Le Retour en Bretagne

Ah, here we are again, nestled into the lushly green landscape and utter calm of rural Brittany. No big hotels, no tourist buses, no high rises. This summer we are exploring the west, in Finistère Sud, of rugged coastline and pristine Atlantic waters, somber granite villages and Celtic legends. Menhirs, dolmens, cairns and sacred Druid places are scattered seemingly helter-skelter (they were actually integrated into a vast ancient system of religious spaces) and our holiday rental is across from the Menez Hom so important to Breton myth.

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Finistère Sud is also known as the wettest part of the region. We’ve had sun, but every day has started with rain, or, like this morning, a tempest.

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Nevertheless, Brittany is suffering from a three-year drought. That explains why last summer was hot and dry. Maybe we’ll have some more of that in the next couple of months.

This part of Brittany encompasses the famously beautiful Crozon Peninsula, which attracts beach going families, wet-suited surfers and hikers taking on the GR 34 (Grande Randonnée or “big hike”) stretching along the coast for 120 kilometers/75 miles. Months of sunny days wouldn’t be enough to adequately explore its countless breathtaking views and wide expanses of sandy beaches.

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Weather permitting, we’ll do the GR 34 justice. The temperature is currently 16C/61F, so bathing is out of the question. However, not for some locals.

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Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Crozon, expat life, Finistère, France | 8 Comments

L’été

It’s that time of year most Niçois long for, when the beach beckons at all times of day, beachwear becomes common on the Promenade and masses of tourists infuse the local economy. Art exhibitions and jazz festivals incite locals and vacationers alike. For us, however, it’s time to go.

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A friend said she’d heard this summer in Europe would be horrifically hot (it is 87F/30.5C in Helsinki, a record, as I write). A stifling humidity and a strange hot wind have visited Nice the past two days. Perhaps we’re getting out in time.

Tomorrow we jet off to Brittany, the region that so impressed us last year, where despite the occasional daytime heat the nights are cool and the Atlantic too cold to attract partygoers. We’ll explore the western coast, notably the Crozon peninsula, and then settle into Fréhel for the August languor.

This isn’t to say I won’t miss Nice. I’ve gotten accustomed to its pace, and my daily rituals involving the sea, the lively markets and picturesque “quartiers” have enriched my life, especially photographically. So has the gratifying presence of so many fine new friends. I will be glad to return.

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So, for the next few months, I’ll be posting on my extended summer vacation. Where will you be?

Posted in Brittany, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France | 9 Comments

Festival de Cannes

One of the perks of being a full-time resident of Nice is the privilege of attending the Cannes Film Festival for free. Ok, it’s not exactly free because you have to apply for accreditation in the category of “Cinéphile” which requires membership in the Cinématheque. But guess what? I’m already a member. And how happy was I to be certified a “cinéphile” when I’ve been one unofficially my entire life.

 

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The Cinephile badge does not confer an owner access to all the films. The splashy numbers in the main competition for the prestigious Palme D’Or are out of bounds. However, those are the films — this year by Terence Malik, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar among others lesser-known — that are likely to make it into theaters. Some already have. The other night, not fully sated by my Cannes experience, I walked a few minutes to my local theater and caught the Almodovar, “Pain and Glory,” which was so much the latter and not the former.

The more offbeat, independent examples of global cinema are widely available, with showings spread across four main theaters at a distance from the star-studded Croisette. So far I’ve seen films from Colombia, Iceland and New Zealand. You wait in line for about 45 minutes, but there’s a café on the spot for refreshment while you wait.

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This is the 72nd Festival. With 800 films being shown starting at 8:30am and ending at midnight on some nights, you are nevertheless lucky to get in to see your favorite selections. Of course, many are disqualified from my selection for being in the weirdly popular genre-bending horror category, or an especially bleak social film or an egregious example of “slow cinema” (the Philippine film that is more than four hours long).

Next year, I might book a room for a couple of nights to pack in the early and late events, which are not just films but Master Classes from directors and actors. Again, FREE. If you’re an official cinéphile.

 

 

 

Posted in Cannes Film Festival 2019, cinema, culture, expat, expat life, film, Nice, France | 12 Comments

La Poste

La Poste

We are leaving our current rental soon, so I made one of my very infrequent visits to the local branch of the French post office, La Poste, to activate the change of address I had made online. I should add that this service had a price, 30 euro, which I think is a lot.

Nevertheless, I find La Poste a happy place. Branch staff have always been extraordinarily polite and helpful when I’ve failed to understand the French system for getting the right stamps or sending a registered letter, so I don’t have the feeling of dread going there as I do other places of business, say, the bank.  (I have been contemplating a post on French customer service, but I want to avoid a rant.)

They are there to serve! To make your life easier! You can use La Poste as your low-fee bank, and your email box.  Hundreds of branches across France are sites for economically taking your driver’s test (“passer le code de la route”). It provides a digital safe for the many important documents required for one reason or another on a regular basis by the French bureaucracy (identity card, proof of residence, pay slips). For seniors, La Poste offers a simple, app-enabled touch-screen tablet with a SIM card for WiFi everywhere.

And there’s more.

For older seniors, there’s a new amazing service called “keep watch over my parents.” Sign up, and a postal delivery person (“le facteur”) will make an in-person visit to your parent every week. They will have a chat about what’s new, how things are going, what problems the parent might be having, and consequently the facteur will summarize the chat to the adult child subscriber. Combined with the in-person visits is a 24/7 hotline for emergencies. And the parent gets a monthly magazine, Famileo, customized with personal news and photos. You can get all this for as little as 20 euro a month. What a wonderful supplement to the measures adults take to keep their elderly parents safe and healthy, and in their own homes as long as possible.

La Poste is a vital part of a French neighborhood, a community hub of sorts, an administrative service with a human touch. Would this approach work in the US?

Posted in expat, expat life, France, La Poste, Nice, France | 12 Comments

Le Haut Pays et les Gilets Jaunes

Sometimes, I just have to get out of Nice. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a natural environment, so Saturday morning I rode the “Train des Merveilles” to the easily accessible small town of Breil sur Roya. Napoleon slept here on one of his military campaigns against Italy (the border is not far away). Another claim to fame is the historical architecture, including two Baroque churches and the medieval ruins of city walls. Set along the Roya river in a  mountain valley, it is a popular spot with anglers. Breil’s attraction for me, however, is as the base for numerous hikes.

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My favorite is a relatively short one uphill, skirting a babbling stream over beige boulders with views onto country homes. In springtime the yards are bursting with forsythia and various blossoms. Butterflies, bees and hummingbird moths ravenously swirl around the plants and birds chirp away. What a break from traffic, cigarette smoke, apartment noise and those annoying pigeons back home.

At trail’s end you end up at a Romanesque church ruin set amid a large grove of ancient olive trees. Breil rests in the valley down below. It’s a perfect picnic spot.

The backcountry of Nice is known for such locales. Once way stations on trade routes that ran through the mountains, they are well past their heyday and are in serious decline. It is no surprise that in the sparsely populated town square a few Gilets Jaunes protestors were active. Posters on walls throughout town advertise the French communist party and grievances of pensioners and the unemployed.

I made sure to get on an early train back, before the Nice station was closed.

We are going through a weekend of “perturbations.” Chinese President Xi Jinping is meeting with Macron, coinciding with an attempt by the Gilets Jaunes for a massive protest. Large parts of the city center are closed to all vehicle and foot traffic.  No trains are stopping in Nice all weekend, nor in the neighboring Riviera towns. The gendarmerie is out in heavy force. The 7-kilometer Promenade des Anglais is closed from end to end. One protestor has been injured and is in a coma, and the protests have just begun.

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The story of France’s beautiful villages as the source of national angst is akin to that of the rural/urban divide in the US, Britain, Italy and god knows where else populism is brewing. I wonder if there’s enough money in the world to save these towns, and democracy.

Posted in Breil sur Roya, expat, France, Gilets Jaunes, Le Haut Pays, Nice, France, protests | 8 Comments

La Promenade

Nice’s “boardwalk” is on the Promenade des Anglais, one of France’s most famous streets. Its narrower, shorter genesis was called the “chemin des Anglais” (a path), back in the early 19th century when British (including royalty) first built villas here along the Mediterranean Sea to escape the consumption-associated winter damp of home. By the 1930s, most of the villas had been demolished and replaced with the luxurious hotels, residences and casinos of today.

By then the Promenade had been extended, enlarged and made to accommodate more tourists. It is now about seven kilometers in length, with the airport at its western end. It has incorporated a bike path, and, since the Bastille Day 2016 terrorist attack, posts at regular intervals to deter trucks from driving on the pavement.

In today’s mass tourism age, the Promenade has suffered a fate similar to that of Fifth Avenue in New York City and the Champs-Elysées in Paris. It’s more like Venice, California, and a lot less about salubrious luxury. There you will find svelte joggers, the old with their canes, young skateboarders, dog walkers, groups of winos, a fair share of the world’s selfie-takers, bubble men and other assorted entertainers. By the end of the day trash bins are overflowing, some people have let their dogs make a mess of the pavement, and the crowd is stifling.

Still, it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The line of buildings facing the Promenade makes for an architectural marvel. The palm trees urge relaxation. The Bay of Angels sparkles. Hardly a day passes when I haven’t walked on it at least once.

When I manage to rise for the sunrise on the Promenade, it is glorious, illuminating my entire day thereafter. The winos are slumped in benches, North African men are fishing from the beach, a small few boats are on the water, but there aren’t many people walking along with me and I can almost imagine Nice the way it must have been.

sunrise on the promenade des anglais nice france february 2019

 

 

 

 

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Promenade des Anglais | 8 Comments

Italie

From  Nice, we are 25 miles/40 kilometers to the border with Italy. Once there, you can visit remote towns like Apricale or Dolceaqua for fine views, honey and other mountain specialties, cut through the Apennines to sample the famous red wines of Piemonte, or head along the narrow flat seacoast towards the historically significant, big city of Genova. A ticket on the FlixBus to the latter is 16 euro round-trip, so what’s to stop one from taking a short break?

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Genova has figured large in my imagination for its Navy’s role in medieval trade, on the Crusades, and for its outsized impact on European history, less than for its navigation schools and Christopher Columbus. A scattering of historical anecdotes gleaned here and there — the Genoese Navy’s battles with that other naval power Venice for domination of Mediterranean trade routes, its defenses from Muslim attackers, its outpost in Constantinople (now Istanbul) from where it sailed to drop its militarized traders off to venture along the Black Sea and Silk Road, its role in bringing plague and Circassian slaves to Italy — made me hunger for a fuller picture.

Unfortunately, its only history museum is devoted to the local cricket and soccer team. Skipped that one. So one has to wander the medieval quarter, explore the interiors of the massive Palazzi that served as homes for the wealthy and powerful of the late Renaissance, stroll through the humble churches that were transformed into Baroque displays of ostentation and conspicuous consumption during one of the city’s various heydays, and visit the old Port  imagining hundreds of sailing ships waiting to enter the harbor to conjure up a bit of what was.

 

 

There is not a lot of painting and sculpture of the highest order to draw one to Genova, but I was delighted to see an outstanding painting in a church by Orazio Gentileschi (father of the famous Artemisia), and a lovely exhibition of Fulvio Roiter photographs.

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Today, like much of Italy, Genova is down on its luck. I felt it needed a good scrub. It doesn’t seem to bustle so much as mark time. Trafficked women from Africa and beyond sell themselves from morning until night on every corner of the medieval quarter, standing out from the gray-haired women shopping the food stores, the few tourists and locals on errands. Perhaps Genova will undergo another rebirth, in a new economy, later this century.

Now, being in Italy, there is no shortage of gustatory delights to be found, and there is no shame in lingering on a dish of fresh fettuccine and almond, pistachio and lemon pesto at the Ombre Rosse, or the creamy pesto pasta at Sa’ Pesta. My favorites were the savory pies of pumpkin, carrots and onions and chard and ricotta. A chilled organic Vermentino white, cultivated nearby, is the perfect accompaniment.

At the Ombre Rosse in Genova

If I am ever going through Genova on a trip to Italy, I’ll make a stop for some of those.

 

Posted in expat, food, Genova, Italy, Travel | 13 Comments