Nice is Nice
paralian n. A person who lives near the sea.
I’m coming to understand the differences between France and Spain. Spain is slow in regards to food service but on point when it comes to their rail system. France, on the other hand, is quite snappy with meal service but boy does their train system need some work. On our ride from Montpellier to Nice (pronounced like “niece”), we had a short layover in Marseille in which we were meant to change trains and be back on our way. While waiting until ten minutes before departure to finally put our platform number up on the screen, we noticed an extraordinary amount of trains announced as late, and I don’t mean five or ten minutes late, I’m talking hours late. Wouldn’t you know it, after waiting at our platform for ten minutes with no sign of the train, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. As I don’t speak French, I had no idea what it said but the masses of people walking back toward the station gave me some indication that something was wrong. Sure enough, the station monitors had changed the status of our train to 50 minutes late. To make matters worse, I had to urinate like a racehorse and all French toilets are pay toilets. Call me stubborn, but I refuse to pay to perform a basic bodily function purely on principle. Free to pee, I say.
I managed to hold off until we got on the train so I could use the train bathrooms and then proceeded to cram myself into the overly crowded train. As some people apparently feel the need to travel with a ridiculous amount of luggage, our packs were necessarily forced to sit by our feet meaning my mother and I curled our legs into precarious positions for the remainder of the ride. Yet all my physical discomfort was soon displaced by the amazing views passing in high speed blurs outside the train windows. Tiny little French villages, rolling green hills, turquoise blue waters of the ocean sparkling against the morning sun, all of which frustratingly passed far too fast to even hope to get any good quality photos. The beautiful things in life are always temporary.
Upon getting off the train in Nice, we were greeted with weather already much warmer than anything we had experienced thus far, yet that didn’t seem to stop some people from still walking around in down coats while we were stripped down to t-shirts. Even then, we were sweating quite considerably by the time we trekked down to historic Old Nice where our hostel was located. After a bit of searching, we finally located (with a bit of help from a gentleman at the neighboring Irish pub) the hostel, signified only by a tiny door plaque visible from a few feet away that read “Hostel Smith”. Suggestion to hostel: improve signage. Upon checking in, we were instantly met with a roadblock, though the shock of such instances have lost their novelty and I’ve come to just assume as much. During the time when I was planning this adventure and booking everything, the only real error I made was in booking this Nice hostel and after frantically calling them to correct my date error, I thought I had everything sorted. I should have known that someone would make a mistake and sure enough they had no record of us having a reservation, meaning my phone call had fallen on deaf ears. Shock. So there we were in Nice, a beach city, over spring break, with possibly no place to stay. Thankfully, the receptionist was incredibly helpful and managed to get us a private room for the first night and two beds in the bunkhouse for the next two. While we were excited to have a private room for even one night, it ended up being less than spectacular, only aesthetically distinguishable from a prison cell by the sheer curtains hung over the single window. For our beds, we were also only given a fitted sheet and a single top sheet, no blanket, to withstand a rather cold room. Later that night, after pushing our beds together, my sleeping bag would save us from a very unpleasant night. But it was private and we had come to appreciate that simple luxury unconditionally.
After unpacking some of our stuff, I encountered another problem, discovering our bus tickets form Nice to our next destination in three days’ time was set to depart at 4am…from the airport…a twenty minute drive down the shore. There seemed to point in even paying for a third night here when we would get four hours of sleep (maybe) and then have to hire a taxi to get ourselves to the airport. This meant I had to cancel the third night and somehow get the money back on my card and, as helpful as the guy at the reception desk had been, his boss who dealt with all money matters was another story. She was a short, austere little French woman who would storm through the hostel asking each person to cross her path, “You do the washing up?” furiously if anyone ever left their dishes unwashed in the kitchen. I had to commend her for that at least, having felt the urge to do that to my past roommates on multiple occasions. But even after I plucked up the courage to cancel our last night reservation and ask for my money back, she tried to swindle me out of it, saying they would refund my card and that they wouldn’t need the card to do so. Having worked in the service industry, I know full well the type of machine they were using did in fact require the card for refunds and thus I kept on her about it until she finally gave in and paid me the third nights’ fees in cash.
Problems and solutions aside, our time in Nice itself was very pleasant and I am glad to say that my expectation of French people was indeed wrong on all accounts (discounting maybe the hostel manager). We started out our adventures in Nice as I like to start all great ventures: with food. After stopping to grab a quick bite to eat at a cheap beachside Chinese place (which ended up giving us a fake 20€ bill that after we discovered was fake we were quite desperate to get rid of) we wandered immediately along the shore. To put it mildly, Nice is beautiful. Set in just a slightly oversized cove, its white stone beaches scrawl along the turquoise blue waters of the Mediterranean in an arc that stretches from an old fort all the way down to the airport at the tip of the peninsula. The miles between are filled with rows upon rows of bright yellow and pink buildings that ripple away from the shore just as the bright waters ripple into it.
The bright colors and complexity of appearance become apparent when viewed from above Old Nice, from the city’s original site, a place called Parc de la Colline du Chateau. Referred to as Castle Hill for short, this origin point of Nice was once an impregnable medieval citadel until it was destroyed by King Louis XIV’s soldiers in 1706. Being located right down the street from our hostel, our first task was to climb up the many flights of marble and concrete steps until we could overlook the city for miles, from where it touched distant mountains and beach until it disappeared around the airport outcropping at the far end of the cove. Castle Hill is deceptively large. From below, it looks like it contains a couple lookout platforms and some natural gardens but in reality, the area spreads across parks, miles of trails, numerous lookout points over both Old Nice and the opposite side of the hill, or Baie des Anges, man-made waterfalls, and countless other oddities and points of interest. It is rather like a maze in which it is easy to get lost among its miles of shrub lined pathways. Any given fork could lead you to either another lookout balcony or a discrete nook hiding a kissing couple. The French stereotype of pervasive romance as every turn is incredibly true except that it isn’t necessarily charming or cute but really just a bit rude and annoying.
For dinner, we committed taboo and ate at an American restaurant my mom had her heart set on. Despite the fact that I desired to eat something a bit more authentically French, even I must admit that fish burger and steak fries tasted incredibly good after not really having American food in over three months. Familiarity, I realized, is perhaps not always to be avoided but rather indulged in sparingly. The amount of outdoor dining in Nice was astounding. While almost everywhere we have been has always had tables lining the streets, the volume of them in Nice was much more concentrated, being a tourist city, and you could hardly walk twenty feet without bumping into some sort of food vendor. The American restaurant itself was situated directly in the middle of a busy elongated plaza that seemed to be entirely dedicated to outdoor restaurants of various sorts. I tend to prefer to the quint establishments on quiet back alleys but such a busy location does at least provide the perk of people watching. Nice provides the unique opportunity to not only view the flocks of tourists from all walks of life, but also the genuine Nice residents. I grew to love watching the warm and vapid conversations of the French. Their lives are centered around constant social interaction, even to people they merely bump into on the street, and I could hardly imagine from where all those cold French stereotypes were coming. Watching these conversations made me think increasingly of a book called Have Mother, Will Travel I read right before starting this journey, for obvious reasons. The book alternates between the accounts of mother Claire Fontaine and her daughter Mia on their travels through Asia and France. At one point, Mia writes:
“The saying that ‘Americans love to work and the French work to live’ didn’t come from a vacuum; a career is central to a person’s identity in America. In France, for example, you don’t generally ask someone in conversation what they do for a living; it’s considered poor form and boring. Far more interesting to them are the topics of culture, food, religion, philosophy. In America, ‘What do you do?’ Is usually one of the first questions asked, even when making small talk, possibly because our lives are less balanced, but also because it’s hoe we tend to define ourselves. A culture that so closely ties who you are with what you do is fundamentally problematic for many twentysomethings, given that where we’re at on professional ladder is often the equivalent of a glorified gofer. And that’s for those of us with jobs! The rest of us are temps or bartenders, or avoid the job market altogether by entering grad school or the Peace Corps. Knowingly or not, maybe we confuse not knowing what we want to do with not knowing who we are.”
This quote resonated with me because I’ve always said how I hate how much emphasis Americans place on the career. America was built on a made up ideal. The American Dream never existed or if it did, it died decades ago. When I tell people my post graduation plans, I get concerned looks as if I am delusional or childish but I believe I am more adult than so many other because I have made the informed choice to deviate from the norm based upon careful consideration of my interests and goals. I refuse to follow some path because that it what one is meant to do, regardless of whether it makes me happy. Our generation in general is beginning to do this. Inheriting a world riddled with problems from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, we’ve started to see through the mountains of institutional and political bullshit and carve our own paths directly through them rather than follow their contours. My discovery and, even more, acceptance of who I am was synonymous with my figuring out exactly what I wanted to do in life. And you can see that in the eyes and interactions of those who have chosen paths such as mine. Meeting fellow travelers in hostels and the like, even fellow Americans, we don’t ask each other what they do or what they plan on doing when they’re done traveling. We assume it’s a perpetual state because it most often is, even if there are breaks in between. Instead, we ask each other where we’ve been and where we’re going next. We are a different breed carried forward by comfort in ourselves and happiness alone. We are accepting of people of all walks of life and never judge another’s story simply because we haven’t worn the same shoes, carried the same packs, or walked the same streets. Travel is much like the service industry in that everyone should have to do it at some point in their lives because it teaches you how to be a human being. For all the possibly unfair reputations of French rudeness, they seem to know how to do this, how to value the small things about a person entirely independent of their jobs, money, and social definition of what it means to be successful.
Our second day in Nice started with a rather annoying move from the upstairs private room of the hostel to the very full downstairs bunkhouse filled with sleeping college kids from all across the world who had clearly partied a bit too hard the night before. Not wanting to disturb them too much, we abandoned our stuff on unmade beds and set off into Nice, where we discovered a lovely little outdoor market that had magically appeared overnight in the very plaza we had eaten dinner in the previous night. I’m not entirely sure what it is about markets but I find quite the fascination in them. Even though there is nothing wholly different in the selection of fruits, vegetables, spices, and cheeses from market to market, there is something distinctly unique about every one. You can tell a lot about a place from the vibrancy of its oranges, the size of its grapefruits, and the variety of its tomatoes.
Our lunch that day consisted of my favorite thing in the world: cheese. Having decided on just a light lunch, we ordered what I call after working in a Mediterranean restaurant an antipasti appetizer (though they called it the Frenchie here), or a wooden board mounded with various cheeses, meats, fruits, and bread. With full stomachs, we descended down to the beach where we lay for the next several hours, reading, basking in the sun we were deprived of in Spain, and drinking the bottle of wine we had leftover from the previous evening of wine and strawberries in our room. While the water was far too cold to even think about submerging anything above my waist (and even that was painful), the day was just pleasant enough to sit there on the shore, if only a little on the cold side. Next to the dark tanned skin of the locals who clearly spend day after day basking at the beach until the sun had turned their skin into dark leather, our pale bodies stuck out, not that that’s anything I’m not used to. Being German, Scottish, Irish, and Finnish, I was pretty much doomed on the whole tanning front and my skin pretty much stays a perpetual white gloss, impervious to both burn and slow bake. Tanning takes time and effort for me, something I usually don’t have.
Among all these darkly tanned natives were the occasionally topless women and speedo wearing men, at which both of my mother seemed slightly surprised. I kindly reminded her that we were in France. Personally I envy the 60 year old women and the like so willing to shed their clothes without regard of what people might think of them. I only wish I could possess such confidence in my body. Despite being forty years their junior, I get nowhere close and generally opt for oversized sweaters and flannels to hide a body I logically know is considerably skinny but in which I still can’t seem to shake a certain degree of irrational shame. Thank you, American media.
To make me feel even better about my body, what did we go do? Eat of course! As much as I can feel self conscious about my body, I love food far too much to ever sacrifice it for the sake of my self confidence, and sometimes food itself as a comfort for these insecurities. It is a vicious cycle. Thus my mother and I decided to go to an Indian restaurant as my mother had never had Indian food before and it is one of my favorites. As usual, Indian food never disappoints and this particularly establishment was bettered by its very interesting atmosphere, complete with cushioned seats, dim neon lights, and Bollywood music videos. So far in France, we had eaten Italian, American, and Indian food. I guess that escargot simply wasn’t calling to our taste buds.
On our last full day in Nice, we started the day by going back down toward the main food square to see what we could round up for breakfast and found the square had now been converted to a massive antique and vintage market the sprawled through endless booths of tarnished silver rings, tattered old books, gold filigreed china, and countless other hidden treasures. My mother and I are both lovers of antiques and within moments we had lost ourselves to the relics of time and the beauty of impermanent lives held in permanent objects. My treasure of the market was a gold double banded ring framing a real emerald, as betrayed by the flaws in the light green stone, and several small real diamonds. Somehow I managed to walk away with this ring for only 20€ which leads me to believe the seller didn’t really know the value of the ring she possessed. I try not to buy unnecessary things like this for myself too often, but the ring is truly unique and as emeralds are my birthstone, it seemed like a sign, the one important relic I can carry with me from France.
We spent our last hours in Old Nice having drinks in a very cool steampunk themed bar, eating a giant plate of nachos, and checking out of our hostel before hauling our ever growing packs (seriously, how is it still growing so much?) to the bus stop and out to the airport. Once there, we somehow managed to find the extremely randomly located Euroline bus stop from which we would be departing at 4am that morning and check into a nearby Ibis budget hotel, which ended up being surprisingly posh and modern for a cheap hotel. For dinner we chose to pretend we were guests at a neighboring hotel simply so we could eat at the restaurant there where we indulged in a final tray of cheese, fruits, and wine, and left with our stomachs full of cheese and our pockets full of bread. I continue to uphold my reputation as Aladdin/Jean Valjean/ [insert name of famous bread thief here].
Yet for as soon as all this went, my night was peppered with anxiety from class registration for next fall. Depicted having priority registration form both my status as a senior and an honors student, my online registration was not working and as a double major senior who is, as it is, barely going to graduate on time, I needed to get specific classes and I knew I wouldn’t have Internet for the next day or so. After some panicked emails to the registrar and my advisor, I got it all sorted and officially registered for classes of my senior year in college. “Where does the time fly?” my mother asked. Where indeed. It seems like just yesterday I was an impressionable freshman, making the long journey from Montana to Philadelphia, excited by the idea of the city with no true idea what she wanted in life. How things have changed. As much as I love college and all the memories I have made there, I ready to move on and thus this registration did instill a fear in me but rather an excitement. All the plans I’ve made, all the dreams I have, they’re approaching at light speed and soon I’ll be on my way.