Madame Lucienne Frey: How to be ageless

Few people enjoy the incredible staying power of French Lessons’ final profile this season. But before we (re-)introduce her, please allow us a small indulgence.

Let’s first wander back through the highways and alleyways, the shops and vistas we visited this summer. Through our “interviews à la Colbert,” we met people with unique perspectives on Antibes, our summer hometown on the bustling Côte d’Azur. Thanks to their personal stories, we glimpse hidden layers in this place:

As we travel through these posts, we thank you for joining us (again) this season. We absolutely delight in the growing community among French Lessons readers – the way an article prompts someone to post a comment that sparks a thought from another reader, often on a different continent. We say a gros merci to this beautiful society and look forward to next season when our community – from office chairs, exercise bikes, and sun loungers alike – can share some moments together in the Mediterranean sun.

In our final profile of the season, we spotlight a figure who spans generations in Antibes. Madame Lucienne Frey first set foot in town when she was 33 years old, and French Lessons had the joy of interviewing her on her centenary. To cap this season, we repost that interview – a firm favourite of ours – to mark the recent passing of an extraordinary woman, aged 108.


These days I’m très fière – very proud – to tell people my age, Madame Lucienne Frey says with an easy smile. They celebrated my 100th birthday at the mairie this spring. The mayor, who I know a bit, gave a reception.

Mme Frey is pleased with her newly acquired threshold – yes, certainly – but she’s not overly charmed by it. She hardly lets age define her.  

I told the maire there are a lot of people who reach 100. Why celebrate me? she wondered. She sits before my husband Philippe and me, a willing audience, in an easy chair. Her soft grey, cotton dress is offset by a long, artistic strand of salmon, charcoal, and grey stone beads. That salmon colour coordinates perfectly with her lipstick and low leather pumps. Her eyes are alert, and her thick hair is pulled back loosely. She is, quite simply, beautiful.

Madame Lucienne Frey at 100 years
As seen in this photo from 2014, being 100 hardly defined Madame Lucienne Frey.

The maire told Mme Frey they were celebrating her because not all 100-year-olds arrive at this age in quite the same shape. And he was hardly the first one to notice.  

Mme Frey mentions her cardiologist. There’s little hesitation in her speech, no predictable pause as her elderly brain reaches for words. She easily shares with us her cardiologist’s big hope: He told me that if he could figure out a way to live to 100 like I have, he’d sign up in a second.

The first time I met Mme Frey, people around me were more interested in her son-in-law. Robert Charlebois is French-Canada’s answer to Bruce Springstein. Philippe knows him from Quebecois circles. A couple summers ago we invited Robert and his wife Laurence for aperitifs on Bellevue’s terrace. Who’d they bring along but Laurence’s elegant and quick-witted mother who lives up the road. 

As we sipped rosé and nibbled on olives, a handful of swimmers on the rocky beach below Bellevue turned their attentions toward our balcony, snapping a few shots when Robert moved to the railing. Well-known as the son-in-law may be, the real star to me that early evening was Mme Frey. I was in the throes of researching Bellevues’ history and voilà, here on my own terrace was living history. I dove in for her insights – only then guessing she must’ve been in her eighties, and still I was too low.

With anniversaries of the World Wars overtaking the airwaves and bookstands, I was keen to contact Mme Frey again. That’s how Philippe and I find ourselves not far from Bellevue, in the centenarian’s gracious salon overlooking the neighbouring gardens. 

Laurence and the famous Robert helped us find her this time – as did a few locals. Everyone seems to know Mme Frey.  

Are the flowers for me? An earnest-looking man asks as he mounts his scooter this morning. We’ve gained access to Mme Frey’s gated community but are none the wiser where to find her.  

Tout au bout, the earnest man says when he learns of the destined recipient. He points straight ahead.

Philippe and I stop at the end of the lane. A man sits on the steps of a well-maintained apartment block with two young girls. We ask for Mme Frey.

La centenaire! He says. He buzzes us in. Second floor, he tells us. First door on your right. I’ll ring her for you.

photos on bureau
Family populated her handsome bureau alongside Mr Churchill.

Mme Frey’s sitting room is a jewel box of photos and collectables – a gathering of precious memories but hardly uncontrolled bric-a-brac. A few paintings line beige walls while rows of framed photos spread over bookshelves that contain French literary titles and travel books. Occasional tables and chairs dot the room, as does a handsome inlaid bureau with more photographs on top. Most of the far wall opens onto a terrace; a gentle breeze blows in through pastel-striped, silk curtains.   

Something to drink? Water? Mme Frey asks from her easy chair. Un petit pastis? It’s 11:20.  

Un pastis! I say. I ask if she drinks this strong, local brew.

Non, not now. Only in the evenings, she says. And mixed with a good bit of water.

Philippe joins me today out of courtesy and interest and, it must be said, to help me grasp the fullness of this French discussion. I can keep up with the broad brushes, but I fear missing the detail – or else inhibiting Mme Frey’s thoughts by asking for clarification.  

She surprises us both by offering to speak in English – in English. Her diction is beautifully clear to my Anglophone ear.

I spent the war years in New York, she says. My mother was only 20 when I was born, and she panicked at the idea of war. When my father mentioned New York, she jumped on the opportunity.  

It takes Philippe and me a while to realize that Mme Frey is talking about the World War I years. That’s the only way this story makes sense. Surely the young family travelled across the Atlantic by boat (and only a couple years after the Titanic disaster). Mme Frey spent five years in New York before returning to Paris, probably again sailing the seas.

I came back speaking French with an American accent, she says. The kids made fun of my accent.

I nod, knowingly. These days the American twang in Mme Frey’s voice is gone, what with a year at an English boarding school, aged 16, and all those intervening years of life since her earliest days in the US. She slips back into French.

Mme Frey met her first husband on a train from Marseille to Paris. She was 24 years old, travelling home with her mother and stepfather. They’d bribed her into joining their winter holidays in southern France by allowing her to drive the family’s car. On the return journey the family put the car on the train and waited on the platform. And waited. When was the train coming? they wondered aloud to each other.

A man in a pink shirt materialized from nowhere and joined their conversation. The train was delayed because of snow, he said. Once on board, it turned out that his compartment was next to theirs. The train departed Marseille, and this man and the young Mme Frey moved from their seats into the corridor to talk.

I spent a good portion of the trip trying to figure him out, she says. He wore a pink shirt, and that wasn’t so doable in those days!

The couple stood the entire journey back north, when at last the pink-shirted man asked if he could take the young lady to lunch. It was 1938 in Paris. A second World War would imminently cross Mme Frey’s path. Still the new couple dined together and went to the cinema. Shortly they got married.  

In 1939, on the very day war was declared, Mme Frey’s new husband told her to go out and buy every pair of shoes she’d ever wanted. I’d been eyeing a fancy pair, she says, but they were very expensive. He said to get them anyway. I wore those shoes for a very long time.  

Just after France’s Occupation, an estate agent friend encouraged Mme Frey’s husband to buy a house in Antibes. It was très bon marché, he was told – a good deal. They should buy the place as an investment.  

So in 1947, during that nebulous period between the inauguration of wartime monuments and the re-launch of the Cannes Film Festival, the couple bought this house – sight unseen. It was in the Garoupe, a wooded area beneath the rubble of the Cap d’Antibes’ yet-bombed-out lighthouse. Mme Frey journeyed south, alone, to glimpse their purchase.

There were so many pines, she says. You had to chase the sun across the garden because the pines made too much shade. 

She shares her shock when several years ago her daughter took her on a drive around the Cap – a so-called trip down memory lane. They discovered the house no longer existed.  

It was a construction magnifique – solide, confortable, Mme Frey says, still half-reluctant to believe in its demise. The neighbour bought the property, demolished the house, and built a workout room.

But you don’t want to hear just about me!  she says, years of refined living eclipsing any notion of a captive audience. Tell me about you. She hands out polite compliments to me, the biggest one probably being that I’m young.

But I want to stay young like you, I insist. You must have very good genes.

Yes, Mme Frey, says. She has good genes. But it’s also une question de morale. The bottle is always half-full, she says. She uses that very metaphor in French.

Still, she admits to missing golf. She used to play regularly at the local course in Biot. It took only 10 minutes to get there, she says, but today it takes 30. If only she could manage a little golf! But, she says with a good-natured laugh, how do you do it with a wheelchair? (During our visit Mme Frey walks around her apartment with a cane, but the distances are well shorter than 18 holes.)

Golf was her main sport. Waterskiing and tennis were the others. I’m très indépendante, she says. I played tennis but only en simple, never doubles. She has no problem losing games through her own mistakes, but she hardly wants to depend on a partner.

Good genes, a solid morale, and a strong sense of independence, I think. That’s what the cardiologist needs to reach 100 years of age in such great shape. That’s what I need too. That’s what we all need.

At the time Mme Frey first came to the Cap d’Antibes, she was in her early thirties. Paris was still home, but with her husband and two daughters she began to travel here for holidays – Easter, summer, and Christmas. She didn’t move to Antibes until 1994, aged 80, when her second husband died.

Je n’ai jamais regretté ce choix, she says. I never regretted that choice.

Mme Frey remembers that early vacation home in the pine forests of the Garoupe. We bought a Christmas tree that reached up to the ceiling, she says. It was a custom she adopted from her earliest years in New York. Eventually, though, the shadowy, pine-filled garden got the best of her. On the advice of another real estate agent, Mme Frey’s family bought a different home in the area, this time on what was a small, dirt path at the top of the Cap d’Antibes.  

It was a large home on Chemin de Mougins, she says. We had three stories, a pool, a gardener, and a super view. Her clear, dark eyes sparkle through stylish, two-toned frames as she remembers this last feature. When I first walked into the house and saw the view, my heart skipped a beat.  You could see all the way to St Tropez.  

Pierre Frey sign in Antibes
Pierre Frey’s name remains a badge of excellence, as seen in an Antibes shop window at the time we interviewed his widow.

After the death of her first husband, Mme Frey met the man who’d become her second at a dinner event. He was grand, bien et beau, she says – tall and good-looking. They sat side-by-side at a table of 10, the seating having been pre-arranged by the host. And on this sociable occasion she posed a simple question to this handsome man: Why are you so sad?

Years later, after the couple married, Pierre Frey said he was struck that she was able to see so clearly into his heart. He was charmed by her insight and fell instantly in love.  

So the list again extends itself. Alongside good genes, a positive attitude and a fierce independence streak, and maybe a strong second language to boot, you need special insight in order to live a long and full life.  

This Mr Frey, it turns out, was the founder of the luxurious French fabrics house bearing the same name. Having originally established his company in the north of France, he lost everything with the German invasion. But he started again, the second time in post-war Paris, and thanks to a son and three grandsons from his first marriage, the business continues to carry his name today.

Mme Frey’s only input into the esteemed fabrics company was to choose colours for the new season. Mr Frey would bring colour swatches home to his wife and rely on her choice.  

white piano of Robert Charlebois
It was a gift from her rocker son-in-law, Robert Charlebois.

That’s one thing I always had was good taste, Mme Frey says. Her words come without an ounce of boastfulness. She’s simply stating a fact. Glancing around her graceful salon – and again noting her coordinating salmon lipstick, necklace, and pumps – it is clear that colour and taste remain important in her life. Even at 100 years of age.  

Drat. We’ve discussed genes and attitudes, language, independence, and insight. Now we also need taste.

On our way out, Mme Frey takes Philippe and me on a brief tour of her salon. There are countless photos of family – here as children, there with their own children, and there as they all celebrate her 100th birthday. On the bureau there’s a photo of a friend with Winston Churchill. Tucked inconspicuously into the corner of the room is a small, console piano.  

It’s from Robert for when he comes to say, Mme Frey says. He asked if I wanted a piano, and I told him non, not really. It takes up space. So he said not to worry. This one is small and white and blends in with the furniture, so I’m okay with it.

Playing Scrabble as a single player
Playing two hands simultaneously was the key.

On our way out, I notice a game of Scrabble on her table. Two wooden trays of letters await their next turns. L’Officiel Scrabble dictionary lies on the wooden table beside the playing board, as does a fat Petit Robert dictionary and a good magnifying glass.  

Do you play Scrabble? I ask.

Oui, Mme Frey says with evident glee. I play two hands at the same time, she tells me. Both hands by myself. This way I can’t cheat!

The Scrabble board itself, I realise, is a symbol of her grace. Through it, Mme Frey applies her powers of language, independence, and insight. And she pours them from a vessel that’s always at least half-full.

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Yoko the Poodle: The Trials of a Lady’s Dog

There comes a moment in every dog’s life, disagreeable as it may be, when she is due for her periodic toilettage. We humans consider an afternoon at the salon a moment of refreshment, of relaxation even. For a dog, it’s like going to the gastroenterologist. You walk through the front door with your nails dug in.

Yoko, miniature poodle
It’s a cute cut, but it’s totally impractical in the dog days of a Côte d’Azur summer.

Alas, Yoko’s perky teddy-bear cut from Toronto was beginning to wilt, and in the dog days of a Côte d’Azur summer, the temperatures only made the situation worse for our miniature poodle. Cute as her tangled locks can look, the situation was becoming increasingly untenable.

In past summers we have taken our caniche into Antibes’ old town for her grooming. The outcome was always fine, but our pooch endured hours breathing air thick with cigarette smoke. What’s more, there was always the worry that Yoko (and therefore her owners) would be chastened for the dog’s tiny amount of (ever-present) Canadian winter weight.

“Elle a le cœur qui baigne dans la graisse!” her past groomer once said to us. The visual of our dog’s heart bathing in a vat of fat was horrifying enough for us to follow the groomer’s advice and offer a diet of steamed courgettes and haricots verts.

Lady's Dog brochure, Antibes
Lady’s Dog sounded ideal, at least to the lady-half of our pair.

Yoko is seven now – What’s that in human years, nearly 50? – so I thought she deserved something gentler these days. With a bit of research, we found Lady’s Dog. (Oui, we are still in France.) Philippe liked the name, thinking for once we might end up with a French cut for our French poodle, but teenage Lolo and I shuddered at the thought of Yoko with nailpolish and pompons. The salon de toilettage earned heaps of stars on the web for its haute coiffure: La mode de la tête aux pattes! Fashion from head to toe! The place even offered a service called “relooking,” a beautiful example of French-and-English franglais that apparently means a makeover. When I stopped by Lady’s Dog to ask about their poodle cuts (and set our intentions straight), the air inside the shop was blissfully pure. Instead of smoke, I found rose-coloured walls and the whimsy of a child’s tea party. I made a rendez-vous.

On the fated afternoon, Yoko and I set out in the car. My lucky charm of a poodle finds us an above-ground parking space, and for a mere €2.15, it is oddly ours for a day and a half. As we wind through Antibes’ narrow streets, Yoko prances and sniffs, and I celebrate how French I have become. Even though my family and I have stayed here regularly over the past 16 years, it always takes time to readapt to local ways. With the summer heat, for example, I shift the timing of my errands; the Antibois head out in the early mornings and later afternoons, not in the midday heat, as is my routine in Toronto. I am weaving among residents doing their own errands this afternoon. And I have a dog. A Canadian-American-British friend once told me to borrow a dog for a few hours; it was a sure-fire way to look like a local. My dog is gloriously for-real.

Lady's Dog exterior, Antibes
The pink ribbons on the exterior of Lady’s Dog . . .

As soon as Yoko and I step into the cheery salon de toilettage, my poodle’s world changes. She pulls on her leash and digs her claws appropriately into the wooden floor. Along the far wall a tiny dog yaps in a large crate, and in the corner an Afghan lifts its lazy head. Each discovery is more terrifying than the next. 

Sophie greets us from the grooming table, where she is just finishing work on a medium-sized dog. She greets us in the reception area and nods her short crop of white-blonde hair over Yoko’s details in her desk calendar. My pooch stands on her back legs and desperately grips one of my calves. She stares up at me with big, unbelieving, poodle eyes. 

“Une coupe comme un nounours,“ I say. A teddy-bear cut. No pompons, s’il vous plaît. Just shave a little at her feet.

“Bien sûr,” Sophie says with a nod. Her voice is sweet, almost child-like. I only rase a little at les pattes, she confirms, but otherwise like a nounours.

I smile to myself. She understands. At this stage in the conversation with Yoko’s prior groomer, she had asked, “On va garder le pantalon?” Should she keep Yoko’s pants on? Back then, I struggled to understand – wasn’t it always good advice for a young lady to keep her pants on? – and then an image took shape. Oui, for sure, keep Yoko’s pants on! Do not shave her legs! Fortunately I did not have to enter this territory with the new groomer. 

Lady's Dog interior, Antibes
. . . run straight inside the salon de toilettage, bestowing the whimsy of a child’s tea party.

Vous pouvez revenir in two-and-a-half hours,” Sophie says brightly. “About 18:30.” She tips her head toward the pretty, pink-walled reception. “Or you can come back earlier and wait here in the air-conditioning if you like.”

Having deposited my caniche at Lady’s Dog, I go on my way like a real French woman to do my late-afternoon errands. Sundress, check. Sunglasses, check. Brimmed hat, check. Tote bag on my shoulder for shopping, check. 

My biggest hitch is not visual. Shortly an elderly woman stops me to ask directions. As soon as I begin to reply, her face drops. My words do not matter. It is my accent. 

“Je suis désolée,” she interrupts me. She is sorry – to bother me or to have asked me in the first place, I am not sure which – but I soldier on and eventually help her on her way. When you start learning the language of Molière at 35, there are certain things that will never become local. 

Undeterred, I continue my errands. I chat with my favourite coffee roaster, the woman at the spectacle shop, and the guy at a boutique selling his father-in-law’s artwork printed on shirts and dresses. Eventually I wander into the leafy Place de Gaulle and sit for an orange pressée. As I wait for the end of Yoko’s appointment, I catch myself in the café window. Oui, certainement, I do look a little French.

I return to Lady’s Dog at 18:30. Yoko trembles from the grooming table as she spots me – the past hours have been quelle horreur!, she seems to say. She is beautiful. Fluffy, teddy-bear-like and doe-eyed, with just the tips of her paws shaved.

“Elle est toute gentille,” Sophie says, her voice shimmering as she compliments Yoko’s sweet character. A real pleasure to have in the shop. She lowers Yoko to the floor, and my poodle promptly jumps up to hug my leg. (“Get me ooouuuttt of here!”)

Yoko after grooming with ball
Perfectly coiffed, and she’s still all about the ball. 

“I gave her a special masque for her coat, and un brushing (which involves a blow-dryer and endless brushing), and then a cut,” Sophie says. “And I trimmed her nails as well.” She looks down at Yoko. “Would you like un cadeau?” A little gift? “But first water. You must be thirsty!” 

The groomer fills a bowl, Yoko laps it up in a huge gulp, and throws the water back up on the floor. Twice. I apologise.

“C’est normal!” Sophie says, still glittering, and wipes up the translucent puddles. “She drank too fast! But here, maybe a little treat?” She reaches into the jar on the counter. The groomer turns to address me. “Would you like me to add a little parfum?”

I decline the dog perfume – I’m not a fan, nor can I imagine Yoko is either – but I am overjoyed by the shop, Sophie, and her sweet service. To crown the day, I choose a new collar from the salon’s boutique d’accessories chics et originaux. A collar is on my list anyway because goodness knows my dog needs one. Hers is shredding, and last week she encrusted it with some disgusting, stinky glop she found at the seashore. 

“It’s made in France,” Sophie says, handing me a sturdy ribbon of bleu, blanc, and rouge stripes. “Excellent quality. And the price isn’t bad because it will last a long time.” 

The classic French stripes sell me, and I buy a leash to match. Sophie even offers me a discount.

Strolling down Antibes’ high street back to the car, I can feel the fairy dust. I am positively chic. I now have a beautifully coiffed, French poodle – a Lady’s Dog, no less – sporting a new, quintessentially French collar and leash. I imagine passersby quietly admiring my dog, the way the sunlight plays in her natural highlights and how the gentle breeze makes her fluffy coat shimmy.

I feel a tug on the leash. I stop. Yoko is assuming a crouch position. Right here, in the middle of Antibes’ busy promenade. I turn to face her, trying to use my body to somehow blot out the disgrace. My bubble deflates further as I struggle to open a plastic poo bag.

Having executed her maneuver like a little French pro, Yoko pops up from her crouch and distances herself from the pile. I stoop with my bag, and after a neat scoop, twist, and tie, we are back on our way. As my perfect little poodle and I parade down the promenade once again, I think: Honestly, now that my pooch has mastered that last move, what could possibly be more French?

So, Yoko – why not? – it’s your turn for my rapid-fire, Stephen Colbert-style questions:

Peaches or figs? I’d prefer liver.

Yoko and Rocky poodles
I’ll make an exception for Rocky.

Cats or dogs? Neither actually. They are all terrifying. Except maybe that dog Rocky, who rescued me when I got loose last summer.

Jet ski or paddleboard? What, like actually in the water?

Croissant or pain au chocolat? Both.

Haute couture or haute cuisine? Is there a question?

Favourite smell? That stuff at the seashore that you blasted off me with the freezing hose.

Worst smell? The perfume after a toilettage.

Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine, for sure. Lolo calls me “Apollo” after the sun god.

Morning or nighttime? Both. Neither. It depends when my people are awake. 

Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? I’m pretty open about music – except for the time that boy tried to play an oboe in my living room.

Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Both. And I’d eat the whole thing if no one was looking.

Sandy beach or pebbly beach? I still dream about that pebbly beach with the delicious smell.

Red wine or rosé piscine? My humans never offer me either of them.

Favourite French word? The only one I know is “viens” (come), but I don’t like it very much.

Favourite English word? Treat! No question.

Favourite place you’ve visited? That restaurant where you wore your clean shoes. Your friend couldn’t finish her beef, so she gave me all the extra under the table.

Place you want to visit? I dunno. Somewhere where toilettage is illegal.

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Judy: Life behind Antibes’ Dreamiest Vrbo Rental

Judy doesn’t realize how funny her texts can be. The other day she WhatsApped me, “The renters called and said the bed broke…?” She was simply telling me why she might be late.

Judy, an American, and her husband Jonathan, a Brit, run a best-loved Vrbo rental in Antibes. They affectionately call the one-bedroom apartment Place de Rêves (Place of Dreams) because it’s situated off Place du Revely, a secret garden in the oldest part of town. Even better, the seaside unit overlooks Port Vauban and Plage de la Gravette, two other spots on Antibes’ must-see list. 

view from Place de Rêves over Port Vauban Antibes
The view from Place de Rêves is extraordinary by day . . .

“People write beautiful reviews and other emails to me personally to say really, you guys made our vacay above and beyond,” Judy says with warmth. At first I intended to quote some of these reviews in this post, but having checked online, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Beneath the thumbnail photo of the perpetually tanned and upbeat Judy, the plaudits are effusive. The accommodation and its hosts are perfection.

Judy is telling me (and in some cases reminding me) about these details over the telephone – while climbing the StairMaster at the gym. We intended to do this interview while paddleboarding yesterday – yes, for transparency, she is a friend – but we ended up talking about everything else. (This, too, is normal. For years she has been a vital resource for this blog, filling us in on everything from the gilets jaunes to Antibes’ traditional festivals.)

view from Place de Rêves of Port Vauban at night Antibes
. . . and by night.

Place de Rêves has garnered the most five-star ratings of all Vrbo offerings in Antibes’ old town, but for visitors to see perfection, the rental can’t be about location alone. Most clients are American and British, Judy says, so the couple have added touches from their homelands, such as washcloths, larger-format ice cube trays, and a flat sheet beneath the bed’s duvet – things you don’t notice until they disappear. They’ve also tossed in a piano, optional airport service, and a guest “starter kit” that includes wine.

Perfection, in other words, requires elbow grease. One regular in particular, Judy says, is “three times more work than any other client.” She mentions a plate of fish left out on the kitchen table, broken wine glasses, and a raining air-conditioning unit (from constant use with the windows and balcony doors open), which, long story short, led to the crack that continues to afflict the bedframe.

“So why do you keep renting to this person?” I ask.

“Because Jonathan is a saint!” Judy remains stunningly compassionate, and articulate, on the StairMaster. “We don’t have a hard time finding nice people, but he thinks it will be heartbreaking not to be able to rent her the place, and he doesn’t want to break any hearts.”

There was no such concern about hearts when Judy first moved to France 17 years ago. She has never counted herself a Francophile, one of the many Anglophone transplants who are fulfilling dreams of living in this land of storybook villages, endless croissants, and haute couture. Judy is here by chance. 

“I never lived abroad,” she says. “I just studied abroad.” (She joined a three-month Semester at Sea program that circumnavigated the world.) “I just got placed here like I did in Dallas.”

les Arcades in Antibes
Judy and I met in a French-for-foreigners class at les Arcades in Antibes. Photo: Antibes Juan-les-Pins Facebook

The mention of Dallas is loaded. Originally from Ohio, Judy had followed her ex-husband’s high-tech career to Texas and California and then to the South of France. I remember those early years. Judy and I met in a French-for-foreigners class, where an instructor led discussions on things like le passé composé and l’imparfait (again), and Judy organized the socializing afterward. But beneath the fun was drama that left her effectively broke and powerless. When her ex left town, the need for knee surgery was the main force keeping her in France.

“I had to fight for my right to work here,” she says, still not puffing. Her voice grows stronger. “It’s such a fundamental need to work!” Her early, short-term visas had barred employment, and with every passing year her marketing experience became less bankable. Still the local préfecture had been reluctant to upgrade her status in case she became, as she calls it, “a ward of the State.” Judy is nearly bellowing down the phone now. “I would never do that because it’s not my culture! You go clean toilets! You make your own way!” 

I have long admired her can-do. When we were paddleboarding (and talking) together yesterday, maneuvering some decent chop in Antibes’ bay, Judy suddenly exclaimed, “It’s a first! I love recording all my firsts!” 

paddleboarding in Antibes
Old Antibes provides a stunning backdrop for paddleboarders.

It wasn’t her first time paddleboarding or managing to stand up; we had been out there before. It was her first time back on the board since reconstructive knee surgery 18 months ago – the surgery that in some ways led to her current life in Antibes. After a long battle with French bureaucracy, Judy managed to get her first, 10-year carte de séjour, allowing her to live and to work in France. In her jubilation, I remember her declaring that having accomplished this feat, she could do absolutely anything in life.

Over that decade Judy remained a social hub and barometer of fun in Antibes. When I was hosting a Fourth of July dinner several years ago, Judy insisted we go shopping for decorations. (I still have the red-white-and-blue festoons and American flag napkins.) And when my mother celebrated her birthday here, Judy brought over the plush birthday hat with candles poking out the top. (Mum adored the hoopla.)

Fete de la Musique in Antibes
Antibes’ streets throb during the few, dark-sky hours of June 21, night of Fête de la Musique.

Now that Judy is starting her second carte de séjour, I have to ask about Brexit. Unsurprisingly, the situation has complicated matters for her and Jonathan. (They married five years ago on her favourite day, June 21, France’s Fête de la Musique, when throngs pack the streets up and down the country for nonstop music and revelry.) As a Brit, Jonathan can’t spend as many days in France as he used to. Meanwhile Judy needs to count her days in the UK, “and you absolutely cannot overstay your days of welcome anywhere,” she says. So the couple find themselves visiting friends in the US, and in February, when British Airways released a suite of cheap fares, they bought 15 sets of tickets between the France and the UK. Judy considers England a home now too – so much that she shipped her family heirlooms there from the US. 

That was the detail behind one question I’d managed to slip in on the paddleboard. Judy and Jonathan watch World and Euro Cup matches on special screens put up in Antibes’ covered market area. Not that they’re football (soccer) fans, mind you. They just like the fun, and Judy especially likes the flag decorations. “So let’s say England was playing France,” I said, pausing my paddle to give the question some weight. “Who would you root for?”

“France! My adopted home!”  

“Okay, then let’s say – and you sort of have to suspend belief here – but let’s say France and the US were playing in the final. Who would you root for?” 

“Oh the US. Definitely the US.”

The answer surprised me a little. But maybe it shouldn’t have. Judy was the one who made me buy all those decorations.

My American-French-English friend is ready for my Stephen Colbert-style questions. She knows what they are ahead of time, having read a recent blog post. That said, when I pose the questions, she’s still pumping that StairMaster, so a little forethought isn’t a bad thing. So, Judy:

Peaches or figs? Figs.

Cats or dogs? Dogs. Really dogs. We’ve talked about getting one. 

Jet ski or paddleboard? That’s tough. Jet ski, as in a wave runner, or really a jet ski? Okay. Thirty minutes wave runner and 30 minutes paddleboard.

Croissant or pain au chocolat? Chocolat!

Haute couture or haute cuisine? Are you kidding? I walk around in gym clothes all day. It’s very un-French, so definitely haute cuisine. It’s the reason I go to the gym.

Favourite smell? Lavendar.

Worst smell? A dead rat.

Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine. I do love a good thunderstorm though – from the balcony.

Morning or nighttime? Nighttime.

Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Céline.

Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette.

ponton at Royal Beach in Antibes
The ponton at Royal Beach offers sand-free sunbathing. Photo: 

Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. And I’d take sand over a ponton (concrete dock), like the jetty at Plage Keller or the sun bed areas at Royal Beach and the Belles Rives. The idea there is you don’t get sandy, so they’re more expensive, but I like the sand because it’s beachy.

Red wine or rosé piscine? I’ve become very, very French. April to October is rosé, always piscine with lots of glaçons (ice cubes). I’m the queen of glaçons. And otherwise it’s red.

Favourite French word? Inimaginable is a pretty word. Or baguette. I like how it has more meanings than the obvious one, like “chopsticks” and “side diamond” and other things.

Favourite English word? Entrepreneur. It’s a French word, but the concept is so American!

With this post, I revert to my original ideas for the last two questions. They hadn’t seemed appropriate to ask French nationals like Christelle and Caroline, but for Judy they make sense:

Favourite thing about living in France? Probably the fact that I’m always learning something. It could be a new word, or a subtlety of the culture, or something about the art or architecture.

Worst thing about living in France? The inconsistencies are frustrating – like when a store will be open. It’s tough on my work because some shops close between 12 and 3.

I’m happy to hear this final answer. Her bigger trials living here are over.

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L’encadreuse de fersen: the art of the frame

A precious piece of art recently found its way back to Bellevue. In the curious way that one thing leads to another, especially in small French towns, the great-grandnephew of the man who built our home recently gifted me the original drawing of our front door. 

The giant slab of walnut has garnered its own attention over the years. Recessed into blocks of limestone, its face is elegantly panelled and at its crown, carved skillfully into its solid transom, is a cherubic face, its pudgy cheeks and button nose flanked by a pair of feathery wings. In one instance, a passerby offered to purchase the door – just the door – right off its iron hinges. 

Long-time readers of this blog may recall how I’ve researched our home at the mouth of the Cap d’Antibes, and so when the great-grandnephew discovered the door’s sketch in the dusty files of his carpentry business, and he offered it to me, I was overjoyed. The drawing hadn’t weathered the test of time as well as the actual door has. The paper was stained, blotched, and covered in a film of grime when I first held it. Small holes penetrated its surface, and the edges had begun to tear. Left alone, the sketch might have deteriorated further – but I knew we had to do something more with this relic than stuff it into another folder for someone else to discover someday. And I knew just who to call.

“C’est très élégant,” Caroline says, gazing at the finished artwork on her studio’s presentation table. Tools that measure and cut are scattered over other workspaces in her atelier, and framing inventory lies in long, organised clusters on wall shelving. The petite, artisanal framer is complimenting my choice of an ivory matte to offset the ecru sketch and a black-and-burnished gold frame.

original and cleaned sketch
A bit of a scrub: The before-and-after is striking.

I’m delighted by the piece but am under no illusions about my artistic eye. Normally I rely on the rest of my household – on my husband Philippe and our teen Lolo – when it comes to choices with visual art, but the fate of this project fell to me. First came the question of cleaning the sullied page, so off Caroline sent it to a conservator. Next came the frame, for which Caroline offered me no bad choices, followed by decisions over a matte and glass. She sought my advice with each step in the creative process, but I could sense her wisdom and gladly followed every ounce of it. 

L’encadreuse de Fersen, as Caroline is known here in Antibes, has recently moved into a new workshop, and this one has lofty ceilings with exposed wooden beams. I compliment her on the new, airy atelier.

“C’est en mesurant la hauteur du plafond que l’on mesure l’élévation de l’esprit,” she says. Her blue eyes are even more striking with the streak of coral lipstick. I ask her to say the line again, and she offers to jot it down for me, attributing the quote to the actor André Dussollier: It’s by measuring the height of the ceiling that we measure the elevation of the spirit.

rue de Fersen, Antibes
Only a sign remains to mark l’encadreuse de Fersen’s former workshop on rue de Fersen.

The move from her cramped quarters on Antibes’ rue de Fersen clearly agrees with l’encadreuse de Fersen – but a name is a name, and it travels more easily than the tools, tables, and substantial inventory did when she carted them through the old town to her new atelier. As she moves through her workshop wearing a paint-splattered apron, I wonder how her delicate form manages the bulk of her chosen trade. 

I found Caroline over a dozen years ago. I’d purchased a 19th-century aquatint of Antibes from a local print shop run by an English fellow. (The business has since disappeared.) His nationality was fortunate for me, especially back then, because it allowed us more than a couple sentences of conversation. 

“You must get the print framed by l’encadreuse de Fersen,” he’d said and scratched the title on a piece of paper. The Englishman insisted she was a real artisan, and her atelier was the only appropriate spot to frame such a beautiful piece.

aquatint, Antibes
We first found l’encadreuse through this aquatint.

I took his advice. Shortly Philippe and I had crammed into l’encadreuse’s old workshop on rue de Fersen. We debated over mattes and frames with her while she reinforced bits of French culture for us because we were new to town – oui, we français smoke a lot more than you Américains do, she said, and non, the new coffee takeaway shop in town doesn’t make any sense. In France, coffee is about socializing, not about drinking it. Philippe and I had much to learn.

L’encadreuse de Fersen had arrived in Antibes only a handful of years before we did. She had grown up in the North of France and moved to Paris for her studies. The city became too expensive, so she moved to the suburbs, but that lifestyle didn’t suit her. Then she had two choices: Lille or Antibes. Lille, also in the North, already had an established set of artisanal framers, so Caroline journeyed south. She would become the best encadreuse in Antibes.

Since our first encounter, Caroline and I have only waved to one another on occasion through the glass of her old workshop on rue de Fersen. Life in a small French town works on personal connection, and the best shop owners never forget a face. When I ended up inside her atelier again last August, the dingy sketch of Bellevue’s front door in hand, I was already an established customer.

Could we tackle the project over the winter months when my family and I were back in Canada? I wondered. Efficiency was key to me. Antibes is hot and cramped in the summer, and l’encadreuse would surely take her own holidays. I didn’t want to bother with the job when we returned this summer because surely, when not trying to be on our own holidays, we’d be fixing the air-conditioning or Wi-Fi. In my mind, the artwork would be cleaned, framed, and with the helpful hand of our housekeeper, mounted on Bellevue’s wall by the time we returned in June this year. 

framed work
The dingy old sketch is ready for Bellevue’s wall.

The folly of my North American thinking. Caroline oversaw the restoration work in the autumn, and together we managed the choice of a frame over WhatsApp, but I soon discerned that framing a beautiful piece of art was like taking coffee. One does it in person. Supply chain issues provided an easy excuse over the ensuing six months, and anyway, there was nothing like choosing the right matte in person, standing the luminosity of the Antibes’ ever-present sunlight. So in addition to dealing with the Wi-Fi on our return to Bellevue – the details about how we reconnected the service with a cash tip to an off-duty telecoms employee probably merits a post of its own – so in addition to this early-summer task, I also found myself standing in the bright alleyway of Caroline’s new atelier. Again I sensed her hand and opted for the lightest of three preselected mattes to best show off the beloved sketch.

As we finalized the price during our next-to-last consultation, she jotted down figures. “Vous êtes très gentille,” I said, calling her “kind” as I watched her fee mount and come down again.

“C’est mon deuxième nom,” she said playfully. “Kind” was her middle name.

I laughed, delighted with the outcome of everything, and paused. Now was the right time, if ever. I trembled at how the notion of being the object of a blog post would strike the French artisan, much less how she’d respond to the idea of answering a series of quick, Colbert-esque questions.

L’encadreuse hovered between being intrigued and too busy. Indeed, my penultimate appointment was sandwiched between two others, the following one completely unforeseen, but Caroline had ushered the elderly women into her studio, and as I asked my curious question, the woman sat behind me clutching a broken frame. On my final visit to the atelier, though, as Caroline and I stand together over the beautifully cleaned, mounted, and framed sketch of Bellevue’s front door, she is ready to give me and my American-style questions a go. So, l’encadreuse de Fersen:

Peaches or figs? Figs.

Cats or dogs? Neither. 

Jet ski or paddleboard? Paddleboard.

Croissant or pain au chocolat? Neither.

Haute couture or haute cuisine? Les deux! Both of them!

Favourite smell? Jasmine.

Worst smell? Burnt plastic.

walnut door
You can spot the differences between the idea and the implementation.

Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine, I guess, but neither really.

Morning or nighttime? Morning.

Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Neither.

Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette. I don’t eat meat.

Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. I’m too old for la plage de galets! It hurts your feet.

Red wine or rosé piscineÇa dépend du contexte. If I was a purist, I’d say red wine, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so I’ll say rosé. It’s easy in the summer. If the question was white wine or rosé, now that would be a dilemma!

Favourite French word? Magnifique.

Favourite English word? Primavera. I can only think of a favourite word in Spanish!

Favourite place you’ve visited? Un bon bistrot, une bonne table with fresh, authentic products.

Place you want to visit? She searches her mind. Une auberge. I want to sleep on a farm.

I push her. What about other places to visit, like when you go en vacances

“I don’t want to make a trip of foreign capitals. I like culture with authenticité. La France est magnifique.”

I like the way she uses her favourite word to describe her favourite place. I also realize that once again l’encadreuse has pinpointed our cross-cultural thinking. We must remember the beauty of our own backyards. 

Still, for those of us with some degree of wanderlust, I offer comfort: There’s a reason France always tops the list of the world’s best holiday destinations.

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Christelle of Antibes: The World from a Taxi

One day when I was riding to the airport in a taxi, the driver told me she’d just met French Président Emmanuel Macron. Of course I believed her. My driver was the one and only Christelle.

Votre Président veux vous rencontrer,” she’d said to me that summer day in the Côte d’Azur, quoting the aide-de-camp who had waited alongside her for an incoming airplane. “Your Président wants to meet you,” the aide had said, addressing the redhead who stood over six feet tall in her heels. 

Mes jambes étaient paralysées!” Christelle remembered. My legs were paralysed! 

Her voice always dances over its words when she drives. As boulangeries and bistrots speed by outside the taxi’s windows, you can’t help but listen to Christelle’s conversation. She could fascinate riders with a story about washing her minivan if she wanted to, but she always has more interesting things to say.

red van
Christelle meets the world through her travelling office. 

Surely Christelle entertained her other client, another regular, that morning in August 2020, when she drove him to meet Président Macron’s plane at a military airport in the South of France. Like that client, my family has enjoyed Christelle’s company from the black leather seats of her red minivan many times over the years, often journeying between Nice Côte d’Azur Airport and our long-time summer home, Bellevue, in the coastal town of Antibes. Usually my husband, Philippe, takes the passenger seat beside Christelle during the half-hour trip and chats with her en français about everything from politics and economics to the latest celebrity gossip. I perch in the back with Lolo, our bilingual teenager, and Yoko, our miniature poodle, and try to concentrate on Christelle’s cheery repartee. Instead I catch myself quietly admiring the sparkly butterfly clips in her red-highlighted hair, or the way the Rivera sunlight catches her arms and makes them glitter. Or how she maneuvers her five-inch stilettos between the brake and accelerator as we glide through the abundant highway traffic.

Our favourite driver ferries us between Nice Côte d’Azur Airport and our summer hometown of Antibes.

Whether the other regular client noticed Christelle’s dress sense that morning he was meeting M. Macron, I do not know; he was undoubtedly preoccupied with the day’s events. He joined the Président aboard an aircraft, flew to Beirut, and met with the Lebanese president following the explosion at Beirut’s port

That same evening Christelle returned to the military airport to collect her passenger. The hours ticked by. The sun set and the sky grew dark. At one point she was chatting on the phone with her husband Éric, another driver. “I bet you’ll meet the Président,” he said with a laugh.

Just then, Christelle’s phone beeped with another caller. She glanced at the name on the screen. “It’s my client,” she said and rang off with Éric.

Coucou,” she said gaily into her telephone. (“Coucou” is a familiar version of hello, a word used among friends and always uttered with song in your voice.) “C’était comment votre journée?” she continued with her usual playfulness. “Pas trop dur?” How was your day? Not too tough?

“Bonsoir, Madame,” replied a less familiar voice. “C’est votre Président.” It was Président Macron. 

Christelle felt as if someone had punched her in the gut – and yet. And yet, hadn’t her husband just joked that she would meet the Président? For once, the driver of the red taxi was tongue-tied. M. Macron forged on, apologizing for the flight delay. The meetings and the interviews had pushed back the party’s departure by over two hours. He was sorry she had been kept waiting.

So Christelle and her heels hung around with the aide-de-camp for the incoming plane. Shortly, once the plane had arrived and Christelle’s legs had gone numb on the news of a meeting with M. Macron, she stood before her Président in person. 

“Bonsoir, Christelle,” he said. “May I call you Christelle?” Président Macron said he’d met several of her regular clients in Lebanon that day. Everyone had sung her praises.

“J’étais toute émue,” Christelle said, replaying the meeting in her mind. She was very emotional. She had only a simple education, she’d told M. Macron, but he assured her that he valued her profession a great deal. Then he asked her opinion about his first two years in office. And thus, some time after the gilets jaunes movement had triggered M. Macron’s nationwide listening tour, our favourite driver managed a private feedback session with France’s Président.

Stephen Colbert
We’re taking a leaf from US talk show host Stephen Colbert. Photo: Montclair Film

Christelle has featured in this blog several times over the years, filling roles from restaurant concierge to real estate agent, but during our recent drive to Nice Airport, the native Niçoise expects my questions. She knows I want to profile her. She also knows at the end of our journey, I’ll pose a series of short questions in the style of US talk show host Stephen Colbert. “I’m open to new things” was her typically enthusiastic response to my request for the interview.

As the red minivan weaves through traffic, Christelle wears a silky white top with flowing trousers in a kaleidoscope of peach, orange sherbet, and rainslicker yellow. Her nails – fingers and toes – are peachy pink, and her patent orange heels have shrunk to only a few inches in height this morning, but they suit the ensemble to a tee. I thought her aviator sunglasses were dirty at first – how could that be? – but the grid of dots decorating her lenses are little Louis Vuitton stamps. 

After Christelle recaps her Macron story for me, she says her early days in the business didn’t roll so smoothly. Fifteen years ago, toward the start of her career as an executive driver, she found herself standing on the pavement in the drop-off lanes at Nice’s airport, hands fixed to the outside of her vehicle, telephone surrendered, surrounded by police. She was a suspect in a major jewelry scam. Christelle had been driving the same clients to the airport four times a week. Apparently they’d been buying jewelry in France with credit cards, claiming tax refunds at the airport, and then switching their bags so the jewelry remained in France, where they returned the items to the shops at full price. Over time they had pocketed hundreds of thousands of Euros from the French Government. Now the police thought Christelle was in cahoots with her regular passengers.

J’était toute jeune,” she says. She was very young. Fortunately she was able to fish her taxi driver’s permit out of her handbag, and the cops let her go.

rhinestone heels
Christelle wore sandals like these when she was dressed to her 31. Photo: Google Images

These days, even while hauling luggage and sitting behind the wheel of her minivan, Christelle distinguishes herself by dressing to the nines (or “to your 36,” as Philippe once labelled her attire, or “to your 31” as she called it herself). But she puts her success down to character.

“It would be easy for me to faire la gueule all day,” she says. She could just sulk. Instead she keeps her morning TV news intake to 20 minutes – the headlines are always so negative – and fills her Instagram account with breezy sayings. Clients appreciate her attitude and have hired her to drive them as distantly as Venice, Geneva, and northern Switzerland. On one trip to Geneva, a mother-daughter duo asked Christelle to keep them company for a week. (She obliged for a couple of days.) But one of her driving colleagues once said he was so disgusted by her chirpy Instagram posts that he allait la virer. He was going to fire her. “Okay,” she told him cheerfully, “go ahead!” Two years later, he’s still a follower.

As the red minivan nears Nice Airport, I push onto my list of rapid-fire, Colbert-esque questions. Stephen Colbert and I share an alma mater, and his former roommate is the sister of my former roommate – all of which makes us nearly siblings – so I decided to take my semi-brother’s cue and ask my interviewee a series of set questions. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe we’ll pull out the same list of questions for another interviewee. (Do let us know what you think in the comments.) So, Christelle:

Peaches or figs? Peaches.

A Pomeranian has won Christelle’s heart. Photo: Rob Hanson

Cats or dogs? Dogs obviously. (She features her Pomeranian on Instagram.)

Jet ski or paddleboard? Paddleboard.

Croissant or pain au chocolatPain au chocolat. Take the one with the most calories! If you asked me fois gras versus salade, I’d take fois gras!

Haute couture or haute cuisine? What, between the two?! Haute couture.

Favourite smell? When the sun is warming the dew off the grass.

Worst smell? Broken sewers.

Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine.

Morning or nighttime? Morning.

Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Céline Dion.

Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette.

Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. Pebbles hurt your feet.

Red wine or rosé piscine (the Côte d’Azur’s signature drink of rosé wine with ice cubes)? Red wine. I’ve done the rosé piscine too much. You add des glaçons and then you drink too much. So red wine. J’aime bien des grandes verres! I like big glasses!

Favourite French word? Merci.

Favourite English word? I can’t think of one.

Favourite place you’ve visited? London. It felt super there. I was with a friend of 40 years. We did lots of things.

Place you want to visit? Canada. It looks magnifique – the space, the mountains. People talk about it. I thought about moving there but the paperwork was too much.

Living most of the year in Toronto as my family and I do, Christelle’s final response surprises me. But we humans are always curious about elsewhere. And on that note, her red minivan pulls into Nice Airport and drops off my family and me for our next discovery.

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As we pen the final French Lessons post for the summer of 2021, let’s first review where we’ve journeyed in this off-kilter season – and to newcomers who stumble here in the cooler months, we say a hearty “Soyez le bienvenu!” Welcome!

Around the time of that second post, when a seagull was unloading its viscous luck over my husband Philippe’s unsuspecting head, our daughter Lolo was searching online for a summer French class. She still has two years left in high school, but we heard that universities like to see at least a couple high school language credits.

It’s not that Lolo doesn’t know French. Au contraire. When she was only four years old, she’d flounced up to me in our kitchen one evening and for some odd reason declared, “Maman, il faut que je sois sage.”

At the time, this maman had been struggling to learn the tyrannical French verb formation called le subjonctif. I’d stared down at my toddler. “Did you just use the subjunctive?”

Lolo flinched. She didn’t know what the subjunctive was. She didn’t even know what a verb was. She didn’t know why Mommy sounded so serious either, but she did know that she was supposed to be sage, a very French vocabulary word that describes the wise and well-mannered behaviour expected of French schoolchildren. 

In this immersive French summertime, Lolo wandered the streets of old Antibes with friends.

Now a dozen years later, Lolo has never stopped speaking French. (All things considered, she’s pretty sage, too.) Her français sounds like that of a native. It’s just those bizarre spellings and pesky little accents that get in the way of writing – and so earlier this summer, she was scouring the internet for an appropriate high school French class.

Her high school counselor kindly met with us online even after we’d arrived in France. “If you want to do a French course this summer, that’s great,” she told our 16-year-old. It was the straightforward way to approach university applications. “Or,” she said, “if you’d rather learn by immersion while you’re in France, that works, too.” 

Lolo swiftly abandoned the research. Instead of summer bookwork, my teenager wandered Antibes’ ancient streets and did archery with her friend Clotilde. She surfed and cycled and strolled the long, tidal beaches of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie with Éros. She whipped around on inflatable water toys in Villeneuve-Loubet with Ilan and played majestic piano music with him back in Antibes. She swam and yakked with her friend Kaiya, and with Spencer she relished a teens-only night out in Nice and kayaked in France’s forested Ardèche region.

“Which language did you speak with Spencer and her family?” I asked my daughter when she returned from her kayaking weekend. 

Lolo hesitated at my pointless question. “I dunno really,” she said. “A mix of both, I guess.” I got the same answer after her time with Kaiya. English and French were interchangeable with these friends, or maybe they’d mixed the two languages into a lazy franglais.

With the first three friends – Clotilde, Éros, and Ilan – I didn’t have to ask. Their parents would have encouraged English, but for the bulk of the teens’ time together, I knew they would have surfed and cycled, shot arrows, made music, wandered, and chatted en français. Lolo had met each of these friends in preschool, here in the Côte d’Azur. Ilan, in fact, was her longest friend anywhere on the planet; they’d met when they were two. French was the only language these friends properly shared.

“Le temps te construit des racines”: This quote filled a page in a novel I read this summer. What better moment to absorb the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Time was building Lolo’s roots. 

Antibes’ architecture has a certain allure – here including a bird’s-eye view of the mairie, a Saracen watchtower, and the Marché Provençal‘s peaked metal roof.

Living in French, though, is more than a language. It’s not just knowing how to conjugate stubborn verbs and tossing out very French words like sage. Once this summer after grabbing a takeaway sandwich at a boulangerie, Lolo glanced back inside at the bakery’s timber display cases and rows of oven-fresh breads. “They should really have casual boulangeries in Canada,” she said, “you know, simple ones like they have here.” 

My teenager was developing an appreciation of the culture that she had taken for granted during her childhood immersion. Soon a title appeared on her smartphone: “Things that Europe has that N America needs: A much needed list” and beneath it a tally grew to include better architecture, Carte d’Or chocolat noir ice cream, and –  

On a recent drive a question sprang from the car’s back seat. “What do you call rond-points again?” Roundabouts. 

Now the summer season has fled, and Lolo’s self-created French immersion class is winding down. One day as we contemplated our return to the other side of the ocean, she said with a chuckle, “Here goes the cultural whiplash.”

I had to laugh. Yes, life would be different back in Toronto, but during this slightly abbreviated and strange summer in Antibes, not only had my kid experienced French life alongside her parents. She had immersed herself in her surroundings, and she’d done so alongside her real, honest-to-goodness, French friends.

Even the derelict buildings are charming.

Several years ago, I’d run across an explanation of les relations franco-américaines as posed in The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD. Like so many good sayings en français, Meyer’s analogy for this cross-border relationship involved food. Americans are like peaches, she said. They are easy to approach and readily offer a piece of themselves, but their inner cores remain well protected. The French, on the other hand, are like coconuts. At first they keep a distance, but if you pierce their shells, they open up with increasing ease, and relationships grow strong and enduring. 

Des pêches and des noix de coco: It’s not that one side is superficial and the other cold. Non, that interpretation is frivolous. The French, rather, don’t hurry their relationships, but once you make a friend, you have that friend for life. 

Put this way, I suppose my teenager chose well with her French studies this summer. There is, after all, no more abiding education.

French Lessons will return next season, life and regulations willing, and we look forward to traipsing together through the beloved shores of France’s Côte d’Azur. If you’ve found us mid-season, why not subscribe so that next summer we’ll pop automatically into your inbox? In the meantime – and we say this with intent – keep well.

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Why is the Riviera razing its beach restaurants?

The Côte d’Azur has been bulldozing its famous restaurants de plage.

It’s a shocking statement. The vision is even worse. Heaps of tables and woven chairs, refrigerators and ovens, china plates, long-stemmed glasses, and canvas parasols are carted away from France’s beaches. A bulldozer’s jaws then raze the steel pylons and timber platforms that once formed beloved establishments serving everything from shimmering champagne to the perfect, salty pommes frites

French Lessons has watched this story unfold over the past several years. The movement began as words on paper, but it grabbed our attention when we returned to our home here in 2018. Tétou had disappeared. The courts had decided that the beach restaurant along Golfe Juan was occupying the domaine maritime without right or title. Tétou, and a string of other restaurants de plage, had been demolished in our absence, and a few informal beach concessions had popped up in their place. I’d never visited Tétou, but I knew it formed part of the local lore. The restaurant had opened at the start of the Années Folles – the Roaring Twenties – and had been operated by the same family ever since; it was a favourite among A-listers during the Cannes Film Festival. Cash-only, and not at a small tab, Tétou was famous for its bouillabaisse, a fish soup that servers apparently placed in a steaming pot at the center of a dining table along with a self-service ladle. Now the business had been swept away with no trace – except, if you look for it, Tétou’s name still clings to the former parking lot across the beach road, even as a developer’s sign hangs on the fence. 

Tétou’s name still clings to its former parking lot on the other side of the ring road.

Private beach restaurants like Tétou have operated in France for generations, and the businesses were getting bigger and bigger. Many argued that their concessions were illegal, contravening France’s loi littoral, a 1986 coastal law that made the beaches free and unrestricted for public use. The loi littoral has become part of the French fabric – but still, it was tough to ignore the hundreds of millions of Euros that beach businesses brought in each year. At each permitting renewal, municipal governments put the concessions out to tender, and between the funds streaming into local purses and the array of jobs created by these restos de plage, people grew comfortable with the status quo.

Then in 2006, the national government issued a decree over the use of France’s beaches. The décret plage aimed to control the balance between coastal protection and leisure activities – or, depending on who you listened to, to liberate the beaches. Either way, the new regulations sought to create meaningful bounds for private beach concessions, which had to be temporary, not permanent, fixtures that could be disassembled at the end of each season.

The décret plage de 2006 swiftly turned into a headache and a stream of scholarly reports and Sénat debates. How many months of the year could these private businesses operate? How much of the beach could they cover? To what extent must “hard” constructions be dismantled after the summer season? What about job losses? Rather than the national government, should local governments make their own rules – especially given the importance of beaches to their budgets? 

Paloma Beach spreads along a pebble shore on Cap Ferrat.

The Côte d’Azur is in a transition period, we’ve learned, and other beach restaurants – ones that we do know – are living on borrowed time. Earlier this summer we drove a small cruiser to Cap Ferrat, anchored, and took a dinghy into a pebble beach. As we drew closer, I gazed fondly at the twin-storied building nestled against an embankment strewn in parasol pines. Paloma Beach, the business, had opened just after World War II and took its name from Paloma Picasso, who had frequented the spot with her celebrated father. 

These days generous, canvas awnings ran the length of this restaurant de plage and shaded platforms of cloth-covered tables and casual bistro benches. A bouquet of parasols shielded transat loungers lining a section of the pebble beach. From these perches, diners and sun worshippers alike could contemplate the craggy coastline, from clifftop Èze Village to a corner of seaside Monaco, and the fleet of cruisers, sailboats, and megayachts that bobbed in the Mediterranean bay in between. The restaurant’s menu was no less awe-inspiring, from its beignets de fleurs de courgettes, freshly-caught loup de mer, and sabayon aux fruits rouges.

Glorious plates come from Paloma Beach’s kitchen, even if the infrastructure looks pretty permanent. 

Gorgeous and historic as everything was about this place, it’s the memories that I hold dear. We’ve come year after year to Paloma Beach with friends and family. In fact, Lolo, now 16, encountered her first ice cream cone here. (Fortunately, it was vanilla.) But like Tétou before it, the future of Paloma Beach has sustained years of to-and-fro, and the outcome remains uncertain.

On this summer’s visit one employee chatted with Philippe, whose affability and Quebecois-French accent always seem to spark conversation. “Nothing will be left in five years,” the chap said with an air of discernment. “We’ve already lost half the beach.” 

Indeed, we’d noticed the changes. Paloma Beach used to extend over half of the beach, but now some of its cream-coloured loungers have been replaced by vibrant beach towels. A full dock used to greet customers coming by sea, but today’s arrivals have to judge the swells before jumping onto a mickey mouse perch. Yes, things are different, and we’d been squeezing our eyes shut, hoping for the best.

The views from Paloma Beach fill canvases and social media alike.

Every coin has two sides. The premeditated destruction of thriving businesses always stumped us, but in researching this post, I realise I’ve been thinking like a holidaymaker – a very regular and established holidaymaker, for sure, but a non-resident nonetheless. “It’s more fun here now,” a local friend told me when I told her about this post idea. “As soon as the tourists leave and the kids go back to school, we have picnics on the beaches all the time. We’re using them.” Then she added with a laugh, “I never knew Juan-les-Pins had such nice beaches.”

My friend’s remark encapsulated what’d I’d been toiling to learn. I’d already witnessed the local passion for this access to the coastline. During his visit several years ago, the King of Saudi Arabia appropriated a small beach beside his mansion for security reasons. The narrow stretch of sand, which lay nearby the then-existing Tétou, was fairly inaccessible and lightly used compared to Golfe Juan’s neighbouring beaches, but the closure prompted an outcry, a 150,000-strong petition, and international headlines. (The king left early.)

The coastal situation has led to today’s tricky legal issue. Beach enterprises always operated under leaseholds – not freeholds under which they purchased the land outright. As time passed, and has continued to pass during the transitional period of the décret plage, the leases’ clocks have ticked down. Renewing concessions has become tricky and sometimes impossible. Businesses that chose to operate anyway were doing so illegally. Fifteen years ago, when we first moved to Antibes, I’d watched as the beach shacks along Plage de la Salis were boxed up and carted away at the end of the season. I’d considered it a bunch of unnecessary effort, but now that annual ritual seems the simpler one. 

Our time here this summer is dwindling. “We should get to the Plage Provençale one night,” Philippe said the other day.

“Absolutely!” I said. I was more eager than usual for a reservation – sadly for good reason. 

The sublime Provençal Beach once reached well into Juan-les-Pins’ bay, as shown here in 2018.

Unlike Paloma Beach, Le Provençal Beach (and non, I’m not simplifying matters with English here – these French restaurants choose the word “Beach”) is near our home. Its table linens and stemmed glasses spread along wooden docks that extend beyond the shores of neighbouring Juan-les-Pins – but like its Cap Ferrat cousin, this beach restaurant is filled with our memories. Once, having parked our car on the way to dinner there, we realised we’d forgotten Yoko’s leash. Philippe carried our miniature poodle into the restaurant anyway. When our dog grew tired of our table, she wandered off to other diners, looking for a handout (or a messy eater). No one was stunned by a roaming poodle, and in end, a French bulldog appeared beneath our table. Each autumn, when we return to Toronto and I get rehabilitated by North America’s dogs-in-restaurants rules, this memory from Le Provençal Beach brings me bohemian joy. 

The legendary Hôtel Le Provençal has become a hulking, white honeycomb, pictured here in 2011.

Le Provençal Beach sprang up in its current form only a decade or so ago, but it takes a storied name from l’Hôtel Le Provençal, which once operated directly across the ring road. American railway magnate Jay Gould had built the hotel in 1926, when Juan-les-Pins was in its heyday. Edith Piaf had danced in its ballroom, Coco Chanel and Marilyn Monroe had apparently lounged on the terrace, and Ella Fitzgerald gave an impromptu performance from an upstairs window. I’ve only known the hotel as a hulking honeycomb that has blotted Juan-les-Pins’ landscape. The ruin, 10 stories and 175,000 square feet of whitewashed concrete, has outwitted a series of developers over these past years, even as Brad Pitt was supposedly buying in at one point. The latest owner has big designs for a condo building, we hear, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

In any case, I knew why Philippe proposed dinner at Le Provençal Beach before we return to Toronto. Juan-les-Pins, he has learned, is planning to create a sentier du littoral – a seaside boardwalk – in the manner of those sublime, olden days, now a century gone. As the namesake hotel is hoping to rise from its long ruin, one of our cherished beach restaurants will soon fall prey to bulldozers. Unless someone can elongate its lease of life, our meal there will be our last.

French Lessons asks:  What’s your take? What are your memories? We’d love to hear from you.

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Domotique: Small firms light up French life

When we returned from dinner at our friends’ place the other night, my family and I were startled by the look of our home. It was midnight, and Bellevue’s exterior lights, which Philippe had specifically switched on before leaving, were dark. Our property was pitch black. From the driver’s seat of the car, Philippe punched the remote for the driveway’s rolling gate. It refused to budge. 

Bellevue’s electricity had been cut. In the Cap d’Antibes, especially during the heady summertime, this situation did not bode well. Neighbours recently had warned us about all sorts of thefts in the area – yet again, I should say.

Philippe reversed down the road and slid our car into a roadside slot. Along with teenage Lolo and our miniature poodle, Yoko, we walked back up the Cap’s dimly lit ring road and unlocked Bellevue’s pedestrian gate. None of our home’s windows were broken, and the front door was sealed. Opening it, the alarm still squealed, but its diminutive screen said something was amiss.

We were enjoying the view (seagulls included) from our friends’ terrace at Antibes’ Plage de la Gravette – when back on the other side of the bay, gremlins were infiltrating our EdF box.

Yoko was our next signal. Frightened by her shadow and baby Chihuahuas, our poodle would warn us if someone had been in the house, but Yoko pranced around like everything was normal. We had not been burgled. The electricity had simply gone out. Then we realized it was Friday night. Things always went wrong at the start of the weekend.

Some minutes after midnight now, and still merry from the laughter and meal, Philippe, Lolo, and I crept with flashlights down our home’s dim utility staircase and scanned the fuse boxes. No switch had popped.

“It’s probably on the street,” Philippe said. “Where’s that key from Sandrine?”

This little gizmo does the trick with the electric box.

“The key from Sandrine” is a euphemism. It’s a homespun tool used to jimmy our Électricité de France box in the street, and it didn’t come from our property agent but from her brother, un homme à tout faire, or a handyman. When I first held the metal gadget a couple years ago, the nonchalance of this DIY approach stunned me – normally government employees are the only folks allowed to touch that EdF box – but, well, when in the Côte d’Azur….

In any case, I found the special key and we shuffled back onto the Cap d’Antibes’ ring road, pried open the metal electrical box, et voilà! Philippe pushed the offending fuse back in place. Bellevue’s exterior walls lit up like a fairground.

All was well – except that back inside our home, we still couldn’t turn on the lights. More weirdly, the kitchen lamps that I’d switched on just before leaving for dinner, blazed brightly – and they wouldn’t turn off.

Philippe shook his head. “It has to be the domotique,” he said. “Part of the domotique might’ve got fried.”

How was plastic so complicated?

In France, mention of the domotique always involves someone shaking their head. Basically the brain of a house, the system can suddenly malfunction and throw a household into a panique. Bellevue’s domotique controls the lights, alarm, buzzer, and Wi-Fi (pronounced WEE-fee) – everything that governs the state of the occupants’ well-being and happiness. To make it worse, the system is an inscrutable array of plastic building blocks. They are artfully crafted with bits of copper and wire, but they are plastic nonetheless.

Whatever gremlins had struck Bellevue’s electricity box, they seemed to have blown only part of our domotique’s brain. The alarm still worked, and more stunningly, so did the Wi-Fi. With one o’clock now approaching, we stumbled back downstairs to the fuse boxes. We flipped some switches off and back on, launching an array of beeps that indicated things weren’t right. Then we called it a night. “The air-conditioning’s still working,” Philippe said. That was good enough for him.

Flashlights certainly helped in Bellevue’s back staircase.

The issue seething beneath Bellevue’s latest headache was that we’d just fired our domotique man. He was the fourth or fifth tech specialist we’d employed in our 15 years at Bellevue, and perhaps that’s not a bad record, but this change seemed overdue – especially because the latest chap rarely turned up for work anymore. What we’d love to find is an established, midsized technology firm that employs a string of domotique experts – one central business that maintains a record of Bellevue’s system and its tangled wires, and a cadre of specialists who actually turn up.

That’s not how it works in France. The country may be known for its vast, multinational companies – household names like Carrefour, Crédit Agricole, Peugeot, Danone, and L’Oréal – but as is common throughout Europe, the real pedal-to-the-metal work happens in the country’s small shops. Few of these businesses grow into midsized companies because of regulatory rigidities. Things are gradually changing in France (with the ensuing upset and yellow vests), but put simply, once someone is hired, it’s a herculean job to get rid of them. So shops stay small.

Fortunately, our gardener – an industrious man who runs a small business of his own – had recommended a new domotique specialist to our housekeeper. This young guy was a family friend, our gardener said. He was smart and a good worker. 

That’s as much as Philippe and I knew. Before turning in in the wee hours, Philippe sent a text to our housekeeper to see if she could contact the bright, young domotique man in the morning. 

Our gardener lives in a peaceful village like this one in the hills near Grasse.

By mid-morning, our housekeeper had replied to Philippe’s text. She’d been ringing the domotique guy all morning, but he wouldn’t pick up his phone. An hour later, her message was more upbeat. Our housekeeper had effectively roused the Côte d’Azur on a leisurely Saturday morning. From her apartment in Cannes, she had rung the gardener, who lives in the hills near Grasse. The gardener rang the young man’s mother-in-law, who rang her daughter, who told her husband to answer his phone. Thomas then telephoned our housekeeper in Cannes and promised to get to Bellevue in Antibes by late morning.

That it was early afternoon when he arrived is splitting hairs because the fact is, Thomas showed up – on a Saturday, no less. A lanky young man with artful tattoos on his arms and legs, he greeted us with a surprising can-do – even if he wasn’t sure he’d be able to solve the problem. His partner, in fact, was the domotique specialist, but Thomas was an electrician and he’d have a go. In the end, he found the piece of the domotique’s brain that was brûlée, gave the system a partial lobotomy, and then declared that no replacement part would be available until next week. Somehow in the process he’d managed to switch on Bellevue’s living room lights, which was extremely useful for the evenings – until we realized that we couldn’t turn them off.

Within days, Thomas and his partner returned to Bellevue, and now the domotique brûlée has been replaced by a shiny new piece of plastic. The system works again – at least for now. Philippe is certain there are bigger issues infesting Bellevue’s electrical circuit, thanks to work done by the last domotique man. The new duo will return to Bellevue in the autumn to fiddle with the brain-bending system.

This time, though, we have an unexpected comfort. If Thomas doesn’t show up to work, we can always ring his mother-in-law.

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Luck in Antibes: It’s not for the birds

Our first dinner out on returning to Antibes was at the neighbourhood pizza joint. Directly across from the sandy beaches, Bistrot de la Plage has remained a favourite among locals and sunseekers, pandemic or not. Owner Miguel greeted us as we wandered onto his terrace, but instead of mentioning how our teenager had grown, like he usually did, he looked out over his busy patio. “Vous avez de la chance to get a table,” he said. “Someone just left.”

This beachside bistrot is a staple in Antibes.

We certainly felt lucky. We were hungry. As we browsed the menu that we already knew, Philippe suddenly fingered his hair. “What the – ?”

I looked up from the list of pizzas. White goop was running down my husband’s cheek. “Did you just get nailed by a bird?” 

Indeed, a small flock of seagulls was circling over the patio. “That never happens to me!” he said. Reaching for his napkin, he turned to our teen. “It happens to your mother, but it never happens to me!”

Lolo smirked as her father mopped off his head, his shirt, and his shorts. He grabbed her napkin and mine, too. The seagull had got him good. “Hey, isn’t it supposed to be good luck if a bird bombs you?” our teen said.

Miguel passed by our table. “Pourriez-nous avoir some more napkins?” Philippe said, pointing out the restaurant’s prodigious company of birds.

Mais vous avez de la chance!” the bistrot‘s owner said. Le caca of French birds is apparently as propitious as that of their North American cousins.

Everyone forgot about the incident as soon as the pizza arrived. Except that the following evening, when my family sat for dinner on the terrace of our own home, Philippe shuddered when he saw seagulls circling overhead. Halfway through our meal, I spotted black speckles on the edge of my plate. The rest of the black-and-white splodge decorated the tabletop. 

“A near miss!” Lolo said gleefully – until the next afternoon, when we were returning home from errands. A sudden movement made her look out her car window. A bird had just unloaded itself down the length of the glass. 

“What is it with the birds around here?” This time she sounded disgusted. 

The seagulls have been having a good year.

In some ways the timing was due. I recently began calling my husband and my daughter “twitchers,” a good British term for bird enthusiasts. For pandemic fun, we had set up a birdfeeder in our garden in Toronto, and Philippe and Lolo delighted in identifying the goldfinches, cardinals, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and the rest of the winged brigade that flew in for free food. Since returning to Antibes – installing ourselves, I should say, in a house having a crowning pigeonnier (dovecote) – Philippe has spotted a resident dove perched on the branches of our parasol pine. He has studied the bird, admiring the way it bows and crooks its neck while making its velvety call. 

But that afternoon while the three of us sat in traffic and fresh bird poo trickled down Lolo’s car window, we wondered aloud about how much luck we really needed for our summer in France. Soon, though, the road construction and traffic jams made us forget the birds and their odd notions about luck – at least until we returned home to Bellevue. 

Our housekeeper had left a note on the kitchen counter. “Chance, jardin,” it said. Luck, garden. On the scrap of paper lay not one, but two, four-leaf clovers.

Our garden offered two lucky trèfles à quatre feuilles.

I’ve never seen a four-leaf clover in my life. As a kid in the US Midwest, I spent hours searching for one, just one, to prove that they existed. As an adult visiting Ireland, home of leprechauns and rainbows and an endless carpet of green, I again tried to find a four-leaf clover. Now two trèfles à quatre feuilles lay on Bellevue’s kitchen counter. Anitou had found them in our garden when – appropriately enough – she was cleaning up after her dog.

Le caca d’oiseaux and des trèfles à quatres feuilles: I was enjoying the way superstition spanned Anglo and Franco traditions and set about to learn more. In France, birds can apparently bring good or bad luck, depending on the situation and the type of bird, but getting plastered by a bird is always auspicious. If it dumps on your head, it’s especially promising. As for four-leaf clovers, their supposed fortune circles the planet and goes back millennia; their delicate leaves have heralded everything from love and happiness, to health, riches, and fame, depending on the era and the culture.

Why did my family need so much of this chance? What lay in the cross hairs of our days here?

I mentioned last week that our espresso machine – a proper Italian model with all the professional hardware – had given up its ghost. It was a distressing discovery for this coffee-addicted household, and Philippe made an urgent rendez-vous at the repair shop in the hills behind Nice. A few days later, when he collected our carefully swaddled bundle of joy, the technician listed the interventions he’d made to get the machine purring again. It had needed a new pump, a new intake aspirator, new contacts, new tubing, and a good cleaning of the boiler, which was apparently filthy.

Philippe tallied the damage in his head. “Quels sont les dommages?”

“Oh non, monsieur,” the man said. “Je ne saurrai quoi faire.” Our espresso machine was so old that the technician had used spare parts to fix it. He couldn’t enter the job into the company’s books if he tried.

“Mais c’est impossible,” Philippe said. He offered the man a tip. ”Pour vous,” he insisted, nodding at the technician. 

“Non, non,” he said. “C’est sur la maison.” It’s on the house.

Our espresso machine, newly enhanced, is back where it belongs…

Philippe returned home with our precious machine and hoisted it into its rightful spot on the kitchen counter. As he removed the wrapping, he recounted his conversation with the technician and the array of repairs. “They practically rebuilt the whole machine!” he said. He stood back to admire the shiny contraption. “You know, I must’ve been thinking about coffee when that seagull sprang a leak.”

I began looking forward to my own coming days. How would my luck manifest itself? That was when we used up all our credits in one fell swoop. I was chatting to my mother on FaceTime late one afternoon when the telephone rang. Philippe answered. 

“It’s the security company,” he called over to me. “Where’s Yoko?”

I twisted to check our miniature poodle beneath the coffee table. “She’s under the – where’s Yoko?” Alarm swelled into my voice.

“They say they have her. Someone’s bringing her back.”

“How is that even possible?” With my mother still beaming into our sitting room from Illinois, the conversation turned to the way Lolo had helped Phillipe launch a sailboat from the beach that afternoon, how Yoko had been sniffing around on the rocks, and then Philippe sailed off and Lolo returned through the gate…

That was over two hours ago. Anxiety charged through my veins. It was Yoko’s afternoon naptime. I didn’t even know she was missing. We rang off with my mother, and within minutes a car turned into Bellevue’s gate. Two women were in the front, and two brown miniature poodles rode in the back.

“Yoko!” We squealed as our pooch made her jubilant return.

The driver got out of the car, and seeing our joy and concern, she said, “Vous avez de la chance. She nearly got killed – twice!”

…and so is Yoko, with a new friend.

The story tumbled out in bits and pieces as Philippe, Lolo, and I stood with two sisters, Véronique and Jacqueline, and two poodles in the shade of Bellevue’s courtyard. The women had recognized that our wandering dog wasn’t a stray. They also realized that she didn’t speak French; the usual “viens ici” (vyen ee-SEE, come here) and “assis” (ah-SEE, sit) made no impact on her. Along with their dog Rocky, they had chased our lost poodle – in the car? on foot? – from one end of our busy ring road to another, at which point Yoko circled back and came to sit outside the gate of our home. “My food is in there,” she was telling them. “My food, my bed, and my people are in there.”

Another passerby was able to catch Yoko, and she ended up in the car of the sisters. They had noted down the phone number of our security company, which was posted on the gate, and they drove away to a calmer spot to make that call. 

I suddenly wondered whether Yoko had panicked. Trapped in the back seat of a stranger’s moving car, did she think she was losing her only means to explain where she belonged? We would never know the answer. At least Yoko was back, and she was fine – just a bit tired, by the way she slipped away from our small crowd into the quiet of Bellevue. 

The sisters were charmed by our runaway pooch. Véronique looked down at her Rocky, who rested comfortably in her arms. “We would offer a marriage proposal?” 

But alas, Yoko isn’t able to make new, curly-haired pups. We chatted agreeably there in the shaded patch, but soon it was time for the ladies to leave. As their car reversed out our gate, now carrying two sisters and only one miniature poodle, I called to them, “Vous êtes des anges!”

Véronique and Jacqueline were angels. They were our lucky angels. I returned indoors and crouched beside Yoko, who splayed on the cool marble floor, and I gave thanks that we were given this chance.

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Rebonjour: From my eclectic pandemic muse

“I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date!” Lewis Carroll’s rabbit put it perfectly in Alice in Wonderland. Here’s the truth: I’ve been working on a book linked to this blog for too many years to admit. Put that way, I guess I’m only sharing part of the truth.

This year has been difficult for everyone, full of weird twists and turns, but a book has been a perfect, hunker-down, slow-burn, pandemic project. It made this night owl want to get up in the morning – even though there was nowhere to go. 

Nowhere to go in the physical sense, I should say, because every day I was travelling in my mind back to our second hometown of Antibes in France’s Côte d’Azur. 

“Start out with your book,” Lolo advised me. I always dread the blank page at the start of this summer series and had asked my 16-year-old for her advice. She suggested a bridge between my two worlds: Canada and France. The school year and the summer holidays. My subdued physical space and my more vibrant head space. “Write about your book.”

The book is the reason I’m late for this season’s important date. My heroic and erudite editor delivered her (final? penultimate at least?) batch of comments, and I needed to finish reviewing them. I’ve been here in Antibes, but I’ve been hiding. 

Why do I feel so immediately at home inside Bellevue this summer? Lolo and my husband Philippe feel it, too. Maybe it’s pandemic-time. Nothing feels like it’s supposed to. But for me, the unexpected ease must come from my book project. I’ve been here every day for the past year. It’s like I never left.

This winterscape made the creative juices flow.

The centrality of our home within the manuscript became clear as I scribbled-with-intent one January morning in Toronto. Outside, snow was drifting from a grey sky and adding another layer to our white garden. A woolen blanket spread across my lap, and seated at the wooden writing desk that had belonged to my grandmother, I doodled on a sheet of paper. I’d always known that the past was as important to my work as the present was, but how could I show it? How could I link Antibes’ history, and Bellevue’s past, to my present-day story in a satisfying way?

That was when my pencil swooshed across the page with an arrow that joined one blob of words to another. This thing had prompted that thing. That other thing had prompted the first thing. Chicken-and-egg. Egg-and-chicken. It was glorious. And at the root of the discovery was Bellevue. 

We bought this construction site on the bay beside Antibes over 15 years ago, and every time we return to her, we still discover the next thing that needs fixing. Often times the culprit has been the air-conditioning or the WiFi. This year it was only the espresso machine that had conked out – but “only” isn’t the right word for a household that is hooked on coffee. No matter Bellevue’s ills, she has been more than a shelter to us. She is a thorn; she is a lure; she is a connector. And, I realized on that snowy day in Toronto as my pencil spanned the past and the present in one glorious arc, Bellevue has been a motivation to learn new things. Like finnicky français, for starters.

Bellevue is an eclectic mix of circles and squares …

Scouring the internet often leaves me sorry that I wasted my time, but during one bout of research, I found a website about Antibes’ heritage and a list of the city’s notable buildings. Our home ranked among them, and the webpage described her as néo-provençal and éclectique.

I could not shake that second word. Yes, Bellevue has a traditional Provençal, red tile roof atop a curious, rectangular-and-curvilinear frame. She has old-fashioned shutters as well as a modern, glass curtain onto the sea. She is eclectic in the true sense of that word. She is a hodge-podge of ideas. She cannot be put in a box. She has a personality.

… inside and out.

Hiding at my motley maison, I’ve made my edits on the terrace. It’s shaded in the mornings, and with Antibes’ craggy old town and the Prealps as my backdrop, I’ve worked while paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats, and kids in colonies de vacances crisscrossed the bay beneath me. At lunchtime Philippe, Lolo, and I gathered in the same spot, and as seagulls darted overhead, Lolo regaled her parents with notes from her prior night’s online lecture: dark matter, kinetic energy, neutralinos, the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and galactic morphology.

“Did you spell that right?” my teenager asked as I made notes one lunchtime for this first post. Learning about black holes didn’t rest my brain at lunchtime, but I did not complain. Lolo is passionate about her subject, and the timing of her course, which ran out of the United States, prevented any involved dinners when we first returned to town. It encouraged my task of editing.

This view of Antibes inspires, no matter the season.

Gros merci to readers who keep emailing me, wondering where-oh-where my blog has gone this summer. We are here. The book edits are done, and so is Lolo’s black holes course, and it’s time to come out to play.

First up, we must share how lucky we feel to be back. The year’s cocooning has increased everyone’s joy in reclaiming their habits, right? As the Côte d’Azur revs back to life, French Lessons’ luck has found a couple of four-leaf clovers. Literally, we mean. And we’ve been spending our good fortune on our canny poodle and, well, our beloved espresso machine. Life has been a mix éclectique of triumph and terror.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you. Say bonjour in the comments below, and if you’re so inspired, please tell us: Do you know a building with special character?

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LESSONS FROM A PADDLEBOARD: The Riviera’s 2020 Season

The seaward doors gape open at the quirky house on Antibes’ bay.  Sheer white curtains waft outside, fluttering like twin ghosts on the breeze.  As I trickle by on my paddleboard, I chuckle at the image.  They used to hold levitations inside that home.  

This season, though, the folks lazing on the balcony at this modest house did not include the mystic.  She had a long-let, we learned.  The American did not make it to France this year.

My paddleboard and I bounce over the swells.  The winds are variable this early evening, but the current mostly pushes me home, which is useful.  Down the coastline, the Russian villa perches, postcard perfectly, on a prominent, rocky patch.  For much of this pandemic-centered summer, the stone mansion has retained an air of anticipation whenever I paddled by.  White-clad housekeepers totted spray bottles, and white blooms filled the balcony pots.  At one point, the terrace furniture covers disappeared.  The housekeepers stopped spraying and started folding napkins.  Today, though, no one is about – not even the housekeepers.  One pot has lost its white flowers.

This season, more than any other during French Lessons’ 15 years in Antibes, the bay off our home, Bellevue, has been our theatre.  And why not?  While a virus hems in regular life, the waters of the Med expand at our feet.  The ease of the sea mirrors the simplicity that took hold of life at the beginning of the outbreak.  Our calendars cleared.  Our expectations mellowed.  When the chance arose to travel from Canada to France, we were simply grateful to set foot in our normal summertime home.

cap d'antibes at bay beside Antibes

Paddleboarding – basically a platform, an oar, and a bit of balance – is all about that simplicity.  The ease of the board’s movement, and the gentleness of its carriage, have matched the tempo of this unusual summer.  The other day when I set out from our rocky beach, the-woman-with-the-shoulder-tattoo warned me about the méduses.  What stunned me wasn’t the jellyfish.  It was her.  To Philippe and me, this sunbather was our bellwether.  Summer officially began at Bellevue when the-woman-with-the-shoulder-tattoo turned up at the far end of the beach.  (A decade ago, when the same woman had worn only half her swimsuit, Philippe was busy mastering his new binoculars.  The coincidence of these two events is a standing joke.) 

“Soyez prudente of the méduses,” our bellwether told me during the early days of this summer, when collective concern underpinned life’s renewed freedoms.  As I returned that day from my paddle, Philippe himself was chatting with the woman he’d watched, year after year from afar.  (Thankfully there were no grand revelations.)

The swells relent for a moment and I steady myself to survey the midline of the Cap’s escarpment, spotting a favourite Provençal villa with its soft pastels, long shuttered windows, and statuesque cypress trees.  Nearby lies a geometric residence, its white walls made starker by the sun’s intensity. 

If you can see me, I can see you.  How beautiful is this simple truth!  It was my rule when young Lolo set out in the bay with me watching from Bellevue’s terrace – but equations always works in reverse.  From the street, the Cap d’Antibes’ villas shut out motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians with iron gates and towering hedges, but what villa blocks its view of the sea?  If you can see me, I can see you.  Maneuvering the waves, I take in the old-fashioned, Provençal-style mansions with stone-and-warm stucco façades, red-tiled roofs, and often turrets; dotted among them are modern, Mediterranean-style residences with rectangles of windows and white.  The villas nestle into layers of green – palms, cedars, eucalyptus, oleanders and, of course, the Cap’s signature parasol pines.  From the sea I spot flowering hedges, carefully positioned terraces, sometimes even a sparkling chandelier – and all homes, no matter their fashion, position their widest faces onto the sea.

This summer Antibes’ bay has been our theatre from the shoreline, too, with Bellevue’s terrace offering us box seats.  Back in their day, the realities of war filtered begrudgingly into the Riviera’s renowned joie de vivre, and today the waters sustain that parallel.  There’s a pandemic, but it’s happening elsewhere.  A typical day in our bay brings the usual morning and afternoon sailboat parades from the local school:

sailboats beside Antibes

On one morning (as described in a July post), two guys chose this bay to shoot a marketing video for the summer’s hottest new toy, an electronic surfboard.  Another afternoon brought ferocious gusts from the east – and a festival of kitesurfers who deserved their own marketing footage.  Philippe’s quick finger caught the acrobatics:

kiteboarding off Antibes

One evening Katara, the 408-foot superyacht belonging to the former Emir of Qatar, drew up and anchored in our bay.  Its size and shape so resembled that of a cruiseliner that one might have thought the pandemic was over – except that Katara parked in the bay for a very private and princely purpose:  to practice take-offs and landings of the yacht’s resident helicopter.

katara superyacht and grande grenille at Antibes

Our bay has offered plenty of pandemic-friendly entertainment this summer, but my personal favourite remains the paddleboard.  After the Russian villa, the coastline notches inward, giving rise to a string of rocky beaches that plunge from the Cap’s ring road.  These nooks, some more private than others, offer respite to swimmers, sunbathers, and pique-niqueurs.

I take stock of the wind and waves here, beneath the iconic Restaurant de Bacon (beloved by A-listers in normal years) and inland from a rocky islet called the Grande Grenille.  On calm days I stretch out on the board and close my eyes.  Sweet, coconut sunscreen wafts over me as the sea slaps the underside of the paddleboard and rocks me in impulsive patterns.  This summer sounds from the shore rarely pierced my cocoon – fewer wedding parades honked their way around the Cap, and fewer sirens blared their distinctive E-flat, B-flat, E-flat, B-flat to cut through traffic bouchons.  Instead, this summer’s soundtrack was the cicadas – particularly in midsummer when the temperature and humidity swelled, and the cigales buzzed and throbbed in huge puffs of parasol pines just inland.  The Cap d’Antibes’ peninsula became a giant rattle.

pointe bacon with parasol pines and restaurant de bacon

Today’s waters aren’t calm, but their crests and dips neutralise one another.  I won’t go anywhere quickly, but still I choose to sit rather than recline.  The cigales have softened their pulsating chorus in the waning heat, and instead I pick up the whoosh of incoming flights – Air France, EasyJet, and private planes – as they skirt the tip of the Cap on their final approach to Nice Airport.  Meanwhile, just beyond the Grande Grenille islet, motorboats nip and swerve through undulating waters.

I chuckle to myself.  Just as this bay offers respite during today’s viral battle, it helped assuage the scars of World War II.  Last month the guardian at the local Port de la Salis told me about a large stockpile of deactivated explosives sunk into the waters beyond the Grande Grenille.  The horrors, chucked into the sea during a massive clean-up operation, lie about 20 meters below the surface.  Today’s merry daytrippers surely don’t realise they’re tearing up the waters over an enormous metal graveyard. 

A man swims up to my paddleboard.  His sudden appearance jolts me.  My first thought is, unfortunately, Covid.  Wet, grey hair clings to his scalp and frames his round face, and from behind goggles he strikes up an amical conversation.  He’s doing his usual swim, he says, from the rocky shoreline to the Grande Grenille.  “It’s such a beautiful day,” he says, waving a dripping hand at the sunshine and the waters and everything that surrounds us.  “And pas de méduses.”  

The méduses, it seems, are a local conversation starter.  We talk about the jellyfish and how the wind and waves carry them about as he rounds the tip of my paddleboard.  “Once there was a requin out here – right here,” he says, pointing to the spot where we float.

“Un requin!”  I say, the chitchat turning urgent.  “Quand?”  When was there a shark here?  

“Biggest scare of my life!” he says, grinning.

“Il y a longtemps?”  A long time ago?

“Un blah-blah requin,” he says.  (Why isn’t my French perfect after two decades of trying?)  “Only a blah-blah shark, but it looked like a shark!  Fright of my life!”  The man begins to drift away.

“Il y a longtemps?”

“Oui, oui, il y a longtemps,” and with that, his face hits the water and he continues toward the Grande Grenille.

Antibes face mask and room spray

I linger, daring to dangle my toes over the edge of the board.  The water is so refreshing and – what is it? – soft.  The sea feels soft.  It sprays me as I float on my board and absorb the world.  At the end of any summer, I savour Antibes to its fullest – and this summer is shorter than the others.  I’m not ready to leave.  Non, I’ve not made peace with the slapdash mask-wearing in parts of the Côte d’Azur, but we have found our comfort zone.  Host gifts coming through Bellevue’s front door have included a special, French purifying room spray containing myrrh, sweet marjoram, red mandarin, and 38 other essential oils.  Other gifts were our own, official Antibes-Juan-les-Pins face masks, an exclusive issue for full-time residents who collected the facewear after braving lengthy queues and bureaucratic paper trails that elicited their vital stats, phobias (logical or not), and the contents of their most embarrassing dream.  I hate to think, as a few friends have said, that we are leaving France at a good time – infection rates are taking a turn – but we are over-the-moon grateful for this spot of “normalcy” in our lives.  Antibes is our summertime normal, and more than ever, we all need normal.

My paddleboard and I have drifted from shore.  I move to my knees and push through the patchwork of waves before standing again.  The chirp of the cigales diminishes as I glide away from the parasol pines.  Skirting a fisherman’s line, I note that the beach shack – a single-roomed cabin sunk into the rocks and invisible from the road – is sealed tight.  Not a single beach towel dries on its rails.  The long, white expanse of the Polish villa is quiet again, too.  The owners stayed home this year, and the young couple who briefly enjoyed the mansion’s terraces and panoramic views of the old town, has left.  

Back at “our” rocky beach, I slide into the sea.  I want to merge – literally to immerse myself – into this place.  Through my goggles I see minnows and seagrass, waving like gigantic sea anemones on the whims of the currents.  The waters are kind and gentle.  There are no méduses.  There are no requins.

Too soon French Lessons will continue its voyage overseas.  First up is 14 days of Canadian quarantine.  (The French word for “forty” – quarante – alludes to the age-old duration.  Two weeks, it seems, is a gift.)  Philippe hoped we might persuade arrival authorities to exempt us if we presented negative Covid tests, but our teenager intervened.  “I’m not having someone shove a giant Q-Tip up my nose halfway to my brain,” Lolo said.  “I read those National Geographic books about the Egyptians when I was seven, and how they extracted dead people’s brains.  They were quite thorough.”  That settles that.  So we will wait it out, and then school and the rest of life will begin again, along with our search for normality . . .

. . . which is exactly what French Lessons wishes for our cherished readers.  From Saskatoon to Skipton to Sydney, you have shared your mercis for this season’s stories (and we thank you for traveling with us).  Many of you long for your own chance to wander again through the old, cobbled lanes of the Côte d’Azur.  Next year may all of us take in this storied place with our own eyes.

Chez Mirazur: French Gastronomie with a teen

“You’re ruining my childhood,” Lolo moaned, deadpan with a flicker of an eye roll.  She had pulled off the perfect teenage response to her parents’ glee. 

Her father broke the news at dinnertime.  It was early July, and Canadians had just been approved to enter France this summertime.  Straight after Philippe had arranged our flights, he rang Mirazur.  The restaurant didn’t just have three Michelin stars.  It also ranked #1 among all restaurants on this planet.  We were counting our own lucky stars.

Lolo was less taken.  “Nine courses!”  she cried.  “How do you eat all that?”

Yet something told me she was modestly intrigued, for when the appointed lunchtime arrived, our 15-year old donned her favourite dress and, with a small bowl of Chocapic cereal lining her stomach for the hour’s drive, she seemed well disposed to face the day.  

A small army welcomed Mirazur’s guests and deposited their cars along the moyenne corniche, meters before the Italian border.  Each employee wore a navy Mirazur face mask – an extra this summer, with the unusual benefit of all mouths and nostrils actually being covered.  (Things are getting sloppy in the Côte d’Azur.)  Inside, the airy, wood-and-glass dining room offered wide views of the Mediterranean and a perched view of the Riviera coastline toward the guava-persimmon-pineapple palate of Menton’s old town.  

We settled into a corner table beside the panorama, and Philippe chose an elegant Nuits-Saint-Georges to suit the occasion.  The server returned with three thin-stemmed glasses. 

“Non, j’en prends pas,” Lolo said.  She sounded perfectly French.  Her phrasing was so fluid, her voice so luxurious, that I did not understand a single word she’d said.  For my daughter, it was a double-win.  She had out-classed her mother’s linguistic abilities (easily done), and she had convinced the waiter she was of-age.

Philippe crooned over the first taste and, once two glasses were filled, he encouraged our daughter.  She took his glass in her hands, swirled it, breathed deeply, and declared the bouquet “douce.”  Soft.  Fruity.  Then she tipped the honey-coloured nectar to her lips and pronounced it serviceable.

“We’re ruining your childhood,” I reminded her.

“You’ve already ruined my childhood,” she said.

bread, oil, poem
The bread came with wild celery-infused olive oil and a poem about this staple “simple et profond”.

We had arrived at Mirazur on a day of des feuilles.  This summer’s menu rotates through four themes, taking its inspiration from le rythme du cycle de la nature.  On some days, like today with its waning moon, the menu focused on leaves; others days it contemplated roots, flowers, or fruits.  It was a beautiful vision, made even more magique by the poetry of French menus – and I was content that, by hook or by crook, my family would get their greens.

We plowed through a round of leaf-based tapas, and a mound of tender leaves and sushi atop a tapioca pearl cracker.  A bloom of piping bread arrived with wild celery-infused olive oil, and we counselled one another against eating it.  There was only so much room.  Still, its oven-fresh aroma was beguiling and the slices were small.  

Each course brought the clink of new utensils crafted specially, we learned, for the restaurant.  One knife was made in Switzerland from surgical-grade steel.  Studying the tools before me, I mulled over the possible next course.  Was the far-right utensil a spoon, or with its flat edge was it a fancy fish knife?

Lolo picked up her spoon-knife and spun it in her fingers.  “What’s this?” she said. “A shovel?”

That was more like it.  My daughter had returned.

What arrived next was neither soup nor fish.  A cluster of the restaurant garden’s tender leaves; crunchy, peeled hazelnuts; and turnip shavings cut into the shape of leaves mounded atop a velvety, vermouth-infused sauce.  The shovel was meant to scoop up every ounce.  (The inevitable next question: “What’s vermouth?”)

salad with vermouth dressing

The rythme of courses was steady without feeling rushed.  It was a table of food, but also a table d’art.  The next item made me think Mondrian.  Calamari, green apples, celery, basil, and ginger had never looked so sharp.

calamari and green apple

If the calamari was a Mondrian, the caviar was an exquisite origami.  When a waiter presented our next plates, I wondered aloud combien de chefs it took to create this bijou of French caviar, cucumber, and stracciatella. 

“Trente-six chefs, Madame,” he said – 36 chefs for 40 covers.  By the nonchalance of his reply, I was not the first diner to ask.

caviar and cucumber and straticella

Philippe and I knew how to pace ourselves.  We had dined at Mirzaur in 2015, when the restaurant had “only” two Michelin stars.  We’d received the celebratory email in 2019 when the owners shared, with émotion immense, news of their elevation.  Five months later the restaurant was voted the best restaurant in the world in Restaurant’s Top 50.  Mirazur had been climbing through the list for a decade – but there was nothing like being #1.  Suddenly the race was on.  Philippe had managed a table with visitors last year, but a table for two in August was frankly im-poh-SEE-bleh.  Impossible.  This summer is different.  (Isn’t it, though.)  Five weeks ago, when Philippe rang for a réservation on a traditionally popular Sunday lunchtime, the receptionist asked, “Would you prefer 13h15 or 13h45, Monsieur?”

The addition of our teen wasn’t evident.  Lolo’s palate had grown, but she still delighted in a bowl of fluorescent-orange Kraft dinner.  Understandably, the pop of the caviar was a step too far.  By August, though, we’d reckoned our daughter would welcome a little indulgence.  For the whole of July, she had lived a parallel life to the rest of Antibes.  While boaters, paddleboarders, kite surfers, and gloriously explosive sunsets tried to distract Lolo, she sat captive in Bellevue’s bayside study, logging on each day to a “reach-ahead” science class based in Toronto.  Lolo relished the 2:30 p.m. starts.  She didn’t rejoice as much over the sessions on frog dissection.  Mercifully the task was online, but the scissors and pins came with realistic, computer-voiced cues and abundant squishing noises.

“At least you can’t smell anything,” I’d told her encouragingly.  You never forget formaldehyde burning through your nasal cavity.  “And at least you didn’t have to scramble the frog’s brains.”

“You had live frogs?”

Lolo will never be a surgeon.  In anticipation of this meal, I’d recalled the iconic French plate cuisses de grenouille.  What if Mirazur brought a plate of jazzed-up frog legs to our table?  I’d guffawed at the thought.  

Fortunately, the closest we got on the day was a tail of crevette nestled beside baby courgette balls and bathing in another green sauce (for which I was losing the detail, but this one contained spinach).  The black dots were month-old, fermented garlic that looked and tasted a lot better than my month-old stuff.  

shrimp and courgette and fermented garlic

A couple more courses swept by – including the saintliest-ever morsel of Saint-Pierre, draped in a purple perilla leaf and accompanied by its emulsion, which was like a cross between basil and mint.  Guinea fowl and lamb (with accompanying leaves) moved the menu back on land.  

After six savouries – I swear there were more – came an additional option of fromage, but for reasons of space, we only ogled the trolley.  There were still three desserts – cannily described en français as the “pre-dessert,” the “dessert,” and the “mignardaises” in order to avoid eating three desserts. The first was happily ethereal, like the world’s fanciest palate cleanser.  

Lolo understood that idea.  “I remember we had one of those in that fancy hotel in Maine,” she said.  Philippe and I tried to remember.  It was nearly a decade ago.  “You know, the restaurant where they made you wear bibs with a lobster on it.”

Of course.  Her parents wearing plastic bibs at a fancy restaurant.  That was the sort of thing a kid would remember.  

“They brought lemon sorbet in the middle of the meal,” Lolo said.  “It was tasty and everything, but I thought, ‘This is strange because I didn’t order it.  And it’s so small – isn’t this meant to be a fancy restaurant?’”

Philippe and I laughed.  The things kids never say.  To be fair, today’s fresh fig granita (or a raspberry equivalent for the fig allergy among us) was far more than a palate cleanser, but its delicacy and crispness created a similar effect. 

The main dessert – is such a phrase even appropriate? – was a voluptuous concoction of dark chocolate, olive oil, rosemary, and an unexpected twinge of sweet charcoal.  The combination was silky and addictive. 

Lolo sighed in relief.  She had soldiered through raw fish and cooked fish and lamb and a heap of green things, all of which she’d normally avoid.  “You can’t go through all that without having chocolate,” she said.

Three hours after we’d begun, Philippe and I sipped macchiatos (“noisettes” in the South of France), and we all fingered the mignardises, which managed to be mostly green.  As we contemplated an afternoon well-spent, we toyed with the inevitable question:  What was your favourite course?  


Philippe and I made contributions big and small – the tangy sorrel pesto inside a sweet potato tapas cone, the seared calamari with its ginger-infused sauce, the melt-in-your-mouth Saint-Pierre, the seductive chocolate… 

“I dunno,” Lolo said.  “They’re all so different.  I’m honestly just as happy with gnocchi poêlés.”

You find bags of gnocchi à poêler in the refrigerated section of a French grocery store.  Often they’re sold in lots of three for a better price.  You melt a knob of butter in a pan, toss in the potato dumplings, and spin them around until they’re golden.  For extra flair, you dredge each gnocchi bite through a runny egg yolk.

Mirazur still ranked #1 for Philippe and me.  (It still ranks #1 in the world, too, since the 2020 survey was cancelled.)  And as parents, we simply enjoyed a veiled compliment about our own kitchen – and the fact that we hadn’t totally ruined a childhood.