Walking and not-walking in Marseille


Poet Caleb Parkin reflects on movement and mobility – plus strange intertwinings with the Papal itinerary – in this shuffled deck of moments

For a brief moment, our ambulance is part of the Papal motorcade. We laugh, before you quickly ask for the blue bin to projectile vomit in, again.


At home in Bristol, we look at the beautiful Calanques National Park, just south of Marseille, on Google Maps. I imagine hiking between the gorgeous coves, sweaty and glittering and blissful. 


While galloping like a horse at my fortnightly free dancing event, I collide with another galloper and come down with my right ankle at right-angles. I crawl to the side of the hall. Somebody goes to get ice. 

When she hears about the Pope’s coinciding visit to Marseille, my mum jokes about me getting run over by the ‘Papamobile’, unable to flee in my current condition.

On the bus, you go entirely pale, no colour in lips. An old lady offers her seat, then you faint. Your eyes roll back, head lolling. You come to shortly after, a doctor shouting questions about family history. 


The French word for ankle is ‘cheville’. Not ‘cheveux’ (hair) or ‘chevaux’ (horses). I think.

Pas d’alcool, I say to the Pompiers, pas d’alcool. We had not had a drink. We sit on the pavement, while the bus and all its passengers wait. 


We go to Aix-en-Provence by train, for the afternoon. We get two drinks and it costs 23 Euros. In the Hermes window, there is a jacket costing 11,000 Euros. There are electric tuk-tuk micro-buses to convey people around the centre, so they can still access the shops. 

You remind me of the French phrase, lecher les vitrines, “licking the windows”, for window-shopping.


At the emergency department, they wrap you in a gold blanket which is strangely blingy. I ask to take a photo of you in it, like a fabulous kebab, or a golden sceptre.


By the little port near our AirBnB, I hobble around to swim – being in the water is a blessed relief. I manage to climb a little and sit with my ankle elevated – among the cigarette butts and sun-hardened gum, trying to look glamorous. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I see the fit but psychotic Essex boy (actor) from The White Lotus, series two. This briefly distracts me from feeling sick. But I am, very. 

Could be the camembert I finished at lunch. I definitely swam past a human stool in the sea at Plage des Prophets too though. 

I wonder why it’s the ‘prophets’ beach’. What’s it like to know what’s coming? Can you take evasive steps? 

On our last evening, thinking we’ll go for rosé and frites overlooking the sunset, we hop on the bus back towards town.


At the Folk Fashion exhibition, I sit on a bench and stretch my twisted ankle out. There is nobody else in this bit of gallery, so I recline for a moment – feeling transgressive, slovenly, among these haughty haute couture mannequins.

We get e-bikes – LeVelo – out to Calanque de Saména. Cycling is good to keep the ankle moving.

A kite-surfer paddles in, rests his inflatable kite-wings, that board with its extended hydrodynamic skiff. 

He moves back out into the waves, becoming an orange dot, then skims over the froth; all technology, agility.

Outwards at Bristol Airport, I’m stopped at security; my bag of toiletries doesn’t quite seal. They ask what I want to leave: toothpaste, or ibuprofen gel? (Teeth, or bones?)

I sit with my ankle up on my suitcase, wishing the train wasn’t more than three times as expensive as this flight.


At La Friche Cultural Centre, there’s a code for the lift. I don’t bother asking for it – it’s only a few flights, a temporary injury.


The digital signs around Marseille say:




I sit down to watch a video installation of a metal figure, dancing, before rain sets in. The figure rusts, develops mineral deposits around its joints. Plants sprout from its body and drop off, splashing below.


There are no buses to get to the station for our return flight, so we share with a lovely couple from Bordeaux. The taxi is a Tesla, which feels self-driving, even with a driver. 

He says we can cancel the trip on Uber and pay him 15 Euros, not the 20 the app has stated. 

This is Marseille, he says, everything is possible.

On the pavement by the tree you’ve dramatically spewed into (having regained consciousness) I manage to give your date of birth in French: Mille….neuf-cent….soixant…dix-neuf!

A man from the bus company waits by the ambulance with a clipboard. He wants to know what kind of ticket we had, asks other bus questions. Presumably has a report to file on the delay.


Because the scans and blood tests will take 2-3 hours, I go back to the apartment on a Voi scooter. The phone holder is wobbly but I have to take my phone case off for it to fit. 

My ankle judders on a cobbled street. A pothole: the phone jitters free and bounces along the gutter. It doesn’t smash. I am astonished. 

I set off, side-swiped by a moped overtaking and turning right. What I shout is not French and not printable. 


At the departure gate to head home, we can see a glittering blue ITA airways plane across the runway. There are lines of pristine white-uniformed soldiers and what we think are Cardinals, all lined up in their black and red. We speculate which tiny figure is the Pope. 


About 1am, back from Marseille emergency department, we get a message from the house-sitters. Barney, our elder border terrier, got up earlier and started barking at nothing, before collapsing and having a short fit. 

He is fine the next morning. I think about E.T. and Elliot. Strange entanglements. 


I don’t recall seeing any other wheelchair users while in Marseille, just le Papa. 

The bus timetables must be returning to normal, now he’s being lifted into his plane. Back home with the ‘Vat Pack’, via his bespoke elevator.

At Calanque de Sormiou, I manage to walk 50 minutes, up a hill then down, to reach that gorgeous sea. 

I use my snorkel for quite a while, for the first time. One large silver fish darts past, joins a whole shoal, just below the surface. They glint away, out to sea. 

It’s our last day and we think about going somewhere for frites and a glass of rosé, to watch the sunset. 

The cliff casts a jagged shadow over the water, which blots across the Calanque.

Caleb Parkin

Caleb Parkin is a queer eco poet & facilitator, based in Bristol.

He tutors for Poetry Society, Poetry School and First Story and holds an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes.

From 2020 – 2022 he was the third Bristol City Poet. His book, The Fruiting Body, was longlisted for the Laurel Prize.

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