Celebrating America’s Birthday – à la française

Cap Ferrat is vers trente-cinq pourcent russe, the mayor says of his elite electorate. The towering Frenchman pauses in his reply to my question, then backtracks. The community is about 35% Russian or Kazakh or Uzbek, he says – people who come from that region.

The gently spoken giant continues to define the neighbourhood. Italians make up about 25% of the seaside town. (Their border is a long leap to the east.) There’s a smattering of English who’ve been here for ages. But the French – as they die, he says, they can no longer afford to live on the peninsula.

A small handful of us crowd around the mayor this evening on the elegant terrace of the five-star Grand-Hôtel du Cap Ferrat. Standing beneath wide, canvas parasols, our panoramic view is worthy of its celebrity reputation. The hotel’s exotic gardens sprawl beneath us. Beyond them lay the rocky shoreline, the glittering Med and the megayachts that float regally between Monaco and Nice.

Est-ce qu’il y a des Américains et des Canadiens ici? I can’t help asking about Americans and Canadians living on Cap Ferrat. Tonight of all nights the detail seems relevant.

Practically none, the mayor says with – was it a twinge of nostalgia? The fiscal laws have changed too often in recent years.

Cap Ferrat’s mayor highlights the countries’ special relationship.
Cap Ferrat’s mayor highlights the countries’ special relationship.

Moments ago, Cap Ferrat’s mayor was addressing about 60 of us members and invitees of the so-called American Club of the Riviera. Assembled on the terrace of one of the Riviera’s most celebrated hotels in one of the region’s most prestigious communities, we sipped champagne from slender glasses while the mayor offered a rather loving account of the long and special history between our two nations, France and the United States. If I understood his words correctly (French remains difficult in more nuanced discussions; the instant my mind wanders, I’m punted out of the conversation into left field), freedom was a theme of his talk. But that makes sense as tonight the American Club of the Riviera is celebrating Independence Day, the Fourth of July, on the day itself.

I’ll come clean. I didn’t want to come tonight. Lolo and I were landing at Nice Côte d’Azur Airport just beforehand, with a week’s worth of luggage. More profoundly, I’ve always held misgivings about these types of events. I’d rather integrate, not segregate. I’d rather understand, as best I can, the reality of life here in the Côte d’Azur – as real as it ever can be, of course. “Going local” is how I’ve always tried to approach life outside my native US, whether living in London or Johannesburg or now Antibes and Toronto. The last thing I needed on the Fourth of July in France was to wave the good ol’ Star and Stripes with a bunch of Americans.

But Philippe, my Canadian husband, had other ideas. He wanted to make the effort tonight. He hardly cared about the Fourth. He simply wanted to find a golfing partner.

So I obliged. On the invitation of an active American Club member who was out of town, we made our plans. Both Philippe and Sabrina, our beloved French au pair, met Lolo and me at the airport, where we went our separate ways. Philippe looked appropriately festive in a blue summer suit with a bright yellow, linen shirt. He brought my red dress so I could do a quick change in the hotel’s white marble vestiaire. Now all red and yellow, we look like one of America’s great success stories: McDonald’s.

The Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat is one of the most prestigious addresses in the Côte d’Azur. . .   Photo:  Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat
The Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat is one of the most prestigious addresses in the Côte d’Azur. . . Photo: Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat

So far, though, the most American thing about tonight has been – well, us. I’ve met a bunch of guests, only two of whom were fellow countrymen. I’ve learned a whole lot about the special friendship, and the economic and political leanings of Cap Ferrat’s jet-set constituency – or I’ve done my best anyway. Philippe, meanwhile, hasn’t found a single person who even enjoys golf.

Wafting around in this gorgeous but supremely un-American setting on the Fourth of July, we are finally urged (in American-accented English!) to head to our assigned tables. The dining room oozes sophistication with its soft, neutral tones and pots of white orchids serenely lining the walls. Broad, round tables are draped in white linens and set with shimmering wine glasses and silver cutlery. We go in search of Table 2.

People often have asked how I celebrate important US holidays while living abroad. Does the Fourth of July count in this roster, I wonder? Squashed between Philippe’s own Canada Day (July 1) and Bastille Day, the French national holiday that envelops our every breath here on July 14, we’ve taken to celebrating the three nations’ birthdays in one, single pyrotechnic feast – on July 14, of course. Anyway, I’ve grown cautious about big Fourth of July celebrations abroad ever since an English friend playfully labeled the holiday “British Thanksgiving”.

. . . where, among other things, the panoramic view is breathtaking.  Photo:  Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat
. . . where, among other things, the view through its exotic gardens is breathtaking. Photo: Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat

Table 2 at this year’s American Independence celebration with the American Club of the Riviera is populated by a French couple, a Quebecois-French couple, a German-English couple, a German woman and an American woman. Besides this other American, I’m surrounded by foreigners to these festivities. As a table we discuss our affiliations with the US. Some have worked there for a few years. Others simply like a good party.

The American Club of the Riviera used to be more American, the English woman says, almost apologetically. She’s beautiful, dressed in red and authentic sparkle. She and her German husband joined the club for the fun.

The other American woman, it turns out, isn’t a member of the American Club either. She grew up in Downers Grove. Downers Grove – so this side of Table 2 learns from our animated conversation – is in northern Illinois, a handful of cornfields away from where I grew up. Joy shares the fair complexion and broad cheekbones of my Swedish step-relatives. She hands me her calling card, printed jointly with her husband’s name.

George didn’t want to come tonight, my new American friend says. He was afraid the event would be too American.

I smile (as Americans do), though I understand far more than she realises. I also am beginning to appreciate how misplaced this fear was. I inspect the card in my hands.

But your husband is George! I say suddenly. He writes papers about history and the military. You live in Antibes! He’s been studying the military history there for years!

Joy is nodding, smiling cautiously. I carry on. I’ve been emailing with your husband for a couple years now!

This comment intrigues the majority of Table 2 more than it should’ve. I’ve never actually met George, I hasten to say, but his name remains in my research files.

To the non-Americans sitting around this table, the US must appear surprisingly small and interconnected.

Dinner at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap Ferrat is, I must report, anything but American. I’m hardly complaining. Chef Didier Anies ranks among the esteemed class of craftsmen who carry the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Basically put, he’s best of class. He rustles up Crème de Petits Pois, Œuf Mollet, Tartine d’Aubergine, Magret Fumé et Parmesan, Herbes Potagères – the most delicious-ever concoction of pea soup, soft boiled egg, eggplant and smoked duck with parmesan, all seasoned with fresh herbs – in the place where, at a more typical Fourth of July dinner, you might find a bag of Ruffles with ranch dip.

Food is, after all, key to celebrations. If there’s one American holiday I’ve always observed no matter where in the world I’ve lived, it’s the food-fest of all foods, Thanksgiving. (By Thanksgiving, I mean the proper US one – not the half-baked Canadian version that takes place a month too early.)

Thanksgiving is all about food. Americans around the world – this one included – go to enormous lengths to unearth whole turkeys, fresh cranberries and canned pumpkin. We become charismatic about the occasion, joining together disparate groups small and large, fellow countrymen and foreigners alike, to celebrate this annual day of feasting. And no one turns down an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal – even if I find myself concocting a story about pilgrims and Indians, turkeys and corn, to create some significance for the festivities.

As I search in vain for the American in this American event on Cap Ferrat, the main course arrives. In place of burgers and hotdogs, potato salad and corn-on-the-cob, comes Daurade “à la Plancha”, Chutney de Tomate au Gingembre, Navets, Pignons, Estragon – a delicately salty white fish accompanied by tomato and ginger chutney, turnips, pine nuts and tarragon.

I’m so not missing the US.

Talk at Table 2 turns to football. Such conversation would hardly be unusual at a Fourth of July picnic, except that tonight’s football is played with a round ball – and, well, the US already has been knocked out of the World Cup. But tonight’s dinner began during the second half of a crucial (at least for this part of the world) quarter-final game: Germany vs France.

Does anyone know who won? Philippe asks with some urgency.

Germany did, the German says a little too quickly. It is a statement, without a fragment of hoopla attached. Beside him sits the French-French couple. The German insists his country’s victory is no problem because the couples are all good friends.

Before there’s any question of crowd control, the server presents Baba au Rhum Tradition – a sweet sponge cake soaked in rum that might take the place of chocolate cake or s’mores or Jell-O pudding on the Fourth of July in the US of A. Now that we’re all talking sport, I encourage Philippe to pursue the issue that brought us to Cap Ferrat tonight in the first place. Does anyone here play golf?

No, no one at Table 2 plays golf.

The Fourth of July wraps up without the usual bang. That’s to say, in a country obsessed with festivals pyrotechniques that stretch through its towns and villages literally the whole of the summer season, not a single flare mounts skyward on Cap Ferrat this evening of July 4. Not that Philippe and I expected anything. In making our reservations, we understood that any fireworks popping into the night sky undoubtedly would be thanks to partying Russians.

Which, I suppose, is appropriate for this occasion.

Finally I spot the red, white and blue.
Finally I spot the red, white and blue.

The tables begin to disperse. Only now do I spot a fragment – a true hallmark – of the Fourth of July in our midst. Having spent the mealtime focusing on my tablemates, I failed to notice the table itself. At its center is a low, circular bowl containing red roses, white calla lilies and some genre of blue flower that I can’t identify. (Can any of you?)

In the corner of the room, Philippe is engaged in a last-minute conversation with a couple I haven’t met. I join them. She’s Parisian. He’s from London – but his accent is hardly British.

Where are you from originally? I ask.

Where exactly?

Rogers Park.

In another weird case of the US of A being a small, interconnected land, Rogers Park is a few shopping malls east of Downers Grove – and just the launch of a bottle rocket away from my alma mater. But these days Alan and his Parisian wife spend their summers in Antibes – just up the road from our Bellevue.

What’s more, the two men are delighted they’ve found each another. They are deciding where to play a round of golf.

12 thoughts on “Celebrating America’s Birthday – à la française

  1. The blue flowers look like African violets, or possibly some kind of violet.

    Always love hearing about your menus and do like most foods, but think I’ll have to say, “Hail to the United States and the Fourth of July” and choose Ruffles with french-onion dip in place of the soup you described. Obviously am not terribly sophisticated.

    And remind Philippe that you are a wonderfully supportive wife——glad to hear he found a golfing partner.


  2. Your 4th of July seemed more exciting then ours. Thanks for sharing.
    Here in MN., after dark the sky was very much alive. The new puppy we were dog sitting, acted as though he had been around for years hearing all that noise. What’s up with that?

  3. It sounds as though 3 Illinoisians were the “official” representatives for the U,S, at this event! Congrats!. Truly, I loved this story and but was getting worried that your husband was never going to make par in his quest for a golf partner. However, you saved the best to the last sentence- a happy ending.

  4. Love your 4th of July, but ours was a true American one, with July 3rd betting on a perfect trifecta at the horse races and July 4th eating a perfect Medium Rare steak, watermelon (of course) and ice cream trifle for dessert. Oh and after that we played a fun game with my relatives called “beer pong”, and rustled up some old black cat firecrackers and bottle rockets. “God Bless America”

    I think the purple flower in the middle of the arrangement is a hydrangea?

    1. Watermelon – and the good ol’ seed spitting contest! How could I have forgotten to mention THAT?

      Welcome to French Lessons, Abby!

  5. Love the post – although I take exception to your description of “half-baked” Canadian Thanksgiving. We love Thanksgiving! – Erin

    1. Ahh, the Canadian comment. I hardly mean to offend – but honestly. Let’s just say I’ve never been asked “IF” we’re celebrating in the US!

      Thrilled to have you reading, Erin!

  6. *. Love the Canadian Thanksgiving comment and response. One is certainly asked IF one is celebrating!! There is zero assumption tthat one is celebrating.
    Rob G Toronto

  7. I too grew up in Rogers Park or as they say, West Rogers Park in Chicago. And I believe that you went to Northwestern University in Evanston. Is that true? My husband, Bill and I, met there on the tennis courts on Sheridan Road. They now have been demolished and relocated into a fancy indoor facility so the teams can practice year round. As you recall, Sheridan Road is no place to be in the winter. We just celebrated our 60th reunion this year on June 11. Marge Johnson

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