The city of Cannes has been called a jewel of the French Riviera, a pseudonym that refers to its glittering azure waters and its garb of celebrity status as home to the Cannes International Film Festival and impressive hillside villas. It is the setting of such tales of wealth, sin, and splendour as Scott F. Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and is a neighbouring town to the workplace of the celebrated Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso.
My experience of Cannes assumed much of this mythical character over the year that I spent there, training at a small school for ballet dancers near Mougins. Certainly, the school residence seemed no less than a paradise on earth. Sprawled over the grounds of a former hotel resort, it was dotted with orange-roofed buildings made of washed-out adobe, overgrown stone fountains, and curtains of purple bougainvillea cascading down walls.
But soon after I arrived at the gates of paradise, I realized that it was not suited to a high-strung teenager from Toronto. Living in the south of France was akin to being on an endless vacation, offering as much stimulation as a holiday spent tanning on the beach. It was a remote countryside place with little inspiration for an aspiring dancer. Days passed without an internet connection. The general work-ethic was low among teachers and dancers. The language barrier was thick, and I often felt alienated at mealtimes when Italian and Japanese ruled the passing of water. Boredom quickly set-in. On my way to the studio each morning I grimaced at the large, fenced-in hog at the side of the road. I wondered if he regretted this place too.
In March, the school was scheduled to perform in Menton, a small town further along the coast. Cannes…Nice…Eze-sur-Mer…Menton. It was all the same to me—more sun and more beaches. I sleepily mounted the bus for a two-hour ride. When I opened my eyes we were coasting along deep blue water. There were palm trees creating intervals in the road, the tops shaking haughtily against a cloudless sky. But the scene was all too-familiar and I was irritated by its tranquil beauty. Where was the push-and-pull of ideas? The contradictions of society that fuel creative vision? I turned and went back to sleep. Over lunch, the dancers lazed on the grass terrace outside the mansion where we would perform. Some smoked cigarettes while others pulled out leftover chocolate bars from breakfast. To me, this laid-back attitude was equal to impropriety. I got up and ventured away from the company.
At the beach there were children playing with their parents in the sand. Before, the waves had looked mildly frothy from the window of the bus, but up-close the water at Menton was violent and grey. They were not the waters of Cannes. The waves hurled themselves together, crushing rocks into little pieces that the children collected in their hands.
I stripped down to my underwear and waded into the water, feeling the angles of rocks press up into my feet. I held onto a large boulder with my right arm and sat down with my legs outstretched, pointing towards what I began to imagine as the site of antiquity—the boot of Italy and the flecks of Greek islands beyond. I sat there and waited for the violent water to bury my legs, to feel the rush of it around my body, and numbness after. I closed my eyes to sense the thrill of letting go of the boulder to be washed away, and to perhaps return to this shore many years later in smaller fragments of myself. I could hear the shrieks of children but they seemed distant now.
As I walked away from the beach, I was rejuvenated. The waves had given me a feeling of smallness and I could suddenly appreciate their inevitable course. I had judged and belittled this place, but what I was truly dissatisfied with was my inability to control my new life and the differences that came with adapting to it. The water’s strong, relentless movement made me realize that there was no point in fighting anymore. What I needed was to accept.
There was something to learn from these carefree, rosé-lovers—the friendly couple who ran a rotisserie shack on the country road, the families gathered under olive trees on Sundays, the elderly groundskeeper who spoke lovingly of sipping wine while watching the birds. These people taught me that life is not only about achievements and goals, but that it is also valuable to slow down, enjoy, and soak in our surroundings. This was not the risk I had expected to take when I moved to Cannes, but it demanded just as much from me. I was learning the art of slow-living on the Cote d’Azur.
About the Author: Jo Minhinnett currently lives in Rochester, New York and is working on a Master’s degree in Photographic Preservation. She hopes to return to the south of France one day.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.