Sofia Yablonska, Marseille

Again, the entire afternoon stretched before me in anticipation of departure. And again, it was sunny and bright. Although this was no longer breathless Paris but a carefree, cheerful Marseille, where people resembled migratory birds who had landed briefly to rest before flying on.

Small steamers, motorboats, fishing barges, and passenger boats went back and forth from the old dock. Streetcars, cars, limousines, and busses travelled up the embankment in all directions of the city and the world. Murky water lapped against the stone foundation of the pier lazily, reeking of rotten fish, smoke, and fuel oil — the natural smell of a southern harbour that already felt exotic to me.

Slowly, I walked up the street, laughing as I waved off the annoying motorists with their offers to give me ‘a lift, a ride, a hitch’. But I had nowhere in particular to go; I was not in a hurry. My steamer did not leave for another four hours, and I had no other need or desire than to wander aimlessly straight ahead toward the vast sea that beckoned me from afar with its open shores.

To the right of the pier, narrow, dark streets climbed up, lined with narrow, hunchbacked, crooked houses where the families of fishermen, sailors, merchants, and prostitutes lived. Clotheslines were strung across the street in between the upper windows. Colourful laundry fluttered in the breeze. This thick curtain prevented sunlight from reaching the lower floors, so even on sunny days, electric lamps, some of them as colourful as the laundry, were turned on in the windows… On either side of the slippery streets, two streams of thick water, full of rot, garbage, and waste from the waterfront neighbourhood, flowed down the gutters to the sea. It was a neighbourhood full of constant movement, pulsating life, adventures of all kinds, sad departures to distant lands, often without return, happy encounters, weddings, tears, fun, and — above all — love.

Facing the pier — facing all the arrivals and departures — was a row of cafes, restaurants, pubs, and brothels, their doors open to welcome guests. You could hear the sounds of phonographs, hand organs, barrel pianos, and sometimes a lost, lonely banjo… Here, siren wails, shouts, curses, laughter, and jokes mixed into a festive ruckus, as if the local calendar had no days of the week for mundane work. In a while, I crossed this bustling neighbourhood and climbed the hill toward the vast seashore, where the lapping of the waves drowned out the distant rumble of the city. I walked slowly, listening to the echo of my footsteps on the hard pavement and rocks. I would not hear this echo during my month-long journey aboard the steamer. I was overwhelmed by a strange joy, a winged serenity that no memories could disturb.

I reflected: ‘How effortless, how easy it is to leave, to depart, to forget as if leaping over a chasm — a chasm that seemed unbridgeable to me for so long. This chasm marks the border between free travelers and those held captive by judgment, habit, or feelings — even if their arms sometimes stretch toward freedom, toward open space, toward the world. And now it seems to me that becoming a free person is so easy. To abandon everything, pick up the pace, and — hop! — jump over the chasm… Then the roads stretch out in front of you in all directions, one wider and more attractive than the other, and they all beckon you, vying with each other. You do not want to turn around. And once you jump over the first (the most formidable!) chasm, even rivers will seem like trickles to you! Once the desire to escape displaces all other emotions, it becomes so effortless, so easy, that I smile to myself, thinking that others might see my adventure as a fantastic fairy tale or even a ‘fake game’! To annoy these people even more, I stopped caring about their judgment. Maybe that‘s why, for the first time in my life, I feel boundlessly free. Now there are only two judges standing over me: heaven and myself.’

‘Hey, madam, you lost your way!’ called a little boy playing pirates with other children on the rocks by the sea. His voice sounded stern and almost intimidating, for he was, it turned out, ‘the leader of all bandits’!

By jumping out from his hiding place behind my back, he wanted to scare me with a sudden scream and thus secure the favour of the members of his gang, sticking their heads out of their strongholds.

He did give me a start. I turned to face him but could only smile at the sight of a little boy with a black scarf on his head, pulled down to his eyes — alive with the spark from the dangerous game. Under his naked torso hung a pair of red pants, belted with a thin rope that barely held them up on his skinny hips.

The ‘pirate’, slightly taken aback by my smile and his own failed performance, began leaping from rock to rock with long jumps. Showing off his agility and acrobatic skills, he was obviously trying to convince me of his exceptional role in this flock of children.

‘You’ve lost your way’, he repeated, this time in a more polite tone, but his attitude was still defiant.

I could not help laughing when I looked at his pants: the rope belt had ridden up, and they hung down like a sack on his stomach.

‘And you, my little guide, will lose your pants soon’, I said, curious to see how he would defend his dignity.

The other children burst out laughing at my remark, which embarrassed him even more, but he only pulled up his pants with an indifferent expression and tied the rope so tightly that I could almost hear his bones crack. Then he shouted angrily:

‘You better turn around, madam! Your way is over there!’ he gestured in the direction of the old harbour from which I had actually come.

‘And whose way is this? Whose town?’ I asked, amused at the audacity of this bright-eyed young boy.

‘This land is the kingdom of respectful but dangerous pirates, where disobedience means death!’

‘My oh my! Really? And who are you, may I ask?’

‘I am the leader of this army, the king of this land.’

He spoke with such boundless conviction that I no longer dared to tease him but tried to find a way to gain his trust.

‘So, if you’re not a simple bandit but a true king of this land, surely you know which way leads to the open sea where the great ships sail out into the world, don’t you?’

Puzzled, the boy sank into deep thought about two important questions: how was a respectful leader of pirates supposed to behave in this case, and was it worth sacrificing the king’s unshakable glory for a franc or two he would probably get from me for serving as a mere guide?

While he wrestled with a difficult decision, his ‘army’, who figured out what was happening, waited for his royal answer or his despicable betrayal. In the end, the young leader’s pride triumphed over the lure of quick money, for he answered in a dignified voice:

‘You have earned our protection with your kindness. All of us — my subjects and I — will take you to the borders of our country, where you will see a clear road before you that will lead you far away toward the sea, toward the pier.’

‘That is very hospitable of you, Your Majesty’, I praised him with all due solemnity.

After that, the leader blew his whistle so hard that none of his subjects dared to disobey his order to assemble. On the contrary, someone shouted ‘Long live our leader!’. Other small voices repeated this call, and the ‘pirates’ came running from all directions.

‘Escorts in two lines!’ ordered the leader, and well-disciplined boys lined up in two straight rows on either side of me.

The young boy, who was in the lead, shouted ‘On we go!’ and our group set off. I was amused like a child by this game and surprised at the boy’s courage and how passionately these younglings played pirates. ‘He will make a good actor, if not a bandit’, I thought, seeing how naturally he acted and how convincingly he played his role.

When they led me on the well-trodden path after a difficult passage over cliffs and rocks, the young leader stopped his squad and said,

‘This is our border! We have no right to go any further. This path will take you all the way to the harbour, madam.’

I took out a two-franc coin from my pocket and offered it to the boy in reward of his kindness.

He hesitated for a moment. The temptation was clearly hard to resist.

‘Take it as my gift to you — for a new pirate flag’, I added apologetically, not to hurt the boy’s pride.

‘Thank you, madam, on behalf of my entire kingdom for your generous gift’, he said.

Holding back another smile, I thanked them for their help, bid a solemn farewell to the children obediently lined up in two rows, and continued alone down the white road along the coast.

‘Return to the treasury!’ I heard the leader’s new order behind my back, immediately followed by a rhythmic stomping of bare feet on the clay. I was pleasantly surprised by their discipline, for I had feared that the children would rush to divide their collective earnings as soon as I turned around.

‘This is my first “incredible adventure”’, I thought amusedly. Or perhaps it was some kind of symbol? With joy, I remembered the trust that the children placed in me and the fact that my arrival did not spoil their game but, on the contrary, added some fresh new colours to it and offered a new scenario for their pirate adventures. Perhaps, just like with these children, I would succeed in gaining the trust of the people of the overseas countries — the children of the evergreen, sunny islands…

Absorbed in dreams, I pressed ahead, following the tracks of my silent joy, full of exciting hopes for a completely unknown future. A straight path stretched along the seashore. To my left, rows of motionless, lonely steamers rested at anchor. I glanced at my watch, which read four o’clock in the afternoon, and quickened my pace a little, for my ship was due to sail in an hour. I walked on, spinning a thread from my torn thoughts that paused for a moment, like carefree birds, only to leap up again and launch themselves into endless flight.

From time to time, a car or a heavy streetcar passed me by, and then silence descended around me again as if nothing was happening at all. This showed that Marseille attached no importance to the departure of one of its steamships on a voyage to distant lands. It also meant that everything was proceeding normally, without surprises. If such a steamer had gone on strike and refused to depart, there would have probably been a much bigger uproar. Though Marseille might have been so used to strikes that it did not mind them too much… Strikes had perhaps become a normal part of its carefree existence. It was not for nothing that the people of Marseille were brimming with unbridled imagination, capable of both extreme fatalism and violent outbursts of protest.

A young man walked quickly toward me. His white straw hat contrasted sharply with his black clothes, which gave him a festive appearance. He walked with a jaunty gait, whistling and waving his walking stick every three steps to add pace and rhythm to his walk. Once caught up with me, he threw a hasty question in my direction.


Translated by Hanna Leliv from: Sofia Yablonska, ‘Марсейль (Marseille)’ in Далекі обрії (Distant Horizons), ed. by Andrii Benytskyi and Veronika Homeniuk (Kyiv: Rodovid, 2018), pp. 46-51.


The UIL Literary Translation workshop was funded by the Embassy of Ukraine to the United Kingdom and coordinated by UIL Kultura Fellow Maryna Dubyna.

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