I won’t tell this story the way it happened. I will tell it the way I remember it, because that’s simply the way memories work—they depend on what we interpret and take out of them. The details that we remember or that we forget (consciously or unconsciously) become the building blocks of our memories, thus making the experiences of what we recall as our lives.
Neuroscience aside, I’ll tell this story my way mainly because as a storyteller, it would be a failure for me not to make my anecdotes worth telling. Mr. Face-in-the-Hundred-Dollar-Bill is believed to have said: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” I was determined to do precisely both during my journey, knowing that in the end it would probably be like adapting a book into a movie, for which lengthy chapters have to be crunched into 90 minutes of majestic film sequences and a bundle memorable one-liners. For my case, I would have to crunch four weeks of a chapter of the book of my life into a couple of dozen pages of bearable narrative—a task that would require some sprinkles of embellishment, one quart exaggeration, and a lot of cutting to the chase so that others can appreciate those memories as much as I hold them dear.
My story took place in southern France—Nice, to be more precise, though it didn’t quite start there. Neither did it begin in the air as I leapt across the pond of the Atlantic as a Lufthansa patron. My flight, however, was indeed a pleasant twelve-hour precursor to my French adventure, with wine and movies a la carte and luckily devoid of any dreaded sleepily drooling co-passengers.
No, my story started a bit farther northeast of the Alps—it all began in Frankfurt. While I was waiting for my connecting flight, which would deliver me to my destination for the holidays, the significance of my journey finally hit me—there I was, sitting and writing by the immense windows of the terminal, inspired by the great white infinity of the snow landscape and by the European beauty strutting by me when I glanced away from the window. Yes, there I was, for the first time in a total foreign land, far from the United States (my residence) or Mexico (my homeland) and surrounded by a foreign language and a fairly different culture. Yet, there I was, feeling strangely comfortable with my own strangeness, with being the stranger in a foreign land, hardly understanding the German spoken and written all around me, from the terminal signs to the discreet argument of the family of four rocking my row of seats beside me.
The epiphany plunged me deeper into my writing and musings, until a godly voice (it came from above, sounding remarkably similar to Morgan Freeman’s, but in German) started listing flights cancelled because of the blizzard powdering the main European airports. I felt a tingly feeling building on my lower back that I could only interpret as concern or a kidney stone–what if I got stuck in Frankfurt? All my plans in Nice would be, if not ruined, definitely challenged. I would lose my housing reservation and forfeit that money. I would then be in a financial pinch. And worst of all, I would be late for my French course.
I had to wait for the voice to switch to the English to wash my concern away: Nice was not one of the cancelled flights. In fact, the cancellations depended on the destinations: Paris and London couldn’t handle the snow. Frankfurt, on the other hand, maintained its clockwork functioning. Luckily, I had been right to plan my connections according to stereotyping. An hour later, German efficiency had me en route to Nice.
Arriving in Nice was everything but nice. The sunny weather of southern France had all been a lie. It was raining—nay, it was storming when I arrived. There was no thunder or lightning, but there was enough pouring to turn the streets into streams. Regardless of the rain, I insisted on taking a bus instead of a taxi to get to my hotel. I rationalized that, besides being cheaper (in a 60-to-1 ratio), it would afford me an opportunity to get to know the city a bit more by enjoying the scenery during the bus ride. After fumbling and mumbling in my French with the attendant at the tourist information booth, and after agreeing with her on a single spot to point at on a city map, I took the bus of line 6 (I remember that little detail), which would deliver me just a couple of blocks from my hotel.
I will never be that wise and moronic at the same time ever again. I was right that the ride would show me more of the city–street after street and block after block of charcuteries and boulangeries and boutiques and McDonald’s golden arcs and Subway signs that made me feel as though I were in an old cartoon with rolling backdrop. I was lost amidst the repetition of the scenery, unsure whether I was in Europe, the U.S., or an episode of The Twilight Zone. I was half relieved when the driver told me I had arrived at my stop forty-four minutes after riding. I was just tired of looking at stores that all seemed picturesque but generic, like bad post cards.
My adventure had just started. The bus had indeed left me at walking distance from my hotel, just a few blocks away.
Well, a few being ten blocks.
Sixty-degree incline uphill.
And it was still pouring as if God were mad at the Niçois for their sloth (which I would discover later when most stores, from supermarkets to KFCs, closed arbitrarily and randomly at the keepers’ whim even in the middle of a Monday).
So I dragged my carry-on suitcase while I checked my map to make sure that I headed the right way through the dimly lit and narrow streets of Nice (it was dark already, though not quite yet night time). Forty minutes of soaking-wetness later, at the brink of a heart attack due to the unexpected cardio-training, I arrived at my hotel: the Villa Saint-Exupery.
Oh, the irony of arriving after being lost for an hour at a place named after a guy who *erhm* got lost in the desert…
The face of the receptionist, Lucinda, was priceless—undecided between laughter, awe, pity, and fear at the figure of a guy my size wearing a drenched black fedora and black trench-coat and dragging along an Oompa-Loompa-sized suitcase.
“Wow, you’re fuming. That’s cool.” Somehow, her thick South African accent made the comment all the more complimenting.
She didn’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I was so hot due to my exercise that steam came out of my shirt through my collar. I was a metaphor, embodied.
I just requested the key to my room. She offered to guide me to it, since it was a suite that was not easy to find unless you knew the ups and downs of the villa already.
“I guess this isn’t the right time to tell you that we have a shuttle that would’ve picked you up, is it?”
I grabbed the key from her and followed her to my room.
It took three days for the rain to subside enough to make exploring the town something desirable. My first stop, of course, was the famous Promenade des Anglais, the English promenade along the beachfront of “old Nice.”
I sat down at a bench, ready to take in the view and inspiration of the Mediterranean Sea. The soft lighting of the sun on that Sunday morning, along with the serene swaying of the waves and the watering sounds crashing on the sand made it all one of the most relaxing and overwhelming sights and sensations I’ve ever experienced. For me at least, that landscape painted in sky blue blended with golden-sparkling aquamarine represented more than just a sea or a wallpaper-worthy picture—it represented the inspiration of artists past, a legacy of art and inspiration if you may.
That was the same sea that saw Hemingway and Fitzgerald write their literary masterpieces. Those were the same waves and sunshine that had inspired the brushes and palettes of Matisse and Picasso. That was the sea and sand of Fellini’s films, which would make St. Tropez, Cannes, and the beaches of Italy mythical places of impossible romances and artistic musings. It was the same Nice where Grace Kelly met the love of her life, her charming prince, during the filming of Hitchcock’s classic To Catch a Thief, becoming a true Princess, the head of Monaco’s royalty—a fairy tale realized.
And then, there I was, letting my pen bleed as my thoughts poured out onto the page of my Moleskine notebook (yet another emulation of those figures on my part). I watched the waves, listening to their natural music, and wrote my morning away.
The peace of the morning promenade soon became the rush of midday crowds composed by eager runners, awed tourists, and the weirdest and most prolific mix of hot, sluttily-dressed, under-thirty Russian women clinging to the wrinkly (or wobbly, depending on fatness) arms of their daddy substitutes. I grinned as I saw the women trying not to trip with their six-inch stilettos and the guys doing their best not to croak from a heart attack every time their eyes met the mounting greatness of their fleshy female companions.
That was my cue to go for some fuel for me, (a.k.a. coffee or wine, depending on the time of the day). Since it was still early in the day, propriety called for coffee.
Following the advice of one of my tourist guides (which I’d like to think made me a bit less clueless than the other tourists), I ended up at a small cafe by the promenade, right behind where I had been sitting. It was described as “the best people-watching spot in all of Nice.”
That was true. Sitting facing the sidewalk rather than the beach made a difference. That café was an excellent scouting spot to appreciate the totality of the crowd passing by, and I got to practice some French with the couple of waiters on that shift.
Unfortunately, that place made me miss Starbucks like never before (and in the process, feel like a consumerist drone and an overall jackass for longing for Starbucks in a land of artisan coffee). The brew, supposedly Americain, was really French roast—Joan of Arc type of roast. It expressly wasn’t espresso, and yet they served it in a petite espresso cup as big as a Smurf hat–refills not included, mind you. And that whole Nicoise delicatessen cost only six euros plus tip—just triple the price of a regular venti!
I left as soon as I finished the burnt remnants of my coffee.
I had learned my lesson. The next thing I did before sunset was find a café that would become my regular hang out for the rest of my stay for a good reason: the Italians who ran it not only liked talking to me in both French and Italian but also knew the crucial differences between espresso and cappuccinoduring the day and knew well how to mix cocktails at night. My vices and my writing had found their saviors.
Even if it seemed to be, writing was neither the main nor the original purpose of my journey—I had gone to France to practice my French, pure and simple. I even took classes Tuesday through Friday from nine thirty to two in the afternoon, all four weeks that I spent there. In my crooked little mind, that would be enough coursework and immersion to brush the rust and cobwebs off my French-speaking skills.
Little did I know that I should’ve chosen Paris if I wanted to do that, where the infamous residents would be patriotically mean to me by parlant francais seulement. Then my immersion would’ve been actual immersion and I could’ve practiced my French easily.
But no, I had chosen Nice. The allure of the Mediterranean and the promise of vineyards, hills, and beach locales were too appealing—and deceiving.
Voilá! People in Nice made practicing my French a hard, almost impossible task, by being too nice. The nice people of Nice rapidly got on my nerves. Unlike the Parisiens, the Niçois don’t hate foreigners—they even go beyond the call of duty to help lost and clueless tourists, which basically means that they will speak English to you at the slightest provocation. Time and again I found myself defeated at the challenge of having to speak French as naturally as possible and facing the courtesy of the locals switching to English for my sake.
“Je voudrais une café, si vous plaît…”
” Je pense que…”
” Je suis Mexicain, mais je vien des Etats Unis…”
I would scramble, mumble, and fumble such phrases, taking my time to think them through to make sure to make only the right mistakes. I would then get the replies I deserved.
“One coffee coming up.”
“Oh, cool! ¿Así que sabes español?”
Perfect English. Every time. With bouts of Spanish and occasional Italian.
But at least I was in France, drinking French wine and eating French cheeses with French bread to my delight. Who cared if my French-language mission was failing, right?
Well, I did. I wanted to feel more immersed in France and less like a tourist.
At least I had my classes.
The villa was another French-free zone for the most part. It would be better named “the Shire.” Actually, I think it might have been an official protectorate of the United Kingdom and a member of the Commonwealth, considering that almost the entirety of the staff (not just Lucinda) and quite a few of the long-term guests came from the British Isles or the former colonies. Meeting them was a refreshing lesson in geography that has stuck with me.
It was comforting to have that sort of English-speaking refuge, even though that meant picking up of a weird accent, a mix of east Bristolian and outback Australian (which I had to shake off upon my return to the U.S. per my friends’ suggestion; otherwise they would happen to forget to pick me up from the airport for longer than my packed clean laundry would allow).
But I digress. One of the highlights of my journey was befriending several of the staff members, with whom I interacted on a daily basis. I met almost the whole staff my second night at the villa, when I chose to push myself to my most productive at the bar during happy hour. As I scribbled furiously with my fountain pen in-between cocktail sips, the bartender, Scotland, snooped discreetly upon my deeds while feigning to fix her makeup.
“I’m a writer.”
“Wicked. What are you writing?”
The next revelation was that happy hour also served as break/dinner time for all of the staff. I learned this because everyone joined me, swarming the bar at Scotland’s call, intrigued and excited about my writing. I had not experienced that kind of groupie-like attention in quite a while. Nonetheless, it was invigorating and, in a way, reassuring.
“You should name one of your characters Sophie. It means ‘knowledge’ or something in Greek, Latin, or one of those old languages, you know,” suggested Perth, one of the regular designated drivers of the villa’s shuttles who complained too often about having to dress like a 13-year-old boy despite nearing her thirties.
“Yes, it does. That’s why philo-Sophie means ‘love of wisdom’ in Greek.”
“You have to be a writer to know that.”
That was the first of several conversations Perth and I would have, usually held during the happy hour or when she drove me to and from the tram that connected the villa to downtown Nice.
I would also have more conversations with Scotland, in which we would discuss war movies and the possibility of my writing a movie about the adventures of a hot and witty bartender at a high-class hotel, to be played by Olivia Wilde or Emma Watson.
I also had memorable conversation with Sydney, a recent college grad who decided to make Nice the longest (almost permanent) stop of her post-graduation back-packing trip through Europe; with Hungary, a tourism major who was finishing her practical training in order to get her degree; with Melbourne, the excellent globetrotting chef who had landed at the villa for a few months to pause his journey around the world; with Wales, another tourism administration major doing her internship; and with Canada, a comedian wannabe and consummate Casanova.
What drew me to continue having those conversations was that I realized what linked them all, aside from the language with accents—they were all in Nice looking to find themselves. They had wandered, one way or another, into the city, into the villa, trying to find or redefine a purpose or meaning for life. They had quit jobs, left family behind, deserted friends, or chosen to take a break from school in order to do it. They intended to find themselves and a new significance for their lives by going away from home and away from their lives.
How poetic, ironic, and self-revelatory.
And so worth writing about.
The rain never quite stopped during my time in Nice, and of course neither did my writing. However, I needed to spice up my writing by taking refuge from the downpour in more venues than just my one trustworthy café—so I tried the many galleries and contemporary art museums around Nice.
I can say that I tried them all, disliked most, and truly despised a few. I love art and support creative freedom for the sake of art, but the pieces populating the museums and galleries were too contemporary for my taste. I tend to judge contemporary art with a simple criterion: would I have a certain piece as decoration in my living room? That just wouldn’t be the case for many of the exhibits, especially for the main attraction at Nice’s Museum of Modern Contemporary Art—I wouldn’t have a collection of life-size and person-size Smurf-blue manhood replicas as centerpieces of my living room.
The failure of the museums and galleries to inspire me gave me the idea of relocating, at least for a day in the name of inspiration. Since I was in southern France, my choice seemed easy and destined-to-be—off I went to Cannes.
I took a train to the neighboring beach town one of the few days on which the clouds restrained themselves from wetting my plans. Traveling by train, also, was one of the experiences I wanted to accomplish during my time in Europe, so going to Cannes would have the double-goal of scratching that off my list and finding some inspiration.
Arriving in Cannes, the European capital of filmmaking and home of the most prestigious film festival in the world, where film stars and legends have strutted for more than sixty years, was, to put succinctly and simply—underwhelming.
During the festival, Cannes must buzz with the energy of film-enthusiast attendees, the genius of filmmakers, the dazzle of celebrities, and the glamour of film. But the rest of the year, the town is all glamour and no film. Actually, pure pseudo-glamour, the type that means that a soda can at a sandwich place, not even a jacket-required restaurant, costs more than an entire week’s meal budget. The beach was beautiful, even more inspiring than Nice’s, but the promenade as a whole package disappointed me: it was like unfolding Dallas’s North Park Center mall by the beach, thus adorning it only with pricey, brand-name retail stores and faux-fancy restaurants.
In the end, what I expected to be a full, grand day of writing at Cannes became a humble tourist visit in which I got my obligatory keychain souvenir, took pictures of the star walk (and imprints of stars at the promenade), and rushed back to Nice before the rain or my need for food could catch up with me.
Spending the holiday season by myself was a wholly different experience for me, breaking a decades-old family tradition in which everyone, all three living generations, would gather in my hometown for the December holidays. It’s a tradition not only because even extended family is close and that’s the Mexican thing to do for Christmas, but also (and most importantly) because it’s a season of birthdays, including my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my own, which means that there’s a reason to celebrate about every six days.
So Christmas Eve (the day/night of celebration in Mexican culture of Thanksgiving proportions) felt a bit weird. I spent it in solitude, thinking, writing, watching TV shows and artistic-yet-inappropriate European films on my computer, and waiting for the right hour (I hadn’t considered the time zone difference until then) to connect with my family via the web.
AJ phone home.
New Year’s was a completely different story. I went to the dinner party hosted at the villa, mostly encouraged by my staff friends. There I met New Zealand, a young seafarer who was on vacation; California, a recently-graduated psychologist who had almost walked into a questionable establishment in downtown Nice under the impression that she would get a special massage while watching a special movie; and the Norways, an awesome couple (an actress and an oil-rig submarine operator) who taught me that Norway was Canada (laid-back, wilderness-loving, and super-horny people), Sweden was the U.S. (richer, slightly uptight and kind of conservative), and Denmark was Mexico (the hard-working-but-hard-partying and cheaper alternative) when it came to the dynamics of northern Europe. I also met—well, not met but noticed (to be precise)—Rome and Ventimiglia, the most stereotypical Italians possible with their loudness and lewd moves to woo California into their salaciousness. For a lonely person among a group of strange people, they were a great gang (along with my staff friends) with whom to receive 2011 in high spirits to the rhythm of Shakira’s “Waka Waka.”
I remember that night candidly for what happened after the dinner party. Night creature that I am, when the party crowd dissolved at 2:00 AM I was not yet ready to surrender to Orpheus’s spell, so I retreated to my room to comply with my personal tradition of watching A Good Year (a story set in southern France about wine and enjoying life, nonetheless) as my first movie of a new year. However, my room that night (and that night only) was one of the hostel rooms due to booking conflicts (which my staff friends corrected after January 2nd, giving me the room with the best panoramic view), which obviously meant that I was sharing the place with at least a handful of other people. While I was watching the movie on my tablet, with dim lights on and a noticeable glow on my face as I sat on my lower-level bunk bed, one Italian guy stumbled into the room, reeking of New Year’s celebration and finding his way to the top bunk above New Zealand. A few minutes later, a second Italian celebrator arrived in worse condition than the first and took the bed above me. Upon hearing the arrival, the first Italian jumped off his bunk (I still question how he managed to land on his feet Olympic-gymnastics-style considering his condition) and approached the guy at my bunk.
“Hey, man. Did you get any?”
Their Italian whispering was just low enough to override the dialogue of my movie through my headphones.
“No, I didn’t. Did you?”
At this point, I had paused my movie and transferred my full attention to them, determined to practice my Italian by ear.
“Then—should we do what we had agreed?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Well, do you really want to start the new year like this?”
“Not really. But there are people sleeping.”
“We’ll be really quiet.”
I didn’t know if that was a challenge, a statement, or just plain sarcasm, considering their whispering.
The top occupant hadn’t even finished the word when the other guy had jumped to join him. Then a quake of nine point six in the rectal scale struck my whole bunk, accompanied by noises that I hadn’t heard since my visit to a slaughterhouse when I was in elementary school. I considered rushing for the doorframe as instructed in cases of emergency, but the idea of shrapnel kept me at my post. Luckily, five minutes later the disaster was over. Each of the Italians fell to sleep in their respective places, ready for whatever the rest of 2011 had in store for them.
I, for my part, resumed my movie-watching, prepping to have a good year of my own.
As much as Nice (and southern France, really) affected me in an inspirational sense regarding my musings and writing, in retrospect I can claim that people were the biggest, longest-lasting influence of my trip—especially a group of my classmates from my intensive French course.
They were a bundle of friends that fate gave me as birthday present: we met the day before my birthday during a tour that was part of the course, and we became friends that night as we celebrated my birthday at midnight at the only bar in Nice that opened on Mondays. The group was comprised of Deutschland, an all-too-German aristocrat from Hamburg; Colombia, the college-bound youngling that would beg me from time to time to talk to her in Spanish (and perhaps to dance a little salsa too) for sanity’s sake; Norway Mary, who needed to learn French in Nice before she went to Paris to finish her bachelor’s; and a gang of about 20 Brazilians, from different backgrounds, who had all magically ended up at the same school in Nice without planning or correlation. However, that night only a handful of the Brazilian pack had joined us. In fact, two of them had masterminded the night: Renatta, who had been in town for almost as long as I had (2 weeks), took care of finding an open venue in the slothful town; and Milena, who had insisted on making a celebration out of my birthday after finding out about it amidst our conversations about life philosophies, traveling, movies, and her uncanny resemblance to a certain Hollywood goddess.
We all talked in English to each other, mind you. Even when a few of us shared class level at the school, no one felt confident or comfortable enough to make French our lingua franca. Besides, the Brazilians spoke in Portuguese among themselves, and sometimes with me too, since I could understand quite a bit thanks to my Spanish, my Italian, and some Portuguese knowledge that had rubbed off me as an offshoot of my football soccer fandom—I would just contribute to the conversation in English. As a result of those friendships, I might have learned, at least when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, way more Portuguese than French.
The biggest life lesson I received from my Nice friends, however, was to dance. I had been reluctant my whole life to give in to dancing. My whole life. Not even because I’m Mexican and dancing’s supposed to be part of the Latin flavor. No. I could always appreciate and discern what was good or bad dancing, but I would never be the one doing it.
But that night, half-inspired, half-peer-pressured by my Latin American brethren, I danced. I danced for my birthday. And then I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped since, really.
It was like they had awakened my inner animal, which happened to be a dancing penguin with the gracefulness of the ballet hippos in Fantasia. And I was fine with that. Suddenly, all my reservations and dislike for dancing had vanished, thanks to the Brazilians and the replaying at the bar of my treasured Shakira’s tunes and Enrique Iglesias’s sultry songs.
That night, the dawn of my birthday, and the night after, became carnivals…
And I liked it.
My last adventure in southern France happened two days before my departure. Milena persuaded me to join her and a couple of other Brazilians on a trip to Eze, a small village 20 minutes away from Nice, basically at the border between France and Monaco.
I had heard that Eze was charming, donning all the makings of a European summer paradise, including a centennial castle and breath-taking views from the mountaintops and its golden beach. Yet, I wanted to spend that day at a casino (a visit I had restrained myself from doing until I had too little time to make it a habit of my trip).
Once there, I couldn’t thank Milena enough for dragging me along. Eze lived up to its reputation, and even more—it was not only a beautiful place with an inspiring aura of the past, but it also happened to be the inspirational grounds of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favorite authors and a source of life guidance (as twisted and nihilistic as that may sound, I say so with full pride and assertion). The downhill hike that my friends and I traversed that day had been named the Nietzsche Trail in honor of the historical figure who had walked it countless times in the late 1800s as he wrote his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I could see in Eze most of the scenery mentioned in that book, as well as material examples of its allegories of climbing heights towards the sun, falling down to the valley, and staring into the abyss. For me, it was like a live philosophical tour. On top of that, I had my own philosophical dithyrambs to write too then, inspired by the idea that I was being inspired by the same majestic landscape that had prompted Nietzsche’s work.
And I had (still have) Milena to thank for embroiling me into going in that quick trip despite my better reasoning at the time.
My return to the United States was more eventful but less meaningful than my original trip to the Old Continent.
I had to run like a fugitive from Spanish Inquisition through the Frankfurt airport in order to catch my connecting flight to Chicago, precisely because customs personnel had stopped me for a little too long at the security checkpoint, interrogating me why I had so many electronic writing and communication devices (two cellphones, a tablet, an iPod, and a laptop) if I was just a writer.
In Chicago, I had to find my way around the O’Hare airport, after having an amenable 5 minute conversation with my customs officer about NPR after he read on my file that I had worked for them, all while worrying that an upcoming snowstorm might ruin my plans to reach Dallas that same night.
Despite all the challenges and racing against time, I arrived to DFW airport as scheduled. I only had to wait for my arranged friendly pick-up before I could consider myself back at home.
As I stood on the sidewalk of Terminal B waiting for my friend to come get me, I started to ponder all the things I had learned, all that I had accomplished during my time in Nice: if I had truly improved my French, if I had written enough, if I had spent or invested my time wisely…
I also wondered how much that journey might have changed me. After all, all journeys are supposed to reveal an unexplored part of us or make us evolve in some fashion.
I put on some music on my iPod while I mused over those things. Soon I found myself reacting against character. I wasn’t just tapping my foot, I was moving my hips, swinging my arms, and flowing with the rhythm—I was dancing by myself, the music only for my ears, in the middle of the solitary passenger-pick-up zone of DFW at almost midnight.
I was dancing because I had music in my life, and my inner animal had to dance, just as it had since the night of my birthday in Nice.
I guess wandering away can lead to inner discovery upon return.
March 10, 2011.
Richardson, Texas, U.S.A.