From the top of a double decker train, I watch the Riviera go by. The word, Riviera, conjures up a sepia colored village in my mind, straight out of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. So, on my way from a writers’ residency in Italy to one in France, I have decided to stay in Juan Les Pins, a town, I imagine, with cobblestone streets and an azure bay.
My attention is riveted, however, by an Australian man who is talking to a young Korean woman. It is a classic pick-up scene; the tall, blond, almost middle aged male spreading his charm, blabbing on about his expertise in Korean cooking—Korean cooking, really? His guile nauseates me even as a part of me wonders if he will succeed in taking her to his hotel. Before I can find out, I am descending the train. I feel excited; my host has promised to take me to the Alps and has referred to our cohabitation as Woodstock.
She is tall, strong, and black, I discover, a fact I had not gathered from her photo. She is from the French West Indies, she tells me.
“Did you bring what I asked for?” she asks. When I shake my head, she frowns. My stomach tightens. A few days ago, when she wrote me asking for cigarettes, I nearly canceled my booking. But then she reassured me that she did not smoke in the house.
We go to the tiniest apartment I have ever stayed in. After a nap I walk to the beach. Traffic whirls past. It is July and the entire country is on vacation. Balconies are filled with people. On a terrace, an elderly gentleman is serving drinks to a group. The French idea of a holiday is to leave a tiny flat in a crowded city, only to arrive at a tinier one in a busy beach town, I muse. Stragglers stroll the beach; an occasional child splashes in the waves. But the real action is on the other side of the street where sidewalk cafes are bustling with revelers.
Returning to my host’s flat, I feel a premonition. Sure enough, the kitchen is cold, even though she has offered to make dinner for me and the three Italian girls she is hosting. I wait; to expect dinner before eight thirty is foolhardy, I know.
A shadow falls across my door. “The girls are going out; I am not making dinner,” my host says.
I run to the store in panic and just before it closes, return with containers of tzatziki, tabouli and cheese.
“Do you want to go to Cap d’Antibes tomorrow?” my host asks. I nod. For a moment, my doubts melt away; the hope for Woodstock lives on.
The next morning, I make my tea, then peek into the living room where my host is somberly smoking a cigarette. “Oh, you are up?” I say, and am met with a frown. I am afraid to ask about our outings; instead, I hurriedly get ready, anxious to be out of this cloud of disharmony.
I take the bus to Antibes where musicians are playing in the streets; markets are bustling. I find a shady spot behind the Picasso museum to partake of my lunch. Other travelers too are eating under slivers of shadows in the courtyard; there is no park or even a bench here. Afterwards, the art in the museum leaves me cold. The trouble, I think, is that once an artist is labeled a genius by the Western establishment, even his childlike scribbles are valued at millions.
I walk past ochre buildings to the beach upon which bodies are sprawled, inches away from one another.
This is European vacationland. I wade in. The Mediterranean is somewhat cold so I float to catch the rays. Afterwards, I lie on my windbreaker, and even as children scream, adults converse loudly, and Bangladeshi vendors peddle their wares, I fall asleep. There is, after all, safety in numbers.
Waking up, I discover that I have squandered the afternoon away. I want to go on the Cap d’Antibes hike, but I waver. My host has given me scant information; I do not know if I am within walking distance of the flat or not; it is Sunday and buses will not run late. I don’t want to be stranded like I was in Italy.
Upon my return, my host says, “I wanted to take you to Cap d’Antibes, but you were not interested.”
I apologize, even though I have done nothing wrong. Alone in a foreign country whose language I do not speak, I feel vulnerable. I am paying for the room but the truth is that I am at my host’s mercy; I cannot very well walk out. We are in a brave new world, I think, where we can stay with strangers across the world, expose ourselves to other civilizations, and risk getting abused in a way we could never do before.
My host informs me that we will leave for the Alps in the morning, and once again, I want to believe in Woodstock.
I wake up, pack my lunch, and don my hiking boots. When my host rises, she can see that I am ready. But then the flat goes eerily quiet. I run to the street to find my host smoking a cigarette. “I told you eight o’ clock,” she says, pointing to her watch. My discomfort is palpable now.
It is snowing in the Alps, so we will go on another hike, she tells me. I don’t believe her but I hop in the car nonetheless. She asks me if I have food, even though last night she had informed me that her friend would bring us sandwiches.
I will have to get something, I say.
We drive to a Carrefour store where I get lost in the aisles, wishing that my host had pointed out the exact shelf. It takes me a long time just to find a sandwich and an apple. When I go to the bathroom, there is a notice on the door saying it is closed; French bathrooms have operators, who, according to official rules, will not start work until nine.
We drive up the corniches, past tiny towns hugging the Mediterranean. They remind me, not of Rebecca, but of Sausalito. I am despondent that my host’s friend speaks no English but cheer up when I discover that we can converse in Spanish. Without this kind woman, I know, the hike would have been unbearable. As we walk up barren hills in temperatures of over eighty degrees, I realize that the French idea of hiking is quite different from that of Californians.
On my last night, my host’s boyfriend brings food from his restaurant so we can all eat together. And suddenly I am glad I have seen this other Riviera, the real Riviera, the Riviera where the ninety-nine percent live, even as the Riviera of my dreams lives on.