After an excruciatingly long and sluggish train ride through Italy, I finally coasted into the French Riviera, A Cote d’Azur, my last stop on a summer vacation across Europe. I regarded the rain beading on my shoulders and saturating my backpack, but assured it was a mere interlude by the couple who rented rooms in their apartment located a few blocks from the beaches of Nice.
“Petit-déjeuner?” the woman asked as I handed over franc coins and poked my head into the compact but clean bedroom. My clumsy college French was audibly inadequate, but determined not to fall back on English I managed to get across that yes, I would like breakfast in the mornings—and please—I mean si’l vous plait, I would like shower privileges for a few francs more. I wasn’t sure if the woman’s smile reflected her appreciation of my effort to speak the language or amusement by Americans’ daily personal hygiene, but she nodded and showed me the tub—not a shower—at the end of the hall.
The following morning—earlier than a vacationing American expected—I startled at the rap on the door and the voice on the other side. “Petit dejeuner?”
I scrambled, tugged on running shorts, and cracked the door. “Bonjour,” the woman said and handed me a tray: a baguette, a cup of what I knew was coffee but by its dark density surely could have been mistaken for used motor oil, and a small pitcher of cream; virgin white, sweet calorie-rich bovine cream. Integrated with the dark brew resulted in this harmonious indulgence that led me to question why and how the rest of civilization had gotten the recipe so wrong. (By the third day of my stay I anticipated the rap at the door each morning as much as the beach and ocean.)
Downstairs, I looked up at the azure of the cloudless sky. Madam was correct. Passing shop owners sweeping away lingering rain puddles, I trotted the few blocks to Promenade des Anglais, the wide pedestrian thoroughfare that extends seven kilometers—about four miles—along the Mediterranean coast. Doormen stationed outside the four-star hotels tipped their hats (so much for French aloofness). City workers tended to the manicured lawns, palm trees and water features along the prom, shared by locals walking to their jobs, bicyclists and inline skaters.
At the seaside, there are two options: private beaches where for a few francs lounge chairs and umbrellas are provided and waiters stand ready with drinks and fruit plates. I chose the adjacent public beach—crowded with tourists and locals yet still commanding a glorious view of the clear, see-to-the-bottom turquoise Mediterranean. It’s a wonderful atmosphere. Families rifled off conversations in French so rapidly I was hopelessly unable to translate. American college boys ogled at topless girls who casually inspected the oiled-up muscle men who stood proudly in their banana hammocks, showing off the fruition of their devotion to the gym.
I was entertained by the man who, constantly looking over his shoulder, illegally peddled beer and other refreshments from the cooler he carried. “Coca-Cola, Stella Artois, Heineken, mashed potatoes and gravy…” he sang as he went from towel to towel. Tourists mostly would summon him and pay his outlandish asking prices for the convenience of his service.
Then week passed quickly. My body bronzed. I drank my share of Stella Artois and French red wine and dined on pizza in open air restaurants with strangers who spoke little to no English but nonetheless shared the kinship of adventure. By the end of a long trek across Western Europe I was ready for American beaches with crashing waves, breakfast of bacon and eggs, and a shower—not a tub. But I left the French coast with nice, unforgettable memories of Nice, a Cote d’ Azur. A long time ago, but I will return one day. I will.