The Côte d’Azur

The Côte d’Azur

I’ve decided that the seagulls have a French accent.

Sitting on a park bench, gazing at a harbor crowded with elegant boats and massive yachts, I’m basking in the sunshine while enjoying the foreign sights and sounds that surround me. Several of the exceedingly large seagulls (they could be albatross, actually) pace the pavement and grass nearby, padding along on large webbed feet, occasionally calling out in a strangely catlike voice, hoping for a handout from any of the bench sitters who are eating the requisite French baguette sandwich.

Seated in the small, tree lined square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, I’m just slightly Cannes14removed from a sea of people surging along the main promenade and converging from various side streets and alleys, a human river of color and varying fashion. Differing languages and accents touch my ears from every direction. I’m in Cannes with my partner for the famous film festival, and the town is mobbed with “industry people” as the movie crowd calls themselves. My partner is here for work, making connections and securing films for the Hawaii International Film Festival. I am fortunate enough to be at leisure, roaming the streets and markets, sightseeing, sitting at sidewalk cafés, and watching the somewhat bemusing crowd on the French Riviera. It’s not entirely unpleasant, I assure you. It doesn’t hurt that the May weather is warm and glorious (unlike the past few festivals), with blue skies and temperatures of 21 C/ 70 F.

I’ve spent the past several days roaming on foot, exploring this elegant port city, delighted to be once again on the Mediterranean after being away for several years. Living in the States, I often miss the Med—everything from its arid landscape and Old World architecture, to its dark-haired beauties and boldly flavored, rustic cuisine. Food that seduces unapologetically with olive oil, garlic and pungent herbs. Flavorful grilled fish, freshly hauled from the sea, cooked over a wood fire or charcoals. Gutsy, alcoholic wines that reflect the hot, dry earth, and the pale apricot-colored, aromatic vin rosé served well-chilled at every café. No matter the country or culture, the coastline of this ancient sea is a place where the food, people, and lifestyle all reflect and embody the intense sun.

Having dwelt in Europe previously—France, England, and Spain—many of the aspects of daily life once foreign to me are very familiar. The drone of scooters zooming by. Little cars, the sounds of diesel engines, and drivers agitatedly honking their horns. Shops that open late and close early. Euro money, credit cards with ‘chip and PIN’ for added security. High speed trains flying at 260-300 km/hour. Dressing nicely for dinner on the town. Men wearing scarves as fashion, and carrying a ‘man bag’. Café culture.

My French is limited but I am at ease here. I’ve long ago learned that you can speak very little of a language and still get on quite well. Still, I make it a point to speak Francais as Cannes2much as possible, modest as my verbiage may be. The gesture is always appreciated, and when I’m corrected (as I frequently am), I learn a bit and improve. In Cannes, with the huge influx of foreigners for the film festival—literally from all over the world—most all the shopkeepers, salespersons, restaurateurs, and serving staff willingly speak English (note that the key word is willingly, which is not always the case in France). It doesn’t take long to notice that Americans are particularly loud (followed closely by the Aussies), and our brassy, clipped accent has a way of cutting through all the other conversations around. At the moment, we are everywhere.

If you pay attention to the crowds, you’ll note that there are at least five distinct types of people here right now. There are the “industry people” here for the marché du film—the actual business of the Cannes festival—all wearing various colored badges on lanyards around their necks that allow access to the Palais de Congrès, site of the festival and most of the films. There are the celebrities and high rollers, here for the glamorous parties and premieres. Naturally, there are the working locals, the shopkeepers, service industry, and security, the ones who are making it all happen. There is also a sizable legion of press and paparazzi, many of them standing around the posh hotel entrances along the Boulevard Croisette, hoping to snap photos of the stars, or perched upon ladders behind the barricades along the red carpet entrance. And there are the everyday tourists, some of whom have come to glimpse the ‘scene’ of the festival, others who merely happen to be here during Festival (and have the privilege of paying triple or quadruple the normal lodging rates), or day visitors from the cruise ships (there were four massive cruise ships in the bay yesterday).

Sitting at a café during the festival—particularly along the crowded Croisette, across from the exclusive beach pavilions—is a fascinating episode of people watching. I think of it as sort of a sociological (or cultural anthropology) experiment. It is a parade of high and low fashion, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ all jumbled together. In the evenings, when the gala premieres begin, the road is blocked off and the show really starts—everything after seven in the evening is a black tie event—with pretty people in gorgeous gowns and tuxedos strolling down from the hotels. (That said, the real A-list and top celebrities all stay in exclusive villas in the hills above the town, far from the chaotic scene, traveling by private black car with tinted windows, arriving at the Palais via special access, secured routes). The high level of police and security throughout town at the moment is absolutely astounding. It’s a bit of a mob scene, really. Mostly when I am out and about, I keep to the streets further in from the beachfront promenade, which are a bit more manageable.

I note with some heavy-hearted dismay that all the giant billboards for the American films feature guns. It’s a clear statement about mainstream American culture, as well as what we are exporting to the world. Sad, really.

With the crowds of tourists and luxury shopping, the glitz and glam, the palm trees and coiffed French women walking their little dogs down the boulevard, it all seems very far away from the charming Provence that I know. It’s pleasant enough being here in a holiday sort of way, but my soul longs for the Vaucluse and the Luberon—a region of silvery green olive groves, gorgeous fields of cultivated lavender, a green quilted patchwork of rocky vineyards, and rustic villages of stone houses with painted shutters and quiet cafés. That Provence is a landscape that somehow called to me long before I actually visited it—reaching out through cookbooks, stories and narratives, picture books, and travelogues—and has nourished my soul since I first set foot there. I long to return.

Though the sky sings a bright song of Mediterranean blue, the air in Cannes doesn’t carry the scents of parched earth and wild herbs; rather it smells of perfume, suntan oil, and diesel fumes. Others have eloquently stated that there is not one Provence, but many; being on the Riviera gazing at a harbor of expensive yachts and watching the tourist crowds, I’m inclined to agree.

Admittedly, the coastline here is more alluring and scenic than I expected, and I marveled at its colorful beauty as our Paris train traced the water’s edge from Les Arcs Draguignan Cannes_view1past Toulon after departing Marseilles. The rust-hued red earth rises in cliffs and mountains carpeted with dark green pine trees, a rugged and picturesque border along the tranquil sea. The term ‘Côte d’Azur’, the Azure Coast, is justifiable. Although much of the coast is well populated, it is not so horribly overbuilt as the Iberian peninsula. (No country in Europe has had its coastline so badly butchered by developers as Spain.) Cannes sits on a picturesque bay of turquoise waters, surrounded by rugged hills, and I certainly see the allure of its location. This area has been settled since Roman times, and it probably remained near idyllic until thirty or forty years ago.

Walking the city these past days, passing countless boutiques and shops and surrounded en masse by shoppers of dozens of nationalities and languages, I’ve found myself plunged into the materialistic world, while simultaneously drawn in by countless objects of desire—especially the fine men’s clothing. Seemingly on every street, I pass windows of gorgeously colored suede loafers, stylish hats, finely tailored jackets and blazers, attractive linen shirts, exquisite scarves… and more. Mind you, I’m generally not much of a shopper, especially in the clothes realm. Partly this is because there’s generally so little in American men’s fashion that appeals to me, and partly because I am quite practical—I simply don’t need any more clothes. I try to keep my life simple. Uncluttered. A closet full of fashion (or simply function) just isn’t me; instead I have a select few, carefully chosen items. Strolling the streets of Cannes, however, I’ve found myself yearning for a whole new wardrobe of gorgeous clothes.

Truthfully, I’m a man who is as comfortable in a tuxedo and drinking fine champagne as being barefoot in the garden pulling weeds. You can find me dining at a Michelin-star restaurant or riding the bus, hosting an elegant dinner party or backpacking in remote woods. I’ve confessed previously in these posts to being a bit of a sybarite and a gourmand (with a healthy touch of bohemian thrown in), but I’m keenly aware that while such things bring pleasure to the senses, they don’t always nourish the soul. I may deeply appreciate the finer things in life but I don’t generally yearn for them.

We cannot want something until we’ve seen it or know it exists. It’s interesting to note myself suddenly longing for things that, until the moment I saw them in a shop window—a cream-colored linen jacket, for example—would never have appeared on my very modest, oh-so-practical wish list. Funny, that.

Shopping for ‘stuff’ doesn’t really feed the soul, I well realize. Sitting at any number of the cafés that I have frequented here, wearing sunglasses and sipping my Badoit (a French sparkling water) or a glass of Provençal rosé as I watch the crowds go by, I know too that glamour feeds the ego but starves the spirit. I wonder, if we are ‘awake’ and conscious of our soul’s journey, can we really take a holiday? Not the common sort. Not for long. Soul is our anchor to the deeper meaning in life, without which we drift aimlessly, or sink back into the frenetic malaise that is so much of modern life.

Soul Artists seek out the treasures of the day, wherever they are, however small. A tiny flower in the grass, the scent of new rain or morning dew, a perfectly cooked fish upon a china plate. They open their senses, appreciate beauty, and practice gratitude. They’re aware of what nourishes their soul on a deep level and what doesn’t, mindful of what brings them into a state of openness and expansion. Soul Artists always seek to root down, grow, and offer forth something of beauty and value.

I’m certainly grateful to be here, enjoying a change of pace and a glass of rosé, once again on the shores of this ancient sea.

The Mediterranean is full of little villages where old men sit for hours in public spaces, talking together about the weather, or just sitting quietly solo. On a bench in the tailored park at Pointe Croisette, gazing out at the yachts and mountains, I’m taking a bit of time away from the ‘scene, savoring the green grass beneath my bare feet and feeding the massive French seagulls chunks of my baguette. Listening. Thinking. Open in body, senses, and heart. Talking to the birds. I’m practicing my ‘old man on the bench’ routine a bit early. It suits me, I think. The seagulls seem to think so, too.

It’s a fine day to be alive, n’est-ce pas?