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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

En Route with Andrew Hamilton III

[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
(One in a series)
Nice, France
There's a new street-car line in Nice. Did I mention that there's new construction, renovation, new public and private facilities, enthusiastic public maintenance all over France, right in the middle of this depression or gloom? The new Nice tram line runs from a north suburb down past the SNCF station into the center of town, turns east a block and then runs back up toward another northern suburb. You can pretty much walk a block and catch the same car you were just on over most of the route. It was excellent for getting from the train station to my new apartment. You're supposed to buy a ticket for 1.70 € from a machine at the station, but nobody buys one, except the people who are serious commuters and have a magnetic transit pass to flash against the composting machine. I bought a ticket when I first got on but observed myself to be in a car crowded with low-life style-jumpers and scofflaws and only ran it through the machine a week and a half later, just to see how it worked. There are signs all over the system warning that it's cheaper to buy a ticket than not buy a ticket, because the fine for not having one is 240 euros.

My apartment was a few blocks as the crow flies below Sir Elton's castle, but I never got up there. The rental had good Internet so I checked out the castle out on a website of celebrity homes and it's a huge place in the middle of what looks like wilderness on top of the mountain between Nice and Villeneuve-sur-mer. I think Sir Elton must be getting old and is not cruising the promenade looking for distinguished gents holding unused tramway tickets and wind-proof REI umbrellas

This old port is full of tourists, the whole town is full of them even in early April and it must be as bad as Cannes in the summer. Stay away from Cannes, by the way.

I went into a place next to the waterfront on the corner and ordered a café and Amagnac, because in my experience a lot of places in the south don't have Calvados and can't give you the Parisian wake-me-up of a café-calva. The guy behind the bar gave me an express and a pint of something in a pint glass instead of the shot of Armagnac I was expecting, so I drank it and it turned out to be Irish apple cider. I asked another bartender what the hell did I just drink, and he said it was apple juice, and laughed, and the bar-fly next to me, an old Irishman, laughed too. It turned out that almost everyone in the bar was Irish, or Southampton deck-hands and didn't understand French. I asked the bartender how could he function here, not speaking French, and he said everyone who comes in this joint knows the deal, they'd be disappointed if he understood their orders.

The yacht harbor has a few small craft, a section of felouques, which are lateen-rigged sailboats, French for felucca, only nobody sails them but they drive them with diesel auxiliaries and go fishing, and keep the spars and flags aboard for show, same as in Sète or Marseille. The felouque owners were setting up for the season, cleaning up and drinking cheap wine and eating take-out pizza and painting and yelling insults at one another. Then there are also lots of big yachts, with hydraulic gangways on the stern so the people inside can get out and go to the Irish bar and drink 3.2 apple juice. The yachts have writings on the stern that say they are from either Valetta, or London, or George Town. I didn't know where George Town was, so I looked it up and it is the capital of the Cayman Islands. London, I figure is the UK capitaj; Savoy, the lawless tax shelter in the middle of actual London. Valetta I don't know anything about and can't call it. Maybe Valetta just grows a lot of billionaires on site.

Nice is the cheapest place I've seen for a paying transient in France, at least on the tail ends of the season. They reportedly have the most hotel space in any place outside of Paris, and there seem to be lots of people who have bought apartments and are desperately trying to rent them out. Nice is many steps above, say, San Francisco, as far as authenticity, ambience true and false, lodging availability, food, public transit, access to fresh bread and groceries, accommodating populace, water sports, scenic splendor, and a chance to see classy dames.

If I were to stay in Nice again I'd go to the west end of town, a neighborhood called maybe Gambetta. I can't find the real name on English search, because all the tourist neighborhood name guides show just the tourist areas, and I don't want to bother with French real-estate sites right now. So call it Gambetta, because that's the main street. It's a bourgeois French area, a little run down compared to some of the center city, but rich on the lower floors where you don't have to climb a lot of stairs or ride the joke elevator and maybe higher on floors with a view of the Med.

There's a park there called Alsace-Lorraine, where there is a sad monument to lost France in Algeria, some sort of hand holding a torch as I remember. A bunch of old guys sitting around in the park, who I imagine to be bitter pieds-noirs, and also Harkis, because some of them are Magrebs, Arab-looking guys sitting on the benches with the old OAS paras and miscellaneous 1950's French-colonial villains. I remember the monument being in the center of town on the sea, and I think I'm right because the inscription says that "the town of Nice wanted to give under her blue sky and her palm trees on the edge of her Latin sea the image of the lost country." I figure they moved it inland away from the tourists as it got more and more embarrassing. There was an ongoing scandal in the papers because there were plans to put up a statue of General DeGaulle in the park, and the pieds-noirs said it would be the final insult.

A lot of these pieds-noirs, blackened feet people who got run out of Algeria when the Arab took it back, ended up as my colleagues teaching in Ivory Coast when I was there, and I can report that there is some deep resentment. They expected DeGaulle to come in and give France in Algeria back to them, encouraged by a few subway bombings here and there.  But he sold them down the river and machine-gunned them in the streets of Oran, or so they figure. A dark tumultuous history, poorly told from every angle, and nobody will ever figure it out. Did you know that Jacques Chirac served time in Algeria, sent there in a program that assigned élite university students so serve, after he had rebelled against his bourgeois father and worked on a coastal barge running from Le Havre to Oran or some such place, but had since enrolled at the university? Hardly anyone has heard that-- Chirac as a young officer lead a transport outfit and when it was ambushed by a bunch of guys on camels he ran forward under fire and pulled one of his wounded men back behind cover. He got some sort of medal, but nobody ever heard of it because he never used it in politics.  You have to go really deep into the French Googles to even get a hint. But it was neat to know back when our hard boys were disrespecting the no-balls French and their surrender-monkey president.

Soon enough the pieds-noirs and Harkis will all be dead, like anyone who remembers the abbatoir on the rue Brançion in Paris (see Part I), and they can erect the DeGaulle statue no problem. Of course by then the ranks of anyone who wants to put up a statue of DeGaulle will be pretty thin as well. That neighborhood is where I'd look for an apartment. The actual old city is small enough you can walk from there to any party of it in half an hour.

In Nice they shoot off a cannon every day at noon, from the top of the hill dividing the old port from the old town. It's loud enough to make you jump, and there is a sizable puff of smoke. The hill itself is daunting to the casual eye, but you can walk up it and down the other side in about fifteen minutes, taking it easy.

I understand that a lot of American hip-hoppers hang out in Nice. I didn't see any of them when I was there. I did go to Monaco, on the cheap bus that stops by the corner of the old port and runs along the low Corniche. I saw a lot of yachts registered in George Town and got on the first train out. The corridor from the free municipal elevator to the train station in Monaco is lined with mirrors, probably installed so you can check yourself to see if you look like enough of an asshole to be in Monaco.

There's a lot more neat stuff in Nice, and I saw some of it. But it was raining most of the time, and that cold I picked up in Lyon was a bad one, and I pretty much spent the two weeks downloading and watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apparently there is a big Matisse museum in Nice, and a Chagall museum. Up the street toward the old town from where I was staying there is a pretty good cous-cous restaurant, and right out the back door there was a classic Lebanese restau, just excellent. I went back there a second time, for the brochettes d'agneau, agneau de Sisteron from a couple of canyons over being a specialty in Nice. That second time, I got to eavesdrop on a couple of one-percenters at the next table, a couple of guys from the George Town yachts, an American and a Frenchman.

The American was a really dumb, Elmer Fudd-looking goober, really an unfortunate-looking man, got whoop with the ugly stick no fault of his own, and he was explaining to the French guy that he was worried because he had flown to a get-together in Ireland and his grand-daughter didn't seem to be turning out so smart. So the French guy says, ne t'en fait pas, mon ami, it is no problem for a girl, so long as she is pretty. 

Sexism interpretations put to the side, judging from grandpa the poor girl had no more chance of turning out pretty than the bag of hammers that was smarter than both of these guys put together. It was like a television skit unfolding before your eyes in real life. It was a rare chance to feel superior to George Town billionaires over a brochette d'agneau and a half liter of house red, and I explained it all to the Lebanese counter guy before staggering home. The Lebanese told me that it was just another example of the rich guys fucking the poor guys, and upon reflection I concede that he spoke some sort of truth, maybe. Your take-away message is that true Leb diaspora food is the best food ever, next to a good greasy 1950's California drive-in taco, before they outlawed lard.

 [Andrew Hamilton is The PJ's travel editor. His home base is Trinity Center, California].