magic in the details: on noticing

When I think about leaving the Côte d’Azur (which by necessity will happen in about a month), every moment on a sun-soaked stretch of beach feels precious.

Something that interests and disappoints me is how easy it is to become accustomed to beauty. It’s hard to hold on to the wonder. Sometimes it’s only scarcity or the acknowledgement that you will soon lose something that rescues you from disillusionment or boredom.

I have never before lived somewhere that is–to my personal aesthetic sensibilities–so beautiful. The impossible blue of the sea plus the wild stubborn plants, the buildings in colors plucked from a box of Crayolas. Color and sun plus everything I appreciate about my adopted country.

I have to take pictures, though, because the pink sunsets and crashing waves and piles of houses start to feel just like any background. Somehow seeing these things in a tiny digital square makes them digestible, something I own a little piece of. Otherwise I am helpless in their bigness. acs_0300I am trying to recapture the wonder of my surroundings and the simple joy that comes from successfully having built a life somewhere new– while I’m still living it. The countdown is on, so sometimes I stop and actively consider what’s around me, activate my senses like in a beginning writer’s exercise. It’s not that everything is flawless or beautiful–I’ll be the last to sell you a guidebook impression–but it’s mine. I am in love with the details. acs_0293Notes from an average day:

What I smell: cigarette smoke, coffee, hints of fine perfume, the unmistakeable odor of a gooey cheese, salty breezes, French fries

What I hear: the mosquito whine of motorbikes, the musical chaos of layers of foreign languages, the industrial clacking of a train on the tracks

What I see: the aquamarine Mediterranean sea, sparkling across the street from my balcony. Craggy mountains. Ramshackle buildings in candy colors. The occasional island decorated with sage-colored olive trees. The bright white yachts in the port. Signs that point me to Italy, Marseille, or “the beautiful place on the sea.” Stooped old men clutching newspapers. Market shoppers carrying crates of clementines or bunches of yellow mimosa.

What I feel: freezing breezes off the sea, sand in my sneakers, sleep-inducing sunshine through my classroom window

What I taste: bitter coffee, the tart Prosecco they serve in bowls at Salsamenteria, the rich cream of a tarte tropézienne, that longed-for first bite of a croissant from the boulangerie down the street, endless cups of hot tea at night


Today, Easter, after a lovely last-minute picnic on the beach, I took a train to Villefranche-sur-Mer on a whim. Villefranche is tiny, a colorful strip that curves around a bay dotted with sailboats. If I was trying to do the guidebook thing, I would tell you that Villefranche dates to 1295, houses one of the deepest natural harbors on the Mediterranean, and contains the belle-époque mansion where The Rollings Stones recorded Exile on Main St in 1972.  acs_0303But, fueled by Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (more specifics on that soon), I’m trying to get away from that line of thinking. Botton’s theory? Guidebooks kill curiosity. They expect a person to (and I’ll adapt his analogy to Villefranche) maintain curiosity and interest for: 13th century history, marine and naval information, American rock music, the work of Jean Cocteau, 1750’s Italian baroque-style architecture, the Napoleonic empire, and the modern tourism industry. acs_0312Guidebooks tell you what you should care about, what is supposedly important. Botton urges the traveler to listen to his own curiosity. The layout of a street, the color of a house, a mealtime custom…any of these might invite wonder.

The point is, who is actually enriched by crossing items off a list? Travel isn’t about changing pace at great speed. It’s not about how many museum doors you manage to swing through.

I am trying harder to just be. (There’s a koan in there somewhere.) Trying to notice, listen, wonder. Though I like museums, churches, ancient citadels, I feel no obligation to go inside. img_1386This afternoon in Villefranche, I didn’t step foot in a building. Mostly I just listened to the rattle of the sailboats in the wind, counted plant varieties, and followed the sunshine. I climbed above the town and admired how the boats suddenly looked just like toys. I wondered why the water always seems bluer here, and considered how it is that dainty flowers can break out from rock walls. I badly wanted to order an aperol spritz (admittedly just for the way the tangerine-colored drink would look next to the water), but decided it was a bit chilly to sit outside. I watched tourists, and wondered about how and why people got here. I admired the way the train tracks shot into  a tunnel in the rock. And I realized one reason I love the coast: it’s like a cartography close-up. The lines and curves on the map make sense when you see coastline from up high. Maps now intimidate me less.

Shivering in the shadows, I hopped back on the train and went home. Nothing special.

On second thought, maybe it was.

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population, 21: exploring Île Saint-Honorat

(a South-of-France staycation, ii)

When the throbbing commercialism of Rue d’Antibes and the reality of competing for a spot on the beach prove tiresome, just hop on a ferry and leave the bustle of Cannes behind for some peace. Île Saint-Honorat is a storybook-lovely spot for a tranquil morning walk: or, if you’d rather, a weekend (or lifetime) of dedicated prayer. At last count, the island was home to twenty-one people: all Cistercian monks. img_3423

Île Saint-Honorat is one of four Îles de Lérins. All four islands are part of the commune of Cannes, though the smaller two, considered îlots, are uninhabited. Sainte Marguerite, the other island accessible by ferry, is about six times the size of Saint-Honorat. Inhabitants of these islands (about forty altogether) are called Lériniens. I found it charming–a name for something so specific!– but considering the history, I think they’ve earned it: monks have lived here since 410.

Today, besides running the ferries to and from the island, the monks produce red and white wine as well as Lérina: a liquor made from 44 kinds of plants macerated in alcohol. img_3224

For about 17 euros each, Erika and I bought round trip tickets on the speedy little Saint-Honorat III. We left at 9 am and enjoyed the crisp sea air and the view of Cannes from afar.

When we arrived, our few companions scurried off the boat and disappeared up some concrete stairs, moving like they had jobs to do: which was likely true. The island has a gift shop, a restaurant and snack bar, and even, it seemed to me, a small hotel or hostel.

We picked a path along the perimeter, determined to walk the whole thing, lest we miss something (no excuse for that on such a small island). The morning air was cool, the quiet broken only by birdsong and the occasional church bell. The air smelled faintly of pine. And the color! A feast of sage greens, soft browns, and shiny black olives. (So inviting, these olives, framed by dusty green leaves, and yet so bitter. Someday I’ll learn).

We came to an arch and changed direction, walking under it and towards the center of the island. A wide dirt path bisected a vineyard, and over the fences we saw pheasants: their startling blue feathers flashing in the bright sunlight.

As we approached the monastery, the scene changed from sleepy storybook forest to something distinctly tropical. The Abbayé de Lérins, framed by flowers and palmiers, looked like it belonged in Italy or Spain.img_3226

We tried to go inside, but after wrestling a lot of locked doors, we gave it up and continued to faire le tour. We found a chapel every few minutes, it seemed, in various states of restoration or decay. The oldest, I think (12th century?) was in complete ruins, nothing but a historic pile of small stones.

It was interesting to divine the island’s rich history through its architecture. In addition to chapels and statues, there’s even an ancient cannonball oven.

On the presqu’île (which translates literally to almost-island), the lonely Forteresse de l’ile Saint-Honorat seems to sit on the sea.

img_2343We gave ourselves three hours to explore, but didn’t need all the time. A picnic lunch and a book might have extended the visit. As we went to leave, it seemed the new arrivals stepping off the boat had prepared for some serious hiking: the ferry was full this time around, everyone wearing hats and light jackets, many carrying backpacks and walking sticks. I’ve noticed this about France: if you plan to exercise, you’d better dress the part. What felt like a light, refreshing walk to me saw these families of five dressed as one might be for a half-day hike straight uphill. In the desert.

 

 

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.”