bad & bougie: our ill-fated vacation turned writing retreat

According to some estimates, Menton, France experiences merely thirty-four sunless days a year.

I have been here for all of them. img_3557-1

That’s an exaggeration. I have learned, though, that even the “sunniest place in France” isn’t always the beach oasis you expect. Not in February, when I visited the first time with my mom, and not now. img_3534-1

I’m here again, this time with Mary, in our last stretch of time together in France this year. It seemed the perfect destination. Small, relaxing, and beautiful. I found an unbeatable deal on an Airbnb, and we figured we wouldn’t need to spend much money; we’d eat gelato and caprese salad and lounge on the beach all day.

But when we arrived two days ago, we saw Menton under clouds and a brisk wind. I envied passersby: cozy in thin down jackets. When we couldn’t figure out, for a frustrating thirty minutes, how to make the convertible couches turn into beds, I wondered if we had been way too optimistic. About money, about weather, about what we planned to do with a two week stretch of time not at the beach when we lacked the means to travel anywhere else, or to do much of anything besides feed ourselves modestly.  img_3553-1

I felt a little foolish and a lot disappointed. “Stop trying to make beach vacation happen,” I joked to Mary and myself, paraphrasing a quote from Mean Girls. “It’s not going to happen.”

I hadn’t even looked at weather forecasts for Menton in May, assuming that the area’s “unique micro-climate” (as quoted from approximately every tourism website) would be conducive to napping in the sand and listening to the waves.

Trying to think of ways to get the most out of our time here, I had a change of perspective. We could look at it as a creative getaway. Menton is a beautiful, sleepy little town, perfect for a lazy beach vacation or writing retreat. Voilà.

We figured out the beds (at last), slept in, woke to the first day of our “Writing Retreat in the French Riviera.” It sounds likes something the well-dressed, hat-donning British retirees around us might be doing, but our circumstances are just the slightest bit different.

My project is to catch up on this blog. Much has happened and I hope to share it articulately and with lots of pictures. It helps to be breathing fresh sea air and to know there’s no return to teaching anytime soon. In other words, I can finally relax.

A writing retreat. We will have breakfast every morning at this great boulangerie where the pains au chocolat and croissants are still bien chaud, warm from the oven. img_3543

We will visit the little covered market five minutes from our apartment and cook simple, fresh, Mediterranean and Provençal food. Yesterday we bought a basil plant, fat red tomatoes, a single melon, two banquettes of strawberries, all of it wonderfully fragrant. To finish up provisions we bought a large boule of fresh mozzarella, tagliatelle, garlic, olive oil, salt. img_3554-1

Everywhere we want to go is generally less than twenty minutes by foot. We can walk to Monaco one day if we need the exercise (only about ninety minutes).

If we need inspiration, there’s of course the crashing waves of the Mediterranean, which we can reach in less than a minute. Down the steps of our stone and brick street is a castle by the sea, refurbished by artist Jean Cocteau and now filled with his art. There are scores of gardens and grand pastel-painted hotels lining the Promenade du soleil along the sea.

We’re renting an apartment in le Vieux Menton, and thank goodness for that: we might have ended up in the harbor. img_3539

Trip planning, Mary was scrolling through the Airbnb website. “Come look at this! How cool would this be?” Pretty cool. We could sleep on a boat? Not a bad price–

And then we remembered something. Neither of us knows how to operate a boat.

The horror. I imagined that trip, paying to sleep on a boat that doesn’t leave the boardwalk. The mildew and tight shared spaces of aquatic travel, with absolutely none of the glamour.

Or the alternative, wherein we take the boat out anyway, end up lost at sea without provisions.

All that to say, I’m glad we’re here, high on the fifth floor, with a view of the Mediterranean when you stick your neck out of the side windows and look to the right. A tiny window in the tiny kitchen provides a view of the city: craggy hills and overlapping, bright, boxy buildings. The apartment is small and cozy, like a cabin or a nest, a perfect place to write. This high up, we’re surrounded by whirling pigeons and seagulls, by their spirited calls that mimic the full spectrum of human displays of mirth: from low chuckles to full-fledged maniacal laughter.

img_3555-1

Yesterday the high evening winds meant the beach was deserted, but in a light sweater and a rain jacket, I hardly noticed the cold. The waves rolled toward me, higher than I’ve ever seen them. I watched the sun set, pink over the water.

Despite a weather forecast of straight rain and clouds for the next ten days, the sun has made an appearance plenty of times. We’re flexible. It warms up five degrees, we run home, put on swimsuits, get down to the beach. The wind sets in, we’re back to the apartment, back up the flights of stairs, back to sweaters and chamomile tea.

foie gras & pop art in la ville rose

This year I vowed to get better at that whole adventure thing. I’m good at following people around, but I haven’t yet developed the necessary skills myself.

I’ve never picked a place and just gone. Never figured out the dates, times, and hotel fares, the train schedules and directions. That’s why my summer abroad in Lyon a few years ago was a perfect start. We went to Marseille, Cassis, Avignon. I planned nothing beyond how many pairs of shorts I could stuff into a bag.

This year is different: if I don’t plan, I’m not going anywhere. How’s that for motivation?

Mary and I had talked about ideas for the first two-week vacation. One night we sat and looked at maps and google image searched a bunch of French cities…that was weeks ago. When we started teaching, travel planning became lesson planning and then it was the first day of our vacation and we had nothing.

We knew but one thing: we wanted to go south. So as of yesterday, here we are in…Toulouse!

Toulouse is known as the ville rose because many of its buildings are made of pink brick. Promising warmer temps and pretty views, it was good enough for me.

Lonely Planet calls Toulouse “a southern version of Paris only smaller, cheaper and friendlier, with fewer crowds and warmer weather.”

I’ve found that to be true! Today was 73 degrees and pleasantly windy. We walked everywhere easily, no need for the bus or metro. I didn’t notice a single tourist, and even though it’s Sunday, the city was lively from morning to night. img_2886-1

The biggest & best surprise: Toulouse is known for its food: classic southwestern France country food. This means foie gras everywhere. Duck everything. These are two of my very favorite foods so I’m giddy about it. The fact that it was a surprise made it even better. As we looked for a place to eat last night I noticed these items in some form on every menu and decided right then to make this a sort of gastronomic vacation. There are just too many good things to eat.

Tonight we visited the Cave au Cassoulet, a well-known spot where reservations are a must and the menu is foie gras, cassoulet with duck & sausage, and dessert. It was my first cassoulet and my second foie gras (of the trip, that is). The restaurant is underground, an old Toulousain wine cave. Cassoulet is the ultimate comfort food, warm and savory, the white beans velvety in a rich gravy. It was brought to the table in a heavy pot that Mary and I shared and still it seemed we hardly made a dent. I ate as much as I could, though, for I know I’ll soon be craving it on cold winter days in Montluçon.

Last night we ate a perfect meal at La Santine. I had foie gras with fig jam and toasts, then lamb with tagliatelle (this item was translated as “knuckle of lamb” in English…?). Dessert was crème brûlée with jasmine. There’s something dreamy about cracking that golden crust with your spoon. It was so good I nearly skipped home.img_2888-1

Our hotel is lovely, featuring a classic French window overlooking a busy street; sleek design, a bathtub (and most importantly peut-etre, it’s inexpensive). When we left this morning to see the Basilique Saint-Sernin, we were surprised to see what was taking place outside the hotel: the tenth annual marathon. Everyone (maybe except for the panting runners) seemed in high spirits. A French band was playing music. From the sound of it, they knew two songs: “Proud Mary” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” (The ten-minute renditions of these two songs repeated became a bit fatiguant, but they definitely get an A for enthusiasm).img_2884-1

We went to Marché Victor Hugo with the goal of finding a violet brioche. Toulouse is known for this little flower. Violets are used in candy, infused into honey, and apparently baked into pastries as well, but we couldn’t find the brioche anywhere. Mais bon. Instead we bought a rose éclair (!!!) and a tart with wild strawberries the size of my thumbnail.

The covered market Victor Hugo reminded me a lot of Lyon’s Les Halles. It’s something to see just for the experience, though I’d recommend bringing cash and a bag and buying food for a picnic. The vendors are friendly and knowledgeable. Now that I actually enjoy speaking to strangers in French, I like asking questions when it seems someone has the time. I talked to one man about how to cook cow stomach, the sort of dialogue I never practiced in school.

I like looking at the seafood: fresh crabs and lobsters with purple rubber bands on their claws; stacks of coquilles St. Jacques, even prickly sea urchins.

It’s not a place for the faint of heart. In the meat cases you’ll find rabbits, still with all their fur, and slaughtered ducks, their brilliant green heads and floppy feet oddly juxtaposed with their bodies plucked of feathers. You’ll find the hind legs of a lamb, pickled pigs feet, escargot bright green with herbs.

The crèmeries are glorious. I have my eye on some of that Gorgonzola DOP with mascarpone. I have not yet tasted this cheese, only read about it. (You can take the girl out of the cheese department…) It’s happening, like, tomorrow.

Our day was only half about food. We also visited two museums, les Abattoirs for modern art and Fondation Bemberg, displaying the art and antiques of a private collector from the 15th to the 20th century.

img_2877-1

I liked les Abattoirs. I found things that made me grin and that deeply disturbed me. I left inspired, in any case. My favorite piece was a six-minute experimental film, I guess you’d call it. Projected on the length of a room, just a few feet wide, runs a video of an undulating silver mass on a red background. It seems to quiver and ooze, soft yet solid, like mercury or octopus tentacles. There’s a faintly queasy quality to the mass, like a beating heart or the workings of some terrible machine, like something you shouldn’t be seeing. After a few minutes, a black ant scurries across the screen, through the gaps in the silver ooze. It’s cartoonish in style, huge against the wall of the room, but the movement captures exactly that of an insect in nature. Then another, another. Hypnotizing. An awful noise starts, sudden enough to be disquieting, louder than you’d expect. You couldn’t call it music, more like an industrial scraping, jarring and awful. There are more ants, more ants, streaming across the screen for a second before disappearing forever, each marching in its tight little pattern for the second it comes into view. Then the noise stops. The ants stop. The mass continues.

img_2630

It’s haunting and sort of terrible and I watched it three times. One thing I like about this sort of art is how it can provoke physical senses besides sight, unlike the picture on the wall. The movement made me dizzy, hypnotized. The sound made me uneasy. It was like looking at a painting, but a painting that was able to communicate. I read that the artist’s goal is to make the viewer contemplate his own mortality. One in a line of ants, finite. The piece is a success, I’d say, for when I read that, it clicked like information I had heard before. Of course.

Fondation Bemberg was cool too, definitely worth a visit. I won’t wax poetic about it but that’s just me, more likely to espouse on animated ants than praised 18th century paintings. Know what you like, man.

As we walked back towards the city center we happened to see a little gallery. Inside, Rolf Saint-Agnès, a Swedish-French artist, was working on a painting. We talked to him for quite a bit about his work. His pieces have French/English puns in the titles and all kinds of satirical hints hiding throughout. He wants to gently criticize but avoid aggression, he said. I thought that was kind of cool. His stuff is bright and misleadingly whimsical, like something in a children’s book, but it’s a bit of a ruse, disguising what’s beneath the surface.

Super modern art, classic French cuisine. I’m ready for more charming anachronisms.