“Jeh-muhauh?” Serena’s treble voice calls from the small bathroom just inside Bellevue’s front door. “How do you flush the toilet?”
I push open the door. Philippe’s seven-year-old granddaughter is standing beside the loo, staring wide-eyed at two shiny buttons on the bathroom wall.
“Well there’s a big flush and a little flush,” I say.
I needn’t embellish. Serena delights herself in working out their respective purposes. She pushes the little button and marches off, britches barely done up, calling out to her older sister through the echoing corridors.
Et voilà, the cross-cultural curiosities begin. Serena and her family are visiting during my family’s first ten days back in Antibes. I’ve been quizzing her and nine-year-old Elizabeth for the last hour or so – from the moment our taxi swerved onto the motorway at Nice’s Côte d’Azur Airport. Did it look like we were still in Canada?
Silence. I was expecting some observation about madcap driving along the roads that tangle between the airport and our summer home, Bellevue. The girls might’ve even highlighted that we suddenly began speaking French to include Éric, our taxi-driver friend, in the conversation. But no.
We’d been expecting Éric’s redheaded wife Christelle at the airport. I missed the chance to measure the six-or-so inch heels she wields with no visible effort between the brake and accelerator when she whizzes along France’s jammed motorways. But tonight we found Éric waiting for us and he, too, was all jazzed up in slate blue suede loafers that coordinated perfectly with the curvilinear design of his white linen shirt. My husband Philippe followed the girls’ 4×4 in a second vehicle with his son and more luggage.
There’s a new, direct rail link between Marseilles and London, I told Éric while cruising the autoroute beside him. I know he’s a fan of absolutely everything about his hometown, from its storied football team to its slushing accent. No need to change trains in Paris anymore to reach the South of France!
The man from Marseilles put on a baffled face before grinning. Why would anyone ever want to go à Londres? he asked.
Elizabeth finally spotted a difference. The trees were bigger in France.
All five of us glanced through the 4×4’s windows. A straggly forest of pines flanked that section of the motorway. Even Éric was surprised.
Eventually we entered our mid-sized city of Antibes. Heading into town beneath two columns of plane trees, I asked again. Did our young visitors think we were still in Canada? Or did Antibes look different than Toronto? Éric urged the girls on, too. We were eager for their fresh takes.
There are palm trees, a little voice said from the back seat. The buildings are shorter, said another. It stays warm at night.
Given all the mental juice expended in the taxi just moments ago – with far from famous results – Serena’s observation about the big and little flush is a real, ah-ha moment. Éric would’ve loved it.
In truth, I appreciate it, too. Paul Theroux quoted a Malawian proverb in his acclaimed Dark Star Safari, and the notion struck me from the moment I read it: “The visitor usually brings a sharp knife.” Numbness is a downside of merging into the summertime scene in this place. Little by little, the eccentricities no longer take me by surprise. But for the moment, having wrapped myself in goose-down for the whole of a relentless Canadian winter, the warmth of the Côte d’Azur, and the glam of a taxi driver’s blue suede shoes, again impress me.
A couple weeks ago in Toronto a friend disclosed that he’s writing a feature article about Uber. He’s actually doing research by driving his own Uber cab. Come to think of it, I should ask him what he wears on these journeys.
Another colleague sitting around that same table in Toronto mentioned his son’s recent trip to Cannes for the film festival. There, among the splendor of the Riviera, his son tapped his Uber app and was offered a choice: Uber Car or Uber Chopper? Only seven minutes to Nice Airport, for a mere 100-some Euros.
The dozen of us listening to this story let out a collective gasp. Only in Cannes! Only in the gaudy and glamourous Côte d’Azur!
The son chose the helicopter.
In these first, delicious weeks back in Antibes, I like to think my knife is as sharp as any visitor’s. I revel in seeing the bougainvillea is in its shocking, fuchsia bloom. I admire the juxtaposition of bikini-clad sunbathers who can behold traces of brilliant snow in the distant Alps. Hélas, the early weeks are also the time when we discover all the pool toys have sprung leaks and the new rental car stinks like an ashtray. Must change it.
But as our days continue in this place, I will again become less surprised by the Côte d’Azur’s beauty and its quirks. I know that’ll be the case. But I’ve been here before, both physically and philosophically, and I have tricks to keep my blade at the sharpening block.
As we re-root ourselves, I’ll wander the local streets in perpetual wonderment, collecting those ah-ha, dual-flush and Uber Chopper sparks on little scraps of paper. A string of visitors over the coming months will offer up their own gems while my ten-year-old Lolo delights in pointing out the us-versus-them discrepancies for Mom’s blog.
And I always can rely on Philippe. My husband’s Quebecois accent seems to open doors around here, winning allies in situations that befuddle French locals and visitors alike – such as how one sufficiently enthuses a French carpenter to show up for a job, and how to find a place to ditch a rental boat for a few hours within St Tropez’s teeming harbour (and for free, at that). Only the chap at the dry cleaner’s refuses to be charmed by this long-lost Quebecker cousin. The accent, he says, is meant for des bûcherons. Lumberjacks.
And so we’re back. Tonight Samantha emails me from just across the Cap d’Antibes. “Ça y est les vacances!” she writes. Let summer begin!
Welcome back – deux bisous – to French Lessons’ returning readers, and a cheery coucou to new ones. I’m looking forward to spotting the differences with you this season – whether you come along by Uber Car, Uber Chopper or, as the case may be, Uber Armchair.