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The morning shines dimly through the curtains of my room at the Hotel Dieu. I make myself coffee from the pod machine that most hotel rooms seem to be equipped with these days, pour in a healthy dose of creamer and sugar, and sit down in the blue padded chair. My mind floats back to the events of the night before, but I have to put it out of my mind. Nathan’s Notes needs a post today, and I never finished my article on Singapore’s street foods. An hour later, my cup is empty, and entries on chicken rice, chili crab, and dried pork sheets with spicy honey glaze I call pork stacks are complete, and the post is sent to the cloud for publishing in the morning back at home in California.
I fiddle with my laptop, not even looking at the screen, and now my consciousness drifts back to last night. The old man’s story comes back to me. A soap merchant. The Calanques. I resist the urge to have another cup of coffee – I’m jittery enough after one, especially considering how much sugar I add – and instead shower, shave the tiny amount of growth that has accumulated during my travel, dress in my signature jeans and t-shirt, pack my backpack, and head down to the lobby of the hotel.
There is no line at the concierge, and I walk to the desk. “I want to learn more about soap,” I say, hoping he realizes I mean the famous Savon (soap) de Marseille and that he doesn’t take it as a commentary on my hygiene.
“Oui, monsieur. There are soap shops everywhere in Marseille, especially in the Vieux-Port.” I had noticed this, passing several on my walk yesterday afternoon. “But there is also a museum dedicated to the Savon de Marseille just across the harbor. It is not, however, open on Mondays. Perhaps I can make a reservation for you for tomorrow?”
I confirm that tomorrow would be fine, kicking myself for not realizing that Marseille, like many places in Europe, must be mostly closed for tourist spots on Mondays. Suddenly, I remember that just past Chez Marmar there was a sign for passenger cruises of the Calanques seven days a week. That sounds like a good path to pursue, and I exit the hotel and head for the harbor.
The wind musses my hair, and spray from the ocean reflects with millions of tiny rainbows as I lean over the side of the small boat staring at the bright blue of the Mediterranean reflecting the bright blue of the sky. Blue over blue; that’s true perfection. There are about a dozen tourists and three staff on the small craft as we make our way south and west from Marseille to Calanques National Park.
A calanque, the captain tells us, is a narrow inlet surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs and mountains, and he will sail us into a few of them. The park exists partially inside the city limits of Marseille, the city’s 9th district extending to the KEDGE business school campus that lies within the park boundaries. Students, tourists, and residents alike take advantage of this to hop a direct bus to trailheads; the trail to Calanque de Sugiton actually begins at KEDGE itself.
We sail into Calanque de Sormiou, the largest and most easily navigable of the calanques here. A few other small sailboats share the inlet with us, their passengers using the craft as platforms from which to jump into the bright blue waters. Summer hasn’t yet found us, but already the Mediterranean is warming. It’s still a bit on the chilly side for me – cold water is not my thing, but count me in for a hot tub – so I sit on the deck watching the people, boats, waves, and the breeze in the trees.
It is easy to see why Napoleon’s messenger would use this as a place to meet with the soap merchant. It is close to the city; even in those days it must not have been too difficult a trip. More importantly, it is sheltered, and lights would not have been noticed unless one was directly inside the calanque itself. Easy access to the open sea also makes for a fairly routine escape if needed.
I let my vision blur a bit, trying to allow my mind to recreate what the scene would have been two hundred years ago, a clandestine meeting happening here, the two boats perhaps tied together, voices whispering excitedly at the thought of their exiled emperor returning and once again sitting in power. Would they be expecting rewards for their efforts? Or were they simply bound to Napoleon’s cause?
In February of 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte did in fact escape the island of Elba. His forces marched on Paris, taking the city and country easily as the Bourbon king – recently restored to power – fled. But only four months later, the emperor was once again defeated by allied Europe at the Battle of Waterloo, and this time, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena, in the south Atlantic, where he died six years later.
Our messengers wouldn’t know any of that, of course, and would likely have believed that their actions here – or in another of the countless similar inlets – were to play a pivotal role in the remaking of their country. I gaze again to the inlet, hoping that being here might lend a little divine credence to my mission, that in so honoring the whole of the story and not just seeking the golden ending, I might be a bit more worthy of being allowed by providence to continue. And if not, there’s always just the beauty of the water.
I give in to my surroundings, pull my shirt and jeans off – I may not have been planning this, but it never hurts to come prepared with a bathing suit underneath – and jump feet first into the cool, clear waters. I come to the surface, shivering slightly, but smiling.
Thus suitably refreshed, I lie back in the sun on the deck and luxuriate in a nap, dreaming about moules gratins, mussels baked with cheese, and how great they will be tonight. Life in this moment does not suck.
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The Ring of Marseille
A pdf of The Ring of Marseille, a short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France.