Like Istanbul, like Rome, like Athens, Marseille is defined by its hills. It's the sunniest major city in France and, from its highest point, where the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica stands, you have a clear view of its vast sweep as it meets the blue of the Mediterranean.
It’s the kind of place where I fully expect to drink frosty rosé by the carafe. Instead, fate ensures that my Airbnb is around the corner from one of Marseille’s only beer shops. There are a few recognizable American and British breweries on its shelves, but the selection is primarily French, and therefore mostly mysterious to me.
Robbed of eloquence and unfamiliar with most of what I see, I’m once again a neophyte, floundering in the world of beer. While that's scary for some, it's kind of refreshing, too. I know that hops are houblons, yeast is levure, and barley malt is malt d’orge, but my limited vocabulary means I can’t convey to the shopkeeper that what I really desire, on a warm September day, is a dank juice-bomb. Even pronouncing IPA in French—ee-pay-ah—sounds garbled, incorrect.
In the end, I walk away with a Physalis Saison. It’s a collaboration made by Brasserie de Sulauze and Brasserie du Haut Buëch, two breweries, the shopkeeper tells me, that hail from the southeast of France. I drink it as the sun disappears, watching crowds move along the darkening sidewalks from the vantage of the apartment, the shutters open wide. It’s pretty subtle, and not entirely what I was after. But in the way of vacations, this beer—which I will almost certainly never have again, and about which I know so little—is imbued with a special thrum of pleasure that can’t be replicated elsewhere.