Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nice (South of France)

Nice, France
It was only a couple of year ago that we were on a river boat meandering south along the Saone River heading for Nice in the South of France.  In a strange sort of way it was deja-vu all over again. I was finally completing a journey I started back in the winter of 1967.
Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time and I was in a much different place in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh winter in Denmark.

The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually the daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. Then as the first snowflakes powdered my apartment steps, I realized another Minnesota winter was in my near future unless I split for someplace warm. Compounding Mother Nature’s wrath were my own lingering doubts as to the wisdom of leaving home for living in a foreign land without any clearly defined plans or objectives. I was like a rudderless ship facing an on-coming storm.

It didn’t help that the few friends I had up north were all moving on themselves. Tina was leaving town for Istanbul and points east. My Canadian travel companion was heading off for parts unknown with his new girlfriend.  My Spanish tutor Maria had left the laundry to go back to Spain. Heidi didn’t want me to go but that was a commitment I wasn’t ready for. I loved Denmark and its people but it was time to move on.

Map of the South of France
The south of France seemed a logical answer to a young kid who was ill-equipped and clothed to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into the false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me to those rocky shores in just a couple of days.

By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off. As I trudged through the city in hope of enlightenment, I only got hustled by Gypsies instead. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home, and left on a silver bird the next day.

Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit stand-offish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis. This fourth trip through Paris would mean three days in the city before we boarded ship for our cruise to Nice.

Sharon and I in Paris
Our tour guide reminded us that Paris is always ‘in season.’ This just happened to be the height of the in-season. From our high-rise hotel, we could see the waves of humanity crowding the city sidewalks. Tour groups of every imaginable size, demographic, country of origin, level of sophistication and focus of interest had swept over the city in a title wave of humanity. There wasn’t a museum, landmark, art gallery, district, avenue, historical site or coffee shop that wasn’t inundated with foreigners eager to soak up the Parisian experience. Even the best ice cream shop in town had a line of buyers stretched out around the corner.

The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side-streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time man-euvering. Signs of progress are everywhere but nowhere as dramatically as on the ring route and major arteries that are clogged with vehicles of every size, shape and purpose from morning to night.

The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.

I’m physically in a different place in my life but mentally it hardly feels as if I’ve left town at all.

The distractions are everywhere. From traffic that can clip you off your feet if you aren’t looking to Gypsy girls who study your every move for an opportunity to strike at your wallet. Still some things never change. All the young French girls and women are out in force, their low-cut summer dresses, short shorts or white flowing transparent skirts (short slips underneath) a marvelous distraction. One’s eyes can’t help but wander and wonder.

Paris Murals
There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. While there’s no time to retrace Hemingway’s Paris haunts; I find the quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.

Montmartre still holds an allure for me. Climbing its hill brings back the same sense of wonder along with deep breaths and dampness across the brow. Parisians talk about the place the way New Yorkers talk about the Village. Hemmingway is no longer lingering at some corner café but other bohemians, artists and lost souls have taken his place.

The trip south to Nice was uneventful, restful and easy on the feet. It gave me plenty of time to ponder the times gone by and the journey I never completed back in ’67.

The first time I stumbled into Montmartre I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink. The small cafes of Nice were no different.

This time around, I found a small café next to a flower shop. I ordered a beer and slowly began sipped it-French style. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past the café.

They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. Neither the flowers, the glorious sunshine, nor the warmth of France. It was just another day on the coast for them.

Me…I was finally home.

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