held as one with him. But still, in the galleys of the boats and at the bars of the waterfront, some remember, and some still yearn for the dignity that our guild promised.”
His voice trails off as he gazes out toward the water, a look of mourning crossing his wizened face. “But tell me, young man, why do you ask about our past?”
For a moment, I am silent, debating the best course of action. I decide on the truth. “I am searching for a ring that Napoleon was said to have used to mark his return from Elba. I have heard that it was given to a sailor to deliver to a messenger in Marseille, but nothing is known after that.”
Maurice turns his head to look at me, perhaps measuring my worth. I try to sit up straighter, just in case that helps. “Yes. I, too, have heard this tale. One of our guildsmen took this ring from the emperor, to pass along to a local head of the imperial resistance, a soap merchant. They met in a secluded bay near here, in the Calanques. I know nothing of what may have happened after that.”
His eyes turn back to the harbor. “I wish you luck in your search. Should you see success, please remember that simple sailors once held it as a key to assisting their fellow men and the whole of the world.” He gets up from the bench and, without a look, walks away into the shadows of the night. I turn to watch him go, and as I allow my gaze to return to the boats, I notice a glint on the bench next to me. I find a small golden pin, a ship with a golden eagle atop it, in the spot Maurice had just vacated. It is obviously a replica, but I am touched by the gesture. Slowly, somberly, I pick it up, as though it holds the souls of those who have worn it with pride throughout the centuries. I carefully place it in my pocket and head back to the hotel.
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The Ring of Marseille
A short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France.