THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE TRAVEL SECTION OF THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN
My partner and I are driving through Nice when a group of local youths begin jeering at a cavalcade of stereo blasting Ferraris. With complete disregard for following traffic, all three drivers screech to a halt in the middle of the road and leap out to confront their tormentors. It’s a classic case of haves versus have-nots, in a city that attracts the ostentatiously wealthy. Rob and I self-righteously identify with the have-nots (we’re driving a humble little Renault). There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, but few punches are thrown. Honour satisfied, the Ferrari lads return to their chariots without any blood being spilled. It is a disturbing reminder of the dark side of a city so blessed with natural beauty and joie de vivre that a dying Queen Victoria is said to have murmured, ‘If only I could go back to Nice I think I would get better.’
Next morning we drive out to the gorgeous hilltop village of Peillon. Returning to the city later that day we arrive at a confusing intersection in the district of La Trinité. We turn left, realize our mistake, and slow down. Suddenly a boy of about ten strolls out in front of our car and Rob has to brake hard to avoid him. Did we somehow miss a pedestrian crossing? Before we can check, my door flies open and another young face appears. Within seconds both boys have vanished, along with my brand new shopping bag.
I am furious at having fallen into their trap so easily. I hadn’t even bothered to locate the automatic door lock on our rental car (I find it later, identified with the icon of a handbag. How ironic!).
We call at a service station for directions to La Trinité’s gendarmerie. Two officers are barricaded in an upstairs office and initially we can only communicate via intercom. My tentative buzz is answered by a stern voice. I can’t understand a word, but respond with a pathetic, ‘Les petits voleurs.’
The robbery had taken place beside La Trinité’s notorious slum tenements. It appears we really should have reported it to the Nice police, not the local gendarmes. ‘We ‘ave two kinds of police in France’, the younger officer tells me, ‘just like Canada and the Mounties.’ I can understand the wistful note in his voice. No self respecting Mountie would even stable his horse in the shabby gendarmerie. Nevertheless, they take my statement, which I give in halting French. They are touchingly kind and patient. However, when I comment that the young thieves were probably very poor they say that’s no excuse; ‘They are bad people who prey on tourists. They are immigrants, not French.’ Paperwork complete, they express their sincere regret at our misfortune. Much to Rob’s embarrassment they insist on escorting us to our hotel in Nice.
We reflect on what I’ve lost. It’s not much, as anticipating the steep lanes of Peillon I had removed all my usual clutter. In fact, the boys are probably feeling more ripped off than we are. The only item of value was my prescription sunglasses. There was also a French-English dictionary and my address book. Perhaps they will compose a note of complaint and send it to all my contacts.
Several hours later we venture into Nice’s cosmopolitan Vieille Ville for dinner, and pass a beggar in one of the ancient squares. Convinced that everyone is out to rob me, I clutch my handbag more tightly and avoid his gaze. Glancing back, I see a shabbily dressed black youth hand the fellow a few coins, with an apology that it’s not more. He continues to search his pockets as he crosses the square and eventually finds more change. To my astonishment he walks all the way back back and gives it to the beggar.
Despite the incident at La Trinité I feel very mean spirited. But more importantly, I am warmed by the realization that we have found the heart of Nice in more ways than one.
I am publishing this article again in the wake of the appalling event in Nice on Bastille Day. Rob and I adore France, and it simply broke our hearts. I know that the motives behind such acts are complex. However, I also know that generational discrimination and disadvantage create fertile ground for deep seated anger and resentment.
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