Nestless and Restless Season 1 (2017) was a blast. We spent a very pleasant summer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, but the shortening days at the end of August always send MLH* into a travel spin, and really we were just waiting for the release of Nestless and Restless Season 2. In September 2018 we packed our stuff back into storage and did an advanced version of backpacking around Europe. It was advanced because we are advanced in age, but also because we have graduated from hostels to Airbnbs and our advanced backs won’t support backpacks, so roll along hand luggage it was. I hope you will enjoy rolling along with us.
*My Lucky Half, aka my husband
After a lovely family visit in England, we set off in the early morning to catch a flight from Gatwick to Nice, France. On the excruciatingly slow and crowded motorway (highway), we listened to a BBC reporter grill the Agriculture Minister on what was going to happen come Brexit. The increasing likelihood of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit (Britain leaving the EU in March 2019 without a proper negotiated agreement) is on every British mind. Chaos seems inevitable. Opportunity is also there. The minister talked about ‘regaining the hedgerows and fields’ for the British once the heavy-handed EU farming regulations no longer apply. One thing is for sure, whether the Brits celebrate the exit on March 30th, 2019, they are going to have a hangover worthy to ‘donate to science’, as author Bill Bryson says. The headaches will go on and on.
Fortunately, the British sense of humour is still intact. A bumbling English man with a fully armed airport luggage trolley as a weapon ran over MLH’s foot in Gatwick Airport. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as MLH’s face contorted in pain. Then looking down: “Ah, I see you’ve still got one working foot”. The English woman /Nice resident sitting next to me on the EasyJet flight leaned in as we banked to approach the one-inch-long runway at Nice Airport which ends in the azure Mediterranean Sea: “Don’t worry, it’s longer than you think” she murmured, just at that critical moment when she knew I had decided we weren’t going to make it.
Nor have the English lost their penchant for apology. On our first balmy after-dark walk on the Nice promenade, we witnessed a full-scale paramedic and rescue boat retrieval of two young Englishmen swimming off the beach who didn’t know they needed to be rescued (because they could, um, actually, touch bottom and walk out of the sea with no problem at all). “Thank you very much” rang out the clear, puzzled English voice over the water, as the ambulance wailed, the paramedics ran, and the searchlight blinded. “Oh gosh, we are so sorry” as they stumbled out of the water. It must have been a slow night for the emergency crew.
In Nice we were staying close to Le Promenade des Anglais. In July and August it is probably horribly crowded and hot in Nice, but we thought it was very pleasant in September. I do like a promenade, and this one is long, wide and merchandise-free, with thoughtful sun shades and benches at intervals. Here you can watch the tourists and locals biking, rollerblading, walking and running, or enjoying the pebbled beach. All kinds of people going everywhere. We rented bikes one day and later hiked up to the Citadel on a hill overlooking the port and swam daily in the warm but salty sea.
The mountains behind the city are impressive and we saw more of them on the bus which climbs the sea cliff roads to Cannes to the West and Monaco to the East. For a whopping 1.50 Euros each way, we enjoyed the most beautiful cliff-hugging bus ride in the world. Cannes was all yachts, wealthy men in slim trousers and loafers with no socks (why do rich men not wear socks? A reader tells me they wear invisible ‘sockettes’) and groomed poodles with ribbons being pushed around in special dog push chairs by ladies with tanned skin the texture of alligator leather. Monaco was a construction site, though where they are going to put more buildings in the state of less than two square kilometres, I don’t know. Huge cranes seemed to be hooking high-rises onto the mountain. Monaco was where MLH learned the English expression “a cat can look at a king”. I am not a shopper, nor well-dressed, but I have to say that it is a pleasure to window-shop and see the most beautifully designed objects and clothes in the world. Then an elegant lady floats past you in an exquisitely cut dress, and you realize she’s wearing a Louis Vuitton, or a Chanel, and her husband (no socks, but has man-bag) is picking her up in the burnt-orange coloured Maserati MLH was drooling over when it was parked in front of the Casino.
On Sunday the church bells started about nine in the morning, which put us in mind of the Russian Orthodox Church recommended by the Tourist Office. We trekked up the hill on the brilliant bus system and attended mass in the small but beautiful square cathedral. The unseen choir chanting and singing in plainsong was very good, the acoustics were rich, and the deacon had a baritone which would not be out of place in a concert hall. The service was in Russian, and several of the smart cars parked outside had Russian number plates. I was soon hot and weary because I had to wear a headscarf. There were no pews; people were milling about, crossing themselves and disappearing into alcoves, I thought to kiss the icons. However, having moved to look at the icons, I discovered they were standing over the air conditioning vents to cool off.
We left doing church and went to do culture at the Henri Matisse Museum, further up the hill next to an old Franciscan monastery. Picasso and Matisse were friends and rivals, and an exhibition showed how they pinched ideas from each other. Matisse loved the light in Nice and lived there for many years. Watching the morning sun on the Baie des Anges crinkled like tinsel, I can understand why. Just outside the museum in an olive grove, the Franco-Algerian society was celebrating Heritage Day with lamb couscous and brique – a fried pancake filled with onions, eggs and tuna.
Riding the Nice buses gave us a chance to interact with the locals. We gave up our seats to an elderly couple, which gave monsieur (86 years old) the chance to tell us THE most significant story of his life. A devout Catholic, he and his wife visited the Vatican. “I’m a non-believer” said she, adding: “I’m from Lille”; as if being from Northern France explained her lack of religious fervour. Nevertheless, the couple went to Rome, and in the Vatican, they were ushered into an audience with the Pope by mistake and spent a wonderful hour in a line-up chatting to industrialists, union leaders and the like. At the end of the queue the Pope asked monsieur what he did. “I have a boat” was the answer. That seemed to be satisfactory.
Apart from Paris, I have not experienced a French city with a significant immigrant population before. In Nice there are many people from the former French colonies, but also many East Europeans. English is now commonplace. Our bus driver chatted with Polish passengers in English. Can you imagine a London or Halifax bus driver chatting in French to riders? I had barely remarked to MLH that I had seen no police presence in Nice at all – not one traffic policeman, even – when we went past the synagogue on the bus, and there was a significant armed police guard. It is there 24/7 because of the renewed and virulent anti-Semitism in France.
One day on the beach, an elderly North African woman, dressed in a hijab and long robe, walked on to the beach and straight into the sea. “Oh my God, she’s swimming to Algeria!” MLH said. She did a lumbering front crawl, veil and all, and then floated for a bit, and was still swimming when we left the beach. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I can’t imagine trying to swim with all those clothes on. There was a fair amount of tut-tutting from the scantily dressed locals, who did not approve at all. I looked up the regulations when we got back to the flat. The ‘burkini’ ban law was struck down in France, and the woman was completely within her rights to swim in her clothes. So why the discomfort?
European problems. Our only problems were which tasty fruit to buy at the market, and whether to stay inside or outside the city when we got to Aix-en-Provence…..