A Curious Sense of Diversity: Martha’s Vineyard

When I used to think of the quintessential New England, I automatically thought of lobster rolls, ‘Hahvahd Yahd’, and Tom Brady. Now, I think of Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha’s Vineyard is the premier vacation hot spot for primarily white, Vineyard Vines wearing middle and upper class folks. At just a 40-minute ferry ride away from mainland, the Vineyard affords these people a classy getaway for relatively cheap – a round-trip totals to $17 (that’s if the BMW is left in the garage). Upon further research via the Washington Post, Oak Bluffs – the part of the island my friends and I were headed to – is known as the “Black Hamptons”, a mecca for the “Black Elite”. I would reserve my judgment for the trip.

Don’t let the cheap ferry price fool you. Everywhere else on the island might as well have had “tourist trap” tacked onto their doors.  A scoop of ice cream will set you back $5 (plus tax). A margarita, mixed sans tequila, will set you back even further at $13. A ten-minute taxi ride will cost you upwards of $30.

Naturally, we scoped out the free options.

Among our limited options, we stumbled upon the famous gingerbread cottages. Not to be confused with actual gingerbread houses, the neighborhood seemed to be simply one cottage duplicated many, many times. On closer look, each house had its own personality and distinctive characteristics. One was covered in an atrocious bubblegum pink while another was painted in soft purple. Yet another house was painted in contrasting navy and burgundy tones. Even more odd: the houses were named. From “The Millers” to “La Vie en Rose”, each name complimented the eclectic style in which the individual house was designed.

Upon leaving the neighborhood, I had the distinct feeling that I had just taken a turn around Whoville.

Or perhaps a ghost town. It was eerie to walk amongst the cottages. We did see the residents here and there, but for the most part, the houses stood empty. They seemed to be from another era. One thing that really stuck out was the conformity among the houses. Despite the range of colors, the cottages were all the same. It was a little disconcerting, frankly.

We eventually made our way across the island to a little lighthouse. My friends and I were dropped off in front of Harbor View Hotel. Here, I found my imagined stereotype come to life. Here were the upper middle class vacationers with varying degrees of tans. Here were the houses with impeccably cured lawns.

The rocky shores that greeted us as we first docked on the island were in direct contrast with this manicured picture. Families of all walks of life lounged around the shore in the former while in the latter, the people, proudly sporting their Vineyard Vines polos and caps, were the ones we jokingly scoffed at.

We made our way back to our original place in Oak Bluffs, a place we felt more comfortable in. Besides, the $5 entrance fee to the lighthouse barely taller than the hotel served as an effective barrier on the other side of the island.

People, from the rapid Spanish speaking family to the nuclear Indian family to the straight out of Fourth of July couple, crowded the nearby grass and sand. The mix of languages and people was fascinating, something I had not expected from a place called Martha’s Vineyard.

Bottom line: as we too lounged near the rocky shores of Oak Bluffs, it was clear to me that perhaps I was wrong in judging the Vineyard too soon. Yes, it definitely had my imagined stereotypes, but it also had a growing rich (and dare I say, diverse) culture. That’s how I’ve also come to see New England and so yes, for me, the quintessential New England is Martha’s Vineyard.

Marseilles (revised)

Marseilles, despite its attractive location in southern France, is not the type of place you choose for the idyllic vacation spot – especially if you don’t speak a lick of French.

The adventure begins at the airport, Marseille Provence Airport. It’s already noon. With two main terminals, the airport is simple to navigate. Follow the other frantic-looking tourists to the buses. Take caution, though, as some tourists have organized transportation. Men and women in neon orange vests will set you in the right direction to buy tickets and board the correct bus.

After a 30 minute ride, the bus will deposit you at a two floor train station. Step outside, and on a good day, the view will be breathtaking.

Though the city’s buildings are obscured with graffiti, the sun will peek out in greeting. That elation felt when taking in the city for the first time seems to slowly disappear as you realize just how many steps there are to ground level. To sum it up: too many.

Take a breath or two at the bottom of the steps and make your way to the accommodation. For a college student on a budget, a dingy (read: cozy) hostel will suffice. This humble student suggests Vertigo Centre, the one located next to the train station. Traveling is a breeze, and it’s a short 15 minute walk from Vieux Port.

Ah, Vieux Port.

Make your way there as soon as possible. You’ll be walking down a street with a view of the ocean. However, once you hit the end of the street, you will realize why Marseilles is known for being a city of trade.

Kids are running, laughing and playing in the way schoolchildren do. Fishmongers are displaying their fine catches, ready to swindle you out of a pretty euro. Families gather in line to take a ride on the enormous Ferris Wheel, a treat on a fine spring day.

The people are loud, rowdy even. Shrewd as they are, they know the stench of tourist and seem to gravitate away from it. Even so, make an effort to learn about the fish being sold at the bazaar-like markets.

Take the next boat to Chateau D’If. As you leave the port, the surrounding ripples in the turquoise water and the jagged rock formations seem to transport you to somewhere entirely different. Maybe that’s the point – after all, Chateau D’If is the backdrop to Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

D’If is a spit of an island. Originally, it was a fortress built in the early 1500s. Almost two centuries later, the fortress was converted into a prison. Today, nature reigns supreme on the island. Grass grows in every crevice while seagulls serve as watchdogs of the former prison.

Once you’ve had your fill, take the next ferry back to the mainland. Take a moment to decompress with a steaming shot of expresso – the rich flavors are unlike any other.

As the sun begins to set, you’ll begin the return to the hostel. Marseilles in the dark is not a particular palatable place, but you can’t help but dwell on how much more there is so much more to see. The Calanques offer you the chance of a lifetime to walk into a postcard of views. The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde boasts killer views of the city – if you’re willing to make the uphill journey.

You will realize that it is not these landmarks that make the city.

Rather, it’s the gritty people. Graffiti-covered buildings. Trash-filled streets. There is a certain resilience about Marseilles that is fascinating.

Marseilles is not the type of place you choose for a vacation spot. Marseilles is the type of place you choose to see what life is like outside of your own realm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marseilles: Leave the Tourist in You Behind

Marseilles, despite its attractive location in southern France, is not the type of place you choose for idyllic vacation spot – especially if you can’t speak a lick of French.

The city’s buildings are obscured with graffiti while the streets are littered with trash. The people are loud, rowdy even. Shrewd as they are, they know the stench of tourist and seem to gravitate away from it.

Not all is as it seems.

Make the effort of a simple greeting – “bonjour” – and you’ll quite literally see a frown turn upside down. There’s nothing like a tourist willing to make an effort and blend in to the locals. This effort is not unrewarded. The graffiti, previously seen as filth, holds more meaning than you thought possible.

If you’re willing to truly live like the locals and “brave” the public transportation, even more surprises await.

An hour out of the heart of Marseilles resides the Calanques – their equivalent of a national park. It’s really a game of “pick your own adventure”. You’ll choose Sugiton, no doubt. It’s the path of least resistance with the greatest reward.

Prepare yourself: you’re going to be walking into a literal postcard.

Any dread at the thought of having an uphill hike on the way back dissipates as you take in the sheer beauty of the Calanque de Sugiton. The rock formations create a small inlet leading to a small natural beach, perfect for a picnic lunch. A packed meal of chicken salad becomes five star cuisine because with this scenery, how could it not be?

Later, back in the heart of the city, you reflect on Marseilles. It still is not the ideal vacation spot. When night falls, the city feels unsafe. The people blend into the poorly-lit streets and your heart pounds because you are a tourist in a relatively unknown city – a woman at that. Still, even as you buzz into the hostel that you call home for the weekend, you feel a sense of respect for the resilience the city has.

Marseilles commands you to shed your comfort – Yelp only gave this restaurant three stars…let’s keep walking? – in exchange for experiencing the city like a local, even if it’s only for a day or two.