We started our day in Monaco this morning. Great to see but in retrospect, I could have skipped that part of the day and been just fine. Lunch at the world famous Café de Paris in Monte Carlo founded in 1863 was solid. Mostly we ate there because we needed a bathroom. That’s about what it as worth at the end: a decent place to pee in the richest nation in the world and a spinach salad with breaded boiled eggs. Bathrooms being at a premium you know…We returned to our Villa La Favorite shortly before scheduled dinner at “huit heur”, aka eight p.m. A visit to the mountain Village of Eze and a stop at the beach in Cannes had redeemed a good bit of the driving stress and the Monaco experience. A meal that we would from this point forward refer to as “Poulet ala Jean Paul” was the pre-planned main course. To say that the night would turn out to be even more special than the night before would be akin to saying Monaco is a “little” pretentious. Is there an adjective that equals triple epic? If so I would apply it right this very moment.
After quick shower we came downstairs to the lobby of the villa and were greeted by and introduced to the family of the gardener, Jöel. In attendance were Jöel’s wife Sylviane, his son Jonathan and his fiancé, Sylviane’s mother and of course our Josette (and Obie). At first I was confused. I wasn’t sure if they had been invited to dinner as well or if they just happened to stop by. For a moment I became uncertain-edgy. Would I have even more French to try to understand? Alor! Jonathan’s lady friend had a cake in her hands that had the exterior plastic casement of a Walmart purchase but the visual appeal of a pastry chef’s masterpiece. At first I thought to compliment the cake, but re-thinking that it would induce an obligatory invitation to join them for dessert, I withheld. Later at dinner in a solo moment CJ referenced the same thought and we were both glad that we avoided a potentially embarrassing situation. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries in the lobby of the villa. Everyone then wished us “Bon appetit!” which pretty much answered my question of who was coming to dinner. The three of us (only) sat down to a most delicious Caprese salad with fresh bread. Noting that we devoured the entire baguette last night, Josette had this evening put out two baguettes. Eye for detail “extraordinaire” as they might say here. The same Provence rosé we enjoyed last night was chilled and we ate and drank and spoke slow French together on the veranda in the sea air for 90 minutes. Très Magnifique!
Christiana’s French is coming along by leaps and bounds, a fact she largely credits to Josette’s patience and kindness. For the next course of the dinner: the poulet ala Jean Paul. It apparently isn’t really poulet, but rather a bird that is similar to chicken that is unique to the area. On the side we are served real, traditional, French pomme purée. Three ingredients only: potatoes, butter, and milk. The result is heaven on a plate…especially if that plate is on a veranda in Cannes looking out over the Côte d’Azur. In broken French we try to inquire about the preparation of the chicken as well. The best I can understand is that clementines, onions, bay leaves and butter are involved. Beyond that I have no idea. Later I sneak into the kitchen and survey the remains of the roasting pan for copycat cooking back home. The “not chicken” is absolutely, positively and completely delicious beyond even my wildest dreams. I walked past an Alain Ducasse 3-Michelin-star restaurant earlier today. I can’t imagine he could have served a meal with more passion or flavor than the masterpiece we just enjoyed. Camembert, more bread and red grapes to finish us off, and just when we thought we were safe from more food, along comes Sylviane from next door.
“Will you join us to eat the cake?” Well so much for being worried about the self-inviting problem, eh? The ensuing two hours were like a chapter from a Dickens novel: like a scene in a Monet painting: like a movement in a Mozart symphony.
Perfect. Timeless. Spectacular. Real.
The nine of us ranging in age from 25 to 88 sat in red wicker patio furnishings at a glass coffee table, and we ate cake off of square glass plates with small forks. We ate cake at the simple table in the patio area outside the gardener’s house and it seemed even more comfortable than the oversized veranda at the Villa. And we drank Kir royal peche poured by Jonathan, the aspiring young French artist who just got his first new car, TODAY! Oh did I mention that? Jöel the gardener grabbed our hands as if we were the next-door neighbors and led us up the stairs to the driveway before we ate cake to show off to us his son’s new car. It was a moment in a family’s personal joy and pride that I was emotionally overwhelmed to share in. And then we finished with Limoncello… just to settle the stomach of course. We spoke only in French and the energy of the language transcended the language barrier. Christiana’s fluidity continues to grow by the minute and we laughed and shared stories of our lives. For a moment in time we had become honorary members of a French family of workers, gardeners, and housekeepers. They are “our kind of people” and we felt at home, at peace, très content! The energy of the Monaco experience had now been completely countered by the Village of Eze, washed by the water of the Mediterranean sea, and most importantly by the love of a family of real people whose fears, joy, and dreams are no different than ours.
Villa la Favorite is for sale. At any moment a family like those in Monaco could swoop down and gobble it up. Throw 25 million euros at it and begin using it as a weekend house or renting it out to celebrities during the Cannes film festival. This is a fear that sits politely on the edge of each moment for the inhabitants of the Villa. I could see their joy in the moment as we drank, ate cake, asked about birthdates and zodiac signs, told stories. I could also see their fear of the unknown as they casually joked that we should “hint” to the owner, Jean Paul, that he should pull it off the market. A polite suggestion in jest perhaps but a wish just the same.
So in the end what did I learn tonight? I learned that Josette has 6 children and 13 grandchildren. I learned that my girlfriend speaks some mean French when more relaxed and forced to do so to understand. I learned that Sylviane has an 18-year old daughter that sings in the Opera in Nice. I learned that the French and Italians are still at odds over Nice because the EU has opened up trans-country employment. I learned that Jöel was a talented painter until he had a head injury so now he gardens. I learned that the dog at the garden house is deaf and named after a Police song. I learned that Jonathan bought his first new car today, a Mazda, and that he wants a green card to work in the U.S. I learned that our host in absentia, Jean Paul, likes to drink rosé in the room under the pigeon coupe decorated with Egyptian artifacts. I learned that Sylviane collects owls just like CJ does. And the amazing part is I learned all of this despite the fact that I don’t speak even a LICK of French. In the end the universal language of kindness transcends all, right? Mostly I learned that real people are real people regardless of nation, creed, or economic status. They eat cake with friends on weekdays when the opportunity exists. They kiss each other on both cheeks when they say goodbye, even if you just met tonight, because one kiss isn’t enough. They have fears. They have dreams. They like their roots to stay where they are and they want their kids to do better than they did. These are our kind of people and tonight was yet another reminder that in every minute, even the most simple can be extraordinary… if you let it.
We will leave Villa la Favorite in the morning, implored by the inhabitants to return in short order. We will offer a gift to our housekeeper Josette that will be politely deferred, but accepted with our insistence. We will drink roibos tea and eat Madeline cakes with honey. I may or may not ever return, but it will never leave me. Certain experiences become part of you. Change every fiber of your being permanently. I try to capture this moment in time with my words, but can’t help but feel like a painter with a canvas and not enough colors in his box of paint. For now I close my computer, smell the night sea air with the non-American burning wood one more time. Have one more sip of red wine from a small glass. This country is “in” me once again, this time like it never has been before. I rest well tonight, but like Christiana said last night when she dreamt in French, “I don’t know if there is a cure and if there is, I may not want to be cured.” It’s 1:30 a.m. in Cannes. I close my journal. I sleep… and I dream in French, like I never have before in my life.