The first vocabulary word I learned in the parking lot of Marseille-Provence Airport was sécheresse. Lucie Duriez, Cultural Director of La Friche la Belle de Mai, picked me up on her day off. She apologized for the dust on her car.
Since March, she explained, Marseille had been in a declared state of drought, meaning restrictions on water use for activities such as swimming, irrigation, and washing vehicles. There had been very little rainfall all winter, whole months with no precipitation. And now it was spring—typically windy and dry, and still no rain.
I was there to participate in Terres Communes, a conference on urban agriculture and ecology at La Friche. Our small but mighty “Atlanta Delegation” was invited by Villa Albertine’s CITY CITÉ initiative which brought together creatives and activists from Atlanta and Marseille to explore “the role of cultural infrastructure in the making of cities.”
In Duriez’s concern about the drought, I heard the same climate anxiety that presents as the dread of flooding and storms in Atlanta.
In addition to the conference, we were given an ambitious itinerary of visits to urban farms, art centers and creative studios, and radical hikes around the city. Most importantly, I was there to experience Les Aygalades, Marseille’s urban river at the heart of an ongoing ecological restoration project like my work with Finding the Flint. I traveled to Marseille to look for water.
From the airplane, Atlanta and Marseille couldn’t look more different. As we lifted off from my neighborhood near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta sprawled as far as the eye could see. There’s no obvious logic to its form, just endless tangles of highways and suburban ganglia radiating out from a skyscraper spine. Marseille, on the other hand, was concentrated around its seaports, a low and dense circuit board of terracotta rooftops hugged by mountains on one side and the unreal blue of the Mediterranean on the other. Flying in, I hardly recognized a shining belt of water as a river. The Rhône looked utterly artificial, strictly contained, no relation to the brown, meandering, wild-edged rivers of Georgia.
Despite the lack of rainfall, the highway from the airport was lined with banks of bright wildflowers.
The second new word I learned in Lucie’s car was calcaire. From the chalky cliffs to the limestone block building blurring by my window, the pale stone was omnipresent. I would learn that calcaire was what made the Mediterranean waters glow turquoise. The arid limestone prairie made the sunbleached wildflowers bright and the classic herbes de provence fragrant. The unforgiving terrain had this concentrating effect on the people too.
Beyond my sight-seeing impressions of the city—the beaches, the touristy Vieux Port, the view from the Palais du Pharo, beyond even the charming Longchamps district where my AirBnb no doubt annoyed the neighbors, I would encounter a city that very much resembled my hometown. I recognized the people on the streets—young, diverse, disenfranchised, and driven. Marseille was a product of its seaport, Atlanta, its airport, both shaped by waves of immigration and struggle and bizarre and monumental deposits of wealth from foreign investors. Both cities felt dominated by a vast working class of non-White families, hustling to break through in not just business, but art, music, remaking the city. Not only to survive but to achieve immortality.
Somehow, the red poppies and yellow spanish broom were surviving parched roadside conditions. There had to be water somewhere.
Hannah Palmer est invitée dans le cadre du programme de coopération City-Cité | Atlanta – Marseille, coordonné par la Villa Albertine, en partenariat avec la Friche la Belle de Mai.