July 15: The media circus

I’ve seen this happen in the movies, but I wish I didn’t have to see it today on the Promenade des Anglais.

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July 15: No words

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July 11: bits of the story so far…

Putting a whole restaurant together is extremely full-on. When we’re not actually involved in actively doing something it requires, we’re thinking or talking about it. And usually, I’m worrying about it. It’s nearly, nearly there.

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April 30: miles for tiles

Joel and I went to Imperia Ceramiche this morning to pick up the six square metres of tiles that we ordered for our new restaurant last week. The shop is about an hour from Nice, which makes the area it’s in far enough into Italy to stop feeling like a border region, the way the closest Italian  towns do, especially on weekends when they’re full of French cars. When we first went to the shop last week, I was so excited to find such a massive choice of beautiful, interesting, unusual tiles that Joel said I was like a kid in a candy store. I was also fascinated by the store’s owner: a tall, slim, smiley, bohemian-looking woman called Tea, with long, elegantly greying hair. She’s owned Imperia Ceramiche since 1993, so I doubt there’s a tile supplier in Italy that she hasn’t unearthed. The fact that the shop and its cavernous stockroom is located right underneath what looks like an old stone quarry makes it all the more exotic. We went on into the town of Imperia just for a look, and found that there was a Saturday market going on. A good day.

Here’s Tea and Joel, the market at Imperia, the tiles, the Imperia Ceramiche store, loading up the car, and the outdoor fitting room at the market!

 

The restaurant is taking shape, filling our heads and emptying our pockets almost every day. Here’s a random selection of photographs, with shots of the architect, the kitchen guy, the mason, his brother the plumber, the electrician, the flooring guy and the door guy (who happens to be the architect’s brother)…

 

There have been lots of other good things happening, too: visits from Penny and her mum Shirley, both of whom I’ve known for more than 50 years (ouch!), and from Heather, who feels like family for Joel and for me. We also both finished the Nice Half-Marathon – Joel admirably in 2 hours and 19 seconds, and me… much more slowly.

Ted is fine too. That’s the most important thing of all:

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February 6: a new restaurant

At last this blog’s title – 50% of it, at least  – makes some sense again. Originally, the restaurant part of it referred to Joel’s business adventure with his sister Michele, which ended in, to understate, disagreement (financially draining, emotional and life-changing).  The novel part remains pretty stable (written, read, rewritten, reread, etc.). Now we’ve decided to embark on the financially draining, emotional and life-changing part of it all over again: we’ve bought our own restaurant!

For now, Villermont (that will be its new name and incarnation) is completely empty. We asked the previous owner to remove every single thing except the extractor hood, and even that, upon closer inspection, will probably have to go. We asked him to have the place professionally cleaned before he went, too, but he didn’t bother with that bit. That was the least of the frustrations he caused us during the buying process. Even our jovial little lawyer was reduced to shouting at him (very eloquently!) during the signing of the acte de vente, the final act of sale.  We were only just convinced at the last moment that the vendor owned the place and had the right to sell at all, such is his problem with the truth, paperwork, French bureaucracy, accounts, and his ex-wife. We’re told he speaks perfect Italian, and, as he has Egyptian roots, we thought he might speak Arabic. But his French is a bizarre mixture of words we’d never come across before, so communicating was a challenge, particularly for Joel. Fortunately Joel’s struck up a comradeship with the owner of the building in which the restaurant is located, based on a shared feeling of confused awe regarding the vendor’s incessant mangling of the truth. During the final signing, the vendor brought along a former customer who, we thought, was there to translate all the details that seemed to have been misconstrued before. The former customer speaks English. During the proceedings, Joel said to him, feel free to speak whatever language you want so everything is clear. The former customer turned to the vendor, grabbed his arm, and translated everything from French into… French.

Anyway, that’s all history. Now there are new characters in our lives: the architect, Mylene; a stream of cuisinistes, such as Salvatore, the kitchen supplier; the handsome (and effective) desinsectisation expert, who also happens to be an ex-world taekwondo champion; awning suppliers, insurers, Monsieur Buffet, our conseiller professionnel at the bank, not to mention the owners of the neighbouring restaurant. They are observing our comings and goings with interest. There’s not much to observe yet, of course. Gutting and refurbishing Villermont will take several months. Good. It will take me several months to work up sufficient strength in my fingers to carry plates like the experienced waitress I need to become.

It’s stressful more for Joel than for me, I have to admit. Even if my French were good enough to handle all the admin in setting up a new business, I’d pretend it wasn’t, so that I could avoid it. Joel’s good at that stuff, and I’m good at… um…. well… chatting? People are always telling me things. I had the privilege of interview­­­­­­ing, for a UK magazine, the director of makeup at Christian Dior the other day, and I got him to spill the beans on Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette. Choupette is a diva, apparently. I’ve always been a bit jealous of Choupette, on Ted’s behalf. I mean, why should that fluffball have his own clothing range, while Ted doesn’t? It’s nepurrtism. But nyah-nyah, Choupette; Ted has his own restaurant in the south of France now. Beat that!

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October 5: The running of the sheep

The Tinée Valley

The Tinee Valley

The main route from Nice up into the mountains starts off in one of the ugliest parts of the Côte d’Azur: the plain of the river Var. It probably wasn’t bad in the days before it became a commercial zone, with huge DIY stores, light industrial warehouses and the like. The riverbed is very wide, grey and stony, and always looks a bit bereft because most of the time there’s not much water running through it. I’ve seen it raging now and again, in the spring, and it’s quite scary. On the opposite side to Nice, it’s more promising, with farms among the pre-fabricated buildings. There’s never any reason for us to go there, though, unless we’re lost.

The old houses along the Var are usually Provencal-style: ochre-ish colours, shutters, low, tiled roofs, with olive trees and palms (and old cars) in their yards. But as you climb gently up, things change rapidly. To get further up into the mountains, you have to turn off the Var and follow one of the other rivers, the Tinée or the Vesubie.  The twisty-turny roads go through some impressive gorges, where the rock hangs right over the road, and some rockfaces are ominously clad in giant metal nets to catch whatever falls off.  There are a few villages stuck in along the rock, and they feel a bit dark to me. The paint on the buildings always seems to be peeling, as if it’s too damp to hang on in the shade of the cliffs. Once you get beyond the gorges, however, there are lots of wooden chalet-style buildings, with steep roofs built for snow. It’s as if we’ve passed a border without seeing any flags.

The village of Roubion

The village of Roubion

Roubion is about 70km from Nice, and it took Joel and I under and hour and a half to get there on Sunday morning. The storms that had killed 17 people just down the coast from us in Nice on Saturday night had cleaned the air until it sparkled – but we didn’t know anything about it until later on. Like everyone else who’d shown up bright and early, we were waiting for sheep.

Every year this tiny mountain village (population 108) holds a Transhumance festival. About 2,000 sheep, which are being driven from summer pasture down to their winter pasture, pass through the narrow main street on their way to the next overnight stop. There wasn’t much to do as we waited, except admire the view over the valley we’d just driven through. There are a couple of pretty churches to look at, too, plus lots of painted doors (which are a bit naff, actually), and the communal village oven, which had been busy baking loaves to sell. Naturally we bought one, as well a coffee at one of two cafés. There were two groups of wandering musicians, too, with whistles and accordions and drums – all very folklorique.  We found ourselves a nice bit of wall, and sat around in the sunshine with everyone else waiting for…

Well, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen exactly. The local police were guarding a tunnel cut through the rock, through which the sheep were going to appear, but they seemed pretty relaxed about it. They didn’t clear children out of the way, so perhaps there obviously wasn’t much chance of trampling. There was excitement in the atmosphere, but I doubt it was quite the same as waiting for the bulls to start running in Pamplona. However, soon there was a surge in the decibel level, and we saw the wandering minstrels coming our way, followed by three women dressed as god knows what, with floppy bonnets and flowing frocks. And behind them was a sea of sheep! At that point Joel jumped off the wall and trotted in the other direction. It wasn’t exactly as if he was being chased, as the sheep were moving pretty slowly, a bit scared and confused, but as he looked back, it reminded me of those photographs you see of young men in Pamplona, a look of terror on their faces…

Of course, I’m joking. Joel said he only jumped off the wall so that one of the kids behind us could get a better view, but…

The idea of the festival is that you follow the sheep along the road for a mile or so to the next pasture, in an even tinier village – a ski station, in fact – called Roubion les Buisses. It was very jolly, with everyone clapping along with the music. Whenever a few sheep escaped onto the verges, one of the three sheepdogs chased after them, accompanied by a noisy explosion of camera clicking as if the paparazzi had caught sight of Gwyneth Paltrow. I thought sheepdogs were always border collies, but what do I know? Apparently there are many kinds, including chien de crau – one of which was called Rocket.

When we arrived at Les Buisses, there were scores of stands selling mountain cheeses and meats, so we bought some sheep’s cheese to go with our communal bread, inspected the handiwork of the chainsaw artists, and then took the ski-lift up to the peak, 1,724 meters high. There were still sheep up there, a flock guarded by two big white maremma sheepdogs, who came to bark at us to warn us off. They were hardly fearsome: once they realised we weren’t sheeprustlers, they just wanted to be scratched behind the ears.

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September 14: The long perspective

Joel is genetically optimistic, and despite trying very hard for decades to mutate his cheery DNA in my empty half of the darker, more anxious glass, it simply doesn’t seem to be working. I find myself being happy and relaxed for weeks on end. I’ve been laughing before I even get out of bed, whistling on my bike, smiling at how lovely it is underwater while I’m swimming, and generally thinking compassionate thoughts about neighbours I’ve previously wanted to slap. There just doesn’t seem to be a good excuse any more to be any other way.

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Naturally, I worry a bit, should Ted wake me up with an isolated miaow­­­ in the dead of night, that I’ll be punished for my extended good humour. Experience (or maybe my DNA, or possibly those few early Catholic years at the Sacred Heart Convent at Mount Anville near Dublin) has shown that to be entirely possible. I turn toward the snoring heap of positively firing neurones next to me, reach out lightly so as not to disturb him, feel a little electricity, and am buzzed back to sleep. Even as a bump in the gloom, Joel’s happy mitochondria overpower mine. Thank goodness it hasn’t been the other way round.

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I like happy people. It rubs off. We recently had a visit from Steph, my old high school friend and winner of the Happiest Person I Know award. We met when we were about 13, I guess, at Spring Valley Junior High School in Rockland County, NY. She and her family couldn’t have been kinder or more generous to me around that time. As we got older, we used to race around in her (even then old) brown Mustang, cutting school now and again, unaware at the time that we were tying the kind of knots that never, ever come loose. When I met Steph and her husband Ken at the airport in Nice, they were waiting outside, and as I walked up to them I saw Steph’s mother there; she’s grown to look so like her. It seemed so natural, and yet unnatural, there was nothing to do but embrace her and our history.

Now, Steph and her husband have been pretty singular in turning, over 30+ years, from regular people who worried about car payments and such into people who’ll never have that kind of worry again. This means that instead of staying with us, they were able to stay at the Negresco hotel, in a vast sea-facing suite. Steph, who’s never given much of a damn about propriety, lay on her back on the balcony in order to get a photo of Joel and I with the Negresco façade above us.

When I asked Ken what he knew about the Côte d’Azur, what he wanted to see, or not to miss, he gave me the best answer: just show us your favourite places. Consequently, we dragged them around for nearly a week, to the Fondation Maeght in St Paul de Vence, to the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-mer, to Villefranche, to the bar at the Belles Rives in Juan les Pins, to lunch in Vallecrosia… We even spent a long, noisy night at the craps tables in Monte Carlo. Steph’s dad had taught her the finer points of shooting craps, which until then had been a mystery to me. When we arrived at the table, I could see the four croupiers were uncertain, but within a few minutes, the whole table was whooping and clapping, and the pitboss and his team obviously couldn’t resist Steph’s delight. Everybody won, even those who lost. A couple of young Russian men were so happy with my throws that they shouted my name and shook hands when they finally decided to cash in their chips – even their youth and good fortune didn’t give them the staying power our happiness gave us.

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When Steph and Ken left, I mooned about for the morning, missing them. With some 3,900 miles between us, it could be another few years before we see each other again, by which time Steph will look even more like her mother – I don’t like to think what I might look like. Nevertheless, her visit, coinciding with my prolonged happy phase, has simply affirmed it. I remember being with Steph more than 40 years ago, and that feels as recent as if it were a vivid dream I had last night. Everything that’s happened in-between slips in with ease, difficult, painful or otherwise. From this cheerful perspective, everything is close, and all can be well.

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