Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

The opening lyrics of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” may seem commonplace, but on the eve of my move to Marseille, they came to me again and again. As with any move, I felt overwhelmed by many things: the emotion of saying goodbye to all that was familiar in the US; the anticipation and excitement of arriving in unchartered territory and throwing myself into the unknown; the apprehension of failure and fear of missing out on some intangible opportunity, elsewhere. Most of all, I felt disbelief that, after over a year of committing to my moving project in France and a lifetime of dreaming, it was finally coming to fruition.

By the time I stepped on to the plane, I had stopped feeling and was just going. It was more surreal than sentimental. And then the moment was gone, and we were taking off, and through my window, the Boston skyline grew smaller as the red sunset ate up my view.

It’s been a few weeks since I touched down in Marseille, and everything has both the glossy allure and exhausting challenge of being new. I underestimated how much culture shock I would feel – after all, I grew up an expat, didn’t I? – so I am learning to adjust and take it slow. Although I studied abroad in France, it’s still tiring re-learning all the tricks and adapting to a new life.

I have yet to draw conclusions about this city, but I do have a couple of first impressions that are alternately surprising in delightful and frustrating ways.

It’s a living, breathing paradox

Marseille seems to be at once full of life, vibrant and chaotic, yet also relaxed and slow, a true Provençal stereotype. Scooters buzz by my window all day and all night, but the lights in the widows all go out around eleven. My neighbors blast reggae and rap at 8am, then take midday naps after lunch. Marseille is nothing if not versatile.

She’s a gritty beauty

In the 70s and 80s, this ancient capital had a reputation for being the dirtiest city in France. With all the dog lovers in this city, it’s still far from pristine – you definitely have to watch your step. But the city invested heavily in beautifying the centre ville for the European Capital of Culture spotlight this year. And there is no setting more breathtaking than the pink and purple sunset reflecting off the Mediterranean each night at sunset.


Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

To go hand in hand with its gritty image, Marseille is also a little rough around the edges. While I’ve never felt actively unsafe when out alone, I have noticed the general trend that few women are alone outside or in the metro for long periods of time. It seems as if you either have a scooter, vehicle, or escort (in the form of a friend).

I’m looking forward to digging beyond the first impressions and seeing how much I agree with myself, 6 months from now. Do you have first impressions of a new place that were totally on, or totally off?

In the meantime – here’s to the real life, here’s to the fantasy.