Walking in Nice


Without a doubt, a proverb, an utterly pathetic excuse for a starting place, a desperate beginning to trample over that flashing black line that is glaring back at me.  I’m hesitant to call them conversations or encounters or details in a life that has been suitably boring since birth, and I’m hesitant to boast them as worthy.  The hope is to be reasonable in the offer, to be kind to the reader, and open to the writer.  What is there to be afraid of?  The emerging mould beneath the left side of my bed?  The inability to pay my rent?  The virus?  The compulsive tendencies of the everyday?  In Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai there is a passage where the protagonist catholic priest bounds his wrists down before he sleeps, and another where a land baron gazes over his fields with a complete feeling of emptiness.  I don’t think the two are connected, but I do take both passages to heart.  And recently I have been trying to recall what I have read, what I have seen, who I have spoken to, what I have experienced, to take stock of the statistics of an existence that is constantly blurred by mental time travelling, and inadequacy.  These rough lines are interrupted by brief moments of levity, pretention, and a hypocrisy that I’m attempting to stray away from, the sense that enjoying something is bad or embarrassing, or expressing emotion is weak, or repulsive.  And it is all internal.  Above my head is a measly chandelier carrying three hanging lights from a tall white ceiling.  Behind my head is a window that is fronted by a decaying green plant, and a loose string to pull down the blinds, which have an annoying gap just where the sun rises every day.  Outside is a rectangular yard with low perimeter walls, that is gated by a garage door that cannot be locked, shadowed by a group of trainers hung over telephone wires gently wobbling in the wind.  Even higher than the laces are trees, trimmed back and drooping over the cemetery wall from their roots, their veiny undergrowth undoubtedly weaving around and bumping into rotting corpses, or more likely fragments of bones.  This view is a new one.  It comes after an extended period of being at the family home, after a melodramatic exit from the South of France where the interiors were darker and gloomy, but the exteriors much brighter and thrilling.  The memory of living in a different country is like a dream, or the kind of nightmare that feels terrifying, but in reality, the situation is not plausible.  I’m on the other side this time, where the houses blend from favela brown to old structures guarded by paths and gardens and degrees and professionalism.  Those that wander the area are tall boys with floppy hair and a passive look in their eyes, side by side with pretty girls with blonde hair and thin waists.  To be the eagle eye of social status, and metro stations, I think of an American class system of a credit score that fluctuates when Christmas passes, and you lose three points because you have not paid back your student loan yet.

Recollecting, in France, I am wearing black sports shorts with a champion logo that sit well above my knees, matching the colour of the hairs on my legs.  Then it is ankle socks and dirty white trainers, and I suppose a t-shirt and an incredibly cheap digital watch.  There are probably sunglasses too, and occasionally earphones to block out the shame of a fumbled French conversation, but often I like to hear the sea.  The song is No Cure by Zoe’s Shanghai or Le Metro et le Bus by Lewis OfMan, I’m not sure, it depends on the season and the mood, two variables that come hand in hand.  I’m reading Franny and Zooey by Salinger and it’s sad.  Here, it’s grey joggers with the same trainers, and currently a knitted jumper and a green cap, glasses for vision too.  The song is Dry the Rain by the Beta Band, and the book is a collection of Alice Munro stories about middle-aged women despising their gluttonous husbands and their sudden wide hips.  It’s hard to relate to but there is some delight found in the prose.  The sun can shine in both places and in both places my mind ticks over without breaks from the moment I check the weather app in the morning.  Cloudy, trousers.  Raining, waterproof.   The decisions in a late Riviera summer are much simpler.  I arrived in Nice in September of last year brutally unprepared and brutally naïve.  The apartment I lived in had an extortionate rent and was owned by a French woman in her sixties, married to an American man a little older than her, who did most of the talking, though in all honesty his accent was tougher to understand than hers.  It’s a studio on Boulevard Victor Hugo, three streets away from the promenade and that idiosyncratic pebbly beach, sandwiched between a bourgeois restaurant and the Portuguese embassy.  The building reaches to about eight floors, and the apartment was on the second, one turn around a set of concrete stairs.  It essentially has three tiny rooms, where the only door other than the front one is to the bathroom attached to the kitchen, which features an oven, a stove, a fridge, and a beautiful coffee maker.  The kitchen leads into a living space with a sofa bed, a box tv, and a dining table that can be pulled out to seat four.  Above the living room is a mezzanine level reached to via a creaky ladder that somehow houses a double bed, a chest of drawers, and a desk in a space about the size of a car boot.  I spent a lot of time in this apartment, and I was never uncomfortable in its claustrophobic size.  Two tall windows in the kitchen and living room looked out onto a private garden, and a large tree that was constantly cluttered with hundreds of singing birds.  This was an annoying sound on a couple of occasions.  Once the landlords had given me the keys, they introduced me to their other tenant upstairs, who I didn’t see again for the rest of the year. 

I’m not sure I can compare that apartment to my current living arrangements.  I loved that place, I loved the coffee maker, the short walk to the beach, the privacy, but the loneliness and dankness was remarkable.  It got extremely cold in there, thanks to the sun facing the other way, and it was easy to get trapped inside, warped in a twisted agoraphobic depression.  Here, I have flatmates.  And here, I can buy bread without worrying about saying all the words wrong.  What to include?  I could talk about my weekly laundrette trips, on Fridays, when I knew a machine would be available because it was the day the homeless guys washed their sleeping bags.  They kept to themselves and hardly ever said anything to me, and at the start of the year when I had money, I gave them the odd fiver.  This was not sustainable, especially after doing my laundry became a luxury expense for me too.  What not to include?  A world-shattering break-up, perhaps, or a pestering Canadian neighbour, or the stories of a misogynistic Algerian classmate?  This seems relevant to my wellbeing but not to my writing.  I’m always fascinated by the lack of personal information in travel accounts, and it’s hard to separate a precise located experience from being gloomy about my ex-girlfriend the whole time.  Yes mate, this pizza is great, yes, this jazz band is fun, yes, I do fancy you, yes its 29 degrees in March, yes, I’m actually speaking French to a French person and they understand, but do you think she misses me at all?

Some notes on the surrounding areas of Nice.  Firstly, Menton, the last town of France before Italy, a sort of town of two sides: one being a crummy tourist spot that has a central high street that looks like it could be in Leeds, and the other side a medieval beauty of pastel coloured houses, and an elongated sandy beach with shallow waters under a mountainside that rounds in two moulds, intersected by the coastal railway.  Secondly, Antibes, pronounced ‘ON-TEEB’, a small town a couple of train stops west of Nice, that is desolate and dirty in the winter, but has an English language bookshop.  Thirdly, Cannes, further on from Antibes, and of course the home to the exclusive film festival, and a row of boutique stores that could sell one item a week and stay in business.  The best way to discover the charm of Cannes, is to go right from the train station to the old town, where you can walk up a hill road past cute restaurants that have pictures of Brad Pitt in the window BECAUSE HE ATE THERE ONCE, YOU KNOW.  Finally, Monaco, a city-state guarded by skyscrapers that have the appearance from a distance of growing like plants from the foundation to the peaks of the mountains that enclave the town.  It’s a miserable place out of season, the impressive buildings going grey without sunlight, and everywhere is closed except during specific lunch hours. 

Nice is the relatively big city in the middle of these coastal settlements, separated into rough outlined districts that are blended through an abstract T shape of the main shopping street bisecting the beach road.  Elevating into a hillside from the ocean, the streets and buildings rise up into green humps, in a sort of messy Hollywood hills way.  It’s not nearly as glamorous as that, especially when you cascade down into the higher density areas, away from the villas into the apartment buildings of even heights, creating a peculiar skyline of flatness.  This living style is one of the great ideals of Mediterranean culture – apartments with balcony’s leaning over narrow streets glaring pink from a seemingly everlasting sunlight, casting shadows over parked cars, which in summer are on top of one another, blocking green lights and pedestrians.  For the majority of the time I was in Nice, it was Autumn, meaning intense and sometimes terrifying rainfall, and then it was the Winter, meaning deceivingly cold days and unneeded French scarves.  I found it funny, the parkas and the woolly hats when the weather could be described as moderate, but when it is seldom cold, when are you really going to start dressing? It is perhaps a gross misconception that the French are fashionable, they are certainly about a decade behind most trends in the south and prefer the outlandish rather than the sublime.  Who am I kidding?  The nature of Nice, and France, the people, the attitudes is misrepresented in my mind, thanks to dreading the thought of going to that awful university on the side of a mountain, and this nagging pressure that I was wasting my time there.  I’m trying to remember what enchanted me about the place.  The university was not all bad.  I took classes alongside French students who were specialising in English studies, such as British history, and American popular culture.  My other classes included an array of translation courses, usually taken with other students from abroad, who I had an inferiority complex with because they spoke French and I didn’t.  They probably thought about me a lot less than I thought about them.  I wrote essays on Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton translations, and Shakespeare, in a crash course of English literature, having an unfair advantage because I was born in the god forsaken land.  And I took exams on 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the civil rights movement, which was all stimulating enough.  The problem with the university was that it needed a makeover, having the appearance of a high school in Thatcher’s Britain, and logistically it was a shambles.  Nevertheless, I was in three days a week, and often took liberties with my attendance to give myself time for more misery, more reading and more writing.  Mostly misery. 

In periods of extreme isolation, I would walk.  I trekked to the university, not far, but a right turn away from everything sweet in Nice into inner city surroundings, the destination a sweaty summit after a brutal incline.  I walked to the beach, very close, and rented a bike to ride all the way down the promenade and back.  It’s a concrete slab heavily populated with dog walkers, skateboarders, and runners with their shirts off, fronted by the pebble beach covered in the Nicois sunbathing on the uncomfortable ground.  The beach is much less grotesque than it comes across, the stones are fine to rest on, and the sea is lovely.  There is a surprising step into the water from the rocks, but the turquoise colour of the water is a soothing touch to corrupted thoughts, and at night, the waves lap in black and white over an endless chill.  It’s something.  One evening, a friend and I bought the highest percentage beer from an off-licence, it was rotten, and drank it on the beach, watching the puddles of froth appear like cigarette smoke in a noir movie.  The images are a memory.  I walked to the Old Town daily, Nice’s crowning statement of tourism, narrow streets tightly cornered by decaying buildings, squeezing alleyways like a cat strangling a bird.  There are people everywhere, wandering around with their heads and phone cameras up, cackling in American accents about THE MAGIC OF THE PLACE.  The magic of repetitive restaurants and tacky gift stores, all in the guise of authenticity to woo the visitor.  Wait until the season is over, and the streets are empty after 7pm, then the old town shines.  Temporary art stores emerge, as do the vendors that survive the lack of tourism, and the cute bars owned by optimistic young men, and finally you can see what all the fuss is about.  You can see the pretty architecture the chubby hands were snapping at, and you can enjoy Nice’s own distinct nightlife.  Three bars captured our attention the most.  First, a jazz bar, in the centre of Vieux Nice, that had a rolling cycle of bands that played between hip-hop and soul, and they were good.  The drinks were expensive, and the toilets were haunting, but the music was good.  Second, a French pub in English style, with cheaper drinks, and a karaoke night, and a vibe of IT’S ALRIGHT, IT MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN.  Third, was a two-floor bar that required a knock to get in.  Once you were approved by the forever smiling owner, you entered to see a dingy upstairs bar with little prospect, but if you followed the stairs down, you would find a narrow basement bar filled with people genuinely dancing.  On offer would be the same songs every night and a shot that burnt your insides.  Despite the occasionally sweeping dream of joy in the company I was with, I hated it in there.  The best walk was the hike from the edge of Nice to the neighbouring small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, that took you across the coastline.  It hugged the cliff-side, starting on a rock face that protruded out onto the ocean, housing fisherman, and locals looking for a secluded place away from the tourists.  Then the path weaved around the coast, through bushes that face the wetness of the shore, over jags in the earth and former gun battlements.  Out of Nice, halfway through the walk, leisure yachts drift past you on the water, the captains giving a peculiar nod as they float by.  I completed the hike several times, not for Villefranche-sur-Mer, it’s a nothing place, but for the view at the end of the path.   Perched on a collection of yellow boulders, with water running between the gaps below, I scanned the scene of a sea inlet gated by mountains and luxury villas, dotted with boats in the marina, silent and unmoved.  I liked it there. 

What else do I remember?  There was an attempted mugging, that failed, because they jumped me on a busy street and got shy, realising the amount of witnesses.  There was the food, notably the pizzas, either a perfect Neapolitan from a place in the old town called Acqua e Farina, or a takeaway slice that could be eaten on the steps of the cathedral, drawing in the odd homeless man for a chat.  And the croissants, exquisite yet cliched, from a bakery with a pink sign two streets down from the apartment.  Then there were the two pilgrimages to the Henri Matisse museum north of town, past the homes with backdoor swimming pools, and beside a hotel that looks like The Overlook, the museum the main attraction of a culture centre that consists of a park, a café, and a site of Roman ruins.  It’s free for students, and worth the aching legs, Matisse’s work lovingly exhibited on white corridors and several levels.  THE CINEMAS.  There was one across the street from the apartment, theatre style, with red cushioned seats and curtains over the screens.  Each ticket was bought with courage in language ability, and each film an insight into title changes and translation.  A Hidden Life was Une Vie Cachee, and Little Women was Les Filles du Docteur March.  The summer was the end goal, the yearning and the dreariness of a retirement town purged by American agitators was an obstacle to overcome, but there would be no reward.  It has taken a while to come to terms with peaking around the door at living in that place, seeing the planes glide over the ocean, hearing the cannon shot at twelve every day, tackling the annoyances of French grocery stores.  And simmering over lost conversations with honest people, cursing my inability to grasp onto something whilst it’s happening. 

That was somewhere else, without a pandemic and without any direction.  Here, restrictions increase sentimental order, chaos found outside of the bubble.  The photographs of Nice above my desk are from a week spent there in the July before I moved into the apartment.  One of them is a shot of the main square, checkerboard flooring, lamppost sculptures and a fountain, shaded in stark contrasts of blue and pink.  This area divides the old town from the new, the bookstore and the clothing retail, the clay and the steel, the single and the relationship.  I see the shreds of an unreal scenario before me and publish this statement into a resolute heap of a wasted morning. 

Florence in January

‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why.  You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)

The people are still here.  Of-course they are.  Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away.  Are there more Americans than Italians here?  Or are they just louder?  I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe.  This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly.  They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see.  I am a hypocrite.  The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine.  On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits.  It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day.  Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it.  It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time.  The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach.  I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that.  The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on.  I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture.  It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom.  The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring.  It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man.  The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.

I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier.  It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor.  In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction.  The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists.  There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus.  I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that.  It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass.  When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems.  It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask.  Those stores are horrifying enough already.

In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners.  Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks.  To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’  I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too.  When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear.  Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die.  The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices.  I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap.  Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces.  At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them.  An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.

Travelling alone is a peculiar experience.  I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone.  Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing.  With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too.  The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible.  Food digested, I felt like sleeping.  A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers.  In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up.  My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere.  I went back to sleep.

The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning.  People interrupting my peace again.  I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre.  Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake.  Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route.  The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing.  This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.

I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip.  There does not need to be a reason, but I want one.  Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha.  It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned?  The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever.  As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones.  It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza.  It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence.  Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead.  Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy.  Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment.  The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo.  Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time.  At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town.  To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace.  The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.

Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this.  Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty.  The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks.  It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely.  That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival.   Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses.  Fuck it.  Did David Foster Wallace care?  I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by?  None of it matters.  There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going.  I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly.  It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep.   I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much.  I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment.  It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza.  Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.

I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant.  A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table.  It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road.  My shoes were already filthy.  There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD.  A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar.  I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain.  These towns full of people continue to puzzle me.  I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns.  There must be some – there are universities and offices.  I feel bad for those people.  The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year.  Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum.  I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France.  This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before.  Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it.  Take me away.

I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods.  Running scared rather than escaping.  I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling.  What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.

duomo