Secondary school teachers in France are civil servants with what is considered a job for life. To become a teacher, you have to have at least a CAPES qualification – five years of study after receiving the BAC, then a competitive national selection process that involves written and oral exams. Many people go through this process three or four times before they either get the CAPES or give up. People say it’s based on a certain amount of luck as well as ability. If, for example, you are trying to become an Italian teacher, part of the criteria for your success depends on the number of Italian teacher positions available, and not on your suitability as a teacher. From what I understand, you are not necessarily tested on subjects you’ve actually studied, but rather given subjects to research and write about and, in a second, later, exam, to discuss in front of the examiners. Once you’ve succeeded, you are offered a job somewhere in France – you can’t choose where. You get a certain amount of points depending on whether you’re married, have children, whether your spouse works, etc, which can help you stay in your home area (if there is a job, of course).
Our ex-downstairs neighbour Giorgio sat the CAPES twice, and this year – yippee! – he succeeded. He and his wife Paula were celebrating with some friends of theirs who have been on a mission to try out all the rooftop bars in the area. That sounded like a great idea to us, so we went along to meet them at the Aston Hotel on Avenue Felix Faure. That’s actually a soulless little strip of Nice that I dislike, so the rooftop bar was a revelation. What a view! It’s almost 360 degrees, and the sun was setting behind the hotel. It’s close enough to Vieux Nice that you can see individual orange terracotta tiles on the roofs, and to the hill called the château, so you can see the magnificent white monuments in the château cemetery. There’s the bluest sea, of course, too, and the Promenade, and across the Baie des Anges to Cap d’Antibes. At about that time, the evening light works better than any Technicolor film or Hollywood filter, any mind-altering drug, any million-dollar painting. You can read references to the artists and the light on the Côte d’Azur a hundred times, but you can’t see it until you see it – even, almost, feel it. It illuminates everything with gigawatt intensity, but doesn’t make you blink.
While we were waiting to go up in the lift to the bar, I noticed a pile of newspapers and magazines for guests, one of which was China Daily. Do they have a significant number of Chinese guests at the Aston? I put an issue in my bag.
One of the articles was about a Chinese system using an annual cycle of 24 solar periods to identify the best moments for eating, observing, interacting, reflecting, and so on. Farmers, for instance, might use this system instinctively because they are in touch with the environment. The article quotes a 29-year-old office-based accountant who has an app on her smartphone to remind her what she should try to notice outdoors during each of the two-week cycles. Another woman is selling skincare products based on the cycles. Someone else buys their roasted green tea only in mid-April… Why not? After all, in London we had a small mirror in the kitchen facing the hall that led to the front door, which according to the principles of feng shui, scares off any evil (and, ergo, ugly) spirit that tries to enter the house by terrifying it with its own reflection.
One idea I liked was from a man who has visited the city of Hangzhou 20 times after reading a travel guide to the city based on the solar periods. He says, why bother boasting about having been to 200 cities you haven’t really seen when you can say you’ve seen 24 faces of the same city?
Giorgio’s CAPES’ celebrations coincided with La Fête de la Musique. This is the annual French national summer solstice shindig when every restaurant and bar, plus lots of parks and squares, are filled with people making music. The town is swarming, so much so this year that the Tram was briefly to stop running, rather than bulldoze people off the rails. Joel and I were cycling home later in the evening and it was as if we were constantly fiddling with the radio knob, changing stations as we moved. We entered one sound field and then another, sometimes two or three at once, when for instance, we passed through an intersection where music came at us from all four directions. There might be a granddad with an accordion to the left, a major dance sound system bouncing off the buildings somewhere to the right, and a blues band increasing in volume in front of us just as a Brazilian Fado singer was tuning out out behind.
This has been the third Fête de la Musique we’ve experienced here. Joel was at the restaurant for the first two, but during the second I looked around the neighbourhood on my bike a little, and realised it was a fairly weird affair. This year, all that time at the restaurant is a distant memory, even for Joel. (We think positive thoughts as we cycle by, though, so maybe we’ll eventually get our investment back!) A visitor to Nice who’d never been here during this solar period wouldn’t recognise the place, but then they might have missed the unique light of the late sunsets. They wouldn’t have watched all the huge trumpet flowers bloom either, or heard the arrival of the first kamikaze mosquitoes in the bedroom. Or seen another Ironman triathlon (the one in which, sadly, a competitor died).
In fact, I should write my own Chinese Solar Period Guide to Nice. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing along? I could do it for cats, even: The Chinese Solar Period Guide for Cats in Nice. Right now it’s time to seek out salamanders and bite off one of their hind legs before bringing them indoors.
In any case, we are all very used to living here in Nice now. Even our car has become a naturalised French citizen, with its own local license plates. This really confuses people, as the UK steering wheel is on the right. We explain to the unimaginative that we paid extra for this option because we are left-handed, so it’s easier to change gears.
This solar period in Nice also coincides with a sort of collective sigh of relief as the school year comes to an end. (For me, too: no 13-year-olds mumbling in broken English till September.) I just bumped into Giorgio, actually, on the way back from the market. He was having coffee with someone who’d also just got the CAPES, and they looked relieved and happy. La vie est belle when you’ve just become a French civil servant. He’ll probably look similarly relieved during this solar period for years to come.