Thursday, September 28, 2006

Do not trust the horse

As Virgil – the famous British airline – said to the Trojans: ’Do not trust the horse. I fear the Geeks, even when bearing gifts’.
This is about what are laughingly known as online HELP Lines. HELP is a link even less useful than CONTACT US. Is it just me, or do others find the advice they give totally incomprehensible? If I could understand that stuff I wouldn’t need the HELP line. (I don’t even understand the questions.) The answers are written by geeks for geeks, who see incomprehensibility as their job security. I pay my taxes just like everyone else: is it fair that I, someone of reasonable – I thought - education and intelligence, should feel chronically inadequate? I only wanted to make a minuscule change to my template: but it will have to stay as it is.

Did I mention rain? Nonsense – the weather is perfect: blue skies, calm blue sea and a similar forecast for the weekend. Everyone told us to relaxez-vous, so we are. We picnicked among the olive trees on top of Mont Boron yesterday. It looks down on the Bay of Nice to the west and Villefranche to the east, and on the summit, near the Radio/TV transmitters, lives Elton John. Chateau Elton is harder to enter than Fort Knox, but as we came past his entrance, someone was about to drive in, so we tried to sneak a look inside, hoping to see his personal Schutzstaffel armed with AK 47s, but I drove by too quickly and all we got was the clang of iron gates.

Our neighbours recently invited us for an apéro – short for aperitif. The abbreviation seems to imply politely that you need not stay too long. French abbreviations not only save time, they save newsprint. You’ll rarely see ‘adolescent’ in a French newspaper headline: ‘ado’ is enough. ‘Profs’ are teachers, ‘bac’ is graduation, and so on. Acronyms are also permitted, but can be confusing: NATO being OTAN and the UN being ONU.
But don’t try it with someone’s name, especially writers and politicians: Brits may have their Toms, Dicks and Freds, but Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Luc Mendès-France must remain precisely and polysyllabically that. We have a friend called Marie-Yvonne, whose name you abbreviate at your peril.

You probably know about boules – the game played by French males on cigarette-end-strewn patches of rough ground to prove their manhood and exclusivity. There’s a national boules tournament with a difference going on in the next town, Beaulieu. It’s called boules carrées, and is played with square balls – honest.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nice is really nice

We’re back in much-loved Villefranche – a warm but overcast Villefranche. It’s supposed to be the tired tail-end of hurricane Florence – or was it Gordon? – or Horace?

Having recently (Sept 7) given a commenter an unflattering image of Nice, I have the urge to present it in a more favourable light. I love it. Why? Well, mainly the fact that it really is a French city – the only one on the Riviera. You’d have to go to Marseille to find the nearest.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a year-round city. The Riviera is the opposite of what Florida is to Canadians. Its winters are not really warm enough to be the place where people go to escape harsh northern winters: it’s more an assurance of sunshine in spring, summer and autumn. This means that some parts of the Riviera tend to close down for the winter - as American travel writer James Salter puts it, ‘ruined by its appeal’.
But not Nice. Nice, although French, is cosmopolitan. There are art museums and galleries, cinemas showing English language movies, theatres, libraries, night life, concerts, the winter Carnival and the Battle of the Flowers to see you through until spring. And, of course the Jazz Festival.
It has an amazing mix of architecture. Yes, it has a lot of Parisian fin de siècle – like the Hotel Negresco, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald cavorted, on the Promenade. But the port, and squares like the place Massena and place Garibaldi - where a young newly-appointed general called Bonaparte psyched up his raggle-taggle army before setting off to conquer almost the whole of Europe - are pure Italian. And, since much of the city's expansion happened in the twenties and thirties, it probably has more art deco buildings - the main showpiece of which is the Palais Mediterrranée, which used to be a Casino until it was bankrupted by a bunch of crooks in 1979, but has now been reconstructed as a hotel, casino and apartment complex - than anywhere else in France. (Cannes used to have a magnificent art nouveau casino on its promenade, but they bulldozed it and replaced it with a concrete bunker. Nice rebuilt theirs within its original art deco façade.)
And, finally – for now anyway – Nice has the Promenade des Anglais. (So named because when the citrus harvest failed because of frost in the winter of 1821/22, the newly-founded Anglican church put together enough money to keep the agrarian community busy building a ‘prom’ to remind its expatriate congregation of seaside resorts back home.) Its five miles long arc has no equal anywhere in the world.
(Is that better Ed?)

Funny thing we noticed at Nice airport: a few years ago, most French rental cars were registered in a safe, bucolic, northern Département (whose registration no. was 51), with few conurbations where the tax and insurance rates were low. This saved the rental companies a lot of money.
But the result was that cars registered in Département 51 were a magnet to petty thieves, because trusting tourists were more likely to leave stuff in their rental cars than leery locals.
So they passed a law that rental cars, in order not to be tourist icons, should be registered in the Département in which they are rented. This meant that all rental cars hired in Nice would henceforth be registered 06.
But French laws have ‘best before’ dates, and only need to be honoured for a reasonable period of time, then they’re forgotten - unless the local Gendarmerie want to pin something on you.
So NOW, all rental cars are registered with number 60 – which is another safe, bucolic, northern Département with few conurbations, whose tax and insurance rates are low. This has two advantages: one, it saves the rental companies heaps of money; and two, the tourists are more readily identifiable by the robbers, which takes the pressure off the locals.

Friday, September 22, 2006

How do you like your words?

The times are a-changing. We’re trying to replace some negative habits - like jumping when the phone rings; worrying excessively about whether the mobiles are charged, or expecting the car, when we get into it, to charge off automatically down the M4 west - with positive ones. Such as talking to each other, cutting down on nightmares and eating our words about the NHS.
Especially eating our words. I’ve blogged on about our National Health Service in the past: now I don’t quite know what to say. Yes, I’ve had my problems with the NHS, and still have them. (Six weeks ago my doc referred me to a cardiologist: when I rang to see if anything was happening I was told ‘They’re very busy’.)
But this last month I’ve looked on in wonder as the most caring, tireless, professional group of people I have ever seen did everything humanly possible to comfort my step-son in his last days. Living alongside them 24 hours a day, my respect for these wonderful women has grown into something like awe. (What’s embarrassing was that they kept saying what a wonderfully supportive family we were!)
When you think how many other patients they, and his tireless GP, Meg, must have in their care, it seems incredible that those who were not working turned up at his funeral – including one who was on holiday. Here is part of the message they wrote in the Condolence Book*:
‘His extraordinary courage and will has left a legacy on the ward that has helped us all…’ Thank you, Meg and the girls of Highclere: Sarah, Vanessa, Mel, Mal, Sonja, Sue, Rita and daughter Debbie, Denise, Diane, Claire and so many others. You are a credit to your profession.

Our first thought, when the long battle was over, was that we had lost it. In one way, of course, we did, but in another we won: a little over year ago, when things looked bleak and a consultant at another hospital, (whom Rob called ‘Dr. Death’), was using words like ‘euthanasia’ in sentences that began something like ‘Of course I’m not suggesting…’, we agreed that if we were still together at the end of it all, we would probably stay together. We were and we will.

* - (Another message in the book was ‘never saw you travel so slowly in a car’.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Nice is nice

Paris by the Mediterranean it’s not, but it has lots that Paris doesn’t have. Unlike many towns on the coast, it’s a year-round city and doesn’t put up the shutters in December, and it doesn’t have the miserable winters of the capital. Parking is a nightmare but public transport is good, which is good for the planet. And although it can be frustrating at times, they do things like cutting the six-lane promenade down to two in order to make more room for walking/roller-skating/cycling on the prom.
Just now the streets are total chaos – some of them have already been closed for two years, and traffic barely trickles through the city’s two main squares: place Masséna and place Garibaldi. They are installing a tramway system – or as they call it in French: le tramway.

(Sept 6) Tonight’s big football match, part of the eliminations from the 2008 European Cup, (‘Oh no, not again!), is between France (European Champions 2004) and Italy (World Champions 2006). The French press are calling it the revanche for Italy having beaten France in the World Cup final. France will be without star striker Zidane and are claiming that he should be absolved from his suspension. After all, they argue, the Italian striker Materazzi insulted Zidane’s sister (et ta sœur – and your sister – is a fairly common response to a verbal insult), while all Zidane did was to deliver a running head-butt on Materazzi. It will be a better match – and a better sport – without them.
(Sept 7) France won 3-1. One of those games after which you wonder why you spend so much time watching football. France were the better side – but it was more Italy being the worse. Refereeing was, as we've come to expect, appalling. But some praise is in order: to the crowd (French) for being able to keep up the constant booing of the Italians throughout the whole game (including through their national anthem); and to French captain Viera for his dexterity in managing to hit an Italian with one hand and catch him again with the other hand before he hit the ground.

When Poland was throwing out communism and communist icons were tumbling all over Eastern Europe, the government of Nice decided they should have a symbolic record of the times. So they renamed one of their streets. But the people at one end of the street were quite happy with their original name, and objected to the change. So a compromise was reached. Now, one end of the street is called boulevard Lech Walesa. The other end remains the boulevard de Stalingrad.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Fridge too Far

I’ve learned something this trip. When we left the coast last time, I left the refrigerator reasonably well stocked, thinking we’d be back in a week or so. But circumstances changed – as they do – and it was many months. So one of the tasks this trip was to clean out the fridge. What I learned was: don’t leave a stacked fridge through the Mediterranean summer – and especially don’t switch off the electricity at the mains.

It’s an anniversary of sorts – a double one.
The Bellevue Stratford is a hotel in Philadelphia which has been the location of two momentous events. Its earlier claim to fame was that it was the location of the world’s first recognized outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease in 1976.
The other? Well, I was giving a talk to the PRSA there five years later with a different name – not me, the hotel - when I noticed my boss in the audience. This was unusual: he heard enough of me at work not to need to go to downtown Philly to hear me again. When I’d finished, he invited me into the bar for a drink, for which he paid: this was even more unusual. Something’s up, I thought. He’s either going to fire me – or give me a raise.
It was neither. He had been asked to sound me out on whether I would want to run an operation based on the French Riviera.
It was about as bizarre a life change as you could imagine – from the pressure-cooker world of mid-town Manhattan to a medieval Provençal village where farmers still herded their goats along the main street (not any more they don’t: they were blocking the traffic – and tourists spend more money than goats, even if in other aspects there’s a passing similarity); to move the kids from Junior High, swimming club, Little League and the Eagles to a world where the school bus was Dad’s Renault 21 and they would unlearn the 50 state birds and study strange things in a language of which they knew not a word.
It was so bizarre as to be hardly worth discussing, but I said I’d think about it. As we walked out of the hotel, we glanced up at the sign above a coffee shop right across the street, then at each other. The sign read ‘La Côte d’Azur’.
At home, we talked about it most of the night, used weighted pro and con tables, chicken entrails and other sophisticated management techniques – and finally came to the decision that surprised us both. We came to France.
That was 25 years ago, and now, nearly native - if only part-time – I work at the desk pictured in the Profile, looking out on a terrace that overlooks the Med.
And the bilingual kids? They live in England.

I ‘published’ my previous post Sunday night. It didn’t blog until this morning, Wednesday Sept. 6 - dated Monday Sept. 4. 60 hours.
Is someone trying to tell me something?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Mea culpa

I feel an excuse is required for having neglected posting blogligations.
I’ve been on Death Row. I don’t think I can explain that: the person second-most involved will – if she ever gets a free moment.
To celebrate Rembrandt’s 400th birthday there are all sorts of things going on in Amsterdam and throughout the world. One of the more bizarre is that, in the Rijksmuseum, you can buy a print of his 1642 work – the vast 12-foot-wide The Night Watch – with your own picture as one of the watchpersons. I thought of ordering it with the DG in it, but she’d think it naff. Meanwhile I am on release from the Row for some business/DIY projects in the Riviera town we know and love, accompanied by the guilt of having left her on The Night Watch, alone.

Malcolm Muggeridge said ‘I always read the obituaries section first to make sure I’m still alive’.
This week I saw one that proved that I was. Not mine, but just as revelatory. It was that of Rufus Harley, deceased, aged 70.
I’ve been an unquestioning Sonny Rollins disciple since puberty, (he's had more farewell appearances than Frank Sinatra and I've been to most of them), but of all the wonderful tracks he did – St. Thomas, To a Wild Rose, etc – the one that always knocks me out after all these years is his Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, on which the accompaniment is - bagpipes.
Yes, bagpipes. It starts off gently, straight melody, a bit like Wild Rose, then breaks away, ups both tempo and improvisation, and then the bagpipes come in, trading riff for riff with Rollins until the whole thing explodes in your head.
You don’t get much discography on a tape cassette – especially bootlegged ones bought in Italian markets – so I've spent years wondering who could make bagpipes swing like that. And now I know.
It was a Philadephia tenor sax player of Cherokee descent with a name like a motor bike, whose life changed completely the day he saw the Black Watch playing the pipes at JFK’s funeral.
So, belated but no less heartfelt thanks, Rufus Harley, up there swinging in your sweet chariot. I hope you told them you won't be needing the harp.

Ate at Chez Michel last night. Michel (his wife is also Michele) thanked me effusively for the plug in the France Today article - so much so I thought a cognac might appear with the coffee. Ah well.