Friday, February 29, 2008

the leap back

It's my last morning on the French Riviera. The weather's turned stormy, chasing me inside the nearest establishment, which happens to be the Pont Magnan Brasserie.


Trademark blue-and-white beach umbrellas line the Mediterranean under the morning sky in Nice, France. (2008).

Interesting décor. Decked out in mirrored ceilings and shiny things, the place is all Miami Vice and 1986. Helping the mood: "Careless Whisper" by Wham! is playing over the hi-fi, and the thirtysomething bartender is unabashedly crooning along to George Michael's honey-dripped lyrics.

I order an espresso in the broken, Québécois French that I never really learned as a Canadian schoolchild years ago.

The coffee is strong enough to jolt the memory of an elephant.

I reflect. One thing I can say about Nice: it feels like France. Depending on where you're coming from, I suppose this can either be a compliment or an insult. I lean toward the former. Sure, with gritty streets and faded façades, the Mediterranean city shows characteristics of being something past its prime. But a certain je ne sais quoi joie de vivre does exist in the people here, and this matters.

People ask me if the French are rude. No worse than anywhere else, I reply. In truth, there's plenty of kindness around. Like in the middle-aged woman who offered (in Mandarin, no less) to help me find my hotel when I looked lost ... or the chain-smoking hotel manager who helped me find my lost passport ... or in the happy, singing bartender who just served me my second espresso.

I look at my watch.

Time to go home to Sweden, for the life which awaits there. I down my espresso, leave a tip, and head back into the pouring rain.

***
PS- It's really difficult to write about Nice without resorting to obvious puns.
PPS- Me and the editor whole-heartedly wish you a Happy Leap Day!



Dreamy Place Masséna in the day. Nice, France. (2008).


"That's my train!" Only Canadians will get that one. Somebody at home please tell me that Bombardier has stopped airing those stupid TV commercials. Nice, France. (2008).


Place Masséna at night. I tried almost endlessly to get the right shot of the ferris wheel and never felt I really succeeded. The above photo is maybe the best of a mediocre bunch. Nice, France. (2008).


Nice's famous, seaside Promenade des Anglais at sunset. (2008).


The luxurious Hôtel Negresco at night. Nice, France. (2008).


In keeping with the tradition of art gallery hopping in foreign cities, I visited the Musée d'Art Modern et d'Art Contemporain in Nice. I have to say I was a bit disappointed (limited time meant I had to forgo the new Henri Matisse Museum). Nevertheless, "Nissa-Bella" by Martial Raysse was a definite highlight. (2008).


Important newsflash: felix's daily starfish and waffles reports that 7-Up's Fido Dido LIVES ... in southeastern France. Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. (2008).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

behind painted doors


Look up, it feels like rain: a sleepy Sunday in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. (2008).

Figuratively-speaking, tides turn in sleepy places like Villefranche-sur-Mer. High above the sea along a twisted maze of streets and stairs, lives silently exist behind doors painted shamrock, scarlet and periwinkle blue.

Then, for better or for worse, the uneasy truce of stability breaks. Flames of emotion flicker and flare, forever shifting the uneven ground.

When succeeding is what we're afraid of most, it leaves us jealously guarding our smoldering hopes like the black-and-white squares on a checkerboard ... until, one-by-one, there's nothing left to defend.

Look up, ashes, it feels like rain. Not a good day to be outside without any cover.


Painted doors. Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. (2008).


The steep stairways of Old Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. (2008).


The rain-drenched streets of Villefranche-sur-Mer, France.


Through the historic tunnels of Villefranche-sur-Mer, France. (2008).

Friday, February 22, 2008

pranzo italiano!

Fact #1: I like to eat.

Fact #2: Italian is one of the the world's truly great cuisines. From Chef Boyardee (haha) to Giada De Laurentiis (mmm), it doesn't get much better than this, folks.

Rhetorical question based on Facts #1 and #2 above: If one chances upon the opportunity to enjoy lunch in Italy, would it not be a crime against humanity to turn a blind stomach on said, aforementioned opportunity?


Fresh oranges for sale at the markets in Ventimiglia, Italy. (2008).

Can't argue with that logic. So with great hunger, I leave France behind and head for Italy in search of la dolce vita ... well, at least as far as food is concerned.

The first stop past the Italian border is Ventimiglia.

"I had a friend who was from Ventimiglia ... I went there once, and I would never ever go back again," Lorenzo, an acquaintance from Venice, would later laugh.

Of course, not being privy to that information nor having any prior knowledge of the town at the time, I figure this is a good a place as any to get off the train.

***
Ventimiglia gets high marks for unpretentiousness - nobody's bending backwards to make things any prettier for tourists around here. This is a rough-and-tumble, working class town and, as a camera-toting Canadian traveler, I feel like a fish out of water in these parts.

But it's just as well. An authentic Italian town is more apt to serve authentic Italian food and this is what we're here for.

I look for a hole-in-the-wall pasta kitchen, preferably where the head chef is an angry-looking grandma that would beat you over the head with a wooden spoon if you didn't eat enough scrumptious pasta. Unfortunately, my search gets cut short when it starts to storm outside. I relent and escape into a rather modern-looking, bustling place on the coast.

The middle-aged waiters speak no English and laugh at me when I take pictures of my starter olives. Whatever. I order by pointing at the menu ... Gnocchi Bolognese ... a humble, honest, no-nonsense choice in a humble, honest, no-nonsense town.

It's simply delicious.


Fresh black and green olives are a good start to any meal. Ventimiglia, Italy. (2008).


Gnocchi Bolognese - fresh potato dumplings in a tomato-meat sauce - makes for a filling, satisfying lunch. Ventimiglia, Italy. (2008).


A view of Ventimiglia, Italy. (2008). Former capital of the Intermelii, an ancient Ligurian tribe, the city has been in existence since before Roman times and the birth of Christ.


Sorry for badly missing the focus on this blurry photo (sometimes it's pretty hit-or-miss when using manual focus lenses). But to me, this shot is what Ventimiglia is all about: fine, fresh produce being sold by a grumpy shopkeep with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Ventimiglia, Italy. (2008).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

lemoneye


Two pine - and not lemon - trees in Menton, France. (2008).

The promise of lemon trees, the annual Fête des Citrons (Lemon Festival) and the balmiest climate on the French Riviera lures me to Menton, a seaside town tucked away in the southeast corner of France. Cannes can wait another day, for juicy lemons are what I'm after this morning.

I envision lemons dropping on my head from mighty citrus trees. I imagine drinking tall bottles of bubbly Sprite - sans the pesky lime flavour. I foresee a zingier version of the famous tomato fight in Buñol, Spain, only with lemons zipping through the air and many an eyesight being mercilessly blinded in a fresh, lemon-scented wake.

Oh, it's going to be sweet. Or shall I say, it's going to be tart. Haha, "tart." Sometimes I kill myself.

What's not funny: when I get to Menton, there's nary a lemon to be seen. I mean, acrid dude, what gives? So happens the annual Lemon Festival isn't for another two weeks (see this previous post about my penchant for unplanned travel). But even worse, I don't see a lemon tree anywhere ... just rows and rows of boring orange trees.

Well, juice a lemon in my eye ... for Menton is no lemon town, in my opinion. Sure, the beach and water are lovely here, but I'm too sour to stick around. Besides, it's time for lunch, so on to the next town we go.


Blue skies over a lonely pine and the French Riviera in Menton, France. (2008).


Golden sand and turquoise water in Menton, France. (2008).


A seaside castle on the Mediterranean. Menton, France. (2008).


A view of Vieux Menton (Old Town). (2008).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

dingobear's life aquatic

Creationists: cover your ears ... because we opine that life is better from where we originally came, under the sea. There, you can drown and dissolve your terrestrial worries and live out your deepwater days amongst the friendly mermaids, squids, and starfish. But what if you're neither snorkeler nor diver, nor grown a pair of gills? Luckily, Monaco's Musée Océanographique et Aquarium offers a dose of relief in the interim. Here are a few pictures.


According to my sources, this colourful little guy is an Evan's anthias (Pseudanthias evansi).


Glubb, glubb ... a Yellow-striped cardinalfish (Apogon cyanosoma).


A pair of happy, Blue-green chromis (Chromis viridis).


Na-na ... na-na ... na-na-na-na-na-na ... insert your favourite shark theme music here for this Leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata).


Crazy sea life, which I'm told are tube anemones of the order Ceriantharia.


Trying to find Nemo ... but which one's Nemo? Baby Common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) all sort of look alike.


A little help from your friends. A Gold-headed sleeper goby (Valenciennea strigata) takes a Scarlet skunk cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) for a ride.


Scorpionfish (Pterois volitans) are scary-looking beasts.


Does anyone else think that this Garden eel (Taenioconger sp) looks like Slimey the Worm from Sesame Street?


And we've saved the best for last: a six-point, Asterina starfish (Asterina sp)!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

radio free monaco

The loudspeaker sounds in garbled French. Another delay. So there I sit, on an idle train in Nice Central Station, waiting. I fold my right arm across my body to hold my left elbow and, with long-sleepy synapses awakened, I think of Becky.


The world-famous Monte Carlo Casino on a balmy Monaco night. (2008).

Becky was this quiet, shy and probably adorable girl in my first grade class who did the exact same thing with her elbow whenever she got nervous about something. I remember one day, me and Becky got into some stupid little argument that six-year olds get themselves into. I said some mean things, hurt her feelings, and made her cry. I got in trouble and was forced to apologize. But it was sincere - I really did feel bad about it.

And I feel bad about it today. Maybe it takes a special, fucked-up kind of mind to feel guilty as hell about something trivial that happened such a long time ago when I was nothing more than just a stupid, know-nothing, kid. But here we are, sitting on French trains going nowhere, holding our fucking elbows.

***
In past flares of depressive angst, I’ve maintained that approximately half the people out there hate me because somehow I’m too good, and the other half because I’m somehow not good enough. (I suppose you haters out there can take that statement whichever way you want). Assuming there’s some truth in that paranoia, for today’s scheduled destination – the pomp Principality of Monaco – I'd expect the latter scenario to be somehow more likely. That is, of course, if the train ever gets moving.

Eventually, it does.

When I arrive, Monaco is every bit the extravagant, little bastion of opulence I imagine it to be. This shouldn't be surprising because the principality, which has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297(!), is home to some of the oldest money around. And although the country spans only 2 square kilometers (that's about 0.75 square miles, I guess) making it the world's second-smallest nation, it looks simply looks grand.

Perched on lush, craggy cliffs high above the Mediterranean, Monaco is a playground and tax-dodge haven for Europe's super-rich and famous. Think shiny Porsches, majestic garden fountains, and public toilets with attendants you tip. The heels are high; the suits, Armani. No taboos on wearing mink here.

Behind all of the diamonds and botox, I do, however, sense an air of unfriendliness and plain discontent in the people. I suppose it isn't helping that, in this particular Rome, I'm dressed the part of a plebian, what with my drab Havana t-shirt, out-of-fashion jeans, and worn-in sneaks ... but, still, it feels like it's more than just this.

A part of me can't help but wonder if beating yourself up and feeling guilty for things, even if you don't fully deserve it, is a regular pastime here in Monaco, too.


The Monte Carlo Casino by day. (2008)


Hexa Grace ... vivid, tiled, rooftop art by Victor Vasarely, Hungarian artist and godfather of Op-art. (2008).


The manicured streets of Monaco. (2008).


The lights of Port Hercule, Monaco. (2008).


Port Hercule and Monaco, at night. (2008).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

mr. nice guy

I booked my ticket at 2am on Wednesday morning. By Thursday, I was on a Swiss Air Lines flight to Nice, the capital of France's Côte d'Azur, or the French Riviera, as it is otherwise known.


Situated on the renowned seaside Promenade des Anglais, the pink-domed, pastel-coloured Hôtel Negresco has been a Nice landmark for almost 100 years.

Mired somewhere in the muddled middle of my European hitlist, Nice isn't exactly a priority destination. Call this travel on a whim, which I suppose is the type of unplanned journeying that I've somehow become accustomed to over the years.

"Maybe it's better not to have any expectations," Katja had said, "that way, you can enjoy whatever happens and not be disappointed."

She's right. I don't have any expectations and my prior knowledge of the French Riviera is sketchy at best. What little I know:

* Nice. I first took notice of Nice on the tattered National Geographic world map my dad had Scotch-taped to the basement wall as a geographically-nerdy six-year-old. I recall being amused by its nice name.

* Monaco. Besides the Grand Prix, I think I remember MuchMusic reporting a few years ago that Monaco's Prince Albert had angered Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue by getting a little too frisky for comfort at a music awards show. (Vroom, vroom).

* Cannes. Hollywood movie stars, paparazzi flashbulbs, and the topless rich congregate here each May for the world-famous, Cannes Film Festival.

* St. Tropez. I think my mom still has this old, white St. Tropez sweatshirt, which features a fluorescent green palm tree and neon pink sunglasses - colours that were all the rage in 1988.

* Antibes. Martin, my Austrian former roommate, told me Antibes was, and I quote, "really nice."

***
So happens, I won't even make it to the last three places in the above list, though I don't know it at the time. But that's flash travel for you: things don't always go according to plan. For ultra-organized travelers, I would imagine this to be incredibly irritating.

But I don't mind. The unexpected is just real life and, for me, travel is exactly that - real life - and not merely just an escape from it.

***
The Swiss Air jet circles and makes its final approach to Aéroport Nice Côte d'Azur, situated on ridiculously good real estate right on the coast. Outside the airplane window, I can see from the snowy Alps all the way down to the waters of the Mediterranean, which are a shade of stunning blue that Crayola hasn't yet labelled on a crayon.

The plane taxis and stops. As I walk down the steps to the tarmac, the golden rays of the sun warm my face while I peer out over the Mediterranean. For just a moment, I'm without a care in the world, before I get on with figuring out what's next.


The blue waters of the Mediterranean, the smooth pebble beaches of Nice.


Sunset over the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) and Nice, capital of the Côte d'Azur.


Nighttime in Place Masséna, the electric heart of central Nice.

Monday, February 04, 2008

terminating california's state parks and lifeguards

With California fiscally drowning deeper into the red, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed a round of painful budget cuts in an attempt to close an eye-popping, $14.5 billion projected deficit. The Governor's plan to shutter 48 parks and beaches in California's prized state park system stands out as among the most controversial of the reductions.


A fallen redwood in Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. This lovely photo was snapped by Flauto and is published here on starfish and waffles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License.

Parks on the chopping block include Topanga State Park, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, Morro Strand State Beach, and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area.

The closures are expected to save the state $13.3 million in fiscal 2008-09 - or a miniscule 0.009% of the estimated budget shortfall.

Such meager cost savings have critics haranguing the shortsightedness of Schwarzenegger's proposals.

According to state officials, the affected parks hosted 6.5 million visitors in 2007. Those visitors included school groups of urban children with limited opportunities to experience green space and legions of avid hikers, joggers, surfers, campers, and artists.

Click here, for the full story at ethicaltraveler.org.

***
Believe it or not, Felix writes for the Ethical Traveler news team. Ethical Traveler is a project of the California-based Earth Island Institute.