I lived on the Col de Spagnol, a west facing slope just over the Fabron hills. I had a good view of the Var, the Alps to the north, the sea to the south. The trails there had been around since before the Romans. No-one had ever dared block them, or build a wall across the paths. Up and down the terraces a few times, and I was in Nice.
It must have been late spring. Mimosas were everywhere along my path, yellow backdropped by local limestone. All the walls were made of what they found in place. I was used to an invented world, built from nothing within my life, all the materials imported from somewhere else, a designer’s dream of what should be. But if I looked at these terraces closely, I could almost match each wall stone to its origin. The design of the local wolftraps hadn’t changed for centuries.
That’s why I passed up all shortcuts. Yes, the cherry trees were tempting, unguarded by any Alsatian. But I didn’t know where the traps would be hidden. And there were wild boar to consider. Best to stick to my path.
I crested the hill, and the town was red tile roofs and date palms. My descent was a slow glide. Corsica was off in the distance. I couldn’t see its mountains, just the clouds forming above them. The curvature of the earth prevents so many things.
I clambered down the hill behind campus. That was the difference between me and the students: I showed up in walking shoes, they wore furs. Even their jeans were expensive: perfectly formed to their shapes. I taught a few classes and headed for lunch.
Graham was already there, and Odile. Wine was cheaper than water, and mine was already poured. They’d seen me coming. I took up some bread, and mentioned the jeans.
Odile was always laughing at me. “Don’t you know how they do that? They draw a very hot bath. As hot as they can stand. More. We suffer for beauty. Then they put on the jeans and get in. It takes a little while. The trick is to wear them all day after. Do you like mine?”
She stood up, and the space between the tables became her runway. Graham and I toasted the fit. Her field was Contes de Fées. She knew more medieval stories than I knew titles, yet here she was, a demonstration of techniques. I was thinking of how little I knew when Françoise arrived.
I still wasn’t used to ‘cheri,’ but she tossed it around like bouquets. She had to work. I should meet her at eight in the Cours Saleya. It wasn’t a question. Graham offered an eau de vie. She refused, I accepted. She floated away on my wave of spirits. There was a sugar cube in my glass. We didn’t have to teach again until four, and by then, the coffee would take over. I always doubled it up.
My afternoon students thought I was chatty. My mind was on the flower market. I was walking around the room with my book, reading my sidenotes aloud. Someone asked a question, and answering, I looked up.
Right into the eyes of one of the fur girls. Every thought went out of my head. I hardly knew where I was. Everyone started laughing, the students, fur girl, me. I was only saved by her seatmate, who asked me the question again..
It was getting near seven, and I let them go. Forty five minutes, from there to the Cours. Plenty of time. The walk would be mostly along the beach. I put my books away, and headed out through Magnan.
The Promenade des Anglais is a wide walkway along the sea. The English tourists built it a century ago, so they’d have someplace to stroll in the sun. The locals laughed at the time. But it’s still there, and it goes between the town and the beach. There is no sand. Round river stones got trucked in along the water, so there’d be some place to sit. When the waves were low, when the sea looked like no more than a glassy lake, I liked to skip those stones across the surface. The locals mocked me for that.
But I was far too pressed to skip any stones. Françoise would be waiting, with Bruno and Avril. Maybe a few others. If I was late, Bruno would haul us all to Saf Saf, and it would be Moroccan again. One can only have so much merguez in life, and my limit was already passed.
By the time I arrived, all the flower carts had been hauled away, and the place was filling with tables and tourists. Russians, Americans, Swedes. I gave up on counting the languages. There were cameras and mopeds and foreign exclamations. Françoise rode up, and parked. She took off her helmet, and was perfect.
We all met near the fountain. It hadn’t been there long. I couldn’t follow the conversation: when they’re debating, things move too fast. “Saf Saf!” They looked at me and I shook my head, then went back to rapid debate.
They led me down the street. We walked by a butcher shop, still open. A boar hung in the window, with the usual deer and rabbits. People were walking their dogs, and the tourists parted to let them by. We settled down at some tables.
I wish I could say it was different from every other night. It should have been special, filled with omens or signs. It was dark by the main course. The plaza was clearing. The salad came last.
Someone was playing music from across the way. A few of the tourists started dancing. Why not? They were far from home, and could let themselves go.
One of the girls broke free from the crowd. She was turning and turning in a long black skirt. Her arms were extended, swirling a shawl above her head. She gave herself over completely to the dance. Why not? No-one was watching.
No-one but me. Françoise followed my eyes. “Cheri, they have profiterolles here!” I was distracted a moment. When I turned back to look, she was gone.