Dead Renault in the middle of the road
On a Saturday in early December, late in the afternoon, we were driving through downtown Nice. Earlier that day, just after lunch, we drove up from La Garde, and made good time – we were in Nice in less than two hours. It was a sunny, blue day, but cool. We were trying to find our AirBnB rental, which on the map was in an ideal location near the Place Garibaldi, but the street was obscure and hard to find, even by French standards. After our third pass through the neighborhood, I waited at a traffic light and looked around for where we ought to go.
We were the lead car at a busy intersection, and when the light turned green, I released the clutch and stepped on the gas: the Renault lurched, rolled about a foot, then stopped dead. Really dead. I pushed the button to restart the engine, but nothing happened. Worse, I pressed on the clutch and it went all the way down to the floor and stayed there – it never came back up. Catherine sat in the back seat wondering what was going on, while Annie just watched for a moment and waited. Just when I concluded we were doomed, a man tapped on my window, I opened my door, then looked over to Annie to interpret. “He wants to know if we need help pushing the car out of the way.”
We were in Nice to visit an American family from North Carolina, the Walls. They, like us, thought a year in France was a good idea. Also like us, they had children whose ages ran from high school age down to kindergarten. Dinner with them had been planned for Saturday night at their place, one town over from Nice, in Villefranche-sur-mer. On Sunday a co-worker from New Hampshire, Marty, was flying into Nice with his son, Josh, who had just finished up a civil engineering internship in Galway. Marty had flown over to visit Josh in Ireland, and the two were making their way to Rome, from where they would fly back to the United States. We had arranged to meet Marty and Josh in Nice.
The kind stranger helped us push the car to the corner of the intersection, so while the car was not quite against the curb, at least it no longer blocked traffic. I felt bad that I never thanked the guy before he walked away – I was too caught up in getting the kids out of the car and fumbling with papers in the glove compartment, trying to find our insurance company’s phone number. Meanwhile, Annie called our AirBnB contact, Paolo, who was just two blocks away, and he graciously showed up at our broken down car five minutes later and offered to help in any way he could. I sent Andre and Catherine with Paolo to check out the apartment and get the keys, while Annie and I worked the phone to get a tow truck.
Two hours later we sat down to dinner at the Walls. After waiting for an hour the tow truck came, we filled out the usual paperwork, helped the guy push the car close to the tow truck so he could hoist our car, and then the Renault was gone to a garage where it would be stored for twenty euros a day until we figured out what to do. After a series of phone calls and text messages with the Walls, we got on bus #14 near the Place Garibaldi, and took it out to Villafranche-sur-mer. Traffic was heavy because it was Saturday night, and also because a pedestrian had been struck by a car at a busy intersection, thereby reducing the number of lanes for all traffic. But we persevered, and the Walls met us at the bus stop to help us on the last leg of the journey. The Walls apologized about having to meet us at the bus stop and not being able to pick us up at our apartment: the day before their car had broken down.
Not everyone gets to visit La Garde
Sunday morning we spent walking around downtown Nice: the old town, the Place Garibaldi, and our favorite, the Place Messena. There were cuisine and craft chalets set up on the Place Messena, and Annie bought some cheese with bits of black truffle inside. We strolled among the vendors, ate oysters and drank something sparkly (not Champagne), and took a ride on the ferris wheel, where the views of the blue Bay of Angels and the red roofed city and the white chalky hills inland were colorful and pleasing.
That afternoon I took the bus to the Nice airport to meet Marty and Josh, thinking I would get there early and have to wait for them. However, they had in fact already deplaned, picked up their bags, and were waiting for me, all of twenty minutes after they landed. We took a bus to the Hotel Rivoli, and had a scare when Marty left one of his smaller bags on the bus. However, we got the bag back when we waited at the bus stop across the street from where we got off: the airport bus, #98, runs a very simple loop between the airport, along the Bay of Angels, and the downtown. By waiting across the street from where we got off, we saw the driver for the bus on which Marty had left his bag, and we were able to retrieve the bag, which the driver had noticed, and stored behind him at the front of the bus.
Over dinner at L’Abbaye in the old town of Nice, we decided to rent a car big enough to hold everyone, and Josh and Marty would return with us to La Garde while we figured out the fate of our car. Marty and Josh were curious about where we lived, needed to do some laundry, and we had space to put them up for a couple of nights. Monday morning we hunted around for a car big enough for six, finally got one, then drove to the overlook in Nice where the cemetery and old castle are. That afternoon we drove south to Cannes, missed seeing any movie stars, and had an early dinner at a creperie. Afterwards we made our way to La Garde, and as we unpacked, I realized I had left the black truffle cheese in Nice.
The next day, in between loads of laundry, we showed Marty and Josh the sites, sounds, and smells of La Garde, caught up on internet things, and Josh and Andre bonded over the latest songs from Blue Maggot, Colonoscopy-Ja!, and Drumbledum. Dinner that night was at Le Cozy in Hyeres.
Are you spontaneous? Are you able to drop everything and travel someplace? Did you used to be relatively footloose, but no longer are because your circumstances prevent it? There’s a window of time in your life, usually after seventeen and until about twenty-five, when you just might have the time, just enough money, and the inclination to up and go…anywhere. Later in life, when your boss wants you to come in that weekend or you signed up for a 5k fund raiser turkey trot on Sunday morning or that you can’t find someone to watch your illama and it needs shearing anyway, or you’re just too tired – it all means means that you and the word spontaneous no longer belong in the same sentence.
Over dinner in Nice, then again during dinner at Le Cozy, Marty suggested I travel with him and Josh to Florence then on to Rome. Of course that was impossible; I couldn’t just spontaneously up and go someplace. I needed to be writing, and writing a lot more than I have been. I also should be drumming up some tech work, swimming more, working on my French, etc. etc. Annie wasn’t having any of that. She told me she could take care of the kids just fine, and that I was to leave tomorrow with Marty and Josh.
I went. If the above paragraphs sound a bit self satisfied, it shouldn’t. Part of the reason for getting off the silicon valley hamster wheel and coming here was for these types of experiences, a positive consequence of our decision. But there have been negative consequences to our decision, too, and all we’ve really done is trade one set of problems, and promises, for another.
Wednesday morning Marty, Josh, and I left Le Garde and were at the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice by 10:45 A.M. After that we made our way to the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was unfortunately closed for their common, but annoying two hour lunch break. We then returned the rental car, got a ride to the train station, and bought tickets to Ventimiglia, just across the French border – the first town in Italy.
Looking for Lucy Honeychurch
Our plan was to travel all the way to Florence that afternoon and evening: Ventimiglia to Genoa, change trains then to Pisa, change trains and arrive in Florence late that night. Marty had made a reservation for an AirBnB apartment in Florence, and the owner, Roberta, had agreed that we could check in late. We never made it, at least that day. Somewhere west of Savonna, which is west of Genoa, the train stopped. There was an announcement in fast spoken Italian (isn’t all Italian fast spoken?), followed by a series of groans from the passengers. A woman in our compartment spoke French and a little English, and she said no reason was given for the delay. She said something about Berlusconi and problems on the railway, but offered no further explanation. I sent a text message to Roberta telling her we might be delayed, and her reply was much the same as the woman’s.
About an hour later the train started again, but by the time we finally arrived in Genoa, we were too late to catch our connecting train to Pisa. We lugged our bags through the grimy train station to the ticket offices, but all windows were closed up, and there were no Trenitalia employees around (it was about 10:00 P.M). We then consulted a paper timetable posted on a wall, and found that there was a train leaving for Pisa in about fifteen minutes. We hustled to the correct platform, bought some fast food to eat, and a couple of hours later we arrived in Pisa.
During the train ride to Pisa I texted Roberta and told her we would not be there that night. Meanwhile, Marty looked in his Tuscan guidebook (a guidebook checked out from the Hanover Library – how old school is that? But it wasn’t Baedeker), and found what looked to be a good hotel, the Royal Victoria Hotel. I texted Annie, who contacted the hotel, and she informed me that there were some budget rooms available (no view of the Arno or the courtyard). Around midnight we arrived in Pisa, walked about a kilometer to hotel, and were done for the day.
Thursday morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we walked over the Torre pendente di Pisa, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We then took the train to Florence, where a perfectly located vacation apartment awaited us, just two blocks from the Piazza del Doumo.
The next few days were spent doing a lot of walking, visiting the Gallery of The Academy (Michelangelo’s David is there), the Uffizi galleries, and the museums in the Pitti Palace. Marty bought a leather jacket, we ate well, and Josh was enamored by the number of college age American girls in Florence. I bought some white truffle oil for Annie, and took advantage of the English language bookstore: Emma, A Room With A View, Lolita, and for Catherine, Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I would have bought more books but my backpack was heavy enough already.
D.C. al fine
I travelled only as far as Florence with Josh and Marty. Sunday they were leaving for Rome, while I would try to get back to La Garde in one day. Sunday morning I caught the 8:05 to Pisa, then waited all of ten minutes for the train to Genoa. My ticket said that I should change trains at a secondary train station in Genoa, not the main train station, but that didn’t seem right to me and when I asked a conductor, he confirmed my hunch and told me to change trains at the main train station. In Genoa I had all of two minutes to catch the train to Ventimiglia, and in Ventimigilia about three minutes before the train to Nice departed. In Nice the only train leaving for Var any time soon was the TGV, so I splurged and bought a ticket to Toulon – 27€. In Toulon there happened to be a train leaving for Les Arcs Draguignans, with a stop in La Garde – lucky!