Meeting Old Friends in Marseille, France

In a recent post Angela wrote, “Sometimes people are the place.”

Over the course of this trip around the world, we are finding that aphorism to be increasingly accurate. Although we fully expected to see the world as a series of natural wonders and iconic buildings, we have started looking more at human connections to truly define a location.

Such was certainly the case with Marseille, France.

The story starts back in 2015 when we took the boys on a trip to Greece and Turkey. I was looking for the cheapest route from the States to Rhodes, Greece, when I stumbled on a reasonable flight that took us through Istanbul. Having visited Turkey as a kid, I had not yet been to Istanbul, so I jumped at the chance to add the stop to that trip.

It was also our first time using Airbnb for accommodations. I wanted to stay in the Fatih neighborhood so Angela and the boys would get a taste of traditional Islamic life, so I found an apartment along the Golden Horn that suited our purposes.

In Istanbul the taxi dropped us off several blocks from our Airbnb, and we were greeted on the street by one of our hosts, Moutasm. He was a lanky kid of 17 who smiled naturally, spoke excellent English, and made us feel as if we were arriving home after a long absence.


We met Moutasm’s brother, Manwar, at the door and forged an immediate friendship with them both. We learned that they were originally from Syria but had left the country ahead of the looming conflict. They had only been in Istanbul a few months and were using Airbnb to make a fresh start. We talked over breakfast every morning and often stayed up late talking into the night. Their story was as fascinating as it was terrifying, and we were in awe of their resilience and their hope for the future.

Although we only spent a few days with the brothers, we felt a special connection with them and managed to stay in touch over the past three years through social media.


Fast forward to this current journey and, in particular, our road trip around France.

We knew that the younger brother, Moutasm, had been studying at university in France, but we were unsure of which city. He hadn’t been online for a few months and hadn’t responded to private messages. Besides, we were on a tight schedule and doubtful that we would have the time to make a detour for a visit. On a lark, we sent Moutasm another message, letting him know we were in Avignon and wished him well.

He wrote back almost immediately, saying that he was now studying in Marseille! The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Although we would be passing by Marseille on our way to Monaco, we had no prior plans to stop. That all changed with Moutasm’s message. We booked a hotel in Marseilles that night and made plans to meet him for dinner. His choice, our treat.

To our great surprise and delight, both Moutasm and Manwar were now living in Marseille. With hugs all around and excited chatter, we made our way to their favorite Turkish restaurant. Somehow fitting that Americans and Syrians would eat at a Turkish restaurant in France.

We had caught up on the news of the past three years when the conversation turned toward expectations for the future.

Moutasm was happy in France. He had found love and was making progress with his courses at the university. And, after only a year of study, his French was nearly as good as his already excellent English.

Manwar, however, was hoping for something different. Always an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry, he was finding it difficult to navigate the French bureaucracy to be able to open a hotel, or even obtain the proper permits to run an Airbnb. He was considering a move to England, or Canada, or even the United States, and earnestly asked us for advice.

As much as we wanted to encourage him to come to the U.S., we didn’t want to give him false hope. Although he is now officially a French citizen, carrying a French passport, we couldn’t bring ourselves to recommend a move to the States.

And that broke my heart. That my country would not currently be a welcoming place for my friend. And that it could get far worse before it gets any better.

So, we told him about Toronto and London, and about the diversity of cultures and progressive thought to be found there. We didn’t tell him that he wouldn’t struggle to find his place in western society, and we didn’t tell him that the United States was out of the question. But he had asked for our honest recommendations, and we gave him just that.

Like our first time meeting the brothers in Istanbul, we talked until late in the night. And this time there were tears at the parting. Not tears of sadness because we thought we would never see each other again, but tears of joy because we knew that we would.