A week on the Cote d'Azur -- 05/23/00

Note: the nominal date for this entry is May 23rd - It spans It covers May 14th thru 21st, is based on genuine hand-written pages in a notebook, is dated May 23rd, but was not posted until May 25th. So, yeah, I'm slow...

I am working with another instructor on this course. In point of fact, Hamid is the master teacher and is mentoring me. This is a bit of a change for me; I've become accustomed to being the guru training new instructors on courses I've developed and have taught for some time. His brother-in-law, Amir, is also in town and he joins us on our after-work expeditions.

After my arrival at my hotel, I take a few minutes to unpack, splash some water on my face, and change into shorts and t-shirt, then I join up with Hamid and Amir for a trip along the coast to Anttibes. We seek out the old part of town, right on the coast, narrow winding streets, sidewalk cafes, artists and craftsmen exhibiting their work, tourists and locals thronging the streets. At one point we are on part of what appears to be an old fortifications on the coast, thick walls, perhaps six to eight feet thick at the top, and there are people lying on them soaking up the sun... but the top of these walls are not perfectly level, they slant slightly toward the sea... and there is a drop of perhaps eighty feet (just a rough guess) to the waves splashing on rocks below. Coming down a level we are overlooking a sand beach filled with hundreds of people. Here (and elsewhere along coast) some of the women are topless, not a majority, perhaps one in ten and someplaces even fewer, but it is noticeable. In my younger days I spent a considerable amount of time at a clothing optional lake where the overwhelming majority opted for no clothing (and I was always one of them), but it seems a bit odd to see toplessness mixed in with what could otherwise be a crowd at an American beach. (I'm not objecting, in fact I think it is quite civilized and appropriate, I'm just noting that it is strange to American eyes.)

At one point on a narrow centuries-old street, a line of cars was held up by being behind a clump of boys on skateboards. A very American looking activity, but on a narrow street with small cars -- European small, Citroens, etc. We paused at one point for ice cream cones at a small sidewalk restaurant in a tiny plaza with a water fountain. Eventually we left Anttibes and went a bit further down the coast to Paul sur Mer (the name of which I have probably garbled, can't always read my own scribbled handwriting) where we strolled along, looked at art work for sale (but not real art work, reproductions for sale to tourists). Had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant. (In fact, we ate inside a building only one night, all other evening meals were out of doors... needless to say, the weather was warm and fair.) By the time I reached my hotel room it was ten p.m. local time... only four p.m. back in Rhode Island, but this was Sunday and I had been up since early Saturday morning.

Despite my jet-lagged fatigue, I had some difficulty sleeping, waking up two or three times during the night, but this is not unusal for me when I am on the road. Hamid and I met at seven a.m., set out on our way to La Gaude, where our class was to be held. We found a place to stop for coffee and something to eat, a very small restaurant/bar. I studied French in high school and college, but that was many years ago. We were struggling to string together enough words to request coffee when the waitress said "Don't worry, loves, I'm English." She then guessed that we worked for what I will call B.C.C. (Big Computer Company).

We are not teaching at the B.C.C. site in La Gaude -- they apparently don't have the space available -- so we are renting a conference room at a small hotel just a bit higher in the mountains and about a mile or so by road from B.C.C. (I can look down on the roof of the B.C.C. building from the hotel patio.) The road from Nice to La Gaude climbs up the side of some steep hills, very winding and narrow, steep drops to the valley below... an "interesting" ride.

We have an international collection of students (all employees of Big Computer Company): three from Denmark; one from Sweden, Italy, Germany; two from France, Belgium and the U.K. Lunch that first day was typical: bottles of wine (red, white and rose) and baskets of rolls are set out on the table as we arrive; after we have been seated for a few minutes the opening course is brought out, a delicious salad with smoked salmon; then the main course, fresh fish served with a variety of veggies (grean beans, brocolli, small zuchini, baby carrots, etc.); eventually dessert, a chocolate cup filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with fresh strawberries; and finally small cups of thick strong European coffee. The specific menu items changed, but the nature and the pace of lunch was the same. This is obviously not an American lunch.

How did it go? Well, I think I did a fairly good job of the first few topics, but by afternoon jet-lag was really hitting me and I think my performance was very flat without any of the embellishments that make attending a course more valuable than just reading the book. Monday evening Hamid, Amir and I walked down Promenade des Anglais toward the east, wandering around in older sections of Nice. Eventually we settled on a restaurant where I ordered my typical meal in Nice: a salad and a pizza. I ate this four nights out of the six that I was in France. This is not an American pizza, it was a large thin crust pizza, served whole, to be eaten with knife and fork. There is a strong Italian influence along the Riviera. In fact, the Italian member of our class complained that he couldn't find real French food there, it was all too Italian. Yes, there was a bit of truth in that, but he was greatly overstating his case. At any rate, the food was good. On our way back to our hotel we noticed some, uh, shall we say professional ladies, working the streets...

Tuesday's lunch was several slices of cantaloup with proscutti served on a bed of lettuce, roast duck with scalloped potatoes, chocolate cake with whipped cream, strawberries and a sprig of mint. Not my usual brown bag lunch (sandwich and fruit) or tuna sub from Subway or whatever. That night we drove to St.Paul, a mountain village with interesting medieval architecture that has become something of an upscale tourist site. The upper floors of the buildings are apartments but ground level is given over to shops of various kinds: art galleries predominate, but there are also jewelery stores, clothing stores, wine shops, restaurants, etc. We actually ate dinner inside as the outside tables were either filled or reserved at the restaurant we chose. I had a salad with scallops that had been roasted with garlic, a steak with peppercorn sauce (with potatoes and vegetables), ice cream, a cup of cappucino.

Wednesday night we drove to Monoco for dinner. This international trip didn't take very long, less than an hour, including stopping to admire the view and take pictures: gorgeous views of the Mediterranean from the top of steep cliffs. The average price of the automobiles on the road jumped significantly, Fiat and Renault and Citroen giving way to BMW and Mercedes and Jaguar, etc. Monoco was busy getting ready for the Grand Prix (which is being held the weekend of May 27/28), areas that Hamid remembered as being parking lots from his last trip being replaced by grandstands for viewing the race. We took the lower road for our return to Nice, winding along the coast closer to the base of the cliffs, stopping at a parking area to look out at the full moon, low in the sky, reflecting on the waters of the Mediterranean, listening to the surge of the waves against the rocks below... how I wished I had brought my 35mm camera with high speed film instead of these silly single use cameras I tend to bring on trips... the scene was haunting and beautiful... reminded me of one of my favorite poems, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

On Thursday we wandered back to the same area we had visited on Monday night. On Friday, our last night in France, we took off about five p.m. for a drive into the mountains, to a small medieval mountain village. The drive there reminded me very much of driving through the Catskill Mountains in New York, except these mountains were more rugged, less rounded than the Catskills. It took about an hour to reach the village we were seeking. On the left side of the road was the more modern part of town, various commercial enterprises, a bank, a post office, a laundry, a pharmacy, a few restaurants, a gift shop, a photography supply and postcard store. On the right side of the road was the Var River and a bridge leading to the walled medieval village. This village, four and five story narrow buildings, narrow winding streets (some of which were steep steps), was not gentrified and prettied up the way St.Paul had been. Tourists did come here, but not in the kind of numbers that would support upscale art galleries. There were a few small restaurants in the town but, although some of them did have racks of postcards, etc., most seemed to survive on local trade (although things may be different in the summer). A sign pointed the way to the "citadel" so we wandered in that direction and found a gate with a request for 10 francs to defray the costs of the ongoing refurbishing of the medieval fortress. We thought that might be interesting so I dug out three 10 F coins and we started up a sloping pathway. The village was built where the Var cut between two mountains, tucked against one of the mountains, and this pathway went up the side of the mountain... on the left mountain slope, on the right a stone wall, taller than us but with openings (one assumes for firing muskets or shooting arrows). The path became fairly steep but finally came to what we though might be the end... nope, it was a clump of crumbling fortification but it was really the point of a switchback and the path to the top doubledback, still climbing but now the mountain was on our right and the stone wall on our left. And still we climbed. Another switchback. And still we climbed. The stone wall on our right was lower now, in places not more than a foot or so above waist height... and when we looked down the village was far, far below. And still the path climbed. Another switchback. Climb some more. Yet another switchback and still climbing. At last we come to the fortress. To cross from the pathway to the entrance to the fortifications requires walking across an eight foot long wooden bridge, very thick wood, thick, heavy timbers not mere planks, but also quite old, with a railing consisting of a single run of perhaps half inch diameter pipe. The river is hundreds of feet below. After a pause to catch my breath I cross, staying as far to the left, away from the drop as I can. The fort is on several levels of the mountain peak. There is a row of three or four small cells, barely the size of my cubicle at work, thick stone walls, a small high opening for a window. A sign notes that captured German officers were kept here from 1914 to 1918. The process of restoring this fort is not complete. There are ladders and signs of work, but nobody is working (of course it is past the end of any normal working day). There are cracks in some floors; there are rooms that we judge to be too dangerous to enter. This is obviously not a tourist attraction in America. Nobody has given thought to the hazzards or put up warning signs. These people would probably not see the need to put a "Do not use in shower" warning label on an electric hair dryer.

After our descent from the peak we wander about the village some more and then cross to the modern side of the highway to treat ourselves to ice cream cones and the chance to sit at an outdoor table. From here we can see the mountainside and the zig zag path we had climbed. The fortress appears to be maybe four hundred feet above the village. We drive back down the highway toward Nice but stop in a town just a few miles away. This is a larger town, apparently the site of what I guess would be some kind of technical or trade school, perhaps at a community college level. The school was closed for vacation and that's the best I could make out of the signs at its entrance. This town was not a walled medieval town, but it still had many four and five story buildings, some only ten or twelve feet wide, crammed together with some narrow streets. The town began abruptly... the narrow flood plain of the river valley was intensely farmed, then came the town, no gradual transition. An equivalent American town would have had a series of mobile homes along the highway, with a few inexpensive ranch style homes, retail along the highway (gas station convenience stores, a repair garage, etc.), a few blocks of two or three store commercial buildings a short distance from the highway, and neighborhoods of single family houses with some of the larger Victorian era homes now divided into apartments... a completely different picture. The only part of this town that could pretend to be American might be the cheap concrete block buildings of the college campus or perhaps the few single story ranch type houses climbing up the foothills of the mountain at the back of the town; otherwise this was a very French town. We dined at an outside table at a restaurant in the middle of the town despite the rapidly cooling night air here in the upper elevations of the countryside. (My salad was absolutely delicious, smoked salmon with transparently thin slices of lemon, a mesclun like mix of salad... the rest of the meal was okay, but that salad was marvelous.) This was not a big city restaurant in Nice, there were no English translations on the menu and the waitress did not speak much more English than I can speak French, but we managed to order. Good cappucino.

Saturday -- I went for a brief run along the Promenade des Anglais (as I had most mornings), returned to my room to shower and pack, then wander out for coffee and croissants for breakfast. Check out about ten a.m. and get a taxi to the airport. I thought I was leaving myself plenty of time before my 12:30 flight but a huge tour group got to the check-in just ahead of me (most of whom seemed to have packed every article of clothing they owned for this trip, perhaps not being sure if it would be spring, summer or winter, so they packed to cover all seasons), so I had to wait and wait on line to check my bag and get my boarding pass. Finally... okay, find a restaurant for a cup of coffee. Still amazed at the amount of smoking that goes on. Stop in a book store, pick up a copy of Paris Match and find a French language Pokemon book. (My daughter is taking French in high school.) Board the plane at last. A Delta 767, not quite nine hours to New York. No seatback LCD screens, but at least I have an aisle seat. Most of the people on the plane are either from that tour group (who had been on a private charter Mediterranean cruise) or had been in France for the Cannes film festival. (We had thought about checking that out but, based on the experience of some of our students who had gone to Cannes one night, we had decided it was just too much of a crowd scene.) The movie was The Insufferably Boring Mr. Rippley. Yawn. Wish I could sleep on airplanes.

Got to JFK, went through immigration, got my bag, went through customs, caught the overcrowded shuttle bus to Terminal 9, dragged my luggage upstairs to the American Eagle gate and checked in, got my boarding pass. Order a medium cappucino at Starbucks. This thing is huge compared to the tiny European cups... also tasteless. Eventually my flight boards. We land at PVD. Nancy meets me and drives me home. It is about nine thirty Saturday evening when we get home.... but my body is still six time zones away, where it is 3:30 a.m. Sunday and I have been up since before 6:00 a.m. Saturday.... It takes a bit to wind down, have some food, unpack, take a shower... but when I finally do get to sleep, I sleep for nine hours.

It's good to be back home.

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