It has been a bizarre summer. Security problems, and all their cultural complications, have meant that the Summer of 2016 in the Cote d’Azur has been more than a little off.
Bookings and revenues have plunged 10-15% across the region since the Nice attacks in July. Significant but not disastrous, is what people say. Many blame the government for the unrest, and as the French population heads to the polls next springtime, they grumble about the possibilities. Could it even be Président Hollande vs. ex-Président Sarkozy? The same-old, same-old has unleashed a sentiment akin to that of a Clinton vs. Trump America: People are disgusted.
Or we can paint a picture of the current vibe. The last Friday night in August – technically still the high season in the Côte d’Azur – Philippe and I wandered through Juan-les-Pins, our neighbouring town that normally throbs with a tangle of locals, tourists and out-and-out partiers. At Le Crystal, the storied café-bar that tumbles onto a large wedge of sidewalk in the centre of this sprawl, more tables lay empty than full. The sidewalks were free-flowing. At one point we stumbled into a handful of machine guns, all held by camouflage-suited young men wearing red berets. I tripped backward and gawked. Then I asked one of the soldiers if I could take his photo.
Desolée, Madame, he said in a kind but certain voice. Politely no.
The troubles have painted a dull sheen over the glittering French Riviera, no matter how you look at it. For our last post of this, our tenth season(!), we are delighted to leave you with the latest French Lessons grab bag of the weird and wonderful, the funny and fabulous, the cringing and the downright crazy in France’s legendary Côte d’Azur:
Not unexpectedly, we caved. Okay, I caved. I put the kibosh on our outing to the fabulous Festival d’Art Pyrotechnique in Cannes – despite the encouragement to attend by many commenters here. Sorry. We had every intention of continuing our annual visit to the best firework spectacles ever, but there was something alarming in the formula of fireworks + beaches + crowds + the South of France. The problem was that we’d already invited local friends to join us.
Would you go? I asked Christelle, our favourite red-haired and impossibly high-heeled taxi driver, the one who never gets behind her wheel without a flowing summer dress, movie-star-big sunglasses, and a breezy attitude on life.
Numbers have been way down at all the firework festivals this year, she said. It was true in Nice, Juan-les-Pins and Cannes. She suggested watching the show from a boat.
In other words, non. She wouldn’t go.
I emailed our local friend Véronique about a proposed change in our fireworks plans. Why not a simple dinner on Bellevue’s terrasse instead?
“MERCI pour diner chez vous!” she wrote back. Véronique was unusually ecstatic about this invitation. Here’s why:
Security angst became a self-fulfilling prophecy. While Philippe, Lolo and I drove through Northern Ireland a couple weeks ago, completely oblivious of the world of the Côte d’Azur, Véronique and her family dined on the sands of the Garden Beach Hotel in Juan-les-Pins. The sun had long set when a motley crowd ran toward them on the beach, crying, “Courrez! Il y a un attentat!” Run! There’s an attack!
What happened next was pure reflex from the Nice tragedies as well as the Paris attacks in November. Véronique grabbed the hand of her 11-year-old daughter. Her husband and her mother jumped from the table, too, joining the crowds that funneled onto a stairway from the beach up to the first floor of the hotel. In the fray Véronique’s mother tripped on the stairs. People continued to mount the steps, walking right over her.
There were cries of a second attack. This time the venue was Le Crystal, the renowned café-bar just over the road. The horde ran back down the stairs and hid in the hotel’s basement. Social media reported “attentat à Juan.” Attack in Juan-les-Pins.
In the end, the hysteria arose from a couple firecrackers tossed from a car – or perhaps it was the backfire of a fancy sports car’s motor. But the result was undeniable. Eighty people were injured. Véronique’s mother was black-and-blue with two broken ribs. And some imbecile had stolen her handbag.
MERCI, Veronique wrote about our new dinner plan. No wonder.
It’s figs galore! If we had postponed our dinner plans with Véronique and her family by a couple of days, we could’ve served them figs. Figs for the entrée, main course and dessert. Figs to take home in loot bags afterward. Having taken a year off production last summer, our figuier is going gangbusters. An equal crop and more awaits on its branches. We are in heaven.
The burkini arrives. The other thing that has appeared this summer in the Côte d’Azur is the burkini. When we first learned of the no-burkini laws, we knew they were at once absurd and poisonous. The news could only get worse . . . and it did. Meanwhile, sales of the all-covering female swimwear soared.
And thus France – and in particular, the South of France – again entered the international headlines for all the wrong reasons. The occasional burkini has shown up on the sandy beaches outside Bellevue, but we’ve not seen much stir. In fact, Philippe chatted with one of the lifeguards on duty the other day in the direct gaze of a burkini. Its wearer went merrily about her beach time.
The lifeguard reflects: Comment s’est passé l’été? How’s the summer been? Philippe asked the strapping lad who surveyed the beaches that afternoon in the vicinity of the burkini. His whole physique was worthy of Baywatch.
The men shot the breeze. It turns out that lifeguarding in Antibes – and in the rest of France – is hardly a seasonal job, occupied by champion swimmers and CPR-trained film extras. Instead, most all French lifeguards are des pompiers. Professional firemen. The other lifeguards are pompier réservistes. (Imagine the cost! And what does it say about French labour laws and the corresponding annihilation of casual employment?)
The men returned to Philippe’s original question about how the lifeguard found this summer.
Bizarre was the lifeguard’s word. Just like mine. There were the good and the bad about this summer, he said. After the Nice attacks, the beach population shrank. Many tourists stayed away, especially the Americans. The good news was that there were fewer accidents this summer.
And the bad news? Philippe asked.
There were fewer gorgeous tourist chics chatting him up.
The pooch pulls, too. Which brings us neatly to the place where this summer’s series of French Lessons began: Yoko, our beloved miniature poodle pup, and our new prop for making connections in this land. As anticipated, she certainly has launched some conversations with the locals.
Earlier this summer we chatted with the young attendant of Antibes’ ferris wheel, a temporary, open-cart and somewhat reduced version of the London Eye. Could we bring our dog?
Normalement non, he said. He waved us through anyway. (Yoko – firmly clutched by Philippe – seemed to enjoy soaring into the blue sky, but when the revolutions came to an end, there was no way – uh-uh – she was leaving that basket.)
One evening along Antibes’ beach boardwalk, we met an affable, dog-walking couple because of Yoko, who swiftly repositioned herself behind my legs. She was afraid of the couple’s Chihuahua. Their teacup Chihuahua. The animal was about a third of her size.
Yoko’s leash has been the other point of entrée. Hardly a brute, our poodle has gone through three this summer. The last one was chain.
What is it with Canadian dogs? our gentle, French dog-sitter wondered. Why do they have to pull on their leads? Our sitter herself has the most-docile-ever yellow lab. It never, ever tugs, she told us. Its manners are far more reserved.
Ditto the good etiquette of a young, curious pug we met along the boardwalk several nights ago. But that dog wasn’t even on a leash. The pug hasn’t ever been on a leash, his fairly inebriated owner explained, having lifted himself from a beachside bench that he shared with a few buddies and a healthy collection of beer cans. This (French) pug is so well-behaved, it never has needed a leash.
Pamela Druckerman’s book French Children Don’t Throw Food springs to mind. I think I have a new title in me.
In any case, our pooch is about to rediscover her Canadian roots. After a Côte d’Azur summer filled with fancy restaurant, shopping and ferris wheel outings, I fear she’ll soon believe she’s a second-class citizen.
With that, it’s a summertime wrap. Time to stash a few figs for the road and cross back over the sea.
A gros merci to all our smart and dedicated readers! Thank you for donning your straw hats and travelling with us this summer. It was a bizarre season, for sure, but also one filled with the countless joys that populate this alluring corner of the world. I’m already looking forward to the adventures we’ll share next year as French Lessons springs into its second decade. One thing is certain: Bizarre season or not, the stories promise to be anything but ordinary!