Vignettes From The French Riviera
The embarrassment of a situation can, once you are over it, be the funniest time in your life. And I suppose a lot of my comedy comes from painful moments or experiences in life, and you just flip them on their head. ---Miranda Hart, Comedian/Actress
It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s Escargot!
I embarrass easily. And although I’m a medium-brown Black woman, I’m just light enough, just light enough that when I blush, you can see traces of red and pink spreading across my cheeks and up my neck. And if you miss my rising color, there is always my nervous sweat. Yes…sweat. Sadly, I am not one of those women who perspire. I am a woman who sweats. Real, honest-to-God visible moisture. I sweat when it’s hot, or warm, or humid, or when I am nervous or embarrassed. I sweat a lot, and nothing makes me sweat more than when I am the focus of unwanted, unsolicited attention. Especially the kind of attention that seems to ask: Who let her in here? You know, the kind you get when you walk out of the bathroom of a swanky restaurant with toilet paper stuck to your shoe; the kind you get when you’ve tucked your skirt into your underwear and…you'er wearing a thong! The kind of attention you get when you wipe out in the middle of a crowd because your favorite six-inch heels have betrayed you! You know, that kind of attention. Well, in the year of our Lord 2000, I garnered that special spotlight on my first full day in Nice.
After a light breakfast and hours of exploring the charming city nestled in the Alpes-Maritimes, I carefully chose the most Frenchy French café I could find and settled at an outdoor table. In anticipation of a large and delicious lunch, my first proper meal in France since landing, I had deliberately broken my fast with only fruit and tea and my mouth fairly watered at the idea of morsels roasted, braised, or seared in duck fat or butter. I ignored my rumbling stomach as I wandered, put off bakeries and crepe kiosks because I wanted my first meal on the French Riviera to be as special as it was sure to be delightful. So, I waited until I was famished before I chose a restaurant which spoke to me, out of the dozens I’d passed, and then under the gentle glare of a Mediterranean sun, awash in creamy yellows and crystalline blues, I ordered a glass of Pouilly-Fumé. That done, I turned my attention to the over-sized menu. I had then, as I have since, eaten a lot of French food and I had my favorites, which are still my favorites, but I hadn’t eaten a lot of real French food at that point. Even when I briefly visited the land of the Franks for the first time in 1996, it was mostly a bread and cheese affair. But I wanted an honest-to-God French repast my second day in France and so I perused the menu slowly. In the end, I chose my favorite tried and true meal, the one I order almost every time I step into a French restaurant be it New York or Paris: Escargots À La Bourguignonne (Snails in Garlic–Herb Butter) and Duck Confit. Unless the snails are served in a way I’ve never encountered before---puff pastry, mushrooms---or the duck leg is skimpy, this is a bill-of-fare which has never let me down. Throw in a true Mousse au Chocolat for dessert and I will reach nirvana.
Sipping my wine and trying not to grin like the medi-eval village idiot at my joy at being in the Mediterranean despite the unfortunate turn my trip had taken---see last months post---I eagerly take up my cutlery when the waiter presents me with my appetizer. I say cutlery but I should say instruments. Anyone who has eaten escargot knows what I’m talking about. You can’t eat snails with just any old fork. You need instruments. You need an Escargot Fork (A small 4 1/2" fork made with two long, pointed tines) and tongs. Tongs! When one eats escargot, one is not fucking around. So I took up my tines and tongs, and firmly gripped one of the pretty sandy brown shells. Or at least I thought I had. I’ll admit it. Despite never having eaten escargot in the shell and being naturally clumsy, I dug that mollusk out of its bath of hot butter, garlic and herbs without a thought. I was New York cocky and I paid for it. Because as fast as you can say, “Oh, noooooo!” that slippery mother went flying across the patio. My little faux pas might have gone unnoticed except along with being a sweater, I am also a screamer. So, my flying snail had a soundtrack, and everyone stopped talking to their lunch companions, stopped eating to look up and watch my first real French escargot take flight.
Once again tapping into my NYC bravado, I raised my glass in a sheepish toast to the other diners and then approached the other escargot with proper respect and caution.
Note: escargot were harmed in the creation of this story!
Flying in late September early October during the Off-Peak season when things are cheaper and less crowded doesn’t mean you are flying under the radar, especially if you are a woman, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. Which I was in Nice in 2000. As you may know, Nice, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of France, was supposed to be the gateway not the destination for this particular jaunt but plans changed, and I had to roll with those changes like the intrepid traveler I was slowly becoming. The problem was the only room my new, hastily booked hotel had was on the ground floor. I would wager, the women reading this just tensed up a bit. The ground floor of a house, apartment, or hotel are good for many things I suppose---escaping a fire, getting out of the house quickly when running late for work or throwing garbage out of the window, although this was more useful back in the bad old days of pre-sanitation laws. But one thing a ground floor room is not good for is women traveling alone. Instead of exit, most women think access, as in access to their valuables while they are out or worse, access to them while they are sleeping.
I have never willingly booked a ground floor room but my last minute travel plans forced me to be flexible in a town that has never suffered from Off-Peak. So I took my cute little first floor room and upon entering and setting down my bags, promptly headed for the window dominating one wall. I, of course, meant to make sure the latches were secure but as I yanked back the curtain, I was greeted by the most breathtaking view. Beyond the Promenade des Anglais, which extends from the airport on the west to the Quai des États-Unis (United States Quay) on the east, a distance of approximately 7 km* was the Mediterranean Sea. It meandered by my hotel room window in a sort of cerulean haze of unknown, unexpected possibilities. That vast sea spread out before me close enough to touch. And it struck me as I inhaled, filling my lungs and my traveler’s spirit with briny air, the sensation of sea spray dappling my skin, that all the times I had taken a room on a higher floor I had been missing out. Of course, the ocean view from a top floor can be stunning but being on the same plane as the water, its eddy and flow, its whisper and roar like one’s very own music box, offered a surprising sense of tranquility and connection. Which is a feeling that sometimes one doesn’t know one needs until it is presented, especially when you travel solo.
So, I exhaled and secured the locks and closed the curtains… but not all the way. For the four days I was in Nice, I kept that room instead of asking to be moved once something opened up. I drank wine, ate Salade Niçoise and returned after a day of exploring to my ground floor room and I kept the curtains cracked just enough to see the sea, hear its call, and remember.
Down Pours & Bursts of Bravery
The rain came down like I had lied to it or owed it money, soaking me in an instance. I stood at the top of a very high, very steep hill, water pouring off my nose, my clothes beginning to stick and go translucent. I had just left the gorgeous, surprisingly intimate Musée Marc Chagall in the neighborhood of Cimiez but while I was inside, unbeknownst to me, an afternoon storm had been brewing. The late fall storm had kindly waited for me to step out and walk just far enough away from the safety of the museum before unleashing its might.
I had walked across town to get to the museum and didn’t speak French, which didn’t matter because nary a taxi was in sight. Not sure what to do, I started walking down the hill, which mere hours before had offered a pleasant stroll but was quickly turning into an unpleasant schlep. The rain fell harder with each step and I began to worry for my guidebook, leather bound journal, and a small Chagall reproduction I had purchased at the gift shop. the 8 X 10 drawing was a delicate pen and ink of a woman’s face. With a few strokes Chagall had captured a haughty French beauty whose full lips and elegant turban spoke of an African or Caribbean ancestry, or at least it had to me. It was lovely and fragile and in danger.
The area, more residential than commercial, was as I said, strangely bereft of taxis and shops so there was nowhere to duck into. But as I began to panic, I heard the rumbling of a bus. Now, I am not a spontaneous person or very brave---and I’m a bit of a control freak as has been noted in this blog before, but I knew that if I didn’t do something everything made of paper in my possession was going to dissolve like sucre and so, for the first time in my life, in a foreign country, I hopped on a bus whose destination I did not know. I nervously fumbled with centimes and then wedged myself in among the other wet riders. The locals eyed me curiously before losing interest. Peering out of the steamy windows, I wondered and worried where I was headed. All I knew was the bus was headed down the mountain and I and my perishables were, for the moment, out of harm’s way. As avid travelers know, the simple wins are the ones that win the day!
PS. I made it down the mount-ain and dried out and warmed up with a hefty glass of bourbon
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in May when I mark my first full year of living in South Korea.
In the meantime, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!