le 10 novembre 2013
There is a marathon from Nice to Cannes today. It lures thousands of runners. And because it is southern France, and already cold to the north, the runners are joined by sun-loving family, friends, wives and lovers under the guise of caring supporters, a role easily distracted by the magnificent stores and après-shopping activities of coffee, croissants, and conversation.
I take the 20-kilometer bus-ride from Grasse to Cannes, following a raindrop that began its descent high in the Maritime Alps. Together, we fly down the mountain until my coach stops, the driver no longer able to maneuver in the heavy traffic. The raindrop falls from a cloudless sky, blown far from its birth. Other wayward drops follow until the air is filled with winks of refracted sunshine, a drifting swarm of fireflies. Hot asphalt welcomes the drop's arrival with a hiss of applause, celebrating its transformation into humidity, liberating the drop to climb, in search of other spirits, with hopes of being borne again.
The coach crawls along the boulevard, turns left, left again, and arrives at the train station. I am too late for the race. There is already a steady flow of runners filling the sidewalks coming from the finish line. Instead of swimming upstream, against the crowd, I join the pilgrimage of joggers towards the trains back to Nice. The crowd moves slowly, partly because of its size, but also because the marathon runners must wobble carefully down the stairs, their calves complaining that 26 miles was enough for one day.
It is a short train ride, one that follows the Côte d'Azur. I listen to the various languages as children are admonished by parents to put down their iPhones and appreciate the coastline. The view is spectacular, all the more so because it is from the window of a train running at water's edge.
From Gare de Nice-Ville I wander alone, searching for the sea, following the sun as I head down Avenue Durant. The cafés are filled with runners, yellow jerseys and jogging shoes surrounded by family and friends, all recounting the day's battles, both wins and losses.
A sudden gust and the high-pitched tinkle of breaking glass rides above the rumble of wind in my ears. I turn to see surprised faces at a sidewalk table, expressions turning to disbelief as yet another empty wine glass is toppled, rolling, slipping over the edge of the impeccably ironed snow-white tablecloth. When the vessel reaches the end of its voyage, it shatters, a sacrifice scattered at the feet of Adidas and Avia.
The waiter is unperturbed. Perhaps this scene is played out every year; tourists eating outside in a futile attempt to stretch summer into fall. They are not American tourists, though there is the occasional smattering of that familiar nasal English. Most are continental tourists. For it is off season, too late for le grand voyage. It is only a long weekend in November, Armistice Day, a holiday not celebrated by all countries in Europe.
Putting the wind to my back I abandon my quest for la Méditerranée and settle instead for a cluster of trees just visible a few blocks away. Closer, the trees reveal a rectangular oasis among residential buildings whose orange-ochre walls are decorated with plaster versions of Corinthian columns, tall windows with azure shutters, and fanciful wrought-iron balconies.
There is a plaque declaring the square Place Mozart, its benches filled alternately with old men and the sleeping homeless. Standing in the middle of the park, easily visible, is a heavy-booted flic-looking man wearing well pressed cotton khaki-green security-guard shirt and matching pants. The radio that hangs from his belt crackles with news of distant wayward souls. Is he here to protect the old men? To protect the homeless? Protect one from the other? His cap and shirt carry the initials “A.S.V.P.” Does the S.V.P. portion stand for s'il vous plaît? I do not ask him. I have been treated poorly on previous attempts to satisfy my curiosity about French police. Instead, I avoid eye contact, feeling diminished, bent to submission by my years of experience. Perhaps he is there to protect me, the old man from America.
I sit down on an empty bench, ponder how close I am to the end of my own marathon, and watch the sun disappear behind rooftops cluttered with chimneys and TV antennas, remembering rainbows, heralds of my own return to the sea.