2006July18 Nice in high season

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

The Delta flight, direct from New York to Nice, is not full by any means. As a result both Linda and I get two seats each, and next time, she says, she’ll make her move sooner—sooner than the others on the flight—and grab three seats. Any number of things might account for this surfeit of empty seats at a time when tickets seem to be not only at a premium, but at an all-time high for prices. But the airlines ain’t talkin’ and one must speculate.

For one thing, the premium on tickets presumably has eased as we flew with frequent flyer points, originally slated for a May 30 departure, with a return on the very day we are finally able to leave. Linda thinks it’s because she played the medical “card” telling a sympathetic Delta agent about her illness and treatment (the cause of the first delay in our plans), but, boarding the plane, it is evident immediately why seats were forthcoming. This is a sure indicator of the ways in which Delta must be hurting. A previous trip to Nice, also via JFK airport, one of the few direct flights from the U.S. to Provence, occurred on Christmas Eve, and was clearly not only full, but with a very full contingent of French citizens.

This flight, in high summer, and on the verge of the official French vacation period, when all of Paris, and much of the rest of the country, shuts down, is bereft of Francophones, it seems, of any nationality. What this condition seems to prove is that, indeed, America itself has shut down as a source of tourism revenue—whereas in the past, certainly pre-9/11, the United States provided as much as 40%, and perhaps more, of the tourist traffic that made France (and apparently still makes it, even without our help) the number one tourist destination in the entire world. [All you Francophobes out there, and you know indeed who you are, I have several words here for you. You may be thinking at this point, so they’re losing business… good for the conniving, disloyal bastards… that well may be, but France is still the number one tourist destination on the planet, and those tourists are coming for France, not the French. We come for both, because, well, we know both of them. I added this merely to give myself an opportunity to disabuse one and all, but especially the Francophobes that they don’t hate Americans. Indeed, they scarcely work up the energy to work up a hatred for much. Scared? Yes. They’re scared of what crazy militant Muslims will do. Whether this is wise or not, I’ll leave to you, but at least we still share that much with them. And they’re very afraid, or at least heroically non-plussed by the present American administration. If you don’t care for Chirac and his crew, then count yourself even. Finally, at the risk of repeating myself, they don’t hate Americans. Best of all, they don’t hate these two particular Americans, nor any of you lot that have managed to visit us. Indeed, the feelings seem to be more akin to "like" or, dare I say, "love?" If you want Europeans who hate Americans, you’ll have to work hard and look elsewhere. And, of course, though I disclose a bias, if there’s a nationality or an ethnicity over here that you yourself must hate, I’d look elsewhere than at the French. Every French person I’ve ever met has been a pleasant human being, likable and friendly. We do count our friends among the natives, and these we love. No question about it.]

Delta has, and has always had, only the one flight each day to Nice from New York. If any city could fill that flight, one assumes it would be New York. Hence, the numbers are down for sure, even on this wisp of anecdotal evidence. It may be that it’s because it’s Monday (rentals in France are usually Saturday to Saturday, but the standard rentals are not aimed at Americans. Indeed, it’s better to arrive on a Tuesday, because, in rural France at least, so many shops (and too many bank branches) are simply closed on Monday. That’s an artifact of the draconian 35-hour work week laws among a number of artifacts that conspire to make France an interestingly different place to live than the U.S. They’re laws that much easier to enforce, despite the abundance of workers who simply don’t work. There is nary a “typical” French worker who needs more than an official excuse not to work. Indeed, it becomes a right. And institutional idleness has become a creative proposition.

Seats generally are at a premium, especially on the traditional national carriers, which are bleeding money, because there are so few tourniquets. One way of choking off the blood flow is to raise the price of seats made premium by relative scarcity. Fewer flights. Fewer seats.

We flew on a relatively big plane to Nice. I’m sure if Delta could use a smaller plane with less capacity they would. But a 767 has not much less range than a 777, and a 757 won’t make it to Nice. Wouldn’t even make it to Paris.

When we arrived, it was only variations on a theme.

In France, the vaunted French vacation period for its workers (exceeded these days at least by Germany, thereby making it a workers’ paradise, a phrase that has lost the grim irony of only 50 years ago) begins in earnest July 15. Our flight was the 17th. We arrive after a night of no particularly great turbulence, including the type fomented by infants, of which the flight had its share, and a blood orange colored dawn and took our room at the Hotel Westminster, a lovely old place smack on the Promenade des Anglais, and therefore with capacious seaside rooms that somehow fit with the remnants of a Belle Epoque air (though with thoroughly modern frigid-making climatization equipment for those rooms) and a central stairway that would give Dolly Levi a suitable entrance.

The large room in which we ate our breakfast the morning after we arrived is particularly ridiculous. It seems to be a ballroom, with a level of ornateness not seen since about the time of the war. That would be World War I.

Ballroom_westminster_mg_1444It’s hard to tell if this is a room original to the hotel’s design, renovated and modernized (parquet floors, huge gilt chandeliers
, with a myriad of fixtures tricked out to look like they still burn gas), or if it has been designed to reproduce the era at impossibly great expense. The Westminster is part of a millionaire’s row of hostelries right on the water, with the Negresco, queen of all of them, still going strong and still with a suitably famous restaurant, Chantecler (though it lost one of its three Michelin stars in fairly recent memory). All of them are monuments to faded glory. In our breakfast room, presided over by a lone waiter, who fetches you hot water for tea, or a carafe of coffee or cocoa, as you choose, there is so much room the tables are widely spaced, as if for some desultory senior prom or a failed fund raising banquet. The food stations are yards apart. Tucked in a corner, chafing dishes with scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausages, alongside a huge water-filled gizmo with wire cages for eggs (piled in a basket) for boiling with a timer that maxes out at 120 seconds. Another table features cold cuts and cheeses (a particular favorite of Germans). Yet another is festooned with a huge wicker pannier, filled with mini-croissants: plain, raisin, and chocolate, set beside Dairy Queen-sized chilled dispensers of orange juice and grapefruit juice. Somewhere in there are bowls of stewed fruits, including prune plums, apricots, grapefruit, and a cornucopia of dried cereals that would do Kellogg proud. It is altogether an impossible amount of food for the slow stream of guests of varying nationalities and ethnicities—though all decked in casual garb in defiance of the decor. The hotel is not empty, but it is far from full. Perhaps the feast is only fitting to the design of the room, with coffered ceilings and the heads of odalisques set above the arched doorways. The sense of grandeur makes the meal worth the price (36 euros—about 45 dollars—for what is dubbed a “continental” breakfast; presumably a full breakfast would be “planetary”), though that is included in the cost of our room.

The room itself, I’ll add quickly, is the perfect set up for a lagged out pair of Americans, who don’t want to miss all of the rest of the day, and yet desperately need sleep. The plane may have allowed us to spread out, but not sufficiently to get even three or four hours of sleep strung together into a whole. After a touristic lunch of salade niçoise at a nearby bistro, tricked out to look Parisian, we collapse, but with the drapes left drawn open to admit klieg amounts of brutal white sunlight into the room. We awaken, with plenty of hours of day left, and time enough to make reservations on the terrace of the restaurant in the hotel.

We were splurging, though the promotional price we got was dubbed “Farniente,” one of those French idioms with no really suitable translation into English, possibly a nonce word and definitely made-up, though it comes close to meaning literally, “nothingness” and is understood to mean perfect guilt-free idleness. Not only does this cheap rate garner us a sea-side room but it is on the top floor, so our view of the beach, or plage, is as spectacular as it gets for essentially middle-class folks with, if not a budget, then at least thoughts of one always lingering in the backs of their minds.

Plage_nice_mg_1439The beach is occupied practically from the moment the sun rises at around six, and stays occupied until it sets, which, at these latitudes, and situated where we are in the European Central Standard time zone, occurs at about nine-thirty of-the-clock. Note, however, that occupied does not mean packed, and in Nice, they come and go, not talking of Michelangelo, indeed not talking of much of any consequence at all but to their personal quotidian concerns, and carrying minimal gear.

Many of them have not even towels, their bathing outfits barely visible under shorts and tee shirts.

The only way to tell those who have been swimming, aside from the obvious drift of that part of the crowd moving generally away from the shore, is the occasional wet tee shirt, particularly on young women who bear two round wet spots over their bikini tops. You have to wonder why anyone braving the unrelenting sun—there’s not been a cloud in the sky for four days now, going on five, despite promised storms that have already soaked the Southwest—would not have spent his or her entire time in the water, far warmer than our northeastern beaches, not to mention that the beaches this far east on the Mediterranean are, in actuality what the British call “shingle.” That is, there is no sand whatsoever, but a swath, perhaps 25 yards deep from the Promenade to the water’s edge, at low tide, composed entirely of pebbles ranging from a quarter-inch to an inch along their narrower axis and worn smooth. In short, impossible to walk on in bare feet, and nearly so even with the usual street-worthy footwear.

Inland only a block, and further into the interior of this seaside city, the buildings are sufficiently high—likely averaging about four stories, especially in the tourist quarters within two or three blocks of the shore—to cast a shadow on one side of every street and thoroughfare. Only tourists venture on the sunnier side.

The ultimate point to be made is that crowds move right along, just as they do in September, right after the great “Rentree,” the institutionalized return, or reentry, to school and work life, or even in December, as Christmas shopping crowds brave the frigid daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s. More importantly, the Promenade des Anglais, which I’ve seen immobilized with traffic, even in early June, itself moves along at the stately pace of 50 kph, the heavily enforced speed limit [about 30 miles an hour].

Once we pick up our car—this time a Passat, with a turbo-diesel injected engine and quite peppy—we move right along, to my great surprise, and right out of the city, and make it to Fox Amphoux in our usual hour and forty minutes.

The dread for travelers of high season on the French Riviera and elsewhere in the south has abated for sure, and left an unhappy lot of touristic entrepreneurs whose livelihood depends on a certain volume of business from May through September.

The big test will be market day in Aups on Saturday. Having missed the other market day, driving up on Wednesday afternoon—markets are exclusively in the morning—we have no idea what to expect.

The last time we were in this region this late, and actually a bit earlier, having departed on the 15th of July, the crowds on market day in Aups, a town that is really no more than a village of three thousand people, made it impossible to traverse it from one end to the other on the main drag in less than forty-five minutes. It usually takes about two minutes, maybe two-and-a-half if an unusually large number of folks are crossing the street in the middle of town.

I am determined to get to town early, have coffee, shop and get the hell out, so I may never know if the crowds have abated here as well. Watch this space.

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