The seaward doors gape open at the quirky house on Antibes’ bay. Sheer white curtains waft outside, fluttering like twin ghosts on the breeze. As I trickle by on my paddleboard, I chuckle at the image. They used to hold levitations inside that home.
This season, though, the folks lazing on the balcony at this modest house did not include the mystic. She had a long-let, we learned. The American did not make it to France this year.
My paddleboard and I bounce over the swells. The winds are variable this early evening, but the current mostly pushes me home, which is useful. Down the coastline, the Russian villa perches, postcard perfectly, on a prominent, rocky patch. For much of this pandemic-centered summer, the stone mansion has retained an air of anticipation whenever I paddled by. White-clad housekeepers totted spray bottles, and white blooms filled the balcony pots. At one point, the terrace furniture covers disappeared. The housekeepers stopped spraying and started folding napkins. Today, though, no one is about – not even the housekeepers. One pot has lost its white flowers.
This season, more than any other during French Lessons’ 15 years in Antibes, the bay off our home, Bellevue, has been our theatre. And why not? While a virus hems in regular life, the waters of the Med expand at our feet. The ease of the sea mirrors the simplicity that took hold of life at the beginning of the outbreak. Our calendars cleared. Our expectations mellowed. When the chance arose to travel from Canada to France, we were simply grateful to set foot in our normal summertime home.
Paddleboarding – basically a platform, an oar, and a bit of balance – is all about that simplicity. The ease of the board’s movement, and the gentleness of its carriage, have matched the tempo of this unusual summer. The other day when I set out from our rocky beach, the-woman-with-the-shoulder-tattoo warned me about the méduses. What stunned me wasn’t the jellyfish. It was her. To Philippe and me, this sunbather was our bellwether. Summer officially began at Bellevue when the-woman-with-the-shoulder-tattoo turned up at the far end of the beach. (A decade ago, when the same woman had worn only half her swimsuit, Philippe was busy mastering his new binoculars. The coincidence of these two events is a standing joke.)
“Soyez prudente of the méduses,” our bellwether told me during the early days of this summer, when collective concern underpinned life’s renewed freedoms. As I returned that day from my paddle, Philippe himself was chatting with the woman he’d watched, year after year from afar. (Thankfully there were no grand revelations.)
The swells relent for a moment and I steady myself to survey the midline of the Cap’s escarpment, spotting a favourite Provençal villa with its soft pastels, long shuttered windows, and statuesque cypress trees. Nearby lies a geometric residence, its white walls made starker by the sun’s intensity.
If you can see me, I can see you. How beautiful is this simple truth! It was my rule when young Lolo set out in the bay with me watching from Bellevue’s terrace – but equations always works in reverse. From the street, the Cap d’Antibes’ villas shut out motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians with iron gates and towering hedges, but what villa blocks its view of the sea? If you can see me, I can see you. Maneuvering the waves, I take in the old-fashioned, Provençal-style mansions with stone-and-warm stucco façades, red-tiled roofs, and often turrets; dotted among them are modern, Mediterranean-style residences with rectangles of windows and white. The villas nestle into layers of green – palms, cedars, eucalyptus, oleanders and, of course, the Cap’s signature parasol pines. From the sea I spot flowering hedges, carefully positioned terraces, sometimes even a sparkling chandelier – and all homes, no matter their fashion, position their widest faces onto the sea.
This summer Antibes’ bay has been our theatre from the shoreline, too, with Bellevue’s terrace offering us box seats. Back in their day, the realities of war filtered begrudgingly into the Riviera’s renowned joie de vivre, and today the waters sustain that parallel. There’s a pandemic, but it’s happening elsewhere. A typical day in our bay brings the usual morning and afternoon sailboat parades from the local school:
On one morning (as described in a July post), two guys chose this bay to shoot a marketing video for the summer’s hottest new toy, an electronic surfboard. Another afternoon brought ferocious gusts from the east – and a festival of kitesurfers who deserved their own marketing footage. Philippe’s quick finger caught the acrobatics:
One evening Katara, the 408-foot superyacht belonging to the former Emir of Qatar, drew up and anchored in our bay. Its size and shape so resembled that of a cruiseliner that one might have thought the pandemic was over – except that Katara parked in the bay for a very private and princely purpose: to practice take-offs and landings of the yacht’s resident helicopter.
Our bay has offered plenty of pandemic-friendly entertainment this summer, but my personal favourite remains the paddleboard. After the Russian villa, the coastline notches inward, giving rise to a string of rocky beaches that plunge from the Cap’s ring road. These nooks, some more private than others, offer respite to swimmers, sunbathers, and pique-niqueurs.
I take stock of the wind and waves here, beneath the iconic Restaurant de Bacon (beloved by A-listers in normal years) and inland from a rocky islet called the Grande Grenille. On calm days I stretch out on the board and close my eyes. Sweet, coconut sunscreen wafts over me as the sea slaps the underside of the paddleboard and rocks me in impulsive patterns. This summer sounds from the shore rarely pierced my cocoon – fewer wedding parades honked their way around the Cap, and fewer sirens blared their distinctive E-flat, B-flat, E-flat, B-flat to cut through traffic bouchons. Instead, this summer’s soundtrack was the cicadas – particularly in midsummer when the temperature and humidity swelled, and the cigales buzzed and throbbed in huge puffs of parasol pines just inland. The Cap d’Antibes’ peninsula became a giant rattle.
Today’s waters aren’t calm, but their crests and dips neutralise one another. I won’t go anywhere quickly, but still I choose to sit rather than recline. The cigales have softened their pulsating chorus in the waning heat, and instead I pick up the whoosh of incoming flights – Air France, EasyJet, and private planes – as they skirt the tip of the Cap on their final approach to Nice Airport. Meanwhile, just beyond the Grande Grenille islet, motorboats nip and swerve through undulating waters.
I chuckle to myself. Just as this bay offers respite during today’s viral battle, it helped assuage the scars of World War II. Last month the guardian at the local Port de la Salis told me about a large stockpile of deactivated explosives sunk into the waters beyond the Grande Grenille. The horrors, chucked into the sea during a massive clean-up operation, lie about 20 meters below the surface. Today’s merry daytrippers surely don’t realise they’re tearing up the waters over an enormous metal graveyard.
A man swims up to my paddleboard. His sudden appearance jolts me. My first thought is, unfortunately, Covid. Wet, grey hair clings to his scalp and frames his round face, and from behind goggles he strikes up an amical conversation. He’s doing his usual swim, he says, from the rocky shoreline to the Grande Grenille. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he says, waving a dripping hand at the sunshine and the waters and everything that surrounds us. “And pas de méduses.”
The méduses, it seems, are a local conversation starter. We talk about the jellyfish and how the wind and waves carry them about as he rounds the tip of my paddleboard. “Once there was a requin out here – right here,” he says, pointing to the spot where we float.
“Un requin!” I say, the chitchat turning urgent. “Quand?” When was there a shark here?
“Biggest scare of my life!” he says, grinning.
“Il y a longtemps?” A long time ago?
“Un blah-blah requin,” he says. (Why isn’t my French perfect after two decades of trying?) “Only a blah-blah shark, but it looked like a shark! Fright of my life!” The man begins to drift away.
“Il y a longtemps?”
“Oui, oui, il y a longtemps,” and with that, his face hits the water and he continues toward the Grande Grenille.
I linger, daring to dangle my toes over the edge of the board. The water is so refreshing and – what is it? – soft. The sea feels soft. It sprays me as I float on my board and absorb the world. At the end of any summer, I savour Antibes to its fullest – and this summer is shorter than the others. I’m not ready to leave. Non, I’ve not made peace with the slapdash mask-wearing in parts of the Côte d’Azur, but we have found our comfort zone. Host gifts coming through Bellevue’s front door have included a special, French purifying room spray containing myrrh, sweet marjoram, red mandarin, and 38 other essential oils. Other gifts were our own, official Antibes-Juan-les-Pins face masks, an exclusive issue for full-time residents who collected the facewear after braving lengthy queues and bureaucratic paper trails that elicited their vital stats, phobias (logical or not), and the contents of their most embarrassing dream. I hate to think, as a few friends have said, that we are leaving France at a good time – infection rates are taking a turn – but we are over-the-moon grateful for this spot of “normalcy” in our lives. Antibes is our summertime normal, and more than ever, we all need normal.
My paddleboard and I have drifted from shore. I move to my knees and push through the patchwork of waves before standing again. The chirp of the cigales diminishes as I glide away from the parasol pines. Skirting a fisherman’s line, I note that the beach shack – a single-roomed cabin sunk into the rocks and invisible from the road – is sealed tight. Not a single beach towel dries on its rails. The long, white expanse of the Polish villa is quiet again, too. The owners stayed home this year, and the young couple who briefly enjoyed the mansion’s terraces and panoramic views of the old town, has left.
Back at “our” rocky beach, I slide into the sea. I want to merge – literally to immerse myself – into this place. Through my goggles I see minnows and seagrass, waving like gigantic sea anemones on the whims of the currents. The waters are kind and gentle. There are no méduses. There are no requins.
Too soon French Lessons will continue its voyage overseas. First up is 14 days of Canadian quarantine. (The French word for “forty” – quarante – alludes to the age-old duration. Two weeks, it seems, is a gift.) Philippe hoped we might persuade arrival authorities to exempt us if we presented negative Covid tests, but our teenager intervened. “I’m not having someone shove a giant Q-Tip up my nose halfway to my brain,” Lolo said. “I read those National Geographic books about the Egyptians when I was seven, and how they extracted dead people’s brains. They were quite thorough.” That settles that. So we will wait it out, and then school and the rest of life will begin again, along with our search for normality . . .
. . . which is exactly what French Lessons wishes for our cherished readers. From Saskatoon to Skipton to Sydney, you have shared your mercis for this season’s stories (and we thank you for traveling with us). Many of you long for your own chance to wander again through the old, cobbled lanes of the Côte d’Azur. Next year may all of us take in this storied place with our own eyes.