“If you have not bought a ticket to the Riviera by the next session I will not consult you anymore,” my psychotherapist warned me, half-jokingly. I was overworked at the time. So overworked in fact that I wasn’t able to even respond to my friend’s repeated invitation to visit her in Monaco. “Let’s sit in Cafe de Paris, drink Prosecco, I’ll introduce you to Simon de Pury – you’ll see it’s going to be fun!” Kristine had emailed me.
Out of sheer courtesy I agreed that Cafe de Paris would be cool, but I did it only because I felt that everyone should know this place. I, however, did not know it and had no craving to do so. Monaco, the French Riviera – I thought these to be names from old movies and books that interested me little at the time. Again and again I avoided giving Kristine a clear arrival time, and candidly shared this failure with my therapist. She, in turn, observing my growing apathy, had decided to exert pressure on me for the benefit of my mental and physical health.
The reason for the fatigue was a large international conference that I had prepared almost single-handedly over the course of the previous six months on behalf of an international organization employing me at the time. The board of the electronic-text + textiles society, scattered in Chicago, Basel and London, had entrusted me with organizing the annual meeting of the Society for Science, Literature and the Arts (SSLA). A Professor of Digital Architecture and Philosopher of Mathematics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), biotechnology researchers from several Australian universities, a Professor of Literature from Brown University in the US, new media artists from MIT and the University of Montreal: more than 250 researchers from different fields of research sought to find a common language under the slogan of post-humanism and digital revolution. Over the past three years, the organization had invested heavily in making me an adept of this topic. I had attended SSLA conferences in Berlin and London, and gone through a one-month residency at the ETH Digital Architecture Unit in Zurich. They were eager to engage me in the discussion from the Critical Theory’s point of view. And since I belong to those who find the incomprehensible so much more enticing than the comprehensible, my participation in the organizational process was the exactly the right place for me at the time.
I was responsible for everything that happened in Riga: from attracting partners and drawing up proposals to submitting the projects, from travel logistics to conference advertising, from the technical section to the application of the diplomatic etiquette. However, the biggest achievement by far was persuading Ms Diāna Pauna, the Vice-Rector of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga (SSE Riga) where the conference took place, to give over their lobby for hanging numerous pieces of black tarpaulin-type fabric everywhere – an installation by a duo of Canadian artists. The pictures show the black fabric hanging like ominous ravens over the heads of young clerks. They obscured the view and made it difficult to move through the lobby. Perhaps this daring feat by Diana Pauna and the SSE Riga’s tolerance of something as incomprehensible as contemporary art was one of the reasons why I accepted the invitation to work for this organization shortly afterwards.
At that time, the concept of work and private life balance and task delegation was not familiar to me. I was sweating through all of it completely alone and non-stop. Just like Sarmīte, the coach in our evening ballet class at the modelling school, who used her commanding tone of a Soviet ballet expert to make us bend our backs “Lower! Lower!”, I propelled myself forward through the day: “Faster! Further! Higher!” I was so driven and high-strung that the classes of aerobics and ballet that I took every week seemed like nothing. If I’m not mistaken, I was contemplating adding yet another session to these. There was no man in my life at the time, and I invested all the remnants of the parting pain from all previous relationships into this project. On the rare recreational moments, I sipped wine with a couple of young philosophers and listened to them judge Leibniz, Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty. They were among the few who at least had the potential to understand anything of the complex interdisciplinary discourse expected at the SSLA conference. When I grumbled to the therapist that they were my only company at the moment, she replied that it was these bohemians who were able to give me a respite from my burden of responsibility.
The conference week arrived. The SSE Riga’s Soros auditorium filled up with lively and communicative conference participants. Riga was new to them; everyone was glowing with happy intrigue. My leaders were very impressed with the flawless organization and asked me to address the guests in an opening speech at the conference. My friend Eva, an architect, was among the guests. At the opening banquet, she came up to me: “It is only tonight that I grasped the tremendous amount of work done by you. All this time you talked about it so lightly that I had no idea of the weight you were pulling. ” Eva had touched upon a note that has been topical for me all of my life. Make things look easy, hide the true level of difficulty – that is my heritage of my family of aesthetes, where lightness and elegance were appreciated more than hard work. However, that is exactly why I am frequently misunderstood: the ability to make things appear easy does not necessarily mean that there is no hard work underneath it all.
As the days of the conference rolled out, my muscles began to give in to the tension, and I started feeling the true fatigue. The opening photos of the conference showed dark circles under my eyes. “Let me take you to dinner tonight,” wrote Richard, my suitor of the day. “You deserve a little rest.” There was so little strength left in me that I found it easier to agree than to stick to the principle that this week was meant for work only. Finally, even I myself came to realise that I did need some rest. That night, before going to bed, I bought a ticket to Nice. The next day my managers were more than happy to approve my leisure plans, they even arranged for the whole trip to be documented as an official visit, and provided me with generous travel allowance. For them, organizing the SSLA conference had been an opportunity to move up the organizational hierarchy ladder. And since everyone was positively gushing over the Riga event, these prospects were real.
I left at the end of June. Kristine’s plan was for us to spend a few days in Monaco and then go to a country house on the Italian side. I had never been to the south of France, I had no idea what it looked like or what to expect there. The pictures sent by Kristine of her and her German boyfriend Stefan visiting the Monaco Yacht Show were of course impressive. Her beautiful Slavic facial features, the long blond hair and equally long tanned legs against the background of a white yacht looked like a million bucks. And, indeed, they had pretended to be a millionaire couple to get into the yacht show’s VIP events. Cute, little tricks that, as I would find out later, were quite characteristic of the Monaco life. At that time, the Riviera was flooded by Russian oil and gas tycoons. For the descendants of the French aristocracy, whose centennial villas in Cap Ferrat and Cap d’Antibes had been gnawed by the tooth of time because no one had the means to upkeep them, let alone renovate, the Russians brought the hope of a second life. They heedlessly cut off the trees planted by their great grandfathers because they obscured the view of the sea (the view that every Russian wanted) and were more than happy to give away their grandma’s villas to any buyer who, unlike Europeans, did not bargain over the price. “Sometimes I drive past Villa Rosmarine built by my grandfather, a Scottish-French aristocrat, in Cap Ferrat and presented to my grandmother on their wedding day, and rejoice at its rebirth ,” I would later on hear from Marianne, an acquaintance of mine. “Oh, how happy I was about these Russian buyers! A bit more and I would have had a nervous breakdown. The villa was like a millstone around my neck. ” For the money received she bought two apartments in Monaco and proceeded with spending her days at a leisurely ease. You will not hear a bad word said about Russians on the Riviera. No wonder that Kristine and Stefan could secure admission to anywhere they went by pretending to be them.
On the morning of the flight, at the airport bookstore I noticed and bought an English edition of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender is the Night”. I experienced a flashback that the novel was set in the French Riviera. Upon leaving the Nice Airport, I was engulfed by the sweet tropical smell of the South. Barcelona sprang to mind, even Granada, but the air here seemed sweeter still. I took a deep, deep breath. It had rained recently. The air was warm and fresh. I sensed I would enjoy myself here immensely. I took a look at the phone – a text message from Kristine. “Just had a big row with Stefan. Left for Germany. He returned to the house in Italy. I’m sorry, darling.” Oh la la! I was suddenly left alone in this tropical paradise. What now?! I looked up several hotels in the tourist guide right at the airport. The taxi drove me to the Vendome Hotel first. I immediately liked its graceful and peach-coloured Belle Époque building. Moreover, the evening was approaching fast and the suitcase was heavy. I decided to stay there tonight and go to Monaco the next day as planned.
The hotel was nothing out of the ordinary, but the carpets were soft and clean, the room was cool and the bed linen – good. The French staff – just as arrogantly detached as one might expect. I ordered dinner to the room and opened my laptop; I was looking for a local radio station on the internet. I stopped channel surfing at the Riviera Radio, a British expatriate station. Rihanna’s popular hit “Te Amo” filled the room, and in its video clip she and the French model Laetitia Casta engaged in a passionate dance. Their bodies wrapped around each other like lush ivy. I opened the window and the aroma of the Mediterranean permeated the room in waves, mixed with the toxic sweetness of car emissions and the sounds of dinnertime socialising around the city. Rihanna’s composition matched the atmosphere perfectly – that was my last thought before I fell asleep deeply and thoroughly. I would allow myself to sleep in as long as I wanted the next morning.
The morning enters the room bringing with it bright, lemon-yellow sunlight. I open my eyes and realise that I am in a whole different world. The idea that I would have to pack my suitcase again to go to Monaco does not appeal at the slightest. There and then I decide to stay here, in Nice for a few days. I squeeze my swimsuit and a book into my tiny handbag and head straight for the beach. I walk intuitively. I arrive on the Promenade des Anglais along the white side of Le Negresco Hotel. The blue of the Mediterranean amazes me. I have never seen anything this beautiful. Nestling alongside the shores of the Gulf of Nice, the turquoise landscape with palm trees and lime-white beach buildings looks like a dream. I walk to the first private beach across the street – Plage Beau Rivage. The blue and white striped umbrellas and chaise-lounges of the Art Deco-style resort promise refreshment and hedonistic relaxation. I settle into my beach chair, fix the backrest so I that I can better see the sea and immerse myself in this landscape like in a whipped cream cake. So sweet, so gentle, so good … “We go to the mountains to prove our vitality,” writes Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain. “The sea accepts us as we are.” I go for a swim in the sea and, lying back, explore the sensation of the salt grains and the sunrays alternately irritating my skin. “How good of Kristine to have brought me here,” I muse before losing myself in a sweet nap.
The next day I arrive at the beach earlier. The green water glistens brightly in the glorious sun. Hypnotised, I watch the landscape for what seems like hours. My senses and mind cannot believe this experience. “It turns out that such beauty is possible,” I write in a diary. “My imagination could never conjure it.” I have visited countless beautiful places in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, but nothing, nothing compares to this. I observe other guests of the resort. There are several German and French speaking couples on the one side. I notice a waiter bringing drinks to a Russian couple on the other side. Bloody Mary! I look at the watch: it’s a little over 11 am. Nonetheless, I feel inspired by the example. I wave to the waiter for an order: a rosé.
I finally open Fitzgerald’s novel. I read, and read, and read and I cannot believe the synchronicity of it all: just like me the protagonist of the novel experiences the magic of the French Riviera for the first time, and it thrills his soul and opens his heart. ”But the diffused magic of the hot sweet South had withdrawn into him – the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below – the magic left these things and melted into Diver and became part of him.”
Fitzgerald’s masterful sentences reflect the nature, wealth and sensations gliding like fingers through a woman’s hair, engaging her in a sensual play wisp by wisp. The characters in the novel sink deep into me. I raise my eyes to the sea: my heart strings, too, tremble quietly in an anticipation of something yet unknown and magical. For the next ten years, I would continue to return to this place in search of this moment.
The routine for the next days settles in: a bath, a book, a rosé, a bath, a book… And fresh salad, seafood, tartar de beuf, carpaccio, even Bologna sauce – in the salty sea air the appetite is good. The waiter suggests booking the same chaise-lounge for the next days. Waiters are much kinder in the beach resorts. When he has been attuned to your every wish all day long, it is inconceivable to head away without leaving a tip. In the upcoming days, I greet the couples from the adjacent chaise-lounges. The Russians continue to booze from early lunch onwards. Meanwhile, my skin gets tanned as the days flow by. It radiates sensuality and warmth. I decide that for a change I would go and explore the city.
Nice is the city of Matisse, Nietzsche, Chekhov, but above all I want to visit the Mark Chagall Museum. It is a feeling of a compatriotism that binds me to this Jewish fakir. His native Vitebsk, not unlike my hometown Riga, was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Chagall’s lean goats, lame greybeards and skewed huts of Jewish villages awaken in me as strong a spiritual feeling as the colour fields of his compatriot Mark Rothko.
The museum is located in the Cimiez district, in the northern part of Nice. The road leads uphill, but the boulevards become wider and wider, I start to notice a lot of royal references in the street names until at some point the majestic Grand Hotel building emerges right in front of me out of the shades of the great trees. In front of the hotel stands a large white statue. I approach it overwhelmed by intrigue. The woman, surrounded by virgins and children, is Queen Victoria. Instead of a royal mace, she holds a bouquet of flowers, and, in its grandeur, the sculpture evokes the same awe as that in front of the Kensington Palace in London.
The Excelsior Regina Palace Hotel was built in 1895, when Victoria expressed a desire to stay in Nice more often, if only “living conditions were suitable for a royal suite.” Within a couple of years, this magnificent building was constructed overlooking Nice and the bay. It could accommodate more than 100 members of the Queen’s Court, including the Scottish Guards, who accompanied her everywhere. The whole of the British Empire and also of the French Riviera was at the feet of Victoria. Her instant falling in love with the Riviera gave the green light to the British aristocracy to visit and invest in this place. Many of the most beautiful villas and gardens on the Riviera were built during that period. The British also invested in infrastructure: the English Promenade, schools, libraries, the railway. Lord Deudon (surname has been frenchized), the grandfather of the previously mentioned aristocrat Marianne, established the first modern hospital in Nice. There is a street near my hotel named after him. The municipalities of the Riviera were ready to do anything to attract and retain this audience. In Nice, aristocrats settled in the Cimiez district. Even today, my aristocratic acquaintances from Paris, when on holidays in Nice, mention Cimiez as their address. It turns out that the location of my Vendome hotel should not be judged by its distance from the beach, but by its proximity to this neighbourhood.
After daydreaming of bygone times I go on to the Chagall Museum. Its modernist forms and peaceful gardens exude a cooling effect and provide meditative silence. That was Chagall’s idea when he opened the museum in 1973 with 20 Biblical works from post-war period. Over the years, the museum has expanded the collection of Chagall’s works, and now, in addition to the original cycle, it boasts paintings from the inter-war period and even earlier. I feel deeply moved to read about the fate of the Eastern Europe, seemingly so far from it – in this tropical paradise. His flying gods, goats – violinists and harlequins talk to the part of me that sees everything and therefore lives through experiences with the directness of a child. Moving to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Chagall used the same ceramic kiln as Picasso. Works of clay and stained glass on Christian themes can also be seen here. I feel so charged that I no longer have it in me to visit the Matisse Museum, the Simje Amphitheater or the Franciscan Monastery. I leave it for a next time. I still have not gotten around to visiting them, though I have been to Nice every year for the past ten years. I am a believer of a right time and a right place.
When travelling, I never try to cram into the visit everything worth seeing; I rely on an intuitive selection.
I walk around Nice with the naivety and trust of the characters in Chagall’s paintings. My critical thinking has been spent at work over the previous months. I allow this environment to surround me and carry me along. At this time, the Riviera is just beginning to recover from the 2008/2009 crisis. The city is shabby in a romantic French way, and it is almost impossible to order food in English. One evening I would order pancakes that turn out to be galettes according to the Brittany recipe – from buckwheat flour and without any spices. I can still recall their bitter and at the same time tasteless “taste”. On another occasion, hiding from a storm, I would order a soup in a fine restaurant only to receive a stew that consists of all kinds of sea creatures. I eat soup worth of 35 EUR without chewing.
Two years later, when I visited the EDHEC Business School in Nice, its management was still complaining about the reluctance of the Nice Airport staff to learn English and introduce tourist-friendly measures. That would soon change and the Riviera would experience a massive wave of construction and tourism expansion. However, in the July of 2010, which I live through in this story, Nice feels safe and cosy. The city’s atmosphere has not yet been changed by migration waves from the Middle East and Africa. Today my acquaintances in Monaco speak about Nice as if of a different country. Cannes, Antibes, St Tropez is one thing, but Nice – they try to circumvent it as undesirable. My memories of those sunny days on the beach in Nice and the feelings I have walking along the Promenade des Anglais today – after the 2016 terrorist attack – are like day and night.
I learn that Ieva, a good acquaintance of mine from Lugano, is currently attending a conference in Monaco. I have enjoyed my time alone, and now I want to socialise. We set a date in the Casino gardens. I put on my most glamorous dress and go to Monaco. There I have a coffee in the port area and meet the first waiter during this trip who likes to speak English. When exiting on Prince Albert’s I Boulevard that runs along the marina, I see the legendary view of the harbour. So far, it has seemed like a film studio for Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly to me. It’s hard to imagine a mortal having anything to do with this place. More than the white sea of yachts, I am impressed with the golden sun-coloured buildings that stretch along the avenue leading up to Charles Hill (Monte Carlo – named after the Monaco king). In my mind’s eye, I see Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow from the “Talented Mr. Ripley” driving their convertible up the hill to the casino. The map shows that I have to go there, too.
Midday is approaching; the sun burns stronger with every passing minute. I study the map and decide on what seems to be a shortcut. I start walking. I walk, and walk, and walk, but seem to get no closer to the destination. I seem unable to even find the street indicated on the map. After a very long route of trial and error, it dawns on me that the map should be read differently in a mountainous place. What seems like a shortcut is actually the street that takes me higher uphill and away from the desired destination. I need to get back down to the sea. I take an elevator down. But it takes a long while to figure out which level I have ended up on. It is getting close to 2pm, and I had agreed to meet up with Ieva at 1pm. Finally I approach the casino gardens and find a payphone. The heat of the beginning of July is fiery, I feel the gorgeous dress sticking to my back, and my sweaty fingertips slide off the phone digits. The payphone booth feels like a torture room. “I’m already on my way to Lugano,” Ieva says loudly over the phone. “The conference ended earlier.” All my wanderings around, heat and sweat for nothing. I am disappointed. But not for long.
With the first steps in the gardens, I absorb such freshness and cool moisture that in a moment all the past tribulations have been forgotten and a new reality sets in. Slender palm trees, ancient, mighty trees, the scent of exotic flowers, a fountain with green waves glistening in the distance and the Anish Kapoor’s sculpture “Sky Mirror” shining. It is so quiet and peaceful here that I am overwhelmed by a strong sense of well-being. I see a welcoming cafe under shady foliage. I sip an espresso and refresh myself endlessly in this oasis. The Casino gardens were part of the Monte Carlo Casino complex when it opened in 1863. They stretched from the current Boulevard des Moulins to the cliffs above the sea, surrounding the casino building in a fabulous realm. Even Queen Victoria, who condemned the casino, admitted that casino gardens have no equal in their beauty. For the next five years, when I settle here, the morning coffee in the casino gardens will become a tradition. I will also witness how, over years, the gardens are altered, not to say destroyed, beyond recognition. With each passing year, the trees will become rarer, the green area -reduced and – to crown it all – the lawn opposite the casino building will be turned into a paved walking area in early 2020. The Monaco authorities justify this by security reasons. The reality is that the casino area today is not much different from Dubai’s artificial lounges.
But this summer of 2010, the paradise is not yet lost. I am just discovering it. Walking past the Hotel de Paris, the Casino building, which is also the Monte Carlo Opera, I sit down in the legendary Cafe de Paris. My glamorous style fits in here perfectly. Kristine had promised to introduce me to Simon de Pury, the owner of the famous auction house here. But that will come later.
This cafe used to be the place where gamblers calculated the best game strategy before entering the casino. In their golden age, casinos were perceived as a system that could be decoded “scientifically.”
Today, Cafe de Paris is a place where you look at each other. Over the years, I have heard countless dating stories. Thus, for instance, an eighty-year-old millionaire from Chicago met there a man 20 years younger who lives nearby, but whom she had never met back in Chicago. By the time I heard about it, they had been happily married for two years. “I never thought I’d fall in love again,” she had told my acquaintance. Another suggestion for dating at this place from my Monaco girlfriend was: “Don’t worry if at first he thinks you’re a prostitute. You will clarify the facts later. The main thing is that he approaches you!”
“Monaco is a sunny place for shady people,” wrote Somerset Maugham, a local here, in the Riviera, who greatly influenced my perception of this place. At first acquaintance Monaco fails to impress me greatly. The environment and the buildings are striking, but not romantic or even beautiful. There are almost no cultural attractions here. I understand those who say that they only spent half a day in Monaco because “there was nothing there.” But I am hooked. I have felt a glimpse of wealth in all its meanings. It is not only money that stands behind the glamour, but also passion, risk, taste, history, stories. And what does a person with an artist’s soul need, if not emotions and stories! The stories in Monaco and the Riviera come in so dense a concentration that cannot be observed anywhere else.
The sun has exhausted me; the energy rush from the breakfast croissant has been spent. I ask the waiter at Cafe de Paris where to get lunch at this hour. He recommends restaurants on the Larvotto Beach. It is a long walk, and I harbour hope to find a closer place along the way. But nothing is open – the southern gastro-clock is set for the evening. So the waiter did not try to trick me. Indeed, I have noticed that the advice given by the people of Monaco can be trusted. Novak Djokovic and his wife had opened a daytime vegetarian bistro here, but even a celebrity of his rank was unable to change the local eating habits, and the bistro was forced to close down in a couple of years. From that bistro, I remember most the sour taste of their vegan cappuccino and the many two-euro coins with Prince Albert’s portrait that I could use as souvenirs. A thunderstorm gathers in. I reach the Miami Plage restaurant mere seconds before giant raindrops start pounding the beach sand. The holidaymakers disperse, and sitting with my grand pizza all alone I feel sad and lonely. Here right now I have no idea yet that I would be bound to have many a happy moment with friends in this beach house over the coming years. I decide to buy the return ticket for Riga tonight.
On my way back to Nice, I receive a text message from Kristine: “Made up with Stefan. Arriving tonight. Will wait for you in Ventimiglia tomorrow!” Perfect timing indeed! At the hotel I open my computer and extend my business trip for another week. The inbox meanwhile lists a message from Richard: “Riga misses you.” The Riviera Radio buzzes alive with summer tunes. I fall into bed. Somewhere in the chest I have that tickly feeling of falling in love.
Only four train stops and 20 minutes’ ride separate Monaco from Ventimiglia in Italy, but on a perceptual level it might as well be at least four decades.
Already the first kilometre on the Italian side opens up views of abandoned buildings right on the waterfront. Entering the city, I see a man washing his hair in the city river. The shampoo is so richly whipped up that the splashing of the foam can be seen even from the railway bridge. Recently, the Ventimiglia station has been flooded with armed border guards; African immigrants sleep and, to be true to the fact, live on the benches and paved train platforms. They hope to enter France in some miraculous way. But back in the July of 2010, the station is still quiet and sleepy, like a provincial bus station. I feel as if I am visiting distant relatives in the countryside.
There is Stefan, leaning against a huge SUV, and waving at me when I walk out of the station. We have once met in Riga. But here, in his natural habitat, his towering figure in a linen shirt and pants looks even more impressive. He starts the engine and we go to pick up Kristine from the local vegetable market. Oh, what scent is there in the air – all the riches of the southern garden gathered together in huge quantities, and the prices – so incredibly low. If you are out of small coins for a precise sum to be paid, the seller prefers giving you half a kilo for free rather than bothering with exchanging bills. Upon meeting, Kristine and I scream and hug, and laugh. We did meet after all!
She and I became friends when I wrote about the creative plein air painting in Ropaži a few years ago on behalf of the daily newspaper Diena. I remember driving to the place at the time, with no major expectations, but when I saw the finely spun “spider webs” created by Kristine in the bunker of an abandoned army training ground, my imagination hit overdrive. It was with her work that she had brought to this peripheral place all the elaborate subtleties of the Milan Academy of Arts and integrated them so organically. In the following years, I dedicated several publications to Kristine’s work in various mass media, and we became close friends.
Kristine and Stefan make an impressive couple. He is an investment banker from Milan who has taken a career break; she – an artist enjoying her newly found peak of success. Kristine’s work is exhibited in several important Italian collections, she is represented by the influential Galleria Continua from Milan, and collaborates with architects’ offices to design green walls for the Italian and French Riviera villas. This environment is her home. I admire her courageous decision to go to study in Milan right after finishing the art school in Latvia. But lately, I hear Kristine mentioning Germany, Berlin, and the fact that she has reached the glass ceiling for a non-Italian artist in Italy. “Milan’s art life is in the hands of a few families that decide your destiny. If you are not within their network, there is no hope for a serious career,” Kristine goes through a crisis in her relationship with Italy at the time.
Stefan drives his monster car up the dusty roads of Ventimiglia. We pass by ancient villas that shine against the backdrop of the bright blue waters of beautifully designed pools. These are summer residences of many influential Italian families. With a terrible roar, the car stops abruptly at the farm gate almost at the very top of the hill. Stefan is flattered that I call his car a monster. In this environment, the wild side of his Teutonic heritage seems to find adequate expression. It has long been suppressed by culturedness of his native Munich and the mannerisms of Milan’s financial circles. Stefan rents half of his home here from some Italian farmers. It is small and rustic, but elegant and comfortable at the same time. There is a nice terrace in front of the house. We cook dinner together and sit under the Italian sky long into the night. Both on the French side and in the Ligurian Alps, there is heavy lightning, but the storm does not reach us. The cork of a next bottle of rosé pops out and we talk, talk, talk… I am deeply happy to be here with my friends.
The next morning, as I open the bathroom door, I stop as if under a spell. The window in front of me perfectly frames the turquoise sea with a white sailing boat right in the middle. The sky is blue, blue to the very horizon. In fact, the sea is several kilometres away, but here, at the top of the mountain, it looks as if I could reach with my hand. This scene penetrates deep into my psyche and I will see it in my dreams for years and years to come as a symbol of summer happiness. After a long and late southerners’ breakfast, we prepare for the day’s central event: the beach.
After a dusty descent from the mountain, we leave the car at the gate of a church and start a rather tricky climb down to the Le Calandre beach. The shore is steep, the sandals glide on the hot reddish sand, you have to hold on to the bushes and even the grass stalks. This is the shortest way to the beach. Italy often reminds me of my Soviet childhood, when, for example, staying with relatives during the summer, the local boys and I could sneak away and crawl, and explore wherever we wanted. Here, too, the buildings and land are mostly collectively owned, thus accessible, but often neglected.
When we get to the footpath carved into the rocks, the beautiful southern sea opens up on both sides, hugged by the mountains. Above the famous Henbury Botanical Gardens, perched on a promontory in the sea, sit romantic and smoky clouds. In Italy, the mountains are not nearly as developed for construction as on the French side. Here you can still see some of the paradise enjoyed by the first guests, such as the English Lord Henbury who began cultivating gardens here in 1867. Today his gardens are among the ten most beautiful gardens in Italy.
We pass the popular beach area and, after wading a part of the way knee-deep through the shallow sea, end up in a less populated part of the beach visited by locals. Stefan is greeted by everyone as the boss, and he has to explain to everyone who is this new blonde tagging along with him and Kristine. Italians cannot hide their curiosity and want to talk to me. When they find out that I am only staying here for a week, they all inevitably ask, “Why don’t you want to stay longer?”
This beach strip is a whole separate republic centred around a small, cute bar dispensing sounds of reggae and other summer music. The locals come here with dogs, some are not shy about smoking weed. A complete contrast to the glamour of the French Riviera, just over ten kilometres away. No wonder, as I find out later, that even many famous people of the Riviera come here to relax from the chic. We apply a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice to our skin and indulge in the Ligurian sun therapy. Riga, responsibilities, even Nice and Monaco seem light-years away.
The next morning before the beach, Stefan wants to show me his pride and joy: a chicken coop. Behind the house, on a steep cliff, he has set up a shed for chicken. The chicken roam freely through the olive grove and lay eggs for his consumption. Kristine laughs at his new passion – it is in stark contrast to his white collar work, but Stefan seems really proud. He talks enthusiastically about the chicken farming and gardening methods he has learnt from the owners of this house. The next step will be the expansion of the olive grove. These plans are not in complete contradiction to his work experience, as one of his sources of income is a restaurant in Munich. He occasionally visits it for supervision purposes.
Until 1950ies, Ventimiglia and the whole of Liguria (along the French Riviera) were called the European Flower Garden. Roses, tulips and all possible varieties of flowers were grown here in greenhouses and in the open air protected by the Alps. From 1950ies onwards, this function was taken over by the Netherlands at the European level, and the Ligurian florists had to switch to growing vegetables.
Now tomatoes and other vegetables grow in the same greenhouses; so the hosts of Stefan’s house tell me. They still remember their parents taking care of the rose gardens. While this history is still tangible on the Italian side, on the French Riviera this tradition has almost disappeared. For example, almost nothing is left of the famous Promenade des Roses. It was an alley surrounded by rose bushes that connected Beaulieu Beach and the village of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat in the early 20th century.
The story of Ventimiglia’s old town is very different from the history of the surrounding hills. The inhabitants of the shady, narrow streets criss-crossed by the ropes holding the drying laundry are mainly of Sicilian origin. Their ancestors once tried to find a job in France, but were not hired. They did not want to return to the poverty of their home country, so they stayed on. The narrowness and darkness of the Middle Ages has never seemed romantic to me, and this town at the top of the hill is particularly uncomfortable. Glances of the locals seem suspicious, even hostile. We cannot find a single souvenir shop. Out of sheer courtesy, we sit down and order an Aperol Spritz.
Stefan, not without Kristine’s influence, has conceived of the idea that I am a very brave person. He frequently calls me Super Woman. Over these days, he has become convinced that I should throw myself into the Riviera art business scene. “There are so many Russians here, they all have yachts and villas, but there is no taste. This is your chance! ” they are both almost unanimous in persuading me. The newly encountered Riviera glamour tempts me considerably, but the thought that I would be selling third-class kitsch repels me. I am proud of my fine education and maybe a little arrogant about my status as an art critic. I want to be on that sailboat, yes, but I have no idea yet how to get there.
I have a wish to fulfil before I leave. My mom’s dog died recently. On the Riviera, I noticed a lot of cute lap dogs that were nowhere to be seen in Latvia at the time. I ask Stefan to take me to a local dog shelter. Of course, he has no idea about the existence of any such place, but he is intrigued by the atypical task, and one day we all three go to the Ventimiglia dog shelter located by him.
Oh, what a trip it is! The embodiment of all my summer feelings. Stefan’s monster races along the banks of the withered Roya River, raising a cloud of white dust behind him, radio blasts Serge Gainsbourg’s “Sea, Sex and Sun”, under the open roof our already blond curls are bleached even more by the midday sun, my skin in contrast to the white shorts looks wildly brown. A shot from a French movie, surely. Everything seems possible and everything is just beginning.
Along the way, we see a car that has broken down. Stefan slams on the brakes in his abrupt style and goes to see if he can help. While he is talking to the local, Kristine and I also jump out of the cargo compartment where we are sitting. The Italian pales noticeably when he sees the approach of this phenomenon: blondes, and two of them. Stefan grins with satisfaction showing off this “cargo” to the poor Italian.
To our surprise, there is no shortage of dogs in the shelter: they each bark louder than the other, as soon as we approach the fence. Large, small, medium, mongrels and purebreds. But before I look at them, the manager tells me what I had not known by then: they give the dogs only to owners who live nearby. The shelter staff then has the right and obligation to go and inspect the conditions under which the dog lives. I am a little disappointed that there will be no surprise for my mom coming from this shelter, but the rules seem well-founded.
During these days of crisis’ aftermath, it is not especially popular to take in an animal from the shelter, and the manager is very happy, even honoured by this fine visit and explains to Stefan all the aspects of the shelter’s function. Kristine and I stand in the shade; the southern July sun is unbearable. Stefan returns well informed and in a noticeably good mood. “You have inspired me to rescue a dog!” he tells me. I am glad that the trip has not been in vain. Even if Stefan does not take in a dog, he could definitely become a supporter of this institution.
In a few days it is time to fly away. At the Ventimiglia station, saying goodbye, I hug Kristine tightly. I will forever be grateful to her for this holiday. I kiss Stefan on the cheek because his Thor-sized torso cannot be hugged. Under his influence, I have felt that there is more to life than I thought. On the way to the airport, I receive a text message from Richard in Riga: “When will I be able to meet you?” I feel myself falling in love. As the plane takes off, it says goodbye by flying a loop over the French and Italian Riviera. Kristine left for Germany after this summer and never returned to live in Italy, Stefan stayed on to raise his chicken, I started a romance with Richard and my life changed beyond recognition. But the French Riviera and the days in Ventimiglia remain with me like a summer tune to always return to.