I had originally planned to post another article today, but with Armageddon descending on South Texas today (otherwise known as Hurricane Harvey), I felt an irresistible urge to write a completely new post, in case, well, you know.
Like many others, I imagine, when I am faced with human mortality I rapidly ruminate and enumerate my numerous regrets and unfulfilled dreams. Other than never successfully performing a cartwheel, most of my regrets center around travel and places that I have never been: St. Petersburg, Vietnam, and above all, the Dalmatian Coast.
None of those are my focus here. Instead, on the precipice of a Cat 1, no Cat 2, no Cat 3 (and perhaps a Cat 4) hurricane, I am thinking most about a place I have already been, albeit briefly.
I have spent most of my life checking boxes—once visited, I usually did not see much of a point to return since time is notoriously finite and ever since I was a child, the goal was always to complete all items on the list, be it homework assignments or household chores.
But today was different.
As I stood in line at Costco, my cart full of provisions for the coming storm (I checked all those boxes…except water—who is buying all the water?—pending natural disasters bring out the worst in all of us it seems: “Why do I need 956 bottles of Kirkland water? What? You want me to leave some for others? Um. No.”), I received a text from a friend of mine in Marseille. It was a picture of his lovely wife, seated at La Boîte à Sardine, a smallish restaurant in the heart of the city that is only open for lunch (Tuesday through Saturday) and dinner (Thursday and Friday).
Last fall, at the end of a trip to Provence, I caught a train from Aix-en-Provence down to France’s second largest city. I have been to France countless times over the last three decades, spending significant time in just about every region of the country, but I had never been to Marseille.
In all my years first studying French and then working there in the summers, the refrain concerning Marseille remained rather constant: “Oh, you don’t want to go to Marseille, it is full of criminals and really dangerous.” It was surprising how consistently I heard this sentiment—from my teachers (both in high school and college), my French “mother” (the family with whom I stayed while studying in Strasbourg), and just about every other French person when the city happened to come up in conversation.
It was not a coincidence, it was unanimity.
So, pretty much from the beginning of my exposure to the French language, I learned that the oldest city in France was to avoided like the plague.
Yet there I was on a particularly stormy Friday afternoon, tethered to my iPhone’s GPS, strolling through the charming city, on my way to La Boîte à Sardine to meet my buddy Christophe, the export manager for Château la Nerthe, the oldest winery in Châteauneuf-du Pape.
I made it to the restaurant a few minutes before our scheduled rendez-vous, which enabled a brief, unfettered meeting with the restaurant’s proprietor, Fabien Rugi.
Despite the heavy rain storm outside, the restaurant was packed (I avoided the obvious pun here) and Fabien, through his thick Provençal accent, seemed more than a bit perturbed that I was waiting for a friend before ordering, commanding a table that could have been filled by a few of the potential patrons huddled beneath their umbrellas just beyond the front door.
All was forgiven moments later, however, when Christophe arrived. Soon, the food and wine started flowing to the table: several dishes of some of the freshest fish I have ever eaten, and bottle after bottle of Château la Nerthe Blanc.
Château la Nerthe makes incredible red wines (the Cuvée des Cadettes and the Clos de Beauvenir are ethereal), but the white is other-worldly: fruity yet refined with depth and a lasting finish, by far one of my favorite wines.
We stayed at La Boîte for most of the afternoon, drinking through all the 2014 la Nerthe on hand, and then the 2015, eventually moving on to other wines, and then beer. I likely gained close to ten pounds during that three (or was it four?) hour lunch, but when presented with such an incredible array of food and drink, you delve right in.
Needless to say, perhaps, the rest of my stay in Marseille is blurry at best, but as the rain has started to fall here in Houston, I have a new box to check—I need to get back to Marseille and La Boîte à Sardine.