Inspire: Art & CultureKeith Van SickleProvencal History & Traditions

Two Famous Marseille Expressions

“C’est la sardine qui a bouché le port de Marseille!”

(A sardine blocked Marseille’s port!)

This local saying is famous throughout France. Another that is less well-known is “Chercher Molinari” (look for Molinari). Both expressions, curiously, come from the same famous disaster that took place in the 18th century.

The sardine story is often used as an example of how people in Marseille like to exaggerate. Come on, how can a little bitty sardine block a great big port? But the story is true. Well, kind of.

Molinari sardine Two Famous Marseille Expressions

The Ultimate Fish Story

In 1779 the French and the English were, as usual, fighting each other. One hotspot of their conflict was in India and, during this local skirmish, each had captured some of the other’s men. It was decided to conduct a prisoner exchange and the freed French prisoners were put on a merchant’s vessel and sent back to France. This ship, being on a humanitarian mission, was granted special protection under the laws of war. Its name was…wait for it…the Sartine.

When the Sartine arrived off the coast of Portugal, a British warship thought it was part of the French navy and attacked, killing the captain. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, the Sartine was allowed to continue, but without anyone who really knew how to pilot it. The sailor in charge wasn’t experienced enough to guide a large ship like the Sartine into a narrow port like Marseille’s. You can guess what happened.

Molinari sardine post card public domain

We Have a Problem!

Yes, the ship ran aground and sank, blocking the port. Which means it was actually a Sartine that blocked the port, not a sardine, but what’s the fun in a story like that? Over time, with many retellings, the ship was transformed into a fish, cementing Marseille’s reputation for exaggeration. With the Sartine blocking the port, commerce stopped, which for a city like Marseille is a disaster. The ship was too large and heavy to be dragged away, and the city fathers were desperate for a solution. Then someone remembered a fellow in the nearby town of La Ciotat, a certain Monsieur Molinari, who was known for solving even the hardest problems.

Monsieur Molinari was duly sent for and pondered the problem for a while, before finally coming up with a clever (though icky) solution. “Bring me pig guts!” he cried. “Lots of them!” The word went out and thousands of pig intestines made their way to Marseille. Molinari directed that they be tied at the ends and inflated, making a kind of balloon. These many piggy balloons were then carried underwater to the ship and placed inside it, slowly raising it off the seafloor. This allowed the Sartine to be towed away, restoring vital commerce to Marseille.

Molinari balloons pixabay

The clever Molari has not been forgotten and instead has entered into local lore. Today in Marseille, “Chercher Molinari” is what you tell someone when they can’t figure out a problem. “You’re stuck? You’d better figure it out. Or else look for Molinari!”

For those who’d like to practice their French, here’s a short and fun video about the Sartine and Monsieur Molinari.

Image Credits:

Sardine: public domain
Sardine postcard: public domain
Balloons: Pixabay

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Keith Van Sickle

Keith Van Sickle

Keith is a lifelong traveler who got his first taste of overseas life during a semester abroad in England. But it was the expat assignment to Switzerland that made him really fall in love with Europe.

After returning to California, he and his wife Val dreamed of living abroad again but couldn’t find another expat gig, so they invented their own. Now they split their time between California and St-Rémy-de-Provence, delving ever deeper into what makes France so endlessly fascinating.

Keith is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, and Are We French Yet?, both available from Amazon.

You can see all of Keith’s blog posts at Life in Provence.

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