I am not here because I am finishing my book. Normal service will be resumed shortly…….
Last Tuesday morning I drew back our bedroom curtains and watched bleary-eyed as the summer wind sent plastic bottles, newspapers and Dominos pizza cartons swirling into my neighbour’s gardens. Cursing the litter louts who had blighted the Avenue, I turned to my slumbering beloved and said,
“Sarah, what’s with all the rubbish outside? Should I ring the council?”
From under the duvet came the muffled reply, “What day is it?”
My Dearly Beloved suddenly sprang from the matrimonial divan and stood frozen on our 80% wool twist, deep in thought.
“Yesterday was a bank holiday…Tom, is Mrs Murphy on her front? ”
The look of horror on Sarah’s face said it all. Clasping our hands to our faces, we both screamed together –
Time was of the absolute essence.
“Tom, what are you doing ?”
“I’m er, looking for my other sock.”
“Never mind socks, just go down as you are! There isn’t time !”
“In my jim jams? Why can’t I get dressed?”
“Because… you are a man, you don’t care what people think. Now go! And don’t wake your little Nephew.”
Heartened that my sartorial insouciance gave me licence to roam the streets half-naked, I leapt quietly down the stairs, through the kitchen and out onto the patio where lay the dreaded recycling receptacles. Dropping the waste food bin (eugh) onto the cardboard bin, I stuck the one for plastic bottles under my arm and ran towards the front door.
I made it just in time to see the pink recycle lorry meandering away down The Avenue. Oh well, maybe we could just wait until next week? A bang from the window above told me that I’d better get a move on.
Along the road I limped, hitching the boxes up onto my shoulders as bottles and tins clattered down around me.
“Mr Hughes? You’ve dropped something!”
Mrs Murphy, aggressively sweeping her designated part of the pavement shook her head as I staggered on, cursing my burden of domestic detritus.
Up ahead a swarm of tattooed bin men swung plastic boxes in and out of the open-sided van. Eventually, I caught up with the happy band of council employees at the end of The Avenue. Triumphantly, I dropped my containers at one of the Recycle Operative’s feet. Ignoring me completely, he joined up with his pals as the lorry trundled out of my road. And there I remained, standing in my pyjamas, on the corner of The Avenue and Harrington Drive, smelling of stale milk.
Undeterred I pressed on, managing to barge my way past the lorry to dump my bins at the feet of a tattooed Hell’s Angel in a hi-viz vest.
“Can you empty my bins, please?”
Giant Haystack’s surly half-brother gave me a stare and then with his massive paw began lifting up my receptacles. Thank goodness for that, now I could end this nightmare, go home and tweezer the gravel out of my feet. Wrong!
The black bin crashed an inch away from my foot, un-emptied.
“What’s the matter?”
“There’s a tin can in your cardboard box bin.”
“Did you know that in China, a new coal-fired power station comes online every six months, so I don’t think one tin – ”
“Sorry sir, I can’t take your bin now, I’ve put a sticker on it.”
I looked down. On the side of the container was now stuck a bright yellow note – incorrectly packed bin. Giant Haystacks shrugged his shoulders as he and his lorry rolled down Harrington
The sky darkened, commuters stared. There was nothing left for it. The walk of shame awaited. I carried my still-full bins back home.
Mrs Murphy shook her head as Sarah opened the door, took one look at my burden, then turned on her heel and went back inside. We didn’t speak until lunch.
Billy, my little nephew, was sat at the kitchen table mashing his eggy soldiers as I shuffled mournfully towards the patio.
“Uncle Tom, when I grow up I want to be a bin man.”
“Why on earth would you want to be a bin man?”
“Well, you get to wear a cool hi-viz jacket, you get a good pension, and you only have to work one day a week….”
And so after dinner at The Windsor hotel we strolled for the last time along the Promenade des Anglais towards the venue of our final night in Nice – the Casino Ruhl.
Sarah, excited to be stepping foot inside a gambling house for the first time, examined my denims.
“Tom, do you think you’re dressed appropriately? Don’t you need a tie at least?”
“As long as I’m not naked and I have some cash, they’ll let me in, don’t worry.”
If the gaudy lights and red carpet outside the Casino Ruhl were an attempt at sophistication and glamour, they failed. The Casino’s facade was tack, brash, at odds with the rest of the City. It was as though, half apologetically, the casino was trying to ape its natural counterparts in Las Vegas. Up close, the red carpet and decorations had a tired, end of the pier look, as though the casino was saying, ok we know the whole thing is seedy, but come in any way and hand over your money.
At the kiosk we showed our passports ( a sop to money laundering) and headed to the bar.
My first surprise was the cost of the drinks. Not only were they not free (ok I’m no high roller) – they were eye-wateringly expensive.
We sauntered past the slot machines – big heavy-duty machines each with their own leather chair bolted to the floor – and headed for the tables for a game of 21.
I slipped into a seat next to a leathery looking man in his sixties. The croupier wordlessly slipped him two cards. Lifting the corners, he glanced at their value and tossed a couple of chips at the dealer. A sour faced woman in her early thirties, dressed entirely in black, she wordlessly tidied his stake and awaited instructions.
With a micro tap of his index finger the man requested another card. The croupier snapped a card on top of the existing hand, this time face up. A pause, then with a tiny shake of the head he indicated that he was happy with his position. The croupier then turned over her own two cards. A Jack and a two. Without hesitating she slipped a third card from her shoe and snapped it perfectly on-top of her existing pair. Seven of hearts. So to beat the house our friend with the grey slicked back hair and gnarled fingers needed twenty or twenty-one. He flung his hand away and cursed under his breath while the croupier scooped the chips into a round little hole to her left, a hopper containing the broken dreams of a thousand gamblers.
The next hand began. Now as well as the two cards dealt to my friend on my right, I was given my own pair. Mimicking the pro, I lifted the corners. An ace and a three! Immediately I panicked, whenever I played pontoon at home on the carpet in front of the fire with my older brother (the last time I’d actually played the game) an Ace had the twin values of either eleven or one. The embarrassment of ploughing on with card after card when I was already bust was terrifying. What should I do? Sarah, toying with her hair and looking around to see if anyone had noticed that she was hanging round with the Cincinnati Kid, waited for my shrewd gambling decision. I nodded for another card. The croupier turned over a three. So now I had seventeen (or possibly seven).
I decided to stick, as did my fellow player. The croupier flipped over her hand – a five and a ten. She flipped over another – a nine. She was bust! My ten euros were now twenty! I was a winner, I was a success! I turned to my comrade in arms, hoping for a high-five of victory, but he didn’t look up, instead he growled the same curse that he had uttered when he lost the previous hand.
Flushed with success I decided to transfer my fantastic winning streak to the roulette table. This time the table was surrounded by punters. We bought twenty Euros of single white chips and played red or black. At one point I had doubled my money. My head told me to walk away. But of course I didn’t. Six minute later I was five euros down. We decided to play on the numbers part of the baize. Casually, I threw a chip onto number 33, I reckoned that one last throw might bring us a jackpot.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, assuming that I knew what I was doing. The croupier, a young man with a thick-set forehead and sallow cheeks watched me place my bet, then disdainfully throwing my stake back at me!
Sarah whispered, “Why is he doing that?”
To which I replied. “I’ve got no fucking idea.”
Obviously there was some unknown gambling protocol that I had failed to adhere to.
Realising that really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we decided to people watch.
The pontoon guy had sauntered over to the roulette table. He was doing his same stern-faced curse at the result of every spin. Then I spotted a very glamorous lady playing the wheel.
Around forty, she wore an expensive, multi coloured blouse and white designer jeans. I deferred to Sarah for an estimation of the quality. She confirmed that they were very expensive clothes. Then the ice. She wore three diamond rings, the most impressive of which was on her engagement finger, a luminescent stone with an internal fire that shone even in the subdued lighting of the casino. Wearing the same surly look as my pontoon friend, she peeled off one €50 note after another from an ever reducing wad as she gambled bigger and bigger. The croupier relieved her of her money by placing it over a slot in the table and pushing it down with a clear plastic cleaver, consigning the note to its fate with a sharp snap of his wrist.
After a while Sarah whispered to me, “Theres something about this place I don’t like. What is it?”
“It’s obvious. Have you noticed something ? Nobody talks and everybody looks so serious? There’s one simple explanation. We are on a room full of addicts.”
Sarah looked around. Of course, that’s why everyone looked so miserable, they were all feeding an addiction. That’s why victory and defeat were greeted in the same desperate, slightly aggressive manner – they didn’t care if they won or lost, they just wanted the buzz of the bet.
We left shortly afterwards, breathing in the cool fresh air of the Mediterranean that crashed up onto the pebbles on the other side of the road.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of mopeds buzzing along the streets below. Opening the white shutters I stood for a moment to consider early morning Nice.
Bread vans, stylish ladies in rain macs, cafés taking their first customers of the day. A busy town, but not Manchester or Liverpool busy (endless car jams, miserable crammed busses) rather bustling thoroughfares mainly – like Italy – revolving around food and cafés. Everything is centred around the commercial concerns of eating and drinking.
We ventured into the vieux ville, the oldest quarter of Nice. Terracotta and orange buildings jammed along old narrow streets, most of the shops selling in one way or another things to do with the consumption of food and wine.
The local delicacy is Socca – a pancake served with coffee or, if it’s not too early (for a weary English palate at least) wine.
We wandered down the alleys, weaving in and out of the queues for Socca and other local delights. Then it struck me – where were the supermarkets? Where were the fast food outlets? The Tesco Expresses ? The Mc Donald’s ? (I think one British chain tried to expand into France and were given short shrift) There were big stores out of town (Carrefour) but they don’t get a look-in in Nice town centre. At the edges of the old town we sat at one of the many cafés that borders one of the many squares in Nice. Then a busker arrived. I like buskers – not the annoying sponsored musos that stand on corporate logos in London tube stations- I prefer the impromptu, talented performers that invite you to appreciate their talent.
That morning, Nice didn’t disappoint. Instead of a bearded student strumming a badly tuned guitar we got an opera singer, with her own accompaniment ! She belted out O Ma Babbina Caro , seemingly indifferent to the occasional clink of cents into her cup.
After our restorative cappuccino we wandered off to the largest open space in Nice, the Place Massena. A vast open area bordered by pink civic buildings with a long double tram line bisecting the open civic space.
By this time it was near enough to lunch as to make no difference, so we decided on a light repast (how I never came back the size of De Nero’s corpulent Jake la Motta I don’t know).
I plumped for a salad together with a slug of the house white. A word to the wise, don’t bother getting anything but the house grog in Nice – it’s always vastly superior to any screw top bottle of vinegar peddled by Supermarkets back home. The wine in Nice is invariably clean, rounded, with fragrant bouquets (that’s enough wine wanking. Ed.) and is invariably a perfect accompaniments to most dishes.
After our lunch we chanced upon some more street performers. This time it was a group of lads throwing themselves up in the air propelled by what seemed to be secret spring hidden under the stone slabs.
Perfectly in synch and full of youthful exuberance, I was reluctant to dawdle lest Sarah spent too long comparing these boys abs to my own poor excuse for a wall of iron, but captivated as we were by the athleticism and joy de vivre of the performance, we dawdled a few moments longer.
Our final experience of impromptu street theatre was back on the Promenade de Anglais, where roller bladers slalomed up and down the walkway.
The train ride along the Riviera coast is one of the most beautiful in the world. Hugging the very edge of France, the route forces you to look out to sea and then down at the surf breaking on the light grey rocks below.
Fauna of all types and varieties skim past, as do many hues of blue – the sky, the sea and the flowers – a riot of colour and gorgeousness. Of course, more interesting than the vista outside are the passengers, forced to endure this quotidian exposure to paradise as they commute to work.
The stick-thin hotel maid nursing her chubby baby, the fat businessman clutching his battered briefcase, the ground- worker; his ochre, Auden-lined face glumly staring at the scratched gun metal bulwark of the carriage, whilst to his right Nirvana flashes by. No matter, it will still be there tomorrow for him to ignore all over again.
The gaggle of young italian students – backpacks, sunglasses, bright orange skinny jeans; all falling over themselves to chatter the loudest. One buck-toothed ingenue stares up at the line of stops, simultaneously gossiping with a friend whilst tugging at the shirt of another as she realises that they have missed their station. As the cacophony of their voices rattle along, the realisation that they have overshot their target is firstly met with carefree indifference, then nervous hilarity (hands over mouths in mock horror) followed by mock scolding, until finally hugs of instinctive, platonic affection spread amongst the group.
They all stream out at the next platform, their volume fading as they exit the carriage, accompanied by the ground worker with the sun-ravaged face, who does that universal pause/push-past that commuters do when negotiating infernal, dawdling tourists.
Finally, the long TGV train pulls into Ventimiglia Italy. If pristine Monte Carlo is for millionaires, then Ventimiglia is for ordinary normal Italians. Down at heel, tatty and unkempt, Ventimiglia feels relaxed, at ease with itself. We took a stroll down one of the roads. I began to wonder if I was an Italian and I didn’t own a cafe or restaurant or a little fashion shop, what on earth would I do? Food and clothes. There didn’t seem to be anything else to sell or do in this sleepy coastal town.
We strolled down to the scruffy beach, the dust from the pebbles throwing a haze into the late afternoon sun.
Then I saw some nuns skimming stones. Dressed in black habits with a white band above the head, they stood in the early evening sun laughing and joking.
The elder nuns took photographs as their postulant charges skimmed pebbles across the waves.
After the excesses of Monte Carlo, the contrast between the two communities could not have been greater. What must it be like to eschew material possessions, have no money, no love or physical contact with the opposite sex? But then I stopped thinking about my first marriage and went back to contemplating the nuns.
Dusk began to fall and so we headed back to the train station, said goodbye to Italy and sped towards Nice. The next day would be our final 24 hours on the Riviera.
To access the principality of Monte Carlo from the train station involves a two hundred meter walk through a tunnel clad entirely in Italian marble. It’s as though the intimidation of wealth begins before you turn a corner.
What strikes you first is the paucity of civil infrastructure, i.e. hospitals or schools or council buildings – I didn’t spot one. The only structures that Monte Carlo has room for are apartments. Squeezed around the marina or up on the hills, hundreds of little boxes all crammed together, bunched up in their desperation to avoid unpleasant things like common people, society and worst of all – taxes.
There is actually a hospital in Monaco, The Princess Grace. Boasting a generous 120 beds, this particular infirmary specialises in free medical care for the poor, the disenfranchised and the terminally ill. Don’t believe me? Ok, you’re right, it doesn’t do any such thing. Anyway, let’s not concern ourselves with people who are sick, let’s go and have a gawp at the boats instead.
I once took a trip on a motor yacht. A friend of a friend hired one to show off to his mates. I remember the excitement as we cruised out of the bay and headed out onto the open sea. We marvelled at deep blue of the Med and the fresh bracing air.
After about half an hour I was of course, bored to death. The endless chugging along to nowhere in particular, the faint sickly stench of diesel fuel and the nausea of the rolling swell made for a tedious, ultimately pointless trip. Don’t get me wrong, the teak poop deck (or whatever it’s called) was very nice and the chandelier was pretty, and they don’t call them gin palaces for nothing. But if you want to get pissed and talk shit it’s easier and cheaper to stroll down to your nearest Yate’s Wine Lodge.
So the demographic of the boat owners in Monaco is Oil-rich Arabs, go-getting Captains of Industry desperate to preserve their hard-earned wealth and eighties pop stars. If you are one of those types, Monte Carlo is the place for you.
We decided to have a relaxing lunch quayside. Sarah perused the menus of the various eateries located around the marina.
“How about this one dear?” I asked.
“Hmm, it’s a bit pricey. And the one next door is too.”
“Sarah darling, we are in Monte Carlo, they’re all pricey.”
And so we settled down to a plate of pasta, a glass of grog and watched the world go by. The boats themselves were all a hive of activity, cleaners, chefs, people wearing deck shoes, stern oriental types dressed in white, tanned gorgeous people sporting ray bans, all scurrying up and down gang planks looking busy and serious.
The only thing missing were the owners. They are probably as disinterested in sailing as me, it’s just that they bought one because, well, they just can.
And if tedium takes hold, they could always go to the Casino to throw their money away.
After lunch it was time to jump back on the train and journey over the border to Italy.
It was then, just before we left, that I met one- an owner that is. Deciding to take one last stroll down the dockside, we paused in front of a particularly large specimen. A sleek beauty, gleaming in white and chrome, becalmed in its bay with the sparkle of the sea reflecting on its pristine hull; she was indeed an impressive craft. I stopped next to a squat little man with slicked back silver hair and the usual deep perma tan worn mainly by the super rich and hoboes.
His teeth – white as the boat he was stood next to gleamed at me as he smiled his “Please ask me if this is my boat” smile.
Too impatient to wait for my inquiry, he announced in a grating Texan drawl, “She’s a beauty, huh?”
I turned to him and smiled back.
“She certainly is, is it yours?”
The little fat man seemed to grow an inch as he replied, “You betcha buddy.”
“Yes it’s very nice, there’s only one thing wrong with it old chap.”
The American’s face fell as he spun round to scan the haunches of his pride and joy for blemishes.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Well it’s just that White is the wrong colour, if it was mine, I’d have painted it blue.”
And so we left the little chap steaming on the quay, as we bid adieu to the ostentatious excess of Monaco and made our way to Italy.
What differentiates Britain from Europe? Is it the culture? The climate? The conversation? Possibly. Here’s one – passport control. After your trip to sunnier, more pleasant climes, compare the stress of re-gaining entry back into Blighty with strolling into France, Spain, Greece or Italy?
We joined the queue at Nice airport with our IDs open at head height like a pair of wannabe Special Branch cops about to barge into a Drug Baron’s mansion. We approached the booth, in which sat an unshaved swarthy looking policeman slouched at his tiny desk wearing a powder blue short sleeved shirt. Gold epaulettes signified his status as a lawman (the other giveaway being the granite like shine of his Beretta connected to his belt by a curly wire). After a few seconds in the swiftly moving line-up, it was our turn to gain entry to his homeland, La Belle France. Sarah whipped off my cap,
“He can’t see your face properly, he might think you’re a terrorist.”
“What, in these shorts?”
Cap doffed, I prepared for entry. The guard looked up at me while his head remained absolutely still. He glanced at my passport for a tenth of a second, glanced at my face for another tenth, then indicated that I had passed all the stringent, post 9/11 security measures by grunting and lifting his left eyebrow.
That was it, we were in.
Travelling light with our little suitcases on wheels, we made for the automatic doors and the familiar waft of exhaled cigarette smoke from the taxi rank outside.
It was time to practice my pidgin French.
“Nous sommes en vacance et nous voudrons aux Hotel Windsor?”
The driver nodded, then replied in his superfast indecipherable mother tongue.
“Tom, just show him the voucher with the hotel’s name on and let’s just get there, please.”
Our driver nodded and eased his brand new Mercedes into the traffic.
The short journey to the centre of nice is negotiated along a four mile stretch of the Promenade des Anglais, a road typified by the palm trees that line the central reservation. We were in fast-moving nose to tail traffic as the broad sweep of the Nice sea front came into view. I let down the window, allowing the noise of the city and smell of the sea into the cab. Then we passed the biggest casino in Nice.
A few hundred yards further on the cab swung violently to the left as our driver gunned the engine and the Mercedes growled at an unnecessary rate of knots towards our hotel – The Windsor.
Recently updated in a quirky artistic theme, each room has been styled individually by a range of different artists.
Our chambre was a compact square, the highlight of which were dozens of red beaded necklaces draped from the ceiling, as though a hundred grand-dames had been kidnapped and their jewellery hung up as trophies.
But my favourite is the lift, which announces its journey to ones floor with a recording of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral circa 1972. we heard that tape at least 4 times a day and never tired of it.
Changed and refreshed, it was time to venture onto the streets and seek out dinner.
Two things typify Nice. The first are the scooters. Everyone has a scooter, they buzz around you like angry mechanical gadflies weaving insouciantly in and amongst the traffic. The second are the restaurants. There are restaurants everywhere. They hang around street corners, they wedge themselves up against each other in the middle of streets.
They fight for space on the promenade des Anglais. Trying to chose one is like trying to choose a diamond ring out of a tray of thousands.
Eventually we a chose a stylish-looking eatery just off the main drag. Of course it was packed. I pushed thought the sealed double glass doors to be greeted by a slim waitress ( is there any other kind in France ?) who through her gallic shuteye deduced that we had rocked up at her gaff sans reservation.
She squeezed us in under the stairs and swivelled a blackboard around to face us, on which was offered a thin selection of plates.
I plumped for the salmon fishcakes and Sarah chomped on scallops. Just delightful.
I was struck by the volume and intensity of our fellow diner’s conversations. Everyone was talking. Of course, people talk in restaurants but the volume and intensity is often dictated by the poshness of the eatery. A quiet piano bar in London doesn’t have the same noise levels as a trendy American-themed diner in Shoreditch but in France, no matter if you are in a tiny cafe or a plush hotel, everyone chatters, everyone gossips.
We meandered back out onto the streets of Nice and decided to walk back to our hotel. We could have been in the nicest part of town or the roughest. But no matter where we were, we felt safe. Apart from the cacophony of the perma buzz of scooters, the streets were quiet.
Tomorrow was going to be a day to explore. Tomorrow we planned the promenade, the beach and the train to Monte Carlo.