From the monthly archives: "October 2013"

October quiet on the Riviera

October quiet on the Riviera


It’s the middle of October and the throngs have gone home. Where that is it’s hard to know, but there is a clear breeze wafting through, as if the roads themselves can breathe now that they are relieved of the traffic and congestion that gums up the corniches all during the high season.

The Riviera is still awash in money. Russian billionaires, software titans, and oil potentates are rebuilding the stone mansions that dot the coast and perch in the hidden hills into fortresses. I am told there is a home in Cap Ferrat on the market for 400 million euros. Another person tells me the real price is 500 million euros. Whatever the ticket, this place holds among the most expensive real estate in the world. During the summer, it’s unlikely that too many artists can afford to repair to the Riviera as many of the greats used to do – Cocteau, Matisse, Picasso – they all made homes here and left their mark in chapels and museums and homes they inhabited (or stayed indefinitely as guests).

Inside Le Cabanon, Corbusier's house in Roquebrune

Inside Le Cabanon, Corbusier’s house in Roquebrune

But this time of year the glamour is understated, muted like the sun on the beaches there – burning, not blistering. At the African Queen, which sits on the port at Beaulieu-sur-Mer, I am met at lunchtime with a cocktail of Aperol and Champagne. There is no question in these parts of refusing the fizzy, pink concoction. The restaurant is packed but the atmosphere is pleasing rather than chaotic. The owner chats as cheerily with the regulars as with one-timers like me, but I get a cookbook and, skimming through the pages, I see a photograph of the gazpacho I am eating just now.

I wonder, who are the people in this bustling place? It’s a Thursday, most of the crowd speaks French, everyone’s table is punctuated by a bottle of white wine on ice. It’s inevitable. Each and every time I go to France I’m reminded how sometimes I forget to live. When we lived in France, my husband and I sometimes felt like we spent too much time eating and not enough time working. But today, I have the sense of letting too many days tick by at home in Connecticut, in the quiet of our rural idyll. It seems a shame not to be sharing this meal with my husband, my kids, a warm cluster of close friends. At home I’d be eating a tub of Greek yogurt in my kitchen, standing up.

Six courses and a short car ride later, I am hoofing it to my room at the magnificent La Chevre d’Or in Eze which looks clear down to the sea. This time, it’s in the distance but almost a straight shot down, as if I could leap beyond the rail into the pale blue water. I am relieved that the tourist crowds from summertime are nowhere to be found in the winding medieval city. I drag a little from the pace of the last four days, and am light headed from the latest feast. I climb up to the gardens and the sun gets hotter on my head. I take a wrong turn but eventually the sign of the Chevre d’Or swings back into view. Soon, I’ll be napping on the terrace of my room, gaining back my strength and appetite for dinner with the General Manager. In a word, the meal was perfect.

Dinner was perfect.

Dinner was perfect.

The next day is devoted to Le Corbusier (his hideaway, Le Cabanon), Coco Chanel (her house, La Pausa) and finally to Jean Cocteau (his den of creativity, Villa Santo Sospira). Every corner of the latter is painted with Cocteau’s line drawings of satyrs, sirens and fougasses – the soft flatbread of the region. At last, I say goodbye to the sea and drive inland to Mougins, down the olive-tree lined drive of Le Mas Candille. The hotel is a white stone bastide (a provencal word for a country house) that has been renovated to a state of entirely appropriate luxury. The grounds are peaceful, and my guess is that in the high season it would feel exactly the same way.

In my room, there is a plate of gateaux encrusted with small bits of chocolate. There is a carafe of port. There is a Nespresso maker. There is a terrace that has a view of the neighboring hill town of Grasse. I inhale the scent of Cyprus, pine and lemon groves that give the hotel the aspect of being tucked into a fragrant, protective blanket. I’m still alone but if I weren’t, I would stay here forever.

Breakfast in Eze

Breakfast in Eze

The walk up the hill in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The walk up the hill in Villefranche-sur-Mer.


The town of Villefranche-sur-Mer seems to be rather mum on the subject of its most famous residents, the Rolling Stones. They lived there during the summer of 1971 in the Villa Nellcote, a mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, and recorded much of Exile on Main Street within the seclusion of its iron grates. This was chronicled in folkloric, debaucherous detail in Keith Richards memoir, Life.

This morning, I climbed the hills to the villa, whose whereabouts I knew from another life and whose gates are now lined with thick nylon canvas to keep people like me from looking inside and imagining that summer. Okay, I felt like a bit of a trespasser, even though I stayed safely on the sidewalk. I can’t say it’s all about the music, although the music was something and I still know EOMS from start to finish. My mother used to go to the record store in town and pick out a few that looked worthy to pile under the tree for me and my 3 big sisters. The Christmas of 6th grade, I got Exile as well as The Harder they Come by Jimmy Cliff, which I think I traded for Something, Anything by Todd Rundgren with one of my sisters. Being more in the Beatles camp, with a father who played Joan Baez and Johnny Cash and siblings very much into CSNY, I could give or take the Stones’ music. But this record was something unusual, especially the acoustic side, with its underwater/country guitar riffs and searing vocals on songs like Torn and Frayed. Later, it would become the soundtrack for a lovely stretch of time during my senior year of college but for now (back then), I just liked it better than the Stones of Satisfaction.

The house sits on a quiet street, quite dignified behind the impenetrable security zone. It’s almost as if nothing ever happened there. I wonder how the house holds its history all tight like a secret? How does anything or anyone hold its history?

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Sneakers, Côte d'Azur

Sneakers, Côte d’Azur

When I get ready for a trip, I put different parts my life inside of a container. Toothpaste, a bathing suit, a raincoat, trousers for day and night, too many shoes. Never enough tank tops (which I wear under the sweaters I usually forget). What ends up in my suitcase is always an accident and depends more on my mood when I’m packing than what I will need when I get there. I stack my belongings with lots of haste and very little good sense. Last time I was in Italy, I began to feel bruised by the winds off the Grand Canal so I found a parka on sale on the Frezzeria. It was mauvy-gray, dead last on the store rack and on my list of wearable colors, but it kept me warm as I lurched across the Piazza San Marco.

What you need, who you are, who you want to be and who you might become. These are questions that may be either asked or answered inside of your luggage, even on a short jaunt. I remember my first visit to the Cote d’Azur when I was 18. I wrote an essay for Vogue about that summer, how my sad little duffle bag contained nothing appropriate for nights out in Monte Carlo. So I bought a drapey white halter dress and high-heeled sandals that were perfect for the casino. When I balled up the dress and wedged the shoes into my bag as I was leaving Nice, both were well-worn and I was somewhat changed. From that time on, although I have forgotten everything from underwear to hiking shoes even for a hiking trip, I always pack evening clothes, down to the footwear. So in honor of that memory, I tiptoed in black suede heels down the Promenade des Anglais, past the apartment I lived in that summer, to dinner and a tour of the great Hotel Negresco – stately and unchanging.

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Sneakers, though, were tied sensibly on my feet for a stroll around Old Nice to smell the pissaladière and socca and tubs of olives at the market. I emerged from the elevator up at the Chateau de Nice and got a full-frontal panorama of the Baie des Anges. Lunch was a dreamy, rosé-soaked respite at La Reserve, on the cliffs near Nice’s port. By the time I got to the magic village of Villefranche, I yearned for a rest and a spot of contemplation time. Returning to places can have this effect. I see things both through the lens of all my years, and that of the person I once was. I had stood on this shore for the first time when I was all of 18, the age of my oldest child. I untied my shoes to settle into Cocteau’s room (22) – starry, blue, serene – at the Hotel Welcome, threw open the French windows. I unzipped my suitcase to search for something that suited the woman I was right then. I had stacks of cargo pants, a pair of skinny jeans, leather trousers, a couple of unworn dresses, including the one I wore to my 50th birthday dinner. High heels, flat heels, flip flops. My favorite navy blue fitted blouse. There was my pleather skirt, the full dark brown one, folded into quarters. Why had I packed that? Because you never know. I zipped the bag back up and turned around to look at the sea.

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I have a new and exciting project – a book called, “100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go,” to be published by Travelers Tales in Palo Alto, CA in 2014. This is not a guidebook per se, but more of a bucket list with a women’s perspective for people who love France, or might yet fall in love with it. This is not a simple task, as I can name 100 places just in the Marais, Bastille and Oberkampf neighborhoods of Paris where il faut aller. Without divulging any of my choices, I can safely say that Provence – the area from Arles to the Alpilles, and down along the Mediterranean coast from Frejus to Menton on the Italian border is likely to figure prominently. Americans are drawn to the James Bond sexiness and insouciance of the South of France as much as the act of puttering around the markets to inhale the scent of persimmons picked this morning, and a cool glass of rosé at lunchtime with fish just pulled from the sea. Not to mention the cinematic perfection, which filmmakers have been making good use of since the days of Louis Lumière.

So far, I’ve been writing, writing, writing. Taking notes on the color of the sky. Picking a cluster of tea olive blossoms that I press into my notebook. The clouds thicken up on the road to St. Paul de Vence while I’m at the wheel of a 1968 white Mustang convertible, the same one driven by Honor Blackman when she was 007’s foil in Goldfinger. I round one hairpin curve after another and the sea disappears into the distance, as does the awareness of my role on earth. I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend but right now I’m all focus and drive. There is one road underneath and my mind is on only it. Get there safely, note the shifts in the air now that the temperature has dropped, press the brake. Note the sight of the medieval walls. Note the pattern in the footpath. Note the banyan tree near the Colombe d’Or.

Passenger side

Passenger side

I’m not a car person and neither is my husband. He has a pickup and I have Toyota, and we use them to take us places we need to go, usually to the Stop & Shop for groceries. But today, the question looms: is this why people love to drive? There are wheels below, a sky above, a mission to accomplish in getting there, wherever ‘there’ is, and little else.
Except for writers who by definition, are always working. Even a stop at the CVS for a pack of gum is a chance to observe human behavior, sponge it all up, glean snippets of conversation.

It’s not a hard job (well, making a living and getting people to return your e-mails can both be rough) compared to telephone pole repairmen and triage nurses. But the work comes with me everywhere I go. Now, my mind ticks as I start to collate the search for 100 places in France, my print articles, the stories I want to write, the other unknown places I wish to know. As I descend to Nice, then settle onto the indoor terrace in my sea blue and green room at the Hi Hotel, the ideas are slamming onto the walls of my brain. The day spent galavanting along the Riviera in a sports car was an gorgeous one, but it was always and ever a workday.

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I’m here on the Côte d’Azur to gather background material for some magazine articles, in the place where luxury came to nestle over a century ago in custom-built mansions among wild jasmine and palm trees. The odors of rose and citrus seem to be brewed in the coves that carve giant scallops into the coastline. It’s the same now as it was thirty years ago, when I first went to Nice. I had just completed my freshman year at Princeton where the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, class of 2017 (dropped out, actually), floated for better or worse through all of us. It was part of Princeton lore to imagine the soon-to-be-great young man from Minnesota traipsing along Prospect Street and we joined him in these wanderings. His was a story with which we all became familiar: about his tragic wife Zelda, his relationship with his editor Maxwell Perkins, all freshly told by his biographer (another Princetonian, though from more recent years) Scott Berg.

He wrote about the gilded age and it was the side of paradise that was seductive because it was no more. Hard days had come and the good times had passed and how we craved them. How we crave them still.

At one time, I became aware of the great scholarly debate: The Great Gatsby vs. Tender is the Night. If the first is considered the most perfect novel ever written, the second (his last book, written after Zelda was hospitalized for schizophrenia) can be deemed a hot and craftless mess. I’ve always preferred the latter precisely because of its flaws: they create its own harmony. It’s also a richly descriptive novel (count the plants in the garden chez Diver in the first three paragraphs of Chapter 6: lemon, fig, lilac, iris, rose – and the corresponding colors) and from the first words, a classic (think Henry James, Edith Wharton) in the American in Europe genre. Despite the melancholy and infidelity and bleakness that unfolds so shatteringly, Dick and Nicole Diver threw great parties, with heirs and novelists and royalty and ne’er do wells. We didn’t want to be them, but we wanted to know them: “to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience,” the narrator says early on in the book, which I re-read on the Air France flight over.

Late in the afternoon, my car pulled up alongside the Belles Rives (once called Villa St. Louis), Fitzgerald’s former rented house in Juan-les-Pins, which is now a plush hotel. Some of his original furniture – art deco tables and chairs which German soldiers hadn’t destroyed or used for God-knows-what during the war – remains, as does the building, all spruced and polished to perfection. From the terrace above the cove, you can see the islands across the way, and imagine Gerald and Sara Murphy, on whom Fitzgerald based the characters of the Divers and to whom he dedicated the book. Most beautiful by far was the dining room, which was his office. It is lined with large windows that look out to the terrace which give way to the sea. There, inspiration is a tactile thing. Magic + talent = masterpiece.

It was impossible to expel the man from my thoughts later, over dinner at the Hotel Royal Antibes. Fitzgerald’s Riviera – the rose-colored hotel and long beach afternoons – was not simply his playground. It was a fertile field to be tilled and harvested many years later. Tender is the Night was published in 1934 – eight years after he left the Riviera.

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My head was pleasantly heavy upon arrival in Cannes. Air France – may it ever be so – still serves complimentary champagne even in economy class, and who am I to refuse it? We no longer wear white gloves when we board an airplane, but the French know that the voyage means nothing unless it is punctuated with ritual. To your health, the gesture seems to say, and to France’s. Vive….

The sea spread out before me from my balcony at the Hotel Splendid in Cannes. In years past, I would sleep when I landed from an overnight flight – peel off the traveling clothes, pull the crispy sheets over me, and stretch out at last until I awoke to my second morning that day. This time, I opted to sleepwalk in dreamtime through that first Sunday afternoon on the Cote d’Azur. The day was endless, a delicious blur of possibility: antique markets, fresh-picked figs in baskets and three cups of coffee at three different cafes. I walked La Croisette and clambered down to the beach. I think I saw two different carousels in Cannes that day but perhaps I imagined it.

Even for early October, the sun grilled my shoulders the next day on the boat to St. Honorat, a tiny island thirty seaborne minutes and a world away from Cannes. I’d just been indulged with a five-star lunch at the Grand Hotel, and the clink of glasses filled with rosé faded into silence on the water. Mediterranean pines and pomegranate trees dotted the landscape – and vineyards, where the Cistercian monks on the island produce six very fine and difficult to find wines.

I imagine, as I often do these days, if a stretch of contemplative time would be prescriptive or even possible for me nowadays. I recently interviewed Sherry Turkle, a scientist at MIT, who writes of the importance of solitude in a time when we are so connected by gadgets we are nevermore alone. I think about this a lot when I’m hiking in the woods at home, phone zipped into my cargo pants, and I get pinged by a friend. It takes some restraint not to write back, and usually I fail. When there are 200 messages in the Inbox and 42 texts to return, might not all of us harbor a desire for sunshine, a simple bed, and 360 degrees of rolling sea to separate us from every single person that needs us immediately, from my accountant to J Crew who is offering me a 20 per cent discount? Jetlagged, content, well-fed and far from home, there are more questions than usual to ponder.