At first glance, Marseille is a sprawling harbour city, with restaurants and bars stretching from end to end. But just one street back and away from this central hub and you’ll find small squares bustling with friendly locals, affordable beer and multicultural food.
After a delicious dinner of mussels and frites down on the harbour, we went looking for a bar recommended to us by a waiter. Bar Jac is open til 2am, which was our main motivation for going. Most bars shut at 10pm and it was already almost 11. We found Bar Jac in a square, Place de Leche, just a short distance from the harbour – but it couldn’t be more different. Tables and chairs are scattered down the incline at angles conducive to conversation rather than density. The air is convivial; everyone knows someone else and the bar man knows everyone – even us, and we’ve only just arrived.
He carries his tray in his left hand permanently. It never budges no matter how laden. He moves through the tables like a dancer, like a ring master. There is no doubting who is in control. He yells out to a table how much they owe as he takes another table’s order. We order in French, he answers us in English. A patron attempts to move some seats.
“Hey!” the waiter yells out. The patron looks worried. “When you go to a restaurant, do you go into the kitchen and start chopping up the vegetables? No? Then put those chairs down and let me do my job!” And with a tray still full of drinks, he picks up two chairs in his other hand, holds them aloft and carries them to the patron’s table.
It goes without saying, he never spills a drop.
With his singlet emblazoned with “loser” and his thick rimmed nerdy glasses, he’s anything but. He is too genuine, too in control, too completely assured to be what I would call a hipster, although perhaps I don’t have a proper handle on that term. To me, a hipster is a man who touches his moustache the moment he walks into a room, the man who grows a beard because he doesn’t know what to do with his hands.
Our waiter will never grow a beard.
One of the joys of travelling is stumbling on to out of the way places like this. Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of tourists. It’s no hidden gem. But like Lavapies in Madrid, it felt like our discovery, our not-so-hidden gem.
The little square just back from the harbour in Marseille is its own special place, and ours now, too.
Just like the waiter, who is definitely his own man – but because every movement he makes tells a story, he belongs to everybody.