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Postcard From France: Now And Then In Nice
June 27, Cours Saleya, Nice, France:
It's my last day in Nice, this vibrant capital of pleasure and art and ease on the Cote d'Azur, and I'm sitting in the Cours Saleya, site of the fruit and flower market where I was 11 days ago, at the start of this glorious re-immersion in the riches of the Riviera. There's a cold glass of vin rosé du Provence on my table, the sand-colored awning of La Storia restaurant on my left, the mustard-colored house where Matisse lived in front of me, and an archway framing palm fronds and the incomparably blue Mediterranean on my right.
This is the same centuries-old square where I sat and wrote 20 years before, on my second visit to the Cote d'Azur, and I am thinking about how things change and how they stay the same.
Back then I wrote:
I could have penned those same words today.
I'm having a café crème and a croissant at a Cours Saleya cafe that looks right onto stalls selling a colorful collage of flowers, fruits and vegetables. As I sip and scribble in my journal, elegant older women with well-coiffed dogs smell melons and prod glistening red and yellow peppers. A trio of breezy, baguette-bearing beauties in floppy T-shirts and espadrilles buys peaches and peonies; housewives in sun hats and long-sleeved dresses stuff garlic and grapes and guavas into woven baskets. 'Bonjour!' and 'Merci!' peal through the morning air, past the graceful shutters and grillwork balconies on the salmon- and peach- and wheat-colored apartments that overlook the stony square.
I wrote that too 20 years before.
From the Promenade des Anglais I wandered here last night, and the scene was amazingly vibrant: the square crammed with tiny tables showered with lamplight from the surrounding cafes, and resonant with excited conversation and leisurely laughter – the music of people with no morning duties or deadlines, of people wrapped, rapt, in the endless enjoyment of the moment.
The night oozed sensuality – the wine and the lamplight, the caressing air and the laughing, lilting patrons in T-shirts and sandals, shorts and short dresses. Later, when I returned to my room in the storied Hotel Negresco, about to celebrate its own buoyant 100th birthday, I reread what I had written about the residents of the Riviera on my first visit in 1976:
This spirit has stayed the same: The essential sensuality of Nice grows lush in the sunlight that illumines things to their core and the soft air that swaddles the skin like a benediction. It has plucked my heart and soul again as it did 36 years before.
If they were blessed enough to grow up here, they have it in their bones, but if they have come here from elsewhere, they have knowingly abandoned whatever they have abandoned because they want what this region cultivates: a reasoned abandonment to sensual pleasures.
What makes this place so seductive for me? The sunlight and the air and the colors certainly, the Mediterranean palette of beach and sea, the ochre, mustard, wheat, and terracotta walls; the bobbing boats and Belle Epoque facades; the fresh-grilled fish and succulent lé gumes farcis; the bubbly-beaded glasses of vin rosé; the stony plazas, stylish shops and splendored musées; the labyrinth of winding cobbled alleys, by night a magical medieval moonlit maze; the centuries-old cathedrals and just-opened galleries; the swish of the salt-tinged breeze; the terracotta roof tiles and green hillsides sloping to the sea; the legacy of art and history ...
I sip and slip back in time. Oh to have been here in the 1920s with Gerald and Sara Murphy on Cap d'Antibes, partying on La Garoupe beach with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, dos Passos, Cocteau, and Man Ray. Or to have sipped and supped with Picasso and Matisse, Chagall, Braque and Léger ...
On my first two visits here, I was filled with a sense of soaring potential: The possibility of a life of sensual celebration and artful appreciation stretched before me like the glinting sea.
I know that feeling – and yet, and yet ... Somehow today I don't feel transported in quite the same way ... Perhaps I have become too old, or la vie est devenue trop compliquée? "Life has become too complicated," is what I meant to say. (Do I dare to eat one of those peaches? What would Monsieur Prufrock say?)
Now I have become the age I innocently imagined back then. I am the map, know the route I tread. Am I straining too hard for epiphany?
Sigh. Scribble. Take another sip of rosé.
Around me people lick gelatos, smile for photos, exclaim over hot slices of socca. Beauties in bikinis bike breezily by. Elegant older women with well-coiffed dogs smell melons and prod glistening red and yellow peppers, and housewives in sun hats and long-sleeved dresses gather garlic and grapes and bushels of lavender and thyme.
I think of the surprise feast I savored on a country terrace three nights before, the almost deserted beach on St Tropez where I impetuously plunged into the crystalline sea, the kindly gallery owner who closed his shop for an hour to sip coffee and talk art with me. I think of the stories still to write, the places still to be seen. And something stirs inside me; a fragile tendril greens.
It's evident all around me, if I just open my eyes, my heart, my mind. The gift of Nice is this sense of celebration that infuses every day, celebration of sun and cypress, plane tree and plage, lavender and olive and pungent fromage; celebration of art, celebration of sea, celebration of cobble and tile and tranquillity.
It's a lesson to cherish on this lamentably last day.
And a souvenir I'll nurture as I move away.