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.)
- 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.
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).
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.
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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.