It’s all about the ants.
I’ve never forgotten the advice from one of my earliest writing teachers. You can go on a glorious picnic – the food, conversation, and weather all perfection – but you have no story until the ants arrive. They invade your blanket and carpet your food, and despite blue skies and the best of friends, it’s the ants that create the story.
Here’s our problem: We’ve returned to Bellevue, our summertime home in Antibes, and we have no ants. Okay, a fair few six-legged creatures scurry in their habitual line across the exterior stucco wall, transporting who knows what to who knows where. But normally our ants come in the form of the broken air-conditioning, internet, alarm, and a famously crotchety domotique. Our miseries have offered enduring entertainment to French Lessons readers. Now, in the thirteenth year that my husband Philippe and I, and our 14-year-old daughter Lolo, have crossed the Atlantic and creaked open Bellevue’s old, walnut door to start our summer holidays, no story ants invaded our homecoming.
“La villa was never more welcoming!” Philippe wrote on arrival in a quick email to Anne, our housekeeper. “Toute la villa is absolutely nickel.”
A nickel was no longer five cents. In France, I learned, nickel meant spick-and-span, impeccable, absolutely fabulous.
And it was. Bellevue’s internet worked. The air-conditioning worked. The alarm worked. “Even the water pressure is better!” Lolo announced the next day, her long hair still damp from a shower. (Never mind that whenever you flush the toilet these days, it sounds like a ship is coming in.)
We even found gifts in Bellevue’s kitchen. Prior guests had left a vat of award-winning olive oil – and a delightful explanation. My opening blog last year had mentioned the disappearance of our olive oil shop from Antibes, so this year, these friends wrote, we would have olive oil from Day 1. Along with the sparkling clean house, Anne and Jess, our other housekeeper, had left a bottle of our favourite balsamic. Someone, too, had put an enormous bouquet of long-stemmed, white lilies and roses on the squat table in the living room. A glorious fragrance wafted through the house.
“Welcome home to sunny Côte d’Azur!” the card said. “I wish you a great summer, hot outside and cooooold inside.”
There was a reason Bellevue’s air-conditioning worked this year. The huge bouquet came from our long-time friend Walid. During the winter, he and his colleagues had installed a whole new climatisation system at Bellevue. They’d ripped out the sludge-ridden pipes of the old, hodgepodge network, carting away 13 years of angst, aggravation and downright misery, and in their place the team installed a system that pushed compressed gas through our home’s new, copper-piped veins. It was a massive undertaking, and a superb success.
“Before coming this summer,” Walid emailed Philippe several months ago, “find your biggest, Arctic down jackets because the air-conditioning is glaciale.”
Their correspondence continued all winter long as Toronto’s snow mottled our down jackets. The emails focused on construction details, but were embellished with a dose of motivation from Philippe. There’s a mañana attitude in the South of France; truly no one is immune. As the calendar flipped into June and our arrival neared, Anne and Jess battled nearly finished construction work and its endless dust. When Jess came over, she replayed the prior weeks:
“When are you coming back?” she’d insisted to Walid and his crew.
“Demain,” Walid had replied. Tomorrow.
Demain, Jess then rang. “When are you coming back?”
Demain, Jess rang again. “When are you coming back?”
“Demain de quel jour?” she cried. Tomorrow of what day?
Walid’s team completed work hours before our midnight arrival. That’s when two massive white bouquets arrived. One went straight to our living room table. The other was an urgent white flag for the housekeepers.
“It’s my fault,” Philippe told Jess. “I told Walid the real day we were arriving.”
The revamped Bellevue brought a bounce to my husband’s step. “This air-conditioning thing is incredible,” he said as we sat on the terrace surveying the Mediterranean bay beneath us. Thin waves lapped onto the rocky beach as the evening sky softened into the Côte d’Azur’s renowned palette of pastels. “I feel like I have a whole new house,” he said. “You have no idea.”
He was right. No one appreciated the new a/c like Philippe did. It was less about the coolness than knowing the system wouldn’t croak in the next hour. Instead of ringing contractors on his first day back, Philippe went golfing. With Walid, no less.
Bellevue has been wondrously welcoming this year, lacking all its best ants. Even our miniature poodle felt at home. On one transatlantic telephone call, we’d mentioned to Anne that Yoko might remain in Canada for the summer.
“Mais non!” she’d protested. “Elle est attendue!” Yoko was expected in France. “Angie [the Lab], Violette [the miniature poodle], and Gucci [the bichon maltais] all were expecting her!”
Lolo took Yoko’s reception in appropriately teenage fashion. “Yoko has a better social life than I do,” she huffed.
Which was funny even if it was untrue. We all felt embraced by France this year – by our friends, the resident pooches, and our house.
There’s one more friend to mention. Someone added a step to Bellevue’s marble staircase at 2 a.m. on that night we arrived, and as Philippe and Lolo slept, I had a massive yard sale of the unpacking in my arms. There, I suppose, among the perfection of our return, lay the opening aria of my ant.
Jess took a look at my ankle and insisted I not worry. “Il y a une crème,” she said.
I was truly back in France. Of course there was a cream. There was a cream for everything in France.
After a few days of hobbling, I rang our local doctor. Friend that Jean-Marie was, he offered me an emergency appointment as he zipped shut his suitcase for Vietnam. He prescribed the special crème while introducing a few more French words. Une échographie (an ultrasound) soon confirmed that it was just une entorse (a sprain), but a bad one. L’attelle (the brace) worked only with les baskets. My attempts to negotiate something other than sneakers flopped entirely.
This first message of French Lessons 2019 might be the clichéd “Phone a friend” – but we don’t offer that suggestion casually. Friends are treasures. We count our lucky stars that we’ve traipsed these shores long enough to have them.