Saturday, June 30, 2007

from Nice: footsteps

I am following in the footsteps of myself. Yesterday’s pattern repeats itself.

A beach chair in the front row, facing the water, is hard to come by after noon. And so I head out early (by Nice standards). I’m set for a day of reading by the sea.

Except I begin to get restless. A week will pass and I will have spent it looking at blue water.


Nice, but what of Nice?

And so in the afternoon, I abandon my prize chair and head for the hills.

High expectations. I was betting on the Matisse Museum. Reopened just this month after extensive renovations/additions, it should have wowed me. A gorgeous villa of Nicoise colors, amidst olive groves, high in the hills of Nice-Cimiez – it’s primed to set me spinning.


But it doesn’t do that. I mean, the villa is beautiful and peaceful and quite empty, but for the men playing boules and a girl riding a bike – how good is that!


And yet… inside, the collection is small. Moreover, I neglect to read the signs (posted everywhere) about taking and distributing photos (I read that to mean through, for example, a blog) and how this constitutes crime against humanity (I may have overstated it in the translation). I have, in sheer ignorance, taken quite okay photos, but posting them would probably net me a nice prison term, so forget it.

And don’t think the house is where Matisse once lived. Indeed not. From what I can figure out, he spent years at the Belle Epoque hotel down the road. Along with frequent visitor Queen Victoria. Okay, she preceded him by some 100 years, but still, they shared space, so to speak.


Walking down the Boulevard de Cimiez, I had a chance to admire the villas and hotels that show off Nice’s love for Belle Epoque architecture. New wealth coming in from the final union of Nice with France meant that rich people needed spaces to live in and there you have it – the Boulevard was born.

It reminds me sort of what Beverly Hills may have looked like had someone begun that project several hundred years ago and had a few skilled Savoyards and Frenchmen coming in to lend a hand.


Forgive the inadequate photos. Grand residences tend to stand behind high walls.

Amazingly, I have time for the Chagall Museum (it’s on the way). Not only do I have time for the Museum, but I have time for a late lunch at the Museum Café. It’s a day of Italian influences (I plan on eating dinner at a place where the cook is Italian) and so I order the tomato/mozzarella combination. In a garden setting. Tranquil. I regain hope.


And maybe it’s the lunch that put me in a good mood, although I don’t think so. It’s the museum itself. The Chagall exhibit is breathtakingly beautiful. They allow photos, but I took very few. I was too busy gazing.

Toward the end, I sat and watched a brief film about Chagall’s work on the mosaic he created for Chicago. I’d actually seen the film before, though not in a million years will I be able to remember where or when. I do remember being moved then – especially by the scene where he and his wife (you would have to think his adoration for the female form has something to do with his love for his wife, no?) arrive in Chicago and whisper together about what improvements need to be made to the great mosaic. She loves him, he loves her, they talk tiles. So romantic!

So I took a photo of the mosaic in the Museum, naturally. And a close up of one little goat.


Farm animals are all over Chagall’s works, maybe because life reminds him of his Russian past, amidst farm animals. Sort of like me, except my past isn’t Russian and I didn’t have that much contact with farm animals except for my summers at my grandparents’ village home, but still…

In the evening I hike to the port (it’s far). Nice views of the bay, of the setting sun, of balconies – how can one not be charmed.



I eat in a small place that does only vegetarian foods (La Zucca Magica). The cook has been called the best Italian cook in Nice, which of course says nothing, but I have hope.

It’s one of those places where you don’t know what you’re getting or what the price is until it’s all over and done with. But I was pleased. Zucchini soup, tomato stuffed with pesto pasta, a cheese tart with lemon and saffron, pasta with peppers, tiramisu. Very honest, very tasty, great on the budget.


It’s late. The moon is out over the old port…


So where is the heart of the city? Where are the neighborhoods that aren’t packed with outsiders? Here, I come across a night hangout where only French is spoken. Men drive up on moterbikes. Two girls walk by, shout a greeting, move on.


But this seems small compared with the heart of the old town, where streets are packed with indistinguishable, cheap eating places. Hundreds of them. And when you leave the old streets, you enter the new ones and again, all you see is miles of people eating.

Nothing wrong with it. Food is good. But I think I am still missing the places where it’s not just us, the outsiders, being loud and drinking cheap wines. Maybe the neighborhoods are too jumbled with outsiders and insiders sharing space.

It’s a lot easier to feel the Nicoise air in the daytime. At night, the real city, for all its noise and late nightlife, hides itself.

Friday, June 29, 2007

from Nice: blue and yellow

Just when you think you love someone, I mean – some place, something happens to give you pause.

The morning was brilliantly yellow. It is by chance that so many of my photos reflect this.

First – what a difference a sunny day makes! Compare the terrace in the morning to the shadowy one of last night:


A walk to the market presents a different Nice – the older section of town is stunningly pretty. Okay, yes, pastel colorful. And in the distance, the hills show off the older villas. A place to visit. Another day.


A Provencal market is always terrific. This one is rich in sunflowers and zucchini blossoms. Candied fruits, berries, garlic, olives – someone come here and write a story, just about this market! Or pay me to do it!




By 11 I am itching to take my readings to the beach. And the world turns bright blue.


The warning is up – do not swim today, there is a medusa infestation (some ignore this and regret it). I hadn’t intended to swim. A rented chair, a towel and tons of sunscreen and I am set. Six hours of reading, interrupted by people watching.


Oh, a break for lunch, too. Salad Nicoise, delivered to my chair.


As this is France, beaches are basically topless. (Not everyone sheds their bikini top, but many do.) There is an etiquette out there. The woman who changed in public – that’s a no no. Keep your bottom covered.

But breast bronzing is the thing to do and there is something so liberating to see that people do not exploit this freedom by labeling it as anything but what it is – quite natural. You have to experience it to know what a relief it is to be in this non-charged atmosphere – to see waiters delivering food to topless women of all shapes and sizes, to see children not even noticing who is wearing what, to have people walking the city beaches and accepting as normal that which is, after all, normal.

I have this terrific photo of three people – a woman, topless as it were, lying on the beach. A beautiful young thing, enjoying a quiet moment by the water. Next to her is her male friend, applying lotion. Just behind them is an enormously paunchy man, looking out to the sea. It’s a great shot, if I do say so myself. And of course, I cannot post it, because inevitably, someone will be offended and, well, I want to remain employed.

So, Ocean remains pure and blue, just for you. At least until I retire.


In the evening, Nice turned a different face toward me and for a while I questioned my love affair with her.

I went to a restaurant that is listed as inexpensive. It wasn’t exactly that, but okay, I can order well. No, maybe I can’t. Two appetizers??? What an oinker I can be when faced with baby artichoke salad and a fried zucchini blossoms with tomato sauce (the Nicoise specialty) on the menu.



And then the shellfish. Uncomplicated. Perfect. Finished with simple red berries and homemade vanilla – berry-swirl ice cream.



So what’s the issue? Some guide book wrote that this is where Elton John and his partner like to dine, on a fairly regular basis (they have a villa up those hills). So the place has been discovered by the glamorous. And the tone of Nice suddenly changes for me, so that it becomes like Cannes and it’s still all very fresh, but it seems somehow dishonest. Like it’s a show. A parade of the affluent in this purportedly cheap, "local" restaurant.

And the waiters cater to this client base, of course. The wine – most certainly expensive wine – flows freely, and the laughter is loud, too loud and even though I am given a lovely outside table, I can’t wait to leave.

Nice. A complicated city. But oh, those blues and yellows – you know I’ll wake up in the morning loving Nice so deeply, as if it were my town. Life is like that. The good things stick in the memory far longer than the not so good.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

from Nice: colors

So this is Nice. My Pierrerue of 07. What a difference.

Last June, I shut myself away from everything in the little village of Pierrerue, in the Languedoc. So little was it, that I had to hike for several miles to reach a grocer or a café.

This year, a friendly stranger at a chance meeting in La Rochelle said – you should go to Nice. And so this is where I am. To work, to think, and to look at colors. This is Matisse and Chagall land. An old city of constant sunshine and soft cream buildings. At least that’s my image of the place.

My train pulls into Nice in the evening. Last stop on a run through France’s Riviera – Cannes, Antibes, ticked off, minutes apart.

Antibes train station

I am here for a week and the small hotel is a lovely old thing. So… Nice-like. The garret room has a tiny balcony where I can sit with a glass of rosé late at night. At least that is what I think I am expected to do, for I find a chilled bottle in the room, waiting for me after dinner, along with fruit pates.

in the shadows of the evening, a balcony with a view

I had taken a quick walk to the shore – a half dozen blocks away. Nice at dusk. Is Nice nice? First impressions, first sightings. You tell me. I wanted a complicated French city – one with character. Nice looks to be just that.

evening beaches

evening cream

evening balcony

Dinner? I was directed to a cheap Provencal restaurant around the corner. Oh, it was the usual wonderful local fare. Baby artichoke salad, grilled fish, strawberry napoleon. And rosé. The colors. I am here for the colors. I think that part will be easy.

baby artichokes with shaved parmesan

fish over Provencal veggies

strawberry napoleon

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

from Paris: departures

Goodbyes, separations, departures, transitions -- I dislike all of them.

My daughter flies home on Wednesday and the only nice thing about it is that she will be rejoining others, who have been waiting patiently for her return.

Tuesday was spent on strolling, admiring (Paris. Foods. Stores. Architecture. Obviously.) and photo taking.

None of the photos are of the usual stuff. They are of faces rather than places. One is now on the sidebar of Ocean, the other – here you are, this is us, eating lunch.


She boards a plane, I board a train. Nine hours later she’ll be in Chicago, seven hours later, I’ll be in Nice. She’s got work to do, I’ve got work to do.

She wont post, but I will. From Nice.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

from Paris: crossings

So there’s a left bank and a right bank. You know that. Basically, unless I’m giving a city tour or showing off how the right bank Tuileries Gardens are inferior to the left bank Luxembourg Gardens, I rarely venture over there.

But on this day, for a number of reasons, we crossed the river and spent several hours trying to get into the rhythm of that side of town.

I hardly used my camera (the little one; I am permanently mad at the malfunction of the big one). The Champs Elysees, which I had heard were people friendly again, seemed as soulless as ever. The stores as expensive, the cafés – pandering to some different species. I even saw men wearing ties and suits – a rare event back home, on the left side.

So there you have it, one photo of the crossing, one photo of a couple taking in (and I mean really taking in) the Louvre Pyramid, one of a young woman – perhaps longing to return to the left? And then it’s back to the safe spaces and places on the cool side of town, where we sustained ourselves with a lunch, a quick visit to a bookstore and soon after, with a dinner and then all was right (in the sense that it was left) with the world.








Monday, June 25, 2007

from Paris: breaks

A Sunday in Paris. A break from routine. And a broken camera.

We picnic at the Jardin Luxembourg. It’s cool still, but a Sunday in the park is beyond beautiful.

Food stores and markets stay open all morning, even as the rest of Paris shuts down for le week-end. So we shop. Cheese, baguette, tomatoes, berries, tarts. Spread on a bench with care.


A Frenchman pauses and tells us bon appétit! In travel, there is no pairing that is more approachable, more inviting of friendliness than the mother--grown-daughter combination. It’s as if it conjures up every good mother-child imagine out there. Good love. Strong bonds. Happy thoughts. It’s okay that my lover fails me. I, too, have a little one back home. Let me think about the summer ahead, building sandcastles and eating baguette sandwiches in the open air. My child is waiting for me. Life is good.

There are many small groups doing just this: pulling chairs close together to eat baguettes and salads.


It is a Sunday of roller blading again, as the skaters take over the city's boulevards. Hundreds and hundreds of them. I am, as before, enormously moved by this communal torrent of speeding humanity. My camera, however, decides right at this moment to mangle its insides. I don’t know this yet, but the speeding skater will be the last photo that will survive this day.


And it is unfortunate, because we spend a considerable amount of time studying (with me photographing) the wonders of the new Orangerie, the Right Bank parks and the Louvre buildings.

At the hotel, the transfer of photos to the computer fails after the first dozen or so. Corrupt images. What does that even mean? True, I have my second small camera, but suddenly I am distrustful of them all.

It has taken me years to learn to let go of frustration when technology stops functioning. When all emails get permanently erased. When the Internet sends weird error messages. When the computer does funny things that I do not understand. When precious photos get wiped off the camera and do not survive the transfer.

Things. Even cyberspace words and images are just things. It's a theft of sorts. Stored memories, wiped out. Eh! Just things.

Obviously I am writing hours later. Anger? What anger? I am in Paris.

In the evening, we pick a place that I found in a magazine here. It is one of the few that attempts a French rendition of Molecular Gastronomy. We visit the website and contemplate the various dishes and flavors and aromas.

And here’s the further strangeness to this day: we find the restaurant (easy enough), we sit down and we are handed menus. Conventional to the core! What happened to molecular gastronomy???


I dare not ask. It will be forever one of those unresolved mysteries. Something that should have been there and was not.

Broken images, missing flavors. Forget it, it's Paris. Enduring Paris. The love that lasts.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

from Paris: repeats

I know some would disagree, but for me, Paris is the best walking city and the best sitting city in the world. In addition to holding the title (in my book) for being the best for eating, shopping and art museums. Some like it for nightlife, but after participating fully in three of the above (the more active three at that), I can’t say that I have much stamina for anything after midnight. And we finished our last bite of dessert after midnight.

I admit that I am unimaginative in my approach to this place. I am here often enough that I have developed my favorites and I rarely stray. For example, it is a sad morning that does not begin with breakfast here:

Café les Editeurs

And an unusual visit that does not include lunch here:

Café la Varenne: poaced egg on ratatouille

And lately, I have been smitten with Ze Kitchen Gallerie, which is supremely modern and clever and has a wonderful view of the kitchen where a stunning chef will catch your eye if you stare long enough.

glancing over

you're not photographing me, are you?

such talent...

Okay, so it was a day of reruns. There’s more. Rare is the trip that doesn’t include a stop at Bon Marche, the left bank store that still manages to cater mostly to left bankers (with far more substantial bank accounts than my own, bust still, I have bought more suitcases there than I want to admit, including this time, since a favorite issued its last breath and died).

And I think I have never been here without walking the hour or so, through the back streets, to the Eiffel Tower.

The Tower itself is not the draw, but the walk past the great Place des Invalides, the left bank shops, markets, quite streets is.

Saturday exuberance

typical here, less so at American markets

Or maybe the Tower has a small magnetic power as well. After all, I always do take photos of it. Because you and I may forget that in the early summer it looks like this:


Finally, I have taken to bypassing pastry shops. But on this day, we were looking at a display in one and a Frenchman paused to say this: you know, if you eat one a day you wont regret it. Even two a day. French people lose weight when they eat them.

Not that we needed convincing.