There are places I have been drawn to and France has always been one of those places. I studied Latin in high school for three years and then switched to French because I wanted to learn a language that was spoken on a daily basis, not just in church or classrooms. In college, when friends departed for other countries in study abroad programs, I realized that immersion might be the best way to experience a different language and culture.
I was fascinated by Josephine Baker for a time, and admired her taking leave of the states and forging a career and life abroad. James Baldwin, a brilliant and prescient writer, also made his home in France. And the fact that my family had roots in Paris, although it was Paris, Kentucky, was a source of amusement for me. It had been over 20 years since my last trip to France and this year I decided that it was time to return.
Nice, the fifth largest city in France, was my choice because I had never been to the south of France, although I was fascinated by its location, cuisine, and culture. I made plans and my friend Terisa, who loves to travel and was up for seeing a city she had not yet visited, met me there; it was nice to have someone to walk around with and share meals and experiences.
I also took the trip to confront a creeping fear. The world seems less predictable and open these days, and if I allowed myself get too anxious, I could conclude that staying at home was the safe approach. But I have never been happy with decisions or beliefs based on fear; they can be limiting. I hear stories of people trying to get back into the U.S. from abroad and it concerns me, but I also tend to be optimistic and felt that it would work out. So I prayed, packed, and got on the plane. Settled in my seat on Air France, I heard the safety instructions in French, wrapped my black ruana around my shoulders and smiled, feeling certain I was going to enjoy this adventure.
I set a different intention for this trip—I wanted to use French as much as I could to communicate with people, even though many people there speak English, and far more fluently than I speak French. I did not want to rush from city to city, preferring to focus on one place—Nice—because I did not have a lot of time and there is so much to see. I kept up my writing practice, seeking to have a written journal of my experience. I took photos, and will share those in the another post, but I wanted to make sure that I was not just recording images, but also writing down my impressions.
The weather, except for one day of sideways rain, was in the sixties and sunny, which was perfect for walking around. I was delighted and surprised by the amount of walking that I saw at all hours of the day. The French have a word, flaneur, which refers to strolling and observing the city. My hotel was on the Promenade des Anglais, which meant I could cross the street and take the pleasant stroll along the beach. The sidewalk there was wide, with a separate two-way path for bikes and scooters. Since it was not peak tourist season, walking was a pleasure, not at all crowded. Nice is perfect for walking.
The sea is a blue unlike any I have ever seen, even on the one morning the sky was cloudy, the water near the shore remained blue. As I stood looking at the horizon, it was like looking at a liquid ombre painting; the water closest to the shore was a pale blue, then deepened into bands of blue, going from sky blue, to azure, to cerulean, until out in the distance, it was deep blue, not cobalt, but very dark.
I was struck by the way people seemed to respect the elderly, or maybe I was simply moved by the elders themselves. All during the day and into evening, I saw older people taking their walks, often with a younger person holding them arm-in-arm, or gently holding hands. I thought about how seldom I see that here in the U.S., being more accustomed to older people walking alone, using a walker as their support. I noticed that the most stylish and well-dressed people seemed to be the older adults, over 70, who reminded me of my grandfather. No occasion was too minor for him to dress up; even in the years before he passed, he would wear a suit to his dialysis treatment, to the delight of the nurses and doctors who cared for him. I saw that same sense of pride in appearance while in Nice. A patterned scarf draped around a coat, a moderate heel, but still a heel, a red lip, and very often a smart dress; these were the outfits I saw on older French women.
I had taken French lessons to prepare for the trip so I could at least be polite and maneuver around. From my instructor and friend I learned about the importance of a simple greeting when entering a store, something that I don’t always do here at home, but a habit I am trying to change. A simple “Bonjour Madame” would often bring a smile, and people were patient as I tried to converse in French. Although some of my attempts progressed slowly, and I am sure my grammar was not always perfect, I realized that the French lessons from years ago are still resident in my memory; they simply needed to be coaxed out in an environment where everyone else was speaking the language.
Between walking and a tour, I saw Vieux Nice, the Russian Cathedral, the castle-like homes nestled in the hills of Nice, the iconic Hotel Negresco, the pastel apartments with shuttered windows and tiny balconies, Place Masséna, museums, parks, promenades, and shopped in Galeries Lafayette, a department store. The food in Nice is influenced by Italy, its neighbor to the east and over the Alps. I sampled croissants and gelato, but also savored fresh seafood and pasta. It is a good thing that I walked a lot and I came home slightly lighter than when I left.
Although I remained aware of my surroundings, and noticed the armed police in groups of four patrolling the plaza and certain busy areas, I felt safe. Any concerns I had diminished once I realized that I was safe and more importantly, that I intended to return to France as soon as time and budget permitted. When I left home I told my husband that this was a “scouting trip” because I sensed that I would want to explore Nice, enjoy as much as I could, and then make a note of places to see the next time. I have a feeling that he will be with me for that trip.
I’ll post a few photos in the next post. À bientôt!