Once again we count the hours--and the jobs still to do: pay bills, gather passports and other documents, clean out the fridge, empty the garbage, pack. I keep running down my checklist. We leave for France tomorrow night for an extended period. We leave home. To Paris first, then Nice, our other home. We've been in America since mid-May. Lots of family here, almost no family left there. Having two homes feels a bit awkward, even a bit unsavory. Like having two wives. I'm not sure where home really is anymore. But Nice is where we started life together. Two kids from opposite sides of the world. Young, innocent, penniless, hopeful. I wanted to become a writer, and that worked out--30 books. Many are set in France, some even in Nice. I wanted to marry this young woman, and that seems to have worked out too--63 years. At least so far.
A new book by F. Scott Fitzgerald was reviewed in yesterday's NYTimes Book Review section--lost short stories found and published for the first time now, 77 years after his death. This set me to brooding about him and about myself. Few writers have ever owed an earlier one as much as I owe Fitzgerald. I was 10 when he died, 20 when an English professor put me onto him. I found Tender Is The Night incredibly touching. I was so enthralled by the Great Gatsby that I memorized parts of it the way you would poetry, to the point where one day the prof asked me to teach the class about Gatzby and its author, which I did. Because of Fitzgerald the literary career I had considered for myself now took sharper form. I would become the greatest writer who ever lived, greater even than him--and because he had spent so much time on the French Riviera and because Tender Is The Night is set there, that was where I would go to write the first of my great novels. Fitzgerald's Riviera was all it and I would need to give it pizazz. So at 23, my life's savings in my pocket ($500) I followed him to Nice. But--but I met a local girl there the first day, and for a time Fitzgerald and novel writing went out the window. We got married three months later on no money and are still married. I did have a literary career (17 novels, 11 other books, my God!) and it did begin on the Riviera, though it took us four years to get back there on a permanent basis, and for me to get paid regularly for writing books and articles, much of the non-fiction about France and from France. As for becoming the greatest writer who ever lived, I didn't make it. But nobody else ever did either, which is some (small) consolation.
May 10, 2017:
As it happened, two of my granddaughters, Rhiannon and Morrighan, were visiting us here in Nice for the latest of my many birthdays. They had brought presents from Scotland from their mother, their brother and themselves which they presented to me at breakfast: videos of the Victoria series and the 2nd Upstairs/Downstairs series, and a book of crossword puzzles, and a swell summer polo shirt and a cardigan sweater, and 4 small bottles of single malt whiskey, and packages of Scottish shortbread cookies, and a pair of exquisite silver demi-tasse spoons that Silversmith Rhiannon had designed and made that dazzled me. I felt like a kid coming downstairs on Christmas morning.
After breakfast we drove across the border into Italy where we wandered through the open market in Ventimiglia: an acre of stalls and tables selling every imaginable cheese, sausage, salami, cold-cuts of one kind or another, every imaginable vegetable and fruit too, and hams, quails and rabbits, and wines, and banks of flowers, masses of flowers--you get the idea. The most stunning market I know about. You start salivating as you go in and don't stop until, laden down, you come out the other side.
We had lunch in a restaurant on the beach, looking out at the Mediterranean, what the Romans called "our sea", very blue, very calm today, a long, lingering lunch that finished with two tiny cups each of what is to me, the best tasting coffee in the world, during which Peggy and I asked ourselves for the millionth time: why is Italian coffee so much better than everyone else's. How do they do it?
We drove back to Nice, and in the evening we took the two young women to the Nice opera for a performance of Rigoletto. Strong competent singing from people you never heard of, a Romanian, a Mexican and an Italian: Mihaella Marcu, Jesus Leon and Federico Longhi in the three principal roles. Which left me once more brooding about at the richness of singers in the world, and in awe of Verdi, of the libretist Piave too.
When we had got home, the two girls brought out for me at our midnight snack a single small square chocolate pastry which they had secretly bought, now with a lit candle stuck in it, and that was my birthday cake and they sang to me as I blew out the candle.
One of the nicest birthdays I have ever had.
How to feel like a spoiled child though now, as of yesterday, 87 years old.
We watched the French election returns come in from our apartment here in Nice. The Macron people had seemed over confident which frightened us. We distrusted the polls after what happened in the US elections. We were both very worried. Finally the numbers began to appear on the screen. I was pleased. Peggy was ebullient. She took the result as proof, she said, that: "My country is not as daft as your country." In his victory speech Macron was very sober. Every word he spoke was intelligent. We have to take care of the poor, he said. We have to fight global warming, fight racism of all kinds. There would be no talk of leaving NATO. We are part of Europe and must stay together for that way we are strong. We must fight terrorism and we must calm our fears. He used the word apaiser, which is a richer, heavier, more active--and more accurate--word than "calm." He is a brilliant speaker. French, as spoken by him, is a brilliant and elegant language. He is only 39 but he made me think of De Gaulle's speeches during the time we lived in Paris and I worked for the Times. When he had finished we had dinner on our balcony overlooking the gardens together with two of our granddaughter who are here visiting, and we toasted victory by raising our glasses of a very nice, and not a bit renowned, Bordeaux. Macron, like Bordeaux wine, may turn out to be something special. Vive la France.
Here in Nice we did our food shopping late Thanksgiving eve. Did not see a turkey anywhere. We don't know a single American here, not one. It rained hard all Thankksgiving Day, so our holiday banquet was just the two of us on our balcony overlooking the Place Mozart Gardens, the rain beating on the awning above us, the temperature 20 degrees C, dining on daurades that Peggy baked in olive oil and herbs surrounded by pieces of sweet potato and carrots with fresh green beans on the side, a gold-medal winning Cote de Provence rosé to drink, and baked apples fresh from the oven for dessert. We talked some of the good old days and what seems, looking back, our enormous multi-national circle of friends, most of whom, because of deaths, money and other problems, have now left the Riviera for good.
In the last week we have made three day trips, trying to cram as much as possible into our Niçois life before it ends. It can't last much longer, can it, at this age? Last Friday we drove down into Provence to Lorgues, which seems to me the center of the Provence wine country, found that a terrific restaurant we know there was closed, and had (by French standards) a lousy lunch elsewhere, Afterwards we drove on a few miles to the Chateau St. Julien d'Aille, which produces my favorite rosé: a place of handsome old buildings, though the facilities within represent the latest there is in winemaking, and there bought a case to take home. Provence wines, and especially its rosés used to be denigrated but today this is the up and coming wine region of France, still relatively cheap but more and more famous and prized. The rows and rows of vines all around us were deprived of their grapes six or more weeks ago but still had their leaves which were turning all kinds of colors, a kind of New England autumn, not walls and walls of color but fields and fields that sometimes looked on fire. The hillsides were mostly pines, with here and there lonely trees that had turned bright yellow.
The next day we drove 20 miles from Nice up to Luceram along the gorges, the river churning below us as the road climbed. Again the gorgeous colors, the greens and bright yellows, and very occasionally a tree that had turned red, and then the mountains closed in on us. Luceram is an old perched village. The church is high up and filled with paintings, many by Louis Brea, that date back more than 500 years. Climbing up to it, mostly on stone staircases cut into the rock, we kept stepping into gorgeous little squares with flowers on the balconies and in front of the doorways. Brea did nearly all his work In or near Nice and is therefore relatively unknown. To me he was as good as Fra Angelico or Filippo Lippi or any of those 15th century Italians.
And then on Thanksgiving Eve we drove across into Italy to Badalucco for lunch with friends at Ca Meo, a former mill, and the river below was pouring past heavier and louder than I've ever seen it. The restaurant is vaulted rooms, fireplaces burning. The usual 3 hour lunch, 12 or 15 courses, most of them based on the mushroom the Italians call porcini, and the French call seppes. A wonderful local, no-name wine to drink. And after it, the lovely drive back along the gorges and mountains and autumn colors to the coast and home.
And so it goes, life on the Cote d'Azur. There must be people who would weep with frustration reading this. Places they'll never get to. But for us it has been normal all these years. Though perhaps not for much longer, I guess.
Sue Sue: Tonight we went out for a walk in the dusk about 7:30. We walked up to the Place Magenta and sat in a cafe and Mom suggested I order a Ricard, which I did, the first in many many years. (She stuck with Evian.) The waiter put down small dishes of peanuts, potato chips, olives and saucisson and we sat and watched the people go by and felt incredibly rich to be together on the Cote d'Azur and in good shape in our mid eighties and able to be here and decide at the last minute to take this walk and stop for an aperitif like this. Between the apartment and the cafe we passed places that were big in our lives, first the building where I shared an apartment with the nude dancer and her boyfriend, (they were always out when your mother came in the afternoons) and the hotel where we spent our wedding night, and the building where your mother lived with your grandparents to be. And then walking home along the Rue Massena and the Rue de France passing the shops that used to be Charley's bar with the perfumerie along side it, and next to that the former movie theater where Prince of the City once played with my name on the posters outside (how proud your grandparents would have been if they could have seen it, relieved too, this foreign lout who had walked off with their daughter) and all this time the church where our wedding took place being a block or two down the street. All the tables were out in front of the restaurants as we walked along, the chairs all full of diners, tourists mostly I imagine, all imagining they had found paradise, and we nodded to a waiter we knew from a different restaurant long ago, and to a woman walking by whom we knew from the eye doctor's office. And we talked about all this and wondered how much longer we could continue this life, knowing that if we stayed too long you and/or you sisters would have to come over, once something happened to one or both of us, to close up the apartment and dispose of all that is in it. And we worried about the job this would be for you. We walked on home and sat on the balcony in the night and had dinner, which tonight amounted to devouring an entire runny Camembert, most of a baguette and a glass of two of a Merlot from the Languedoc, a terrific wine we had found for 3 or 4 euros, plus a beet salad, and for dessert a plum tarte your mother had made that afternoon.
No, you don't have to worry about us.
One of my readers, Ira Sandler, whom I do not know personally but who is troubled by all the recent police shootings, has written asking what solutions I might have to offer. My answer follows.
You don't ask easy questions, do you. Look, I have been out of the NYPD for forty some years, and out of the rest of it for five or ten. Behind me nothing has changed that I can see. But I would say what I have always said: cops must be taught. And the bosses must go down in the street with them to see what they are doing. Half the 40,000 different police departments in the country get almost no training at all. None of the police academies that I know about teach common good manners to the mostly blue collar types who become cops. Doing so would be a start. Watching what they do from up close would be a start also.
Weed out the obvious tough guys and racists. This also is not being done.
A few more college guys as cops would help too.
All these suggestions are old now. I made most of them myself long long ago, at a time when there was a chance my voice would be listened to. They have never been implemented. Your next question should be, why not?
Sorry, but this is the best I can do for now.
I have been writing notes like this one since last night. So many friends seemed worried about our safety. So many seemed to realize how Peggy and I were feeling, forced to watch from 4,000 miles away as someone tried to destroy the soul of a place we love. We were In America, glued to the TV, here not there, and as safe as anyone. Which these days seems to mean: not very. Terrorism is too easy and also too effective. The effect is both immediate and world wide. How long can we put up with it before retaliating viciously, stupidly, and making it worse?
We are both suffering, Peggy who was born in Nice, was a child and then a schoolgirl there. And I who became a man there. A married man of course, but really a boy who entered manhood in Nice. We live there for a time, our two oldest started school there, and we have kept an apartment there since 1973. How many times over the years have we walked past the church where we were married, the hotel where we spent our wedding night? Nice, where we buried in turn Peggy's father, mother, brother. How could anybody do this to our Nice, a place I, we have loved so much?
For those of you who may be wondering what it is like to turn 86, well, it's nothing new. A heavier number, nothing more. I do think from time to time of Stan Musial and Yogi Berra, two of the greatest athletes of all time, both of whom lived into their 90s, but in wheelchairs at the end. It is infirmity that's scary, not dying. To become one of the old guys you see who can barely make it to the corner. The ones taking the short steps. And soon after that having to be rolled anywhere you want to get to. Prison with a capital P. No sign of any of that yet, I told myself this morning as I carried two cups of breakfast coffee up the stairs to our bedroom--didn't spill a drop. Breakfast in bed for the two of us. But the signs will presumably come, and I have to keep telling myself to stop looking for them.
Went to the opera (Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots) here in Nice last night. Many surprises. Too many.
1. Security personnel at the doors. Looking embarrassed, they wanded everybody; ladies' handbags searched etc. This never happened before. Some cinemas here hold as many or more; no security at the movies as yet. The Nice Opera House holds about 1200 and was virtually full. A beautiful 19th century jewel of a House, but no air conditioning and the upholstery tatty, worn to the threads; I hope they'll put in air and new seats soon--but that's another story.
2. They updated the opera's story line, imitating or trying to imitate what the Met is doing these days. The plot is based on the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, but last night's new staging starts with the baritone and his girl friend watching on television the destruction and killing in Iraq that Isis is doing in the name of Allah. After that the modernism fell apart. At least I couldn't understand it. This was the most incoherent opera I've ever seen. It has about 19 singing parts, plus ballets, plus mob scenes. In its day (the 1830s) it was the first of the five act, four hour epics, the equivalent of the giant special effects movies of today, and became the rage of the world.
And 3. Nudity on stage. At one point four busty maidens come out, remove their bathrobes and strike poses. I was unable to fathom what this was supposed to signify, but it was very pretty. Also, for opera, a bit shocking. Admit it, I tell myself, the whole night baffled you. Yes indeed it did.