FELIX CAFÉ, ANTIBES, Saturday 25 April 2015
I’m sipping a coffee outside Felix café on the corner of Rue Aubernon and Boulevard Gullard, perpendicular to and parallel with the harbour, respectively. I try to brighten the screen so I can see to write but instead find taking my sunglasses off more effective. I can see the port through the arch of the Roman wall a few metres away. A tall man with a shabby blue jacket, matching blue trousers and a kind of mullet haircut is walking around the fountain talking to people who aren’t there. He’s very relaxed and very drunk, with a bottle of fancy yellow liqueur at the end of his gangly arm. Is he schizophrenic as well as drunk? We wouldn’t have asked that question a few years ago, just as when we were thirsty we wouldn’t have described ourselves as ‘dehydrated’ and reached for bottled water.
Across the road a black man in a wheel chair his fifties holds animated conversation with a slightly tubby man in his thirties wearing a pale blue t-shirt and jeans beneath a brown hat with three holes in the side for ventilation. They point all over the place and sometimes jab each other. Big clapping handshakes and arm holds that twists the black man around in his chair as they part, both full of joy. Now he’s rolled across the road and addressed the group of English men who introduce themselves as ‘David and Ross’. I don’t think he knows them and has now rolled off.
A pigeon flies down to the rim of the fountain in an indignant way, does not stop to drink but hops down to the pavement to search for crumbs dropped from the table, head shooting backwards and forwards as it walks a circuitous route beneath the chairs and tables. The round plastic tables are red, the chairs are covered with a kind of silvery grey weave of plastic wicker strands and bright silver arms that curve down to the floor. Two little bushes grow from the architrave of the rusticated pedestian’s entrance to the port. Beside them is a group of little yellow flowers, all clinging to the rock. Traffic weaves through the larger arch by the side of the pedestrian tunnel, mainly grey and white cars with a blue Lambretta or two. More are coming in to the vieil ville than leaving it. Now the major colour of the cars has turned to blue and dark grey.
There are a plethora of prams pushed in either direction, pushed by almost as many fathers as mothers. Is it because of Catholicism? I am reminded of the father of a new baby on the cycle path between Cagnes sur Mer and Nice who was rollerblading the pram along at a breakneck speed while the baby lay fast asleep. Is that an incredibly irresponsible thing to do? (he had no crash pads or helmet, and neither did the baby of course!) It didn’t seem so at the time. At the time it seemed he had found a temporary way of combining the responsibilities of fatherhood and remaining a young blade. Do you think the mother knew?
Directly opposite and above me the face of an old satyr with ears like wings or cabbage leaves spouts water through a metal pipe (PHOTO 1). The man in the shirt has just washed water over his head. Now an African selling sunglasses and hats walk by (PHOTO 2). Does anybody ever buy them do you think? According to my body weight I can only drink a maximum of four something cafes au lait a day (or 11 cups of instant coffee, which would be sacrilege round here). Sometimes a big car rolls in heading for the really big yachts. The swanky car of choice at the moment is the Merceds SE 350 Bluetec. Up the road is the Blue Lady pub where young people who crew the yachts drink out their money. An average wage would be AUD 3,000-3,500 with up to 1,500 or more a week in tips, but the maximum age is supposed to be about 28, so what do you do then?
A crowd of elderly tourists walks past. I don’t think they’re French. One of them thinks my café is worthy of a photo on his ipad. My green tea has arrived. A solitary tourist in her fifties takes an ipad photo of an old lampstand fixed to the roman wall that I had not noticed before. What did John Berger say about photography? ‘Seeing this is worth recording.’ What is that book of essays? Art Historians who have Changed the World? or something like that. Someone complained that John Berger wasn’t in it and I thought ‘je m’en fou’. There is something about Berger that makes me ill, something tendentious and relentlessly trendy and pseudo-socialist because so irremediably upper class in how he writes and thinks. But I bet if I sat down and read everything I’d find brilliant stuff. Better than Fuller at any rate, whose probably better than me.
Sometimes some old geezers wearing lycra churn past on good-looking racing bikes. The way they stood on their pedlles and take off up the hill to the fortifications the last time I was here three years ago made me think they had somewhere wonderful to go to that I didn’t know about, and that is what persuaded me to hire a good bike for three weeks this time round. Now I know where they were going! Round the Cap and on to Nice. The road hugging the cliffs between the Cap and Juan le Pins is indeed very beautiful, full of lightly used public beaches and old tower on broken stone piers and occasional old fishing boats. There are photographs in the back of Felix café of Antibes harbor full of fishing boats, but now there are only ten licensed fishermen with rowing boats with lamps suspended on the back to attract the fish at night. Picasso shows them in the Nightfishers of Antibes at Vallurois, but nothing else there is good enough to make me go there again, so I won’t.
A woman walks past with an E cigarette. Cars mostly black for a while, though parked across the road is a convertible red VW golfe. The French grandmother of an elderly friend of mine in England came over to the emerald isle, saw a field of cricketers and remarked with an indignant hough and a tendrilled hand: ‘ha! Le golfe!’
Who the hell was Marechal Foch? His names all over the place and I bought a postcard of him which the vendor joked about as if I knew who he was. My guess is that he was someone in, or against, the Vichy government. I must go for my bike ride soon.
I googled him. Marechal Foch was the leader of the allied forces credited with brining the first world war to an end, but he was also held responsible for numbers slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme. He said if Germany wasn’t crippled after the war then it would invade France again in 20 years time. He was a few months out. He maintained the old school of Napoleonic tactics. He once said ‘my centre is yielding, my right is in flight. Excellent situation! Time to attack!’ He is unrelated to the incompetent Irish military strategist who just says ‘Foch dis, Foch dat.’ There is an Irish pub up the road, which is feeding me these stereotypes. Irish pubs keep Abbot in speeches.
There has just been a loud altercation between a cyclist and an older pedestrian with trendy long silver hair, shouting at each other across the street. I would imagine that the cyclist didn’t want to stop for him at the crossroads out of sight around the corner. They were going at it hammer and tongues holding up the traffic on either side of the road when the cyclist in bright blue lycra suddenly road off. I saw the pedestrian fuming in unappeased anger with no one to inflict it on. Always embarrassing that. Then I saw that the cyclist had turned back to confront him again in the pedestrian street of Boulevard Augillon, satisfying both their appetites for venting. Maddeningly the sign of the next restaurant in all it’s pedantry – ‘PALANGRE meuniere avic son beaurre a l’ail 28E, ST PIERRE entire grille ou roti 35 E NOIX DE ST. JACQUES a la provencale 26E)’ – got in the way so I could only see their legs and hear their voices escalating. I was amazed how quickly two uniformed policemen walked up to cool things down, which they did very diplomatically, as if heightened emotions were the norm. The blue cyclist departed for good, leaving the pedestrian continuing his fulminations to the gendarmes, who clearly weren’t going to do anything. Both of them will be thinking about that for several hours afterwards. How much of it was what happened on the street and how much what had been happening in their lives beforehand? Jason, the gay boyfriend of my host, has a theory that the same people who shout at cyclists from cars are the same people who shout at drivers on their bikes. Well what would his view of this situation be?
Another cyclist has arrived to fill his waterbottle at the fountain. Moorish complexion, bright white hair, 60s. black bike and lycra. Looks very calm and powers off after fixing me through his sunglasses for a moment. A Yellow van! A plump woman with the photograph of a much younger and thinner woman on her t-shirt walks across the road. What was she holding in her hand? I shouldn’t have looked at my screen while I was writing. The woman who took the photo of the lampstand has walked back. She is eyeing the fountain but no photo this time. She has splayed feet.. I must go and ride my bike. The cars have gone grey and white again. A man in a white suit walks by. He has slid back his bunny head with its pink ears and looks serious. Oh he’s just walked back the other way wearing the bunny head. I think it’s him, I can only see him from the back. Could there be two of them? I should say that while all this is going on there is also a traffic of random French phrases passing through my mind without any relevance whatsoever: ‘Calme toi!’ – ‘Mais c’est MARRON, ca!’ (the word Marron does not exist as an adjective) and ‘Faites vos jeux!’. A man with a thick beard and a shaved head wearing red trainers and ear phones. The satyr’s head keeps spouting, looking straight ahead. A man starts to read a book on the bench against the Roman wall. He’s only got a few pages left. That’s always a funny feeling. The drama always thins out at that point because reality is going to replace it. It looks like a library book.
There is a biblioteque up Rue Aubernon which is only open a couple of hours a week. Perhaps it’s from there. He has a blue parrot on his t-shirt and is half blocked by the tall square stem of the fountain. I have just done a quick count and there are about 40 people in view, including the ten or so seated at my café. 4 grey cars and one white one. Two Renaults, a Nissan and two Mercs, two of them SUVs. I’m looking for a child. Lovely little girl with a maroon dress, wriggling from side to side from her mother’s hand. Absolutely no one glamorous in view now. For a brief moment there is no traffic. There next car will be … a blue Lambretta! Just occasionally a very well-presented and dignified old man will walk by with a well-fitting jacket and a matching tie. Looking after themselves. Three little boys look for fish in the fountain but don’t find them. Why do I assume they’re looking for fish? Mum walks on with the pram. The motor of a scooter revs up unnecessarily under the arch of the wall like an annoying bee. A man in his forties with a black moustache fills a red metal bowl with yellow flowers with water from the fountain for his dog. His wife holds the dog on its lead while it drinks. She wears glasses too. I’m sorry to say I don’t know what kind of dog it is, but a white poodle on a pink lead takes scant interest in it, and the first dog is too interested in the water. Five years ago, was it? – behind the roman wall is where I waded into the ocean with my first mobile phone in the pocket of my trunks.
FELIX CAFÉ, Monday 27 April.
It is 12.15 pm and there is NO ONE on the streets, and just one other customer. That’s because it’s pouring with rain so I’m having to sit under an awning in front of the café enclosed by large plastic windows (PHOTO 3). The other day I felt so much in the midst of things around me that I felt overwhelmed. Now there is only a thin gap of real space looking out onto the roman wall in which I can see passers-by with any clarity (PHOTO 4). Otherwise they are patinated by vertical beads of raindrops clinging to the transparent plastic, turning silver where the light catches them. Just this narrow vertical window on the world and smeared sheets either side. Amidst all this rain the water gushing from the pipes stuck in the mouths of the faces on the fountain does not seem so exceptional. They just add to the downpour. On the sliver of street that is all I can see clearly there are series of momentary V-shaped flashes where the raindrop fall. They are interspersed with bubbles bursting after moving slowly to left or right after car tyres have splashed by. Now there are a few more people on the streets, but of course they are not milling around as there were in Saturday’s sunshine but are intent on their journeys, heads down and preoccupied. The African tradesmen have left their boards of sunglasses and sunhats behind today, and have stocked up on umbrellas, but there are far fewer people to sell them to. I shouldn’t be amazed that they have access to weather forecasts. I wonder where they sleep? Another customer has arrived to sit on the other side of the plastic from me. He was carrying a wine glass of beer and what looked like a shell full of cigarette butts to his table, where he now stands smoking. In fact the shell contains peanuts. I would not like a cold beer on a day like this.
There is a lull, except for the occasional traffic. The damp has brought a skein of cracks out on the plaster of the roman wall. They are not quite the shape of fields seen from a plane. The cement in the limestone of the passenger gate looks darker n places where water has found its way down or lichen has dampened. The shadows in the rustication of the gate itself looks darker too. Perhaps the plants on the architrave are growing. Joanna, the nice waitress, has arrived, without protection from the rain. She can’t live far away.
FELIX CAFÉ, WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL, 6 PM
I thought I’d try a different time of day to see if the rhythm is different. Sunny again. A girl with glasses, her hair swept back, swings her finger backwards and forwards in the water of the fountain, fascinated. What is she looking at? She’s surrounded by schoolfriends. Wouldn’t they have got out of school much earlier? Oh the girl with her finger in the drink is after all a burley bloke, now fascinated by his mobile phone instead. A rather masculine black girl wearing a check shirt has a shock of green yellow hair springing out in curls beneath her trilby hat. She sometimes embraces another girl with more conventionally arranged hair but also green. She fights her off, but later they’re on the parapet talking. The finger swinger is now pacing around the group trying to talk to people who ignore him. He tries a bloke with similar hair who’s massaging the shoulders of a girl in blue denim, but the finger swinger is ignored. So he taps the back of another guy, who joins him. Hello, I think the girl getting her shoulder massaged has twigged me, but if so she’s soon forgotten. I look at all their shoes. Mainly pumps, a few running shoes, one stocky girl glued to her phone wears elastic sided suede boots. Oh, there’s a goth amongst them with studs over her Doc Martins and stockings with lace patterns behind them going up to her knees. She’s all in black and has black hair.. Oh, they’re still a school group. A schoolmaster has just come round counting them, with a faun jacket and balding hair and leads them off. They’re Italian!
An African comes round with hats and sunglasses and for some reason picks out the women sitting at the next table, who refuse his offers. One of them has tats of bamboo and Japanese mountains going up her upper arm and a mystic symbol below the nape of her neck. Long black rather stragglyhair matted into beads at the ends when it doesn’t give way to split ends. Her friend in blue jean shorts just has a tat behind her ear in a semi-circular pattern of teeth or nails. She has very frizzy hair pinned back with a pencil. Could come in handy. Her dog is tethered by a lead under the metal leg of her seat. They’re drinking beer and eating peanuts and the first one is smoking. Oh the other one has a tat of a bat on the back of her hand too, but she is not as extensively tattooed as the first. How many people are smoking at the moment? Just her. No an Asian man of short stature has just gone past sucking on a fag.
A bevvy of white and grey cars. Two tall chaps walk past. How do I know they’re English. Their haircuts I think. I wonder if they ARE English. They look yachty too. A huge unleashed dog trots by with a silver collar on. Don’t know the breeds.
A jogger! A dark-skin woman stands and rubs her leg with the other leg reading the military inscription on the fountain. She lets her leg down and moves off.
The stage I have before me is quite a short walk for the performers, it’s less than 180 degrees. I’m going to time the next walker moving at a regular pace, not strolling or dawdling. Oh I see that measurement depends on age, as an old man walking briskly is still slower than an earnest jeune with places to go. I just measured an active middle aged woman, short statue, bustling past and smoking as she does so. 20 seconds from the corner of Rue Aubernon and out of sight.
A middle-aged fellow on a very old, but very clean white racing bike rides past and up the hill, leaning down to change the gear on the diagonal down tube. That’s how I know it’s an old bike.
A tough-looking old local in a grimy t-shirt washes his hand in the fountain. He’s carrying fruit and shouts hello to the people in the restaurant. I thought he would.
A pram! There haven’t been so many of them about this time of night.
A bright orange Lotus has gone past, small, weird and wavy-shaped. When did Lotus lose their sense of style?
Wow, here’s a good one. White hat, green jacket, flowery yellow shirt,, bright orange trousers, white sneakers with a flash of black on them, long white hair and whiskers, opening a packet of Marlboro.
A lot of kids on bikes.. A tiny little girl on a tiny green bike with her grandparents.
Someone who looks like a barber standing on the corner of the other side of the road. It’s because of his clean white jacket I think so. Maybe he’s a cook having a rest. Sunglasses, rap attention up the street where I can’t see. Pulls out some Marlboro and threw the foil away without looking. He’s ambled off under the passenger tunnel.
Lots of dogs on leashes about. Must be dog-walking time after work. For a second the area was almost empty, with someone just leaving and someone just entering. No traffic either. That would have been a wonderful moment.
A tall unhappy teenager with long ginger hair walks by. The jogger’s come back and thanks a car for stopping for her. Another jogger with a yellow shirt, listening to music. A very erect old man with red rain jacket, dark brown trousers (possibly corduroy) and blue deck shoes comes past, pausing to look at his watch.
It’s 6.38 and the owners are beginning to take the metal chairs in and place red oil lamps on the two big barrels beneath the umbrella that lead the customers in for the evening meal.
What shall I have tonight? Moving into the café, I’m looking at the fountain head on. The evening light sharply cleaves the face of the bas-relief satyr that is now directly facing me into light and dark. The silhouette of the satyr in profile to the right looks as if it’s blowing water out of a cigar. On the left the silhouette is incoherent. It looks like a lump of uncarved marble, and the mouth that holds the water pipe is out of sight. Oh they’re NOT proper oil lamps. They have electric bulbs and the cap where you would pour the oil in is the switch you use to turn them on. Good imiations though. I had basil pasta.