By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The tables were so close together at the sidewalk café in Cannes that it was impossible not to eavesdrop. It was just a question of whose curiosity would prevail first, ours or the obviously British couple at the barely next table.
Finally, it was the chap Roger who looked over and said, “Say, are the two of you off that Thing out in the harbor?”
Quite the icebreaker.
It led to an entertaining remainder of lunch as Roger and his wife Trish provided Fran and I with a genuinely British view of the French Riviera, world travel and politics – on both sides of the pond.
That Thing in the harbor was the MSC Divina, our jumbo cruise ship that was anchored just offshore, too large to actually enter this particular harbor. We’d been ferried ashore in one of the ship’s lifeboats – actually a rather large vessel in its own right – for a few hours of perusing the toney resort best known for its namesake film festival.
We were to learn from our new tablemates that Cannes serves a larger purpose as a holiday escape for the British, who come for the same reason Northerners in the U.S. flock to South Florida’s beaches: to escape the bloody cold weather.
It was June 1, but back in Birmingham in the heart of England, where Roger and Trisha were from, sun and summer were still a daydream.
Or as Roger put it, “Summer is two hot dogs and a thunderstorm.”
So they come to Cannes as often as possible to warm up and get some color in their cheeks. They’d never been to the States, and had no interest in taking a cruise on one of those “Things,” that admittedly look more like a floating condo than cruise ships of the past.
It is easy to understand their affinity to the South of France. It is a shorter flight for them than for New Yorkers bound for Miami. They know how to find reasonably-priced accommodations away from the swanky five-star hotels.
“There are a lot of expats in the South of France,” Roger said.
It turns out that tradition is much more deeply rooted in Cannes than the film festival.
It was a former Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Brougham, who put the place on the map, quite by accident. He was detoured by a cholera outbreak on his way to Italy in 1834 to what was then a poor fishing village.
He sparked an influx of influential countrymen and other well-heeled sun-seekers from around Europe after writing that he had “been enjoying the delightful climate of Provence, its clear skies and refreshing breezes, while the deep blue of the Mediterranean stretched before us. The orange groves perfumed the air while the forest behind, ending in the Alps, protected us from the cold winds of the north.”
It’s been tonic to the Brits ever since. Because of the boom that sparked, Lord Brougham is credited as the inventor of Cannes. A statue of him overlooks the harbor.
As long-time residents of South Florida, Cannes seemed similar to home but with a French accent. More Palm Beach than South Beach.
We’d likely get a similar reception at the Chanel store on Worth Avenue that we received in its hifalutin counterpart on Boulevard de la Croisette. Which is to say, they quickly detected our absence of a scent of money. So we made a quick pass through.
Dodging expensive German sedans in the shopping district, it became apparent that the local motto could be, “We swerve for pedestrians,” though it wasn’t on any of the tourist brochures.
Our visit happened to be one week after the 68th Cannes Film Festival. It was no coincidence Roger and Trisha planned their visit accordingly.
As they explained, unless you are an A-Lister or someone of substance in the film industry, you’ll be on the outside of all the happening festival events, pay amp-up prices and contend with overbearing crowds just for the privilege of catching the same rays as all the stars on the yachts in the harbor.
The week after you could still browse or buy festival T-shirts and posters in the official boutique. Outside on the sidewalk are handprints cast in stainless steel of many of the stars who have attended the festival over the years.
My favorite was Dennis Hopper’s imprint from 1971. That was the Easy Rider era Hopper.
If we had arrived there during the film festival we likely would have had to wait for our sidewalk table, and wouldn’t have enjoyed an entertaining lunch conversation with Roger and Trish. Consequently we would have missed hearing a line that may have topped any in the movies that were screened that week.
When the conversation drifted to politicians, Roger and Trisha made it clear they weren’t thrilled with most of theirs. Trisha was curious about one of ours in particular, blurting out, “I say, that Bill Clinton, is he quite demented?”