FRENCH IMMERSION IN ANTIBES: A TEEN’S EVOLUTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the derelict buildings are charming.

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

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

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

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

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Why is the Riviera razing its beach restaurants?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paloma Beach spreads along a pebble shore on Cap Ferrat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Domotique: Small firms light up French life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This little gizmo does the trick with the electric box.

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

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

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

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

How was plastic so complicated?

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

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

Flashlights certainly helped in Bellevue’s back staircase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Luck in Antibes: It’s not for the birds

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

This beachside bistrot is a staple in Antibes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seagulls have been having a good year.

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

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

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

Our garden offered two lucky trèfles à quatre feuilles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and so is Yoko, with a new friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rebonjour: From my eclectic pandemic muse

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

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

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

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

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

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

This winterscape made the creative juices flow.

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

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

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

Bellevue is an eclectic mix of circles and squares …

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

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

… inside and out.

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

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

This view of Antibes inspires, no matter the season.

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

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

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

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LESSONS FROM A PADDLEBOARD: The Riviera’s 2020 Season

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

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

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

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

cap d'antibes at bay beside Antibes

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

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

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

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

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

sailboats beside Antibes

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

kiteboarding off Antibes

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

katara superyacht and grande grenille at Antibes

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

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

pointe bacon with parasol pines and restaurant de bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Il y a longtemps?”  A long time ago?

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

“Il y a longtemps?”

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

Antibes face mask and room spray

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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