Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In the last ten months, I’ve touched ground on three continents outside of my own. March saw Australia. The month of June took me to Asia (Tokyo). And last week I found myself in Europe with a business trip to Nice, France.

My route was the best possible: San Diego to Nice with a three-hour layover in New York’s JFK. It could be tricky to get out of San Diego and awkward to get into Nice, so a one-stop layover, more or less on the path, was pretty good.

My flights went well, although for thirty minutes we experienced violent turbulence over the Atlantic. There were times when it felt like the plane’s floor dropped out beneath us and every passenger clutched instinctively and desperately at his or her armrest. A flight attendant walked through the cabin and a frightened passenger pleaded with her to get the turbulence to stop. “Oh, this is nothing,” the flight attendant said casually. “It’s always like this in winter.” I couldn’t tell from her tone if she was trying to put the turbulence into context, or just make us feel better.

This was my third trip to Nice. I made a stop there during my solo European backpack trip in 2002, and visited again on business in August, 2004.

I arrived in Nice and took a taxi from the airport. There were two things to note about taxis. First, they were all Mercedes. I just found this part to be interesting. The second part, pertinent to my story, was that the fare display was located very low on the center console – near the base of the gearshift. Depending on where the cabbie placed his hand, it could easily be obscured.

My hotel sat near the airport. However, a marathon took place that morning so certain roads along our natural route were blocked to traffic and we had to take a roundabout, trial and error path. I caught occasional glimpses of the fare, and near the hotel, it was at 14 euros. We arrived at the hotel. The hotel’s doorman walked to the back of the car and the cabbie popped the trunk. The cabbie asked if I wanted a receipt and I replied yes. I looked down at the meter and the cabbie had already reset it. He handed me my receipt and it read 25 euros. I felt like I was being screwed and didn’t know how to react. I neither sought out nor instigated confrontations, but admittedly I enjoyed them. It was a battle of wits. But I was in a foreign country, I had no idea if the doorman had retrieved my luggage from the trunk, I was jetlagged, and it was company money, so I acquiesced without debate, and paid the 25 euros. I should have been angry at him, but I found that I was only angry with myself. This feeling lingered through the afternoon.

I stayed at the Radisson, with my room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The room emitted a modern vibe. For instance, my headboard had lights installed inside.

Readers of my travel writing know about my fascination with foreign bathrooms. In America, you could go into any hotel in any part of the country, and the bathroom would be fairly standard. But if you traveled outside of the States, there were constant surprises. In my room, the toilet was so high that my feet didn’t touch the floor. And then there was the shower.

I appreciated innovative and engaging designs. But at the design’s core, functionality must be retained. A bicycle with hexagon shaped tires may look cool, but at the end of the day, you still need to pedal it.

My shower had a glass door that swung on a hinge, and only extended a few feet. Needless to say, it didn’t do the job. Water still covered the floor after taking a shower.

To further promote the modern style, my shampoo, shower gel, and lotion were stored in containers like chicken nugget dipping sauces and placed in an acrylic rack.

I wanted an iron in my room, but instead I got the infamous pressboard. I must use it wrong, because it actually seemed to add wrinkles to my clothes.

The weather was beautiful for both of my previous trips to Nice. Perfectly calm and serene.

I faced a completely different type of weather this trip. It was chilly and incredibly windy. The normally placid Mediterranean spawned waves that crashed dramatically onto the rocky shore. Since I live in San Diego, I never get to wear cold-weather clothing. It sits orphaned in my closet. This trip gave me a chance to bring these clothes out of retirement. I got to wear my scarf, which made me feel special and like I had some semblance of fashion. However, I never knew how to wear it. I tied my scarf like I said bonjour – frequently – with no two times being the same.

Nice was nestled cozily between mountains and sea, rising up onto the concave hillside. It funneled naturally down into its famous crescent shaped section of beach. My hotel lived on the west side of the crescent, with the main section of Nice situated two miles away on the east side. The hotel was isolated – with no restaurants located nearby – so I made the walk along the windy boardwalk to Old Town.

The city changed dramatically between opposing seasons. As vibrant as it was during the summer, it was equivalently subdued in winter.

I walked along the promenade, occasionally strolling through back streets. The combination of Sunday and winter left many stores closed. Along the way, I spotted an interesting hotel façade.

Once I reached Old Town, I circled its morning market, and out of the myriad of restaurants, I selected one that I had eaten at on my last visit.

My workweek consisted of very long days. I returned to my hotel between 7 and 9pm, collected myself, and then searched for a meal. My hotel was isolated so it made dinner an adventure. Fortunately, most restaurants closed late, since many didn’t open for dinner until 7pm.

In the middle of the week, I changed to a hotel in St. Laurent du Var. The Holiday Inn sat on the boardwalk with thirty restaurants lining the promenade. It made the search for dinner infinitely easier.

I hoped to find an iron in my new room but was confronted with the same ineffective pressboard. I looked through the hotel guide and found this entry next to the ironing section: “For security reasons, ironing is strictly forbidden in the rooms.” After reading this information, I felt safe wandering the hotel hallway knowing that I wouldn’t be attacked by an iron wielding criminal.

I have a problem sitting still. I get restless. My mind constantly plots and plans and worries. To borrow from a cliché, I’m not good at taking time to smell the roses. I would love to sit in Balboa Park and read a book for hours. I would love to spend all day painting. I can’t. I have a problem enjoying where I’m at. I’m just not built that way. It’s something that I’m working on.

After I got laid off from my job, I decided to take two years off to paint, write, and travel. I was petrified of wasting this opportunity by sitting on the couch all day. To remedy this, I decided that I would be out of the apartment by 9am every morning. One of my usual morning haunts was the Eggery in Pacific Beach. I selected this place for three reasons. The breakfasts were good. The waitresses were friendly and attractive. And most important to me, when you ordered coffee they brought you your own pot that they left at your table. The coffee pot became my timer. This forced me to sit and write. Because I wouldn’t leave until I had finished drinking the entire pot of coffee. Of course this had later consequences since I would wander the beach having to pee every twenty minutes. But still, this morning ritual guaranteed that I would write for an hour and a half every morning.

I rejoice in spontaneity, but there is something comforting about ritual and routine. I stayed at this hotel two summers ago. There are few places better than Nice in August. I woke up early every morning and went downstairs to eat breakfast on the hotel’s outdoor patio. And every morning, the same family sat at an adjacent table. It consisted of a man, a child, and a woman who always wore sheer tops sans bra. I would bid them bonjour and they returned the salutation. The hostess brought me a pitcher of coffee and left it on my table. This became my timer. So every morning I would engage in this beautiful ritual where I would sit for an hour in the Mediterranean sun, eating croissants and cold cuts, enjoying coffee, and writing in my journal, with nearby boobs floating in a see-through top.

For this current visit, it was too cold to sit outside on the patio. They also didn’t deliver a pitcher of coffee on my table. The hostess circulated among the room to refill cups. But I still tried to maintain some semblance of routine by writing in my journal during breakfast.

I had three English channels available in my hotel room: BBC News, CNN World, and Eurosport.

The problem with BBC News and CNN World is that they’re on such a tight, repeatable loop, if you’ve watched them for an hour, you’ve seen all of their programming for the next three days. During my stay, the channels were consumed with two stories: bird flu in Turkey and Iran’s nuclear program. It was like driving an ice cream truck and hearing the same song over and over again. You wanted to drive the truck off a cliff. It gets bad when you start praying for a natural disaster just to see alternative programming.

As an aside, I found it mildly funny that bird flu was found in a country named Turkey.

The Eurosport channel used the word ‘sport’ loosely. To be expected, it had soccer. But it also showed darts and snooker. With the exception of introducing pigeons to America, I loved the British, but they have an innate ability to take something and make it infinitely boring (if they didn’t invent it boring right out of the chute). You could accuse America for taking things and ruining them. Sucking the life out of them. Bastardizing them. But we’ll never make them boring.

Snooker is similar to pool except it’s played on a larger table and has many more balls. All shots are direct line-of-sight. No bank shots. No massé shots. No Donald Duck in Mathematic Land geometry.

You can almost see the British sports channel brain-trust sitting around a table, trying to find a way to make snooker more boring.

Let’s make the table bigger… no, no, no… let’s add more balls… not quite right…. Egads! I got it! Let’s make the game a best of 19!

Yep. A snooker match was a best of 19. And let’s just say that snooker is not a quick game. Keep in mind that one of the most popular sports in Britain is cricket – a game that is played six hours a day for five days. Only the British would take something as boring as cricket and decide to extend it over a week. If American’s played cricket, the game would be shrunk to two hours and have explosions and cheerleaders.

After a long week of work, the weekend finally arrived. While Cannes and Monaco received most of the press, my two favorite cities along that section of coast were Nice and Antibes. Without the film festival, I felt that Cannes would be largely ignored. It’s rather bland. And while Monaco was beautiful, I didn’t find it engaging. It was like being in a museum where you couldn’t touch anything.

I decided to spend Saturday in Nice and explore Antibes on Sunday.

I took the train from St. Laurent du Var to Nice’s Ville station. From the train station, I made the long and steep climb to the Matisse Museum on Cimiez Hill. The museum is located within a beautiful park, adjacent to an ancient Roman city, and housed in a 17th century villa.

I walked through the museum and paused to sketch Matisse’s painting, Figure Endormie (1941). I had drawn the painting once before when I was here in 2002, during my first trip to Europe.

With artists that are known for their middle or later work, I’m always fascinated with how they began. People frequently dismiss Picasso’s cubist work as simplistic and vague, but if you look at the artwork he did when he was 16, you see that he could paint the hell out of anything. I’m curious why an artist who can paint realistic paintings decides to paint abstract or simplistic forms. The same with Matisse. He’s known for his line and color heavy paintings with symbolic shapes. That’s why it’s impressive to see the works he created in his early 20’s. It gives the later work an additional context. You’re less likely to dismiss it because you’re aware that it’s intentional, and not due to an artistic skill deficiency. All of the lines and colors are choices.

The museum began by Matisse himself having donated a few works. It had a small collection of paintings, some sculptures, and a few drawings. The problem with the museum was that it felt like an appetizer to me. I left wanting more.

Next to the museum sat the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Cemenelum.

Another angle....

I followed a path through the park,…

I found myself in front of a beautiful church. Connected to the church stood a long stone wall with a narrow arched entrance. I walked through and found myself amid sepulchers and tombs. I was in a cemetery.

The cemetery was located on the hill’s crest and overlooked a valley. I descended a stone staircase. And there it stood. Nestled serenely in a grassy alcove sat Matisse’s tomb.

I don’t connect to many external things. I’m inside my head too much. But here I stood, and in solemn peace I found myself genuinely touched.

The sociology of what drives human behavior has been theorized and studied. One could argue that it’s love, greed, and sex. But I believe that even these could be funneled down to a universal truth: we were driven by the fear of death.

There are other reasons, but it’s an underlying force that drives me to write and paint. It’s the simple idea that you want a part of you to carry on. It’s why others have children. Trust me. It’s never about the children.

Just in case that whole afterlife doesn’t work out, it’s good to give the current life relevance.

I had spent the previous hour admiring his art, in a building that promoted his immortality. And here I stood, in front of his tomb, faced with the absolute. His death.

In an act that was either apropos or ironic, I took a seat on a short stone bench and drew Matisse’s tomb.

When I become engrossed in a drawing, I lose all association with time and environment. I’m not sure how long I sat there in the shade, enveloped by the cold wind. But upon completion of my drawing, I realized that I was absolutely freezing. I was shivering and my fingers and toes were numb. I paused in front of Matisse’s sepulture, bid a solemn adieu, and sought the sun.

I walked down the hill and along Nice’s main artery, the Rue de Jean Medecin, and passed by Notre Dame.

Eventually I reached the beach. It was a windy, but beautiful scene. I sat on a bench and watched the people pass by the promenade.

On Sunday, I went to my favorite town along the Cote d’Azur: Antibes. I caught the train near my hotel in St. Laurent du Var.

It was a half-hour train ride to Antibes. The journey revealed the romantic town of St. Paul de Vence from the window.

Antibes is a picturesque town, surrounded by stone walls, with the isolated Fort Carre standing guard.

It’s fun to simply wander the streets, with each turn sending you down a narrower street than the one before.

I was starving, but not quite ready for lunch. I passed by a bakery and found tasty looking treats in the window.

I entered the bakery and through broken French and pointing I ordered four. There was no price next to them. The cashier told me the total in French. I handed her a ten euro note. She instantly handed me 3.80 back and I was happy with the deal. I turned to walk away and she said something to me so I stayed. She reached into the drawer and pulled out a five euro note. It turned into a fantastic bargain. I ate them immediately and they were delicious. I could have easily eaten two dozen.

I reached the central market and squeezed through the narrow lanes to check out the produce, meats, spices, wine, and flowers being sold.

I ate lunch at a cozy little restaurant called Le Rustic. It had six tables. I went with the fixed price menu and selected soupe de poisson (fish stew), lasagna, and chocolate mousse. For beverage I went with kir (white wine and crème de cassis). It was an amazing meal.

I finished my day in Antibes with a visit to the Picasso Museum housed in the beautiful Chateau Grimaldi.

After ten days in Nice, I flew back to the States. Thirty minutes northeast of New York City, we passed over a tiny archipelago.

Whenever I’m in a plane, staring out the window, I always wonder how my life would be different had I grown up in the area that I’m gazing upon. An isolated farm. An oceanside community. A mountain top chateau. The center of a metropolitan city. Would I be involved in art at all? Would I be a CEO? A lead guitarist? A drug addict? Or would I remain intrinsically the same? Who would my friends be? What experiences would I have collected? Who would I have dated? What would I dream of?

I landed at JFK and wound my way from terminal eight to terminal two through a curious maze of hallways, escalators, alleys, stairs, shuttles, and crosswalks. I bid my six hour layover by trying to stay awake and teaching myself new features on my cell phone.

When I travel to a location, I work hard to adjust to the local time. But when I return, I’m haphazard about my schedule. In the first week that I returned my bed times were as follows: 2am, 4am, 8pm, 5pm, 8pm, 7pm, and 8pm. I had the sleep pattern of a seven year old. It was a small victory when I finally stayed up past 11pm.

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