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.

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.

put that in your book

That’s going in my memoir. 

When I feel I’m playing a starring role in an indie comedy about someone with terrible luck, I do two things. First, I try to laugh at myself. If that fails, I remember something Mary told me, Nora Ephron’s philosophy: everything is copy.

No experience is wasted if it becomes material.

Combining the coping tactics of humor and inspiration, I developed a new joke over the year. My life in France. Take the frustrating daily dose of inconvenience and make it into a catchy or ridiculous title, stick My life in France on the end.

Voilà. My memoir.

We found it hilarious, this clash between typical starry-eyed French memoirs about the lavender fields of Provence or the patisseries of Paris and the titles of our imaginary exposés. If something annoying or pathetic happened to me, I couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Suddenly it was worth it just for that little bit of comic relief. me-scarf mary-chateau

When you put some of these “titles” together, it creates a pretty fair idea of the average daily experience. So, without further adieu.

Peeing in the Dark: My Life in France

Crying on a Train: My Life in France

Snails in the Salad: My Life in France

Backpack Full of Cheese: My Life in France

Soggy Baguette: My Life in France

Closed on Sundays: My Life in France

Encore du Vin? My Life in France

Singing in the Car with a Turkish Man: My Life in France

Uphill Both Ways in the Rain: My Life in France

Blisters & Bruises, or, My Ruined Feet: My Life in France

30 Uses for an Eggplant: My Life in France

Listen, We Have to Stop Buying Artisanal Jams: My Life in France

We Missed the Bus: My Life in France

Beans on Toast: My Life in France

I Accidentally Walked 17 Miles: My Life in France

Why Did I Buy Hair Perfume? My Life in France

Do You Really Need a Tutu? My Life in France

Accidentally Drunk at Lunch: My Life in France

Do You Know the Queen of England? And Other Questions I’m Asked: My Life in France

The Honey Cake And Other Regrettable Homemade Desserts: My Life in France

Bags of Vegetables on My Handlebars: My Life in France

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

there are snails in the salad: adventures in renting

 

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and lettuce. 

Had Benjamin Franklin rented from Monsieur C, his famous line might have looked a little different. I can rarely foresee what challenges life in France will throw at me, but I am always confident there will be lettuce in the fridge.

It all started with a simple question. One day Monsieur C asked Mary: tu aimes la salade ? 

Yeah, I like salad, she responded. The deed was done. Sentenced to salad without parole. Daily, Monsieur C knocks on the door that separates the two living spaces, shouting his classic âllo ? Je peux ? and offers us a big bag of fresh lettuce from the garden. C’est bonne, la salade ! It’s not a question.

Unfortunately, neither of us much like lettuce.

Bags of it crowd our fridge. It sits wilting, forgotten, on our countertops.

I tried to tactfully tell Monsieur C that, you know, we’re really doing okay on the lettuce thing. It’s more than we can eat! 

I know, he said. Vous mangez pas beaucoup! Vous mangez pas beaucoup!

(You girls don’t eat much!) 

He explained that that was why he had been giving us such small daily portions. An image of our fridge, home to scores of wilting green leaves, flashed through my mind.

Anyway, I’ll bring you some more tonight! Bon après-midi ! Conversation over.

I smiled weakly, the light surely gone from my eyes. What could I say but, merci. C’est très gentil. 

Sometimes, guilty, we do make a salad: a task which typically involves the setting free of a live snail or two. Open the window, set it on the ledge, send it on its way.

Last week we found a slug.

lettuce

The upside is that salad has become our measuring stick, a real source of motivation. If we’re waffling about going out and doing something, we put it to the salad test. Okay, we either get ready now, catch the 6:56 bus, or we stay here and eat salad. 

That’s usually enough. We’re running to our rooms and scrambling for our coats in no time.

The lettuce thing represents just one of the many little misunderstandings that are bound to happen, when you think about it, when you put together a traditional French man in his seventies and two lively American girls in their early twenties.

In early October, when Mary moved in, he said to me one day: Vous vous entendez bien, hein? (You two get along well!)

Yes! I said brightly. We do! 

I know, he said flatly. I can hear you.

What he doesn’t know is that his two renters are often awakened from sleep in the morning by the sound of him sneezing. From downstairs.

The generation gap is impossible to ignore. I think we baffle each other. Monsieur C thinks, for example, that we hang out in cafés in an effort to meet boys. A 4 pm pot of jasmine tea with notebooks out for lesson plans…and we’re there to flirt? His interpretation had me scratching my head until I realized that, with his particular values and no-nonsense practicality, he probably just doesn’t understand why someone would pay for coffee and tea when you could make it at home. But his idea becomes even more hilarious when you consider that rarely, in any of the cafés I frequent, do I encounter someone under the age of forty.

In any case, I am a happy renter. The house is lovely (and rent is unbeatably cheap). It’s pretty, with big windows and bright orange shutters, surrounded by roses, vines, and well-fed cats. We have the main floor while Monsieur C lives in the lower part of the house that opens out to the back garden.la-maison

I am unaccustomed to having a landlord who is so…present, but Monsieur C is a thoughtful man in many ways. If he knocks on the door to talk about rent, it’s usually with a few clementines in hand. Tiens ! One for you, one for ta copine. He’ll give us a bag of chestnuts and tell us how to cook them, or leave us a couple of ripe pears.

He’s thoughtful, yes, but I can’t say niceNice is too tame a word for Monsieur C. He’s the sort of man surely described by his friends as a rascal. Probably, too, by his enemies, of which I’m almost certain he has at least a few.

He is always yelling merde! Or calling someone a con, then asking if I know what that means. Sometimes he drives me places, to the bank or insurance office, and he’ll slow down in the middle of the street to yell at a friend he sees. Passing drivers then might honk, and he’ll yell at them to slow down, but if he’s the one in a hurry he’ll yell some version of, hurry up, Grandma! to someone taking their time.

Yesterday he gave me a ride home from town–I was carrying a bouquet of flowers and trying to catch Mary on her 23rd birthday before she left for work–and as we passed a house a a few blocks away from home, he slowed down the car and gestured to a tree. You see that? You see that cherry tree? Ça c’est un beau cerisier, ça. 

It wasn’t the innocent observation of an avid gardener. Monsieur C proceeded to tell me a story. He had once asked the man whose garden it was to let him have a branch, start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C said, and he still said no! He wouldn’t take my money! 

So what did he do? One night, around three a.m. as the man slept, Monsieur C crept through the fence, snipped off what he wanted from the cherry tree and roared off in his car.

I laughed, incredulous. So did you leave him a bit of money in exchange? Ben non ! He didn’t want it.

So this accounts for that tree in our backyard…probably the most dramatic cherry tree story since George Washington.

All’s fair in love and gardening, apparently.