BY KATHERINE HARVEY
It never fails: everything in France changes September one, starting with the weather. Gone are the heat and humidity; the air is crisp, the sun is lower and seems brighter and even the clouds change, naturally resulting in the sea becoming a different blue. The dogs are friskier and regattas resume filling weekends with sails and the memorable sound of the starting horn. School starts and the newspapers devote page after page to school openings, interviews of teachers, parents and students in preparation for “la rentrée” or reentry. For weeks before the opening of school, newspapers devote pages and pages to where to purchase school supplies, comparing prices but not necessarily comparing the same brand in different stores. Also written about endlessly is the banning of cell phones in schools and the four-day school week with longer days in class versus the four and a half day school week with shorter days in school. Some parents revolted against the four-day week and it has not been pretty. And this year it was decided that schools would open with music so students were welcomed with jazz bands, string quartets and rap singers. Opening day 2018 will never be forgotten.
“La rentrée” is big business and everyone wants a piece of the pie. There is even “La Rentrée Littéraire” when all the new books (567 this year to be exact) are introduced at once and bookstores prepare for the onslaught and authors hope their tome will be displayed center stage in the window.
Yes, bookstores. People here like to go to bookstores. Amazon is popular, but bookstores are doing just fine. Antibes has three: two French and one English. The English bookstore, Antibes Books, is owned by a cheerful English woman who by some quirk of something rents one of her apartments in Cannes to Milos Stehlik during the Film Festival; they have never met. One of the French bookstores is owned by a man who once told me he did not like Anglos because they refuse to learn French.
Needless to say, I was astonished (he is always nice to me I might add) but it is true that many Anglos refuse to learn French. Our doctor told me that he once asked an English only speaking patient how long he would be staying and the man replied that he had lived in Antibes for 20 years and the other day I overheard a woman say to her husband that it was annoying that all the people in the shops did not speak English. We have friends here who lived in Brussels for decades where he worked in government matters, he British, she Canadian. He spoke a little French but she not a word.
Now that we are in the first days of “la rentrée” tanning lotion prices have been reduced by 50%. Inner tubes and rafts have seen prices slashed; this year they came in all sorts of shapes: flamingos, swans and pineapples seemed to be very popular with the occasional alligator and clown fish for good measure. My favorite, however, is the round watermelon raft with lots of seeds that cannot help but make me chuckle every time I see it. Prices for beach buckets, parasols, those wonderful “noodles” and most other beach paraphernalia have also been reduced. The shop windows have changed with fall merchandise prominently displayed but I am not sure I am ready just yet for a down jacket no matter how chic.
The market is now empty on Monday morning and the restaurants whose terrace is in the market have their tables and chairs set out for the occasional early morning customer who needs a jolt of caffeine or a glass of wine while reading Nice Matin, the regional newspaper, and having the first cigarette of the day. Later, lunch customers will straggle into the market restaurants and cigarette smoke will continue to hang heavy over the covered area. Traffic is lighter so Moet and Chandon, the seagull couple that hangs out on the roof of the market, have fewer cars to dodge while they pick up discarded food that is thrown into the street from the food stands.
Michel and Eugenie are back to their winter schedule and will set up their stand from Thursday through Sunday, not coming on Tuesday as they do during the summer and Christmas and New Year times, except when they do. Michel and Eugenie are second generation sellers in the market, having met there when both Michel and Eugenie’s parents had stands. Michel and Eugenie took over his father’s stand, probably the most popular produce stand in the market due to his fair prices, excellent produce, big personality and kind ways. Michel buys the same produce that the more deluxe stands buy but he buys it a day later when the prices have been reduced. Eugenie’s mother still has her stand across from Michel and Eugenie, her stand being in the middle of the market reserved for “les paysans” or “the peasants.” This term is not pejorative but refers to the people being the salt of the earth, part of the Country. Many grow the produce and flowers they sell themselves.
Lucile and Jean are back on weekends with their oysters, mussels, cockles and shrimp. On Saturday I leave them my pan while my husband and I go to Les Filles du Micocoulier where he has his breakfast and I have a bottle of water. After breakfast I retrieve my pan, now brimming with shucked oysters and repair to our terrace overlooking the Med to enjoy the salty bivalves with a few drops of lemon. My idea of the way to start the weekend.
Situated just before the entrance of the market, Les Filles du Micocoulier (The Girls of the Hackberry tree) opened a little over a year ago where there had been a cheesy souvenir store and the annex of a wine bar. The owner of the wine bar has gone on to other efforts and someone had the brilliant idea of turning the area into a restaurant that specializes in “Sarrasin galettes” or savory crepes made with black flour. The names of the crepes, all made with gluten free organic flour, reflect the area: Monet with a fried egg and spinach, Renoir with four cheeses, Peynet (his museum is a short stroll away) shrimp with peanut sauce, coconut milk and vegetables. There are more, 11 total. To round out the menu there are sweet crepes made with wheat flour, also organic and gluten free, including crepes with maple syrup, caramelized pear, chocolate mint ice cream and many other tantalizing choices. They also serve salads, a burger and beef tartare. The flours come from Brittany, the area in northern France famous for crepes. On Saturday it impossible to get a table for lunch when the market is in full swing.
For many, breakfast at Les Filles is a wonderful way to start the day. They offer two formulas, one French with a hot drink, fresh pressed orange juice, bread, butter and jam and a croissant, and the other an English breakfast with a hot drink, fresh pressed orange juice, a fried organic egg, bacon, beans and toast. I will stick with my oysters.
Another mark of la rentrée is the start of the new theater season. There are three theaters in Antibes, each with a dramatically different personality. The Antibea is located in the center of the old town and presents classical plays. Le Tribunal presents contemporary theatre both serious and comedic. Now housed in a renovated former courthouse with auditorium style seating for 70, it used to be a cabaret theater one floor above a pizza restaurant in one of the main squares in the old town not far from the Antibea and was called Theatre de la Marguerite, La Scene Sur Mer. This is where I took clown classes when they were offered, spending many happy hours on stage. Sadly, clown classes are no longer offered but theatre classes for all ages are offered now that we are in la rentrée. Le Tribunal also hosts two festivals every year: the “Boeuf Theatre”, the oldest humorous theater festival in France and the winter festival, Femin’Arte, which includes painting, literature, dance, music, film, poetry, theater and sculpture.
The third theater in Antibes is the Anthea, located outside the center of town with no public transportation available after the performance. The building is architecturally distinguished and houses two theaters, one seating 1200 and the other seating 200. Most performances are of companies or individual performers of international importance and include concerts, opera, dance, theater, circus and stand up comics. Woody Allen on clarinet appeared there a few years ago with his jazz band; needless to say, the performance sold out within minutes after it was announced.
Other creative possibilities in assorted places around town include classes in ceramics, glass blowing, painting, knitting and other needle arts and language classes including Provencal. I am not sure how useful Provencal would be in Chicago, however. Two other courses are also available: 1) the restoration or construction of dry rock walls and 2) how to have zero waste.
Work has resumed on the grand project in the center of town behind the post office and panels have been put up to conceal the progress or lack of it. The new buildings will consist of eight movie theaters so that first run films will finally come to Antibes, shops, restaurants, apartments and a rooftop garden and cafe and will change Antibes forever. The buildings are scheduled for delivery in 2020 but if progress so far is any indication of when the project will be finished it looks more like 2025. To date only demolition has taken place and that took over a year. One of the great losses was the parking lot behind the post office where the clothing market took place every Thursday. Now the weekly clothing market is in the Place De Gaulle in the new part of town, is smaller and does not attract as many clients as it is not near the busy food market in the old town. The other loss was the elegant 1930’s kindergarten building which should never have been sacrificed.
The two week 27th annual International Sacred Music Festival will get underway mid-September with performances in the Antibes Cathedral, Chapel Saint Bernard, the Our Lady of La Garoupe and other venues with a total of eight performances. The programs include a Russian Orthodox choir, piano recital and flute and string trio.
The gregarious Igloo is not AWOL as I had thought; he greeted me this morning as I was on my way to the market with his usual tour of my legs, our ritual, then lay down to be adored which he always is. And there is a new kid on the block, Mephisto, who darts around looking elegant while Igloo just looks and is part of the neighborhood.