I landed alone, with no hotel booked, in November 2010—twenty years out from my last formal French lesson. I was not just made to feel comfortable: I was charmed. Captivated. Elated. No, nothing says it like my favorite French phrase:
I was enchanté.
When I left Nice with half my heart, I resolved to go forward greeting the world with that phrase, and everything that came at me. Enchanté—pleased to meet you, for you are enchanting. Every time I gave that greeting, and meant it, I would gain back a little bit of my heart—until July 2013 when I’d return to live, for one magical summer, in this city I had met, and that had met moi.
I never did return, for I was abruptly introduced to Hurricane Sandy, whom I failed to enchant. She stormed our home, muddied our lives, and erased all our enchantments. 2013 became the year of further floods, flat tires, broken and stolen electronics, large boxes of debilitating and unrewarding paperwork, unyielding red tape, and dark, close concrete walls. Around every corner lurked some cruel blight meant, it seemed, to disenchant.
This was the opposite of what I had known of Nice, where around every corner il y a une surprise sublime. Here! An illuminated sculpture on a pedestal. There! Another. Here! A carousel twirling, whirlpool of color and laughter. It had been twirling before I turned the corner and it would whirl on as I turned the next, toward some yet-unknown treat.
Voila! In the window! Rainbow rows of real fruit reanimated impossibly into jellied candies, to be served in paper delicately printed with pink and light grey toile.
Qu’est-ceque c’est? A mural in the middle of the street? Oh! To cover a construction eyesore with eye candy.
Here! A ferris wheel! Just rising impossibly from a stumbled-on street! Why? Why not?!
There, on the ground! A lemon freshly fallen, burst, and fragrant.
People, milling about on a work morning, exclaiming through scarves and kissing two cheeks at bus stops. Kisses planted, baguettes tucked, here and there. Here, there. Ici, lá, ici, lá.
The way I had lived in Nice—no, the way Nice danced life around and with and through me—the muscle memory of those glorious days led me through the storm years. Superimposed on Long Beach was a Little Nice of my imagining, because those three days in France were every bit as real as those three years in Sandy. Just out of sight, just around that corner, here…or there…was the enchanted world. I remember a few months in, when the shock had worn off, thinking: I’ve had no delights today. And I’d walk to get a fresh donut, or stop my car to get out and inhale a lilac. I remember saying to Steve, on still-devastated streets, We’ve had no beauty. I know we have little money and even less time, but we must see Matisse at the Met. A year and a half in, I mourned the loss of my neighborhood. I need my people. So I asked for summer work at the local farmers market, where folks rode bicycles to baguettes and pressed on peaches and exclaimed. They made music and demanded to know why we didn’t bottle iced coffee without milk and taught me to make bracelets. They called me “Cawffee Girl” and I belonged. Every Saturday I watched my neighbors roll up on beach cruisers and greet each other and the purveyors with one kiss. I thought: we have our one kiss, we have our delights. This is no Marche aux Fleurs, but it is mine. I can live here in my own Little Nice.
She was the city that danced me in the warm light among small celebrations. And then taught me the dance so I could take it home. I remember Nice like I remember the Little Golden Books of my childhood. Poignant, evocative pictures with shiny golden edges and the feeling that you belong inside stories and that every story was born inside of you. Nice showed me that beauty belonged to me, truly, as a birthright—and that I belonged to beauty. I was helpless in the face of it: try as I might, I could not stress out even un peu that I hadn’t stumbled across a single hotel in my first three hours of wandering. So I’ll stay up all night sipping vin chaud and skipping over fallen fruit! I would find my way, and it would be wonderful.
In a Little Golden Book, a tug boat might come and pull me along or a deer would lead me to a place of rest, where a kindly old boulanger would agree to watch over me as his croissants baked into morning. This seemed no less likely on the shores of Nice, than it did in a childhood spent swimming through stories. The dark part would come, but love and light and words and delight would lead me out. Enchanté. Just follow the trail of candied fruit and nameless, label-less table wine the gods are spilling, always, even when you are not pleased or not home to see, even when you are disenchanted and refuse the dance again and again, for years.
In Nice on these enchanted streets, on the main enchanted street, 84 people were killed yesterday and still I shake my head, je ne comprend pas. Je ne comprend pas. How did a big, bad truck enter the story, hurtling, unstoppable? Can there really be blood on the final page? When does the kindly boulanger enter? Isn’t there bread baking? Where has the gentle deer gone? Why didn’t the tugboat arrive, and pull all the children away?
There was one dark spot on my visit to Nice, which I allowed my enchantments to erase. A bus driver at the gare, probably on break, whom I dared to ask for guidance. He yelled over my halting, polite French. He yelled at me to leave him, and called me a name I could not understand. I wanted to tell him that my Nice was a magician’s hat with a seamless, intricate French-made scarf being plucked endlessly from it, with new designs sewn into every yard—and that he, the bus driver, had stomped on my hat.
But instead I brushed off my magic hat and put it on again, hiding the dark where I couldn’t see it.
But the truck driver. He has taken all of our hats. And all the holes in all the hats are joined, and have swallowed the scarves and scenes and the stories, the fireworks and families, the bus driver and the city and the magic. This is the story we feared as children, the one we told ourselves alone at night: the monster in the closet, the witch by the oven, the ghost with a vengeance.
I want to give back to Nice what she gave me. But balance seems no longer possible; the axis has been thrown. Je ne comprend pas this kind of story. There is no tugboat page today. There is only blood, and waiting for morning, and remembering the scarves.
All I can do is lay my Little Nice—a shroud for the dead—over the city of enchantment. And mourn with her.