The Italian Market

It’s been years that I’ve wanted to visit the huge Friday market in the Italian border town of Ventimiglia. This week we made it there, undeterred by cold and rainy weather. We were so glad we did.

Now, Ventimiglia the town is nothing to write home about. Actually, one might write that it is unprepossessing at the very best, and downright rundown and esthetically devoid at its most correct. But it’s Italy, and besides, it carries its own historical interests.  Because the border line moved so often over the centuries, people would find themselves living in one country but working in the other and in the modern era were given legal leniency to do so. Market vendors speak Italian and French, and there are shoppers from each country. The local dialect is related to dialects along the near French Riviera.

Plus, you can get real cappuccino there, not the ersatz version you get in Nice.

market day in ventimiglia

Bringing our shopping caddy on the train was the right decision. We picked up a moist Grana Padana for grating over pasta, a creamy mozzarella da bufala and firm salad tomatoes to eat together, sweet and crisp fennel for my salads, sheep milk ricotta for toast, unfiltered olive oil from the nearby hills, mushroom ravioli, dandelion honey from the apicoltore, colorful vegetables for soup, juicy and sweet clementines and more, at about half Nice prices for similar products. The same probably goes for a comparison with Milano.

clementines at ventimiglia market

I had mentioned it was cold and damp. When even my feet started to chill, I broke down and bought a nice sweater for five euro that did the trick.

When shopping was done, we tucked into a low key trattoria for lunch and a glass of wine. That’s how you make market day a special event.

On the train home, we sat next to friendly young man who, from his accent and appearance, seemed to be from West Africa. At the border with France, the train stopped, border police entered, and, after asking the man for his papers and finding them unsatisfactory, took him off the train. Whether you go by train or car or on foot, crossing that border will bring you in contact with immigrants and the border authorities. It is a situation that won’t change anytime soon.

 

 

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La Cuisine

There’s a lot to be said about French food, but the south is not where the best dishes originated. So while Nice is not a culinary hotspot, it has its high points. Among them are soupe de poisson (fish soup), farcis (stuffed vegetables), socca and panisse (starchy and savory things made from chick pea flour) and, my favorite sandwich in the whole world, the pan bagnat, which is essentially a Salade Nicoise in a bun.

Each season has its special market offerings. In autumn, the standouts are porcini mushrooms (cèpes) and the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau wine.

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In Italy, the porcini are an immense cause for celebration in markets and kitchens all over the north of the country. Here, there’s less of a to-do about them. I did find fresh ravioli with cèpes filling, and hit them up three times in one week. Oh, my, how sweetly earthy and distinctive a taste. In-between, I chopped up a bunch, cleaning off the dirt delicately with a sharp knife to preserve as much of the plant as possible,  sautéd them in olive oil and garlic with some “giroles” (otherwise known as chanterelles or finferle).

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I already can’t wait for Beaujolais Nouveau season 2019.  This week was the launch of the 2018 dégustation, where wine bars and restaurants host tasting gatherings. There is no escaping the fact you are in France and no where else in the world if you participate in one, as I did. Bottles being poured for young and old, charcuterie and fromage being eaten, lots of jambon on small, crowded tables, ensconced wall-to-wall within the din of happiness.

The fruity young wine is a good quaff, but it’s not an exceptional vintage. Happily, that keeps the price of revelry to an affordable level. And you can take home a bottle for as little as 7 euro.

beaujolais

 

 

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Les Fumeurs

You can’t be a non-smoker and not be shocked, saddened and sickened by the popularity of cigarettes in France. In some French minds, smoking cigarettes is one of many indicators of Gallic superiority to Americans, with their puritanically oppressive anti-smoking attitudes and regulations.

Yesterday, I was going through children’s books in a library (looking for an easy read in French on Vercingetorix) where I saw a cartoon book about some French character in which he is smoking in nearly every frame. Passengers on smoke-free buses and trains stick butts in their mouths and get lighters and vapes out as they are disembarking to save precious seconds before they can start inhaling again. On a regular basis I witness some poor shriveled soul, with barely the strength, lifting up their hand to light the cigarette dangling from their lips.

smoker, Nice, France iphone November 2018

But a new day might be on the horizon. The health authorities, if not the general medical staff population who take smoke breaks outside clinic doors so that they reek of cigarettes all day long, are on the case. November is “mois sans tabac,” or tobacco free month, a nationwide campaign for helping the French fight their addiction. It comes complete with a “get ready to quit” kit, insurance-covered cessation aids at the pharmacy, and a phone app that serves as a digital coach on going cigarette-free.

Apparently, since the annual campaign was launched a few years ago, one million French have done just that. Of course, other measures, like higher cigarette taxes, anti-smoking ad campaigns and new highly visual packaging showing grisly cancerous organs and “le tabac tue” (tobacco kills) in large print, have played a supportive role.

France, and EU member in general, have come a long way since the days when smoking was allowed everywhere — inside restaurants and bars, in doctors’ offices and airports, on any mode of transport, on any beach, park or classroom — basically wherever you liked. Several years ago, after a week of hacking and coughing my way through Paris, I couldn’t wait to get on the actual smoke-free aircraft taking me back to the US to get away from the toxic clouds of smoke in the airport. There’s a long way to go, but I can breathe more easily now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weather

Despite its reputation as a haven from bad weather, the French Riviera does experience fall and winter seasons, during which it rains regularly. This year, there’s been more rain than usual.

woman with umbrella on promenade

Here in Nice, we’re lucky it’s just been lots of rain. In southwest France and the close-by department of Var, named for the river which usually flows thinly, there have been days on end of flooding. Likewise in the Aude, which has seen the worst damage from the unusual pattern of precipitation.

The periods of heavy rain are triggered by moist air rising from the warmer than usual Mediterranean Sea, then meeting the Alps and colder air.

Unlike their US counterparts when weather has becomes catastrophic of late, French officials don’t refrain from invoking “climate change” by means of explanation. The phenomenon has been tied to record heat during the last few summers, an increase in the stink bug population and the incidence of locally transmitted dengue fever. Chikungunya and West Nile viruses are other mosquito-borne diseases now present in southern France, due to climate change. By the end of the century, summer heat is expected to reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

Will southern France become an ecological extension of North Africa? Do we have to be worried about the vineyards surviving? And camembert? Will there be any escape from extreme summer heat? Should we invest in air conditioning companies?

For now, the Niçois don’t seem too deterred from their regular Promenade habit by inclement times. In fact, you could say that the grey light and pounding waves only add to the ever-present romance in the air.  Be merry.

lovers on the promendade

 

 

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Céret and Collioure

Onwards to Occitanie, and Céret and Collioure. These small towns are very near the Spanish border, Barcelona a two-hour drive away. We took a forested mountain road to the border, ears popping, taking in peaceful views over wild country and the Pyrénées Orientales. Down in the valley, we could hear the soft clang of cowbells. It is a primitive sound that shakes me out of the present every time I hear it.

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The border was marked, but this being a Schengen zone there were no guards. How different being here must have been during the World Wars, when Spain was neutral and its villages harbored French escapees from the conflict who crossed these mountains. During the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, leftist combatants and civilians reversed those tracks to seek refuge in France.

The language Occitan (or the language of the Occitanie, langue-d’oc), has largely died out. But Catalan is widespread and there is a common, far from cosmopolitan, identity between these people and the Catalans across the border. The restaurants feature Catalan dishes and in Céret street signs are in French and Catalan. Locals dance the Sardanes at festivals and bulls run the streets every year to celebrate Bastille Day.

The locals retain a distinct accent however, a little nasal, where they say “aine” instead of “oin” (in the French). I like regional differences, and more so if they stem from the middle ages, so I found it a thrill to hear, but I recall many northern speakers of pure French disliking it.

We were enchanted by little Céret, probably for the same reasons the many famous artists who spent several years there. The local art museum exhibits their works, including Picassos, Matisses, Derains, Chagalls, Braques and Soutines. Other than enjoying the ghosts of the past, there is little else to do but while away time enjoying the light (300 days of sun a year), the clean air, the tranquility and the trails into the mountains.

In our lovely Art Nouveau apartment we felt as if we were in a living diorama, with its decor evocative of the interiors seen in paintings of the earlier era and its classic view over a courtyard.

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Collioure, on the Mediterranean Sea, also attracted those painters. Here, you could paint all day without being disturbed by noise, people, things to do, or unwanted stimuli of any kind. Being off-season during our visit, it had a particularly throwback vibe. The French Riviera must have been like this 60 years ago. First of all, there was hardly anyone there. Surrounding it were pine forested hills, with little sprawl. It felt cut off,  the absence of crowds and dazzling light transforming the town into a blessed haven.

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But don’t go there! It’s too quiet. You’ll be bored. No reason to check it out at all. Trust me.

 

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Sète jaunt

Our friends Jamie and Jennifer have been visiting us in Nice, and we took a few days to drive west to visit Sète and Collioure. We’ve traveled together to France before, and also to Japan and Turkey. So this is like old times.

I’d heard a lot about Sète on expat blogs and thought it worth a look, for its good weather, affordability and access to a TGV line.  Before that, the only time I’d heard of it was in a touching film, “The Secret of the Grain.”

Sète is bustling and vibrant, with lots of people socializing and moving about in the streets (as you do in a city with good weather year-long), a thriving fishing fleet and wholesale fish market on the docks, a vast indoor market and food hall, lots of good restaurants, a long promenade along the Corniche and a picturesque marina on a canal.

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However, it is not a city we are considering any longer. We want a bit more sophistication and variety in the amenities where we live.

A very generous Texas native who I met on said expat blog gave us the grand tour, and showed us her sun-filled apartment overlooking the old town and dock, before taking us to the Mont Saint Clair hilltop viewpoint over the city and environs.

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It was a beautiful day, and, as we rode through the city with her convertible’s top down, we could understand the appeal of Sète to all the Northerly expats here.

Tomorrow we leave with Jamie and Jennifer to visit Céret and Collioure, near the Spanish border. Maybe we’ll find some paella.

 

 

 

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Settling in

We’ve been in Nice for a week and a half. Administrative matters have taken up much of our time, but we had a lovely visit from daughter Francesca and her partner Paul and have made time to meet up with old friends.

First and foremost, we like our apartment. We dispensed with Airbnb and its unreliable collection of options and chose from a catalog of homes from a local firm that upholds a certain standard of quality. We have wooden floors, comfortable beds, modern fixtures and enough space to not feel confined. It’s also quiet, as its main rooms look out over an inside garden.

Nice France avenue des fleurs apartment garden view 2018

For those who are contemplating a visit, the spare bedroom looks out onto the street, but I believe it is quiet at night. During the day, there is a lovely view of some splendid Niçois buildings

Nice France avenue des fleurs apartment 2018

The matters we’ve attended to are numerous. For example, we cannot receive mail at this holiday rental address, so, taking a friend’s advice, we set up mail forwarding with La Poste. That took three trips and an online registration. But the postal staff were extremely helpful.

We opened up a French bank account. This is really important because when we obtain our Carte Vitale health care account, you need the bank account for the reimbursements to be made. For anything you sign up for that requires regular payments, like utilities, you need the bank account. To rent an apartment that is not a holiday rental, the same. Setting up the account took three visits, and we’re still waiting for our IBAN number.

We heard that we needed to advise the French government on our change of address from Rennes to Nice, so we went to the Prèfecture to do so, arriving on the bus at 8am to get in line and then waiting until our turn at 11am, to learn this step was not necessary and to be turned away.

We have ordered some essential items lacking in the apartment, like a coat rack (storage is at a minimum, as French people live with less stuff than Americans).

We’ve visited doctors. The way the system works is that some doctors take appointments, others don’t. Some take appointments on some days, and not on others. In the case of the latter scenario, you show up and wait your turn. All standard visits are 25 euro. Of course, if you have a Carte Vitale, you are reimbursed 75 percent or more. Prescriptions are far less expensive than in the US. Many doctors speak English.

I have signed up at the Nice Cinémathèque! Filmmaker Claire Denis is coming to speak and show a film and I cannot wait.

Today we are off to do some more fun errands. Stay tuned.

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