Life in Marseille France – one year expat impressions

First of all I must mention the fact that I did not live in France, but in Marseille, a city that even many French people say it is not exactly France, and for good reasons. It’s been a year since I first came here with my work. Life in Marseille is not for everyone.

The city is one of strong contrasts, in the center you have the natural harbor and  lovely tourist area of Vieux Port , and just 2 streets away from it, you have Noailles Square, a congested smelly area, full of African minorities, where you hear more Arabic than French. In this place where smuggled cigarettes are sold openly on the street, you feel more like in Morocco and Algeria than in France. Moving away from the city center, we reach the Southern districts where we have the superb Mediterranean areas of Prado and Point Rouge. This wealthy areas come with parks, beaches  and the Calanques mountains view in the background. Coming back to the center of town, if you walk just to the North of Saint Charles Station, you are afraid to keep walking on the street.

Coming from Romania, I didn’t think much of seeing homeless people on the street or sleeping in the tram stops, begging at street corners or minorities hanging around at the entrances of the subway, drinking beer and smoking pot. But even so, the large number of them concentrated in the city center exceeds any expectations, even compared to Romania! I think from the perspective of a tourist or of a Frenchman from another more “French” city, the urban landscape here must be something unreal.

Once we got past the first good impression and have lived here for a couple of months, life in Marseille starts to feel like living in Romania, largely due to the excessive and useless bureaucracy. As I said in the previous expat in France article, you will have quite a headache as you rent an apartment or acquire your green health card. There are some really bad and flawed rules and regulations in this country. I will give you just one example: to cancel an internet contract with a telecommunications company in the 21st century, you must send them via post a written request stating that you want to terminate.  If you are cancelling this contract due to the fact that you are relocating to another country you have to provide evidence that you will live in that country or work there,in order to prove that you are really leaving! You simply face some absurd situations that I believed up to this point to be possible only in Romania (or any other state in Eastern Europe). While it is true that here you will never spend 3 hours waiting in queue at any government counter or desk, and the public officials do not spit in your face if you ask them something, the headache and loss of time is still unavoidable.

Another similarity between Romania and France are the taxes. Here, you have taxes over other taxes for everything. While it is true that here the salary starts from € 1500 (Gross), be prepared to give up 40% to the state, even more if you are single. Money will go to services such as Health, Pension and Social Security. Hospitals and medical services are impeccable and covered by insurance (not 100%, you need a complementary insurance for this), very nice from this point of view, and retirement schemes are well organized and generous as well.

One very big difference though: In France the taxes are calculated per family income, not per individual. So if you are in my situation where only one of the partners is working, than is just a percentage of my income divided by 2 units, and the remaining figure get’s taxed. Every adult in the family counts as 1 whole unit, and every child counts as 0.5 units. (e.g. a family of 2 parents with one child, where only the husband works, will be taxed a percentage from the income of the husband after it was divided by 2.5). So actually I ended up keeping quite a lot of my gross income. This is by far the most helpful and encouraging measure to start a family in France. I only wish we had such incentives in my country.

The problem arises with the money going to social services. Just like in Romania, the state is very “generous” with these figures and offers numerous allowances and benefits to social benefiters. These individuals, that mostly came with their families and several children from the former French-African colonies, are ever present every morning on the street terraces as they chill without a care in the world, sipping a few hours from a 1 EUR small coffee, socializing with their siblings that are in the same situation. If they are not at the terrace, they are found in front of the post office, waiting in line to get their benefits. You can not help it not to get angry while you are waiting for the tram in your morning commute to work and they are sitting next to you chilling  at the terrace, relaxing on your money. While the sums for the assisted are generous and more than enough, be sure that there will none for you. Even though we are in the EU and I work full time and pay taxes to the French state, my partner has no right to benefit of any assistance or free French classes. The official excuse being that we come from a rich and developed country (we are talking about Romania ok?) and we do not qualify for such assistance. Instead, refugees and non-EU immigrants have priority for benefits and classes. Not bad right?

The high unemployment in the city, somewhere at 20%, just keep feeding this vicious circle. The authorities do have ongoing urban revitalization projects worth billions of Euros, such as the new Euromediterranee  office and residential high rises district, the same district where I work. It is the most costly urban revitalization project in France but harshly criticized due to the fact that it apparently serves the already privileged white classes and does little to aid the immigrant communities in the city, that usually live just a block away from the new office high rises developments. And even so, despite all these issues, Marseille is one of the most expensive cities in France. Apartment prices and rents are braking new records every year. Just to give you an idea, I can say that we are paying 700 euros for a small one-bedroom apartment in a 200-year-old building located in a decent area of ​​the city.  For a beer in the city pub be prepared to spend 7 Euros. So, as I said before, the paradox of prices versus actual spending power remind me a lot of Romania.

About the people and the French in general, what can I say: If I exclude the Arabic-speaking ones, you have on one side the really nice folks that are young, educated and ambitious, and on the other side the ones that match perfectly your French cliche: arrogant, nose-high, waiting for high salaries and no mood to do any actual work. I have not interacted too much with either of them because we do not speak French and they do not know or want to speak any other language other than French (Arab does not count). Not that I could have had much of a social life anyway because of my 24 hours job- but just for the idea of it.

Regarding cars here, I can tell you that the French do not care about either their own car or the ones parked in front of or behind it. Almost all the cars here are scratched, cracked, have broken mirrors or cracked windscreens. The French prefer small, low-priced cars, and when they park them, they use the other parked cars as bumpers in order to make room or fit inside the slot. This is quite a shock considering us, Romanians, worships our cars and makes tremendous financial efforts to buy and maintain them. I think it’s normal and civilized to take extra care to avoid damaging any other vehicle. If  a French driver would park like this in Romania and  would be unlucky enough to be seen in the act of doing this, it is safe to say that that driver would have his skull bashed in by a baseball bat or have at least a few punches thrown to his face.

Another aspect noted here is the lazy waiter cliche, which is in 90% of the cases true. You come, you take a seat at the table and wait for 15-20 minutes before anybody even acknowledges your presence and brings you a menu. After that it takes another 20 minutes to take your order and so on. I’m sorry to say, but in Romania, as in England, as soon as you take a seat at the table, someone comes to take care of you.

This chilled relaxed mentality seems to be present in all aspects of life, it seems normal here to say that you will meet someone at a defined time and be late for that meeting at least 20-30 minutes. I distinctly remember one event when we had our boiler in the flat out of order and a technician was booked to fix it. The booking was for 14:00 , we waited home and at 14:25 we presumed he is not coming any more and we left the flat to go to the supermarket. At 14:35 I received a call from the agency from a very angry individual stating the technician just knocked on our door and nobody answered and he had to leave upset because he made the trip to our apartment for nothing, accusing us of not being serious people! Now what kind of stupid fu..ed up attitude is that?? This is the country where the normal working day starts at 09:00, you have guaranteed by law 25 vacation days , the working week is 35 hours and yet somehow they always find something to complain about and make a strike every week.

In conclusion, I can not say that personally France has left me a good impression, at least not Marseille. I can definitely say that if you do not speak French, don’t bother coming here. If you do speak French, and you work in one of the multi-national companies in the city and you manage to secure a house somewhere near the city (there are superb towns like Aix en Provence just 30 minutes away from the city), you will probably have a beautiful and full life , so I think it depends on each individual situation. Everything I wrote here is from my own perspective, so do not take anything that I said as the universal truth. What impressions do you have from this place? I invite each one of you to tell me, any opinion will be helpful to future articles.

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Alternative tourism: Detroit , Georgia , Burning gate of Turkmenistan , North Korea , Pripyat & the alienation zone   , Nouadhibou graveyard

How the other half lives :  Karachi ,  Guayaquil  , Lagos

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