Nice La Belle (Part 1)

As grateful as I am that I’ve had a chance to discover travelling to make it my heart’s top desire, I feel even more blessed to have someone I’ll always love more, someone who makes it possible to see places that it would be insane for anyone to fail to write about. Of course, since I became a traveler, I’ve always been on a mission to hear, see and feel things in a new way (I’ve been attempting to do that in the comfort zone of the home surroundings ever since as well). But that trip was certainly going to have a bit different agenda. I was going to see whether I was actually capable of exploring the world within the scrutiny of a scientific lens, which to me seems utterly barren of feelings. What happens with feeling in a new way then? How can such an overwhelmingly beautiful and bewilderingly puzzling thing as human language be dealt with in such a prudent fashion as it is by linguists? Anyway, it should be and quite well as the fact that we are merely capable of contemplating and postulating about it suggests. Anything beautiful is such as long as it inspires and anything puzzling is there to be investigated just to make us astounded at the sheer beauty and complexity it has inside it to inspire whoever dares to investigate it even more.  Is the sheer wording of this enough to make me sound like someone whose science career is doomed…?

I have absolutely no idea what kind of galaxies conspired and in what fashion they did to make it possible for my sister and me to go on a conference in linguistics where I was going to see whether me and science has a tiny bit of a chance for a future together. I’m not quite certain if it was too late in my life to even start pondering this and if anyone who definitely makes a good match with the scrutinous scientific lens would even put it the way I did just now. I must blame it all on the place where I was blessed to have my sister take me! Nice – it can’t be true! Let alone that I had been privileged to get a glimpse of the Côte d’Azur once and now… again? Me?! Those galaxies seemed to be in love with me just as much as I am with the azure beauté de la Côte d’Azur. Oui, je parle un peu de français. Maintenant… I wish I had been taught to speak French and at this point of my professional life I’m completely aware of the responsibility we must take for our own language instruction … Juste un peu. Well (or rather “Alors” as a puzzling cross-lingual interplay in my brain has me tempted to carry saying), someone still struggling to be certain about science due to the lack of clarity in defining it and teaching herself what was going to be a very limited French was going to Nice! I felt my sister was a lot more deserving to be there in the first place as she has a very harmonious working relationship with anything that has to do with science and sadly, that doesn’t run in the family really. But as long as she was willing to share this piece of azure tranquil happiness with me the way sisters do, I was happy as I knew whenever I felt I wasn’t, I had to remember I had her to be grateful for.

“Nice – nice or not nice?” was running through my head as I was sitting contemplating about the galaxies, French and recapitulating my experience there and the effect of being there once had had on me so far. Every single time we’re away from home has an overwhelmingly far-reaching effect on us in ways we might not realize as we are sieved through the monotonous razor of the daily drudge. Somehow without me being aware, Nice had an unfinished business with me. Of course, a lot comes down to money, an opportunity but I’d like to think about something else guiding travelling paths we choose to take, something totally out of our intellectual and emotional reach. It might come across as a fairytale but as we grow older and sometimes wiser, we would find ourselves craving to believe in one even more. My fairytale was all going to be of the colour azure, the shade I would laugh off the thought of ever encountering again. Apart from the colour I had yet to piece together in my vision, I was going to plunge myself into a new type of the sea when I mingle in a totally new social setting. I was only to discover that people are even a “huger” (making excessive even more excessive) part of travelling and discovering and we do need fellow humans to enable us to see, hear, feel and to think in a new way. Oui, certainement!

Even my Mum, who with all due love and respect is totally sceptical of my passion for languages and even less so for travelling, randomly mentioned that she had been wondering what on earth had been keeping me from learning French. Really, what was that evil nasty thing? Do our mothers have a way of saying things that trigger a whole lot of thoughts, aspirations and expectations of the world around us? Believing in fairytales, which we were told as part of motherly love we have as tokens in our souls, I embarked on my little mostly night-time French classes. Very tentatively and timidly. I was in no way going for a deep and lusty French kiss, just a coy peck to get my mind around the way the language works. It was a linguistic delight and a blast to watch myself and questioning the way I was making these little steps in shaping up my new “interlanguage”. I really have a zero recollection of doing that for English. What a shame!

Trips have a way of starting long before we physically leave the customary comfort of our homes and it might take just one trip to take you on countless more. It felt sweet and stereotypically romantique, the music of French and my emerging ability to create my own imitation of it. As painstaking and elaborate language learning might get, I never cease to believe in its miraculous power like that of a living being to encourage, to discourage and well (stupidly romantic, I know) to enamour with every little grammatical twist. If French was holding a potential of a sizzling love affair, I’d already made my petites steps towards it rather than hiding or shutting myself away. It was about time to let that trip changer ma vie and bring a new shiny azure Francophone flavour to it. Was Nice nice after all? Who am I know to even dare to pose that question to myself? Me?! Really!

As we had an early morning flight, we thought it wise to arrive in Moscow just a day before and use it as an excuse to explore our capital’s charms a little bit more. I’m very much aware of how visiting my capital before an overseas trip builds up the excitement for seeing, hearing and feeling something new and in fact has me thinking that sometimes I don’t even need to leave my country to do that. If it wasn’t for travelling abroad, I might have never got to develop any relationship with my capital at all. I do remember my first visit here when I was about ten and how intimidated I was by all that hustle and bustle and how I had a cry on the train there because I was so fearful to leave my own little home place. I always find myself wondering what it was that has changed me into someone who’s now so willing to leave and would rather shed a tear if I haven’t hit the road for long to make me depressed and unable to be somewhere I used to be so reluctant to leave. Life and everything we do as we go through it has a very extraordinary and mysterious way of transforming us. Anyway, Moscow has this wonderful power to transform me as well. Is this a country within a country? It well might be, but there’s something so reassuring and persistent here that would always prevent us from feeling like tourists here. I have yet to explore this feeling I get whenever I come. Even though it was June already, the weather was really nasty with just a few sunny spells throughout our stay. That made me even more incredulous about where we were going next. As much as the excitement of going somewhere might seem to slip away the more you travel, it makes you thankful more for those moments that looking back seem so huge and significant just like every little thing that we might fail to get the essence of as it is happening here and now. Curling my hair at the hotel to let what hopefully would be a warm Meditarrenean breeze run through those curls the next day… Little moments to treasure…

As an increasingly keen traveler, I just love airports! I couldn’t wait to arrive at the Vnukovo airport for the first time ever as we were driving through the cold streets of the early morning Moscow. That was just the thought of getting somewhere a lot warmer that made that temperature hardly bearable! That was a really small and rather deserted airport and I couldn’t fail to recognize a spot that was filmed in a very popular Russian movie at the time called “Crew” telling about a beautiful and heart-wrenching love story between pilots. Every trip has to have a little cinematic feel to it, doesn’t it? Even though this particular story allegedly took place at the Sheremetyevo aiport which  might have not been available for filming. There is something that airports generally seem to share, but that had been my first very quiet and peaceful morning with us sipping on our coffees sat facing the Turkish Airlines advertisement and dreaming of the warmth and some breeze not particularly of Nice but anywhere in fact.

There had to be something posh or rather pretentious (because that’s Russia) about someone on a plane to Nice! There was a couple in the aisle in front of us talking about their children living in Cannes. What a lucky bunch of people they were! If it wasn’t for the conference we were attending, we wouldn’t certainly have afforded a trip to such an extravagant location. But it worked out for us and on that particular day we were on that particular plane so it’s not just the bitter “c’est la vie” sometimes.

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Arriving at the Côte d’Azur airport was going to be spectacular as it was just near the sea coast and we could get a glimpse of Méditerranée from the plane and it seemed as if we were going to land just here. The tranquil blue skies, alluring palm trees – was I merely dreaming? I wish we all got a change of scene like that as a reward for dealing with persistently dreary spells back home. It should be not by chance that in the European languages I have a bit of knowledge of, there is the same word for something you see in your sleep and what you aspire to get. C’était un rêve and I was awake to experience and embrace it! A few noticeably French male’s faces as we make our way to the passport control. Is it a bit too early to even start noticing? Not really especially when the sky is so azure!

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The first thing we felt as we exited the airport was how hot it was! Dressed in our blazers, we must have looked a bit out of place in this beautiful part of the world. We didn’t have to walk too far to get a typical Provençal view of bouganvillas gracefully clinging on the walls of the buildings in the area. I knew the South of France was going to open up to me a bit more this time. As we were to find our way to the city centre, I felt an irresistible urge to make use of my very limited French against such a beautiful backdrop. I felt so good about being able to say this little but so meaningful “Parlez-vous anglais?” as I asked about where the bus stop was. Of course I could have said a very simple “Do you speak English” and by saying this, I intended to get into the comfort zone of this international language that I teach for a living. But making a bit of effort to avoid using this impersonal phrase especially in a country with a language that belle seemed to go a long way. I was able to get a few lovely French smiles as a welcome to Nice when I said this. Even dealing with typical French strikes and resulting transport delays wasn’t annoying at all.

Waiting at a bus stop for a good half an hour was something we didn’t mind at all, because as a reward we got to see an increasingly international crowd and their reactions to the wait. The bus that really took its time to arrive got packed and getting on it with our suitcases was a bit challenging. I geared myself up for what I thought would be more like a typical bus ride for me (except for the view) but I quickly found a place where I would be fine standing because unlike most buses here, there was a soft surface to lean my back on, which really amazed me. Miracles didn’t cease as I was trying to make my way to the only vacant seat I saw at the back and leave my suitcase in the middle, a gentleman reached out and snatched it out of hand and put it next to the seat I was going to take! I don’t know whether that was his physical strength or willingness to help that impressed me more. All I could say was “Merci!” That seemed the most appropriate thing to say to that.

Even though the bus was packed, people kept being polite as they got off at their stops and only the sound of a few loud fellow Russians made it seemed a tiny bit like home. We made it to the city centre about 20 minutes later and the view, the view! The one not to kill but to live for! To live to see if you haven’t yet! Just like at the thought of going to Nice again I just had a laugh and turned away as I got a glimpse of the alluring azure coast stretching on my right! What am I doing here with a feel of the Moscow cold timidly lingering on my skin…? My clothes were totally out of place and I couldn’t let that go. “Do you remember we were living in that house during one of our vacations here and then in this one?” I heard the fellow Russians saying. Well, Russian people do get around. Well, some of them anyway. The beach was very queit and there were just a few people here, probably locals just enjoying a typical niçoise afternoon. A ball splashing lazily in the water at a distance, people talking… Très belle! Will I get to practice my limited French? What would the city feel like this time? Will Nice be nice for us and to us? A string of questions running through my head…

I vaguely remembered Place Masséna, Nice’s central square, and that was where we had to get off. I miscalculated the distance and we got off a stop earlier. As much as I was loving to be here and enjoying the peaceful tranquility of the central Nice lined with petite comfortable shops and cafes, I wasn’t loving carrying my suitcases over the cobbled pavement. A city like this is to be taken easily and joyfully during a lovely promenade but not like this. I was happy I was able to read a few signs and I was a bit proud of myself for opening myself up for French a bit. As we were walking, we got a little taste of what the next few days would bring and there was certainly a lot to look forward to. As the European Football Championship was to kick off a few days later and France was to host it, we saw a huge Euro 2016 sign right in the park and that made us feel part of something we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Why was it so hot? It had to take some getting used to. We had a bit of a difficulty finding our hotel, which was supposed to be just around the corner. Taking a few wrong turns had to be part of our adventure. Place Massena – it’s me walking here again! Me!!! That’s Europe for ME again!

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We did find our hotel a few arguments later. It was really small, but the location was superb and now we could definitely appreciate that! I did attempt to speak to the receptionist in French and guess what – she understood me! I mean as a language teacher with fairly enough common sense, I knew she would, but speaking French after learning it for about a month and that was me again! French people are notoriously bad at speaking other languages rather than their own, but this lady was quite fluent in English as well. As she was busy with some paperwork for us, I told her that “Il fait plus chaud ici à Nice et à Russie il fait….” And here it just slipped my mind! “Froid?” “Oui, froid!”. That was amazing, wasn’t it? You don’t have to learn a languages for ages to be able to have this sort of a conversation about the weather. My students often make me forget about that…

Our room was very small but who would mind that in a place like this as long as we were safe in the knowledge Méditerranée was there! That was just what I imagined living here in one of those little apartments we could see in our window would be like. I chose to ignore some missed calls on my phone just to find out I had no connection at all and neither did my sister. That wasn’t fun at all and we argued for a while over what we thought could have caused that. I think we might have caused a baby in the next room to burst out crying in the process. Hearing two Russians arguing must have been a phonetically traumatizing experience and we’re sorry about any inconvenience this might have caused. There was no more time for arguing as the belle Meditarrenean evening was waiting to be experienced and we were so hungry we thought we could start eating our elbows!

A change of clothes was essential and making wrong fashion choices is particularly easy after you’d just been on a flight. Seeing and being seen was going to be enjoyable here. A meal was no less essential after the fashion choices had finally been made. Of course back home you promise yourself you will be avoiding touristy places around central squares but you would end up in one anyway. The city centre here is quite small so we thought we would go for whatever wouldn’t seem too extravagant for our budget. Unlike Italy whose influences you wouldn’t fail to note here as Nice used to be part of the Kingdom of Sardinia back in the 19th century, catering staff here wasn’t too pushy and you could read into the menu carefully. This lovely street just around the corner from Place Massena was so picturesque with all these lovely cafes! A quintessential European experience! We chose a nice place that wasn’t too crowded but had a few diners that seemed to be Asian. I could just sit here watching people walking by. Yes, that was France indeed! I had to figure out a way to keep watching that wouldn’t seem too impolite. I instinctively ordered some “shashlyks” which is a traditional Russian barbecue dish and I was curious about what the local interpretation would be. And the wine to go with it! Certainement! With the food ordered, I could forget how hungry I was and looked into a random window in front of me and thought of not thinking about where I sure knew I would be now if I wasn’t where I was. This beautiful feeling of the first day of a trip is something to savour and hold onto. Cheers to that! I even forgot to try to speak French now, I was just too happy to think of which language to speak in fact! The food was just merveilleux! The tender meat sprinkled abundantly with olive oil (very Provençal I guess). I even took hold of a few portions of the Dijon mustard because I’d been told by a French friend who lives there that had to be tried. Evenings like these are to be lived for! The more you get around, the more you learn to appreciate good places and food on your table.

Now it was time for an evening promenade! As we were walking, I hope I was just hearing things when I thought I heard someone say “Russian”. Yes, we do like to dress up but that’s just what we felt like doing living in a country like that I’m afraid. We seemed to remember where a Monoprix supermarket was so we decided to stock up on some snacks to take to the beach. Cheese, cheese, cheese! Yes, there was as much of it as it was here the first time I came! One might spend some time reading on what sorts are a must to try but once you get into a supermarket, you forget all about it. I was certainly having some real French cheese that night and that was all that seemed to matter at the time! It was so good the tourist season hadn’t started yet and there weren’t too many people outside so we could linger in Place Massena right next to the Apollo Statue and even have a “moment” with this place, which meant taking a mental image of random architectural details and let your mind set off fireworks to celebrate being alive.

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The sea! Méditerranée! Que tu es belle! Is there anything to say at all… I remember enjoying that same view two years ago right here in this spot. As France had had unusually low temperatures for the season, we were likely left just to enjoy the view of it rather than swim… It was time for a picnic French style facing the belle Promenade des Anglais, the central pedestrian area that came to be admired by the Englishmen in the 19th century and hence the name. It was so classy to be here and finally eat my cheese, which my sister said smelled like a pair of socks. I wouldn’t say that was out of this world (and the expectations are always up high in a place like this) but it certainly added to the flavour and ambiance of the night at the seafront. I certainly knew I could spend hours on end just sitting here eating this cheese, sipping on my wine and most importantly, watching the sea and letting it work its magic on me… The breeze and the curls – it had all finally come together!

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As we were cherishing the moment making it a memory to last, we saw two black guys walking by. It is not that I’m racist or anything, but of course we do have some stereotypes and expectations of people based on their looks and it’s not just about the skin colour. I did notice that these guys seem to pay a lot of attention to females walking by. As I was reflecting all of that, I saw them suddenly turning back in order to approach us. At least they didn’t seem to pose any threat so I thought we could do with a quick chat. I wasn’t quite ready to have a full-blown conversation in French at that point as these guys didn’t really speak any English. That was going to be a lot of fun! I did manage a few simple phrases and with each single one I cared less and less about how many mistakes I was making and how horrible my French sounded. It isn’t just about showcasing the way you think “r” should sound like, you know. I told them about what I did and at least one of them could manage some English and that helped a bit. I don’t remember exactly how it came up but I mentioned to them that it was Alexander Pushkin’s, our famous writer and poet’s, birthday today. “Un célèbre écrivain”. Well, sometimes I felt they didn’t understand or pretended not to. I did understand the word “charmante” used to describe me. That was one very bizarre conversation but they seem to come your way when you least expect them to. We had to start leaving because we didn’t think we were not comfortable with carrying on with it. The guys weren’t happy about that (especially one of them). I heard one of them saying something to me as we were leaving but I turned back to smile and say “No” to whatever it was. Yes, you have to be prepared to make use of your language skills with whoever and wherever you have to.

The Promenade, the famous Hotel Negresco lit up against the tranquil Meditarrenean sky! We are in France! Nous sommes à France! Oui, oui, oui!!!

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We walked to Place Massena to see the famous art installation just along the tram lines featuring seven statues that are lit in random colours each representing an ongoing dialogue and interaction of cultures. I didn’t get to see them at night during our first visit and that was just magnifique to be sitting here in this square filling up with people and marveling at an Italian feel it got. It was certainly not what a similar Parisian experience would be like. And another type of treat was to follow as well. Humans! Yes, they are essential to making all these unforgettable memories! Here male beauty came in all sorts of forms and shapes. That was the central meeting point and you would see bunches of young men coming here probably to hang out together and they were so affectionate kissing on the cheek or hugging each other instead of saying a simple “Salut”. How endearing that was to watch them here in what I felt like calling “a piazza”. The vibe was so great! I did need to find a way to stare without making it too explicit. That was like a casual fashion show right here in front of the Apollo Statue in the heart of Nice! After a few bohemian and relaxed reflections, it was time to head back to the hotel as it was already past midnight and we had the conference to go to the next day. Yes, staying focused on it was getting increasingly difficult! As we were walking, we did notice another pair of male fashion gods strutting their superb style and had a laugh about what kind of a reaction they would produce at my all-female university department! All I knew was that they wouldn’t go unnoticed! As we were just to turn the corner, I saw a pair of very beautiful brown eyes of one of these young men looking at me and I heard their owner asking me if I spoke English. I still have no idea why I said what I did but I said “No!”. I wasn’t just used to such handsome men coming up to me like this and I thought he was asking if I spoke French and I felt I was done with it for the night after that random encounter with the black guys back at the seafront. Despite my “No!”, we carried on our conversation and the other guy even attempted to say something in Russian when we said where we were from. It turned out they were looking for a club, poor souls. I know it might not be something a lady would be encouraged to do but I thought I had to compliment how gorgeous they looked and then I went on to say something that would have us laughing long after that went like “Our men don’t look like that!”. I have no regret I said this! They certainly don’t! That’s just one thing that’s horribly wrong with them. In response, that guy with huge brown eyes said “Me? Really?” Those were my exact words when I found out we would be travelling here and little did I know I would be having a conversation like this! How on earth don’t they know? He did sound genuinely amazed by my compliment and that’s what they are for anyway! I think we left them both standing there speechless when we told them we were scientists attending a “conférence”. They might have felt part of some intriguing scientific experiment now because we didn’t seem to look like scientists to them. We do have our own expectations of people… We turned the corner leaving these two male fashion gods standing there contemplating what had just happened. Back at the hotel, I just lay on my bed staring pensively at the ceiling contemplating that as well and how so surprisingly easy it was to have our all this handsomeness as part of your evening. My sister proceeded with putting together our poster for the conference for the next day and could have probably scared that child next door again. People here don’t make it easy to think about science and instead leave you with a cheeky smile that won’t go away until your dizzy head finally hits the pillow. I’m sleeping here in Nice. Me?! Oui! Bonne nuit!

 

Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

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