“Un, deux, trois . . .,” I count the blue-and-white-striped sails of little boats out in the Mediterranean bay, “. . . sept, huit, neuf, dix.” Good.
I say the numbers aloud while spying through binoculars from the arched windows of Bellevue’s library. The scene is pretty spectacular, I realize for about the thousandth time. Ten little sailboats bob around on the rippling water beneath me. Across the bay lies the medieval town of Antibes, all limestone and red-tile roofed, cinched together by the belt of its old, stone rampart walls. Beyond it, on a hill jutting into the same bay, is the star-shaped, 16th-century Fort Carré, and anchored right there at the foot of this glorious ensemble is Roman Abramovich’s 536-foot Eclipse, the world’s largest private megayacht (up until this springtime anyway).
As if this view isn’t breathtaking enough, a ribbon of the Italian Alps pokes out of the distant skyline, making the whole scene appear too sublime to be real. It’s as if someone dropped an enormous canvas from the sky in order to play a whopper of a joke on all of us onlookers – and that must be precisely why Claude Monet repeatedly took the trouble to recreate the scene on canvas.
I cannot budge from Bellevue’s library window even though chores call. The view is gorgeous, true, but somehow I feel responsible for the well-being of the kids out there in those little blue-and-white sailboats. It was my eight-year-old Lolo’s idea to enroll in the week-long stage de voile, and I was only too encouraging. Sailing is, after all, in our veins, I told her. My grandfather and brother and cousins have all been big sailors, and I took a course a couple years ago at the same school (blog post “Antibes’ École Française de Voile: Come Sail Away,” July 15, 2010). Even Edouard Muterse, founder of our Bellevue and object of my recent research, always had a sailboat tied up here from before the turn of the 20th century. In fact, he’d originally named our house after lou gargali, a particular wind that sailors encounter now and then in the early mornings.
It was absolutely set. Lolo would take the sailing course.
Lolo being Lolo, she managed to coax three local friends onto the waters with her this week. They are among the 20 children out there, all débutants – complete beginners – divided into 10 little boats and cut loose in the sweeping Mediterranean bay. In charge of this quickly scattering lot are two – only two! – moniteurs, who steam around full-throttle, to and fro, in sturdy, inflatable motorboats.
Like many parents I waited anxiously at the sailing school this morning until the kids were towed out to sea, a single-file parade of sailboats joined by short ropes connected stern to bow, stern to bow. It was, in many ways, Antibes’ own reenactment of Robert McCloskey’s acclaimed children’s book Make Way For Ducklings, the mother duck leading the way through Boston’s Public Garden Lagoon with her fuzzy handfuls Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack following directly behind, their little webbed feet paddling up a frenzy.
Now, with Bellevue’s front-row seat along this expansive stage, I can keep tabs on this set of fuzzy ducklings. Ten sails is good news. No one is lost. I rip myself away from the arched library windows and try to do something more productive. But shortly I’m back.
“Un, deux, trois . . . huit, neuf, dix,” I say again. I count aloud out of nervousness, perhaps, because no one is around to hear me. My husband Philippe has taken this pivotal moment to go golfing.
Counting to 10 takes longer this time. I have to train the binoculars around a white yacht that’s anchored just offshore here – that, and the fact that the fleet of Optimists is becoming more and more dispersed.
Optimist: It’s the perfect hope-over-reality sort of name for the oversized bathtub, kitted out with a tin-bit sail and plywood rudder, that Antibes’ sailing school uses for its pint-sized beginners. And frankly, there’s nothing bad about a touch of optimism in today’s sea of French morosité. In fact, Philippe and I gave Lolo an introductory sailing lesson last night over dinner – in English, to boot. A stray ballpoint pen became the wind direction, a napkin was the sail, and in this way we created different scenarios for our budding sailor.
“May I be excused from the table?” Lolo asked after precisely seven minutes of discussion. “I already know all that.”
So now, hovering behind the binocs, I should have no worries about my eight-year-old Optimist. Anyway, the weather is cooperating. There’s a steady wind that’s not too strong, and happily it’s pushing inland rather than out to sea. The waves are moving correspondingly toward shore, and a green flag at the beach indicates the jellyfish aren’t too bad at the moment. I needn’t worry either because my little Optimist is wearing a life vest. And most importantly of all, I’ve never heard of a moniteur actually losing a little duckling.
I can’t help myself. I’m back at the window again, face stuck into the binoculars. “Un, deux, trois . . . huit, neuf . . .” I count again. Nine sails. I’ve spotted two of Lolo’s friends, Ilan and Eros. Jack and Mack. The boys have been doing well this morning. They opted for a boat with a slightly different sail from the rest, so I’ve been able to pick them out on the bay, but it’s tough to spot Lack and Quack, Lolo and her friend Anaë. Surely the tenth boat is floating around out there somewhere. It’s probably just masked by another vessel, megayacht or otherwise. And worst case – the risk manager in me comes out again – it’s only a one-in-nine chance.
By now it’s nearly time to collect the little ducklings anyway. Jack, Lack, Mack and Quack are all coming back to Bellevue today for lunch and a swim, so I head out, tracing the sandy beaches along this side of the bay.
The blue-and-white sailboats are heading back to shore just as they left a couple hours ago, a moniteur’s inflatable mother ship towing her offspring single file behind her, a parade of miniature sailboats that looks almost too quaint against the backdrop of Antibes’ old town to contain palpable vessels. And there’s good news as I walk toward the sailing school: The charming procession contains 10 little sails.
I arrive at the school as the moniteur’s boat is pulling ashore. The sailboat directly behind him is empty. It’s empty. Surely those kids have joined other boats, I reason. The second sailboat holds the boys, Jack and Mack. The third boat is filled with kids I don’t know, as is the fourth . . .
“Mommy!” I hear Lolo’s voice. It comes not from the water’s edge but from beside me, somewhere out in the distance.
“Mommy!” she calls again as I scour hovering families and rows of sailboats parked along the beach. Then I spot her, my dear daughter, life vest on and soaked to the core. She’s holding a wooden piece of a boat.
But she’s smiling – sopping wet and even laughing. That’s all that matters. Her friend Anaë runs up behind her. She’s all smiles, too.
I don’t get the whole story as it floods out in a beau franglais between Lolo and her French friend. Something about the moniteur telling Lack to turn this way and Quack thinking he meant that, and then Lack tried to lift something that was really, really heavy, and soon water was gushing into the boat and . . . . The words of one fuzzy duckling tumble out over the lines of the other, a story emerging with a handful of U-turns.
Quite impressively, the girls managed to capsize the oversized bathtub, finding themselves bobbing beneath its overturned hull. Lolo recuperated the plywood centerboard, and Anaë found Lolo’s cap floating away, and the two girls were then whizzed back to shore in the second moniteur’s motorboat – superstar-style, the way they describe it, smiles beaming and hair flapping in the wind.
Only at night, as I put Lolo to bed, do I learn that my little Optimist actually should’ve been called the Destroyer. In the first three hours of her emerging sailing career, my daughter managed to sink the “metal and wood thingy.” That would be the rudder, I tell her – the whole steering mechanism of the boat. And now my Destroyer can’t wait for tomorrow.
Like always, just when things are getting good, it’s hard to believe we’re getting going.
“Enjoy the summer,” the latest issue of the English-speaking Riviera Reporter magazine said, “and let’s see what happens at la rentrée” (this being the famous, French “re-entry” when the whole nation returns to normality after a full-on summer season). The Riviera Reporter continued, “A considerable majority of the French feel that with all the social unrest quelque chose va péter – something is going to blow. Man the barricades!”
This summer French Lessons has done service to the simmering unrest, largely in the form of first-hand stories that flow from France’s ever-mounting taxes (Summer in the Côte d’Azur: The More Things Change . . . and Antibes’ L’Armoise restaurant: A (Delicious) Working Dinner).
By the latest news, maybe the country’s real Destroyer has been reading these posts. Just days ago, France’s Socialist government admitted the country can’t cope with more tax rises. On one hand, it has promised no new taxes (read my lips). On the other, next year’s budget is poised to sock the country with another six billion euros in new levies.
Man the barricades, indeed.
Otherwise this summer’s edition of French Lessons has chronicled what makes the Côte d’Azur so, well, Côte d’Azur – from its celebrities and headline-making news, to its history and multiculturalism, from its gastronomy to its outrageous sense of fashion. Take a cruise through the summer’s 11 posts if you’re worried you missed any of the fun:
June 15, 2013: Brittany vs French Riviera: Which is the Real France? – strikes, butter, and what makes France France
June 22, 2013: Summer in the Côte d’Azur: The More Things Change . . . – taxes and more taxes
June 28, 2013: The Châteaux of Bordeaux: France’s Hedonist Paradise – a 17th-century Carthusian monastery, two Michelin stars and overflowing, long-stemmed glasses of Bordeaux’s grands vins
July 4, 2013: French Language: Form Over Substance – manicures, cheese and the world’s most beautiful language (as corrupted by my enthusiasm)
July 12, 2013: Astérix for Foreigners – France’s famous cartoon character on the loose in our home
July 19, 2013: Monaco’s Fête Picasso: The Art of Fashion – Picasso, local history and a remarkable sense of style
July 26, 2013: The Côte d’Azur: The World’s New Silk Road – more wine, a celebrity encounter, and the epicenter of new ideas
August 2, 2013: Jewels, Fireworks and the Odd Storm: Summers in the Sunny Côte d’Azur – a jewelry heist, the annual summer storm, and one festival pyrotechnique gone very wrong
August 9, 2013: Bellevue: On the Heels of World War II– a newly identified visitor sheds light on Bellevue’s wartime past
August 16, 2013: Readers Write In: French Lessons’ Summer Postbox– the fabulous French Lessons community has its say
August 23, 2013: Antibes’ L’Armoise restaurant: A (Delicious) Working Dinner – the French work ethic, gastronomy and a few more taxes thrown in for good measure
But now France’s rentrée is our re-entry, too, and back to Toronto our family of three must go. It’s all change. September, I think, must be the New Year. There’s hardly anything new about January.
The going has improved for our Optimist, by the way. By the end of the weeklong stage de voile, Lolo has figured out the basics, saying that she sailed so close to Mr Abramovich’s Eclipse that she could’ve almost touched it. I’m sure the Russian oligarch was delighted by her company (and presumably he backed his handlers off from launching the megayacht’s onboard missile defense system). What’s more, the sailing course also has shown Lolo her powers as a French translator for a couple English-speaking kids – and she has come away with a coveted, passport-sized document entitled “Certification.”
Her first driver’s license, aged eight. She hugs the little plastic-covered wallet to her chest in these final minutes at the sailing school. “How old were you, Mommy, when you got your first driver’s license?” she asks.
Okay, she has a point. As I gather up the flock to head back to Bellevue for the final afternoon of a full-blown kids’ camp, Lolo casts her eyes back out over the Mediterranean bay. She says with good determination in her treble voice, “Next year I want to do windsurfing.”
Now, as we all sit out the long winter months together waiting for the next season of sailing – and French Lessons – to begin again, perhaps you, dear reading community, share my very thought: I can hardly wait.