“Hello,” he said. “Are you American?”
“Yes,” I said, looking fully at him. He was smaller than I and perhaps 20 years younger. Olive-skinned, tidy. This could be interesting, I thought.
I had taken an early bus to Nice hoping to see the flower market, but it was Monday, flea market and antiques day. After fingering thick folds of embroidered table linens in one stall after another, I had begun walking along the promenade, wondering if I should return to Monaco and prepare for the conference. Sometimes, I thought, an answer simply walks up to you.
“I live here,” he said, his arms sweeping the Promenade. “I show you Nice. I practice English. You want coffee?”
He had curly black hair and soft eyes. I walked with him away from the sea, past grotesque, billboard-sized characters cut out of plywood and painted with garish colors.
“It’s the week before Carnivale,” he explained over an espresso. “Is good you are here now, not later. Later is very crazy, you know.” His name was Nico, a gardener. Today was his day off. I licked the last touch of foam from my café au lait. He plinked his empty cup into the saucer and pushed back from the table.
“We take my motorcycle,” he said,
I saw Audrey Hepburn riding behind Cary Grant, my silver Anne Klein raincoat flowing behind me, long scarf flying in the wind on the steep, serpentine roads of Provence, riding higher and higher, farther from the sea, farther from Monaco.
“No motorcycle,” I said.
“OK. No motorcycle.” He slumped, and then brightened. “You are hungry? We have lunch. My friend cooks.”
He led me to a small outdoor café near the market. Wooden chairs painted blue and red scraped the concrete underfoot. Yellow tablecloths. Small drinking glasses for the wine. He suggested I order Salade Nicoise. His friend, the café owner, doted. We were the only customers. We drank a ruby-colored aperitif that tasted like flowers. With every drink he raised his glass and toasted, “Cin Cin,” and I was reminded how close we were to Italy. He ate hungrily: garlicky fish, crusty potatoes. We had wine with a hint of hazelnuts. “Cin Cin! Cin Cin!”
I told him about my job, my husband, my garden in California. We had brandy. “Cin Cin! Cin Cin!” I paid the bill.
When we left, he reached up and put his arm around my waist. I felt silly and slightly drunk. I wanted to see the Matisse museum. Nico said, “We ride the motorcycle now?”
I saw Kevin Kline taking Meg Ryan to Cannes. I remembered that he had been a jewel thief.
“No motorcycle,” I said.
The bus lumbered up the hill to Cimiez. The museum, deep red with green shutters, a three-story 17th-century villa planted in an olive grove, bordered an archaeological site. A tumble of stones traced ancient walls and walkways. Nico led me to a Roman amphitheater, its sand-colored arches pitted and gnarled. A woman minding three children on bicycles splashed a brilliant pink shawl tightly around her white blouse. A man in a black suit hurried past.
Near the museum, magnolia trees had billowed perfectly round caps of musty pink flowers. Nico explained in pantomime and English that it took years to shape the trees so they would blossom only at their branch tips. I told him I, too, had a magnolia tree in my garden and wondered how he’d like my untamed tree, branches reaching wildly in every direction, flowers bursting along their lengths.
From inside the museum, I glimpsed the Mediterranean beyond an occasional unshuttered window. I was disappointed to learn Matisse had never lived there, but I saw one of his curtains hanging against the wall and felt his inspiration. The curtain was made in India of material intricately cut into flower shapes; the holes were the petals.
Nico didn’t go inside – Matisse didn’t interest him. We bussed back to the promenade and then he took my hand and led me to a garden on a cliff overlooking the sea, Le Parc du Chateau. Some people take a lift to the top. We snaked up the steep stairs. Near the top, we walked beside a waterfall, a veil of chiffon flowing over moss-covered rocks. At the top we ate ice cream. The sky had turned blue.
When our shadows grew long, I asked him to walk with me to the bus station. The conference would start early the next morning. On the way, at a gift shop for tourists, he waited while I bought a tablecloth with olives and sunflowers. The sky-blue side of the building teased passersby with trompe l’oeil: a painting of an artist painting a palm tree near a real palm tree. We kiss-kissed goodbye, left cheek, right cheek. And that was it.
I saw Grace Kelly driving away from Cary Grant in a white convertible and I wondered what would have happened had I taken that motorcycle ride. As the bus wound its way to Monaco along the edge of the sea, past villages clinging to cliffs, villas and fishing piers, luxurious yachts and expensive cars, I decided that sometimes the best romances happen at least partly in the mind.
Barbara Robertson’s work as a journalist covering visual effects and animation has provided the ticket for journeys to many countries over the years. When she’s not peeking behind movie-making curtains, she hangs out at home with her husband and three dogs. She’s won national and international awards for her articles, and writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter, The Bark, Animation Magazine, Film & Video, Computer Graphics World, and other publications.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.