AUG. 5 — CANNES, France
Yesterday I saw a yellow Maserati follow a black Ferrari as they passed a white Lamborghini with Kuwaiti plates.
This is Cannes.
Maseratis don’t get a second glance in this town. The Lamborghini drew a crowd as much for its license plate as its resemblance to an alien’s fighter jet. Ever seen a Lamborghini? It’s so low to the ground, it can pass trucks by going underneath their chassis. Children must bend over to peer in the windows. No wonder the Lamborghini is Italian. Only Italians can fit in it.
I saw this scene on la Croisette, the two-kilometer-long boulevard where the four lanes are separated by a long row of Mediterranean pine trees. La Croisette separates the Mediterranean from one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in Europe. Jack Nicholson walks la Croisette every morning when he’s in town for the film festival at Le Palais which anchors la Croisette like a luxury cruise ship. I walk it to get a feel for life among the rich and famous even though I’m not famous and if I stayed in Cannes much longer I’d be forced out of retirement.
La Croisette hotels such as Le Grand, J.W. Marriott, Carlton and Grand Hyatt Martinez all have their private beaches. Sculpted bodies, a few even without surgery, lie poleaxed on white-cushioned lanais chairs atop man-made wooden jetties 50 meters into the sea. In between the hotels are the brand names of every overpriced luxury clothes and accessory store on a woman’s wish list. Prada. Salvatore Ferragamo. Jimmy Choo. Yves Saint Laurent. Hugo Boss. Ralph Lauren. Every window display is presented like art in the Louvre. Can you justify charging 1,000 euros for a handbag just because it’s backlit?
I am one of the few straight men who likes shopping. Living in a Mediterranean environment, I’m slowly acquiring a Mediterranean wardrobe: linen trousers, tight and bright white and turquoise pants by David Saddler; collared, stretchy, short-sleeve shirts by Bruno Leoni; Capri loafers by Gutteridge and Company of Naples. Rome has two saldis (sales) a year and the big one is July and August. Prices are slashed in half. I bought three pairs of pants, three shirts and two pairs of shoes for under 300 euros. Rome is priced for underpaid Italian men.
Cannes has a sale, too. The difference is Cannes is priced for Jack Nicholson. That’s why my search for snow-white Bermuda shorts ended when I saw a pair priced DOWN to 180 euros. I saw these on Rue d’Antibes, a few blocks off la Croisette but not far from sticker shock that hit me like that Lamborghini. Polo shirts were 250 euros. A Burberry white T-shirt sold for 185. Men’s shoes were 600. A store specializing in just bathroom accessories called Creations JCD Cote D’Azur had 200-euro soap dispensers. Hairbrushes sold for 65.
This place is Rodeo Drive with a beach.
If it’s France, it’s not the France I knew cruising the back roads during my Tour de France days as a journalist, stopping in homey cafes or on village street corners, plowing into a bucket of mussels and a beer, all for about 10 euros.
Then again, the French Riviera is a place to be seen. Money can’t buy you fame but here it can certainly buy you the next best thing: status. A car dealership on the French-Italian border about 30 miles from here specializes in high-end sports car rentals. Men can rent Ferraris and cruise the Riviera pretending they own the car rather than their broken-down ‘98 Fiat sitting on blocks in front of Mom’s apartment building. Most go to nearby Monaco, the most pretentious place I’ve ever been. It’s filled with liars, wannabes, cads and frauds. And that’s just the Royal Family.
But seriously folks …
… the people who live in Cannes are quite nice. They well represent the French, a vastly misunderstood people whose national pride in food and language gets twisted into unfair assumptions that they’re snobs. In Cannes’ public market, a sprawling, open-air fresh produce emporium the size of an indoor football facility, I went straight to a cheese stand. The tall, middle-aged cheese jockey smiled as I asked for a taste of the Roquefort. It bled blue. Huge, juicy chunks of Roquefort floated in milky white cheese that melted in my mouth. As I swooned in front of his stand, the man laughed and immediately cut me 200 grams. One breakfast I ate nothing but that spread on one of those soft, narrow baguettes you see sticking out of bicycle baskets in romantic French movies.
At the nearby caffe, the scruffy, chunky owner always laughed as he handed me my morning cappuccino. Maybe he laughed due to fleecing another person for the larcenous 3-euro price but he spoke just enough English to make me feel welcome in a very foreign environment.
I’m not afraid to admit: I love the French. To hell with Americans who say they’re rude. I covered seven Tours de France. I’ve backpacked through Provence. I’ve taken girlfriends to Paris. I’ve been to every corner of the country, and I have yet to meet a rude Frenchman. When I hear an American complain about the French, my conversation always goes this way:
“Did you speak French?”
“Did you try to speak French?”
“Then why should they be nice to you? How would you react if the French came to America and expected you to speak French?”
The French are one of the few people who get angry if you don’t try to speak their language. But if you try, even if you butcher syntax and nouns with an accent out of a French cartoon, they’ll help you. Just try. If you walk up to a Frenchman and say, “Dude, where’s the Eiffel Tower?” Be prepared to get directions, instead, to hell.
Behind Cannes’ glitz and glamour hides a very French vibe. Rue Saint Antoine is a narrow, cobblestone alley that snakes its way down a hill in the cramped old town. Restaurants line both sides of the street which has room for about four people shoulder to shoulder, give or take a baguette or two. Every restaurant has a series of fixed-price menus, ranging from three courses for 22 euro to five courses for 49. Ala carte the dishes were outrageous, but not as absurd as off la Croisette where a restaurant called Vesuvio sells risotto for 32 euros.
I settled into a cramped table at Le Beija-Flor. That’s “hummingbird” in Portuguese. It’s a nod to Brazil, the favorite country of the owner, a tall, bespectacled, studious-looking man in his late 30s who has worked restaurants in Rio, New York and Rome. As he skittered around in his sneakers and long shorts, we chatted about different nations’ cuisines. I marveled at his bread, which you always find soft wherever you go in France at whatever time of day. In Italy, my market’s bread is fossilized by noon.
“France invented bread,” he said proudly.
I had escargot from Burgundy with garlic parsley butter and the poulet de Provence saute au citron, miel de lavande et huile d’olive. That’s a real pretty way of saying chicken with lemon, lavender, honey and olive oil. It was three little flattened chicken breasts with a sweet sauce that didn’t overpower the chicken, a meat I rarely see in pork-obsessed Rome, let alone eat. That and a soft chocolate cake with creme fraiche that spurted, warm, flowing chocolate was 27 euro, an absolute steal in Cannes.
I didn’t feel rich but Cannes has a way to make you feel famous. On a stroll after dinner, I posed for a picture on the Le Palais’ red carpet.