Every year we indulge ourselves and go to one of our favorite places on the planet: Cap Ferrat, near Nice. St Jean is the tiny village that is the heart of the tiny Cap, which is a quiet haven on the ever-busy Riviera. Its peninsular form keeps it a bit removed from the coastal development, and its dramatic scenery and perfect harbor, rounded like a scallop shell, have made it an escape for the reclusive rich, much of the Cap being taken up with large, manicured estates behind tall hedges which mere mortals may never enter. Despite that, St Jean has the feel of an intimate village with great charm. The yin and yang of it appeals to me: an unassuming slice of heaven, where sleek yachts are moored next to the small wooden boats of the local fisherman; an oasis in the center of the condo-laden Côte d’Azur. We’ve had the luck to rent a modest house across from the marina, where we can suspend reality and live a truly charmed life for a couple of weeks, and peek over the hedges at those fabulous villas.
Across the street from our house is a lookout spot where hikers, headed for the Cap’s much-loved coastal walk, often stop to admire the harbor just below. I noticed that every day, an old man, in his mid-80’s perhaps, walks down from the hill and stands at the lookout point for a few minutes, quietly surveying the view. He is not like the tourists who stop there; no backpack or camera, just an old man by the sea. Curious, I finally got up my nerve one day to cross the street and join him.
Monsieur gave me a welcoming smile, and began to tell his story. It turns out that he is that rare bird, a native of Cap Ferrat. He pointed to one of the docks on the marina. “My father’s fishing boat was docked just there,” he said, “and he met my mother on that very spot.” He has distant cousins who still work the boats. A sly smile creeps over his weathered face, and he points to one of the small fishing boats. “I was conceived on that very boat!” He swears it's true. (I am skeptical; it looks too small for a tryst, certainly not a comfortable one.) I wonder if the irony of the boat's name, Le Caprice (a whim), make him feel that fate nearly passed him by.
Monsieur swept his hand over the tiny village of St Jean. “All of this,” he said, “this was just a fishing village when I was young. Everyone who lived here had something to do with fishing. Now, there are precious few fishermen left. Like many of my generation, I left the village to see the world, and I ended up as a businessman. But now I’ve come back.”
He pointed to his house, just up the hill, the house he was born in. I know this little row of houses; they are small and modest compared to the estates elsewhere on the Cap. No doubt they were positioned at the top of the hill early on by the fisherman, a promontory where their wives could see the boats returning from the sea. Now of course, they sit on some pretty pricey real estate.
I wanted to hear more, but his eyes became wistful and sad, so we stood together silently, gazing out at the paradise before us. But his eyes and mine, I know, do not see the same view. I see sky and sea that meld into brilliant blue, lovely boats, the cheerful shops and row houses of St Jean with their perfectly groomed gardens. His view is darker, nuanced, layered with memory. And it’s clear that the "simple" village and its lifestyle rooted in the sea, like a sailboat slipping from its mooring and disappearing into the distance, has sailed away forever.
In the COMMENTS: Marilyn will be making her tartiflette with bacon---she's now an attorney, but she used to be a hog farmer! Your can read all about her transition at her blog, Marilyn du Jour. Jan, who has a great trip to France coming up, has had tartiflette pizza--bonne idée! Read Jan's french journal at her blog, Speaking of France. Marje, I'm not a big meat eater, and I think you could leave the meat out of this completely and it would still be tasty. See Dee's post, she mixes other fresh veggies into her version (and she lives in Alsace!). Maria, there are many secrets to staying thin in France, but one is that, although they eat a lot of bread, it's almost always taken without butter, and the bread is made without any fat as well. And Debbie (of a French Opportunity), that photo did indeed insprire the title!
Favorite Reads: Drum roll, please: one of our favorite bloggers and readers, Heather Thomas, has her first book out this week! With husband Kent she has toured the waterways of Europe (mostly France), and now she's written a book telling you how you can do the same. Even if you're dreaming of a canal cruise, not a personal charter, you'll enjoy reading about the canal history and lifestyle in A Practical Guide for European Canal Boat Charters. Lots of fun pix too, not to mention everything you need to know about canal boats and chartering. Felicitations, Heather! (You can read my previous post about visiting Heather and Kent's boat here).
If you're cruising in France, you'll want to brush up on your French. In case you're new to this blog, you should check out my book about language learning, How to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain.
And you HAVE ordered Kristin Espinasse's new book haven't you? Most of you know her blog, French-Word-a-Day, and her many books, but if not you're in for a treat. First French Essais: Venturing into Writing, Marriage, and France is just out.
Now let's move on to favorite magazines, and a bit of news: I have an article out in the April issue of Traditional Home Magazine, which I produced and wrote. It's all about good friends Pete and Dee and their wonderful garden, near our home in Burgundy. Pick up a copy, or read about it and see the photos here.