The taxi drops us off in the center of a large square in the Old Port. There are boys riding bikes through a fountain, fisherman with crossed legs drinking Pastis, and pigeons dive-bombing from window to window.
Our window is on the seventh floor and after we’ve hauled our bags and equipment up a skinny, winding staircase, we open the peeling shutters and lean outside, looking out at the masts of the sailboats—hundreds of them docked at what used to be France’s main port.
The people we are renting our apartment from invite us to a neighborhood party in a small fishing harbor carved into the side of a white cliff. There are row boats bumping up against each other and street lamps reflecting off the water. We eat goat cheese, tabouleh, and birthday cake as the neighborhood tells us about their city: “In Marseille, we have the music, the football, and the fish. And we have all the people of the world—you will see every culture walking down the street.”
By the end of the night, I have two pages of scribbled names—while it was very clear to me at the time which name referred to a large grass park and which named referred to a neighborhood with cheap ethnic food and which name referred to a beach, it’s all less clear as I’m looking at the scribbled notes the following morning.
There is one accompanying sketch—it looks a little like someone started a game of Hangman in my notebook, but when I show it to a taxi driver he reads it as a street map and drops us off at a large stretch of grass along the water.
We walk out along a rock jetty and get a shot of the bright Mediterranean water. There are guys fishing off the rocks and when we talk with them about football, a guy with slicked black hair and shiny sunglasses says, “Espere ici…” He wedges his fishing pole between the rocks and takes off, hopping from boulder to boulder until he disappears into the parking lot. When he comes back, he works at the bow tie of a plastic bag and unfolds a long-sleeve Olympique de Marseille jersey—Drogba written across the back. OM was Drogba’s first club and when interviewed, he still says things like, “This is for the people of Marseille.”
“It is real,” the fisherman says as he passes it to us. He holds it so fondly and carefully and we all wonder how long he has kept it with him in his car, so there’s never a chance he won’t have it when he needs it.
We walk back to the grass and join one of the five or six games happening across the grass. In South America, you don’t wear shoes if you are playing on grass or sand, but when Luke and I throw off our flip-flops and walk into the game barefoot, there is a sudden flock of men expressing concern over my toes. (No one seems to care about the welfare of Luke’s toes.)
Ten minutes after the game is over, there are six of us crammed into one small Fiat. Fares and Lamin—who we’ve just met—want us to hear the music of Marseille, so we are apparently on our way to a rap studio.
Luke is submerged beneath me, my head’s hitting the ceiling, and Ryan is trying to film without elbowing Ferg’s face. Lamin, a Gambian who has taught himself French in the one year he’s been here, is in the passenger seat. In the driver’s seat is Fares, who tells us as he weaves through cars, “I’m Algerian, like Zidane.”
We meet a group that plays with Soprano, the most famous rapper in France. “This city, our heart beats for football. When the football is good, the people are happy. Zizou is from here, Drogba played here, this is the center of French football.”
They freestyle a few songs for us—one of them juggling as he raps—and then they start a game of two-v-twos that ends after we dislodge two ceiling-panels.
That night, we have dinner with Fares’s family. Because we’ve played soccer with their son, they take us into their home and feed us a giant meal—fried dough filled with aged cheese, roasted chicken, homemade Algerian bread, and French pastries. “This is how we are in Marseille,” they say, shrugging off our thanks. “Everyone is welcome.”
Back at Le Pointu, the bar beneath our apartment, Ryan’s bag has arrived, only seven days late. Ryan has spent the last week wearing Ferg’s warm-up pants, Luke’s green t-shirt, and plaid whitie-tighties purchased at the French Quick-Mart. So it is a big moment to see his bag propped up against the bar.
We play one more game before we leave the city. We come across a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds lounging on a soccer court, taking turns attempting to chip the ball at the cross bar.
Some games have a life to them that others don’t and there’s no telling when you’re going to find it and when you’re not, but these teenagers have it—there’s a jazz to their game, a kind of intense exuberance, lots of joking, lots of sudden rage, lots of dancing, with and without the ball.
When the game ends, they take out a cell phone and use the ring tone to dance one at a time before the group. One kid has giant diamond earrings and a Gucci purse—he is ridiculously good at both football and dancing. The kid who speaks English tells me, “It’s a kind of African dancing—they are always inventing new stuff and bringing it back to Marseille.” As they move from dancing to freestyle rapping, he tells me, “Music and football are what matter here.”