Wednesday, December 17, 2008

from France, one last time

I don’t even question it anymore. It rains, it will rain. The only unknown is how much. And will there be pauses.

There are few guests at the hotel now. With only three rooms per floor, le Grimaldi has always felt intimate. But now it feels positively ours. If we leave the tiny elevator on our sixth floor, it will be there in the morning when we take it down for breakfast.

The desk clerk fusses over our breakfast. Can I scramble you some eggs? Yes! Eggs, rolls, cheeses, breads, croissants. Tangerines. Sweet sweet tangerines. I work on my computer, Ed reads. And reaches for breakfast foods in a way that I never see back home. It’s that it’s free, sure, but also it is because breads, cheeses and eggs here are beastly good.

And then he naps.

I use this time to go out. Past the square with the discombobulated tree.

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I'm itching to shop. Meaning, to try on things that I would like to wear. I know I am tempting myself. Still, between the acquisition of things and travel I’ll always pick travel. And so I shake my head to the clerk and retreat without anything. Except for a lipstick. A lipstick? – Ed asks back at the hotel. Can’t you buy the same thing at Walgreen’s?

In the early afternoon, we ignore the skies and head out for a hike. Past blocks of houses that combine the colors of Nice (orange houses, green shutters) and the colors of Provence (yellow houses, blue shutters).

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Past houses and gardens that are all Nice (orange house, green shutters, orange tree, olive tree).

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We make our way to the old port first – deeply atmospheric in this weather.

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And now I want to eat lunch. At home, I never eat lunch, but when I travel, every meal is an opportunity to fall in love with new foods in new, locally colorful spaces. Ed is the opposite, of course. At home, he eats throughout the day. Here, except for breakfast, he resists regular meals. And so again I eat alone. Water, do you at least want water? I ask. No, nothing. He fiddles with my camera while I make very important food decisions.

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The waitress asks me – he is a professional photographer?

I think that life is funny in this way: a guy, who is comfortably underdressed, wrinkled, unshaven, gruff, preoccupied, if, moreover, he is consuming nothing, or the wrong thing -- all those things cause him to be intriguing.

She is smiling at the man who is confidently snapping away. No, I say emphatically. The camera is mine. [And the endless, endless flights that earn me business lounges at foreign airports? Not his! He is the tag along, not me! I am the employed person who has work to do on her laptop, me, that one is me, not him. Sigh.]

I eat delicious slices of raw artichoke, with lettuce and slivers of cheese, all dressed in lemon juice and olive oil.

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We continue our hike. Ed talks about details of the boats we see in the harbor. Some are monster boats – huge private vessels of the Onassis type. To me, they're an eyesore -- pompous and overbearing. But, the port has all sizes. From the monsters to the shrimpy ones – colorful and well tended.

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And now we head up to the forest and the summit of Mont Boron. The air is moist but it is not raining. The wetness gives us a fresh, earthy smell. I want to tell Ed – there: even in Nice, there is quiet. See? You can find it up here, on the path up the Mont Boron: quiet.

The views are surprisingly majestic.

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You would think visibility would be poor, what with the clouds, the rain, but it’s not. Hey, the Alps! I can even spot the Alps just north of us!

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On the east side of the summit, we see the coast of Villefranche and Ed becomes wistful. Imagine sailing here, in this protected bay between Mont Boron and Cap Ferrat (a peninsula extending on the other side of Villefranche)!

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I look at the sea, and at the port where ferry boats from Corsica come in. Imagine coming here in spring and heading out for a few weeks in Corsica!

This is it: right there on the summit of Mont Boron, we have before us the reason why we are only occasional in our traveling companionship: neither really likes what the other regards as sublime. I cannot sail. It makes me ill. Ed finds staying at b&b’s or inns boring. So boring in fact, that he squirms at the mention of any future travel.

We hike down Mont Boron. It is our last hike here, along the coast of the Mediterranean and I no longer feel the lightness that should be mine on this descent.

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We pause near a small school. Children noises. I miss children, my children, even though they’re not children anymore. We smile as we look at the notices posted on the board by the gate. School lunches for the week. I remember arguing with schools back home about what kids should have for school lunch. They wont eat it if it’s healthy was the common response. I’ll not translate this school’s menu for you, but I’ll tell you this much: it’s healthy.

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And again we are by the port: first one side...

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...then the other. It's dusk and the lights are coming on. Port lights, holiday lights.

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We walk along the shore, back to Nice, centre ville...

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…and return to our hotel. Not for long though. We have an early dinner at a very unassuming, very atmospheric Nicoise restaurant. The food is simple but good: salads with chickpeas and onion, fried zucchini (both vegetable and flower), stuffed sardines. The waitress gives us a homemade orange liqueur. To Nice. To return trips. To dinners where someone else cooks with imagination and with zest. To all of it.

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In the morning, we leave while it’s still dark to catch the local bus to the airport. And for the first time on this trip, I get wet from standing in the rain.

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Did I oversell travel in early December? No, not at all. But there is the inevitable long return. And in December weather, only the patient and the hearty will not be bothered. Nice has rain. Flight is delayed. In Paris, the fog is dense. That we land on the runway is amazing. Not surprisingly, the flight to Chicago is delayed. In Chicago, there is a snowstorm. We circle the airport for hours. Finally we do land and there is the applause of relief as we touch a completely snow-covered runway. The bus to Madison? Running hours behind schedule. It eventually does come, but the three hour ride becomes a five hour ride and it is well past midnight when pull in at the Union. Where the cab we called is … delayed. All that waiting, much of it in bad weather. Nothing chills you more than waiting for a cab in the freezing night after 24 continuous hours of travel.

I’d do it again tomorrow.