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.

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.

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?

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.”


“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.  

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tea shelves
No one does tea like the Brits.

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

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

crisp shelves
Prawn cocktail flavour, anyone?

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

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

I was a little too happy with my finds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Côte d’Azur Heartbreak: Ode to the Fig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I posted these garden figs on Instagram.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not,” Lolo said. “More for us!”

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

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

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

appointment card
It was meant to be a simple task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infoville magazine
There are figs everywhere this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes

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

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

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes

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

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


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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes clouds

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes research lab

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes screen

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

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

Nuit Coupoles Ouvertes lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re back to soft journalism.

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

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

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

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

Antibes Again: How Friends Erased our “Ants”

It’s all about the ants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demain,” Walid had replied.  Tomorrow.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Violette is apparently expecting Yoko.

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

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

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

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

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

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

medicins sign
Happily, they dealt with my ant.

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

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

Grab Bag: Summer 2018’s Agenda de Ministre

French Lessons has survived a summer that one local friend dubbed “un agenda de ministre.”  Even for us non-government ministers, the French expression seemed an appropriate way to characterize our schedule in a country where public spending (as a % of GDP) continues, shall we say, to outperform. Our summer months were simply very busy.

As this minister-like agenda skipped along through the Côte d’Azur’s sweltering season, French Lessons has continued to collect snippets of daily life.  Most of these vignettes didn’t evolve into full blog posts, but some notes are too good not to share.  Often they remind us of the gentle quirks that make France, our beloved second home, so endlessly captivating:

  • Frenchmen seem to hand out points for parking creativity. More than once I’ve seen vehicles parked in the middle of roundabouts.  (Yes, really.)  But despite this penchant for parking resourcefulness, all French people know you never, ever, leave a vehicle on a zebra crossing.  One afternoon as the whole of Antibes escaped to the beach, cars poked in and out of every crevasse along the beach road near our home, Bellevue.  Demonstrating his skill at parking artistry, one driver had mounted a single wheel of his car onto a yellow-painted curb, leaving the rest of the vehicle to jut into traffic.  Across the street, though, a terrible fate awaited another (probably foreign) driver. His parked car didn’t impede traffic – other than foot traffic, and then only until a couple police officers arrived with their towing buddy.  I imagined the poor foreigner returning to the edge of the zebra crossing and scratching his head.  (Les flics completely ignored the more daringly parked car across the road.)

    Whatever you do, don’t park here.
  • On that same beach one lunchtime, I stood in a long queue as our favourite snack kiosk served up its fresh, way-better-than-beach fare – as well as the latest glossy brochure from the municipal government. The leaflet trumpeted two teams:  the Brigade d’Intervention Rapide (a garbage SWAT team that springs into action seven days a week with a simple phone call, as long as the rubbish pile to be collected is less than a cubic meter), and the Nouvelle Brigade anti-incivilitiés (a new squad to combat urine, dog poo, loud vehicles, dumping, and other unruly behaviours.)  (Interestingly, the listed offences also included “stationnement très gênant,” or very obstructive parking.  Parking that is simply gênant, we know, is called art.)  The leaflet’s back page highlighted the extra seasonal workers hired to perform these services.  The new programs are a good way to keep public spending ticking along so impressively. Printing pretty pamphlets for everything helps, too.
  • The French love poodles – so much that we worried about bringing ours for her grooming.  It had been 10 weeks since Yoko’s last cut – not three, as our salon de toilettage in Antibes normally recommends – and we’d found ourselves in August amid a so-called canicule, when temperatures became even more scorching than usual.  Our poodle was hot and dusty, had the occasional mat, and was a little fat. We feared the groomer might declare once again that Yoko had “le cœur qui baigne dans la graisse.”  Fortunately, Brigitte and her team were busy the morning of Yoko’s rendez-vous.  The shop was overrun with small pooches, most of them snowy white (seemingly the preferred hue in France), and there was no time for the groomer to mention Yoko’s heart bathing in a vat of fat.  We’d opted for an old-fashioned, teddy-bear cut for our poodle, but later noticed that the salon de toilettage offers an array of styles just for her breed, including the pricier moderne and zazoo cuts.  Maybe next time.  Still Yoko emerged into the street like an enormous, tan cotton ball, with a certain swagger in her step.

    Fortunately for us, it was a busy morning chez Yoko’s groomer.

A couple of incidents French Lessons jotted down this summer didn’t just remind us of France.  It told us, more precisely, that we were seeing the country’s far-flung, glitzy and sometimes outlandish Côte d’Azur:

  • A friend of Philippe’s golf buddy was interviewing for a contract to provide services at Nice’s Côte d’Azur Airport. At one point, the guy asked if there were any unusual issues that the services team faced at Nice’s airport.  The answer? Too many private planes parked for weeks on end.  The staff member gave an example.  A Qatari royal arrived this summer in four Airbus 320s.  One plane was for himself and his buddies.  Another was for his wives and their retinue, totaling 200 people. A third A320 was for luggage, and a fourth served as a fully equipped hospital, including doctors.  The passengers – and their fleet – were staying for a month.
  • Even after Yoko’s enormous cotton ball of a hairstyle deflated, our poodle found un petit ami. While French Lessons scooted off one week on its agenda de ministre, Yoko kept the family’s Côte d’Azur light burning while she boarded at a friend’s house.  As the stifling afternoon air softened into the magical Riviera twilight, our poodle ran loose in the gardens of a Cannes housing estate and – so we hear – sneaked kisses with a bichon maltais.  He was, of course, white.  His name was Gucci.  Our friend calls Yoko’s choice “impeccable” (im-pek-AH-bleh).

    Yoko apparently has un petit ami.

Thankfully the Riviera’s canicule has come to an end.  Statistics show that 2018 was the second hottest summer on record in France (following the beastly 2003).  Good thing Bellevue’s clime machine managed to limp along.  As we pack our bags for Toronto, there are many pieces of our French life that we’ll miss:

  • Like having a fruit-and-veg seller at the daily Marché Provençal bid us “à demain” – see you tomorrow – because that’s how it goes here. Ultra-fresh produce is a way of life.

    Every piece of produce wishes it could end up here.
  • And like a proper round of brie. We certainly prefer buying cheese at the Marché Provençal,or from one of Antibes’ specialist fromageries, but even plucking a meule of Président-brand brie from the refrigerator in a French grocery store is a genuine experience – relatively speaking, at least.  I found the same round of Président brie in an Illinois supermarket earlier this summer, but the American packaging somehow broke the mood:

    Pilsner and cherry ale rank among “wine and beer-pairing tips” on the American packaging.
  • We’ll also miss dinner at the H’s, our unwaveringly social, across-the-street neighbours. In addition to housing a sommelier’s cave somewhere in their sprawling villa, they keep a côte de bœuf and whole smoked salmon on tap, just in case people stop by. On our most recent adventure to the H’s table, perched high on a terrace amid palms and pines, each of the half-dozen wines that reached our glasses had a storied pedigree, and none of the cheeses ever had whiffed the industrial chill of a supermarket refrigerator. Conversation plunged into Liberia and Burma, disability, Brexit, wine (the merits of 2000 versus 2002), religions, the EU, Russia, cancer, Austria, Trump, art, cannabis, the machinations of government messaging, and everything else that followed the later bottles.  Philippe and I eventually poured ourselves out of their gate into ours, but we hardly worried that the good night would destroy our following day.  Because for some reason, our agenda de ministre didn’t feel so ministerial anymore.

The TV news channels are filled with talk about la rentrée.  At least the start of school elsewhere in the country gives commentators a break from arguing about French politics.  Here, too, in the South, where school doors remain shut another few days, the pace has changed.  Lolo and her friends dig out assigned readings and uncover skills caked in sunscreen and sea salt.  We grown-ups begin catching up with the real world again, but a quick glance at the headlines says the same people are still fighting and tweeting.  Meanwhile a handful of locals took advantage of the slackened pace.  Mounting their paddleboards in the calm evening sea, they gathered in the middle of the bay off Bellevue on a small cluster of rocks that’s normally overrun with waves. Along with a black lab and a small bonfire, they made the best of the changing season, stowaway-style, right there on La Petite Grenille.

On the smallest clump of rocks in the Bay of the Salis, locals mark the changing season in stowaway style.

It’s time to return the delightful rental cello and pull in our own paddleboards.  Eventually, when all the luggage is zipped, we’ll set Bellevue’s alarm (that works properly again now that the season is over).  And as we ascend over the Cap d’Antibes, peering down longingly onto pleasure boats and a resplendent, late-summer landscape, we’ll contemplate the destiny of our hobbling clime.  If only a new air-conditioner qualified as public spending.

We’ll look down on the glorious Cap d’Antibes, wishing June 2019 was tomorrow.

French Lessons adores hearing from readers.  Please share comments or suggestions during the off-season.  After all, this year’s much discussed swimsuit posts (Part 1 and Part 2) began with a reader’s request!  We wish you a full and joyful rest of the year – one that’s hopefully not too ministerial in its pace – and we look forward to pushing out our paddleboards together next summer and seeing where they take us.

Tough Love: Home Upkeep in the Côte d’Azur

I couldn’t write this post until things had been resolved – or mostly resolved, as the case would be. Even then, I didn’t know if I should bother.  It’s France. Everyone expects home maintenance problems.  And how can anything be a problem, really, if we’re talking about summer in the shimmering Côte d’Azur?

But when you have a home in this fairytale land, it’s not like checking into a swanky resort, mine’s a raspberry mojito, s’il vous plaît, just pop it over there beside the lounger at the pool – yep, that’s the one, with my latest paperback splayed open on a freshly laundered hotel towel.

We knew it wouldn’t be like that.  Just two days before Philippe, Lolo and I arrived in Antibes for the summertime, we’d received the diagnosis.  Bellevue’s air-conditioning was on the fritz.  Again.  This time the technician was recommending désembouage.

Mud didn’t belong here.

I had to look that word up. De-sludging.  Basically put, our climatisation machine hadn’t been cleaned in years, so the water inside was black, and the system was caked in something the technician called pâte noire, and then in parentheses (boue).  Mud. The system finally had said ‘enough.’

We arrived on un weekend, of course.  That’s not good for maintenance problems.  Temperatures in the Côte d’Azur had begun to soar toward 30°C in the daytimes, and we Canadians needed a puff of polar air.  We bided our time sweating, and checking out our new domotique.

“La domotique” is a word I’ve heard people use and understand when talking about our house here, usually while shaking their heads.  I’ve always called the domotique Bellevue’s “brain.”  The system governs the lights, alarm, buzzer, WiFi – basically everything that takes electricity in our home, except, as it happens, the air-conditioning.

The skies aren’t always blue over the Côte d’Azur.

The Côte d’Azur has some mighty storms now and then.  (While I listened to Monaco-based Riviera Radio on a stormy morning this month, the signal suddenly cut out, then popped up again.  The presenter promised to soldier on in the dark.  She would use the flashlight on her phone – if she could just find her phone.  Would someone please ring?)  One stormy day in April, then, a few months before our arrival at Bellevue, a mighty strike must’ve hit closer to home – and blown the brains out of our poor domotique.  The storm also wiped out the area’s (fairly ancient) phone lines, meaning that the Cap d’Antibes had plunged back into the Dark Ages.

An earth-rattling storm over Antibes fried our so-called domotique.

It took some time to source our new domotique, coming as it did from Belgium, but both the brain and the phone lines were up running again by the time we arrived at Bellevue. As we inspected our home after the months away, we discovered that the light switches worked in new and awesome ways. One switch turned on absolutely every light inside and outside the house, the sudden blaze illuminating home and garden like a pop-up festival.  Our new entry system at the roadside gate looked fancy, also being lit up in the nighttime, but we were finding that it buzzed through to the house with only moderate predictability.  The WiFi: What joy to learn that our contractor happened to be in residence, fixing the current problems, at the very moment the Cap d’Antibes was entering the modern world!  Orange (pronounced or-AHNJ), the company that governs fixed phone lines in France, had finally decided to update the World War II-era (for real) network in the Cap d’Antibes and bestow upon us state-of-the-art fiber optics. Bellevue handily linked in.  As for the alarm, it had some new quirks, we realized, but by all accounts the extra beeps and messages seemed reasonable.

It was the air-conditioning problem, then, that sunk into our bones on arrival in France this season. We’d been here before.  Bellevue’s original climatisation system imploded a couple years after we moved in, and our air-conman promptly fired us.  (He was upset that we’d let someone else tamper with his system.  In our own defense, water had been gushing out of the ceiling while our expert was holidaying on his sailboat, but apparently that wasn’t proper justification.)

We replaced that first a/c system with a commercial machine that should’ve served at least three homes. Now, moments after its warranty had expired, this clime machine also had petered out.  The problem arose remarkably in-step with the frying of the domotique, but apparently the two events were separate. In any case, our trusted climatisation guy arrived and took apart our system, but with only a couple weeks remaining before our summertime arrival, the machine remained scattered on the floor in bits, and our technician refused to answer his phone.

Someone has fortunately put our clime machine back together.

That’s when our local agence unearthed the latest expert.  He was a specialist in this particular brand of clime machine, and he had heaps of gung-ho, so we all had decent hopes.  The new guy swung ‘round in early June and discovered all the mucky boue in our system, so he launched a prescriptive, multi-day, uncaking process.  The first désembouage didn’t work.  Whoops, he’d missed a filter – so, in the initial week of my family’s summer stay, we bagged front row seats for the repeat.

In these early, sweltering days around Bellevue, Philippe, Lolo and I adopted a special regime.  As dusk fell and the air began to cool, we were tempted to fling wide the windows to our stuffy home.  But at that very moment, a healthy crop of mosquitoes also arrived in full force. The rules of our special regime were simple:  Windows open, lights off.  Lights on, windows closed.

It worked fine for a few days, after which one member of the household inevitably behaved as if the mosquitoes had disappeared.  The open windows let in beautifully cool air, even as we read our books.  Lolo woke up the next morning on the living room couch, where she’d begun spending the nights as her own bedroom lacked not only air-conditioning but all form of air circulation.  That morning-after her feet and ankles – and my left jawline – could’ve belonged to an acne-ridden teenager.

At the end of the first week, the energetic new specialist gave his result:  The second désembouage hadn’t worked. With another long, sweaty weekend ahead, the climatisation specialist suggested we take out all 12 sections of the machine and reinstall them.  Philippe suggested a second opinion.  The clime chap actually agreed.  So we kept on the mosquito bandwagon, only opening windows at night when the lights were off, before again someone believed this medicine had cured the world of mosquitoes, and in the morning we were colouring our bodies with the stinking Itch-Eraser pen.

We used our best defenses against the mozzies.

The second opinion on the clime machine came thanks to Cathy, who owns my favourite clothing shop in the Côte d’Azur.  Conversation meandered, as it does, from dresses to air-conditioning services.

Clime Denfert, she insisted. She pronounced it CLEEM don-FAIR, like the French would say “Air-Conditioning From Hell.”

The name was too good not to call.  Philippe double-checked the recommendation with Anitou, our wonderful femme de ménage.  Not only did she know the company; she also knew its boss, Jeremy (zher-a-MEE).  This was key. Personal connection matters in France more than anywhere.  Encouraged, Philippe dialed their number first thing Monday morning.

The well-recommended company couldn’t come for dépannage – repairs – until the following week.

Is your patron zher-a-MEE?  Philippe asked.

Oui . . .

My husband then mentioned their good client, Cathy’s clothing shop, and finally launched his best attack.  He laid on the Quebecois.

I’m from Quebec, he said. (Subtext:  I’m your long-lost cousin.)  I only get here, to this beautiful part of the world that you call home, a few weeks of the year (and it’d be really nice if the air-con worked for those few weeks).  We have a large installation for a house.  (The guy agreed.)  And we have this high, like tippy-top, government official coming to stay soon. (This air-conditioning, my friend, is our big, shared problem.)

Leave it with me, the man said.

There was another problem with the open-window policy, and that was the cello.  I’d just rented a beauty of an instrument for the season, and now it was my duty to protect it – but a cello, like any stringed instrument, is picky.  Especially about humidity.

The humidity monitor ran straight up to 80%.

I’d learned the hard way in Toronto.  A seam had sprung open in my cello’s wood, and it sparked my new obsession over a humidity gauge.  While Toronto cellos like 30-40% humidity, their Côte d’Azur cousins, I was told, preferred 50-60%.  In any case, with our clime defunct, the humidity inside Bellevue fluctuated on the whims of the weather.  One afternoon a summer storm cracked through the mountains and swept into our bay.  The numbers on the humidity monitor shot up.  I hovered, listening for popping strings.

At the same time, a wasp had begun making its home inside Lolo’s bedroom.  One morning I struggled to peel my 13-year old from her bed (to which she often retired around 9 a.m., when the living room became noisy).  Suddenly a wasp flew through Lolo’s open window, darting straight across the room at nose height into one of the bookshelves and nestling itself behind a pink stuffed bunny.  By the time we’d come to our senses, the wasp had done a uey and escaped back through the window.

The pink bunny had a secret.

I dared move the pink bunny. The intricate artistry of a wasp’s nest had begun to appear on the interior wall of Lolo’s shelf, tucked within ranks of old lovies.  The air-con situation was getting out of hand.

Still we opened the windows at night.  There was little choice, even on the night our charming port neighbours threw their annual party, complete with accordion music and the theme from Top Gun playing through the wee hours.  Lolo moved more enduringly to the living room couch. The situation delighted the dog, who now decided she could sleep on the couch, too.

But how could I complain? How could I write a blog about problems that, in the scheme of the world, were simply inconveniences?

Meanwhile our agence had dug up their own second opinion.  Another guy showed up in a white van, looked around Bellevue for a couple hours, and left.  When I returned from errands that afternoon, I pushed on Bellevue’s front door and stepped inside from the blistering sunshine.  Cool air clung to my sweaty shoulders.  It wasn’t the biting air of a monster air-conditioning machine – this air was on the warm edge of cool, if I can put it that way – but it was fresh and delicious.

Our system had begun to shudder again.  The latest technician had found a filter buried within the machine’s bulk that was caked with about a centimeter of gunk. Flushing out the boue was a far better option than taking out 12 big pieces and reinstalling them.

Still things were precarious with the machine, and we were open to ideas.  We kept our forthcoming rendez-vous with Air-Conditioning From Hell, who’d managed to slip us in at the end of the week.  When their technician arrived, he had an intelligent look around the house and offered some good suggestions involving the vents.

Lunch in this land is always a treat, no matter what you learn.

That same lunchtime, as luck would have it, I was recounting our air-con saga to my local friend Kristine.  She nodded sagely through my tale.  She understood and offered a single piece of advice.  “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t call Clime Denfert.”

The clime machine has continued to huff and puff throughout the summer.  It doesn’t produce the super-chill you’d expect from a commercial unit attached to a house, but that’s fine by me, and it certainly worked for our political guest.  And only once during her stay was she trapped outside in the street, cars and motorbikes whizzing by, while the fancy new gate buzzer chose not to send its signal.

The domotique still isn’t fixed.  Some of the same lights still pop on and off with neighbouring switches, and there’s at least one bulb in the house that I can’t turn on with any button whatsoever.

But these problems were tiny compared to the alarm. One midsummer morning Philippe got up and let the dog out.  Shortly I came downstairs and opened the terrace door.  Bellevue rang out like I’d won a Vegas jackpot.

“Didn’t you take off the alarm?” I asked my husband.


“So how’d you let the dog out?”

Discovering a defect in your alarm system – by chance – does little for a sound night’s sleep.  Especially in this part of the world.  (Bellevue’s big robbery happened 11 summers ago.)  I went around every window, door, and shutter.  It turned out we had not one, but nine gaping holes in our newly revised alarm network.

At least we had a decent early warning system.  With the clime functional but imperfect, especially in Lolo’s room, our teenaged daughter and her fluffy dog still slept on the couch at night.  A bark is a bark, fluffy dog or not.

We should’ve been seeing more of Antibes from this perspective.

With the end of summer now in range, the alarm is fixed, the a/c continues to splutter, and we keep waiting for our chap to finish off his tweaks to the domotique.  And we harbour joyful, holiday memories of sourcing, scheduling and waiting for these various technicians to show up.

Now Philippe is dreaming of a new climatisation system.  He envisions one that works on compressed gas.  If we order it in September, he says, all the work should be done by December.

I’m already counting my lucky stars.  French Lessons will have some glorious material for next year.