64 Dispatch from Europe Part VI by Marguerite Jill Dye
Dreams and Recollections from the Côte d’Azur
Ever since my student days at the American College of Monaco, I’ve been in love with the Côte d’Azur. My senses tingle when I return. The air is fragrant with flowers and herbs that waft on wisps of gentle winds, except when the fierce Mistral blows in. Les Alpes Maritimes fall into the sea under a brilliant cobalt sky. Beneath each step of cobbled stone, layers of history await to be found: Paleolithic, Celtic, and Greek, Saracen, Roman, Provençal — castles and towers, châteaux and bridges, aqueducts and hermitages.
Aromas and savors around every bend awaken taste buds. Hunger sets in for daube provençale, a provincial pot roast, mushrooms cooked in a rich cream sauce, soca pie made from chick peas, olive tapenade, and grilled fish on a plank. The tastes of the South both test and delight the palette and brain to identify garlic and tuna, caper, sardine, and pissaladière, a specialty from Nice, an onion pizza with anchovy. The cheese is maturer from goat and cow, and the fruit is sweeter, for “ripeness is all.”
Lest you think I’ve become hedonistic, I’ll report on serious subjects, too. The people with whom I’ve spoken in France have asked me about America’s new stance. They wonder why we’ve abandoned the cause of climate change that’s doing them harm. The lack of rain has caused serious drought for natural wilderness areas and crops. Most of the country’s in danger of fire. Lakes and rivers have shrunk several yards. Snow in the Alps is disappearing. They are also perplexed why Trump keeps tweeting, daring Kim Jong Un of North Korea to launch his missiles over Japan. “Why undo Iran’s nuclear treaty?” they ask, in fear of nuclear war. “We fought on our land an authoritarian leader with dangerous traits and behavior. We want peace. We do not want war!” The people of France are questioning how Americans can be so naive and fail to see what’s happening . . .
A sea gull calls as we board the train that whistles across azur waves. A ship in the distance toots its horn. Children play in surf and sand. The colors astound me. The shimmering sea transforms from turquoise to royal navy. Red and white sails gently float by. Cruise ships drop anchor. Fishing boats glide. Violet and fuchsia Bougainvillea cascade over golden rock walls. Each villa enchants me and calls out my name. “Marguerite! Am I the maison of your dreams?” The pink one with elegant white bas relief, the abode with a tower and balconies, or the terra cotta house overlooking the sea with lemon, orange, fig, and olive trees would all be possible contenders, but alas, their prices are for millionaires. Perhaps writing poems of my favorite homes and painting their portraits will cure my woe: since I was a student in Monaco, I’ve dreamed of a villa perched over the sea. . .
I watch wagging tails of happy pups accompany their masters into boutiques. They trot around on a diamond leash and dine in restaurants like royalty. Lest I forget the patisseries, ooh la la, they’re quite the treat, with almonds, raspberies, chocolate, and cream. They’re buttery, flaky, delicious pastries.
We descend the train in Antibes and walk through the Old Town and market streets to rendez-vous with our friends from Valence over a lunch with wine and dessert.
When Pablo Picasso came south from Paris to Vallauris after World War II, he was offered a studio in the Chateau Grimaldi by the director of the Antibes Museum. For several months he worked night and day, painting on board, canvas, and walls in muted colors with abstract shapes in charcoal and chalky fishing boat paint. He analyzed and reduced nature to cylinders, spheres, and cones. “I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I think,” Picasso explained so others might see. His cubist figures seemed rather strange but he painted volume as flat abstract forms.
During the War, Hitler declared Picasso’s work “degenerate art.” Thousands of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Chagall, Beckman, and Nolde were confiscated and stolen by the Nazis. Picasso’s fame had kept him safe but his sense of expression had been under siege. One can imagine the freedom he felt painting furiously in Antibes. He created an enormous body of work, a retrospective and nod to Antibes with fishermen, dancers, boats, and goats,
sea creatures, anemones, and mythology. He painted the owl with a broken wing who perched on his chair and stayed by his side as he painted throughout many a night. For a decade his new love and muse was Françoise Gilot, acclaimed artist/author, who’s still active and working at 95. Art and letters are good for the soul and help keep the body healthy and spry.
Artists and writers have been inspired by the beauty, the light, and the quality of life they’ve found for a lifetime or just a season in the true land of joie de vivre. Renoir bought an olive farm called “Les Colettes” in Cagnes-sur-Mer and painted there. Monet, Dufy, Bonnard, Matisse, Signac, and Cross also came to paint. Writers left the Left Bank of Paris for the sunshine and warmth of the Riviera. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, John Dos Passos, Alphonse Daudet. Louisa May Alcott came for a visit and Peter Mayle came to stay. Many writers wrote their best work in the warmth and sun of the South of France.
Friends from Avignon joined us in our time share in Villeneuve Loubet then drove us on the Bas Corniche to Nice and Monaco. We lunched near the Italian border, watching waves in old Menton, then passed a brocante filled with antiques. I picked up a card for real estate. But when we drove uphill to pass through the autoroute toll booth, we were stunned to see French police surveying each car as it passed through. “Perhaps,” I queried, “a robbery?”
“Haven’t you heard how hundreds flee each day from Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, and Syria? If they survive the dangerous boat ride, they land in Italy and come on foot to France, England, or Germany. The police search for immigrants and refugees entering France illegally. They send them back to where they first landed, on occasion to their country of origin, or if they qualify for political asylum, France will house and care for them. Refugees fleeing danger and war, and the climate poor fleeing parched land awaken me from my Côte d’Azur dream.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.