I won’t tell this story the way it happened. I will tell it the way I remember it, because simply that’s the way memories work--they depend on what we interpret and choose out of them. The details that we remember or that we decide to forget (consciously or unconsciously) become the building blocks of our memories, thus making the experiences of what we recall as our lives.
Neuroscience aside, I’ll tell this story my way mainly because as a storyteller, it would be a failure for me not to make my anecdotes worth telling. Mr. Face-in-the-Hundred-Dollar-Bill is believed to have said: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” I was determined to do precisely both during my journey, knowing that in the end it would probably be like adapting a book into a movie, for which lengthy chapters have to be crunched into 90 minutes of majestic film sequences and a bundle memorable one-liners. For my case, I would have to crunch four weeks of a chapter of the book my life into a couple of dozen pages of bearable narrative—a task that would require some sprinkles of embellishment, one-quart exaggeration, and a lot of cutting-to-the-chase-ing so that others can appreciate those memories as much as I hold them dear.
My story took place in southern France. Nice, to be more precise. Though it didn’t quite start there. It didn’t begin in the airplane either as I leaped across the pond of the Atlantic. The flight, however, was a pleasant twelve-hour precursor to my French adventure, with wine and movies a la carte and luckily devoid of sleepy-drooling co-passengers.
No. My story started a bit farther northeast of the Alps—it all began in Frankfurt. While I was waiting for my connecting flight that would deliver me to my destination for the holidays, the significance of my journey finally hit me—there I was, sitting and writing by the immense windows of the terminal, inspired by the great white infinity of the snowed landscape and by the European beauty strutting by me when I glanced away from the window. Yes, there I was, for the first time in a total foreign land, far from the United States (my residence) or Mexico (my homeland) and surrounded by a foreign language and a fairly different culture. Yet, there I was, feeling strangely comfortable with my own strangeness, with being the stranger in a foreign land, hardly understanding the German spoken and written all around me, from the terminal signs to the discreet argument of the family of four rocking my row of seats beside me.
The epiphany dunked me deeper into my writing and musings, until a godly voice (because it came from above and because it sounded remarkably similar to Morgan Freeman, but in German) started listing cancelled flights due to the blizzard powdering the main European airports. I felt a tingly feeling building on my lower back that I could only interpret as concern or a kidney stone--what if I got stuck in Frankfurt? All my plans in Nice would be, if not ruined, definitely challenged. I would lose my housing reservation and forfeit that money. I would then be in a financial pinch. And worst of all, I would be late for by French course.
I had to wait for the voice to switch to the English to wash my concern away: Nice was not one of the cancelled flights. In fact, the cancellations depended on the destinations: Paris and London couldn’t handle the snow. Frankfurt, on the other hand, kept its clockwork functioning. Luckily, I had been right to plan my connections according to stereotyping. An hour later, German efficiency had me en route to Nice.
Arriving to Nice was everything but nice. The sunny weather of southern France had been all a lie. It was raining--nay, it was storming when I arrived. There were no thunders or lightning, but there was enough pouring to turn the streets into streams. Regardless of the rain, I insisted to take a bus instead of a taxi to get to my hotel. I rationalized that, besides being cheaper (in a 60-to-1 ratio), it would afford me getting to know the city a bit more by enjoying the scenery during the bus ride. After fumbling and mumbling my French with the attendant at the tourist information booth, and after agreeing with her on a single spot to point at on a city map, I took the bus of line 6 (I remember that little detail) that would deliver me just a couple of blocks from my hotel.
I will never be that wise and moronic at the same time ever again. I was right that the ride would show me more of the city--street after street and block after block of charcuteries and boulangeries and boutiques and McDonald’s and Subway’s that made me feel in an old cartoon with rolling backdrop. I was lost amidst the repetition of scenery, confused if I was in Europe, the U.S., or an episode of The Twilight Zone. I was half relieved when the driver told me I had arrived to my stop forty-four minutes after riding. I was just tired of looking at stores that all seemed picturesque but generic, like bad postal cards.
My adventure had just started. The bus had indeed left me at a walking distance from my hotel, just a few blocks away.
Well, a few being ten blocks.
And it was still pouring as if God were mad at the Nicoise for their sloth (which I would discover later).
So I dragged my carry-on suitcase while I checked my map to make sure that I headed the right way through the dimly lit and narrow streets of Nice (it was dark already, though not quite yet night time). Forty minutes and soaking-wetness later, at the brink of a heart attack due to the unexpected cardio-training, I arrived to my hotel: the Villa Saint-Exupery.
Oh, the irony of arriving after being lost for an hour to a place named after a guy who *erhm* got lost in the desert…
The face of the receptionist, Lucinda, was priceless--undecided between laughter, awe, pity, or fear at the figure of a guy my size wearing a drenched black fedora and black trench-coat and dragging along an Oompa-Loompa-sized suitcase.
“Wow, you’re fuming. That’s cool.” Somehow, her thick South African accent made the comment all the more complimenting.
She didn’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I was so hot due to my exercise that steam came out of my shirt through my collar. I was a metaphor, embodied.
I just requested to get the key to my room. She offered to guide me to it, since it was a suite not easy to find unless you knew the villa already.
“I guess this isn’t the right time to tell you that we have a shuttle that would’ve picked you up, is it?”
I grabbed the key from her and followed her to my room.
It took three days for the rain to subside enough to make exploring the town something desirable. My first stop, of course, was the famous Promenade des Anglais, the English promenade along the beachfront of “old Nice”.
I sat down at a bench, ready to take in the view and inspiration of the Mediterranean Sea. The soft lighting of the sun on that Sunday morning, along with the serene swaying of the waves and the watering sounds crashing on the sand made it one of the most relaxing and overwhelming sights and sensations I’ve ever experienced. For me at least, that landscape painted of sky blue blending with golden-sparkling aquamarine represented more than just a sea or a wallpaper-worthy picture--it represented the inspiration of artists past, a legacy of inspiration and art if you may.
That was the same sea that saw Hemingway and Fitzgerald write their literary masterpieces. Those were the same waves and sunshine that had inspired the brushes and palettes of Matisse and Picasso. That was the sea and sand of Fellini’s films, which would make St. Tropez, Cannes, and the beaches of Italy mythical places of impossible romance and artistic musings. It was the same Nice where Grace Kelly met the love of her life during the filming of Hitchock’s classic To Catch a Thief, becoming a true Princess, the head of Monaco’s royalty—a fairy tale realized.
And then, there was I, letting my pen bleed as my thoughts poured on the page of my Moleskine notebook (yet another emulation on my part of those figures). I watched the waves, listening to their natural music, and wrote my morning away.
The peace of the morning promenade soon became the rush of midday crowds composed by eager runners, awed tourists, and the weirdest and most prolific mix of hot, Russian-slutty-dressed, under-thirty women clinging to the wrinkly (or wobbly, if they were fat enough) arms of their daddy substitutes. I grinned as I saw the women trying not to trip with their six-inch stilettos and the guys doing their best not to croak from a heart attack every time their eyes met the mounting greatness of their female companions.
That was my cue to go for some fuel, AKA coffee or wine for me, depending on the time of the day. And since it was still early in the day, propriety called for coffee.
Following the advice of one of my tourist guides (which I’d like to think made me a bit less clueless than the other tourists), I ended up at a small cafe by the promenade, right behind from where I was sitting. I was labeled as “the best people-watching spot in all of Nice”.
And that was true. Sitting facing the sidewalk rather than the beach made a difference. That café was an excellent scouting spot to appreciate the totality of the crowd passing by. And I got to practice some French with the couple of waiters servicing that day.
Unfortunately, that place made me miss Starbucks like never before (and in the process, feel like a consumerist drone and an overall jackass for longing for Starbucks in lands of artisan coffee). The brew, supposedly Americain, was really French roast--Joan of Arc type of roast. It expressly wasn’t espresso, and yet they served it in a petite espresso cup as big as a Smurf hat--refills not included, mind you. And that whole Nicoise delicatessen cost only six euros plus tip--just triple the price of a regular venti!
I left as soon as I finished the burnt remnants of my coffee.
I had learned my lesson: next thing I did before sunset was to find a café that would become my regular hang out for the rest of my stay for a good reason: the Italians who ran it not only liked talking to me in both French and Italian, but they also knew the crucial differences between espresso and cappuccino during the day and knew well how to mix cocktails at night. My vices and my writing found their saviors.
Even if it seemed like it was, writing was neither the main nor the original purpose of my journey—I had gone to France to practice my French, pure and simple. I even took classes during the mornings, Tuesday through Friday, from nine thirty to two in the afternoon, all four weeks that I spent there. In my crooked little mind, that would be enough coursework and immersion to brush the rust and cobwebs off my French-speaking skills.
I didn’t know that I should’ve chosen Paris if I wanted to do that, where the infamous residents would be mean to me by parlant francais seulement. Then my immersion would’ve been actual immersion and I could’ve practiced my French easily.
But no, I chose Nice. The allure of the Mediterranean and the promise of vineyards, hills, and beach locales were too appealing. And deceiving.
Voilá! People in Nice made practicing my French hard, almost an impossible task, by being too nice. So the nice people of Nice rapidly got on my nerves. Unlike the Parisiens, the Nicois don’t hate foreigners—they even go beyond the call of duty to help lost and clueless tourists, which basically means that they will speak English to you at the slightest provocation. Time and again I found myself defeated at the challenge of having to speak French as naturally as possible or facing the courtesy of the locals switching to English for my own sake.
“Je voudrais une café, si vous plaît…"
" Je pense que…"
" Je suis Mexicain, mais je vien des Etats Unis…"
I would scramble, mumble, and fumble such phrases, taking my time to think them through to make sure to make only the right mistakes. I would then get the replies I deserved.
“One coffee coming up.”
“Oh, cool! ¿Así que sabes español?”
Perfect English. Every time. With bouts of Spanish and occasional Italian.
But at least I was in France, drinking French wine and eating French cheeses with French bread to my delight. Who cared if my French-language mission was flailing, right?
Well, I did. I wanted to feel more immersed in France and less like a tourist.
At least I had my classes.
The villa was another French-free zone for the most part. It would be better named “the Shire.” Actually, I think it might have been an official protectorate of the United Kingdom and a member of the Commonwealth, considering that almost the entirety of the staff (not only Lucinda) and quite a few of the long-term guests came from British Isles and the former colonies. Meeting them was a refreshing lesson in geography that has stuck with me.
It was comforting to have that sort of English-speaking refuge, even when that meant my picking up of a weird accent, mix of east Bristolian and outback Australian (which I had to shake off at my return to the US per my friends’ suggestion; otherwise I would happen to be stranded at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for longer than my packed clean laundry would allow).
But I digress. One of the highlights of my journey was befriending several of the staff members, with whom I interacted on a daily basis. I met almost the whole staff my second night at the villa, when I chose to push myself to my most productive at the bar during happy hour. As I scribbled furiously with my fountain pen in-between cocktail sips, the bartender, Scotland, snooped discreetly upon my deeds while feigning to fix her makeup.
“I’m a writer.”
“Wicked. What are you writing?”
Next revelation was that happy hour also served as break/dinner time for all of the staff. I learned this because everyone joined me, swarming the bar at Scotland’s call, intrigued and excited about my writing. I had not experienced that kind of groupie-like attention in quite a while. Nonetheless, it was invigorating and reassuring in a way.
“You should name one of your characters Sophie. It means ‘knowledge’ or something in Greek, Latin, or one of those old languages, you know,” suggested Perth, one of the regular designated drivers of the villa’s shuttles who complained too often about dressing like a 13-year-old boy despite nearing her thirties.
“Yes, it does. That’s why philo-Sophie means ‘love of wisdom’ in Greek.”
“You have to be a writer to know that.”
That was the first of several conversations Perth and I would have, usually held during the happy hour or when she drove me to and from the tram that connected the villa to downtown Nice.
I would also have more conversations with Scotland, in which we would discuss war movies and the possibility of my writing a movie about the adventures of a hot and witty bartender at a high-class hotel, to be played by Olivia Wilde or Emma Watson.
I also had memorable conversation with Sydney, a recent college grad who decided to make Nice the longest (almost permanent) stop of her post-graduation back-packing trip through Europe; with Hungary, a tourism major who was finishing her practical training in order to get her degree; with Melbourne, the excellent globetrotting chef who had landed at the villa for a few months to pause his journey around the world; with Wales, another tourism administration major doing her internship; and with Canada, a comedian wannabe and consummate Casanova.
What kept me having those conversations was that I realized what linked them all, aside from the language with accents—they were all in Nice looking to find themselves. They had wandered, one way or another, into the city, into the villa, trying to find or redefine a purpose or meaning for life. They had quit jobs, left family behind, deserted friends, or chosen to take a break from school in order to do it. They intended to find themselves and a new significance for their lives by going away from home and away from their lives.
How poetic, ironic, and self-revelatory.
And so worth writing about.
Rain didn’t quite stop during my time in Nice, and of course neither did my writing. However, I needed to spice up my writing by taking refuge from the downpour in more venues than just my one trustworthy café—so I tried the many galleries and contemporary art museums around Nice.
I can say that I tried them all, disliked most, and truly despised a few. I love art and support creative freedom for the sake of art, but the pieces populating the museums and galleries were too contemporary for my taste. I tend to judge contemporary art with a simple criterion: would I have a certain piece as decoration in my living room? And that just wouldn’t be the case for many of the exhibits, especially for the main attraction at Nice’s Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art—I wouldn’t have a collection of life-size and person-sized Smurf-blue manhoods as centerpieces of my living room.
The failure of the museums and galleries to inspire me gave me the idea of relocating, at least for a day in the name of inspiration. And being in southern France, my choice seemed easy and meant-to-be—off I went to Cannes.
I took a train to the neighboring beach town one of the few days in which the clouds restrained from wetting my plans. Traveling by train, moreover, was one of the experiences I wanted to accomplish during my time in Europe, so going to Cannes would have the double-goal of scratching that off my list and finding some inspiration at my destination.
Arriving to Cannes, the European capital of filmmaking and home of the most prestigious film festival in the world where film stars and legends have strutted for more than sixty years, was, to put succinctly and simply—underwhelming.
During the festival, Cannes must buzz with the energy of film-enthusiast attendees, the genius of filmmakers, the dazzle of celebrities, and the glamour of film. But the rest of the year, the town is all glamour and no film. Actually, pure pseudo-glamour, the type that means that a soda can at a sandwich place, not even a jacket-required restaurant, costs more than a full-week meal budget. The beach was beautiful, way more inspiring than Nice’s, but the promenade as a package disappointed me: it was like unfolding Dallas’s North Park Center mall by the beach, thus adorning it with only pricey, brand-name retail stores and fake-fancy restaurants.
In the end, what I expected to be a full, grand day of writing at Cannes became a humble tourist visit in which I got my obligated keychain souvenir, took pictures of the star walk (and imprints of stars at the promenade), and rushed back to Nice before rain or my need for food caught up with me.
Spending the holiday season by myself was a wholly different experience for me, breaking a decades-old tradition of my family in which everyone, all three living generations, would gather in my hometown for the December holidays. It’s a tradition not only because even extended family is close and that’s the Mexican thing to do for Christmas, but also (and most importantly) because it’s a season of birthdays, including my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my own, which means that there’s a reason to celebrate about every six days.
So Christmas Eve (the big day/night of celebration in Mexican culture) felt a bit weird. I spent it in solitude, thinking, writing, watching TV shows and artistic-yet-inappropriate European films on my computer, and partially waiting for the right hour (I hadn’t considered the time zone difference until then) to connect with my family via web.
AJ phone home.
New Year’s was a completely different story. I went to the dinner party hosted at the villa, mostly encouraged by my staff friends. There I met New Zealand, a young seafarer who was on vacation; California, a recently-graduated psychologist who had almost walked into a questionable establishment in downtown Nice under the impression that she would get a special massage while watching a special movie; and the Norways, an awesome couple (an actress and an oil-rig submarine operator) who taught me that Norway was Canada (the laid-back, wilderness-loving, and super-horny people), Sweden was the US (the richest, slightly uptight and kind of conservative), and Denmark was Mexico (the hard-working-but-hard-partying and cheaper alternative) when it came to the dynamics of northern Europe. I also met—well, not met—noticed (to be precise) Rome and Ventimiglia, the most stereotypical Italians possible with their loudness and lewd moves to woo California into their salaciousness. For a lonely person among a group of strange people, they were a great gang (along my staff friends) with whom to receive 2011 in high spirit to the rhythm of Shakira’s “Waka Waka.”
As much as Nice (and southern France, really) affected me in an inspirational sense regarding my musings and writing, in retrospect I can claim that people were the biggest, longest-lasting influence of my trip—especially a group of my classmates from my intensive French course.
They were a bundle of friends that fate gave me as birthday present: we met the day before my birthday due to a class tour, and we became friends that night as we celebrated my birthday at midnight at the only bar in Nice that opened on Mondays. The group was comprised by Germany, an all-too-German aristocrat from Hamburg; Colombia, the youngling that would beg me from time to time to talk to her in Spanish for sanity’s sake and perhaps dance salsa; Norway Mary, who needed to learn French in Nice before she took college courses in Paris; and a gang of about 20 Brazilians, from different backgrounds, who all had magically ended up at the same school in Nice. However, that night, only a handful of the Brazilian pack had joined us. In fact, two of them had masterminded the night: Renatta, who had been in town for almost as long as I had (2 weeks), took care of finding an open venue; and Milena, who had insisted on making a celebration out of my birthday after finding out about it amidst our conversations about life’s philosophies, traveling, movies, and her uncanny resemblance to a certain Hollywood goddess.
We all talked in English to each other, mind you. Even when a few of us shared class level at the school, no one felt confident or comfortable enough to make French our lingua franca. Besides, the Brazilians talked in Portuguese among them, and sometimes with me too, since I could understand quite a bit thanks to my Spanish, my Italian, and some Portuguese knowledge that had rubbed onto me as an offshoot of my football soccer fandom—I would just contribute to the conversation in English. As a result of those friendships, I might have learned, at least when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, way more Portuguese than French.
The biggest life lesson I received from my Nice friends, however, was to dance. I had been reluctant my whole life to give into dancing. My whole life. Not even because I’m Mexican and that’s supposed to be part of the Latin flavor. No. I could always appreciate and discern what was good or bad dancing, but I would never be the one doing it.
But that night, half-inspired, half-peer-pressured by my Latin American brethren, I danced. I danced for my birthday. And then I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped since, really.
It was like they had awakened my inner animal, which happened to be a dancing penguin with the gracefulness of the ballet hippos in Fantasia. And I was fine with that. Suddenly, all my reservations and dislike for dancing had vanished, thanks to the Brazilians and the replaying at the bar of my treasured Shakira’s tunes and Enrique Iglesias’s sultry songs.
That night, the dawn of my birthday, and the night after, became carnivals.
And I liked it.
My last adventure in southern France happened two days before my departure. Milena persuaded me to join her and a couple of other Brazilians to Eze, a small village 20 minutes away from Nice, basically at the border between France and Monaco.
I had heard that Eze was charming, donning all the makings of a European summer paradise, including a centennial castle and breath-taking views from the mountaintops and its golden beach. Yet, I wanted to spend that day at a casino (a visit I had restrained myself from doing until I had too-little time to make it a habit of by trip).
Once there, I couldn’t thank Milena enough for dragging me along. Eze lived up to its reputation, and even more—it was not only a beautiful place with an inspiring aura of the past, but it happened to be also the inspirational grounds of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favorite authors and source of life guidance (as twisted and nihilistic as that may sound, I say so with full pride and positivism). The down-hill hike that my friends and I traversed that day had been named the Nietzsche Trail in honor of the historical figure who had walked it countless times in the late 1800s as he wrote his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I could see in Eze most of the scenery mentioned in that book, as well as material examples of its allegories. For me, it was like a live philosophical tour. On top of that, I had my own philosophical dithyrambs to write too then, inspired by the idea that I was being inspired by the same majestic landscape that had prompted Nietzsche’s work.
And I had (still have) Milena to thank for embroiling me into going in that quick trip.
My return to the United States was more eventful but less meaningful than my original trip to the Old Continent.
I had to run like the devil was chasing me to get my soul through the Frankfurt airport in order to catch my connecting flight to Chicago, precisely because customs and security personnel had stopped me for a little too long asking me why I had so many electronic devices with me (two cellphones, tablet, iPod, and laptop).
In Chicago, I had to find my way around O’Hare airport, after having an amenable 5 minute conversation with my customs officer about NPR after he read on my file that I had worked for them, all while worrying that an upcoming snowstorm might ruin my plans to reach Dallas that same night.
Despite all the challenges and racing against time, I arrived to D-FW airport as scheduled. I only had to wait for my arranged friendly pick-up before I could consider myself back at home.
As I stood on the sidewalk of Terminal B waiting for my friend to come get me, I started to ponder all the things I had learned, all that I had accomplished during my time in Nice: if I had truly improved my French, if I had written enough, if I had spent or invested my time wisely…
And I also wondered how much that journey might have changed me. After all, all journeys are supposed to reveal an unexplored part of us, or make us evolve in some fashion.
I put on some music for me on my iPod while I mused over those things. Soon I found myself reacting against character. I wasn’t just tapping my foot, I was moving my hips, swinging my arms, and flowing with the rhythm—I was dancing by myself, the music only for my ears, in the middle of the solitary passenger-pick-up zone of DFW at almost midnight.
I was dancing because I had music in my life, and my inner animal had to dance, just like I had done since my birthday night in Nice.
I guess wandering away can lead to inner discovery upon return.