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.

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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 françis 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?  

mignardises

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.

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PRINCES AND AN ANTIPOPE: THE 1300s RETURN TO ANTIBES

When four parchments appeared in a British auction house two months ago, the city of Antibes was “in the room” – virtually speaking, anyway, amid this public health crisis.  The city’s bid was backed by the deep pockets of the Sovereign Prince of Monaco.  

The documents up for sale were presumed lost forever:  Their whereabouts had been unknown for seven centuries.  But on May 28, 2020, the day of the auction, the city of Antibes and its princely ally won the bid, and shortly afterward the parchments arrived – one could say – back home. 

The association of Antibes and Monaco royalty has indelible roots.  The House of Grimaldi, founded in the 12th century, were pivotal players in the history of the Republic of Genoa, and in the Principality of Monaco, where the dynasty has reigned to this day with Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, as its current head.  One of the oldest feudal branches of the house, the Grimaldi d’Antibes, once ruled this city from its seaside castle, the prominent château that today houses the well-known Musée Picasso.  

Antibes Municipal Archives
The 14th-century parchments now reside at Antibes’ Archives Municipales.

Now settled on home ground, the old documents are the new toy at Antibes’ Archives Municipales, but no one is coming to play.  Literally no one.  When I arrived at my dutifully reserved créneau for a solo look at the prized parchments, I was, by design, the only visitor inside the archives.  But Emilie, my manager-friend at the agency, told me that, non, she and her colleagues were not swamped with bookings.  In fact, I was the first.

Which is shocking because the new toy is a collection to behold.  The calligraphic art of the documents’ Latin words, ink on vellum, is itself enchanting.  Each letter is a blossom, beautiful and delicate in its own right; the first line of calligraphy on one document blooms into a two-dimensional objet d’art.  The craftmanship becomes even more impressive after remembering that the ink was laid onto the vellum using the tip of a long, straight, goose feather.  Without the convenience of Wite-Out or a backspace key. 

To convey the allure in another way, this acquisition represents the only known parchments coming from the archives of the Grimaldi d’Antibes line.  They are worth seeing.

The oldest of the four document dates from 1381 and relates to an important inheritance (involving more than one castle) by Katherine, daughter of Marc de Grimaldi, from her maternal grandfather.  (Marc de Grimaldi – keep reading – was a key figure in the Antibes branch of the Grimaldi family.)  The lettering of this document is arguably the most beautiful among the four, with its initial word invoking a frenzy of flourishes and filigree.

Grimaldi parchment 1381
Grimaldi family inheritance, 1381

It’s the next two parchments, though, that interest me most.  In the document dated 1384, Antipope Clément VII grants the brothers Luc (c. 1330 – 1409) and Marc (died after 1396) de Grimaldi rule over Antibes’ castle, once they take an official oath of office.  For context, it was a time of religious and political turmoil, and Antibes’ château itself had been hit by violence and plundering by impious rebels.  The Catholic Church recently had divided, with two (and later three) men simultaneously claiming to be the true Pope.  

Grimaldi parchment 1384
Sale of Antibes’ château, 1384

Antipope Clément VII was the first in a line of antipopes.  Installed in Avignon (France), he relinquished Antibes’ castle and its rights in order to reduce his debts to the two Grimaldi brothers.  Clément VII was in constant need of funds, and the sale of this château had involved some fancy financial footwork.  Before arranging the disposition, the antipope had removed Antibes from the portfolio of the bishop of Grasse, thereby bringing the territory back under the jurisdiction of the Papal Treasury.  The move, we will see, ruffled more than a couple goose feathers.  

The third document, dated 1390, relates back to the sale of Antibes’ château.  Having settled other accounts, Antipope Clément VII still owed money to the two Grimaldi brothers.  Viewed with modern eyes, the financial mechanism is muddy, but this third parchment discloses that Clément VII raised a sum of 2200 golden florins (1.48 million euros) by mortgaging Antibes’ castle – which already belonged to the Grimaldi men to whom he owed the cash.  Emilie, my friend at the archives, believes that this 1390 document may serve to clarify the 1384 transaction.  Fourteenth-century administration, she quipped, didn’t happen at today’s lightning speeds.

Grimaldi parchment 1390
Mortgage over Antibes’ château, 1390

The script of these first three vellums has a painstaking, ruler-straight uniformity and legibility, indicating that their business was official and public.  These documents were meant to be read by many.  The transactions involving Antibes’ castle and its mortgage also carry a papal seal still attached to each record.  Having read about the seals beforehand, I’d imagined them to be wax – but they are solid lead.  At one point during my visit to the archives, I held a mass of silk threads knotted to a third Clément VII medallion that also came with the auction lot, and I estimated it to weigh about a pound.  The seal pictured below remains fixed on the reverse side of the 1384 parchment, beside a more hastily scrawled note:

Grimaldi parchment 1384 reverse
Reverse of 1384 sale document

The last parchment, dated a youthful 1431, bears evidence of a continuing quarrel over who holds the keys to the castle.  Written in Rome, the decree by Pope Martin V settles a dispute between the Grimaldi family and the bishop of Grasse by declaring that the sons of Luc and Marc de Grimaldi – Nicolas, Georges, and Honnorat – and their heirs, own Antibes’ castle.  The writer of this document, likely a notary, took less care with his calligraphy, implying that the words were for administrative or professional (and not public) purposes, but this parchment creates a decisive and satisfying exclamation point to the collection.

Grimaldi document 1431
Papal decree, 1431

Antibes’ won the British auction with a bid of 5,600 pounds (8,031 euros), but in another sense, the four parchments are priceless to the city’s heritage.  When they arrived home, the documents were folded into a small box.  Emilie, preserver of Antibes’ heritage, was stunned at the cramped packaging.  The team at the archives has since released the documents and slid them within clear plastic coverings, but the outstretched pages bear creases of a lengthy confinement.  The next task is to study the pages, possibly transcribing and translating their texts, but it’s a lofty goal.  The vellums are written in Renaissance Latin.

Being legalese, we cannot expect to discover philosophical awakenings or jaunty turns of phrase with the translations, but with Emilie’s help, I already could discern the flux of Antibes’ own name.  I’d come to the archives that day with a separate question.  The town had begun life under the Greeks as Antipolis (meaning “the city opposite” from (at that point) Nice or Corsica).  In the Middle Ages its name morphed to Antiboul, and sometime afterward – when? – Antibes gained its current name.  

Emilie pointed out a beautifully formed Antibuluef in the newly-acquired 1384 parchment, and an Antibul in the 1390 one.  The words could be proper nouns or adjectives or some other form entirely, but scholars now have another means to unravel the city’s past.

flowers on rue du General d'Andreossy
Poetically, the wall across from Antibes’ Archives Municipales on Rue du Général d’Andreossy is a riot of bleu-blanc-rouge, just in reverse.

Time also has moved on for Antibes’ château.  In 1608, Henri IV (also known as Good King Henry) recuperated the castle for the French crown.  Since then, the space has served as a residence for royal governors, a town hall, and an army barracks, until the city of Antibes bought the castle at auction in 1925 for 50,000 francs (7,622 euros).  The storied building next housed a local archeological museum before serving as Picasso’s studio for several months after the war, and eventually becoming the art museum that bears his name.

“Will the archives try to figure out where the parchemins have spent the last centuries?” I asked Emilie. 

“C’est très difficile,” she said.  There’s nothing written.  The Grimaldis – assuming the parchments stayed within the family – are very spread out.  One thought is that the documents entered a private English collection through the inheritance of a French parent at the beginning of the 20th century.

Will more visitors reserve their créneaux to glimpse the latest acquisitions?  The documents’ arrival has filled the back page of the Nice-Matin newspaper and has been publicized among local sociétés.  A royal visit also would heighten their profile.   Prince Albert II is apparently interested but his agenda is full.  

Hopefully, if a royal rendez-vous ever materializes, the Prince won’t be Visitor #2.

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Seeing blue: July 2020 in the Côte d’Azur

What it’s like in the Côte d’Azur during this strange summer?  Readers have been asking.  Some contemplate trips to the region.  Others sit in gardens elsewhere, drinking rosés and trying to stay in the loop about their habitual or favourite spot to holiday.

French Lessons has taken this mission to heart.  A series of fortunate events led us here this summer, and we want to share.  Our observations center on Antibes, the seaside town cinched by ramparts and lying halfway between Nice and Cannes, and while the situation will undoubtedly change with each passing breath, we are pleased to offer a slice of this odd, modern life.

Hordes?  There has been talk about tourists swarming the French Riviera.  So far, that’s not the case.  The usual swell of Antibes’ summertime population is well deflated, and flights arriving at Nice Airport are indicative.  Normally France’s busiest airport outside Paris, Nice welcomed roughly 400 flights a day in July 2019.  The daily number this July?  One airport employee told us 40.  He was happy to have a job.  Partly filling the gap in airborne travel are cars, but so far, there are no hordes.

Masks?  There haven’t been heaps of those either – until, supposedly, this week.  At first there were complaints about supply.  Then there were just complaints.  From Monday, masks have become obligatory in enclosed public spaces.  For days we hardly suffocated in specifics, but this weekend the government defined such spaces with a list, and the fine for breaking rank is 135 Euros.  Why the backward step now?  Because while coronavirus cases remain low in PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, as this region is called in the statistics), the trend is edging up rather than down.  

So far so good with the masks.  I bought a Nice-Matin newspaper at the corner tabac on this first day of the new rules.  The shop attendant lifted a mask from her chin before ringing up my paper.  Then she turned to another client.  “You have to wear masks inside now,” the attendant said.  “There are des régulations.”

I glanced at the other client.  “Ah, je suis desolée,” she said, rummaging through her handbag.  Of all people to forget.  She had to be a vulnerable 85 years old.

Hordes and masks are the inevitable headlines, but what is life like these days in the South of France?  A long-time friend from Paris rented a unit in old Antibes for the last couple weeks simply to take in the Côte d’Azur’s “blue.”  She was not disappointed.  With the cigales strumming their percussive, summertime chorus from the trees, French Lessons has set out to snap local photos.  As ever, each one is a thousand words – and, on reviewing them, oddly enough, they do contain broad brushstrokes of blue.  

Starting in Antibes’ old town, the enormous construction project proceeds at La Poste, but regular life continues elsewhere.  The main shopping streets like Rue de la République and Rue Clemenceau remain busier than social distancing would require (at least from my two-meter, Canadian perspective) . . . 

Rue Clemenceau, Antibes

. . . but even on quaint Rue Sade, you can find surprising pockets of space.

Rue Sade, Antibes

Sunday afternoon, the area around Port Vauban – the lifeblood of Antibes, economically speaking anyway – was nearly vacant.  The 130-person staff of Dilbar, a 156-meter superyacht in the port, have reportedly returned, but nearby artsy Boulevard d’Aguillon remains a pleasant stroll . . .

Boulevard d'Aguillon, Antibes

. . . while strains of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow serenade the sole two customers rising on the colossal Ferris wheel at the Pré-des-Pêcheurs esplanade.  It feels like an abandoned amusement park, except that it’s not rundown.  Nor dismal.

Esplanade Pré-des-Pêcheurs, Antibes

The same square has reopened for its traditional night market.  Perhaps it’s busier then.  A friend’s photo from Nice’s Quai des États-Unis last week also complicates the story.  “Many people act like Covid is something happening on another planet,” she told me.

crowded bar, Quai des États-Unis, Nice

Strains of German and British English trickle through Antibes’ streets, as does a bit of Russian (we’ve worked out how), and, of course, this tiny amount of Canadian English.  Otherwise, French is the language du jour – de la saison – more than it ever has been.  Advertisements no longer line Antibes’ streets and places for the beloved festival du jazz in Juan-les-Pins or in nearby Nice, nor do they promote the circus in Monte-Carlo or the Festival d’Art Pyrotechnique in Cannes.  This summer’s signs speak of cinémas (which are open), kitchen design, and a photo contest.

If Port Vauban is Antibes’ economic lifeblood, the city’s heartbeat must be the Marché Provençal.  The market is open to business this summer with its gorgeous, locally grown offerings.  Here, for those of us habituated to supermarket chains, an apricot again tastes like an apricot.  One stall at the marché offers gourmet girolles (chanterelle mushrooms).  Another vendor displays a box of fresh courgette flowers that haven’t yet wilted in the summer heat.  A man sells macarons in an array of unusual flavours, like violet, rose, mango, Bounty, praline, bergamot, and mojito.  And the tomatoes – well, les tomates are en fête.

tomates at Marché Provençal, Antibes

This year far fewer vendors and consumers pack beneath the Marché Provençal’s peaked metal roof.  (Mid-morning in the middle of July, we found free parking directly alongside the market.  That hasn’t happened since Napoléon rode into town.)  Despite the foreground in this next photo, only about 25% of those in the crowded-but-open-air marché wore masks late last week.  At that point, they already were obligatory in most marchés in Cannes – and now they are in Antibes’ as well.  “Marchés couverts” rank on the governmental mask list.

Marché Provançal, Antibes

Just down Rue Sade from the Marché Provençal, we stumble on Nomads Coffee, a delicious new artisanal café and roastery:

Nomads Coffee, Antibes

The boulangerie in the l’Îlette, meanwhile, is the heartbeat of our neighbourhood, and it recently joined the Maison Kayser family.  Queues continue to inspect the glass bakery cases, and coffee and croissant consumption continues apace on the patio, with more generously spread tables.  The new owners have introduced a baguette Riviera (for connaisseurs, it’s something like a baguette à l’ancienne crossed with a baguette grande siècle), but the neighbourhood watering hole still serves up tartes tropéziennestartes au citron meringuée, and a host of other traditional treats: 

tarte tropézienne, tarte au citron meringuée

Crowds have grown at the Plage de la Gravette since the initial, post-lockdown days, but the scene remains far from the fesse à fesse situation of former years:

Plage de la Gravette, Antibes

On the Cap d’Antibes peninsula, the upscale Plage de la Garoupe also welcomes a fraction of its usual numbers on umbrellaed loungers.  At the other end of the spectrum, the Cap’s small, rocky beaches can be your own this year – which suited a handful of young campers who “happened upon” a sailboat on one of these nearly deserted beaches.  After frolicking in the sea, they wriggled their way into the sailboat, and with a moniteur at the helm, their voices sang a treble “au revoir” to the sole couple relaxing on the beach.

kids camp and sailboat

Paddleboards and kayaks are this year’s easy, in-the-open-air toys, and Antibes’ sailing school continues its weekly classes.  Here a moniteur tows a string of catamarans into the open waters, while a squad of kayaks maneuver the coastline:

sailing class, Antibes

Speedier water toys – towed inflatables, parasailing, and jetskis – are also doing their circuits.  Corto Maltese Base Nautique in nearby Villeneuve-Loubet said their business remained at 80% of normal volumes – though when we jumped onboard midday Saturday, in the middle of July, we were mostly alone.

Corto Maltese Base Nautique, Villeneuve-Loubet

For those living further on the edge, a Swedish outfit called Awake is showing off its eye-catching, electric surfboard (which goes for a sweet 16,900 Euros).  A couple chaps have been filming marketing videos in Antibes’ Salis Bay and offer the chance for a spin for anyone brave enough to try:

Awake electric surfboards, Antibes

Or, if like French Lessons, your attention in this magical place of “blue” wanders from time to time into the storied past, Antibes’ Archives Municipales are offering up a gem this season.  The city recently purchased at auction four important parchment documents dating from 1381 to 1431; one of the scripts relates to the Grimaldi family’s purchase of Antibes’ château (now the Musée Picasso) from the Pope back in that day.  A new slice of history is on view to the public this summer.  It’s on our list.

newspaper article

And there is always shopping in the Côte d’Azur.  France’s summertime soldes are finally on.  We’ll share more on the markdowns in a coming post.  In the meantime, masked in the shops and breathing deeply of the sea air, we are savouring the blue.

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A Return to Antibes – Ready or Not

Last week as we prepared one of our final, self-isolating dinners at home in Toronto, Philippe scrolled through his emails. “Walid wants to know if we’ll join him at a soirée dansante at the golf club,” he said.

A dinner dance at a golf club?  I nearly broke into hives.  My husband’s buddy was anxious for our return to Antibes this summer.  I put down my paring knife.  “You can’t be serious,” I said.  Was he?  

“Walid says his wife will go if you go.”

“We’re going to Antibes for the change in scenery, not a change of lifestyle!”  I picked up my knife and started chopping again.

The pandemic has turned me into a hermit.  The world is in the middle of the biggest social and economic upheaval in modern history, and the rule has been to keep your distance.  As I learned these ropes in Toronto, my version of living on the edge became a socially distanced, BYO cocktail in our garden, with me providing the Lysol wipes.  

Thousands of pieces created pandemic entertainment for us in Toronto.

Over the past few months, I’ve been oddly okay with the volume nearly on mute.  Writers can thrive in solitude and often have enough slow-burn projects to last a decade.  Our 15-year-old daughter Lolo has missed her friends but remained oddly okay with Toronto’s online schooling situation.  Yoko, the miniature poodle, was confused by our continual presence and, not so oddly, very okay with our luggage remaining locked in the hallway closet.  Philippe has been our troublemaker.  To occupy himself during our months of social distancing, he walked hundreds of kilometers and put together thousands of puzzle pieces.  Life improved drastically once the golf course reopened, but still it wasn’t enough.

Philippe tried his hand at making chouquettes, France’s answer to Timbits and donut holes.

At the onset of the pandemic, we mourned the loss of Antibes, our habitual summer home for 15 years.  The Côte d’Azur is our normal.  It would be weird if we didn’t show up in June.  Instead, we drank (almost) nightly rosé piscines in our Toronto garden.  Philippe (when he wasn’t walking, puzzling, or golfing) even baked a decent batch of choquettes, France’s answer to Timbits and donut holes, just nicer.

Friends from Antibes sent photos of our summer home, Bellevue, its red roofing tiles glowing in the sunshine as the pink lauriers bloomed with unusual splendor.  These folks kept us apprised of the local situation as the pandemic played out.  It had started as a trickle.  Some locals indisciplinés ignored distancing guidelines, prompting closure of the beaches.  Shortly afterward, the whole country had shut down.  Leaving your residence required a printed and self-signed attestation that disclosed your name, date and place of birth (naturellement), home address, exact time of leaving your home, and reason for being out.  Except for essential work, medical appointments, and the like, you had a daily hour and a kilometer to play with.  Policing was strict (at the start, at least), and the fines were steep.  A black cat, we heard, had meanwhile moved into our garden.  The neighbouring harbormaster wasn’t happy, but if we couldn’t use Bellevue, we rejoiced from Toronto that at least something could.

sunflowers, sunset, rosé wine
Some things are always best in the Côte d’Azur.

And then – ready or not – the world opened up a bit.  As I fluttered between excitement and anxiety over our delayed return to Antibes this season, a wise Toronto friend reminded me:  Travelling in the middle of a pandemic is a privilege.  Hear, hear.  First, we are Canadians; happily, I’d battled the paperwork last year to expand my American citizenship.  Second, we had the means to travel, and to do so in relative safety.  Third, Lolo’s summer science class – the one that originally was going to wipe out the majority of our summer season in Antibes – moved online.  By some great alchemy, we arrived in Antibes – and earlier than we had expected this season! 

In this same breath, a gros merci to each cherished French Lessons reader who has sent an email during these past months, or has shouted up the driveway from a socially distanced walk.  I’m grateful for the encouragement to continue this summer blog, no matter on which side of the ocean I found myself.

A few days after I had nixed the soirée dansante, Philippe had another proposal.  We were packing our final things while Yoko slinked moodily between the outstretched luggage.  “Walid’s inviting us to a party at their place on the 14th!” he said.  “It’s the fête nationale!”  

“We’re going to Antibes for the change of scenery, not a – “

“They’ve invited 10 couples – all good people!  He says we have to come!”

What was it The Economist magazine had just written?  Oh, yes:  “You may have lost interest in the pandemic. It has not lost interest in you.” 

plage de la gravette, antibes
Even Antibes’ popular Plage de la Gravette was socially distanced when it first reopened for sunbathing.

Fortunately – or sadly? – there is no quarantine for us now that we have arrived in France.  Signs at Nice Airport encouraged people to stay one meter apart.  What happened to Toronto’s two?  The local radio jabbers on about face masks.  Where are they?  Coming out of lockdown, Antibes’ beaches had been a model of respectability.  A friend had sent photos!  But as we drove into town toward our beloved Bellevue, the local beach throbbed with teens celebrating the end of their brevet exams, and everyone else.

After a first, disrupted sleep, Walid’s wife sent me a voicemail.  “Come to the party!  You must come!  No handshakes.  No kisses!” 

What happened to two – I mean one – meter?

She promised she understood.  They had hibernated for five weeks.  They never went out.  “But France is open now.  You get used to people quickly.  You will see!”  

Can I bring my own cocktail and tape measure, and you lay on the Lysol wipes?

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Grab Bag: Bloopers and More from Summer 2019

As we write this final chapter of French Lessons for Summer 2019, an email appears in our inbox.  “I will miss your blogs now that summer is almost over,” Angela writes.  

Merci, Angela. Gros merci.  We love being part of our readers’ summertime lives.

This post will remain at the top of French Lessons’ feed until next season – so if you’ve landed here for the first time, please check out our more typical articles.  Summer 2019 inspired this lineup from Antibes, our summer hometown in the Côte d’Azur:

To round out the season, please enjoy these extra items (including a couple bloopers) that didn’t manage their way into print:

GOOD FORTUNE:  We knew it’d be a good year before it began. 

“VERY GOOD NEWS!!!” our neighbour Karl emailed in April, two months before we’d arrive in Antibes.  “Doves breeding on your roof!!!  Brings Good Luck!!!”  

doves on red tile roof
Karl promised these nesting doves on Bellevue’s roof would bring us good luck.

Karl is from Vienna.  He’s an intense, scruffy-bearded chap who, when not watching the German bond market, is sorting out his investments in Eastern European and Chinese vineyards.  

Our neighbour attached a photo.  There they were, a pair of doves nesting on our red tile roof.  Was this omen an Austrian thing or a French thing?  It didn’t matter.  It was good luck and we’d take it.

THE REST OF THE STORY: Everything was so rosy on our arrival to Bellevue, our summer home by the sea, that we had trouble crafting an opening blogpost.  The internet worked.  The so-called domotique (Bellevue’s brain) worked.  More surprisingly, the air-conditioning actually churned out cool air because we’d engaged Walid, our fabulous construction friend, to rip out the old system and install something shiny and functional.  We tried not to gloat as a French heatwave scooped headlines around the world.

Having sweated the opening “what to write” question and settled on a storytelling parallel about ants, I began to upload the post late one Friday afternoon:  story, title, excerpt, photos, captions, links.  The new software was a bit fiddly, and then life intervened.  I would finish the job in the morning.

At 4 a.m., someone stood over my side of the bed, jostling me out of a dream.  It was either a burglar, my fuzzy brain told me, or my daughter Lolo, who was giving me a three-two-one notice before she barfed.  

My heart pounded.  “Who’s that?”  I barked at the shadow, trying to focus.

“It’s me,” my husband’s voice said.  “We don’t have any electricity.”

“Okay?”

“It’s too hot.  I can’t sleep.”

“Um.  Okay?”

“I looked around and the neighbours all have electricity.”

“Um.  Oh!”  My brain began chinking into place.  Had someone cut our power lines?  Had we been burgled – like we had been a dozen years ago in these wee hours of the night? 

Bleary-brained, Philippe and I rummaged for flashlights and le beep (the panic button:  did it even work?).  We searched Bellevue with these instruments, looking for something wrong, like broken glass.  Nothing. Then, after insisting to our now-sparky miniature poodle that it was still “time to go to bed,” I listened to Philippe spend an increasingly antagonistic hour on the telephone.  Thank goodness one of us was fluent.  First, he rang our sympathetic service d’sécurité, and then a tangled automated response system for emergencies d’électricité.  At last – for by some miracle we must’ve pushed enough buttons to overload the computer – a real French person came on the electricity emergency line and told us to call back in the morning.

Choppy's, Antibes cafe
Choopy’s saved the day with beautiful coffee and Wi-Fi.  

Early the next morning, I hopped on the bus (as walking was impossible with a sprained ankle, and my bicycle felt scary).  At a favourite café in old Antibes, I scooped power and Wi-Fi (pronounced WEE-fee) and finished uploading my material.  I hit “Publish” on French Lessons‘ first blog of Summer 2019.  It was all about how crazily perfect our house was.

Back at Bellevue, Philippe made more phone calls.  The first respondent promised the electricité was working.  (It wasn’t.)  The second told him he’d called the wrong provider.  The third charged five cents a minute to listen to music, and eventually declared they were only open Monday through Friday.  It was, of course, Saturday.  

In the end, we sorted out the problem thanks to our property agent’s brother.  He whipped over to Bellevue in his beat-up builder’s van, rummaged through a tool box at the back, and picked out a canny little gizmo that opened our street-side electric box.  He turned a switch.  We were none the wiser, but we had power.

WWII MIXED WITH FAME: Glitter and World War II, especially on this 75th anniversary of Libération, merrily co-exist in the Côte d’Azur.  When Philippe, Lolo, and I lunched at Le Square Sud, a brasserie lining Antibes’ central Place de Gaulle, the manager was particularly attentive.  He seemed to be sizing up our teenage daughter for his son. As the man hovered, we got to talking, as people do in this town – especially when your group contains a chatty French-Canadian.  Ours was Philippe.

Le Square Sud, Antibes
The manager enjoyed his link to stardom.

It turned out that this manager originally came to Antibes from a small coastal town in Italy, near Naples – the same town, in fact, were Sophia Loren grew up.  Philippe took particular interest in this factoid, and that delighted our raconteur.  

“World War II changed the course of my uncle’s life,” the man declared.  His uncle had been engaged to Loren, but the nuptials were postponed because of war – and then she got discovered and moved away.

(French Lessons has checked the facts.  Loren was, in fact, born in 1934, and would not yet have reached her 11th birthday at the close of World War II.  But facts never diminish a good story in the Côte d’Azur.)

DIRGE TO THE FIG:  As summer marched on, my Ode to the Fig post became a dirge.  Bellevue’s figuier produced a second bumper crop in August, underscoring my trauma in June that was caused by a new fig allergy.  Philippe and Lolo engaged in another fig jam-making extravaganza, this time with our daughter’s childhood friend Clo.  

figs
The August crop from Bellevue’s figuier was nothing short of prolific.

“We need a second bucket!”  Lolo called those jolly words up from the garden as I watched the trio from Bellevue’s terrace. My daughter flashed me an okay sign with one hand.  Her other hand was thick in figs.

Moments later we gathered in the kitchen, where the latest treasure trove piled on the counter. Milk seeped from the figs’ stems as Philippe washed and inspected each specimen.  “Oh là là,” he said, turning one plump fruit in his wet fingers. “Celle-ci, elle est parfaite.”  That one is perfect.  

rotting figs
Here in the Med, where there’s an abundance of figs, the leftovers rot on the kitchen counter.  

Was he trying to taunt me? Did absence truly make the heart grow fonder?  Diane, a former neighbour who – so I learned through this summer’s blog post – shares my allergy, sent me a recent article from The New York Times.   Author Yotam Ottolenghi quoted food writer Jane Grigson, who once declared that figs weren’t necessarily her favourite fruit, but “they are the fruit I most long for, that I never had enough of.”  Ottolenghi then admitted that in the Mediterranean town of his birth, where figuiers abound, the annual fig mountain regularly outstrips local appetites.  

The same thing happens here in Mediterranean Antibes.  Crime that it was, the last of Bellvue’s figs were left to bleed or wither on the kitchen counter.  Without my participation in this year’s feast, we had a lot of leftovers.

Eugène Boudin painting of Antibes
Eugène Boudin immortalized Antibes in 1893.

That’s where we leave Summer 2019, wallowing in a glorious excess of figs.  Thanks to our buddy Walid and the good fortune of the doves, Bellevue’s air-conditioning kept us cool for the whole summer.  The internet worked, too, as did the electricity.  On the other hand, I must offer blame rather than thanks for the doves’ role in our figuier’s fecundity.  I’ll soon be crawling onto the red tile roof to tip that nest over the edge.  I can’t risk lodgers again next year.

As French Lessons returns to regular, non-summer life, we will remember our summer hometown of Antibes as most people do:  through memories, through photos, and through the eyes of painters who have recast their visions.  May the Côte d’Azur’s sunshine warm you throughout the wintertime – and let us rendez-vous here next year in this glorious place.  Subscribe here if you haven’t already.  And be sure to pack your sunscreen and a floppy hat.

www.frenchlessonsblog.com

Antibes 75th: What happened at Libération?

Seventy-five years ago, in the later stages of World War II, the Côte d’Azur escaped the grip of Occupation. The wave that brought Libération into this far southeastern corner of France came from the west.  

The operation began on August 14 and 15, 1944, when tens of thousands of Allied troops flooded the coastal and mountainous regions around St Tropez.  The forces fanned out, some heading west, some inland, and some eastward. One group of Americans followed the Mediterranean coastline in the direction of Antibes, our summer hometown. They would release one town from the enemy’s grip and move to the next, creating a chain of events that foretold future moves. 

area map

The Antibois followed the developments on national radio broadcasts transmitted out of La Brague, a district in northeastern Antibes beside the Brague River.  One night, when the Americans had pushed some 40 kilometers eastward into the well-defended town of La Napoule, the enemy pummeled Antibes’ main harbor.  Whole chunks of its stone barrier crumbled, and with it fell the lighthouse.  Debris littered Antibes’ docks, boats, beaches, and waters.  Days later, German aircraft bombed the century-old lighthouse at the top of Cap d’Antibes.  As the detonation resounded into the Salis Bay, local fishermen looked up from their rods and watched their city’s principal beacon tilt and collapse.

Town by town, the approaching Americans pushed back the Germans, but it was Antibes’ local Résistants who played the starring roles in this city’s Libération.  After years of Occupation, first by the Italians and then by the more meddlesome Germans, Antibes had lost a quarter of its population.  Among the remaining 18,000 residents, an important underground movement spread across about 20 branches of larger organisations.  The Résistants’ weapons were a slapped-together collection of machine guns, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns, with hardly enough ammunition to go around.  The 400 or so patriots knew they had to act with great caution – but they also faced an enemy with waning morale.  The Germans were still reeling over the D-Day landings up north in Normandy ten weeks earlier.  As American troops paused 12 kilometers away from Antibes in the city of Cannes, most German posts in Antibes remained occupied, but a couple hours before the fateful August 24 began, the enemy began to trickle out of Antibes.

Antibes' municipal archives
Much of the detail is found in Antibes’ municipal archives.

It was with this background that Antibes gained its freedom.  To mark this 75thanniversary of Libération, French Lessons shares details it has gleaned over the past decade from websites and books and the local archives municipales.  Except for The Riviera at War:  World War II on the Côte d’Azur, a passionate tome written by our former neighbour George G Kundahl, the material in this blog post stems from French accounts.  For the sake of general interest, the words are much distilled from the available detail.  We can’t promise dissertation-level accuracy (and please put us straight in the comments section), but we’ve sought to gather the story from the streets during August 24, 1944, a pivotal day in the history of Antibes.

Overnight: Le Capitaine Vérine, codenamed “Gustel,” judged the moment was right.  For years the Résistance had remained clandestine as it gathered intelligence, published underground newspapers, and facilitated Allied arrivals into the area.  Now its members would go public.  As head of the secret army and the local sector of the Forces Françaises Intérieures (the newly organized collaboration of Résistance fighters), Gustel defined the FFI’s imminent mission:  To rebel against attempts to destroy Antibes’ essential services (e.g., water, gas, and electricity) and its communications network (e.g., rail stations, bridges, and transmitters). 

6:00 a.m.: Dawn arrived.  Antibes had not burned in the night.  Mines at the electricity plant, the water company, and the central post office had been diffused before they could explode.  One casualty was the PTT [Postal, Telephone, and Telegraph] office in neighbouring Juan-les-Pins.  Also destroyed in the night were the bridge and communication lines crossing the Brague River.

The Résistants moved into the second phase of their mission:  To neutralize or destroy the enemy stationed within Antibes, and to officially take power by seizing public buildings.  

8:00 a.m.: The uprising began.  About 30 groups shared the responsibilities.  One team spread into the German’s nerve center at the Red Cross, in the inland Terriers district of Antibes.  Another group swept the Fontonne and Brague areas, while others pushed into Saramartel at the mouth of the Cap d’Antibes, where the enemy still manned its bunkers, ready for action.  One team took charge of the port and Fort Carré, while another went for Antibes’ train station and the electricity plant.  Other groups headed toward the docks and the so-called “Casa d’Italia” that once sheltered the Italian Gestapo.  Still other teams occupied Antibes’ post office, its mairie (the seat of the local government), and its barracks.  A final group oversaw the resupplying effort.

Pimm's Cafe Antibes
Pimm’s Café (formerly Brasserie Jules) became the rendez-vous of the Résistance.

10:00 a.m.: As the purge continued, the Comité de Libération met at Brasserie Jules at the top of Rue de la République, the spine of Antibes’ old town.  The bar was once known for its Beaujolais soirées and the occasional strip-tease, but now it was the rendez-vous of the Résistance.  As the committee gathered at Brasserie Jules that momentous morning, crowds began to demand the seizure of Antibes’ mairie.

Rue de la République Antibes
The procession for Libération began here, at the top of the Rue de la République . . .

A long procession formed along Rue de la République and began to march into Antibes’ old town.  The people united their voices in “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem. Eventually they reached Place Nationale and then swerved left at the circular fountain having a granite sphere at its peak, at which point they attacked the gradual ascent of Rue Georges Clemenceau. The crowd amassed themselves outside Antibes’ stately mairie, a broad building with a circular clock and iron bell at is crown.

Rue de la République at Place Nationale Antibes
. . . and eventually marched past Place Nationale . . .

Gustel and other Résistance leaders entered the mairie and strode to the office of Jules Grec.  “M. Le Maire,” Gustel addressed Antibes’ mayor, “je suis le chef  – I am the chief of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, designated by the responsible leaders of the Comité d’Alger [a provisional government of Free France under Charles de Gaulle].  In this position and according to received instructions, I ask you to hand in your resignation as mayor.”

. . . and around the fountain whose granite sphere perches daringly at the peak . . .

The maire agreed.  The transfer of power had taken place, and the Comité de Libération was in charge of Antibes.  Gustel asked city employees to continue in their posts, and a pharmacist took on the responsibilities of mayor.

Noon: The Red Cross nerve center had been cleared of occupying troops, but the manned bunkers at Saramartel on the Cap d’Antibes brought a greater struggle.  As the August heat soared, several dozen German soldiers were taken prisoner.  The population, sensing its freedom, put out their flags.  The festivities began.

Rue Georges Clemenceau Antibes
. . . and up the slight incline of Rue Georges Clemenceau  . . .

1:00 p.m.:Ils reviennent! They’re coming back!”  The cry began as a rumour and grew more precise. The enemy had pushed into Cagnes-sur-Mer, a coastal town 10 kilometers north of Antibes, and approached Antibes from the opposite direction as the Allies.  The Germans now drove along the main road toward the train station at Biot, which stood just over the Brague River from Antibes.

The Antibois panicked and pulled in their victory flags.  Gustel hastened his best response, ordering the Résistants to erect barricades on the major roads leading into Antibes.  Meanwhile he sent couriers in the opposite direction, toward Cannes, to seek help from the Americans.

Antibes mairie
. . . and finally gathered outside the mairie, where leaders of the Résistance took control of Antibes. 

2:00 p.m.: A van packed with German militiamen barely escaped a minefield at Biot’s station and made an about-face. A half-hour later, a German patrol forced its way into the hills occupied by Antibes’ Résistants.  French revolvers met German machine guns in the only serious conflict of Antibes’ emancipation.

Some German fighters rushed into a bunker at Biot’s station.  The rest were repelled by the Résistants, who had been bolstered by local reinforcements.  An hour later the Germans tried again to break into Antibes.  A truck of enemy soldiers brought lively gunfire, but the menace retreated, zigzagging toward a small fort in Villeneuve Loubet, some kilometers away.  It would be the German’s last attempt.

6:00 p.m.: Feeling they’d eliminated the present dangers, the Résistance leaders drew up a plan for the night. Their conference was interrupted by a courier:  The first American soldiers were rolling along the road from Cannes toward Antibes.

Antibes’ flags appeared again, covering the city.  The population emerged from their homes and lined the streets to announce the Allies’ arrival.

7:00 p.m.: Joy surged through Antibes on the arrival of a column of American parachutists.  The detachment of 50 men and several tanks paraded through town, distributing a precious gift of chocolate.  The troops took up position at La Brague, on the edge Antibes where the enemy had returned only a few hours earlier – but the Allies seemed to push out of town as abruptly as they’d arrive.  Their eastward drive continued.

Antibes’ celebrations continued into the night.  Nine Antibois had lost their lives that day.  Some died defending their city, and other casualties were youth wielding grenades taken from German warehouses.  For most of the population, though, it was a moment to revel in new-found freedoms.  There would still be outbreaks of fighting after the close of August 24, 1944, but this date would remain the dividing line between Antibes’ Occupation and its Libération.  

Cafe Pimm's sign Antibes
Its signage still hints of yesteryear.

Today we can spot this history in small doses.  At the edge of Antibes’ old town runs Avenue du 24 Août.  It leads nonchalantly past a movie theatre, a comic strip shop, and a bus station before ending at the top of Rue de la République, where Brasserie Jules has become Café Pimm’s. The bistro’s croque monsieurs, citrons pressés, and pichets of rosé are of the moment, but the flamboyant deco signage, and the faded tromp l’oeil façade portraying a French carousel, speak of yesteryear, and delightfully so.  Meanwhile, lying just beyond Café Pimm’s, spanning out from the Rue de la République, is an open plaza.  The Libération procession once crossed the same space singing “La Marseillaise,” but today the square has a new name:  Place des Martyrs de la Résistance.  

Place des Martyrs of the Resistance Antibes
Today Rue de la République adjoins Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, which is currently under construction. 

Every now and then, too, we’re reminded more dramatically that WWII crossed these shores.  Last month the authorities closed Antibes’ Salis beach.  Shortly, a couple military trucks arrived from Toulon, 135 kilometers from Antibes.  The vehicles’ exteriors announced their purpose: DÉMINAGE.  Bomb disposal.  Fortunately, divers only found a corroded gas canister. 

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Geoffrey’s of Antibes: You are what you eat?

I recently ordered a music stand from Amazon for delivery in Antibes.  Perhaps it was the shape of the box, but dispatch to the usual Amazon Locker being impossible, I scanned the available pick-up options.  

Geoffrey’s of London. My heart did an elaborate flip.

What better excuse?  I would be obliged to set foot into Geoffrey’s, and while I was there . . . .  I ticked the appropriate box, and in the days awaiting my Amazon delivery notice, I drew up a short list.

I have a complicated relationship with Geoffrey’s.  When my family and I moved part-time to Antibes 13 years ago, we were at first too busy with French renovations to amble into that corner of Antibes where Geoffrey’s resided.  It wasn’t so far from Rue de la République, the street forming the spine of Antibes’ picturesque old town, but at the edge of Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, this backbone bent fetchingly toward the vibrant Place Nationale, and I’d never felt the urge to detour onto Rue Lacan past the broad, utilitarian Post Office building.

supermarket and pub
This corner of Antibes brought out my inner battles.  

But this late morning I stood in the sunshine at the far end of Rue Lacan.  On one side of me, Antibes’ rampart walls masked Port Vauban and its maritime sprawl of sailboats, speedboats, and superyachts.  On the other side, the terrace of Le Blue Lady pub popped with voices.  Patrons, all clean-cut men but for one high blond ponytail, sipped their coffees and beers (for it was that transitional time of day).  If I’d approached them, I would’ve heard English.  

cracker shelves
Geoffrey’s had all the best crackers . . .

Sandwiched in the middle of the port and the pub lay a quieter destination – but only in the auditory sense.  Monster posters covering the storefront blared a different sort of Anglicisms:  Colman’s Mustard.  Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.  Pot Noodle.  Bovril.  PG Tips.  Marmite.  Mingled among the marketing were Union Jacks, one flag embedded in the “O” of Geoffrey’s.  The title ran in a banner headline at the top of the building along with the phrase “British Supermarket.”  

marmite and vegemite
. . . all the traditional Anglo-Saxon spreads . . .

Amazon reference number and a short list in hand, I swung open the glass door. The sales clerk looked up from the till, then back down at her paper.  When you entered Geoffrey’s small warehouse, there was no need to share the customary French “bonjour,” even if I knew her version of the word would’ve been “hello.” 

Desire and disdain, both of them, flooded my soul as the door closed behind me.  It was just like my first visit, a good decade ago, when I’d searched for cream cheese.  I had laid my hands on a killer cheesecake recipe, and while the French did cheese – they obviously did cheese – I needed cream cheese.  Geoffrey’s small tub of Philadelphia had unearthed an inner conflict:  My Canadian-American family had decided to live in France. Together we’d known North American and British customs, but we’d chosen to embrace a new culture in its true and undiluted state.  Was shopping at Geoffrey’s giving in?

indian sauces
. . . and enough variety to fill the whole Indian food group.

The same utilitarian shelves now fanned out before me.  I glided through their aisles, unable to resist the lure of tastes and memories hidden among the inventory.  There were mustards and mayos and treacle and walnut-honey crackers from The Fine Cheese Company in Bath.  There were Cadbury’s chocolates and Digestive biscuits, the cookies I’d crushed while living in London to create graham cracker crusts.  There were Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, Branston pickle, and marmite, the disgusting smear that British friends insisted was a nutritious and delicious part of any breakfast.  There was an entire section of shelving devoted to Sharwood’s and Patak’s seasonings in all their korma and curried splendor.  In Britain, I remembered, Indian food was its own food group. 

cereals at French supermarket
Cheerios and All Bran were nowhere to be found among these chocolatey boxes at a French supermarket . . . 

I wandered and gawked before slipping into Geoffrey’s cereal section.  I had a reason to be there:  My short list contained two breakfast cereals.  Having already searched the French supermarkets, my eyes at last fixed on a coveted word:  Cheerios.  Lolo had insisted Miel Pops (Honey Pops) were an impossible substitute, so a box of Honey Cheerios slid into my basket.

cereal boxes
. . . but Geoffrey’s offered heartier options.

But where was the All Bran? Having once reigned in French supermarkets as the only serious breakfast cereal not packed with a burst of chocolate in every bite, All Bran had disappeared altogether from Antibes’ shelves.  Even Geoffrey’s stock was depleted – but the British supermarket did carry other options.  I popped a box of bran flakes into my basket beside the Cheerios.  

In the next aisle I stumbled on mac ‘n’ cheese.  I couldn’t help but browse.  Years ago at Geoffrey’s, Kraft dinner had cost nearly 10 euros a box – over 10-times the price back home.  Now a couple more reasonable varieties occupied the store’s shelves, but again I passed.  I was nothing if I wasn’t disciplined.  Mac ‘n’ cheese was not on my list.  

tea shelves
No one does tea like the Brits.

Pivoting, my ardour returned.  No one did tea like the Brits, and Geoffrey’s boasted a wall of the stuff.  I plucked an 80-pack of PG Tips’ perfect pyramid bags from the collection and placed it in my basket.

It was then that I spotted the quintessence, the absolutely pinnacle, of British foods.  Beside Geoffrey’s teas purred an illuminated refrigerator case. Crowning the long unit in artistic lines and pyramids were tin cans bearing the ubiquitous turquoise label.  Heinz baked beans.  I dallied, my hand reaching upward – until I remembered I’d be the only one in my house to eat them.  No one wanted to live with someone who had just eaten a whole can of Heinz baked beans.

crisp shelves
Prawn cocktail flavour, anyone?

I drifted back to the front of the store, passing bins of potato chips (or crisps, as they surely were known here).  Regular salted and peri-peri and vegetarian chili -flavoured.  Twiglets, Quavers, bacon rashers, and prawn cocktail Skips.

Are we what we eat? The phrase of an advertising campaign from my youth flitted into my head as I approached the woman at the till.  Her antipodean accent now revealing itself, she buzzed someone in back about my Amazon delivery and rang up my findings. 

boxes
I was a little too happy with my finds.

I cradled the three prized boxes in my arms while waiting beside the till for my music stand.  Was I bran flakes?  It was the oddest-sounding idea, but I’d been missing bran flakes from my French diet.  Who in the world didn’t crave a daily menu of French foods?  I was living in the land of the zestiest tomatoes and sweetest strawberries, the flakiest croissants and most exquisite and beautiful cuisine, and I missed bran flakes.  I was such a misfit.

Or was I?  I thought of a French friend in Canada who delighted in occasional parcels from home that contained French cheeses and saucissons (the dried sausages you find in French markets).  

Was I bran flakes?  Or maybe PG Tips?  Was my French friend cheese and sausage?  Were my linguistic equivalents in the Côte d’Azur – those customers strolling the aisles alongside me or crowding the chairs next door at Le Blue Lady pub – were they marmite and rashers and Quavers?

As I signed for my Amazon box, Geoffrey’s glass door swung open.  A young man walked in.  He wore navy shorts and a white, collared t-shirt, and with his spiky blond hair I knew he was a yachtie – a member of some yacht’s crew who spoke a brand of fluent English.  

The yachtie didn’t say “bonjour” or “hello” to the woman at the till.  He didn’t offer a well-mannered nod in recognition of the governing language or culture.  He didn’t pause or even slow his gait as an indication of inner conflict over visiting Geoffrey’s of London.

“Do you have any Cheerios?” he asked the attendant.  She directed him toward the correct aisle.  

I glanced automatically at the Honey Cheerios coddled in my arms.  Maybe, in a way far less subtle than I’d both realized and hoped, I was what I ate. 

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Côte d’Azur Heartbreak: Ode to the Fig

The summer Philippe decided to make fig jam was the summer I couldn’t have any.

My husband brought two handfuls of figs into the kitchen and deposited them beside the sink.  Teenagers Lolo and Phoebe followed him with their own fistfuls.  The fresh sweetness of the fruits, plucked from Bellevue’s own figuier, wafted across the kitchen, where I was busy making coffee.

figs
The girls collected this haul and deposited it beside the sink.

“We should make jam,” Lolo said to her father, taking up a strand of conversation they’d bandied about for a couple years and, with this season’s bumper crop, had revisited in the last week.  Lolo chose a particularly luscious fig from the haul and bit into it.

“I’ve never seen figs this big before,” Phoebe said, bringing one to her mouth.  My niece was visiting from Los Angeles.  She was keen to partake in all the Côte d’Azur’s culture, fresh figs playing a starring role in my book.

“Do we have jars?” Philippe asked.  Before I could answer, he declared, “We’ll make confiture de figues this afternoon!”  He pronounced the phrase for “fig jam” with particular French zest.

“They’re so GOOD!” Lolo gushed, grinning at me with fig flesh still in her mouth.  She picked through the pile for another perfect specimen.

figs
I posted these garden figs on Instagram.

I’m fig mad. Self-confessed.  It was I who insisted we plant Bellevue’s figuier 13 years ago, shortly after purchasing this home.  My conviction came despite concerns from our wise gardener that a fig tree was a huge water-hog.  Over the years, as our figuier has sucked water, burgeoned, and produced, my fascination has grown, too.  I’ve written vignettes about our fig tree from the moment it began to produce, and as it continues to do so.  I’ve linked figs to one of Bellevue’s wartime occupants.  I’ve posted photos of our figuier’s fruits on Instagram.  

Years ago, in the vaults of Antibes’ municipal archives, my fig madness fell into place – as if it was suddenly justified and meant-to-be.  Edouard Muterse, the man who built Bellevue, was a fig-guy himself.  He’d nurtured groves of figuiers.  He and his ancestors had dried their fruits in a séchoir, a drying shed, at their ancestral home back in the 1800s, if not earlier.  By insisting on planting Bellevue’s figuier, I was fulfilling the next chapter in a predetermined story arc.

slicing figs
Slicing is the first step in making confiture de figues.

The fact that there were so many ripe figs left in Bellevue’s kitchen this season showed what a dent I normally made in our pile.  There also was an unusual abundance:  We’d recently spied a couple pulling figs from the branches of our figuier that tumbled outside our fence. They collected their find in large, plastic sacks.  In this moment of bounty, then, Philippe searched up a recipe for confiture de figues.  Late that same afternoon, he gathered Lolo and Phoebe in the kitchen.

There was chopping and stirring (with copious amounts of sugar and a bit of lemon juice), and finally stewing.  Later there would be sterilization and jarring.  I mostly stayed out of the kitchen, except to grab a couple photos. Making fig jam was the perfect dad time, non?  But my gang refused to keep me out of this loop.  


“It’s so good!”  Lolo said, dancing up behind me on Bellevue’s terrace.  

“That’s great,” I said. It was half-hearted praise, and she knew it.

“I mean, not to taunt you or anything, but actually it’s so good!”

Phoebe followed my daughter to the terrace.  “It’s so good!”  she parroted. My niece was typically more considerate out of her genuine good nature – or possibly because I was her aunt rather than her mother.  

“It really is so good!” Phoebe said again before softening the blow.  “I’m so sad for you!”  

“I’m not,” Lolo said. “More for us!”

There had never been an issue.  I adored figs, and I suspect it was partly because of my ardour that Philippe and Lolo also decided our annual harvest was heavenly rather than merely desirable. Last summer when the figuier’s bounty arrived – for that is how it comes, all at once in a tidal wave – we ate figs like there’d be no tomorrow.

The next morning, I woke up staring at the ceiling and wondering why I’d slept on my mouth. Just as now and then you find a dead arm in your bed that is attached to your own body, and then you move that arm with your good hand and the blood starts flowing again, I was sure in the past night I had slept on my mouth.  

As that fog disintegrated, the numbness of the flesh around my mouth persisted.  There was no visible distortion, so I dressed and went downstairs for a cup of coffee.  Coffee is acidic on an empty stomach, so in holding off breakfast that August morning until Lolo appeared (as Philippe had gone golfing), I picked a fig from the previous day’s harvest, rinsed it, and ate it.  I then began to consider what had caused this thickness around my mouth.  Did I eat anything unusual?  A suspicion fluttered through my mind. When Lolo eventually appeared, I plucked another fig from the kitchen tray, rinsed it, and sliced a section for me.  My tongue began to fizz.  I rinsed my mouth and reminded Lolo where the closest pharmacy was.  Fortunately I didn’t need it, though the Velcro feeling inside my mouth didn’t disappear for a good week. 

appointment card
It was meant to be a simple task.

I’d never had an allergy. Figs weren’t a big deal in Canada, where we spend most months, so I only mentioned the freak incident to my doctor this springtime.  She sent me pronto to an allergist, who pricked my forearms with 60 common allergens.  No reaction. 

“Come back first thing Thursday,” he said, “and bring me four fresh figs.” 

fig test materials
The fig “candy” at least was tasty.

It was early May. I canvased a large section of Toronto to find fresh figs and, eventually successful, returned to the allergist Thursday morning with two cartons.  I’d bring the extra figs home, I reckoned, or if they’d strangely become poison, I’d thank the doc for the urgency of his care.  Seated at a long table in the allergist’s board room, another woman and I drooled into our paper towels.  She was sucking on homecooked lobster, and I worked on a slice of fig, as if it was hard candy.  (We’d agreed beforehand that hers was the worse job.)  After five minutes of sucking and drooling, the other woman was told to begin eating. My test was complete.  My fizzling mouth and I were ushered into a surveillance room, and the allergist kept the rest of my figs.

Officially barred from my beloved figuier this summer, I am inundated from all sides.  A couple days after the homemade confiture de figues went into its jars, I found Philippe in the kitchen after a golf game.  

“Look what I got on the 9th hole,” he said.  He was making himself a cappuccino, and beside an empty saucer I spied something wrapped in cling film.  It looked deliciously homemade.  “Fig bread!” He grinned.  “Oops – you can’t have any.”

Infoville magazine
There are figs everywhere this season.

Yeah, yeah.  I was getting used to the teasing.  “Guess what’s on the cover of the latest InfoVille magazine?”  I said to him.  I’d just picked up a copy of Antibes’ free, what’s-on bulletin from a dispenser in town.  I went to fetch the magazine and slapped it down on the counter beside the forbidden fig bread.  

The central image of the magazine cover was no surprise.  Monet and a gazillion others have immortalized that particular angle of Antibes’ old town.  This photo, though, was framed by branches of a figuier, its fruits plump and ready. It was so unfair.

The fig mound in Bellevue’s kitchen began to dwindle, and so did the jam made from its fruits.  The game of taunting me was letting up, too, and I privately sighed relief.  Momentarily. One afternoon I was minding my own business in the kitchen when Lolo’s voice rang through the living room.

fruit bowl
Lolo brought in another handful of figs and plopped them in the fruit bowl.

“Mom, I just brought in eight more figs,” she said, entering the kitchen with the new bounty.  “There were more, but they were so big I could only carry four in each hand.”

So big and beautiful and succulent.  So much for extinguishing the season’s crop.  I mustered motherly excitement as my daughter laid out the latest beauties on the kitchen countertop.  As Lolo pointed out the fruits’ various virtues for my benefit (”This fig looks perfect!”  “This one will taste like jam inside!” “Just feel this one – it’s perfectly ripe!”), a rustling sound came from the garage.  Moments later, Phoebe opened the garage door leading into the kitchen.  On her shoulder was a six-foot ladder.

“What are you doing?” I asked my niece.

“Figs.”  

Unlike my husband and daughter, at least this member of my family sounded apologetic.

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Les Fêtes: The Côte d’Azur’s Space Festival

There’s a place in the Côte d’Azur that feels like anything but.  

The sun still shines – but the summer breeze in this place lacks its typical humidity.  Its breath cools your skin as it tickles your face and arms. The seaside’s bougainvillea, now at their magenta apex, have morphed into spiky, purple thistles.  The scent of lavender, rather than coconut sunscreen, wafts through the air, and in place of the sea flutter waves of brown, reedy grass.  

It’s the Côte d’Azur in name alone.  The plateau of Calern overlooks our seaside town of Antibes, and much of the French Riviera’s glittering coastline, for that matter.  It lies 25 kms from Antibes as a crow flies, but double that distance along highways and roundabouts, and eventually the hairpin roads of the French Prealpes. It’s almost by magic that you arrive at the plateau’s oasis – or as the site is known among space enthusiasts, the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur.

Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur

Philippe and I, along with 14-year-old Lolo and her local, childhood friend Clo, join a host of other terrestrials who have ascended here on a propitious night:  the biennial Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes, the Night of Open Domes.  Once every two years, the Riviera’s research telescopes welcome public eyes.

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes

France is known for its fêtes.  In the Côte d’Azur summertime alone, there are celebrations for the grape, the chestnut, and jasmine.  There are festivals of jazz, fireworks, fishermen, and medieval music; archeology, humour, Cuba, and all the various saints.  And every other year, the hills above all the other fêtes celebrate space, and our place within it.  

Thanks to Lolo’s abiding interest, it’s our third visit to the outer space festival.  I guess that makes us groupies, and we are not alone. Due to the night’s growing popularity, organizers have introduced pre-registration for all vehicles.  The permits are free, but the taps cut off at 2,000.

Within the hollow of a great, white dome, an astronomer lectures about last year’s InSight mission to Mars.  Lolo, perfectly attired in a NASA hoodie, pulls Clo into the crowd, so I follow and do my best to understand the gist:  Not only is the talk about extraplanetary research, but it rolls out in fluent français. Above the squash of humans, a gigantic telescope angles into the bright sky.  A 3D-printed version of InSight’s robotic lander lies on a table at the center of the circular room, and beside it stands a local collège’s model of a seismometer. As the air within the dome grows muggier and locker-room-scented, the spring-like contraption measures the ground’s movements and transmits them onto a laptop screen.

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes

Back in the fresh air, the landscape stretches and rolls, unbroken by the construction we know from the coastline.  Heaps of regional astronomy associations have set up their viewing contraptions, some as big as a Volvo.  Members gather in small clumps, keen to teach us muggles about the sky even before it’s dark.  Passion and goodwill abound.  One chap engineered a safe way to view the sun.  Another guy in a straw fedora zooms in on the sliver of a moon.  Philippe gets his okay to hold a smartphone at the eyepiece.  

“Not like that, Papa,” Lolo insists.  I miss the eye roll but know it’s there.  She captures this shot:

moon

As dusk encroaches, the clouds bloom and pique-niques sprawl at the reaches of the Calern plateau:

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes clouds

The light warms, intensifying the colours of the reedy landscape.  The vision is even more ethereal with this research laboratory as a backdrop.

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes research lab

Dreamt up by Antti Lovag, the Hungarian architect who also fashioned Pierre Cardin’s Palais Bulles (Bubble Palace) near coastal Cannes, the Observatoire’s lab consists of interconnecting spheres that are as practical as they are otherworldly.  Spheres, we learn, are less disruptive to the air around the telescopes.

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes orchestra

The sky continues to darken. A 40-piece orchestra tunes up in the crater beneath the troglodyte research lab.  Philippe and I share a rock in the natural amphitheater; Lolo and Clo huddle nearby. A gazillion mercis pour into a mic, and then Yowza!  Philippe captures the orchestra’s opening notes:

It’s the perfect opening for – what?  A lecture? A slide show appears on a screen beside the research lab.

“Which stars are hotter?” an emcee asks en français.  The blue ones or the red ones?

Voices from the audience call into the air and disappear.  “Oui!  The blue ones!”  the emcee booms.  “It’s the opposite of our taps at home!” 

The topic of stars morphs into space, and space naturally leads to Einstein.  I zip my very un-Côte d’Azur fleece against the chilly breeze.  I’m doing my best to stay focused on the instruction, even its headlines, but it’d be tough enough in English.  I snap a photo of the screen.  It’s fuzzy, but a clearer image wouldn’t shed more light:

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes screen

Philippe shifts around on the rock beside me.  “I’m bored,” he says.  I glance over at the girls.  They’re checking out the kids behind them and giggling.  

We plunge further into the E = mc2abyss, and Philippe announces he’s leaving after the next song – and may the orchestra get cracking.  Lasers speckle the walls of the beam-me-up laboratory with drifting stars and spinning triangles.  A line of whimsical clouds forms on the horizon and turns the backdrop into something even eerier. 

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes lab

The second the conductor’s baton drops, Philippe rallies us out of the amphitheater. “I want to see more telescopes anyway,” Lolo says.   

It’s the right call. With the skies dark, the associations’ enormous telescopes now whirr and zoom, shuttering to fix on their prescribed coordinates.  I pull a gortex windbreaker from the backpack and zip it up to my chin; Clo is shivering, and Lolo declares the air perfectly beautiful.  We join a fluid queue toward a scope pointed at a white speck in the sky. Squinting into the eyepiece, I spy – even as my feet plant right here on Planet Earth – Jupiter and its three, bright moons.  We hit another queue.  Through the next eyepiece bursts Saturn and its majestic rings.  

From nowhere a green laser rips across the sky.  It points us toward our parked car, the zigzagging roads, the roundabouts, and the thoroughfares. We steer into Antibes with the car windows wide.  Past midnight, the air loses its daytime stickiness, but the seaside’s moisture remains.  Streetlights illuminate sidewalks dotted in restaurant stragglers and dog walkers.  We cruise the beach road and into the car rushes the sea air, popping with voices from pique-niqueurs and night owls.

We’re back in the Côte d’Azur.  But the outrageous thing is, even as we had donned our extra layers and gazed into the heavens, we never actually left.

www.frenchlessonsblog.com

Antibes’ Gilets Jaunes: Chaos, nuisance, or rien?

Manu sent me an alarming email this springtime.  “Les gilets jaunes font beaucoup de problèmes,” he wrote.  The yellow vests, the French demonstrators who had been dominating international newswires for months, were breaking everything, he said.  Anger infused his words as they blazed from my screen in Toronto.  “And this year there is less work.  Foreigners aren’t coming, so there’s less work for everyone.”

I’d asked.  Manu is a chef à domicile – he turns at-home dinners into parties – and we’ve hired him on occasion in Antibes, but booking early is always key.  Normally he offered us an available date or two in four months’ time.  This year his email mentioned four dates.  They weren’t the ones he could work.  They were the only four dates he was already booked. The rest were free.

man in yellow vest
They were all over the country, for better or worse.

French Lessons didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in France last month.  In April, around the time Manu and I were emailing, the US Government issued a French travel advisory due to unrest in Paris and other major cities.  It named looting and arson on one hand, and water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the other.  The TV news was equally charming.  The culprits were the gilets jaunes, those demonstrators who wore yellow safety vests and railed against taxes, reforms, government, rights, and life in general.  For all we knew, the streets of our beloved Antibes were rife with barbarism.

“Bonsoir!”  Christelle chirped as we flooded through immigration at Nice Airport around midnight.  “Comment ça va?  Your flight was bien passé?”

How our favourite, six-foot, redheaded French driver remained cheery at all hours of the day and night continued to beguile us.  She hauled our heavy bags into her truck – luggage, duffel bags, a dog crate, a guitar, and a cello – all while teetering on high heels and singing pleasantries to hovering airport personnel.  

Traffic flowed along the A8 motorway to Antibes.  No demonstrators swarmed the streets.  No barricades blocked our path.  Not a stitch of anything appeared broken.  

“Pas de gilets jaunes?” I asked, noting their absence and hoping to spur Christelle’s perspective.  

Antibes
There’s nothing to worry about in the streets of Antibes.

“Non, non, pas vraiment,” she said, the cheerleader morphing into gentle counselor.  There was nothing to worry about, she said.  The demonstrators had been a nuisance for her driving, particularly where the motorway exited into Antibes, and only then on Saturdays.  A little something once happened in Nice – but in Antibes, non, we needn’t worry a jot. Antibes was totally calm.

It was just the counsel to calm our weary, travelling souls.

Shortly after settling into Antibes, I was sitting in the salon chair.  (There are priorities.)  Stefan was painting highlights into my hair, wrapping each horizontal layer in cling film (as they do) before proceeding up the next level. Our conversation had run the gamut, when I suppose my tone became more serious.  

“Donc, il faut demander . . .”  I began.

“I know what you’re going to ask me,” he said in French.

Apparently all Stefan’s international clients asked the same question.  The whole gilets jaunes issue was “rien,” he insisted.  Nothing.  He barely noticed it, and nothing changed in his business or his daily routine.  “La télévision always showed the worst three streets à Paris!”  he said.

What?  Manu was put out of business.  Christelle was inconvenienced.  Stefan blinked and the whole thing was gone.  The gilets jaunes hadn’t plunged Antibes into the Dark Ages, but their impact varied immensely depending who you talked to.

van in narrow street
We are used to infernal traffic and tight squeezes . . .

I sought out my American friend Judy, who has lived in Antibes for 15 years.  “They were simply annoying,” she said.  Her personal headline happened on a Saturday when she was driving along the A8 motorway and exited through the tollbooth at Antibes.

“Go through!  It’s free today!” a gilet jaune had said to her through her open car window.  Demonstrators had ripped the barrier arms from the tollbooths.

As Judy told me the story, she shook her head.  “I wanted to tell him, ‘You know who’s going to pay for all this, right?  The taxpayers, and that’s you!  And me!’” 

To make it worse, Judy would pay the toll, barrier arm or not:  She had a toll tag fixed to the inside of her windscreen.  That’s when the gilet jaune reached into her car and tried to wrestle the tag from the glass.

Antibes péage tollbooth from A8 motorway
. . . but it was a yellow-vested free-for-all one day at Antibes’ exit from the A8 motorway.

“I was a bit scared,” my friend confessed, “but I was suddenly excited about saving a euro fifty, and since the damage was already done, as a French taxpayer I thought I should get some savings now because I’d be paying for all the damage later.”  She worked with the yellow vest, trying to tear the tag from her windscreen – when she stopped short.  She was no fool.  She wouldn’t wreck her windscreen to save a buck fifty.

A couple days later, local friends Véro and Laurent popped in to collect their daughter from a sleepover. As we loitered in Bellevue’s entryway, Véro asked about this blog.  Over the years she has spurred on ideas, and she wondered what I was working on this summer.  I mentioned the gilets jaunes.

“C’est compliqué, ça,” she said.  Véro was keen that I understand the complicated issue properly. The real gilets jaunes were normal people who were demonstrating against taxes, reduced pensions, and the economy. Then the casseurs – the vandals – joined in, and that’s when everything got out of hand.

Laurent, in fact, had wandered into Nice for a demonstration – presumably the same protest that Christelle had mentioned so breezily on the night of our arrival.  “I wanted to check it out,” Laurent said, his tone unusually sober to underscore what was obvious to us:  He was not a casseur.  But what our friend saw upset him.  The crowd had included many elderly folks – proper protesters rather than rabble rousers – and yet police in Nice’s Place Garibaldi did more than maintain order. The verb Laurent used was soumettre – to subdue, or to submit.  The fallout has brought continuing controversy.

Compliqué, indeed. There went the breezy summertime.  Eventually I shared Judy’s story about the broken toll barriers with our local friends.  

“Et pourquoi pas?  Why not?” Véro said, returning some levity to our conversation as we chatted beside the front door.  “This is the most expensive part of the motorway in the whole of France!”  She laughed. “I should be a gilet jaune myself!”

Today a handful of demonstrators still turn up at the A8 motorway’s exit into Antibes.  They don their yellow vests and chat on the roadside while sipping cups of coffees.  

We’re back to soft journalism.

That was where I’d intended to conclude this post – until Véro put me right.  “Non!”  she laughed. “Those are simply employees of the mairie!”  Yellow safety vests were part of these government workers’ uniform.  They were probably sipping their coffees because the minute hand hadn’t yet reached 9:00!

It’s good to have local friends to keep you on the straight and narrow.

In any case, our local newspaper reflects the mood of the moment.  Returning to its usual heavy reporting, recent headlines have included the closure of a homeware store and the tip-top condition of Juan-les-Pins’ beaches for the summer holidays.

As for Chef Manu, we had to reschedule our date.  It seems, though, that the gilets jaunes are no longer scaring off his summertime clientele. He is now booked solid except for two dates, neither of which aligns with our calendar.

www.frenchlessonsblog.com

Antibes Again: How Friends Erased our “Ants”

It’s all about the ants.

I’ve never forgotten the advice from one of my earliest writing teachers.  You can go on a glorious picnic – the food, conversation, and weather all perfection – but you have no story until the ants arrive. They invade your blanket and carpet your food, and despite blue skies and the best of friends, it’s the ants that create the story.

Here’s our problem: We’ve returned to Bellevue, our summertime home in Antibes, and we have no ants.  Okay, a fair few six-legged creatures scurry in their habitual line across the exterior stucco wall, transporting who knows what to who knows where. But normally our ants come in the form of the broken air-conditioning, internet, alarm, and a famously crotchety domotique.  Our miseries have offered enduring entertainment to French Lessons readers.  Now, in the thirteenth year that my husband Philippe and I, and our 14-year-old daughter Lolo, have crossed the Atlantic and creaked open Bellevue’s old, walnut door to start our summer holidays, no story ants invaded our homecoming.

La villa was never more welcoming!”  Philippe wrote on arrival in a quick email to Anne, our housekeeper.  “Toute la villa is absolutely nickel.”  

A nickel was no longer five cents.  In France, I learned, nickel meant spick-and-span, impeccable, absolutely fabulous.  

And it was. Bellevue’s internet worked.  The air-conditioning worked.  The alarm worked.  “Even the water pressure is better!”  Lolo announced the next day, her long hair still damp from a shower.  (Never mind that whenever you flush the toilet these days, it sounds like a ship is coming in.)

olive oil and balsamic
Thanks to friends, these delicacies awaited us in Bellevue’s kitchen . . .

We even found gifts in Bellevue’s kitchen.  Prior guests had left a vat of award-winning olive oil – and a delightful explanation. My opening blog last year had mentioned the disappearance of our olive oil shop from Antibes, so this year, these friends wrote, we would have olive oil from Day 1.  Along with the sparkling clean house, Anne and Jess, our other housekeeper, had left a bottle of our favourite balsamic.  Someone, too, had put an enormous bouquet of long-stemmed, white lilies and roses on the squat table in the living room.  A glorious fragrance wafted through the house.  

“Welcome home to sunny Côte d’Azur!” the card said.  “I wish you a great summer, hot outside and cooooold inside.”

white bouquet
. . . and this enormous bouquet perfumed the living room.

There was a reason Bellevue’s air-conditioning worked this year.  The huge bouquet came from our long-time friend Walid.  During the winter, he and his colleagues had installed a whole new climatisation system at Bellevue. They’d ripped out the sludge-ridden pipes of the old, hodgepodge network, carting away 13 years of angst, aggravation and downright misery, and in their place the team installed a system that pushed compressed gas through our home’s new, copper-piped veins.   It was a massive undertaking, and a superb success.

“Before coming this summer,” Walid emailed Philippe several months ago, “find your biggest, Arctic down jackets because the air-conditioning is glaciale.”

Their correspondence continued all winter long as Toronto’s snow mottled our down jackets.  The emails focused on construction details, but were embellished with a dose of motivation from Philippe.  There’s a mañana attitude in the South of France; truly no one is immune.  As the calendar flipped into June and our arrival neared, Anne and Jess battled nearly finished construction work and its endless dust.  When Jess came over, she replayed the prior weeks:  

“When are you coming back?” she’d insisted to Walid and his crew.

Demain,” Walid had replied.  Tomorrow.

Demain, Jess then rang.  “When are you coming back?”

Demain.

Demain, Jess rang again.  “When are you coming back?”

Demain.

“Demain de quel jour?”  she cried. Tomorrow of what day?  

Walid’s team completed work hours before our midnight arrival.  That’s when two massive white bouquets arrived.  One went straight to our living room table.  The other was an urgent white flag for the housekeepers.

“It’s my fault,” Philippe told Jess.  “I told Walid the real day we were arriving.”

The revamped Bellevue brought a bounce to my husband’s step.  “This air-conditioning thing is incredible,” he said as we sat on the terrace surveying the Mediterranean bay beneath us.  Thin waves lapped onto the rocky beach as the evening sky softened into the Côte d’Azur’s renowned palette of pastels.  “I feel like I have a whole new house,” he said.  “You have no idea.”  

He was right.  No one appreciated the new a/c like Philippe did. It was less about the coolness than knowing the system wouldn’t croak in the next hour.  Instead of ringing contractors on his first day back, Philippe went golfing.  With Walid, no less.

Bellevue has been wondrously welcoming this year, lacking all its best ants.  Even our miniature poodle felt at home.  On one transatlantic telephone call, we’d mentioned to Anne that Yoko might remain in Canada for the summer.

poodle
Violette is apparently expecting Yoko.

“Mais non!” she’d protested.  “Elle est attendue!”  Yoko was expected in France.  “Angie [the Lab], Violette [the miniature poodle], and Gucci [the bichon maltais] all were expecting her!”

Lolo took Yoko’s reception in appropriately teenage fashion.  “Yoko has a better social life than I do,” she huffed.

Which was funny even if it was untrue.  We all felt embraced by France this year – by our friends, the resident pooches, and our house.  

There’s one more friend to mention.  Someone added a step to Bellevue’s marble staircase at 2 a.m. on that night we arrived, and as Philippe and Lolo slept, I had a massive yard sale of the unpacking in my arms.  There, I suppose, among the perfection of our return, lay the opening aria of my ant.

Jess took a look at my ankle and insisted I not worry. “Il y a une crème,” she said.  

I was truly back in France.  Of course there was a cream.  There was a cream for everything in France.

medicins sign
Happily, they dealt with my ant.

After a few days of hobbling, I rang our local doctor.  Friend that Jean-Marie was, he offered me an emergency appointment as he zipped shut his suitcase for Vietnam.  He prescribed the special crème while introducing a few more French words.  Une échographie (an ultrasound) soon confirmed that it was just une entorse (a sprain), but a bad one.  L’attelle (the brace) worked only with les baskets.  My attempts to negotiate something other than sneakers flopped entirely.

This first message of French Lessons 2019 might be the clichéd “Phone a friend” – but we don’t offer that suggestion casually.  Friends are treasures.  We count our lucky stars that we’ve traipsed these shores long enough to have them.