The plane arrives on time from Munich. From above we are awed by the beauty of Marseille, the historic French port city near Aix-en-Provence. Up close it can be a gritty place, its 200 year old buildings crumbling and in desperate need of facial cleaning. It has an incredibly diverse population, but lurking in the shadows dark deeds are done. The Corsican mafia hubs out of this city, for example, setting the tone. It is not uncommon to see hot tempers flare at home soccer matches or in line at the fish market. At 1500 ft. however, all we see is the hot white diamond glitter on the chrystal blue Mediterranean water, the bright limestone buildings with terra cotta roof tiles, sailboats moored along the Vieux Port, and the surrounding trees. Closer and closer we come, the generic trees become palm, olive, cypress, and umbrella pines.
The students are experiencing a blend of excitement for this art term, and numb fatigue from the many sleepless hours en route. I met up with the group in the Munich airport, where they were to switch planes to make their final leg of the trip to Marseille. I don’t normally do this, make the flight to meet them mid-travel, but these are trying times for travelers. The last thing I wanted was for them to be stuck in Munich without a clue of where to go or what to do. It seemed a possibility that their Lufthansa flight, like hundreds of other Lufthansa flights this holiday season, might be cancelled due to crew members succumbing to COVID.
Although they are eager to hit the ground running, I tell them “first things first. Let’s collect your luggage, get a snack, then head to the pharmacy.” The first two easily achieved, we pile into the van and head towards Aix. I’ve got Google Maps open to a pharmacy that is on our way home. It is one of the designated pharmacies where foreigners can get their COVID vaccine cards translated into a QR code. This code gets scanned into the French “AntiCovid” app, which creates their official “Pass Sanitaire”. Anytime we want to go into a civic building, café, or restaurant, we open our phones to this app, our pass sanitaire will be scanned, and voilà, we are granted entry.
The pharmacy is closed for a two-hour lunch. Google displays another not far, so Dave navigates the narrow streets and one-ways until we arrive, happy that this pharmacy is open.
It’s hard to open the van door. The gusts of wind force it against my efforts. Kids screech when it violently picks up their hair and blows cold air against scalps. We rush to the entrance and the calm air within. There is a small line of customers. We wait our turn in this tiny, one-room shop. In the center is an island of random displays: a shoe tree housing therapeutic sandals, four boxes covered in holiday wrap stacked one on top of another, boxes of herbal tea forming a rickety tower, and propped up canes and crutches. It’s cluttery, which adds to the feeling of being crowded.
Every time a new person enters, the automatic doors open, shooting wind into the room for a brief moment. It is our turn. The pharmacist juggles our request for QR codes with the clientele who are there for COVID testing or meds. Many, in fact I’d say most, are there for testing. This Omicron variant is no joke. He takes the students two at a time, into the back, interviewing them, entering their information into his computer, producing these “tickets to freedom”.
More and more people enter, bringing wind and frustration. No one likes waiting, and those foreigners are taking up too much of our pharmacist’s time. They sigh and stare as we huddle off in the corner, also waiting, but somehow feeling guilty for our need.
The door opens and this time the wind blows over the tea tower with a bang. Boxes of tea are scattered everywhere. All eyes dart to our cluster, sure that Jack, next to the tower and wearing his New Hampshire puffer coat, is to blame. I immediately exclaim loudly and to no one in particular “C’est pas nous! C’est le vent!” More waiting, more sighs, two more students retreat to the back, more customers, more wind, CRASH! The shoe tree topples, paperwork flutters, on and on this chaos stirred up by the mad wind and augmented by impatient customers.
40 minutes later we are heading to the van, laughing. Our first battle under our belts and we have earned our badges. The “pass sanitaire” is our membership card, now all lights are green.