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.


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.


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


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?


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.


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

La Maladie

We’ve had the misfortune of having to do a deep dive on the Maladie Assurance, or the French national health insurance, in the last few months. I am going to be brief in talking about our experiences and what we’ve learned.

The insurance covers about 75 percent of medical visits as reimbursements sent directly into your French bank account. Most people have supplemental insurance, called a Mutuelle that covers the remaining 25 percent. We do too.

If you have a chronic disease, such as Crohn’s or Diabetes, or have a serious illness such as cancer, French health covers 100 percent of your medical visits. In my husband’s case, this extends to one month post-op in a rehabilitation center in the hills where he has a view of the old town of Vence and the Mediterranean Sea.

When you are hospitalized, you don’t pay upfront. The hospital registers your treatment with French health, and contacts the Mutuelle for the 20 euros a day that is not covered. Yes, you read that right — without the Mutuelle we’d be out a mere 20 euros a day.

We were impressed with our doctors, all of whom spoke at least decent English, the surgeon being quite fluent. In my mind, the fluency in the official common language of the European Union was a good sign, because it means doctors “keep up” by reading studies, collaborating with other medical institutions on the Continent and attending conferences. The intensive care and other nursing staff were also top notch, although mostly monolingual.

With most public health systems, there is no extra money to spend on niceties such as lovely art on the wall, fresh paint or well-kitted out waiting rooms such as we’ve seen in the US. The hospital with which we grew familiar was a bit of a shock, however. The first waiting room I was in was quite depressing, with mismatched, junk yard type chairs, tears revealing the stuffing and all.


The surgeon said to me, unprovoked, “Don’t worry. The building is ancient but the surgery is very modern.”

There’s little paperwork for doctors, and therefore, no front office. Often a doctor will make his/her own appointments. You pay them directly and they give you a form for the insurance reimbursement. My husband’s surgeon had one staffer, and that is probably because he is also a Professor at the leading medical institution in the area.

To arrive at the building where we were assigned for visiting hours, you could walk about 15 minutes uphill or wait for a shuttle that, it being the holiday season perhaps, almost never arrived.  So walk I did, and, it being the holidays, I was always the only person making the trip past darkened and decrepit-looking buildings, only to arrive to my destination where it seemed the only lights that were turned on were in the specific room where my husband was recovering. I was creeped out.

It turned out that these buildings that hardly inspired confidence are slated for demolition. The wallpaper on hospital staff monitors showed a rendering of the soon-to-be-built complex, one that takes advantage of its hill top setting, its natural garden landscape of olive trees and umbrella pines, and its views over Nice and the Sea.

French doctors don’t seem to have the same communication protocols of the US. For example, I never got word when my husband was out of surgery. No call, nothing. I called the hospital, nada. I went to the hospital only to be sent home. In the end, I just showed up again, and by luck in the darkened “lobby” found a staffer who showed me the way to the ICU. There I had a hissy fit about the lack of communication. I did finally get a call from the surgeon’s office — the next day, almost 24 hours later — saying simply that the surgery had been a success with no details offered. By then, of course, I’d forced myself on the staff and gotten more than the gist.

Visiting hours were limited. In our case, one visitor at a time, only 5-7pm, no exceptions. Out of the ICU, hours were more generous — 1pm to 7pm.

Now, is all this beneficence sustainable? My own GP doctor seems to think not. In her waiting room, among the out of date magazines strewn about a coffee table, is a book titled “The Coming Collapse of the Assurance Maladie.” However, it seems the Sécu, the social security service that includes the insurance, operates in the black.

One thing is for sure. You’d get more than a few Gilets Jaunes (see previous post) in the streets if L’Assurance Maladie was ever threatened with cutbacks.














Posted in expat, France, health care, Nice, France | 5 Comments

Les Gilets Jaunes

Last week I spent a few days in Paris, between two weekends. Several US-based friends emailed me to suggest I avoid the city because of the news reports of protests and violence by the Gilets Jaunes “movement.”  It never entered my mind to avoid the city, which is as enchanting as ever, well-worn but not worn-out, with too many fine exhibits to see, the best window shopping anywhere and the most beautiful cafés in France.

Paris, France December 2018

To be serious: certainly, the violence that has occurred has been heartbreaking, and shocking. The protests have taken place in cities all over France, including here in Nice, and in Avignon where we recently spent a weekend.


But Paris has seen the worst behavior. It’s been suggested that the violence is instigated by political groups who benefit from chaos under Macron, the opposition leaders such as Melanchon on the left and Marine LePen on the right, and Putin’s human bots.

And of course, there’s speculation that the protests would not have occurred if not for the mobilization power of Facebook and the fake news circulating on the platform.

I don’t know. The French like to protest and have a long history of angry demonstrations, and I’m talking about post-French Revolution. I’m not sure they need help to pull them off. Rumor has always been part, unfortunately, of political mobilization. Remember the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to free the King’s prisoners? How surprised the mob was to find just one old guy there. That didn’t stop them from killing the guardian to get inside, though.

Which brings me to my unease about the Gilets Jaunes, and the fact that the “movement” could be co-opted by elements who care less about economic justice and more about burning it all down. The Tea Party and the US GOP certainly is a model. The impetus exists among far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Facebook is just one of their very effective tools. Even as French opinion overwhelmingly supports the primary message of the Gilets Jaunes, that many people need financial help, what is the national mood on the protests themselves?

In one of the isolated, kind of somnolent rural villages where the issue of fuel prices is of deep concern, a cafe owner told us “The guillotine is next.” He proceeded to refer to Macron as “royalty” and “autistic.”

No doubt, the anger runs deep.



Posted in culture, expat, expat life, France, Gilets Jaunes, Nice, France, protests | 10 Comments

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.



Posted in expat, expat life, food, France, markets, Nice, France, Travel | 6 Comments

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.


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).


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.




Posted in culture, expat, expat life, food, France, Nice, France | 7 Comments