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.

“No.”

“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.

RENTING A CELLO: HOGWARTS OF THE CÔTE D’AZUR

Philippe says this post isn’t funny enough.  He thinks only musicians will appreciate it.  My husband casts his eye over most French Lessons articles before I hit “Publish,” so his reticence does give me pause.  I’m hoping these lines give some insight to France and to a less-trodden world within this country.  I’m hoping it offers a couple French Lessons, so to speak, even if there are fewer laughs.  To publish or not to publish?  I leave you, dear readers, to decide.

*

French Lessons has stumbled on Hogwarts School of Miraculous Strings, and it’s right here in the heart of the Côte d’Azur.  How surprised and charmed – and humbled – we are . . .

“The cello matter is more complicated than I thought,” a local friend emailed right before my family and I arrived in Antibes for the summer.  Violeta had left three messages with a personal contact, and finally his shop called her back to recommend two others.  The quick search for a suitable cello was becoming a job.

Violeta, I should say, is an internationally acclaimed violinist. Just writing that makes me happy. We met over a decade ago through our then-toddlers, and for a good while I had no idea she knew an F-sharp from an A-flat, but over the years we’ve become firm friends.  “I am absolutely positive that we will find something,” she wrote. Her usual optimism would propel the search.

I’d expected a few problems renting a cello for the summer in the Cote d’Azur, especially as I wanted a 7/8, one that’s a bit smaller than full-sized.  It’s what I’ve been playing on this musical journey that began last autumn as a brain-boost – as a way to keep the grey matter from shrinking – and as an encouragement my 13-year-old Lolo, whose interest in her own cello has plummeted.  Now as fate has it, only one of us cares about maintaining her cello knowledge over the lazy days of summer.  That would be me.

Double-parking in Nice’s old town – and not a valet in sight.

Shortly after arriving in Antibes, Philippe, Lolo and I have a rendez-vous at the obliging strings shop in nearby Nice. Violeta found a 7/8 cello, and while short rentals are expensive (like everything else in the Côte d’Azur), the shop calculated its best price, and it was hardly outrageous.

The news seemed too good, so I’ve been preparing myself.  Renting anything – an apartment, car, pair of skis, designer handbag, or cello – is an onerous process.  You skim the contract, knowing you should concentrate on the abundant and confusing words.  You never know.  You could be agreeing a worse price, crushing insurance, or automatic renewals to the end of your days.  Imprisonment, even, in the case of loss, damage or theft.

Bad as that sounds, this cello document will be written in French. On average, French text takes 20-40% more space than English does.  How many pages will the rental contract run?  And if I’m still learning regular French words, how will I understand legalese?

As Philippe navigates eastward on the regional motorway, my brain amps up a notch.  This is the Côte d’Azur.  If words are an issue, inventory is a bigger one.  So is my negotiating stance in a place where the customer can be more nuisance than king.  I start wondering aloud to Philippe.  Will the not-outrageous rental price agreed to Violeta immediately soar when the shop assistant hears my tourist’s accent?  What if we still need to negotiate a bow and a case?

It could be Hogwarts School of Miraculous Strings.

A more imminent problem is parking in Nice’s old town.  Finding a spot within the same postal code is important when you’re collecting a cello.  Now that we’re in the neighbourhood, cars are double-parked – they’re actually double-parallel parked – along the curb.

Is this when the magic begins?  Old Nice’s traffic frenzy disappears with the wave of an imaginary wand.  Two blocks from the stringed instrument shop, we find a parking space.  A short walk later, café tables spill into a square shaded in broad-leafed trees.  Customers sip espressos while others pass time on wooden benches.  And there, a backdrop to this bout of serenity within the bustle of old Nice, lays a yellow storefront with whimsical, curlicue lettering, “Lutherie, Archèterie.”  Stringed instrument making, bow making.

A showcase of stringed instruments welcomes every visitor.

Philippe, Lolo and I file into the shop.  I swear J.K. Rowling should be scribbling notes at a corner table, drawing inspiration for her next series.  Violins, violas, cellos and their constituent parts inhabit the walls, bureaus, and floors.  Rows of violins and violas hang in a glass-windowed cabinet adorned with stringed instrument scrolls.  The tattered face of a bass forms a wall hanging.  A whole instrument – too small to be a cello but too large to be a viola – hangs on another wall.

It’s a 1/32 cello, an attendant explains.

We introduce ourselves.  “We have a rendez-vous avec Jean,” I say, my accent screeching Anglo-tourist.  “I’m here to rent the 7/8 violoncelle for the summer.”

The assistant does not flinch.  Instead Jean magically appears, and we follow him and the thin braid of his tawny hair down into a windowless cellar.  My eyes adjust to the darkness of electric lighting; cool air settles on my skin.  Side-lying cellos clutter the floor like ranks of soldiers.  Upright ones line the back wall, where violins also slot into post-box-style cubbyholes.

Our host holds a 7/8 cello by its neck and strikes a tuning fork.  An A pitch reverberates gently through the space. He makes a few adjustments and offers me a bench set at the center of a red Oriental rug.  It’s a makeshift stage.  I must try the instrument.

You want me to sit here? And play something?

I stiffen.  “Donc, um, j’ai commencé jouer in the month of October,” I say, making excuses.  I am learning.  I take the instrument’s neck in my left hand and settle on a bench, wishing my small audience would click their heels three times and disappear.

Jean offers me a bow, and I take it in my right hand.  The wood and horsehair are featherweight compared to my first rented bow.  It’s a delight in my hand.

“I’m a learner,” I say, struggling with what to play.

“Best to start with une gamme (a scale),” Jean says, his voice gentle, “to see how the instrument sounds.”

I choose D major, starting on the cello’s middle string and bracing myself for the looming G, the fourth note of the scale that always comes out flat or screechy and lacking in all decorum.

The G is beautiful.

“You’re not in the middle of the bow highway,” I hear Lolo say as she watches with reluctant curiosity.  “Your bow is travelling.”

I won’t acknowledge these imperfections.  Instead I move to the low D, one of the cello’s deepest tones.  Bowing the note, it vibrates through my fingers, my ribcage, and my knees as they brace the instrument’s body.  I scramble to remember the fingerings, climbing two octaves and descending in arpeggios.

Wow.  This cello bears no resemblance to my first rental.  How quick I’d been to worry.

“You’re way too tense.”  That’s Lolo again, trying to puncture my bubble.  She’d rather be anywhere than a cello shop.

Now what?  Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star comes to mind.  Okay, no.  Seriously.

Schumann’s The Happy Farmer?  It is a work-in-progress.  It wouldn’t sound at all happy.

I start playing Happy Birthday by ear.

What?  I’ve never played Happy Birthday on a cello.

“Mom,” Lolo says in a way that only a teenager can address her mother. “It’s not anyone’s birthday.”

It doesn’t matter.  I am besotted.

The atelier exudes creativity – Part 1 . . .

Jean, we learn, built this violoncelle.  He actually created it.  It was his first instrument, completed in Paris over the course of his final year of studies.  These days it takes him 1.5 or 2 months to make an instrument, but this one took him a whole year.

He made the cello for his sister.  This fabrication of wood and string has a story.  Can my love grow stronger?  With soft-spoken pride, the luthier reveals that his sister is a professional musician.  She played this cello for a good while before asking Jean to make her another.  She shifted indecisively between the two instruments before settling on the newer one, but felt badly that this violoncelle lay dormant.  She insisted Jean rent it out if there was demand for a 7/8.

. . . and Part 2.

Jean offers to show us the atelier, and we accept.  Together we return to the main floor, where a man now plucks the strings of a bass, and continue climbing to the workshop above the shop.  Fresh air and daylight filter through open windows into a space crammed with stringed instruments, their parts and their tools.  Art meets science.  Precision drill bits meet 17th-century chisels.  Time slows.  When Rowling finishes jotting her notes below, she must get herself up here.

Concentration is the hallmark of her devotion.

An apprentice carves a wooden violin scroll with a chisel.  She works under the glow of an intensity lamp, her silence expressing both absorption and devotion.  Across the narrow room, Jean fits my summer violoncelle with a missing fine tuner.  At this point, I mention my long friendship with the revered violinist who connected us.

“It’s because of her that I wanted to find a better instrument for you,” the luthier says.

A shard of the modern day pierces the old-fashioned atelier.  I should have known.  Violeta’s friendship has smoothed the way for me.  It’s helpful to have a personal reference in almost any situation, but nowhere is it more valuable, we have come to learn, than the Côte d’Azur.

The rental package includes more than I expected.

An hour after Philippe, Lolo and I arrived at Hogwarts School of Miraculous Strings, the only remaining hurdle is the rental agreement.  Back on the main floor, a single page lies on the front desk.  It contains only the pertinent information; there is no fine print, no opt-in or -out over insurance, no mention of damage or renewal or incarceration.  This cello’s replacement cost, I note, is nearly seven times that of my original instrument, but the rental fee bears no such relationship. And my summer cello package in the Côte d’Azur includes a bow and a case – and a tin of the finest rosin.  Not only am I enchanted.  I am humbled.

The four of us – Philippe, Lolo, my violoncelle and I – begin to wind out of Nice’s old town.  Real-world chaos returns as we pull away from the Côte d’Azur’s own Hogwarts and its magical aura.  Soon traffic snarls at a five-way junction.  A man is pushing his broken-down sedan through the wide crossroads. Under the blazing sunshine, his feet grip the pavement as he bends sideways over the steering wheel, inching the vehicle forward.  The chap toils alone – alone, that is, until another guy strangely materializes at his side.

The helper is wearing a motorcycle helmet.  And strapped to his back is the hulking black case of a cello.

French Roads: Putting on the Brakes?

French Lessons welcomes Rachael for a second year running as our annual guest contributor.  Last summer she explained how she dealt with her impounded car at the local fourrière. This year her automotive theme continues, as does her – ahem – fast wit.

 

A few months ago, I was invited by the French government to attend a Stage de sensibilisation à la sécurité routière – a Speed Awareness Course – mainly because they put a new speed camera on the motorway from Monaco to Nice.

A driving license in France starts with 12 points.  For small infractions you lose one point.  I’ve lived here for 17 years, and my record had remained unblemished.  But every Thursday I drive to Monaco, and after six weeks I suddenly had only six points left. 

I’m British.  Maybe it’s because driving restrictions are more draconian back home, or maybe I just have reckless friends, but I’ve known many people who’ve done a British driving awareness course.  My sister, in fact, did it a year ago.  The class lasted four hours, and all the participants did was sit around a table talking.  She came home with a recipe for a no-bake cake.

Her sister’s speed class had certain upsides.

My course in France would be in French, of course, but I wasn’t worried. My French is pretty good.  I can make people cry with my accent.

I booked my slot.  I was a bit worried that the only available option was a two-day course.  Blimey, I thought, speed is a big deal in France.  I went immediately to Carrefour to buy new pencils and pens.  I would take this back-to-school malarkey seriously.

Class day dawned, and I drove to a bland corporate hotel in Antibes.  There was no parking available, so I blocked someone in and told the concierge to deal with my car.  It was not a promising start to my driving rehab.

The class included 18 other pupils.  All were French.  All were men. The course leader introduced herself as Constance.  She and her co-coordinator, a psychologist (?!), had notched up five of these sessions themselves.

Rachael began to doodle during class time.

It didn’t sound to me like a very efficient prevention course.  From that moment, I lost faith our leader.  So did most of my colleagues – and it had nothing to do with the fact that Constance was about 25 years old and dressed like a goth.

To start out, each of us had to read a page outlining our expected behaviour over the course of the two days together.  We had to be respectful of others.  There would be no discrimination, racism or sexism.  We had to turn up awake(!), sober, and free from the influence of mind-altering substances. 

The document was detailed, and all 19 of us had to agree to its words. Constance gave a single copy of the document to the first of my colleagues, who diligently spent four minutes reading the page before passing it to a second person, who spent four minutes reading, and so on. 

Shall I mention the overhead projector connected to Constance’s laptop? She didn’t use it. 

By the time we all had read the document and nodded our acceptances, we’d reached our coffee break.  It had been a long while since anyone dared impose such an inefficient use of my time.

And then there was no milk for my coffee.  Talk about discrimination.  We Brits have white coffee.

Speed in the Côte d’Azur is written on the roads . . .

For the rest of the morning, we were divided into small groups.  Each group received a large sheet of paper on which we were to illustrate who dies on the road in ascending order:  motorbikes, pedestrians, caravan drivers, etc.  At least my coloured pencils came in handy. 

By this stage, I’d worked out that most of us were serious professionals. It was quite enjoyable being at Montessori together.  Shortly we were throwing paper darts and engaging in collective works of sabotage. Constance screamed at us to behave, but we ignored her.  The psychologist bit her fingernails.

. . . along the tracks . . .

Once we’d presented our drawings to each other, and that was the morning done. I’d learned precisely nothing, but I really liked the group.  We all went for lunch to McDonald’s.  The psychologist ordered a Happy Meal.  Constance had half a piece of lettuce and 20 fags.

The afternoon was more fun because we got to watch road awareness and safety videos.  But . . . France hasn’t ever worried about the fact that it has the highest kill rate on roads among first-world countries.  I do remember Jacques Chirac saying the French should drive more like the Brits, but the government still hasn’t bothered to make safety films of their own. 

Our first video was, therefore, British. Oh, how my proud heart soared! The video was an advert I grew up with in the 70’s:  Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bike.  I could lip sync it.

I was in nostalgia overload when I noticed puzzled faces around me.  Of course the biker nearly got hit, my classmates were thinking.  He was pedalling on the wrong side of the road!  And the driver was sitting in the passenger seat . . . driving. 

. . . over the sea . . .

If the first video was a waste of time for my fellow fast drivers, the second one must’ve seemed irrelevant.  It was so old that everyone in it wore a suit and a bowler hat.  And that was it for Day One.

The weather turned bad on Day Two.  The air was chilly and the heating in our conference room at the corporate hotel was broken, so my colleagues and I spent the day in our coats, hats, gloves, and scarves.  Constance did allow us a break outside in the storm in order to warm up, and so that she could have another fag.

Day Two brought some general road safety information – and I finally learned something.  The reason there’s a “Give Way” sign on some junctions and a “Stop” sign on others has to do with the blind spot in our sight when we look right. That factoid may have little to do with speed, but at least it stirred something in the old grey matter. 

. . . and in the skies. (What faster way to reach St. Tropez?)

We also heard about reflexes, and the speed of these reflexes.  They are less responsive the more alcohol or drugs you use.  Well blow me down with a feather.  The remaining subjects for the morning were The Law, Safety, and Speed.  Obvious, tedious, and patronising.

As much as I loved the group, my body was not going to McDos again, so I hotfooted it to an industrial estate for a Lebanese with a five-star Trip Advisor rating.  (Class time had been useful for something.)  The restaurant was warm, the food was delicious, and actually the distance didn’t matter.  French lunch breaks last for two hours.

The world’s largest trimaran, Galaxy of Happiness – spotted recently on the Riviera’s coastline – aims for stability and speed.

Only three hours of class remained before I was free to resume my normal life, plus I’d have recuperated four points for my licence.  Our final class exercise was word association.  We were each given a sheet of paper, and then Constance announced our word:  Speed. We were to quickly write three things that came into our heads.

After a two-day speed awareness and safety course where we’d learned the rules of the land, watched educational videos, and illustrated death in felt pens and coloured pencils, these were some of the words the class associated with speed:

Exhilaration

Thrill

Pleasure

Fun

Fast n Furious

Ça passe ou ça casse (Kill or be killed)

The instructors said we were the worst class ever.

For me, the days weren’t a total loss.  I cried with laughter on more than one occasion, I learned one fact, and I found a great restaurant.  More importantly, I discovered that the French are as funny as the English. Their banter and teasing are of an international standard.  That definitely made up for not coming home with a no-bake cake recipe.

IT’S STILL NOT EASY: TEEN SWIMSUIT SHOPPING, DEUX

Lolo and I stand on a sidewalk in the easygoing town of Juan-les-Pins.  We’re debating.  The store sounds young to me, like the name of an aspiring rap artist.  At last we open the glass door of Banana Moon.

“Bonjour!”  I say to the shop’s sole attendant.  She replies with the same.

“Nous cherchons un maillot de bain,” I say.  (Of course we’re looking for a swimsuit.  There’s precious little other inventory.) “Pour elle,” I continue, indicating my 13-year-old daughter.   That makes the statement more interesting.

We start our journey in a swimwear shop called Banana Moon.

The woman leaves us to browse her tiny shop, tucked into a narrow shopping street in this seaside town. Banana Moon has lots of options for Lolo, if you ask me.  I spot a tie-dyed, pastel rainbow suit with a freeform ice cream cone drawn on the belly. It’s the ideal, early-teen swimsuit, and my daughter needs a one-piece.

Lolo gives it a hesitant “maybe.”  After some thought, she changes her mind.  “The colours are too happy,” she says.

I had such high hopes. My daughter is normally such a buoyant character, more agreeable kid than stroppy teen, but today my finicky customer has returned.  In our recent foray into swimsuit shopping in Antibes, I’d braved many rebellions. Most colours on the palette wheel, Lolo decided, were “too happy” for her swimsuit.  Extra strings were “too complicated.”  More flatteringly-cut swimsuits were “my kind of swimsuit.”  (It was not a compliment.)  Eventually my kid found a not-too-happy, uncomplicated, and not-momsie bikini – but we face an irrefutable truth:  Lolo still needs another swimsuit.

It’s important to own a swimsuit in Juan-les-Pins . . .

She actually needs a couple more swimsuits.  Summer in the Côte d’Azur makes for a lot of water time, and Lolo has outgrown everything she owns.  Focusing my attention, too, are her upcoming weeks at camp in the lakes and woodlands of Ontario. The new peach and lavender bikini will not do.

We bid our au revoirs to the clerk at Banana Moon and head through a stone archway toward the seaside.  The Mediterranean stretches before us, its waters forming dollops that sparkle in the sunlight.

“I hate the smell of the sea,” Lolo says.  “I hate the smell of sun cream.”

. . . a town known for its annual jazz festival in July . . .

My hopes and I will not be torn down.  Today is a new day, and we are shopping in a town that is surely more relevant to a new teen.  Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, though amalgamated for governmental purposes, are chalk and cheese.  Antibes grew up around ancient history, planted in its place by the Greeks and Romans for its defensive port position.  Juan-les-Pins popped up at Antibes’ back door around the turn of the 20th century. The new community was a fabrication of gambling and absinthe that has grown over the years thanks to jazz and festive spirits like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Today the resort town specializes in ice creams, beaches and discos. If any French town has swimsuit stores, it will be Juan-les-Pins.

. . . and, among other things, flouncy resort wear.

Lolo and I dart into shops along the sea road, pleased to find the intermittent cool of air-conditioning (and for Lolo, a respite from bad smells).  Inside each door we find a single attendant governing a small rectangle of a store, its broad front windows letting in light, and its back three walls displaying swimsuit options, each in only a handful of sizes.  A few clothing racks fit the floor space.

In one shop I rifle through a line of bikinis, a rainbow of simple possibilities.  There are no complicating strings or busty, preformed cups. Some of their colours are downright gloomy.

“No triangles,” Lolo says.

“What?”

“The top cannot be triangles.  It has to be more like a line.”

I accept the new constraint with what I hope is grace.  “Au revoir,” I say to the clerk, and we pass back into the sticky sunshine.

This, apparently, is a swimsuit.

As we weave in and out of these little shops, I am gobsmacked by what constitutes a swimsuit in Juan-les-Pins.  Plain is rarely an option.  There are laces that X-X-X up the back of suits, and laces that X-X-X up the front. There are little chains stitched into the shoulders and around the waistline.  There are tiger prints, and suits made of lace sealed up in all the important spots. Suits of silver sequins, or of shimmering gold fabric set in the pattern of crocodile skin.  One bikini top (triangles) is encrusted in rhinestones.

A whoosh of cool air welcomes us into the next shop.  “Bonjour!  Nous cherchons . . . .,” I say again and begin rifling through the racks, avoiding triangles.  I’m still the leader of this expedition even if Lolo’s French is more fluent than mine, but I’m choosing my battles.

“What about this one?” I say to my daughter, holding out a bandeau top with a pretty wave of contrasting swimsuit material.  The frill is elasticized to form two shoulder straps, or to stretch around the top of her perfect shoulders to form a nude neckline.

“No frills.”

“But they’re so pretty!” I say.

“No.  They’ll constrict my movement.   And anyway, they just say, ‘Look at how pretty I am while I lie on the beach.’”

Well, yes . . . and with her natural tan, and extra-long, wavy hair, why not?

So is this.

Lolo and I visit every swimwear shop along Juan-les-Pins’ waterfront, and all we accomplish is making her catalogue of requirements longer.  No triangles, no frills, no complications, no jolly colours.  Still determined, I weave us away from the shoreline back into one remaining shopping street in town.  More than anything, we must find a one-piece swimsuit.  Camp is coming.

“Bonjour!”  we both say – one in Anglophone French and the other in perfectly French French – to the two (two!) attendants in a larger swimsuit shop a couple blocks from the sea.  “Nous cherchons un maillot de bain pour elle,” I say, indicating Lolo, and the younger clerk takes our case.  The three of us flick through an array of swimsuits dangling along the walls and on free-standing racks.  The selection is astounding: Only a single size of each style fills the room.

As our personal assistant pulls out swimsuits that would suit many teenaged girls, I counsel her on our particular needs, doing my best to explain in Anglo-accented français.  “No bright colours, nothing complicated, no triangles.  And definitely age appropriate,” I add, noting sultry, crisscrossed bodices and jewel-encrusted décolletés.

The camouflage one-piece didn’t work out . . .

At least that’s what I try to say.  Every now and then the woman looks to Lolo for translation.  I sigh.  At least my linguistic fumbles are drawing my kid into the mission, and eventually she agrees to try a few swimsuits.  The assistant finds the right sizes, and my daughter steps into a changing cabin.

“C’est difficile de trouver un maillot pour elle,” I say in the sudden quiet of the shop.

The woman looks shocked at what I say – as surprised as any helpful assistant can allow herself to look. I realise almost immediately:  She must hear clients complain all the time, like I just did, about how difficult it is to find a swimsuit.  They’ll bemoan their boobs (too big, too small), waists (inevitably too big), torsos (too short), hips (too broad), thighs, forearms. Everything is too this or too that. We women can be our own worst enemies.

I now imagine what the clerk is thinking:  What possibly is so difficult about this girl’s shape?  She’s tall and willowy.  She’s thirteen.  Does the madness start this young?

I hear myself trying to explain.  “Elle n’est pas un enfant,” I say.  My daughter is not a child – but she’s not an adult either.  She’s an ado.  Try finding a swimsuit for an adolescente in this town!

The assistant nods, seeming to understand.  At last Lolo steps out of the cabin wearing her favourite swimsuit of the bunch.

“Wow,” the older clerk whispers from her seat at the till.  The racer top and bikini bottoms – mostly in black but with hot pink and baby blue floral insets – make my 13-year old look like an athlete.  Like a tanned, athletic model.  A smile flickers on Lolo’s lips before she dives back into her cabin.

. . . but Lolo fell in love with this model.

Just in case, I have her try the other options she chose, still hoping to land a one-piece for camp, but even the somber, fatigue-patterned swimsuit doesn’t make the grade.

As Lolo changes back into her shorts, I check out at the register.  The beautiful swimsuit is expensive.  The number is made worse by translating it from Euros into Canadian dollars. Good thing we are walking out with only one.

We celebrate our find with cool drinks at a café in one of Juan-les-Pins’ pedestrian streets.  Our summer swimsuit tally is one beach bikini and one rather precious, athletic bikini.  Lolo is set for the Côte d’Azur, but neither swimsuit works for a Canadian outdoors camp.  Sipping our drinks, we start searching North American websites.  It takes some time, but at last something promising pops up on my phone screen – an appropriate, not frilly, not too joyful, not triangly, and not mumsie one-piece swimsuit, available online from L.L. Bean.  It’s a sixth of today’s price – and then there’s a 50% off code in the banner ad.

Back at Bellevue, the first thing I do is order the one-piece.  It’ll arrive in Toronto in time for Lolo’s outdoor camp.  Somehow the additional purchase also calms my nerves about the prior ones.  Adding this swimsuit to the summer’s haul, the average price swings back into the range of reasonable.

DOING BATTLE IN THE LANGUAGE OF MOLIÈRE

“Moi, je veux prendre le penne au pistou,” Lolo says to the waiter in fluent, properly French-accented French.  Her order is no surprise.  Pesto penne is one of my 13-year old’s favourites.

The wiry waiter turns his gaze to Philippe, who sits beside me at this restaurant spilling into Boulevard d’Aguillon, a busy pedestrian street in Antibes.  “Je vais prendre le linguinis aux fruits de mer,” he says in decisive French, fluently requesting the seafood linguini even if his pronunciation isn’t exactly local.

Boulevard d’Aguillon is a popular pedestrian street in Antibes . . .

The waiter nods and finally looks at me.  “Je veux prendre le pavé de saumon,” I say in my I-began-learning-aged-35 French.

“Zhe salmon,” the waiter says back to me.  In English. “Okay,” he says, and off he trots to the kitchen.

Lolo thinks it’s hilarious. Philippe says I’m doomed for the rest of my life.  I simply groan.  Why, once again, did a local person feel it necessary to translate my own, perfectly understandable, Anglo-accented French back to me in English?  As if I didn’t understand what I was saying?

My accent is a favourite party gag within my tiny family.  Now and then, the three of us will be speaking French together in our various accents when someone will ask, “How do you know each other?”  Somehow I always end up the butt of the joke.

Lolo mocks my impossible French.  My new teenager is remarkably consistent.  Just as the penne au pistou is an established favourite, so is the topic of my Anglophone accent.  My daughter began learning French in her earliest days, many of them right here in France.  Her diction is perfect – perfectly French.  I can still outrun her in vocabulary, but that’s unfair.  I’ve lived a bit longer than she has.

. . . that offers lots of places to hang out over a drink or a meal.

Philippe’s native French, on the other hand, comes from Quebec, but he can turn his French-Canadian accent up or down as he chooses.  Often times people don’t know where he’s from.  He’s not from here in the South of France.  He’s not from Paris.  Many folks guess he’s Belgian.

Philippe tempers Lolo’s criticism of my French.  Mom’s grammar is “pas mal,” he says.  Then he turns to me and continues with typical delicacy, “but no one will ever take you for a native.”

I recognized a growing problem a couple years ago when Lolo and I walked home together from her school. I said something to her in French – who knows what it was exactly, but it was a simple phrase like “Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?”  How was the day today?

“Your accent is so bad,” Lolo said, perfectly cutting down my French and evading my question in a single swipe.

“Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?”  I said again.  “What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything!”

“Okay, then, you say it.”

Lolo’s voice became full but light, almost caressing its words.  “Comment était la journée aujourd’hui?”

“That’s exactly what I said!”

“No, you said . . . , “ and here my little instigator repeated the same phrase, flattening all her vowels and imitating the looser, Anglophone accent.

She was right.  That was exactly what I’d said.  Our little tête-à-tête, walking home one afternoon from Lolo’s school – her primary school, I must emphasize – has put me on guard ever since.

Now a fully-fledged adolescent who has embraced the right to question her faultless parents, Lolo has begun to call me out on my accent.  She picks up on situations so common to me that I no longer recognize them.  One such incident happened as we shopped for that famous swimsuit for her.

The calm of the street hardly matched my spirit as we emerged from the swimsuit shop.

Nous cherchons un maillot de bain,” I said to the assistant on entering the swim shop.  We’re looking for a swimsuit.

“Iz it for you?” She replied, in English.

Non,” I said, trying to pick up again in French when Lolo jumped in and finished my thought in her perfect diction.  The swimsuit was for her, she explained.

As Lolo battled swimsuit options in the change room, I waged war with the friendly clerk, trying to shift our conversation back into French.  Between Lolo and me, only my kid succeeded.  Light years later, we emerged from the shop, bag in hand, and my daughter gleefully offered her assessment.

“Your French is so bad that people always switch into English!”  she said.

It was hard to argue. But progress (and personal devastation) are never linear.  I suppose that’s what keeps me going.  It wasn’t long after the swimsuit incursion that I got a little pumped up again about how far I’d come, linguistically speaking.  The other day a young Frenchwoman asked me at the grocery store, “Savez-vous où est le beurre?

I hadn’t yet shopped for my dairy products, so I said, “Non, je ne l’ai pas encore trouvé, mais je . . .”

“Oh,” she said, “do you know where zhe buhtter iz?”

I began again.  In French.  “Non, I haven’t found it yet, mais je pense qu’il est là-bas,” I said, pointing toward the dairy section at the end of the aisle.

The young woman clearly understood my French, and a few minutes later she strolled by me again with butter in her basket. “Oui, il est là-bas,” she said. In French.  I had a private celebration beside the yogurts.

I’ve visited this snack kiosk dozens of times . . .

The biggest problem, I find, is keeping my brain switched on.  Sitting back, lolling in comfort as I wait for French words to seep magically into my brain, is an extravagance I can ill afford.  The easiest French interaction for me has to be ordering my family’s lunch at Chez Josy, a snack kiosk on the beach near Bellevue.  Dozens of times I’ve waited in the shop’s impressive queue, and when I finally reach the window, I always order the same thing: a plain hotdog and a pan bagnat (basically a salad Niçoise on a bun), cut in two.

Recently when my turn at Chez Josy’s window arrived, I had a brief deer-in-the-headlights moment before recovering.  “Un hotdog nature,” I began.  Un OT-dog na-CHUR.

One hiccup, though, and the whole machine rolls off the tracks.  “You canna speek een English,” the server said.  He was charming, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

“Oui, je peux, mais je ne le veux pas!”  Yes, I can, I told him with a smile, but I don’t want to! Beside me three young Frenchwomen, each tattooed from ear to heel, cheered.

. . . and still manage to muddle the order.

I finished my order with un pan bagnat coupé en deux and returned with lunch to Bellevue.  “It’s not ‘un,’” Philippe said.  “It’s ‘uhn.’” He pronounced the same word without much of the ‘n.’  “That was their tip-off right there.  From the first word!”

This is my life en français.  My grasp of the blessed language of Molière may be pas mal, but I have trouble practicing it in town – and I have anything but a cheerleading squad back home.

At the restaurant on Boulevard d’Aguillon, Philippe, Lolo and I enjoy our pasta and salmon dishes. Eventually my husband asks for l’addition, and together we make our way back through the restaurant’s cluster of tables to the pedestrian street.

“Merci, au revoir,” I say to our waiter on the way out.  The night presses on – it’s nearly 10:00 p.m. – but I want to thank the young man for his attentive service.

The waiter nods at my words. He wishes me his own words in farewell. “Have a good day!” he says.

Les Fêtes: When the Saints Come Marching In

At first I’m sure it’s about the World Cup.  Five water-skiers glide around the Mediterranean bay off Juan-les-Pins, where Philippe and I dine at a favourite beach restaurant.  A single speedboat tows four skiers in a row, while the fifth stands on the shoulders of the middle two.  Among them they wave three French flags.

It’s not about the football in the end.

Beauty and athleticism roll into one, with a French twist as the setting sun blazes through the fluttering bleu-blanc-rouges.  What a spectacular way to celebrate France getting through to the quarter-finals!

Twilight dims into night, and with the arrival our main plates, a parade of pleasure boats floats into the bay.   Each vessel is strung with glowing lanterns that cast long rays toward us over the waters.

That’s when we tweak. These performances have nothing to do with football.  The same sort of procession happened last night on the other side of the Cap d’Antibes, in the bay right beneath our Bellevue.  Members of the local Port de la Salis formed a défilé nautique aux lampions (a nautical parade with small lamps) as part of the city’s annual Fêtes de la St. Pierre, a three-day festival celebrating the patron saint of fishermen.

It will be a busy weekend.

Judy mentioned these Fêtes to me last week.  My American friend has lived in Antibes about as long as we’ve been coming here, and if you ask me, the town should appoint her as Director of Fun. This festival would include boat parades and fireworks, Judy told me, and a parade of St. Pierre’s statue through the streets of the old town.

As the illuminated boat parade makes its final tour of the bay, Philippe chats with our young waitress. “Donc, dites-moi,” he says,  “Connaissez-vous les Fêtes de la St. Pierre?”

Non, she hasn’t heard of the festival.

Philippe nudges her. “You know, the patron saint of pêcheurs – the reason we have all these boats and fireworks ce weekend?”

“In my community,” she says, “there’s the Fête de St. Jean.  That’s the big one.”

“St. Jean-Baptiste!”  Philippe says.  “Le 24 juin!  The 24thof June!  That’s the big one in Quebec, too.”

Different places favour different saints, and for the seaside towns of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, the saint watching over fishermen is one that matters.  The fact that these festivals even continue, though, is curious. France has one of the lowest rates of regular church attendance in the world, but the institution remains important for marriages, funerals, and – whether for reasons of faith or tradition – the fêtes of saints.

I send a text to Judy the next morning.  “Have you done anything for St. Pierre?”

“I saw the fireworks and heard the parade this morning,” Judy writes back, ever the source.  “I have a pic of this morning’s Gerbe à la mer au depart du port d’Antibes.

My friend’s apartment overlooks Plage de la Gravette, the sandy beach beside Antibes’ old town.  She sends over a few photos, including one of this morning’s gerbe.  I have to look this word up.  Shower. In this context, it’s a shower in the sea at the departure from Antibes’ port.

“What’s the gerbe à la mer?”  I text back.  “Something more than the usual morning dip?”

“I actually have no idea,” she writes.  “I just copied the words from the program.”  Philippe later tells me the gerbe is a long-held tradition where the faithful throw bouquets into the sea, but for the moment, we are clueless.  “If you zoom in on the photo,” Judy says, “you can sort of see the boat has a statue on it.”

The morning gerbe: Is that a statue I see?

With my thumb and index finger, I try to enlarge the motorboats behind La Gravette’s break wall.  Everything turns fuzzy.

Judy’s text continues. “I think the boat was carrying the Virgin Mary to I guess Port de la Salis, so they can carry her up to the lighthouse?”  She adds, “I am unclear on the details and frankly just making stuff up here!”

I laugh.  Judy’s “making stuff up here” tosses two different fêtes into the same pot.  We’re talking about St. Pierre – but shortly Antibes will celebrate an altogether separate religious festival involving a different statue.

The first time I witnessed this other event, I swore some illustrious French manifestation (demonstration) was marching straight onto Bellevue’s doorstep. Early one Sunday morning a dozen years ago, I woke to the swelling cadence of a bass drum.  Dum-dum-da-da-dum.  Dum-dum-da-da-dum.  From the bedroom window I saw a crowd of a hundred stride along Antibes’ seaside road to the incessant drumbeat.  A few people waved banners, but the movement was orderly, and people carried themselves with striking unity and solemnity, even as they blocked the route out of town.

Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Port floats above the crowd.

Dum-dum-da-da-dum.  The cadence grew louder as the crowd reached the sandy beaches near Bellevue.  From our small, portside balcony I could discern the form of a statue floating above the throng.  The leaders stopped outside the Port de la Salis, where the pack folded into one other like an accordion.  The drumbeat stopped.  The statue, I now could see, was that of Mary and the Christ child; both wore crowns of gold.  The breeze carried strains of a male voice addressing the crowd.  After a brief pause, the ranks squeezed together with quiet purpose and disappeared into the rugged corridor of the Chemin du Calvaire, a 16th-century pathway that mounts the Cap d’Antibes.

It’s a rocky road.

Before long, I learned that I’d witnessed the annual rite in which Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Port, the protector of sailors, returns from her short, celebratory visit in Antibes’ cathedral to her habitual home on the Cap d’Antibes.  Those carrying the statue were sailors, and as tradition has it, they trekked that craggy pathway in their bare feet.

When (donning a good pair of hiking shoes) I made my own trek up the Chemin du Calvaire, I discovered a startling plaque on the exterior wall of the Chappelle de la Garoupe, the hulking, stucco chapel at the crest of the Cap d’Antibes.  The last line of the inscription said, “981 – 1981.”  This modern pilgrimage – one that my family has witnessed nearly every one of the past 12 years – has continued for over a millennium.

St. Pierre’s festivities this past weekend, then, have nothing to do with Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Port except for their shared interest in things maritime.  And when the Mary statue does return back up the Cap d’Antibes’ hill, she will head to the chapel, not to the lighthouse, as Judy suggested.  But as Philippe would say, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Shortly local friends drop by to return Lolo from her soirée pyjamas (an altogether delightful way to label a “sleepover”).  My daughter and theirs will hang out this afternoon at Bellevue.

The programme is flexible, I tell our friends, but I want to be here at 5:00 p.m. for the start of the rowing race from the port – you know, for les Fêtes de la St. Pierre.

Their faces are blank.  Is it my French?

I reconsider.  “You know les Fête de la St. Pierre?”

“That’s the one where they carry the statue up to the Garoupe?”

I cannot blame them. I’m no wiser about Toronto’s festivals – and at least they don’t mention a lighthouse.

Contestants line up for the annual rowing race in the name of St. Pierre.

Activity grows at the local port as the afternoon draws on, and just before 5:00, several pointus (traditional, wooden fishing boats) file into the bay.  Even more powerboats follow, their occupants ready to cheer on the rowers.  Supporters gather on the quay.  I spot a pair of binoculars.  Soon the starting line dismantles itself and begins to circumnavigate Antibes’ rampart walls in the direction of La Gravette.  I know Judy will be watching on the other side.

This coming Sunday morning, bright and early, I’m looking forward to that familiar cadence – dum-dum-da-da-dum – filtering through Bellevue’s shuttered windows.  It’s part of the rhythm of local life we’ve grown to appreciate.  Our town’s customs endure right before our eyes – even if I wonder how many people really understand them.

This time, though, I’ll be certain of one thing.  All the hoop-la will have nothing to do with France’s promotion into the semi-finals.

It’s Not Easy: Teen Swimsuit Shopping in Antibes

When we arrive in France’s Riviera this summer, Lolo doesn’t have a swimsuit.  It’s not because she forgot to pack it.  She simply doesn’t own one that fits.

My new teenager is growing like the queues of passengers waiting for the next French train that’s actually running.  That’s to say, quickly.  Nothing fits her anymore.  Number one on my French shopping list – once we get the food in – is a swimsuit for Lolo. Probably three swimsuits, in fact, as she needs at least one one-piece for camp back in Canada.

Finding a swimsuit in this seaside town will be easy.

Buying a few swimsuits in a French seaside town for a tall, willowy, 13-year old will be a piece of cake (or a slice of sumptuous millefeuille), I assure myself.  It will be positively simple compared to my own expeditions into swimsuit stores.  It will be a fun, joyful occasion.  We will bring the poodle.

On the day of our outing, Antibes’ Kiwi shop (Lolo’s favourite for swimwear) is closed exceptionnellementNot much is exceptional about this situation.  It simply reminds us that we are back in France.  We return to the old town a couple days later, this time without the dog.

“Bonjour!” I say to the shop attendant, because that’s what you say when you enter a French shop.

“Bonjour,” she chimes in return, fulfilling her part of the formula.

On a street boasting enormous pots of hanging petunias, across from a pharmacie and in front of the mairie, there lies Antibes’ Kiwi shop.

Lolo and I are her only customers, and she’s the only sales assistant, again a situation that is common in Antibes’ old town, and one that can make shopping experiences surprisingly intimate.  Conversation could meander, say, to where my family lives for the majority of the year, the beauty of Canada, the fact that the clerk was snowmobiling somewhere in our vast country two winters ago – Oh, it was epic! – or how her uncle moved there 20 years ago so a visit remains high on her list.  Or, our chit-chat could tread into the jurisdiction of the French language (how long I’ve studied, how tough it is) before merging into how long we’ve come to Antibes and where the attendant herself calls home.  In the end, she wraps up the can opener or doormat, or whatever it is that I’ve purchased, and that can opener or doormat will carry memories of the saleswoman down at the quincaillerie whenever I call that object into service.

In any case, Lolo and I find ourselves alone in her favourite swimsuit shop with the sole attendant, a smiling blonde woman, presiding as official greeter and knowledgeable aid to all our shopping needs.  I feel the need to explain.

“Nous cherchons un maillot de bain,” I say.  We’re looking for a swimming suit.  Maybe even two or three suits.

“Iz it for you?”  The clerk replies with interest, in English.

“Non,” I begin, when Lolo finishes my thought in French that bears no trace of my Anglophone accent:  “Oui, c’est pour moi, merci.”

The cheerful attendant does a double-take, like most people do.  My teenager speaks beautiful French and I – the mother, the one who’s meant to be in charge – don’t.  With Lolo’s tanned skin and extra-long hair, pushed as it is these days into the perfect messy bun, my kid also looks more local than I do.  She thinks this juxtaposition is hilarious.

The three-way conversation between the clerk, Lolo and me continues mostly in French, as my daughter and I flick through a few dozen varieties of swimsuits hanging on Kiwi’s double-racked wall.  Each model is displayed in a single size, while alternate sizing – the inventory you might try on and eventually purchase – is packed into drawers beneath a central display table.

Lolo has graduated from these models.

The old part of Antibes was built for the 17th century.  Most stores are, you could say, cozy, a state that lends itself to this shopping intimacy.  The setting also creates a new challenge:  Once you find an agreeable swimsuit in an acceptable colour, you must hope the hovering attendant can dig your size out of some hidden crevice.

Lolo avoids the array of girls’ swimsuits, having fully graduated to the women’s models – if in mind more than form.  She makes a few selections, and the assistant rifles through the drawers.  Voilà!  We are in luck.  It’s early in the season.  Lolo takes the suits into a curtained change cabin.

The assistant keeps flicking through options.  “Vhat about zhis?” she asks, insisting on English now that my daughter has disappeared from sight.  “Or zhis one?”  She holds a couple bikinis on their hangers.

I shake my head.  Lolo began this excursion with an open mind – she’s an easygoing ado, as the French say, with the smallest obsession over fashion – but she does have her limits.  Big busty cups obviously won’t work, but “less ample” models also can be challenging, even if I can’t put my finger on the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with it.

Lolo calls me to her change cabin.  She refuses to come out.  I draw back the curtain to see my kid wearing a simple, teal, one-piece swimsuit.  She looks beautiful.

“It’s awful,” she says. “It looks like your kind of swimsuit.”

That would be the problem I was trying to pinpoint.  Are my swimsuits that, well, mumsie?  I swallow hard and encourage my teenager to try the other swimsuits.  What else can I do?

The attendant suggests a kids’ one-piece.  “Vhat about zhis in zhe biggest size?”

The suit looks perfectly Lolo to me, light turquoise and simply cut with a contrasting lime green belt.  I slot the suit with a couple others between the curtain and the side of Lolo’s cabin.

“Mom!”  she calls.  “Don’t come in!”

The turquoise swimsuit is so Lolo . . .

“I’m not!”  I say to the curtain concealing the child to whom I gave birth.  “What do you think of these suits?”  My voice is still somehow upbeat.

“No and no” comes the resolution from the other side.

“But the turquoise one! It’s so you!”

“No it’s not!  The colours are too happy.”

Of all the excuses I never would’ve guessed that one.  Lolo loves turquoise.  Of all the suits I slip inside, I get a single “maybe” for an all-black bikini.

Several minutes later a frustrated voice emerges from the cabin.  “I can’t do the black bikini!”  The curtain shimmies to the side.  A black bikini top flops on its hanger, a tangle of silky material and cords.  “It’s too complicated.”

Why does swimwear turn us females, younger and older alike, into our own worst enemies?  The affable assistant and I never delve into personal matters – after all this time, I know nothing of the region of her birth nor does she comment on my French – because there is no bandwidth.  Finding a swimsuit is a far more wretched business than all other shopping trips.  Still the kind woman never appears to tire of Lolo and me, even as the discarded options mound on the table outside the change cabin.

. . . but this one’s the winner.

Fortunately one bikini – a model that Lolo picked herself – fits the bill.  The bandeau top is not complicated, and apparently its light pastel colours are not too happy.  In fact, the peach-and-lilac pattern brings out my daughter’s tanned skin tones, and with her messy bun even messier after the swimsuit scuffles, she wears it like a stunning French teen.

I pay for the suit and, as you do when leaving a small French shop, whether or not a bag dangles in your hand, we wish the patient clerk “Au revoir.” To see again.  You say it even if you don’t expect to.

Lolo’s new pastel bikini is perfect for the Côte d’Azur – but it won’t do in a murky Ontario lake. Our foray into the teenage swimsuit scene is not over, but a simple solution lies just over the hill.

Antibes is the elder sister to its amalgamated town of Juan-les-Pins, the younger sibling who parties a little too hard.  Antibes is the one with the cathedral and archeology museum.  Juan-les-Pins has the casino.

Both towns, though, have long, sandy beaches.  The little sister will be an ideal place to shop for a teenager’s swimsuit.  I am sure of it.  Stay tuned . . . .

Ten (More) Ways to Spot You’re in the Côte d’Azur

Let summer begin! It’s not just that the calendar has sailed past June 21, varyingly known as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and France’s Fête de la Musique, when entire cities put on their dancing shoes.

The world joins in for la Fête de la Musique.

Non, another sign of summer – at least according to our friends – is that Philippe, Lolo and I have returned to Antibes.  We’re the locals-but-not-locals in this town.  We live mostly in Toronto, but for the past decade our summers have been based here, in this coastal town of the Côte d’Azur known for Picasso, megayachts, and a crumbling rampart wall that, girding the old town against the Mediterranean Sea, has launched millions of postcards.

French Lessons is delighted to appear once again in your inboxes.  As the Med’s waves lap gently along our shoreline and the humid air curls our hair (even more), we’ve tallied up a few other ways that you know you’ve arrived in France’s delicious Riviera:

Your taxi driver wears five-inch sandals. It’s midnight, and we’ve just flown for a whole day with a dog, but there is Christelle waiting for us on the other side of passport control.  A favourite among French Lessons readers, Antibes’ beloved, six-foot redhead is punctual and sunny and, even at this time of day, she dons her five-inch heels.  This year it’s blue-and-white striped wedges, which coordinate perfectly with her skinny white jeans.  I feel a shopping trip coming on.

Did you notice the dog reference?  Nobody cares that you bring a pet into this country.  Once the immigration officer checked our human passports, I waved my sheaf of papers for Yoko.  Back in Toronto, these documents were a major group effort coordinated among Philippe and me, Philippe’s PA, our vet, our vet’s assistant, our vet’s receptionist and a Canadian federal agent with the all-important stamp.

Standing before the French passport control officer, I begged her to take a peek at my packet.  “J’ai travaillé très fort,” I said, mentioning my hard work hard, but still she shook her head.  Another agent said, “We’re not bothered by les animaux.”

Waking up after three hours of sleep is not a hardship.

You wake up after three hours of sleep – oh, the joys of east-west travel! – and, opening the shutters to peer out at dawn, you don’t mind being awake.

Something big is broken in your house. The local home services brigade, populated as it is by father-and-son shops, is always running out of time.  For us, this year’s headache is la climatisation.   Again.  After endless problems at Bellevue, our treasured but needy home, we invested a couple years ago in a commercial-grade air-conditioning system.  Somehow the thing is plugged to its gills in gunk.  The days are only reaching 33°C (91°F) at this point, but July soon will bear down.

Want to amaze your little princess?

The stuff that arrives in your mailbox is out of this world. There’s a stack of post waiting when we arrive at Bellevue, and among the lot, the magazine “Exclusive Fit:  Équipements, Design, Conciergerie” is my hands-down favourite.  The group’s motto that graces that first silky page?  De parfaitement cerner vos désirs et vos attentes.  To perfectly grab the full scope of your desires and expectations.  For the first time in several years, the translation inside this sort of sumptuous marketing material exists only in English.  What, no Russian?  This page of Exclusive Fit tempts its would-be clientele, “Would you like a fairy-tale like bedroom to amaze your little princess?”

Your backpack’s water bottle holder becomes more useful for carrying baguettes.

The message is taped inside the glass: Fermé exceptionnellement.

You go into town to buy a swimsuit and olive oil, and you come home with sunscreen.  You can never trust French shops will be open until you’re inside their doors.  As Lolo and I approach her favourite swimsuit store, the lights are out and a white grate seals the normally welcoming doorway.  A handwritten note informs us that “Le magasin sera fermé exceptionnellement . . . .”  The shop will be closed exceptionally. . . .

French store openings are like French grammar.  There are a lot of exceptions.

As for the olive oil shop, it seems to have disappeared.  Or perhaps the problem is that it’s Monday?  The words “sauf lundi” regularly grace the entrances of local shops:  Except Mondays.  Perhaps Olivier & Co is simply boarded up beyond recognition.

Your dog is allowed in the pharmacy. She’s not just allowed inside but truly welcomed.  In Toronto, Yoko can’t even set foot into the camping store.  In Antibes, the lovely pharmicienne wonders whether notre chienne would care for a little water to round out her visit?

You recognize the regulars on the beach. Our habituée is the woman with jet black hair and a dragon shoulder tattoo who sunbathes at the far edge of the beach beneath Bellevue. Philippe discovered her 10 years ago when he was perusing the bay with a new set of binoculars, and she has installed herself in the same spot ever since.  My husband can describe every detail of that tattoo.  This week he announces, “She’s not topless anymore.”

You start saying things like “She’s the mother of Hugo” rather than the more normal “Hugo’s mom.” Or you hear yourself summoning the French verb garder (to keep) with too much relish.  Out pop things like “Look, you’ve guarded that for a whole year!”

Whoops, that’s already 10. I’m not quite done:

The big one fits into the little one with a wave of the Riviera’s magic wand.

Your morning Americano – when you order it out in a French café – fits into an espresso cup.

You see a parking space – one where you can open both doors – and it doesn’t matter that it’s a mile out, you simply want to take it. Because you can.

You meet a tanned, shaggy-haired gentleman of a certain age who’s sitting on a seaside wall wearing yellow, beatnik sunglasses, and you pass pleasantries as he washes his feet in a fountain before donning his espadrilles. And you think that, honestly, he may be fully there.

I can go on – and surely you can, too.  Feel free to add your own recollections in the comments space below!

For now, though, it’s time for French Lessons to go out and, fingers crossed, actually find that bottle of olive oil.

Au Revoir: Summer 2017 on the Côte d’Azur

Lolo has adapted completely to Toronto’s time zone. Which would be brilliant news, except that she is still waking up in Antibes.

It’s a sign that summer 2017 has gone full-tilt – and is all but over. Theoretically, my pre-teen could obliterate all jet lag as we close up our Côte d’Azur home, Bellevue, and leave this beloved region for more conventional days in Canada. The over-arching reality is, I fear, that Lolo has grown accustomed to 1:00 a.m. Sensible bedtimes will remain a battle no matter where in the world we are.

The French Riviera, with its abundant sunshine and endless rosé piscines, has again worked its acclaimed magic on us. In some ways, 2017 was a summer like no other.

Perhaps the rosé piscines were a little too endless.

When French Lessons returned to Antibes in August after some days away, a sunken sailboat clung to the shoreline in the bay beneath Bellevue.

“But you missed the tornade!” Christelle cried from the driver’s seat of her taxi.

“A tornado? In Antibes?” Surely I misunderstood.

Mais oui, une tornade!” The voice of our favourite chauffeuse was rich, almost lustrous. Her highlighted red locks fluttered above the shoulders of her psychedelic maxi dress with its plunging neckline. She broke the news of the incident that happened right there on the sandy beaches, just a breath away from Bellevue. “There’s even a video!” she said.

The idea of a summertime tornado on this parched landscape is startling. Antibes’ last rains, other than the most fleeting sprinkles, came in April. Still, one resident managed to capture the recent drama on her cellphone, laughing all the while as she filmed. The sky during Antibes’ so-called tornade remained its typical, crystalline blue, while candy-striped beach parasols spun high into the air like Munchkins’ hats.

The frothing apparitions that frequently erupt on Canada’s Weather Channel suddenly seem like scenes from The Exorcist.

Meanwhile, even during Antibes’ brief tornade episode, sunbathers have packed themselves onto the sandy beaches this late summer. No one seems bothered by the trio of soldiers in full-on fatigues who make their rounds on the boardwalk, machineguns slung across their meaty shoulders. It is, after all, only a team of three guards. Last summer it was four.

The local police have stepped up their tours, too, taking evening strolls along the same boardwalk on horseback while kitted out in bulletproof vests.

“I like them,” one beachside restaurant boss told Philippe and me. “The city is putting on more rounds next year.”

Getting through the old town has become easier – if you’re a pedestrian.

There also have been major changes in traffic circulation this year, most notably through the piétonnisation of Antibes’ old town. Most of its streets are now the sole jurisdiction of the foot and the bicycle; bollards rise out of bordering routes to restrict heartier forms of traffic. In the sprawl of Port Vauban, situated at the edge of this new pedestrian district, even foot traffic is now blocked on the far-flung quay known colloquially as Billionaires’ Row. In past summers you could walk this pavement and ogle up-close at the orchids, helicopters and full-on jet engines that belong to the world’s swankiest superyachts. But in the name of security, it’s no more.

Close-up views from Billionaires’ Row are now impossible. Photo: Steve Muntz

It is true that the new circulation rules are more harmonious with the original forms of traffic intended for these centuries-old corridors. If only this summer’s move, launched June 21 and lasting into perpetuity, had been guided by such historic principles.

Many people still think twice about attending big events along the Côte d’Azur, but a greater sense of calm has emerged since the nearby atrocities of last summer. Call it time; call it new road rules. Definitely, too, call it Opération Sentinelle, under which the French Army stretches its corps to the maximum and continues to protect the whole of the country at red-alert level. As pedestrians lick ice cream cones and check their iPhones while drifting along Antibes’ old streets, a khaki jeep winds along the sole street still open to vehicular traffic in the old town. Inside sits a trio of military men decked out in camouflage fatigues and turtle-shell helmets, automatic rifles strapped to their chests.

But whatever you call it, don’t attribute the South’s relative calm to the Macron factor. There’s little love affair in this region with France’s new Président.

It’s impolite to discuss the intricacies of politics with friends, but we couldn’t help mention over the course of the summer that Macron was receiving quite a favourable brush in the overseas press. Could we go so far as to say that there was a smidgeon of French optimisme that may be bubbling up in this new era?

The summarized version of local thought on this matter? Non.

Meanwhile, if our conversations lingered too long on the forbidden subject, my accent always came to the fore. “And what about Trump?” friends asked. Suddenly les français were counting their lucky stars.

The figuier’s second crop this season was a beautiful surprise, collected here on an available beach ball paddle.

The more festive parts of summer life go on, too. Just beyond the beach boardwalk and its amped up security measures, our figuier has been more procreative than ever. After June’s unexpected abundance came a second luscious crop, its fruits dropping from the tree in swelled profusion.

Good food still punctuates life. Philippe and I were reading the chalkboard menu outside a new Antibes café recently when two diners emerged from its passageway. “Il est trop bon! Il est TROP bon!” one woman effused without the tiniest provocation. The food inside that courtyard had made her day. And this new restaurant has made my ever-growing list.

The ice cream is worth the wait at Gelateria del Porto.

The same passion exists over ice cream. In a town boasting dozens of glaciers, why do we all keep finding ourselves in the same infinite queue?

Other towns along this coastline may boast bigger parties. Leonardo DiCaprio was requesting the pleasure of Philippe and my company at the Fourth Annual Saint-Tropez Gala. Prince Albert was involved in the event, as were Cate Blanchett, Penélope Cruz, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson, Emma Stone and Madonna. Goodness knows if they all showed up. But Philippe and I were simply double-booked. Where else in the world would you find such a conundrum?

It would’ve been a pleasure.

French Lessons is apparently not alone in thinking that the Côte d’Azur – and Antibes in particular – is a special place. Word has it that the BBC has been sniffing around in our town, too. Wouldn’t Antibes be the ideal setting for a new TV series? Some locals hope not. Why make the ice cream shop’s queue even longer?

But you, dear readers, are most welcome to join us next year in Antibes, and all along the glamorous Côte d’Azur, as we again will highlight the beauty and passion and idiosyncrasies that make this place so special. A gros merci to every one of you for travelling alongside us this year. In the meantime, may we wish cheery thoughts to one another over a glass of rosé – even as the snow falls.

WWII: Antibes’ 75th Tribute for HMS Unbroken

It is a time of anniversaries. World War I’s centennial commemorations have dotted the globe. Canada celebrated its 150th. Even Lolo’s summer camp in the woods of Ontario proudly handed out t-shirts with “100” on them.

World War II anniversaries cannot yet claim three digits. Partly because of the war’s relative recentness, and partly because of its direct impact on the Côte d’Azur, parades and wreath-laying ceremonies are annual events here in late August. To be precise, on August 24, 1944 – only 73 years ago – our town of Antibes celebrated its Libération from the occupying forces.

This past spring, though, Antibes celebrated a 75-year World War II anniversary. The reason is stamped on a copper-green plate affixed to the limestone shard at the end of l’Îlette peninsula, a rocky outcrop that protrudes into the bay beside Antibes’ picture-perfect old town. During my earliest years here, that monument was simply another war relic to me – a statue marking an obscure event that happened long ago.

Over time that shard has morphed from a cold stone into a breathing story. I stumbled on the heroic adventure underpinning it in Antibes’ Archives Municipales, and shared the details here in “World War II: Two Tales of a City.” My later-in-life appreciation of history had begun.

This summer a much-reduced version of this post appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of The Good Life France Magazine.

This is the plot in a nutshell: One pitch-dark night 75 years ago, the unassuming cove beside old Antibes was the setting for a shared, high-stakes operation between the British Special Operations Executive and the French Résistance, both key forces in the eventual liberation of the Côte d’Azur. A British submarine brought two undercover radio operators into town, where they eventually filtered into the local Résistance movement. When the vessel departed these waters some hours later, it unexpectedly added a French diplomat to its passenger roster. The journey toward freedom pressed onward.

Earlier this year – on April 21, to coincide with the H.M.S. Unbroken’s landing – there was a reunion of sorts under the gaze of that limestone shard. In both French and English, the gathered group recalled the skill, determination and bravery of those who participated in this operation. Then, paying tribute in the way we know best, attendees placed poppy wreathes at the base of the monument:

The H.M.S. Unbroken submarine was part of the “Fighting Tenth” – the 10th Submarine Flotilla, based in Malta during the war:

Christopher Thirsk stumbled on this tribute after holidaying in the South of France with friends in the Eighties. Afterward his father wondered whether certain holiday snaps were taken in Antibes. He was familiar with the area, he told his son, because he’d navigated a submarine into the bay there one night in 1942 to land some agents.

The junior Thirsk was the driving force behind this year’s ceremony. His father, Lieutenant Paul Thirsk, was the Navigating Officer aboard the H.M.S. Unbroken:

The monument became a story . . . and now it connects history with the modern day. Thanks to men and women like those remembered by the silent shard, we can continue our annual celebrations of the Côte d’Azur’s Libération.

French Lessons thanks Kevin Baily, Patricia Sands and Judy Walters for sharing their springtime photos.

HOW TO SURVIVE THE FRENCH CAR POUND

French Lessons welcomes 2017’s guest contributor:  Rachael, our friend and dinner party guest whose evening ended badly.  She’d only bid us ‘bonsoir’ when she promptly returned to Bellevue’s gate.  A call to the police confirmed that yes, indeed, her car had been towed to Antibes’ pound.  Rachael drove our car home that night with plans to deal with her own, impounded vehicle the following morning.

Here Rachael shares her experience retrieving her car from the local fourrière.   It is one bit of cultural instruction that French Lessons is delighted to learn secondhand. 

 

I wear a Fitbit and it has a heart rate monitor.

As I didn’t have my first patients in Monaco until 1:00 p.m., I wasn’t too worried about the morning’s timing.  I dropped your car off at Bellevue at 10:03 a.m. and ran/jogged/yomped my way to Boulevard Wilson, knowing I could pick up coffee and a croissant en route.

I couldn’t.

The rosé and champers were flowing . . .

Arriving slightly sweaty but cheerful, I was the ONLY VISITOR at the police station.  The tubby police lady behind the glass actually seemed thankful to have company.  I cheerfully explained that I had badly parked my car the prior night and the police had taken it, and that I was a little bit sorry – but as it was my first impoundment in 17 years of living in France, I wasn’t too miffed. 

The fat lady congratulated me on my near-blemish-free record and demanded the three documents I had been told to bring:

  • My driver’s license:  check.
  • My attestation of insurance:  double check.  I had two!
  • My carte grise . . . .  Well, I had the letter that accompanied it, but LIKE ALL NORMAL PEOPLE, I kept my car registration document IN THE CAR ITSELF.

Apparently the police had never come across such a circumstance.  (REALLY??)  Thus ensued a conversation of bargaining, followed by pleading, followed by conflict resolution at a standard that would’ve made a terrorist hostage negotiator proud.

. . . as our assembled guests gazed out at Antibes’ charming old town . . .

Finally, instead of her suggestion that I yomp three kilometers to my car, then yomp three kilometers back to the police station with the registration document, and at last yomp that same three kilometers all over again to pick up MY car, the fat controller begrudgingly agreed that I could go to my car once, photograph my carte grise, and send her the proof of its existence from my phone.

The police aren’t good with technology.

No wonder this woman has no friends/customers.

My heart rate was now at 110.

So then I had to find my car.  Without a car. 

. . . and the latest mishap in the Med.

The friendless controller told me to take a bus and ask the driver to direct me to the fourrière.  I found the correct bus and paid my Euro.  The driver was super friendly, and when I asked for the fourrière, I could see sympathy emanating from him.  After a while he motioned for me to come to the front of the bus and advised that I get out at the next stop.  When I asked the handsome driver where I needed to go from that stop, he must’ve thought I was completely incapable of following a direction on a straight road.  He told me instead to stay on the bus.  Another 200 meters on, he stopped illegally on the road and let me off at the door of the fourrière.  

What a gent!  My heart rate still ran at 110 but for different reasons . . . .

Eventually the sun set, producing spectacular colours like these.

The office at the pound could have won the 2017 award for being the world’s worst looking and most inefficiently functioning flat-pack office, but that would’ve been something positive to say about it.  Inside were three women, one a school-leaver whose ineptitude was outstanding, one who shouted instead of spoke, and the third who wore a headset and looked like an air traffic controller – and boy, was she efficient.  There also was a pug who snored called Johnny.

My case, unfortunately, went to the school-leaver. 

Even though I had shown my documents to the police, I had to regive them to the child so that she could send them to the police.  BY FAX.

There was a 20-minute wait whilst the police replied. 

My car was so tantalisingly close.  Time ticked away.  It was now 11.45 a.m.  My heart rate had risen to 115.

There was a poster on the wall of the wretched office about heart attacks and the best recovery position, and worryingly, another bit of advice about electrocution.

Only at the end of the evening were we reminded that parking is a real issue on the Cap d’Antibes.

Finally the police phoned back and gave me the nod.  They started to FAX through a form, when the stupid schoolgirl pushed the wrong button.  THERE WERE ONLY TWO.  The machine stopped mid-transmission. 

I had to wait another 15 minutes for the police to fax the form all over again.  I suddenly understood why they might worry about electrocution injuries.

Finally I paid a miserable 116 Euros.  I would’ve happily paid 200 Euros if I could’ve got my car back more quickly.  And I left.

The process had taken two hours and 45 minutes.  In both the police office and the city’s pound, I’d been the only customer.  Imagine if these places had been busy!

I arrived in Monaco 10 minutes late, but luckily my first patient was 12 minutes late so I got away with it.

The moral of the story:  Don’t leave your carte grise in your car, and allow a good half-day in France to show someone three documents.

Postscript:  French Lessons expected the moral of Rachael’s story would have involved a vow to refrain from such creative parking in the future.  Perhaps the difference in our “lessons learned” simply offers a cultural insight of its own.