I’m on a train rocketing across the south of France, and from the window I can see the ocean and hills and a rusty abandoned car with lime green paint. Daniel Bedingfield has come on shuffle somehow, and it’s making me feel like a wide-eyed young girl on a 1990’s road trip.
I stayed at Michelle and Ozan’s place in Marseille last night. I’m here for a week to visit Seth, one of my best pals, to relax and catch up and, fingers crossed, get that elusive summer tan London has denied me for four months.
Seth still lives with Blanche in Avignon – they’re married now, which is wild – and after flying into Marseille I was supposed to be meeting Michelle for a quick drink then getting the train to meet Seth at the cafe he works at. But one beer became four (and a hundred cigarettes), and I missed the last train to Avignon. It was a blessing really, as I got more time to spend with Michelle.
A lot has happened in the three and a half years since we left Berlin. Michelle is studying for her Masters now, doing a thesis on immigration on Marseille (if I’ve got that wrong Michelle, forgive me). She’s also married to Ozan now, which, again – wild.
She showed me around her city. It was a hot, windy Sunday afternoon, and we drifted along painted avenues, past cathedrals and noisy cafes. We passed through a large square with children playing, and bought beers from a foisty cornershop.
Every French person I know tells me Marseille isn’t a particularly pleasant city to live in. I’m sure this is true for long term residents, but I found the streets beautiful in a grungy way. It looks like a Mediterranean Berlin or Copenhagen. We wandered down quiet hipster alleyways, past delivery men resting on scooters and a man playing guitar in a deck chair.
We came to a square with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by tall, narrow trees and skirted by packed cafes. Sitting on the floor by the fountain, we talked about our lives and the changes we’re both going through. We talked about relationships, and Berlin, and getting older, and dentistry, and our old friends and what they’re up to these days. We talked about our parents, and love, and Covid, and India, and homelessness, and being happy.
I didn’t realise how much I needed a conversation like that. London is a lonely place, and people don’t like to get too close to one another. I remember years ago by a lake outside Berlin one day, sitting with my friends Annie and Mary on the beach. Annie and I were talking about what we liked to draw when we were kids. I told her I liked to draw castles the best, and I always used to draw them under siege, with an army at the gates and soldiers on the battlements firing arrows.
Mary chuckled to herself at that, and I asked what made her laugh.
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just nice to listen to you two. People back in London don’t talk like that.”
And she’s right. They don’t, really. People in London, in my experience, are afraid to be vulnerable or emotional. Seeing as that’s a hefty chunk of what makes me Me, I find it difficult to make friends there. It’s easy to feel something is wrong with you when life gets that way. But then I meet people like Michelle, and we sit and drink and talk in beautiful parks on warm summer evenings, and everything makes sense, and everything is good again.