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How to Speak Like a True Marseillais


Photo by Caroline Marongiu-Ingargiola

Ah, Marseille! It only takes one visit to fall in love with the sound of cicadas, the smell of the sea, and its famous sing-song accent. The second largest city in France after Paris, Marseille is a culturally rich and diverse city. Located on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, the Marseillais people come from Italy, Spain and North Africa, making Marseille a true melting pot. It isn’t just a city, it’s the city to visit in France.

I already hear the protests, “Why? It isn’t Paris?Malheureux, va! [ma.lœ.ʁø] (Little devil)! If you want to meet warm and friendly people and not have any trouble, please don’t mention Paris while you are in Marseille. It’s like saying LA is the best city and has the best baseball team to someone from San Francisco. The rivalry between Paris and Marseille is most notable, maybe, because Marseille has all the best of France. We have beautiful beaches, more than 300 sunny days each year, the Calanques [kalɑ̃k], the best food—prepared with olive oil, no butter, please—and a rich history. In Paris, let me think, they have… the rain and Paris Plage. What is Paris Plage? It’s a joke! During the summer, the city throws sand on the quays of the Seine and people lay on the banks of the river and pretend they are at the beach. In Marseille, even though we like saying we are a city full of gangsters, the people are quite friendly–not like in Paris, where the people are as cold as the weather.

The real rivalry is between the cities’ soccer teams, L’Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint Germain. In Marseille, we have the best fans in the world, while in Paris, they try. In Marseille, soccer is a religion, in Paris it’s just money. But even with all the money, there is one thing that they can’t steal: our pride to be Marseillais.

Courtesy of Thibault Houspic

Calanque d’En-Vau, courtesy of Thibault Houspic

The city’s culture is rich and unique, and is reflected in the way people speak. Marseille is a city of exaggeration. For example, when someone is late, we say “I’ve been waiting for, like one hour,” or even “Gosh, I’ve been waiting for 100 years.” We say that even if we‘ve only been waiting about 20 minutes. The city also has its own vocabulary, of course there is the Provençal dialect from the South, but we also have some very Marseille-specific expressions. Here are some examples:

T’es en bois” (You’re in wood) means that you are really bad for something.

Vé moi ce boucan!”[bu.kɑ̃] or “Chapacan” [tʃa.pa.kɑ],  has  three different meanings:

  1. The person isn’t good-looking.
  2. He/she likes making messes.
  3. Making noises.

Un cabanon” is a small space without comfort. The word is used to describe a small, rustic shack on the beach.

Un cafoutche” is a small storage room for things you don’t use but don’t want to get rid of.

Une cagole” [ka.ɡɔl] is the stereotypical girl from Marseille. Typically she has a heavy accent, is not very clever, uses too much make-up, wears a jogging suit or a short skirt, and is always chewing gum. Cagole is usually used for girls who aren’t natural beauties. A cagole ia girl with exaggerated qualities, similar to the famous Jersey girl in America. For a man, we say, KéKé [ke.ke]

Je vais caner”, literally means “I am gonna die”. Of course, now you understand that people from Marseille like to exaggerate. You use this expression when something is boring, long and tiring. So don’t call an ambulance if someone tells you that.

Y a dégun” [de.ɡœ]̃ means that there is nobody, that a place is empty or filled with just few people. The opposite is cafi.

Arrête de m’emboucaner”, has three three meanings:

  1. Take somebody for an idiot.
  2. Have a heated argument.
  3. Smell bad, to stink.

Fada” means that a person is crazy.

Marronner” [ma.ʁɔ.ne] is to act in bad faith, to sulk.

Se faire pointer” is to refuse someone entry to a party or a place. Essentially, to turn someone away.

Un pastaga” — You have to know this one because it means Pastis, the famous anis flavored liquor from Marseille. You can also say, un 51, un Ricard, un petit jaune… We typically drink Pastis with ice and water.

Minot” refers to a child, or someone young.

Mettre un taqué” means to slap someone.

Etre esquiché” is to be squished. Specifically when a place is very crowded, and you are in a tight space.

Ton t.shirt est réné” means that your t-shirt is ugly and old. This word is used to describe something or someone who is out of style, or simply bad.

Etre tarpin beau / belle” [taʁ.pɛ̃] to define someone or something very beautiful, or with a good taste. Tarpin means very, a lot.

Vas te jeter!” This means to “go throw yourself.” However, if someone tells you that, please don’t think that we you want to commit suicide. It’s an expression used to force somebody to leave. This is similar to “get lost.”

J’ai quillé le ballon” means something is stuck somewhere and it’s inaccessible. For example, losing a ball because it is stuck in a tree and it is too high to reach.

Se bastonner” [bɑs.tɔ.ne] means to fight!

Oh fan de chichoune!” This is used to express the deepest surprise, or annoyance.

Il faut aller chercher Molinari” Litterally this means “we need go find Molinari.” This expression is used to describe having an insoluble problem and that you need help. There are several stories about the identity of Molinari. One of them, date of 1826, where Mister de Rocheplatte have to come in Marseille to help the Egyptian frigate. The person who will help him to get in the sea will be the very skillful Mister Molinari.

Oh mazette!”  [ma.zɛt] is an exclamation used to express admiration.

Peuchère” [pø.ʃɛʁ] two meanings

  1. That a person is unlucky or unfortunate.
  2. To show pity.

Une rengaine” [ʁɑ̃ɡɛn] is something that we repeat a lot, like an old story.

Faire Fanny”, is an expression to use when someone loses a game. We can also use, “Embrasser Fanny, Etre Fanny, or Se prendre une Fanny.” “Kiss Fanny” means kiss the bottom of a woman named Fanny. Usually using during the game la pétanque [petɑ̃k], which is similar game to bocce ball.

“Kissing Fanny” postcard from 1896

Escagasser”[ɛs.ka.ɡa.se] has two meanings:

  1. To annoy somebody
  2. To damage something

Mains de Pati” (broken hands)  is an expression that is usually used when someone spills his glass or breaks it. This means that a person is awkward and clumsy. This is similar to the expression “butterfingers”.

La Bonne Mère” (The Good Mother) is a familiar and affectionate name for the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde.

The list will be longer if I kept writing, but I let you discover other expressions on your own. Last piece of advice: In Marseille we don’t use punctuation at the end of the sentence, but just some poetic words such as, “Putain, con, merde…” you’ll get the hang of it.

Yes, my dear travelers, Marseille is a city full of surprises, which will either seduce you or drive you crazy.

Oh! I almost forgot, please don’t put an “s” at the end of Marseille, this city is unique. We don’t need a plural when there is only one Marseille.

Off the Beaten Track: Berlin’s Kreuzberg

Admittedly, when entering the easternmost part of Berlin’s Kreuzberg via the Oberbaumbrücke, the place feels run-down and grungy. Whether it’s because of the bridge’s dark stoned tunnel or the drunk German selling beers out of his cooler, the area’s entrance can hardly be perceived as welcoming. However, think twice before turning around and fleeing for the nearest outbound train because once immersed in eastern Kreuzberg’s bustling street life, alternative atmosphere and immigrant culture, you’ll find yourself appreciating its rough edges.

Start off your visit with wandering the neighborhood; by far the easiest and most rewarding means of exploration. Allow your nose to lead the way to one of many fragrant Arabic groceries and German Konditoreien (bakeries). Plunge down Kuchenkiste for an assortment of modern-twisted pastries, cakes, or pies. Then end your stroll in popular, but so-sketchy-it’s-beautiful, Görlitzer Park, once the site of Berlin’s main railway stations. Awe-inspiring street art can be found throughout the area. Consider taking the Public Art Tour for a selection of the most impressive works. You might want to rent a bike from either one of three Rent a Bike locations if you intend to spare your feet for late-night dancing.

Photo by Flickr user: grahamc99 CC2.0

Photo by Flickr user: grahamc99 CC2.0

A hoisted flag, waving in the wind, is the only thing missing, proclaiming the neighborhood to be hipsters territory. But then again, wouldn’t that be too obvious, for hipster standards? Surrounded by graffiti-sprayed garage doors, CHAoS iN fORm is one of the area’s hippest boutiques. Their racks are stuffed with everything from haute couture to carnival outfits and beloved by a hipster clientel. Live mannequins can best be spotted during evenings. It’s hard to miss their well-groomed appearances, quirky fashion statements, and organic noshing habits.

Speaking of noshing; Burgermeister serves some of the best burgers in Berlin. Housed in a small shack, sheltered by overhead U-bahn tracks and flanked by busy Oberbaumstraße, it is the perfect urban setting to reflect on the day’s encounters and experiences. Are you, like me, travelling on a budget? Pizzeria La Romantica wins you over on its richly-topped 3-6 euro pizzas. However, don’t let the name lure you into bringing a date; it simply doesn’t deliver on romance. Instead, take your date to Treinta Y Seis; their affordable Mexican dishes and hot sauce, will fire up the conversation. When craving German classics (think Frankfurters, Schnitzels, and Strudels) there are basically two options: fine dining in traditional Kattelbach or finger-licking grub at Frau Rauscher’s.

After dinner the neighborhood comes to life as nocturnal party flocks, varying from smooth mid-town folks to eccentric youngsters, find their way to two of the city’s biggest night clubs: Tresor and Watergate. Spooky and industrial-looking Berghain is located a stone’s throw away. Temper illusions of busting your signature moves on the clubs’ dance floors; it’s notoriously hard to get past the giants at the door. Kicked up too much of a fuss? Hide from angry bouncers in one of Kreuzberg’s superb underground bars. Try Madame Claude for a truly disorienting experience: it has an upside down interior! Café Wendel is an excellent runner-up. Sink into retro sofas and sip their quirky Gekko Mate soda. If you think dancing fiercely burned enough calories to treat yourself to a late night snack, Delikato’s kebab brings you that much closer to heaven.

Sehraya shisha lounge in central Kreuzberg offers a more relaxing environment. Its two-story Middle-Eastern interior is both atmospheric and incredibly kitsch. They offer more tobacco flavors than I can name fruits, and their menu is perfect for some Egyptian treats or nachos. Others might prefer an alternative film screening in Central Kino. To get there, duck into a narrow alleyway on Rosenthaler Straße (in Berlin Mitte) and pass metal artworks and mustached men.

Although the virus that covers buildings with  graffiti and infects humans with artistic juices has spread to adjacent Neuköln and north-west Wedding, Kreuzberg remains home to Berlin’s alternative spirit. For years the area has been presenting itself as a greased up laborer but, much like the undercover bosses in the eponymous TV show, finally reveals to be an upright power house of Berlin neighborhoods.

Off the Beaten Track: Introduction

Contributing writer Tom Aussems from The Netherlands introduces a new blog series focusing on  unique neighborhoods around the world. Each segment of this series highlights an interesting niche of a major city that proves to be amazing and off the beaten track.

The power went out in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. Tucked away in a cobblestoned alleyway, it was quite the adventure to make it back to the room. The run-down hotel showed little aspiration of earning a second star, with its springy bed, stale croissants, and magnificent views of the next-door neighbor’s toilet. However, that particular trip to one of Paris’ shabbiest neighborhoods sparked a desire to absorb local culture and follow paths less traveled. Eating airy sugar-coated crêpes, sipping soda in smoky cafes and strolling Clignancourt’s anonymous streets might not be mentioned in tourist guides, but these experiences prove to be more fulfilling than anything offered in pre-packaged deals. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself staring at real estate pamphlets, daydreaming of becoming part of the neighborhood, rather than merely visiting.

An authentic and vibrant local lifestyle unfolds away from downtown’s silly dance: a bunch of tourists sprinting in the same direction, queuing up for coffee, and taking pictures of street signs. Wandering through these areas, where hop-on-hop-off buses are banned and big retail chains are unwanted, puts travelers in locals’ rather than tourists’ shoes. Captivated by the Eden-like neighborhood atmosphere, travelers create lifetime memories and develop a strong desire to experience a feeling of belonging. Ultimately, that is what makes traveling and discovering new places so rewarding.

Flickr - Neighborhood Charm

Photo by Flickr user: Shadowgate CC2.0

This series attempts to focus on neighborhoods that may not appear on a typical tourist’s list, but nonetheless, offer unique local vibes. Due to snobbish traits or indulgent motives, sheer simplicity is often overlooked when travelling. Thankfully, invaluable experiences don’t usually require a fat wallet. Just forget about the nearest cathedral for a second. Take a break and settle down on a bench in the shade of a hidden parklet with a locally brewed tallboy. Throw away the travel book and rely on your senses to lead your way to neighborhood gems, completely off the beaten track.