Always there somewhere, and then, not.
On July 7, 1977, 77 WABC radio in New York was a music station that played an endless round of Top 20 hits. I was a 20-year-old driving my parents’ blue Chevy Impala to pick up my 14-year-old sister Lucy, who was helping out at a dusty riding stables not far from our house in Rockland County, NY. Because the date was 7/7/77, 77 WABC had been giving out prizes of 77 dollars throughout the day to callers who answered questions I can no longer remember. It was a beautiful day, and the wild, tall, orange tiger lilies that grew abundantly in every roadside ditch in Rockland County were particularly lovely in the late afternoon sun.
I’d probably been driving to pick up my sister many times that summer, but I don’t have a marker for any other day than July 7, 1977. I remember the dog/perfume/hot-plastic-seat smell of the car, the texture of the steering wheel, swathes of tiger lilies on my right. I had already finished two years at Sarah Lawrence College, and was going to Paris (Paris!) in September for my junior year abroad. I was stupidly in love with a boy called John. I knew all the refrains to the songs on the radio. I had probably been working that day at the college mail center, really abusing their mail trucks because I didn’t know any better, because in those days of economic crisis, it was the only summer job I could get. I was happy.
Almost every year since, I’ve vaguely noted July 7, and how many years have slipped in between then and now. Whenever I see tiger lilies in bloom, or even photos of them, I can feel myself being that 20-year-old, singing in a hot car.
Well, suddenly that was 40 years ago.
There’s been a fashion recently in the media for famous people to address their young selves. It’s a pretty pointless exercise, I think, because only young people could possibly benefit from it, but they certainly don’t listen. I wouldn’t have done, driving along South Pasack Road toward the Diamond E stables, toward the future.
There’s no point in fortune-telling. My tiger-lily self wouldn’t have believed that my father would soon be dead, that I would fall totally out of love with John, that I would leave the U.S. and never return, that the meanest time of my future nights would torture me with the memory of Lucy in her coffin, that my hair would eventually turn gray, and that I would like it.
I probably wouldn’t have heeded the practical advice: buy shares in Apple! Stop going on diets! Learn how to write computer code!
And my tiger-lily self wouldn’t have understood the most important advice I can offer now, either. That is, to try to understand, and bite your tongue. I would tell my young self that you can make dreadful mistakes of all kinds that will sooner or later right themselves, but you will never stop regretting the pain you cause with words. I’d say, don’t snap in judgment, in envy, in fear, in spite, in anger, and out of pride. My young self was too uncomplicated to understand all that, or to foresee how often she might wound. Imagine a life where you’ve never said anything you regret! To never have to reproach yourself for the expressions of hurt or disappointment you cause.
When I “graduated” from 6th grade, at about 12 years old, and went on to junior high school, the thing was to have a little autograph book for friends to write stuff in. Most people wrote “Luv ya!” or similar, but my mother, who thought that sort of thing was sentimental rubbish, wrote “The future lies before you like a field of driven snow, be careful how you tread it, for every mark will show.”
Boy, how right was she? I guess, with that, advice from the future had already been given to me, and I just thought it was very curious indeed.
There’s an Edith Piaf song that goes, “Moi, j’essuie les verres au fond du café, j’ai bien trop à faire, pour pouvoir rêver”, which roughly translates as, “I’m drying glasses at the back of the café, I’ve got so much to do there’s no time to dream…” When I sing these lines, drying glasses behind the bar at 7 Villermont, it’s guaranteed to make Joel smirk. When he met me in London, I was an exotic young American with an expense account and a company American Express card. Now, I spend a lot of time drying glasses behind a bar in the South of France, but at least I can ironically reference French cultural giants for his amusement while I’m doing it.
Behind the bar is a good place to be. The view is unfettered, except by the odd bunch of ranunculus or anemones. A whole world happens out there on Avenue Villermont. Let me just say before I begin that Joel and I go out of our way every single day to be kind to most people in our quartier, and that compassion for others has always been (to use a cold but apt term) one of our “shared values”. But sometimes we can be a bit … well… snide.
Our actual customers – the people who come to eat – represent a small percentage of the interactions we have every day. We are beginning to know the names of people who pass on the street now, but we still, between ourselves, call them by the names we started with, before we really knew them. There’s the Massacreur, a Romanian bus driver who lives two doors down. We call him that because one of the first things he told me, as I was tending the flowerboxes that edge our terrace, was that he was going to massacre the group of kids who had stolen the chairs from his little yard. He adores his wife and six-year-old princess, so much so that he asked Joel to come and admire his tiny apartment after he’d repainted it while Wife and Princess were in Romania on holiday. It was so small and simple, and the Massacreur was so proud, that Joel cried (to me, not the Massacreur), and vowed ever after to appreciate all he has. We leave our empty wine bottles in the Massacreur’s yard, as he shares two rows of grape vines in Ramatuelle with a friend and is aging his own wine in the bus garage.
Then there’s Madame Chapeau (“Mrs Hat”), a woman from Luxembourg who changes her clothes and hats at least twice a day. People need to pass the restaurant to get to the fruit and veg market at Liberation, as well as to the tram stop. Madame Chapeau seems to wear one hat to go to the boulangerie, another to go to the bank, and a third to go to the traiteur. She stops at us once in a while for a “colonel”, which is a lemon sorbet with a double shot of vodka. She needs it: her husband has a form of dementia that means he refuses to be seen with her, wanders off and gets lost. He now wears a GPS bracelet, so that if he wanders out of his zone, alarm bells ring at the right places, and he’s netted. When we see him pass, several times a day, one of us always says, “Where’s he gone?” There but for the grace of …
Then there’s The Lion King, a tiny, wiry dancer who had a spell as a choreographer in London working on… yes, The Lion King. He’s opened a bizarre “ghost” jazz bar in the street next door, where every day he puts out in the street, as his terrace, an array of completely different furniture; deco chairs, old café tables, 1920s upholstered bar stools, potted palms… Every morning it’s as if he’s reached into his Mary Poppins carpet bag and pulled out a whole new decorating theme. We’ve never actually seen this bar with any customers, but the Lion King and his team are always there. And every day one or the other of them walks past several times with a handful of little fluffy dogs. We kiss, coo at the dogs, discuss how good business is, and say au revoir. And then we scuttle back into the restaurant and behind the bar to say, “What the f….?”
There are many more: the Wierdos, two middle-aged women who used to come to the restaurant every day, and then… stopped. We wondered what on earth we’d done until we heard from here and there that that’s what they’d done to every restaurant in the quartier. Every day they totter past and back again at least three times in high heels, both perfectly done up, according to the season in white linen, suede or fur. The fat blonde is always a few steps in front, the skinny blonde trailing behind. We see the first one pass, and we both say, “Here she comes!”, and she always does, the second one hoves into view.
There are plenty more. In the big apartment building across the street there are Big Bear and Little Bear, the art restorers (we want to hug them: when they come to eat with us on Friday nights, Little Bear belts out Hungarian love songs); Genius Child and his hairy parents, The Happy Family…
Avenue Villermont is mostly residential, but there are several businesses hidden in the courtyards. In our very own building there’s a sort of stable for cycle rikshaws, which advertise businesses as well as act as three-wheeled taxis for tourists in the centre of town. The other day six or eight of them trundled out decorated like swans. Then there’s the French Sign Language School, which teaches signing for the deaf. The other day a deaf woman from Sweden came for lunch with a deaf French woman, both of them at the school learning sign language. I could see that the French woman was mistakenly trying to explain to the Swedish woman that our tourte aux poireaux (leek tart) was beef, because the sign for beef is also, I believe, the international sign for bullshit (the only sign I know – a favourite of Joel’s).
Other businesses nearby include the Medical Hypnotists school (where people learn how to hypnotise to reduce pain, and who sometimes come to the restaurant in groups of eight and, we observe, are partial to our “Full 7” burger and mousse au chocolat), and the monthly Sunday chanting group. Some of the chanters come for brunch after three hours of chanting “Ommmmmm” next door, which apparently creates a happy local vortex of some kind in which the restaurant in included.
I wish I could provide photographs of all these characters, but it wouldn’t be very ethical, would it? Or kind. They are in fact just ordinary people going about their harmless business. Their only mistake is to be visible to Joel and to me.
For the past 15 years at least, maybe even 20, I’ve been hand-making the Christmas cards that Joel and I send out. On the whole, I really love doing it, though it’s a project with many parts. I often make 60 or more cards, so the first criteria has to be simply whether or not it’s feasible without being a factory. Joel used to help me with the simplest bits, such as the preparation of folding the card (usually A5 220gm Daler Rowney cartridge pads) and sharpening the crease with the swish of a ruler. Or colouring within lines or circles with felt-tips (Staedtler Polycolor, Edding or even sometimes just Caran d’Ache Super-Fibre). Sometimes he even dotted the i’s of our “made in Chiswick” or, latterly, “made in Nice” credit on the back of the cards using a Pilot gold or silver metallic marker.
But over the years he became more and more unnerved by what he perceived as my disapproving glances, and the increasing height of the reject pile. What was, early on in my card-making career, a companionable seasonal tradition became a lone pursuit. I didn’t really mind. It just meant that I had to start earlier in the year.
Finding inspiration is a constant. I don’t look for it; it’s just there. I usually have a notebook with me. (Those little grey lined “Moleskine” ones are my favourite because they’re tough and survive months rattling around in a knapsack. Some years I’m partial to the tiny squares of “Rhodia” notebooks, but they’re too ephemeral and I just get frustrated.) I don’t always use them to make the notes; this year in my diary (Filofax pocket-size, week-on-one-page), the entry for Monday November 21 is “Don’t forget NY Public Library Digital Collection for Xmas card ideas.” But in the scruffy Moleskine notebook, in amongst notes reminding me of the times of the Nice Centre du Patrimoine’s walking tours, the model number of a light bulb that needs replacing, and the colour of 7 Villermont’s awning, are scribbles that might be sketches of fabric designs, friezes on buildings I’ve noticed while cycling past, or just a really bad imitation of a pretty card I’ve seen in a shop. All things that might be easy to do in parts for Christmas cards.
I don’t have much talent as an artist, nor skill as a draughtsperson, nor patience, and all those factors need to be considered. Once the card is bought, removed from its pad, folded and creased (perhaps 90 minutes, depending on whether I do it while listening to BBC Radio 4 – faster ; or watching TV – slower), the real work begins. Sometimes the work begins well in advance of the card: one year I did my own linocut of a reindeer, ink-stamped it onto the card, and then coloured in baubles hanging from the antlers (30 hours at least). I bought the linocut tools at a shop in Tokyo called Tokyu Hands, pretty much the best shop in the world for people like me whose favourite pastime is “looking at stuff”. Another year I embossed a Christmas tree onto the card and coloured in the baubles with Eddings and Pilot gold marker. I actually developed blisters on my left index finger from embossing about 30 circles on each card: 30 x 60 = 1,800 (40 hours, minimum). I bought the embossing kit at Hobbycraft in Greenford, a western suburb of London. Despite Hobbycraft being the most physically soulless craft superstore in the universe, my heart used to beat faster each time I turned into a new aisle. The best thing I ever bought there was pewter craft paper, which I used to pinprick a shade for a tea light holder, which I sent as a card with instructions on how to fold, and included the tea light itself (50 hours, plus band-aids). Sometimes I send myself a test card, to see if the construction will hold up to the postal system – this was the beginning of that practice.
The simplest ideas can turn out to be the most time-consuming. One card had a gold three-piece puzzle on the front, with one obviously missing piece. Inside the card I glued the missing piece, always “H”-shaped, as the start of “Happy Christmas”. The problem there was that before I could spray-paint the puzzles in gold to use on the card, I had to fit them together on the kitchen table, the desk and the living room floor. I bought a batch of puzzles from charity shops, and while it started out well (Joel helped doing the puzzles), it ended with spray-painted gold patches all over the patio and glue all over the kitchen table. (100 hours, at least.) That card was perhaps my most un-favourite of all.
I can’t honestly remember all the cards I’ve made. When you have to make 60+, each one is valuable, so I don’t tend to keep any myself and I forget them from year to year. Sometimes, however, I find an inky, smudged, botched test or template when I’m rooting in my Toybox for a pen or some gift-tying ribbon. And with each one, I think about how I could have done it quicker, or better, or cheaper.
The best part, of course, is when there’s a whole pile of finished cards next to me, and I write them out, and copy the addresses from my address book, and think of the people who make me happy. Then I divide up the envelopes into piles for posting to different countries. It’s like being Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn… I like having the piles sit somewhere nearby for a couple of days before posting, all that crisp paper whiteness, all those softly even edges.
But this year, I didn’t do any of that. It’s been difficult in Nice anyway. The world’s single most amazingly wonderful incredible art shop (Turnham Green Arts and Crafts in Chiswick), supplier of my card paper, is far, far away now. The world’s other single most deliciously papery paper shop (Paperchase in Tottenham Court Road) is also far, far away. There is, I have to admit, a friendly pen shop in Nice (Geant in rue Gubernatis), but in Nice art shops are for Capital-A Artists, not for people who just like a crafty splurge at Christmastime. (Crafty splurges are for children, and extra-curricular at that.) And of course we went to London for 10 days! We closed the restaurant (until 3 January) because it’s a quiet time and boy, did we need a rest. Our stay was so fabulous I can only just offer a few pictures instead of a thousand words: a very frosty morning in Battersea Park, my niece and nephew, mince pies.
So, sorry. I even found the inspiration in that New York Public Library Digital Collection: a Victorian set of snowflake stencils, which I was going to simplify, copy, pencil in, template, re-copy and re-arrange in between strips of red velvet ribbon… But I think the whole process would have taken a lifetime. Right now, we don’t have a lifetime, we just have our restaurant.
In my 2017 diary, I’ve made a note to start thinking about Christmas cards in June.
Happy New Year, with happiness, energy, and plenty of time.
Our new restaurant has been open for 12 full weeks now, and so far I’ve only really, really, really wanted to slap Joel in the face once. That’s probably pretty good going, don’t you think? It was when I dropped the credit card machine in the middle of our first very busy lunchtime, and it fell apart. I was too horrified to touch it again. Joel put it back together quite quickly, but that didn’t stop him from hissing and spitting at me behind the bar, telling me how clumsy I was in the nastiest way he’s ever spoken to me. I ignored it until I got back home, threw myself on the bed and wept bitterly about the dreadful mistake we’d made opening a restaurant together at this stage in our lives. Long, happy marriages can fall apart under this sort of pressure. You get to a point where circumstances reveal a facet of the person you thought you knew, and you don’t like what you see.
Well, we haven’t got there yet. It was just stress, and heat, and me not knowing anything about actually working in a restaurant. For the first six weeks it was rarely under 30degC/85degF outside, and while the main room has aircon, the kitchen doesn’t, and the terrace, even in the shade of the awning, was blistering. Behind the bar, the overwhelming blast from the coffee machine and glass-washer didn’t help. Getting home to a dark room and a cold shower meant a 15-minute uphill bicycle ride first. Now that the weather is cooler, everything seems easy and entertaining.
And of course now we’re used to the neighbourhood, and – we think – it’s used to us. I have lots of dog friends, whose owners walk them past us several times a day. I have lots of horticultural consultants, too: passersby who can’t resist commenting and advising on the containers that line our terrace. My first effort with geraniums ended in failure, due to some local infestation that everyone knew about except me. I admitted defeat when someone found one of the little butterflies flapping in his Salade César, and sent it back in horror. (I think that was overreacting – but the customer is always right.) I’ve replaced everything with lavenders. I also have coffee acquaintances – people who regularly stop in for un café in the mornings. We even have two 7 Villermont babies, whose mothers first came to us while pregnant. The babies were born within a week of each other, and their parents come back regularly. A third is on the way!
When Joel and the chef, Michel, have… ahem… different ways of approaching the same end, I find that very stressful, to say the least. In normal times, when Joel has been irritated or angry or upset, it’s usually been with his laptop, or the tax office, or Manchester United, and I’ve been able to ignore it. Now if he and Michel are … ahem… discussing something, it’s part of my life too. It’s rare, but running in to the kitchen and whispering shut up works. They think someone’s in the restaurant, and lower their voices, so there we all are whispering away furiously when not a soul can hear us anyway.
Joel complains that I push him too often. The coffee machine, ice machine, beer machine and sink are on the far side of the cash register, so if he’s faffing by the till, and I need to get by, I just give him a shove. What else would I do? I don’t really understand his complaint. When the restaurant is busy and customers are burbling away happily, cutlery chinking, we don’t have time to interact in any other way. Except to say to each other under our breath as we push each other out of the way, look, they think it’s a restaurant! I can’t quite believe it myself, but I guess it is.
Before my mother married my father, she worked as a model and journalist, and for a company that handled public relations. From the few photographs that exist of her post-Second World War London youth, it was a time filled with parties, frocks, handsome men and sunny days. Sometimes she’d come across one of these photographs while searching for something else, and after telling the story of so-and-so and what they got up to, she’d sigh and shrug, and say, “Well, I expect he’s dead by now.” The picture, and the memory, went back in the box, its characters consigned to her own history, where she seemed happy for them to remain.
If one of those characters had then turned up at her door, gray, fat, and trailing some lumpen wife, my mother would probably have slammed it shut in horror.
Until very recently I didn’t do Facebook. I’d felt uncomfortable about it, thinking alternately that my life was a) too uneventful to merit a regular status report, b) too complex to sum up in a few sentences or photographs, c) too short to spend wrestling with technology, and d) that Facebook reeked too rankly of Big Brotherness. Then, because I wanted to create an instant online presence for our new restaurant, there didn’t seem to be a choice. I tried at first to be anonymous, but Facebook won’t allow that. In order to create a business page, you have to create your own honest profile first. So I did.
I’m still reeling. I’m in the early stages, where names that seem vaguely familiar keep popping up on my screen, accompanied by photographs I rarely recognise. When I can’t resist that click, I’m confronted by time warp after time warp. High school friends I last saw as skinny teenagers on a yellow school bus, or even dancing in some suburban bar to Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town, are now smiling out at me from another world. They’re larger, wrinkled, accompanied by an older man or woman, and often encircled by younger people who resemble the people I remember. It’s a strange sort of dream. Sometimes, amongst the shots of smiling, endlessly smiling snaps (doesn’t anyone ever just look calmly at the camera for Facebook?), I find a picture of me. Someone’s has posted their “memories”, and there I am, 15 or 16 years old, cutting a cake, or squinting into the sun. At least the captions say it’s me; I usually have no recollection of the moment, though of course I remember the people. My friends, my classmates. Some of the names and faces make me immediately happy, others less so.
Perhaps if I’d discovered Facebook gradually, earlier, it wouldn’t have the ability to fold time into such sharp-edged accordion pleats. Perhaps if I’d remained in the U.S., I would’ve seen people balding gradually, or I would’ve bumped into their growing children at regular intervals, or been to their bridal showers or divorce celebrations.
In The Sea, one of the Irish writer John Banville’s characters says, “The Past beats inside me like a second heart.” I don’t need to expect, like my mother, that anyone’s dead, but I think that I understand her contentedness at being able to put the past back in its box. My recent Facebook experience has been a memento mori. I’d like the past to remain inside me, and not to leap out reminding me so rudely that time simply flies.
I don’t think this is a dream – we actually opened a restaurant, had some customers (satisfied, even!), and took some money. I might wake up and find that it’s all not true – that’s how it feels right now. I’ve been through a 150% learning curve. August in the south of France isn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant, but it means we can get used to our new life at our own speed. If we were down in Tourist Central it might be different, but in our part of Nice (only a five minute tram ride/20 minute walk) from the center of town), which is a genuine, untouristy part of the city, it’s quiet. Lots of small businesses are closed, local doctors, accountants, lawyers and so on – who’ll make up a big part of our lunchtime clientele – are on holiday, and loads of local families head (literally) for the hills, where it’s cooler.
Joel and I are still talking to each other, phew! That’s been my biggest concern, to be honest. What if I can’t bear him as the boss? He’s such a pro in the restaurant business, he knows just what to do when, and how. So it’s a little frustrating for him that his new waitress has ask to him Every Single Thing. (It’s frustrating for her too, believe me…) I’ve always pretty much been chief-reader-of-instruction-manuals, and interpreter-of-computer-issues. So something as second-nature to Joel as the glass dishwasher under the bar is a hot, steamy demon to me. The till is all a computer program, and Stephane who came to teach us how to use it, spoke… well, surprise surprise, he spoke French. There’s always a tiny delay between going in one ear and reaching the brain. This has been a source of loads of tension between Joel and I. He likes anything that keeps track of the money, and I tend to think it’s irrelevant. See the problem?
I also messed up the facebook page, but I think it’s OK now. Local restaurants in Nice often have just a facebook page, so we’ll work with that until all is calm and under control. But jeez… am I REALLY the person who was part of the very first team in the U.K. to use desk-top publishing to produce a national monthly consumer magazine? That was then, and this is now. www.facebook.com/7villermont
I think I’m also suffering from exhaustion-imposed forgetfulness. I must learn to listen exactly to what people are saying, and not to think about how nice their handbag is, or what IS that hairstyle while they’re talking… If I think in English, the French ends up facing a big obstacle. So, one woman ordered the fish, and I repeated the order back to her immediately: the porc au caramel…. Duh. I feel such a fool!
Fortunately between Joel, our chef Michel, and the very sweet and totally overqualified plongeur Mehdi, our first week was a success, and I’m even (sort of) looking forward to opening up again after our one-day weekend.
And Ted’s fine, too.