The memories of my ‘French leave’ need to be penned down before I accidentally delete them like I recently deleted many precious photographs from my phone. It has been almost a year and some names and sights have already started fading . Moreover,a few of my good meaning friends and my all time guardian, my son, have started teasing me for this French leave I have taken of my blog. So without further procrastination let the recall begin.
The first thing I remember is that my brain had started making some serious noise about Nice. It was in love with the ‘ thought of this place’ as seen in the picture postcards , but the pronunciation was baffling my wits to no end. Before I started confusing my niece as nice or Nice as Niece (which is the correct pronunciation) I did some nice retrospection on my obsession with the word. Nice, Nice, Nice, three little words, spells the same, and then the story begins ! ‘Nice an over used adjective, and a lazy adjective’ ( quoting an Irish nun from a prehistoric year and age of my school days, somehow the quote has stayed on). ‘Nice’ is also my all time favorite biscuit, those thin crispy rectangles with sugar sprinkled on top and a steaming cup of coffee , simply irresistible but not a subject to write about . And then this invitation from a place called Nice. A city by the Mediterranean in the south of France with its pebbled beaches kept calling out to me-a home bird living by the Arabian Sea. When a place calls out to you so ardently and you want to make it your next holiday destination I indeed take it as a sign and as an ‘invitation’ from the place itself !
Planning for a family holiday takes days of research about the place and things to see and do. The family’s holiday dates need to be coordinated, the best deal in flight tickets and hotel reservations to be zeroed in, and only then the final itinerary of a travel plan takes shape. In my family we are four people staying in different cities most of the time, therefore any holiday planning involves a number of Skype calls, conference calls, arguments, angry words, tears, smiles, giving up on the whole plan, and making it all over again. The whole drama has to be enacted scene by scene before we reach a conclusive agreement of sorts. On such occasions one can easily rename my family as ‘The Drama Company’. This time around,even after all the meticulous planning, my husband had to back out from the trip due to unavailability of leave. For getting a French Leave is not in his job description. Chalk and Cheese ( that is him and me) had never been separated on a foreign holiday before, but the children had already got their leaves sanctioned thus Cheese packed her bags and smiled in anticipation for a week in the French Riviera ,one of the best holiday destinations on the globe.
December 23. Day 1.
The pilot husband drove his son and wife to the airport, walked with us up to the security check in gate and waved a cheerful bye and turned around to go back home. No emotions wasted in goodbyes on his side but with my cheese like character my heart melted to say this goodbye. In an uneventful flight from Mumbai to Frankfurt my son and I caught up on some sleep time. Our plane landed at Frankfurt airport at 8.30am on 23 rd December. Our connecting flight to Nice had taken off from Frankfurt airport at 8.25am without a mother-son duo. My initial reaction was of helpless panic and exclaims. But to my surprise my son looked pretty calm ( a little amused too) and in control of the situation. After some anxious moments ( only on my mind) we decided to approach those good-looking , smartly dressed boys and girls behind the counters to give us what we needed next,some information, a fresh boarding pass for another flight and food coupons to calm our frayed nerves. The next connecting flight was after twelve hours by the clock. “The Terminal ” experience, though not quite in the Tom Hanks way, taught us a lot about airports,how chaos and efficiency run side by side, how passengers from everywhere have the same anxious expressions, how waiting is a fun game for the children in their play zones, how the luxurious stores tempts you to become a shopaholic, in short no experience goes wasted if the story-teller in you is awake. We waited for twelve hours and then flew for an hour and half to reach Nice. Meanwhile my daughter had flown in from New York to Nice , she had done her bit of sightseeing over the day and had come to the airport to welcome us to France. Our delay had not only taken away a whole day of our itinerary but had also made us miss our dinner reservations at the Negresco. Even though I know little about international cuisine, but missing a dinner date has never been my style. Planning is imperative in every sphere of life, and to keep the date the flight always has to be on time !
December 24. Day 2.
I opened my eyes to a gorgeous morning by the Mediterranean, the French Riviera experience was about to begin. From every turn of the road it seemed as though the picture postcard of my dreams had come to life, the skies so blue and the ocean sparkling in its reflecting glory, and the white pebbled beaches , all so perfect and pristine. Nice was beautifully dressed up for Christmas. In the center of the old city there was a big Christmas market , this was like our desi mela but with a different flavor. I loved seeing all the colorful flowers, the food stalls selling food which I had neither seen or tasted before, there were other shops selling so many attractive items of which some things we bought and some things we just admired. Christmas trees adorned gardens and parks, every home’s windows and doors were decorated with mistletoes. Small green hills more like plateaus with steps leading up to them, sea gulls perched on street lamps, winding roads, cafes to sit by the lanes, all this and more made me fall in love with Nice forever. I made a mental note to come back to this magic once more with my pilot. The children had planned to sit and eat lunch by the sea. Looking into the ocean just a few feet away, sipping wine, biting into the best served sea food and the pebbled beach beneath our feet, was an experience that would stay on for years. There were no chartered buses to take us to places, no tourist guide to guide us, we chose to walk the streets of the city, take turns, enter lanes, stop by coffee shops, and make our own map of Nice. We sat on a hill-top and saw the stars filling up the night sky as evening set in Nice. My children planned to catch the ” Star Wars” movie at a local theater, and I chose to linger a little longer on the streets of Nice, waiting for the night, waiting to see the city twinkle with both the stars in the skies and the ones down below. The stars perhaps are never at war, it is for us to change perspective and to see them in a different light at every turn of destiny.
December 25. Day 3.
Antibes, was our next planned destination . It is an old-fashioned small town of the Riviera, situated between Nice and Monaco. From Nice station we booked train tickets with validity for the entire day. It was Christmas Day, the sun was out and shining when we reached Antibes. As we walked out of the rail station, into the streets of Antibes what seemed very unusual was the quiet all around. It seemed as though some dream fairy had put the whole town to sleep with her magic wand. There were very few people on the streets, the shop windows were down, the doors of houses were shut, the parks had fairy lights and Christmas trees, but not a soul around. The emptiness added to the charm of this old medieval port city. It seemed we had entered a story book of beautiful places and could walk and run and play every where with no one to see us. We went to see the famous Picasso museum but Mr. Picasso’s doors were closed as well, but I was happy just to see his home from outside . This beautiful sea-side town had inspired the artist to make so many priceless paintings. And today as though by some magic we were the only people in this sleeping town to absorb all the beauty with our thirsty eyes . Not a tourist or any local people were in sight as we walked through the ports, we saw many a hundred yachts parked and there were no gates to keep people away. With child like glee we planned about owning some of the best ones and sailing deep into the sea. The lanes of Antibes were completely ours for that one winter morning, we walked, we paused, we saw, we admired, and we loved every bit of it. We loved this medieval small town so much in such a short time, that it made us sad to say goodbye to it so soon. We could not wait for the town to wake up for we had to be on our way to Cannes. Cannes -the style destination of the filmy divas – was just a five minutes train ride away from Antibes. In Cannes we found what we missed in Antibes, people ! Local people and tourists were all around on the streets of Cannes. Like every other tourist we too indulged ourselves by standing on the red carpet and posing for photos. We climbed a hill-top to find some quiet and to take in the view of the whole city from a bird’s eye view. The sun was setting somewhere far and a train was waiting for us to take us back to Nice for another night in the dream city. I knew that the beauty of closed doors and empty alleys of a sleeping sea side town would stay with me much more than the red carpet glitterati from the city of international film festivals. We all get to choose in life what makes us rich and how we value that wealth ; our memories are made up of our best loved moments no matter how short-lived they had been.
December 26. Day 4.
Monaco is the second smallest country in the world, and Monte Carlo is its capital, our fourth day itinerary was to spend a day in Monte Carlo. The weather meanwhile had changed to dark and gloomy. The bright sun of the previous day had hidden behind dark threatening clouds. Monte Carlo ‘is a small and rich city’, that was my first impression of the city. The people, their style, the stores, the palace, every step in that little place spelt ‘plenty’. On such moments the poverty of my own country stands out in stark contrast, but we are a vast country, and in every sphere of life, size does matter ! We saw the casino where James Bond had gambled with swag, but we neither had time, money or the swag for indulgence. Though there was a palace in Monte Carlo, the doors were not open to the tourists. The thundering clouds of the morning had turned into a thunderstorm, and to stay dry from the rains we entered the world beneath the waters, that is the famous Oceanography museum of Monte Carlo. An hour or more blissfully passed with the underwater friends keeping us dry. Monaco’s biggest Cathedral is the church of the Grimaldi dynasty. All cathedrals over the world have a distinguishing character, some in its art form, some in its architectural magnificence. I walk through the cathedral gazing at the marvel of art and architecture , a humbling silence envelopes the atmosphere all around. This humbling silence I suppose is common for all cathedrals, the presence of that power where we must bow at least once in a life time. We often get blinded in life either by dazzle or by absolute darkness. But when the mist clears we get to see the drift of things. As though symbolically after a whole day of clouds and rain the sky cleared up when we stepped out of the Grimaldi Cathedral and sighted the most spectacular double rainbow, a full rainbow had encompassed the sky and the shadow of the rainbow in the oceans below made it look like a full circle. Some views leave you spell-bound for days and you know that you are willing to come back to this very same place again and again just to witness the magic once more. It is always worth the wait for the silver lining from behind the cloud to appear and fill us with light, or else we may never know what colors awaits us in that rainbow of life !
December 27. Day 5.
On day five it was our time to say bye to Nice and take a train ride to Avignon. We changed trains once at Marseille and reached Avignon by noon.Tugging and heaving with two heavy suitcases and two smaller bags ( mostly carried by the children) we reached a city which is part of the famous Provence region of France. During the period from 1309 to 1376 seven successive popes had resided in Avignon ,all under the influence of the French Crown. To know about the history of a place and to see the place with your present day sensibilities are two different things. I had seen Vatican before, and now standing in Avignon I thought how the popes too had to abandon their place of residence due to politics of the rulers, or it would not be incorrect to say that the popes too were part of the politics. Politics ,power and religion have surely been the strangest bed fellows for centuries. We had chosen a hotel in the old city of Avignon, with the palace of the popes, the church all within walking distance. I could almost imagine history walking on those cobbled stoned roads on which we are treading even today. Close to our hotel was a beautiful broken bridge which was either left unfinished, or broken by the raging waters of the river. Standing on that bridge that evening we saw another sun set, the moon rising slowly and an evening melting into night. I wondered of the popes who would have seen this beauteous sun set from this very town, miles away from home ( Vatican), just like me. Centuries stand between history and us, but the past is kept alive through the centuries by our desire to know and understand the pages of history !
December 28. Day 6.
The next day in Avignon was spent discovering the city of lavender ( not in season though). Like a huge pandora ‘s box the city shops had opened their doors to the tourists. And we felt as though we were playing around in a maze. We walked through lanes and saw shops selling chocolates, candy, candles, soaps, wooden toys, postcards, books, linen, dainty aprons, so much more and the theme that ruled in all the merchandise was lavender, either in fragrance or in embroidery or colors or pictures. Wonderful French wine and bread kept our spirits going all through the day. There was much more to be seen of the Provence panorama, but we did not have the luxury of time. And when the time comes we all must exit, walking on bridges not knowing where the road will take us, yet the journey continues !
December 29. Day 7.
The year was coming to an end and so was our week long vacation by the French Riviera. The weather was challenging our tropical bones every day. Cold winds, occasional drizzles and the sun often hiding behind dark clouds made me shiver each time I had to step foot out doors. Like an old grandmother I looked for the warmth of fire places every time we entered any place to have a meal. The children on the other hand were brimming with energy and warmth. The train to Marseille traversed through some very scenic countrysides. Keeping the weather and time constraints in mind we had booked tickets for the hop-on and hop-off city tour buses for day sight seeing at Marseille. It was a double decker bus and the children went up the stairs to get the best view possible, whereas I settled in the lower deck with my scarf around my neck and trying to keep myself warm. The view of the city from the Notredame church was like looking down at all things beautiful all at once. On one side was the vast ocean with big and small boats sailing, the city looked perfect with the old and new world charm interwoven in complete harmony. At that height the wind was blowing harshly trying to throw us off balance but we stood transfixed taking in the beauty all around. Marseille, a very popular tourist destination, was one of the last places we saw before winding up our journey from the French Reviera . In our bags we had collected gifts from Provence for our friends back home. And in our hearts we had collected memories to keep reminding us of a holiday so special. The wind, the chill, the rains, none could break our spirit, for we were resilient travelers, determined to complete the journey we had begun.
December 30. Day 8.
From the French country the mother-daughter duo flew together to New York. And the son returned back home to India , to his father, just in time to bring in the new year together. I entered a snow covered New York City, my daughter’s home away from home, and mine too for the days to come. The next day was 31st December, the time to change the calendar once more. It is not the dates, or geographical boundaries that make any day special, it is that little light of hope within us that awaits for new beginnings at every turn .Holidays are like living a life of fairytale, almost on borrowed time and borrowed places. Fortunate are those who can travel, and blessed are those who can unravel the travel, making the journey a way of life !