A Quebecker’s Guide to the Côte d’Azur

Our cappuccino maker needs maintenance.

Let me put this another way:  My oxygen tank is in the red and someone’s building an enormous bonfire on the beach outside Bellevue.  Using young, moist wood.

In good times our beautiful, chrome Cimbali graces the kitchen countertop at Bellevue.  Its Italian splendor would suit the smart cafés of Rome and Cannes; ours simply would be the more petite version.

This Malongo warehouse on the outskirts of Nice is my emergency room.
This Malongo warehouse on the outskirts of Nice is my emergency room.

Care and maintenance of such a dazzler requires a specialist, which in this case is the Malongo warehouse where we bought the machine some years ago.  The vast, nondescript, rectangular box of a building lies just north of Nice – a good 45 minutes’ drive from Bellevue assuming no beachside pile-ups, swerving tourists with Belgian plates, or mobile snack cabins lumbering along the road.

Philippe and I have various commitments on the Monday of the breakdown, so the earliest our Cimbali can arrive at the shop is the late afternoon.  Philippe confirms the hours on the phone.

The shop is open 8:30 – 12 and 1:30 – 4:30, a woman replies.  (That it’s open at all on a Monday in this part of the world is, frankly, commendable.)

Philippe says that good, he can make it by 4:30.

To be sure, the woman responds, he’d better be there by 4.

4 or 4:30?  Philippe asks.

C’est compliqué ici,” the woman says.  It’s complicated here.  (This response simply in asking the opening hours.)  Philippe should arrive by 4:00.

We have lunch guests that linger that afternoon but, duly warned by the Malongo receptionist and his caffeine-anemic wife, Philippe makes a hasty exit from the lunch table at 3:20.  He screams down the motorway toward the north of Nice, hoping beyond all hopes that he will encounter no Belgian plates and make the opaque 4:00 deadline.

Employees are streaming out of the immense Malongo warehouse when Philippe arrives.  Where’s service?  He yells out the car window to one of the skivers.

We’re closed.

He tries another tack.  Who’s the head of service?

A guy with a beard.

Philippe pulls his car further into the lot and heads through a towering garage door into the service section of the warehouse.  He spies a man with a closely cropped, white beard.  Are you in charge of service?

The bearded man asks what he can do.  Philippe says he’s looking for service for our Cimbali that we bought at his shop about five years ago.

The guy with the beard looks at his watch.  I imagine the frown that flits across his lips, the wrinkles that surface horizontally along his forehead, the shrug that emerges across his tired shoulders:  the French gesture that what you are asking is simply a step too far.  No, your request is utterly preposterous.

The service chief taps his wristwatch.  It’s 4:02, he says.  We’re closed.

Philippe’s heart sinks.  Worse, my husband learns that the person in charge of this sort of service is out until Wednesday.

But, obviously, this is an emergency.  Philippe decides to pull out the big guns.  Just as he did a couple weeks ago at our favourite Cannes beach restaurant when the place was unexpectedly booked up (in last week’s blog), my husband lathers up his best Quebecois.  The gritty form of French is chock full of ancient terms and thick consonant sounds that haven’t fashionably lost their edges.  Philippe’s hoping his “we’re-long-lost-cousins” routine works another time.

Mais, Monsieur, I came all the way here from Canada to get my machine serviced!  Philippe says it with dramatic flourish worthy of the Cannes Film Festival, were it set in Nice.

The bearded guy considers the Quebecker in front of him.  He’s mildly entertained.  A bit intrigued even.  What’s the problem?  he asks the tardy customer.  The after-hours service door has opened, just a crack.

C’est l’enfer!  Philippe says.  Eyes wide, arms flapping like a good, espresso-drinking Italian, my husband is saying our Cimbali is like hell.  La vapeur hisse de partout!  With grand, Italian-Quebecois gestures, Philippe’s creating a volcano of steam that hisses and spurts out everywhere.

Now three juniors crowd around the bearded head of service.  They’re smiling.  They’re all smiling, in fact!  They’re clearly lapping up the show.

The juniors begin to offer suggestions about what could be wrong with our luscious Cimbali.  In the end, the Malongo service shop agrees to keep our machine and will ring back on Wednesday.

Mission completion, part one.  In cosmopolitan and culturally mixed places like London or New York or Dubai or even the Côte d’Azur, I am amazed at how much homegrown tradition still envelops our characters, whether overtly or less so.  Several weeks ago a friend wanted to send me a DVD here in France.  Was our player Zone 1 or Zone 2?  Did it go by North American or European standards?  Come to think of it, the email said, was I – me personally – Zone 1 or Zone 2 these days?

It’s true, I’ve moved around a bit, but my immediate response is one that I stick by today.  I’m European in North America, and North American in Europe.  I don’t exactly conform anywhere.  Apparently most people with cross-border lives respond in a similar way.

When I asked my seven-year-old daughter, who’s age-appropriately fluent in French, the same question, she had an immediate response, too:  I feel French in France and Canadian in Canada.  (I don’t remember this, but she probably rolled her eyes at the same time, wondering how on earth I could utter such a daft question.)   Kids are the perfect chameleons.

But when the two “countries” involved in this line of interrogation are France and Quebec, the line grows murkier.  Philippe can whip out beautifully embellished French that befits graduates of les grandes écoles.  Spicing his language up with the angular sounds and old-fashioned turns of his native Quebecois, though, has its merits, too.  My husband fits in when it suits.

It could be, too, that growing up in Quebec nurtured Philippe’s ability to absorb the Frenchman’s facility with système D.  Short for “système débrouiller”, where se débrouiller means to manage (or get around) things, système D is often the best way to get things done in a world where nothing gets done.

On Wednesday, it’s Philippe who rings back the Malongo service shop.  Indeed, the specialist is in but he’s trop chargé.  He can’t even take a look at our Cimbali until late next week.  Which is hardly acceptable around here because that beach bonfire is brewing, and there’s the forecast of un sirocco.

Okay, the sirocco isn’t really in the Côte d’Azur’s weather forecast, but this windstorm that blows hot, sand-filled air to the area from the Sahara Desert seems an appropriate way to gauge the rising temperature within our caffeine-starved household.  And that same sirocco would thrust billowing smoke from the hypothetical beach bonfire into an oxygen-depleting Bellevue.

Guests (and regulars) seem to adore our coffees.  Photo: Steve Muntz
Guests (and regulars) seem to adore our coffees. Photo: Steve Muntz

Somehow these two men – the Cimbali service specialist and my Quebecois husband – start yarning on the telephone about les grands espaces in Quebec, the lovely open spaces of this piece of France flung abroad.  Speaking of, Philippe slips in as his native aptitude for système D locks in, we have visitors coming from Quebec on Thursday and Friday next week – which is why it’d be really nice to have our Cimbali back where it belongs.

My husband hardly demands anything of the service specialist.  He simply offers a suggestion that would be mutually beneficial to all parties involved.

Oh, Monsieur!  The specialist says down the line.  Now I understand!  Would Wednesday next week be okay?

Philippe tells me about this telephone exchange with obvious delight.  I’m thrilled, too, as the Queen of the Kitchen will soon return.

Then a shadow crosses my face.  Who’s coming from Quebec next week?  Who’s rocking up from my husband’s homeland to stay untold nights at Bellevue – that he neglected to tell me about?

Philippe smiles.  He’s delighted with his response – and the way he has fooled me, too:  No one!

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