Thursday, January 22, 2009

Clutch the Corniche

January 1990. I had been traveling in France, staking out possible foreign study programs; the City of Lights was not yet a firm choice. I began my tour in Paris during the last few days of 1989, spent a plate-smashing New Year's Eve shouting "bonne année!" in the Latin Quarter (but that's another story), subsequently headed to Besançon, and then left colder climates behind as I went south by train to Nice and the sunny Côte d'Azur, where my mom joined me for several days before we made the return trip to New York together. During these days of winter sun, we marveled at the light on the Mediterranean, watched swaying palm trees and brave beach-goers from the Promenade des Anglais (warmer than in the north, it was still too darn cold for bikinis on the beach!); we visited wonderful museums and, venturing to Menton, not far from the Italian border, ate some of the best pesto we've ever had. All that was lovely, but the thing I remember most about this time with my mom in the French Riviera was the driving. More precisely, her driving; I was relegated to navigator. This made sense, so I was perfectly willing. After all, I was the one who could read the signs more easily, having studied French for years already and being used to all the excess vowels in the language, and she was the one with the International Driver's License. And yet . . . well, you have never been in a compact manual-transmission car with my mom (who largely prefers automatics) while attempting to navigate a "rond point" rotary intersection in a second language—which, by the way, is what I felt like I was speaking to her, instead of us both communicating in English. I was saying, "Take the next right," wasn't I? But in spite of the fact that I was entrusted with the map and the street-sign decoding, mostly I got resistance. When I said "next right," we just kept going around. And around again. Was I sure? Yes, I was. And cars were passing us, and my mom was starting to get a bit stressed out, and to be fair the rotaries are tricky for someone who is not at all used to them, as we Americans generally are not. And did I mention this was a manual transmission? This, however, was nothing. To get to Menton, and our best-ever pesto, we needed to take the famous Corniche. The Corniche, for those who do not know, is not really one road; it's three: Grande, Moyenne, and Basse. Because my mom is not only manual-transmission averse but also acrophobic, we had agreed on the Basse Corniche, which is the lower and slower seaside route. We were definitely (to my disappointment, since I am not afraid of heights) against the highest route, the Grande Corniche. Where we ended up, though, was the Moyenne Corniche. As navigator, I should take the blame, I guess—I do swear that the mistake was not intentional on my part, despite the fact that the middle road came closer to satisfying my craving for a view. Winding into some town or other on the Basse Corniche, we wound out of it on the Moyenne. I should say here that the Moyenne Corniche, near La Turbie, where the road turns down to Monaco, is where Grace Kelly had her fatal car accident in, I believe, 1982; there is still a small marker at the side of the road where flowers are placed by devoted and probably mostly touristic mourners. My mom was quick to point this out, but was equally quick to avoid looking too long at the spot, which does feature a lovely, cliff-hugging turn. High above Monaco, not yet any sign of a descent, just one hairpin turn after the other, Mom began to drive slowly. I don't blame her. Locals made everything more tense, as they would all but kiss her bumper, flashing their lights and honking horns to try to get her to speed up until they could pass her (recklessly, we both thought; who'd actually pass anyone on that road?). Of course we came down, eventually, and I think we did manage to take the Basse Corniche all the way back to Nice from the Italian border. The last part I'll always remember, though: the smell of burning clutch that followed us from one end of the French Riviera to the other.

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