Min(ni)e de Rien – Nice ‘bye ‘bye
It really didn’t seem possible at the time – a cause already lost, not to be contemplated. I hardly dared hope that this notion might be proved wrong. But it turned out to be true all the same. France successfully performed almost exactly the same alchemy upon me as it did many years ago, when I bounced off to Paris in pursuit of career and independence, thrumming with all the energy, aspirations – and expectations – of the young.
But there you are: this time around, much older, I’ve found myself being treated with much of the same respect as before. And that certainly could not have been predicted.
Now that I’m leaving, I can luxuriantly compute all the many and varied components that add up to this effect. They include the lovely elderly organic market gardener who sells her delicious produce at the Cours on Saturdays. She greets me with a beaming smile before slipping the odd tomato, an extra salad pepper (those crisp, elongated ones – a local specialty) into my plateau and giving me a discount on the lot. The other greengrocer lady, who always stuffs in a bunch of parsley – with a wink and a refusal to charge. The very different, magnificently dignified poultry lady from the arrière-pays, whose eggs are the best I’ve ever tasted, and who when I turned up too late one Saturday morning rummaged through her baggage and emerged triumphant with one, large remaining egg which she proceeded to wrap and hand to me. Again, no charge.
They include the handsome newsagent and his growing family (news of the baby is related once we’ve exchanged greetings over a handshake). The verger at the Cathedral and his wife (‘The Keeper of the Shrine’) who mark my appearance with confidences (‘arthritis – a curse!’ ‘Work – hard, but a blessing …’) and kisses.
Then there is the nice doctor, who gave me a free consultation when times were hard – even though I had neither asked nor expected him to do so. There are the many unexpectedly relaxed, helpful and efficient public servants and private sector managers I have had dealings with since I came here. One or two have even bent the odd rule in order to accommodate me, recognising me for the ‘good risk’ that I am (curiously, this only happens to me when I’m living abroad).
There are my neighbours who’ve been inordinately kind and thoughtful (we won’t consider those who haven’t: they don’t count!). From one, famously blunt even among a nation and a city of direct-speakers, who looked me up and down one day with a keen and critical eye then firmly pronounced me ‘très belle’! To another, who taught me how to say ‘m’en bati, sieu Nissart(e)!‘ [‘I don’t give a stuff – I’m Niçois(e)!’] And yet another who, while we were out on a ramble, spontaneously and smilingly complimented me upon being ‘très souple – c’est super, ça!‘ (I’d never considered it, and nobody had said so; but she’s right – it is. Luck be damned! I work at it.)
It’s now clear that I have become accustomed to being treated with respect, kindness, courtesy – things I had become
woefully unused to by the time I left the UK. Dammit, I like being addressed as ‘Madame’ (I fear I may deck the first unfortunate who unwittingly calls me ‘dear’, ‘darling’ or – horror of horrors – ‘ducks’). I am at completely at ease in a culture that demands the observation of a base level of etiquette, resulting in far more ceremony and taking more time than comparable exchanges in England. Time well-spent in France, I think – for to me living à l’heure française is simply more productive than the bald brusqueries of les Anglo-Saxons. Here I swan around, almost taking it for granted that I will receive special treatment, tantamount to my being recognised as if I were a genuinely important personage (as opposed to the impoverished nonentity I am in fact). So I am gritting my teeth in the face of imminent loss of this great and generously-granted privilege (all the more so as I am decidedly unsure that I have done anything at all to earn it).
Now that it is time to return (not necessarily for good), I am rather bracing myself for what is bound to be the chilly shock of stepping out of that warm bath of approval I float around in for much of the time.
Still, France has had another surprise up her sleeve: when I left, I was close to hating my own country – certainly full of dislike, admixed with despair and imbued with an overwhelming sense of fear and failure (despite my own efforts to combat them). Here, I have had time to think and reflect, and I find that I do, after all, still love my native land. As much as I love France, which I have now had another golden opportunity to explore – and anyone familiar with this blog will know about some of the many and multifarious delights I’ve seen and heard.
Currently busy with cleaning, clearing out, packing up (and catching up with the Rugby World Cup!), it is a pleasure to allow my mind to pootle about, fossicking for moments such as the ones above. There are so many of these memories to store away with my more tangible possessions.
I am acutely aware that I have been, as I was while living in Paris, extremely privileged while a resident of Nice. This by means of some unfathomable and inexplicable chemistry that means I am, by and large, treated well in France. And it reminds me of the hilarious
stories told by my parents – tiny instances of those precious absurdities that make life bearable in bad times, and which resonate in the memory forever as they illustrate notions more significant than they might suggest at first sight.
One in particular. When stationed in Aldershot early in the war, the folks were allocated a cook-general named Annie. And Annie would only put her teeth in for guests of or above the rank of colonel. My father, a mere RAMC major at that point, was nonetheless – as was my mother – faced with an Annie complete (and gleamingly resplendent) with full set of false gnashers at all times. Clearly, Annie had reached the conclusion that the handsome military doctor with his sweet, Irish accent and pretty wife was, rank notwithstanding, worthy of the ultimate gesture of respect. Still spluttering with laughter years later whenever the tale was trotted out, my parents recognised what a great accolade Annie was bestowing upon them, and treated it – and Annie – with enormous respect.
In the meantime, at the risk of sounding like one of those awful award-winners who blurt sugar-coated insincerities at great length, I would like to say ‘merci – merci millefois’ to complex, difficult, horrible, exasperating, beautiful, endlessly fascinating and utterly wonderful France. And to Nice in particular, a place I’d never even have considered living in before but which, thanks to so many of its people, will now occupy a place in my heart per tougiou – and whatever happens to me, long may she thrive: viva, viva, Nissa la bella!
Thus, confidence duly restored (I don’t know how I am going to hang onto it: all I do know is that I am bloody well going to try), I am setting my face in positive mode and looking forward to going ‘home': to enduring less noise nuisance; to being able to catch up with some friends; to re-joining the local authority gym and – most of all – the central library (as long as it lasts!).
There will be other consolations, I hope. One I know of already: being back will mean I’m able to attend a blogging friend’s book launch.
And, for that, I might even put my teeth in …
Pic sourced from Commons Wiki.
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