Saturday, January 20, 2007

something amazing every day

(This essay is dedicated to Hannah, who encourages me, especially when I feel lonely, to find something amazing every day.)

You might think, as I used to, that among locations near our apartment, the harbor is a good spot for watching the sunset. You’d be mistaken. The harbor is downhill and surrounded by forts, so what you’ll see from there is a not very satisfying vision of the sun vanishing behind buildings some time before it actually settles beneath the horizon. So while I’ve described before how fun it can be to people-watch at the Vieux Port, it’s not where you want to be au moment du coucher du soleil.

Tonight I walked to La Canebière and turned away from the harbor, up towards L’Eglise des Réformés. I believe I’ve already told how La Canebière is under construction all the way from Les Réformés down to the Vieux Port, but the worst section is towards the harbor, where the sidewalks are reduced to tiny passages, and if you stop to try to watch natural events you’re likely to get swept up in the tide of people. However, due to the curious diagonal intersection of La Canebière and the Allée Léon Gambetta (along whose length I photographed Les Réformés while standing in the Place des Capucines), there’s a sizable plaza right at the foot of the church. It’s substantially uphill from the harbor, so the view of the sun in the evening is superior. Presumably it’s even better to climb into one of the towers of Les Réformés and watch from there. (The doors of the church were closed, however.) Most of the construction of the tramway is done here, although the fences remain up, and there are lines of trees through whose branches the sunlight becomes laced as it reddens. The crowd is thinner, particularly in the square, which isn’t on the way to anywhere as it juts out into the intersection.

The amazing thing I found today was a monument in this square. A monument whose original engraving stated that its purpose is to honor those soldiers from the department of the Bouches-du-Rhône who died defending la patrie in the War of 1870–1871. Wait, which war? I had to look this up when I got home. Those were the dates of the Franco–Prussian War. Léon Gambetta, it turns out, was a statesman during that period who organized an army in Tours during the war, and who continued to fight for a brief period even after Paris surrendered to the Germans. The monument was erected in 1894 and is known as the “Monument des mobiles.” Since then, it has acquired plaques commemorating soldiers lost in wars throughout the 20th century, from the World Wars to the Algerian War to the Korean War.

At the base of the monument are twenty names of locales in the Bouches-du-Rhône that contributed soldiers. Four are distinguished at the corners with theirs coats of arms, crested by miniature stylized fortresses: Marseille, Aix, Arles, and Tarascon. The coat of Arles bears a lion carrying a staff whose top is the chi-rho symbol (superimposed X and P, for the first two letters of Christ). The coat of Tarascon has the city’s castle on the top half and a dragon devouring a person on the bottom. Aix’s coat has vertical stripes on the bottom, a crusader’s cross in the top left corner, and various arrangements of fleurs-de-lis in the top center and top right. Marseille, the department capital, simply has a large cross covering its entire shield.

Marseille can be beautiful in the twilight. I expect that in five or ten years, by which point hopefully the larger part of the construction will be done, it will be a marvelous place to visit. For now, since I’m living here, I need to continue to search out these gems. It’s easy to turn the wrong direction when you walk out on the street. Persistence is key.

No comments: