It rains on the roof, like it rains on the stairs
My grandmother’s house was no ordinary house. It was a mountain chalet on the outskirts of Nice, in the South of France. The colour of its turquoise entrance to the garden, and ochre yellow walls, had nothing to do with turquoise, and even less with ochre yellow. The stairs, leading to the first floor, run up the side of the chalet, on the outside. The first few steps of the stairs were cemented, but the further you went up the stairs, the more woody they became. Squeaking and cracking under the weight of our little feet, we were getting warning signs of impending doom. With advancing years, it became apparent that we stood more chance of falling through the stairs, than safely reaching our sleeping quarters on the first floor of the chalet. The weather in Nice is mostly fine and sunny, but when it rains…it rains.
My grandmother had really good taste, and she just loved symmetry. To counterbalance the stairs that were situated on the left side of the chalet, she had to have something built on the right, and what better sight than an outside lavatory.
The amenities and general upkeep of the chalet left a lot to be desired, for reasons that will become clearer later. This lack of comfort was more than made up by the garden which was immense. In fact, it wasn’t a garden at all, it was the Amazon jungle of my childhood.
One day, my mother asked me to write a postcard to some relatives back in England. I really didn’t feel like doing it, because I had other more urgent things on my mind, like searching for Red Rackham’s treasure that I had hidden in the garden, the day before. Grudgingly, I sat down at a wooden desk and stared down at the bare backside of a postcard showing the “Promenade des Anglais”.
Looking back, I cannot believe that I was lost for words to describe the enchanted paradise that was my grandmother’s garden. How could I not describe the majestic cypress tree that dominated and protected the garden; the vine that stretched its arms along the main cobbled pathway, leaving behind it a trail of raspberry flavoured red grapes; the temptations of the peach tree; and the fig tree whose figs I hoped would never ripen to signal the end of the holidays. But my pen was empty and I was lost for words. Instead, I wrote two lines that reflected my total indifference to the task in hand.
Everything is fine. The weather’s warm and sunny, and the garden is leafy.
My mother looked at me in despair, and words came out of her mouth that I dare not repeat. She ordered me out of the room and in to the garden. If so go my punishments, let me be chastised.
The “Medicine Man”
My grandmother lived in the chalet for many years, together with her sister. They would frequently quarrel but, at the same time, could not live without one another. I spent many a day sat on a step that led from the kitchen to one of the bedrooms, listening to their stories spoken in “Niçois”, a dialect I could not understand. Until, one day, I did, and it became the language of my holidays. I’m sure that the dialect has never left me, remaining buried in my psyche, and that even today, I would be able to understand it.
But what happened to the holiday chalet of my childhood? Why was it not transformed into a luxury villa? Or any kind of villa, come to think of it? The answer lies in the fact that, if I’m not mistaken, my grandmother lived for 15 years or so, with a Sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Its name, “eviction“.
My grandmother lived in the district of l’Ariane situated on the eastern side of Nice. In the 60’s, there were only a few houses around the chalet, and you could already smell the sweet aroma of the “arrière-pays”, the countryside around Nice. The only attraction of note in the district was the “Cimetière de l’Est”, a cemetery situated at the very top of a hill, whose only access was a tortuous road that passed right in front of the main entrance to the chalet.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the area became more populated, and high-rise council flats got built one after the other, inhabited by people who spoke French with a funny accent. My vine and its raspberry flavoured grapes would be replaced with concrete blocks and a parking lot. If that wasn’t bad enough, my grandmother had to wait so long for her eviction papers, and even longer for a derisory compensation. It’s amazing that she wasn’t bitter about the whole situation, but to her, it didn’t matter. The mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, belonged to the family of real “Niçois”, like herself. These were people whose roots went back to the very beginning of the town’s history.
Father Jacob, Jacquou per toujoù (Jacques for ever). Jacques Médecin was half-god, half-man, and a complete crook. For a quarter of a century, this man was the incontestable and uncontested mayor of Nice, capital of the much prized “Baie des Anges” (Bay of Angels), thanks to an unprecedented network of cronyism and corruption. His scams got known to the general public with the publication of a pamphlet entitled “J’Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice”, written by Graham Greene, in 1982. The pamphlet was never published in France, but that didn’t stop the French judicial system eventually catching up with the mayor of Nice, who escaped punishment by fleeing to Uruguay.
I have the advantage over my adversaries in having, at least once, shaken hands with all my voters – Jacques Médecin
Although I must admit that Médecin did manage to transform Nice from a dormant pensioners’ home into a buzzing cosmopolitan megalopolis, it’s his sheer obsession with making Nice “big” and his greediness, that caused financial problems for the town, and would eventually lead to his downfall. He was prepared to do anything to obtain the money he needed for his projects, even if that meant associating himself with the local mob. And that’s exactly what he did.
“People are jealous,” my grandmother used to say. “Everybody has something against him. But he has done so much for our town.” In loving the son, the inhabitants of Nice were probably thinking about the father, Jean Médecin, who was mayor for over 30 years. Under his reign, Nice was a “comfortable” town, suitable for arthritic pensioners to spend warm winter days away from the rain up North. Jacques Médecin gave the town a shot of adrenaline, building lavish complexes like the Acropolis conference centre and extending the airport. But his projects were expensive and he was greedy. Amongst other scams, he was found guilty of having paid 5.7 million French Francs in dubious commissions, when renegotiating the indebted town’s loan.
Jacques, you have done so much for the town, but nothing for my grandmother. Do you remember the time when a policeman found a suitcase bearing your name at Charles de Gaulle airport? The suitcase was full of money and on its way to Uruguay. That was the money that you probably stole from my grandmother at the time of her eviction.
The Chalet’s grandfather wall clock
I went back to l’Ariane in the mid 80’s. The district had changed so much, that I was completely lost in my own childhood memories. Only the street name board “Avenue Emile Ripert” reassured me that I was in the right place. The avenue led up to what was the main square, “Place de l’Ariane”. The beautiful church, which once stood proudly opposite the chalet, had gone. How many times had I listened to the church bells ringing out the joy of a wedding or the despair of a funeral? My father used to park his car in front of the church. In the 60’s, he drove a convertible light blue Zephyr, whose number plate caused quite a few giggles amongst the local population. It was “CUL 325”, the letters spelling the French word for “arse”.
I did not have the courage to drive to where the chalet once stood. Having seen that the church had disappeared, I turned the car around and left. Before writing this post, I used Google maps to have a look at what happened to the chalet. I found the street corner where my enchanted garden had given me so much pleasure. Even the cypress tree, which I had thought was invincible, had succumbed to the sheer brutality of the bulldozer.
A police station has been built next to where the chalet would have been, its sheer size reflecting the street violence that regularly occurs in the district. There used to be a small police station, located a few hundred meters from the church. I went there once because whilst we were away in the mountains for a few days, the chalet had been burgled. I was 10 or 11, at the time, and the gendarme asked me if there had been, “effraction”, a French word that I was not familiar with, meaning “burglary with forced entry.” I answered back that there hadn’t, but that the door had been forced open.
The gendarme looked at me as if to say, “poor boy, he must be retarded.” Didn’t the gendarme realize that when you are bilingual, you may know a word in one language but not in the other. I always used to mix the two languages so easily, in the same sentence, and found it so normal to do so. It’s a bad habit, because it doesn’t force you to look up translations in the dictionary. I consoled myself by thinking that I knew what the word “break-in” meant, and the gendarme probably didn’t.
Only a small collection of brass saucepans had been stolen, but the whole chalet was ransacked. I told my grandmother that, next time, we should put a sign on the front door, warning any future burglars that there was nothing left to steal.
The fact was that, because of her long pending eviction order, it was impossible for my grandmother to have anything worth stealing in the chalet. The only thing that I valued finished its days here, in the Netherlands. It was a wooden grandfather wall clock. I loved that clock, even though it was incapable of keeping time. A few years ago, it fell from where it was hanging and crashed down the stairs. For a few seconds, the house was filled with the cacophony of ringing bells, the laughter of children playing in an enchanted garden, and Red Rackham’s hidden treasure, that was forever lost.
Jacques Médecin: b. May 5, 1928 d. Nov 17, 1998