Rentrée: Re-Entry After a Côte d’Azur Summer

It’s time for re-entry.  We’ve pushed this year’s departure from the Côte d’Azur out by a few days compared with last summer’s – but that only makes leaving more difficult.

Bellevue’s figuier has been in full production...
Bellevue’s figuier has been in full production…

If you’re the sort of person who appreciates sunshine, gorgeous vistas and French food – but without gobs of other folks enjoying exactly the same things as you, at exactly the same time, all pushed up snug against you in the blazing heat while you try to maneuver centuries-old passageways – then you, too, would find it harder and harder to leave the South of France.  As each day passes, the throngs disperse.

The figs only add to our impending doom.  Five years ago we planted a fig tree here in Antibes, at the edge of Bellevue’s garden.  It was a knot of wood with a few big, oddly shaped leaves on it.  Since then, the figuier has flourished, entertaining ideas of requisitioning the whole of the garden if we’d only let it.

Three years ago the tree gave us its first fruits.  It wasn’t much, but we relished each, sweet fig.  Then for the last two summers, there’s been nothing.  Not a single, edible fig.  We’ve seen the green fruits developing on the sprawling tree, but they disappeared, seemingly in midair.  We suspected birds, or if not birds, then – perish the suggestion – rats.

Then this summer (or to be precise, only in the last couple weeks) our figuier has bestowed us with a cornucopia of gifts.  The figs are fragrant and plump and sweet, with thin violet skin and a moist, seedy, magenta interior.   We harvest the fruit and then more appears.  We are none the wiser why the tree pours forth this year – unless we can tie the sudden bounty to a meter-long, green snake I mentioned in this summer’s first blog post.  We saw it only once but, well, it has to eat something. least this year – but possibly for an unthinkable reason!
…at least this year – but possibly for an unthinkable reason!

Summers pass quickly in the Côte d’Azur, and French Lessons has shown it.  This season, from the moment Christelle (wearing her customary strappy dress, high-heeled shoes and sparkly butterfly clips) collected Philippe, Lolo and me from Nice Airport, these posts have recounted the area’s characters, its cappuccinos and foie gras, the Roman boat and France’s relentless taxes (both when you’re living and when you’re not), and then finally, in a brief moment of reflection, Antibes’ ever-present history.

In case you’ve missed a week – or if you haven’t and need a healthy dose of sunshine or glamour over the long winter months – why not dive back into these posts to relive the madness:

Volupté’s cappuccinos remain a highlight of our summer days...
Volupté’s cappuccinos remain a highlight of our summer days…

And if you’re longing for more, feel free to crawl back into the earlier annals of this site.

Being based in Antibes in a semi-perpetual way makes life here a whole lot more natural for us, I would say, than the typical summer visitor.  We live more true to the French way.  We can’t simply pass through town quietly anymore, as we did in the earliest years.  We can’t dive in as tourists, tick the boxes of the area’s highlights and then return to our own realities.

Instead, my family and I connect.  We live here as best we can, becoming an expected part of the summer fabric.  This fact came to roost in spades this summer when the usual effervescence of our Côte d’Azur days was hit by three estrangements (female friends from their other halves) and two deaths.  These things don’t happen to passersby, and while they are heavy, I take each connection as a blessing in my life here.  Connections convert the fairytale into a reality that I’ve tried to share in my posts.

...but this summer’s discovery of a Roman boat has been more of a mixed bag.
…but this summer’s discovery of a Roman boat has been more of a mixed bag.

Language, of course, is also at the core of understanding French life.  Sometimes people ask if I’m fluent, and I always reply with a firm “non”.  I started to learn French at the age of 35.  I’ll never be fluent.

But my language at least has improved with time (and a healthy dose of work).  Just a few days ago I biked up to the Phare de la Garoupe, the lighthouse at the top of Cap d’Antibes, mounting the switchback road in 33C heat and full-on sunshine.  At the top another cyclist was stopping for a water break.

I said “bonjour” on the way past; it’s the done thing.  Yes, it’s hot.  Yeah, glad to have this water to drink.

Of course my accent isn’t great.  It never can be when you try to learn the linguistic gymnastics of French vowels at a ripe age.  The cyclist asked where I was from.  I told him Toronto.

The Garoupe Lighthouse casts a beam over Bellevue, reaching far into the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Steve Muntz
The Garoupe Lighthouse casts a beam over Bellevue, reaching far into the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Steve Muntz

That’s a long way.

Yes, but I came by plane, not bike.

He laughed.  Your French is very good!

Which, of course, I’m always grateful to hear even if I’ll never, ever slip by as one of them.  But the simple conversation made me realize I’ve come a long way.  Forget the usual question about whether you dream in a foreign language.  Who really remembers what they dream, anyway?  I say the key is jokes.  If you can joke in a foreign language, things aren’t going too badly.

But it is time to get back to our full reality.  Summer’s days are dwindling.  I know it’s true because some of the area’s train operators are on strike today.

“Well, it’s about time,” the radio announcer said.  What she meant:  No one strikes here during the summer holidays – workers must be present to strike.  And so today’s strikes must mean that summer is officially over.

You can see it, too, in the Côte d’Azur’s shop windows:  The mannequins are wearing long sleeves.  People are thinking about la rentrée – a French re-entry of sorts when all of France goes back to whatever they should be doing.  The beaches are depopulating, and with them went the crush of August’s heat.  The market crowds are thinner.  And the license plates in this popular corner of the world are becoming less and less varied.  It’s time to go home.

Here’s the reward for a steamy bike ride.
Here’s the reward for a steamy bike ride.

Honestly, it’s not a moment too soon.  Lolo came up with a terrifying idea last week, one that would jeopardize any promise in her future academic career.  ”Mommy,” she asked, “why can’t we have a whole year of school and then a whole year of summer?”

I realized how far we’d shifted from the normal rhythms of life when I had an email several weeks ago from a friend – someone with whom I once shared the exact, same lifestyle – that began like this (and I quote):  “Are you insane ?!!!”

Kathleen and I were simply planning a night together with our families in her leafy outskirts of London.  We wanted to get our kids’ meals and bedtimes in sync.  Kathleen’s plan was simple.  The kids would have dinner at 5:00, and her nanny would put them to bed while the grown-ups scooted off to a nearby gastro-pub.

A fine-sounding plan, I said, except that 5:00 was basically snack time for Lolo.  My daughter was in the habit of eating dinner around 8pm and going to bed before 11pm, if we were lucky.

“11 pm !!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  Kathleen wrote back.  “Are you insane ?!!!  I’m probably in bed BEFORE 10 pm!!!   Lolo is 7!!”

By this point, I should’ve realized we were living in French Lala-Land – but heh, 11pm bedtime in the summer months didn’t seem out of line in our circles.  In fact two nights ago, as Philippe and I enjoyed a final dinner out in the Côte d’Azur, our seven-year-old daughter was out bowling with friends (and their parents).  As the clock turned over 11pm, Philippe and I were already in bed – waiting for her.

I guess the upside is that we’re already pretty much on Toronto time.

So we head back to North America.  In some ways, I’m dreading re-entry, those first days swamped with frantic, last-week-before-school shopping.  Just like last year’s re-entry, I’m sure Lolo has outgrown all her closed-toe shoes.  It’s hardly an ideal situation when you live in Canada.

But in other ways, I look forward to our own rentrée as one does the change in seasons.  Re-entry is part of the normal rhythm of our lives.

The best bit, though, is knowing that we’ll return to our cherished Bellevue next summer.  In the meantime, dear readers, if you have any comments you’d like to share about French Lessons, or suggestions for next year’s posts, fire away!  The more the merrier!  And make sure you don’t miss any of next summer’s fun.  Subscribing is easy:  Use the link in the pink – in the top left corner of the site.

So, well, Bonne Année!  Happy New Year!  You’ve gotta start saying it sometime.  I look forward to sharing next summer with you, as I dish out another bowlful of French Lessons, just as you like it.  I promise it’ll even tax-free – no Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée, no Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune, no Contribution à l’Audiovisuel Public . . .

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