Eric, the male half of our favourite taxi-driving duo, collects Philippe, Lolo and me at Nice Côte d’Azur airport Saturday night.
La pluie! C’était un déluge! he tells us, his playful grin and thick Marseilles accent slurring the headlines: We narrowly missed a monster storm, complete with thunder and lightening bolts. As it happens, our flight into the French Riviera was uneventful, one of the calmest ever. Only a few puddles dotted the runway when we landed.
A couple guys load a summer’s worth of luggage into Eric’s minivan while ribbing him about his accent. Eric loves the attention. He’s dressed in turquoise suede oxfords that perfectly match the striking hue of his long-sleeved, button-down shirt.
“Où sont les talons?” I ask him. Where are your heels?
Eric laughs. It’s good to see us, he says. Usually Christelle, his wife, collects Philippe, Lolo and me at the airport, and the first thing we always discuss is her choice of shoes for ferrying passengers around all day. Every year she seems to add a centimeter to the heel. Then I spend the rest of our journey in Christelle’s back seat, quietly admiring her latest hair colour, the drape of her new strappy dress or the way the sunlight catches her arms and makes them glitter.
Tonight, though, we have turquoise, and quite a lot of it. I adore these early moments back in France when the country’s idiosyncrasies pop out anew. Distance is a privilege in this way. Spending the bulk of my year in Toronto allows France’s perfect Frenchness to remain fresh.
Nothing’s new, Eric tells us as we cruise the motorway toward Bellevue, our home along the sea. He expands on this subject while now-nine-year-old Lolo announces the posted drive times to the Antibes exit. Indeed, winding through our city’s dense road network, everything looks exactly the same – the shops and restaurants, the traffic junctions, the after-hours tidiness that will get swept away as soon as the world wakens. It feels as if we’ve only been away for a couple months – hardly close to ten.
What about le parking? Philippe asks, pronouncing it par-KEENG as the French do. He’s pulling at straws, trying to discover something new in town. He fixes on Antibes’ big construction project near Port Vauban that boasted the imminent arrival of 300-some new parking spaces in this cramped city. The first time we heard this happy news was a couple years ago. Then the diggers struck the ruins of a Roman boat. Last we saw, le parking at the edge of Antibes’ old rampart walls remained an enormous pothole. Is construction at last complete?
Oui! Eric declares. Then he clarifies. Oui, une partie. Part of it’s done.
Philippe and I laugh. Of course le parking is only half finished. No project around here ever gets fully erected, painted or certified. How the French population deals with the ongoing indifference is beyond me. Maybe they’re simply used to it.
Mais il est ouvert! Eric insists with his grin. The finished part of the parking garage is at least open.
As the minivan approaches Bellevue, we spot something new. At the base of Boulevard Albert 1er, the main road linking the town center and beaches, the pavement is completely torn up. The mayhem cuts off one of only two routes out of town.
A water purification project, Eric says, his broad Marseilles accent less chirpy now. It’s his entire explanation for something that will botch up Antibes’ already infernal traffic situation for the whole of the summer. Maybe longer. Who knows when anyone will bother to finish the work.
Bellevue is in decent shape this year – there’s no more peeling paint than when we last were here – but I soon realize the so-called déluge must’ve wiped out our WIFI. The WIFI: Our beloved link from inside Bellevue’s thick, limestone walls to the outside world!
The telephone line is our prime suspect. The receiver emits a low, crackling moan rather than its usual, pert hum.
What does this mean for the alarm? Philippe wonders aloud as we unpack our bags. The Côte d’Azur is prone to theft; we’ve already weathered one burglary several years ago. He rings the monitoring station around 1:00 a.m. on the rickety phone line.
Non, the attendant says, we aren’t registering Bellevue’s alarm.
What do I do? Philippe asks.
D’abord, call France Telecom. They will test your phone line remotely. If there’s a problem, they’ll give you an appointment to come look at it.
How long will that take?
It could take days. They are really busy.
Philippe flushes out his lungs. Tomorrow is Sunday and, well, Sunday is Sunday. He can’t even raise the initial flag until Monday.
If the phone line is okay, the attendant continues engagingly – after all, who else rings at one in the morning? – then you have to call the alarm company. They’ll see if there’s an installation problem. And if they say everything’s okay, you call the computer guy. The guy who installed your WIFI.
Philippe listens with some combination of anticipation, amusement and exasperation. He’s the type who drives fast, red cars and never, ever reads the directions. Can’t I do this all at once? he asks.
Ben non! the station attendant says. You have to do it in steps!
So in the meantime we have no alarm?
Well, if someone breaks in, the alarm will go off, the attendant says helpfully – but you’ll have to call me so I can call security.
Once again, France demonstrates that things don’t change. Ever. How the population puts up with this live-and-let-live service mentality, time after time, is beyond me.
Sunday, our first full day back in the Côte d’Azur, we revel in the glorious things that haven’t changed. The woman at our local boulangerie is happy to see Philippe, Lolo and me back in town. Boulangerie Pâtisserie l’Îlette still offers the artisanal baguettes, sumptuous quiches and sublime choquettes (airy mouthfuls of pastry sprinkled with coarse sugar) that we’ve come to know and love. We delight in the produce of a roadside market: crinkled coeur d’boeuf tomatoes, hearty leeks and enormous bulbs of purple garlic, their stalks neatly braided into bunches. The vegetables are perfect as ever in our dear France – even if in the same breath we wonder why it’s still impossible to find a fresh banana or a box of moderately healthy cereal in this global marketplace.
Sunday is also the day to renew friendships. Veronique and Laurent welcome the three of us for coffee and fresh, melt-in-your-mouth macarons. We’ve known each other since our daughters attended a local maternelle preschool together some six years ago. Now, after comparing the girls’ new statures and our strategies for helping them learn their multiplication tables last year, talk moves onto France’s traditional bout of grèves in the month of June.
Laurent whips through a half-dozen strikes on at the moment, from stoppages by Air France’s ground crew and the country’s train workers (including the day’s mysterious blockage of two packed, high-speed passenger trains here in the South) to strikes by intermittents (technicians and artists who support traveling fairs) and another little gem involving the Eiffel Tower.
All is reassuringly familiar, we say. Even if the rail strike alone costs France something like EUR 20 million a day, it’d be a shock to learn that anyone had started real reforms. Anyway, everything shuts down here soon for the summer. The Government could just think about the mess in the autumn.
I cannot help but ask on the way out of our friends’ home. It may be wrong; in her bestselling book French or Foe?, Polly Platt advised readers against using the loo in a French person’s home. It’s bad manners, she wrote. But here I am, and this is urgent. Fortunately our hosts are happy to share their WIFI code. Still, I begin to fret that our internet problems are an ominous start for my fancy new blog site.
On Monday, after chasing around for more groceries and a local SIM card, I confess the depths of my addiction. I hop on my bike in search of an internet café. But Monday is reassuringly still Monday in the Côte d’Azur. “Sauf lundi” (“except Monday”) is one of the most frustrating and charming aspects of life here whenever you venture outside the July-August high season. Sauf lundi, in fact, has become a tag line in our household, a convenient phrase for explaining a much more pervasive backstory.
On Mondays the city’s three cafes offering WIFI are closed. All three of them – alongside half of the city’s shops. I try a couple cafés that remain open. There’s lots of coffee on tap, the attendants tell me, but no internet. In a fit of genius, I bike back toward Bellevue and head with my laptop into the restaurant of the Royal Antibes Hotel.
Oui, a man declares from a booth in the empty restaurant. We have WIFI! His exuberance fades. But it’s not working now.
I begin to fret that the grand experiment called French Lessons will be riddled with unknown disasters all summer long – and yet. And yet I must reassure myself that after all these years, it’s easy to write with great intimacy about something that never, ever changes. And – can’t help but share – I’m already anticipating next week’s post: My little encounter with none other than Monaco’s Prince Albert II. It was unforgettable for me and (for better or worse) possibly for him, too.
Meanwhile, as Philippe and I await the resumption of our WIFI, we shuffle through the pile of post that has arrived at Bellevue since last September. Interestingly, there’s an envelope addressed to Mr & Mme Amis Canadiens. Mr and Mrs Canadian Friends. It’s from the Association Les Amis du Sanctuaire de la Garoupe, supporters of the 16th-century chapel at the top of the Cap d’Antibes. They addressed the envelope like this:
Mr & Mme Amis Canadiens
Villa Lou Gargali
Av de la Salis
06160 ANTIBES LE CAP
The name Villa Lou Gargali hasn’t been attached to our home for a good couple decades – easily more. And Bellevue is hardly situated on Avenue de la Salis. Somehow, though, the association’s letter got to Philippe and me. Like most everything in town, knowledge at the local post office presumably hasn’t changed much over the years either.
Or maybe, just maybe in this instance, the letter found us by divine intervention.