Franchement, j’ai du mal


Training to Nice, from that place I shall no longer name, was curiously complicated. Our train went as far as Ventimiglia, the last town in Mediterranean Italy before one enters Mediterranean France. Then, for reasons that remain mysterious, we had to disembark and change to a French train which took us the rest of the way to Nice. But never mind, both segments of the trip had been extremely scenic as the tracks frequently hugged the coast. We are fond of large bodies of water.

The previous year we’d stayed in Nice near the center of the Promenade des Anglais, a pretty bike/skate/pedestrian way bordering a scenic beach rendered virtually unusable as it was covered in roundish wave-worn cobble stones that were agonizing to walk on. (This was done on purpose to prevent sand from what would have been a wonderful beach blowing up onto the Promenade, because les anglais evidently hate the stuff.) Near the end of our stay, with the help of a student who was supplementing his summer income as a tricycle taxi driver (we WhatsApp-ed him whenever we needed a lift), we discovered the italianesque harbor area which was far more to our liking.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, we opted to stay in that area for our 2023 trip, and we were not disappointed. We had a balcony overlooking the harbor, and Francesca – when unable to actually be on a boat – loves to watch them. Our balcony was much used.

I was eager to get back to Le Marlin, a restaurant we’d discovered the year previous where I befriended the grumpy woman owner (and – unwittingly overdosed with caffeine – came close to embarrassing myself as I energetically regaled a young Italian couple at a nearby table with years of anecdotes). Alas, the restaurant was closed, and, by the looks of it, had been for quite some time. Nice, not having the kind of close knit community we’d just left, my efforts to find out what happened to the owner did not lead to a phone number and the location of her new restaurant, if she even had one. One person was pretty sure he remembered the restaurant, but … pfft.

We were able to have a couple of meals at our favorite balcony restaurant in the old town. Getting there was quite pleasant. We’d walk across the parking lot (above), board a small taxi boat, and let it take us across about 100m of harbor. Then we’d walk to the left along the gorgeous path atop cliffs overlooking the med, at which point we were at the edge of the scenic old town.

Another favorite occupation was being agog at the wealth of the place. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shortly after we moved to nearby Durham, became “discovered” and very quickly tripled in size as wealth – and the people who held it – streamed up and bought expensive new condos overlooking the Piscataqua River. (Generally speaking, the influx of such moneyed people can render a charming place uncharming, which is ironic, as it was the charm that attracted them in the first place; but no matter, once the charm is gone they often fail to recognize its absence.) Admittedly this river, and the boat traffic on it (including very large tankers), is very scenic, and occasionally a yacht will be parked at Portsmouth, or on the Maine side. But the largest of them would be dwarfed by an average sized yacht on the Med. The biggest yacht parked in Nice during our stay was the 73m long Odessa II, its size putting it in the top 5% in the world. Its owner: “Sir Leonard Valentinovich Blavatnik is a Ukrainian-born British-American businessperson and philanthropist. As of October 2023, Forbes estimated his net worth at $29.6 billion. In 2017, Blavatnik received a knighthood for services to philanthropy.” Anyway, anyway, yeah …

A pair of young gypsy girls tried to lift objects out of my shoulder bag. Francesca, rather confused why one was carrying a heavy coat on that warm day, was also confused why one of the girls seemed intent on walking close behind me. Then Francesca noticed a hand extending out of the coat, draped over one girl’s arm. The hand then began to lift the flap of my bag, at which point Francesca began to hurl imprecations at the pair, causing them to cease their dastardly deed. They scurried off. I caught up with them, looked in their backpack. They proclaimed in French that it was all theirs, but the fact they allowed me to search their bag was proof enough that they’d been up to no good. Francesca said her quite loud outburst had attracted the attention of nearby tourists who looked on approvingly at our efforts to thwart the gypsy thievery. (I recently acquired a far more secure shoulder bag from Amazon.)

There was a very pleasant cafe below our apartment at which we often had a cappuccino, orange juice, and a pastry (a combination I on my own discovered was quite pleasant, and only later learned it is a common French repast called, I believe, un francais). A waitress there proclaimed the two of us trés sympathique, which we are, but if your other customers are affiliated with mega-wealth on display near the cafe, well, Francesca and I rather stand out. The waitress had family in Tunisia, and she wanted us to go visit the country with her. I found the idea attractive, but not so much it overwhelmed my doubts and concerns. Nothing came of it.

My final desire for our week in Nice was to traipse to the next town to the west, Villefranche-sur-Mer. This is where Kiki de Montparnasse was arrested a century ago, and where Jean Cocteau had a second home. However, there were two impediments standing in the way of this desired venture. First, “traipsing” was out of the question. The walk there would have required uncomfortable changes in elevation (not requiring technical climbing gear, but …), and at 74, my attitude was “fuck that”. Maybe there was a water taxi? But, come on, let’s be serious. This place was not going to look very much at all as it had when Kiki and Jean haunted it. So, as Francesca is happiest when sitting in a boat out in open water, what about that cruise to Villefranche-sur-Mer. which would allow us to see it fairly close up, and avoid a hike I might have relished 40 years earlier. And that is what we did. (The homes of other, less interesting, luminaries, lined the cliffs … like … well, i can’t remember; I thought Mick Jagger was one, but Francesca says no.)

Il faut tenter de partir

Taxi to train station, and, after much confusion, board TGV to Paris. 4 hours of pleasant French countryside followed, at one point passing by Taizé, “The Taizé Community is an ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Catholic and Protestant traditions, who originate from about thirty countries around the world.” Decades earlier, besotted with the Swiss Miss (in previous writings given the moniker Heidi), I went with her to this place. There was music and singing, and to this day I’ve never encountered anything as haunting. There was a horny young Indian kid who fucked anyone who was willing. And there was the discussion group I decided to join, the intention being to sit outside on the grass and discuss things spiritual. Heidi was busy elsewhere, having come with a purpose, so I was at a loose end. I figured I’d sit unobtrusively at the back of this group and just hang out. (The alternative was to do a silence thing, which I tried for a few hours and, bizarrely, got bored with it.) The first thing my group did was elect a group leader to help focus the discussions.

You know, all my life I have exuded a kind of rebellious, easy-going, laissez-faire (searching for adjectives here; be patient) insouciance that many people less self-assured find compelling. This included the other members of the Taizé discussion group I glommed onto, for I was quickly and unanimously elected group leader, and thereby lost my hoped for unobtrusiveness. I mean, WTF. I hadn’t even spoken, much more than an introduction, anyway, but that evidently was sufficient for my je ne sais quoi to come spilling out.

You know, it’s a pity the society of theoretical physicists did not – over the 40 years I attempted to become anything but unobtrusive in their company … well, whatever the young people at Taizé instinctively saw in me, those pathetically competitive academic dweebs actively resisted my magnetic charms. Rather than embracing my revolutionary physics ideas, they instead – as a herd of fluffy white … uh, sheep … yeah, sheep – they pursued the prevailing idée fixe, which, after 40 years of increasingly desperate attempts to prove it right with even a spec of experimental evidence, was finally widely accepted as wrong. Of course, there was no concomitant mass migration to extant … what? You’re bored? Ok, so we arrive in Paris.

At the Gare de Lyon, rather than wait in a long line for a taxi, some of which were sketchy, we dragged our luggage into the metro, arriving some time later outside our new apartment. Eventually I recalled that instructions as to how to enter could be found on my phone. I coded open the door, and once inside we got the key where the instructions said to look, and moseyed to the elevator. This was big enough for 2 people, or one person and luggage. So it took 2 trips to get us to the 5th floor (3 people could squeeze on board, but although that load could safely rise to floors 1, 2, 3, and 4, it failed to get to 5 by about 8 inches, causing the door to remain closed. The solution was to drop down to 4 and walk up.)

The view from our apartment was rather stunning:

A large percentage of the cathedral had burned a few years earlier, but with the help of French engineering prowess, the damaged bits were being efficiently reconstructed. (As to French engineering prowess, their TGV trains are the equal of ours … uh, wait, the USA has no high speed rail system, because our wealth stays with the wealthy, and although given mouth service every election season, the attitude of this country to infrastructure is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; and if it falls down, think about fixing it, because … fuck.) It was a joy to sit at our window and watch this progress. (Near the cathedral they had set up a very cool Minecraftian set of offices, each block clearly cleverly wired to the rest; I wish I could build a house that way.)

Our apartment looked down on the Seine, directly across from Notre Dame, with a view of the short, wide bridge from the Left Bank to the cathedral island. We stayed there 2 weeks, and every day, 24 hours a day, something was happening on that bridge. Daytimes brought out the buskers. By midnight it was stray individuals solving the world’s problems on park benches attached to the bridge. Occasionally there was drama, fueled more than once by alcohol. (At 2am one early morning, there were two young women heatedly arguing below our window (was there pushing? Maybe … I think so). Periodically they would both scoff and offensively gesticulate at the other and walk away, only to come charging back shouting a short while later. This happened several times. It was an entrancing performance.)

Notre Dame itself was walled off from the public (the plywood walls covered in educational pictures illustrating what was going on inside, at present, and outside in the past). However … Some context. Keeping my illness at bay requires us to have a morning routine from which I dare not vary. First there is breakfast, during which I take a slew of pills, including one important one. Then I need to wait 2 hours before taking the most important pill quartet, with water. An hour after that I can eat again. So, one Sunday morning, in the midst of the 2 hour wait, with the windows open, we both thought we heard ethereal Gregorian chanting. Francesca briefly wondered if she was really hearing it (ghosts?), but even I heard it (which did not preclude ghosts). It turns out there is a door in the wall around the far side of the cathedral, and every Sunday these chanters are allowed in to do their stuff. There may be services as well, but we couldn’t hear them if so. Anyway, it was a great way to spend the time between pills one day of the week.

Our place was small, replete with windows, places to cook, sleep, shower and poop. But Notre Dame is a major Paris tourist draw, so the apartment size was not surprising. I knew this would mean the immediate area around our apartment would contain little more than shops selling baseball caps with “I ❤️ Paris” on the fronts. I was very very right in this assumption. But here’s the thing, Francesca and I are the kind of nerds that are very much into sci fi, fantasy, and the like. And miraculously, 2 blocks south of the Seine the tourist desert ends sharply, and two blocks of sci fi/fantasy themed little shops begins. (This stuff – graphic novels in particular – is very popular among right thinking French.) It was great. (Entering one shop I showed the guy behind the counter my Multipass, which he immediately recognized. Our nerd creds established, we entered and browsed.)

The non-quiet life

We led a quiet life during those 2 weeks, save for a pair of days during which we gallivanted with Swiss (Heidi and her husband (call him Guy), and their daughter, who was working in Paris in the fashion industry – yay) and Brit friends (Rosie and Rob from Cambridge), who also had a connection to Heidi). Our first day with them I overrode Heidi’s passive aggressive attempts to take the lead, and we all dined at Le Dôme, Francesca’s fav (well, tied with Le Récamier soufflé place). A good time was had by all (supposition here; I managed to sit next to those I knew would be most entertaining).

Earlier we did some moseying together, led by Heidi, who took us to a pleasant neighborhood her daughter had told her about. Heidi had a hankering to go lady shopping with Rosie, and Francesca. Guy, Rob and I dutifully followed around a pretty neighborhood with which Francesca and I were not familiar. Eventually, failing to find the lady shopping sufficiently entrancing, we males bid them adieu, and we pointed to a cafe where they could find us later (with beers). When they finally did, Francesca politely stewing, we all sat and had various liquids. Francesca is a very very adept shopper, and her experience with the other ladies had been excrutiating, a thing she shared with me later in private.

The following day Heidi’s husband went back to CH, and their daughter went back to doing things with younger people. Those that remained got together during the day, but in particular we promised to meet that evening in the Montmartre neighborhood to experience … See, that day was the Summer Solstice, and unbeknownst to Francesca and myself, Paris goes crazy on that day, and particularly at night. The streets of Montmartre were crammed with revelers.

In the late afternoon , Francesca and I laboriously made our way by bus up this big hill, and we found a cafe where we sat in a corner of the outdoor section, ordered drinks, and listened to the loud band across the street (loud bands – some quite good – were everywhere). I was already worn out. Eventually Rob and Rosie and Heidi found us, and I suggested we just stay in this cafe and watch the world go by. But Rob was having none of it, and Heidi hated the music. So Rob led us on a death march to Sacre Coeur, where we did in fact have a great view of the city as afternoon advanced into evening. So …

… keep in mind, almost every street was crammed with people, and at one point we stopped at a crepe stand and acquired nourishment, at which point we noticed a car trying to make its way through the crowd (see above; brown hood at lower right). I haven’t a clue how it got to where it was, but there were hundreds of yards of road ahead of it rendered impassable by hoards of celebrants. Much to my delight, the people in the car were evidently quite entitled, and they were initially intent on making their way through the throng. (“This should be good,” I thought.) But they could not move, and no amount of self importance was going to change that. People began to rest on the hood of the vehicle, at which point they surrendered in dudgeon, backed down a side street and departed, stage left. It was most amusing.

Most of the evening I grumbled (“Was I really that bad?”, I asked Francesca; “Vilely extreme – pissy – awful”, she replied, which still leaves the severity of my mood open to interpretation), save that time we found a lovely Renoir-ish cafe and downed some more beers. At 74, and tired from a long day, at some point – and well after my usual bedtime – I managed to grumble my way into people being willing to depart. (I think by that time we’d all got the idea of this fête: masses of much younger people dancing and cavorting and listening to bands; I found it fascinating, but I am not young, and … you know.) We linked hands in a train and started making our way to the nearest metro, myself in the lead, holding tightly to Francesca (losing any of the rest of the group was of secondary importance to me by then). This was not easy, and at one point I entered into a very dense crowd, which suddenly got much denser, and I could not move. I put an arm out in the needed direction and wedged my way through.

And so we come to the metro stop. I had wondered how the trains got up this high, for Montmartre is quite high. The answer: they don’t. They tunnel through at the level of the city down below, and consequently we had about 30 miles of stairs to climb down to get to the turnstiles and trains. I slept well that night, and although Rob had to drag me through the whole experience, I’m glad he did. It was quite memorable.

Actually quiet

Eventually all foreign friends departed for their homelands, and Francesca and I went about living a life of leisure, involving things we enjoy together. Angelina’s hot chocolate was of course included, as well as 2 or 3 visits to Le Récamier.

During one of these visits we observed an interesting thing. Keep in mind, Le Récamier is semi-fancy, with a wonderful covered area outside where we always sit. When it is our intention to lunch there, we know to dress in our best duds, Francesca’s surpassing mine by a considerable margin. I always felt this was essential, but this time it was proven beyond all doubt. A family of 4 Americans dressed for MacDonald’s entered, and I grimaced. When they were seated, it was not outside with the elites, but in the furthest and darkest corner of the mostly vacant seats inside. Those outside on the terrace were without exception refined, occasionally quite famous. We sat amongst them, luxuriating. On the way to le toilet I noticed that American family, scarcely visible in the shadows. They had children, t-shirts, and … well, one shutters.

One evening we opted for a Japanese restaurant we’d learned was quite nice. We ambled our way through alleys and finally got to the address. Was it open? It didn’t appear to be.

The big door under the sign was locked. To its left was a 4’ high door I took to be for loading stuff to the inside. But there was Japanese script above the door, and … oh, come on, no way. I tried the handle, opened the door, and was greeted with the friendly stares of diners and staff, the diners smiling at our perplexity, and the staff indicating with friendly gestures that we were welcome to enter. We bent down, navigated the stairs under the door, and were led to a bar where seating was still available, albeit cross legged on cushions.

We were treated to a stream of 20 or 30 morsels that were prepared in front of us. Initially quite tasty, by the end I grew tired of the morsels, as they became somehow repetitive. But far worse than that, my 6’2″ gangly Scottish body found our seating arrangements excruciating. When we left, climbing those weird stairs, and squeezing through that micro-door, I spent some time putting my joints back where they belonged. Then we retraced our way home through alleys scenic enough to have become a tourist draw. Well well.


As stated, we did a very minimum of site seeing this time. In the past we’d visited the Galeries Lafayette, which is overwhelmingly stunning, and quite the tourist draw. We’d also tried Samaritaine, a Galeries wannabe that was beautiful to behold, but on our second visit was overrun with gormless foreigners. Both these places did a nice job of creating an expansive indoor mall replete with high end shops and a variety of dining options. But we’re Rive Gauche kinds of people, so I did some googling and …

“What are we doing today,” wondered Francesca. “It’s a surprise,” I answered, and indeed it was to be a surprise to me as well. We moseyed down to the nearest metro, got off at the appropriate station, exited, and voilá! Le Bon Marché!

This place is similar in intent to those other two (shopping and dining), but more subdued in a posh sort of way. The shops are great, the dining beyond reproach, and on the ground floor was an unsurpassed grocery store. We spent much time there. Francesca was delighted. I was delighted. It became a home away from home during our last 9 or 10 days. And being more subdued, and Rive Gauche, the clientele were mostly French. We like the French.

But all good things … Our metro cards charged to zone 5, on the last day we wended our way (a short walk) to the nearest RER to the airport, and departed.

The Seacoast New Hampshire area in which we live is not without its charms, but – my cancer permitting – our next trip to EU will be our longest. The Olympics will prevent us from revisiting Paris, but our plans are almost set.

Not without its charms.