Saturday, December 31, 2011

Antibes, day three

The amazing thing about being here (well, just being here is amazing ...) is that we can get up in the morning and say things like: 'Let's go the Cannes today'. Which is what we did.
It is very Princess Diana of us I have to say: 'my life is so hard, I really need to go and unwind in the South of France.' Well, bring it on. The south of France is rock and roll.
So to Cannes we went. We drove - even though you can easily catch a train. It seemed like a good idea. Cannes is about 30 minutes down the road from us, but about a million miles away from Antibes in terms of attitude and atmosphere.
We instructed Samantha to take us to the centre of Cannes. For reference, the technical centre of Cannes is the top of a squat hill, with a fort. So then we asked her to take us to the nearest carpark. She obligingly did.
We knew that things were not quite right in Cannes when we were beamed into the carpark by a dayglo Bruce Willis, circa 1989. Hmmm, this could get ugly.
Cannes is windy. Somehow, in Antibes, we are somewhat sheltered from the Mistral. At least I think it is the Mistral. We walked past a square in Cannes called Square Mistral so I assume that the wind must be the Mistral. Anyway ...
We wandered away from Bruce and around the marina and down to the beach. Here, I believe we probably took a misstep, and perhaps should have walked to the other beach, but no matter. Kids are always happy on a beach regardless of a wind that threatens to tear the clothes off your body, and fills your eyes with sand. They were happy. So we walked for some way down the beach and dodged waves and bathed in the sunshine (it was another spectacular day, despite the wind).
It was the French lunch hour and the children are now sensitive to this - so sensitive we could sell them as some kind of divining rod. But there was no where that offered the plates we all wished for (Zelda wanted lasagne badly, Myles was hot on salmon, Niccolo was wedded to a hamburger, and Paris and I were neutral). We left the main drag that runs along the beach and found our way into the tiny alleyways that we have fallen in love with in these southern towns. And here we found a little place with a madame who was fierce and sorted us out in moments. Myles, feeling adventurous, ordered mussels. And half a litre of wine. Happy days.
It was a lovely lunch with everyone happy with their orders, the wine thinning my blood nicely and a very interesting conversation between the members of the party about which, if any, discipline could adequately explain the beginning of the universe. Interesting perspectives from all, including the smallest.
We rose late from the table, and made our way, with tiny diagonal detours every now and again, down a couple of alleyways. This was a lively part of the town and there were no cars, so it made it a pleasure to walk about. Happy holiday makers everywhere, more languages being spoken than actual French and a surprising number of Australian accents. We weren't game to actually strike up a conversation with any of them, but it was homely to hear them.
Then we came out of a side street and suddenly we were in LA, with traffic and gallons of rubbish blowing in the air and our faces, andwe were immediately disoriented. How does anyone (or any govenment) ruin a city so comprehensively with this kind of town planning? Why you would put practically a freeway through a sleepy little town is anyone's guess.
Suddenly we were all desperate to get the hell out of there. Surely the south of France wasn't this - surely if we wanted to experience all the dubious joys of LA, we should in fact go to LA. So we edged off the freeway and back down the alleyway that reminded us momentarily of somewhere serene, and then fled to Bruce's smiling face. On the way, we discovered a market full of junk (I guess, it might be termed Trash and Treasure, but only theoretically). This sure as hell was LA, and the French are mad if they think that this is a good thing.
We drove out of Cannes and discovered the other half of the beach, which actually looked nicer, though also windy, and the chichi part of town with Chanel and Louis Vuitton and whatnot, including a designer called FRED. We liked this FRED very much as we drove past him. More power to him.
We were not turned towards home however. I was determined to take a bit of a pilgrimage to a little beach at Cap d'Antibes (not far from us actually) called Plage de la Garoupe. This little beach, according to moderately reliable historical sources, is the beach at which the mania (which we can tap today) for summer bathing (rather than winter retreat from the cold of the north) began. Now this can be disputed, I'm certain. But what can't be disputed is that on this beach, some of the most interesting artists and people of the early twentieth century set up beach umbrellas and basked in the sun for most of the 1920s. Yes, the Fitzgeralds came here and had a villa up on the hill, and yes, it was here that Scott Fitzgerald wrote the lion share of The Great Gatsby. It was here that Ernest Hemingway was 'lured' (according to his account in A Moveable Feast), where his son Jack caught something like whooping cough (perhaps not, but something that was contagious and for which he needed to be quarantined) and Pauline Pffifer came down to help and stole Ernest away from his idyllic love with Hadley. Ernest was always being lured. The man apparently had no will of his own. Also on the beach was Picasso. But most importantly (well, not for me necessarily; it was enough that Zelda was once there) was the Murphys.
The Murphys - Sara and Gerald - 'invented' the craze for summer bathing and doing it in the French south. They were Americans - rich ones of course - who had left the States to explore something new. They were both quite forward thinkers for children of the bourgeois East Coast, and were immediately enchanted by the art they saw in Paris. Gerald was supposed to have said, after seeing Picasso's work: 'If that is painting, then I want to do it.' Well, you can say that stuff when you are the heir to the Mark Cross luggage empire.
The Murphys were legendary. They quickly made their way into the very heart of brilliant, artistic Paris and then coaxed them all south. They settled on Cap d'Antibes and the Plage de la Garoupe in particular. Gerald raked the beach each morning (to free it of the millions of pieces of wood that scatter the beaches here like a plague), set up all the things one might need to bathe with. And then, the group would retire to their villa - The Villa America - for cocktails. Gerald's cocktails were secret and apparently heaven (and possibly lethal). 'The juice of a few flowers' was the way he described them. The Murphys made living an art form. They were both painted by Picasso, and photographed by Man Ray. I was a bit taken by Sara when I was younger. Those of you who knew me then might remember that for several years I wore pearls down my back. That is what Sara was famous for. I stole shamelessly from her.
Their life didn't end well. The twenties were a smash for them, but as the decade turned the corner, and the world went black, so did their lives. They had three kids - two boys and a girl - who they doted on. The boys however, through the thirties, both died; one of TB and the other unexpectedly of something odd; meningitis I think. The Mark Cross empire went into decline and Gerald had to return to America to salvage it. He gave up painting (which he had taken up after seeing Picasso's work, and had had some success). There was great sadness all round. I often wondered if they lost their sense of life and fun because of this, but I was reading about them on the internet during the last few days and something he said in the 1960s made me think that through everything, they were probably still great fun. After Hemingway published A Moveable Feast in which he roundly attacks the Murphys, Gerald was recorded as saying; ''What a strange kind of bitterness -- or rather accusitoriness . . . . What shocking ethics! How well written, of course.'' You have to love that.
There are great websites dedicated to the Murphys and a biography called Everybody Was So Young (I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it). The photos of them are incredible.
So ... that was where we were going.
Samantha took us the coast road and nothing could prepare us for how incredibly beautiful the whole area is. The day was shining like it had been polished and the water winked blue and bright at us. We drove through a little township called Juan les Pins, the perfect antidote to the dirty silliness (or the silly dirtiness) of Cannes - this was all about the water and the light and everything was serene and little and perfect. We didn't stop - I was impatient - but perhaps another time. Then we went around a few bends and we were clearly in depths of weathly private villaness. There were houses that rose and fell like a giant breathing and Sam told us to turn into a driveway - we must obey her - but then had to back out licketty split. There weren't EXACTLY well trained dogs snapping at our wheels, but they were there spiritually.
Then suddenly (again) we were at Cap d'Antibes, and we were turning down the Blvd de la Garoupe and there was the sign to the Plage de la Garoupe. I was beside myself.
It is the tiniest beach you might ever imagine, about as big as the beach that was in front of the Pelican (when it was still there) at Sorrento front beach. It is ringed with horrible, tatty beach bistros (closed for the season) and choked with wood. Who cares? Geniuses once sat here together and got skin cancer. Chatted about their writing, drank copious amounts of whatever, painted, posed for pictures, laughed. Swam. Played with their kids. Were absolutely and unassailably  human.
Zelda and I walked up the beach together. The boys discovered the wood and began sword fights. We then walked around to the point and stared out to sea. The water was indigo and violet. And again I wondered about why we ascribe so much to the land (ancient, historical, important) and the water - restless but ever present - is somehow always new and fresh. I guess it is renewed, but I like to think that Zelda Fitzgerald (who loved swiming more than almost anything else she did) swan in this water, and looked across to Nice as we did now, and thought happy thoughts.
The place made me so happy. I want to walk back there - it is not so far from us here.
As the sun disappeared, we walked back to the car and made our way home. It was literally five minutes to our apartment by car. So close, so very close.
We spread ourselves out over the furniture. It was early to bed.


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