BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
My flight landed in Marseille at 10:30 in the morning. I was coming from Yerevan via a two-hour overlay in Athens.
I collected my heavy luggage from the carousel. Then I trudged to the information desk. I wanted to know which option would be better—either to take a shuttle or to take a taxi to Marseille. The smiling young attendant at the desk told me that the shuttle bus would be my best bet.
The bus was going to drop us at the train station at Marseille, (Gare de Saint Charles) where a week ago a crazy guy had stabbed and killed two women. That was scary. But my host at the airbnb had assured me that there was no reason to be scared because it was an isolated incident.
Before heading to the shuttle bus, I grabbed a sandwich from Burger King then hauled my two heavy suitcases to the short distance to the bus station. I paid only $10 for the bus. I made a mental note to myself, ”Next time I will pack very light…”
The shuttle drove none-stop to Saint Charles station, from there I took a taxi to my room which I had booked through the airbnb site. The taxi driver, contrary to my assumption, was helpful and didn’t rob me. He stopped at an ATM, so I could take out some money. the fare for the taxi came to 12 Euro, I tipped him a few extra Euros and he thanked and helped me with my luggage.
A few months earlier when I had decided to visit Marseille, a well traveled friend discouraged me from going there. She said, “I didn’t enjoy Marseille at all. The city was dirty, unsafe and full of ethnic Arabs.” I’m glad I didn’t listen to her.
My first impression from the airport and then from Charles’ train station and then from the taxi driver, was very good. Everything looked clean and the people were sociable and ready to help. Both at the airport and the station there were guards with automatic fire arms. That seemed little creepy but in the mean time their presence made me to feel safe.
I arrived at my room around one in the afternoon. My host welcomed me.
I was very tired, because I had not slept the night before and I had only dozed off on the plane. So I passed out on my bed.
At around 5pm after I got rested a bit, I went walking to the “Vieux Port” or the old port. It’s one of the oldest harbors/ports in the world. My host assured me the violent crime that Marseille is known for often happens in the neighborhoods outside of the touristic areas. She also said to be aware of pickpockets and the gypsies which are roaming all over Europe.
As my host had mentioned, the sunset at the port was magnificent. I was able to capture a few marvelous pictures of the sunset along side of the port. Then I had a simple dinner at a cafe and very satisfied returned home.
This little escapade set the tone for me to love the city and the people whom I found to be extremely friendly and helpful. In the sense of cleanliness, it was no different than any other big city around the world or maybe even cleaner.
Walking by the sidewalks, on my way to the Old Port I passed a few homes that they had pretty arrangements of plants in pots outside of their windows and on the sidewalks too. I had never seen a similar set up anywhere.
While I was strolling at the Old Port, there I saw a guy, wearing a special city uniform, walking around with a stick and garbage cans on a cart. He was picking up trash that was laying around on the sides. I took a picture of him.
A woman saw me taking the snapshot and asked, “why did you take a picture? don’t you have people in your country who pick up trash?” I said, “As a matter of fact, no we don’t have.”
My purpose of coming to Marseille was to meet the Armenian community whose presence in Marseille goes back to the 15th century when Armenian merchants settled their. The current population, however, is mainly the result of immigration from the late 19th and early 20th century, from Turkey.
Although, the majority of immigrants arrived in Marseille following the genocide, a second wave came during the Soviet Union years. The most recent generation of Armenians who arrived in Marseille are from Armenia who left the country to find better living situations in France.
I had put aside the following day to explore the Armenian community in Marseille where about 100,000 Armenians reside. First on my agenda was to see the park or the square that the city of Marseille had dedicated it to an Armenian Revolutionary character Soghomon Tehlirian, who is considered a national hero by Armenians.
Tehlirian was the guy who assassinated Talaat Pasha, the main architect of the Armenian Genocide in Berlin on March 15 1921. In a two day trial, Tehlirian was found not guilty by the German court, and was freed.
The next morning my host walked with me to the nearest metro station (Noaille) and told me how to buy a ticket and what direction to take to go to the park. After getting my ticket I took the escalators downstairs. There I saw a shoe repair kiosk. I stopped to ask if I was on the right direction.
I said in French, “Sorry to bother you. Can you tell me how to get to this address.” I showed him the address that I had written on a piece of paper. And he said, “Why don’t you speak in Armenian. Don’t you see the Armenian flag up there?” What? No, I had not seen the flag. That was a pleasant surprise.
Raffi Khozian owned that shoe repair kiosk at Noailles metro for 27 years. He knew the Soghomon Tehlirian park and the Hamazkayin school that I wanted to visit. He gave me the exact direction of how to get there, which was at the opposite end of the town. He wrote the direction on a piece of paper with all the bus and metro changes and connections.
So I got on the metro for the first leg of my adventure. There, right across from my seat, in the metro, a young girl was sitting. To make sure I was on the correct track, I asked her about the station that I was going to come out and she said that she was heading to the same station.
As we exited together out of the metro, I asked her if I could use her phone to call the woman that I was going to meet her in the afternoon. She let me use her phone. She called the number for me. I started to speak Armenian, and the girl began to laugh and said, “Oh, you’re Armenian!!” So she was Armenian too. Another surprise…
That phone call solidified my meeting with Hermine Duzian, the director of the AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union) in Marseille. She said that she will come to meet me at the next metro station at Palais des Sports at 12 noon.
I continued my way towards the park to see the Soghomon Tehlirian’s statue. On my way I noticed a swap meet. So I thought to stop there because I wanted to buy a windbreaker jacket to have it in case the weather in Paris would be windy and cold.
As I was browsing in the isles, I heard some men talking in Armenian. I approached and asked them about the direction to the park. One of them said that, there’s no need to go to the park, because the statue of Soghomon Tehlirian was not installed yet. Interestingly he had the picture of the statue on his phone and he emailed it to me.
That saved me the walk to the park and I returned to the metro station where I was going to meet with Hermine. Since I had plenty of time, I stopped at a café and had a shawarma sandwich. Ethnic food is very common in Marseille and in Paris too.
I met Hermine at 12 noon. We walked together to the Armenian church which was in walking distance. Hermine said that the church was the largest of all 9 other Armenian churches in Marseille. It was consecrated and inaugurated in 1931. The Cathedral was named St. Sahak and St. Mesrob Tarkmanchatz.
At the church office I met Khachik Yilmazian who is the choir director of the church. He was originally from Istanbul, Turkey. But he had gone to Germany for his music education. And from Germany had come to France. He had founded the church choir about 40 years ago in 1977.
Within the last 40 years the choir, which has about 50 members have travelled to numerous European cities and have given recitals. I should add that he was extremely enthusiastic about his job.
He wanted me to jot down all the fundraising activities and the recitals that the choir has participated. After the short visit of the Cathedral Hermine invited me to have coffee at a nearby café.
Hermine was born in Lebanon and had been involved with AGBU since she was 7 years old. Today she’s the Chief Coordinator of AGBU Diaspora Youth Program in Europe and in Armenia.
For the last 10 years she has divided her time between the offices of AGBU in Yerevan and Marseille. I was lucky to be in Marseille the day she was there too. She had arrived from Paris the night before and was going to stay in Marseille for a week.
Every year, she organizes several camps for Armenian kids from all around the world. The upcoming camp will be a ski camp at the end of February for one week for children aged 8-16 in France.
The 3-week summer camp called Colonie de Vacances in July is for kids from different countries ages 7 to 15. The campsite is at the border of Switzerland and France, at Haute Savoie region. They accommodate 100 kids and they have many entertaining programs to make the camp more pleasant and appealing to kids. This coming year in 2018 they will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the camp.
Every August since 2003, Hermine has organized a three-week trip to Armenia for teenagers aged 15-18. For this program kids come from many countries, including: France, Switzerland, Turkey, USA, Canada, Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Bulgaria, UAE and many more.
After our little conversation and coffee, we headed back to the metro. I wanted to visit the Hamazkayin Armenian school and she was going to the AGBU office.
While I’m on the subject of AGBU let me add that the organization has been extremely active in France, especially in Marseille.
On June 26 2010 AGBU celebrated its 100 anniversary by organizing a special centennial gala at the Palais du Pharo in Marseillle. More than 200 people attended, including Hranoush Hakobian, the Diaspora Minister of the Republic of Armenia.
Also, the day before the hundred anniversary a roundabout in the suburbs of Marseille, was inaugurated and named “rond-point Hrant Dink,” in memory of the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated January 19, 2007 in Istanbul.
For more than 100 years Marseille has been a cradle of the Armenian diaspora in France and has welcomed refugees, in different waves, starting from the victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
I’m going to leave you at this corner in Marseille, and continue about my visit of Hamazkayin school in my next column.