no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

group date on the DL: adventures in digital friendship, pt ii

When making a questionable decision, it is always reassuring to have an innocent friend to drag along with you. After several days of glumly searching On Va Sortir (a French website for platonic meet-ups), I decided it was time to act.

Over dinner one evening, I showed the website to my friend Rémi. Like me, he was immediately skeptical.

“It gets worse,” I said. I read him an article from a French dating and “séduction” website where a young reporter decided to see if love could be found via OVS meet-ups. Over a year in Paris, she went on dozens of outings.

She never found love, but she did meet a lot of strange people, and could even sort them into types. In any group, she said, there was sure to be the Divorcée, who would monopolize the evening with tales of lost love, recounting the innumerable ways her ex had wronged her. There was always the Shy One, the Weirdo, and the person who was new in town and knew not a soul.

The writer did not mince words with her OVS roast. After we finished cringing, I thought I should tell him.

“By the way, I reserved two spots for an event Friday night.”

T’es sérieuse là ? He laughed nervously.

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Ben oui, I said, cucumber cool. I knew Rémi would never do something like this alone, and I was confident that while he would complain, he would ultimately be a good sport about it. Plus, I had found an event that I thought sounded pretty fun (bowling with Bob just didn’t make the cut).

I had signed us up for a photography expedition. Participants were instructed to bring their camera and “eye.” We’d embark on a walk around the city with the objective of taking themed photos: “winter in Cannes.” Afterwards, we would get a drink and discuss everyone’s shots. There were ten spots to fill.

I teased Rémi about it for the next week. “Can’t wait for Friday when we’ll meet our new best friends!” Really, though, I was looking forward to it. If nothing else, I’d get some good photos.

The day came and I double-checked the event details. Luckily. It turned out the soirée was intended as a discussion of the photos that people had taken at the last event, several weeks ago. No need to bring my camera, in other words. And no night stroll around Cannes. We were meeting directly at the wine bar. Oops.

Somewhat predictably, Rémi tried to beg off, citing post-work exhaustion.

“Ahh, you cannot do this to me,” I said on the phone. I was straightening my hair and applying lipstick. “Pokemon” and “Dave” would be there and I needed to make a good impression.

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He groaned and sounded positively miserable, but I had come to understand, through scrolling OVS, that not showing up to an event at the last minute was an unforgivable sin. It seemed these people had ways of finding you out and getting you back. Like the Mafia.

An hour later, we stood shivering in the dark outside the wine bar, peering in the windows. Inside it was bright and cozy, but we were both buzzing with first-date nerves.

Après toi, Rémi said, holding the door. “You got us into this.”

“But…” I looked for an excuse. “You’re French! It’s less awkward for you.”

He wasn’t convinced.

The place was packed, but I didn’t see any signs advertising “group of people who just met over the internet.”

I leaned towards a bartender with gray hair and hipster glasses and said under my breath, “Um, we’re with a groupe d’OVS ?”

“A what?”

“On Va Sortir.”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t at all sure how this kind of thing was perceived in France, but it felt like a secret. My instinct was to keep it on the DL.

I cleared my throat. C’est un site de rencontre. He then proceeded to ask every group in the place if they were awaiting two strangers who just might be Rémi and I.

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We found them, a small and friendly group of five people, and exchanged cheek kisses. A pretty woman in her late 30s, Rebecca, had organized the event. An expat, she spoke with a Spanish accent and seemed completely enamored by photography. She talked like a professor, discussing the philosophical and aesthetic values that make good photos. For her, it was all about the story. I felt like taking notes.

We procured glasses of Merlot and a charcuterie plate, and then everyone took turns showing off their work via USBs and Rebecca’s Macbook.

Apart from the man sitting next to me, who showed me his collection of professional portraits, everyone was an amateur. So I was stunned to see that these photos were good.

In the series, all five of them, each person had captured Cannes in a different way, though they had all taken the same walk. The professional photographer focused on people on the street–musicians playing for euros, little kids–as well as his fellow photographers, capturing them in the midst of shooting pictures of other things.

A quiet older woman had put together a black-and-white series of what she described as Cannes ‘behind the scenes.’ She showed photographs of construction near the beach, litter, the jagged wood of a boat in need of repair. She had taken extreme close-ups of a single feather, a length of rope coiled on the sand, pigeon droppings. And they were beautiful.

I was perfectly content to sip wine, munch on salami, and admire everyone’s work. At the end, Rebecca gave her opinion on each series, explaining if she thought it worked as a cohesive set.

I was surprised and pleased by all the consideration given, this frank feedback. I’ll take passion over small-talk any day.

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I had halfway hoped for a funny horror story to share.

But there was a bigger surprise in store: I had a perfectly pleasant evening. (So did Rémi).

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I don’t think, though, that this marks the beginning of a thriving OVS-sponsored social life. I might be motivated to try again, if only the website wasn’t so clunky, archaic, and frustrating.

It’s not you, OVS, it’s me and my reluctance to spend hours clicking myself back to the late 90’s.

Better sometimes, anyway, to quit while you’re ahead.

the land of oz: adventures in digital friendship, pt i

On Va Sortir. When I moved to Cannes, the website was recommended to me several times. You’re new in town. Just try OVS! This site de rencontre, the title of which means let’s go out!, apparently had a lively presence in town. Cannes is flanked by mountains and the sea, so I pictured the city’s OVS page hosting a dynamic community of adventurous people meeting up to get drinks or hike.

And then I typed in the web address.

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Well, looks can be deceiving, I thought. Maybe the fact that they hadn’t updated the website since before the Y2K scare was just a nod to simpler times, a sort of cozy nostalgia.

On Va Sortir. The ‘S’ was stylized to look like a path that led up to a shadowed city, maybe Oz.

I created an account, ignoring my slight embarrassment. I scrolled. A widget on the screen’s edge informed me that today was the birthday of “Coco” and “Tropical Fleur” and “Flyman.” Bright pink or blue type represented the user’s gender.

A little box urged me to type in my current mood, as if the “107 members currently online” had the slightest inclination to care.

The front page hosted pictures of past “events,” which mainly featured people who were fiftyish and wearing feather boas and sequins and other evidence of a tipsy evening spent at a casino.

Mixed in with these photos was the occasional dating ad, targeting those seeking “fun, single, mature older women.”

So this was it. My social connection for the year.

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When I finally figured out how to navigate to the actual event-finding page, I saw there were sorties as simple as a pre-work coffee or a karaoke night (the horror). It works this way: you create an event, along with the number of people you would like to participate. Maybe 5 for an early morning run or 10 for apéro hour at a local bar. You set a time and date and then (you hope) people sign up. The majority are strangers, to you and to each other, and you know nothing besides their gender, age, and OVS name. It’s like a big, messy, hopeful, desperate, platonic blind date, and if it sounds a bit terrifying or like a breeding ground for awkward moments, I don’t think that’s too far off the mark.

The idea is that by connecting people with mutual interests, the site will engender natural friendships. But I wonder if they haven’t gotten a bit overzealous. In the “advanced” event search, I find I can select:

“Gothic.”

“Luxury.”

“I like aquatic life.”

“I enjoy beer.”

“I like Turkish food.”

Unsurprisingly, such searches return no results. Snorting, I can’t help but imagine the soiree that would combine all of the above.

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I pick through some events that sound kind of okay by title, but when I click to read the user’s message, I’m put off right away by the type. Some of these users have typed up event descriptions like manifestos, featuring a diatribe about how this will be a medium paced walk on the beach, and if you can’t keep up, you really should not bother coming.

Many of them are typed in Comic Sans (a font I had understood to be illegal) and boast proud titles straight out of the Word Art program I played around with in second-grade computer class.

I shudder. I am not like OVS people. I am not OVS people. Yet…here I am, reading about Bob’s soirée bowling tomorrow night, checking for an open spot.

shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.