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Ah! La belle France! I flew to Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, for a family reunion recently. Three of my five brothers, and both of my sisters, made it to Nice for the weekend. I hadn’t seen my twin brothers, Hugh and Killian, for over twelve years; my sister Fiona and her new husband Bruce for a year, and not since their marriage last February; my brother Cormac for about three years; my sister Dairine and her beloved, also called Cormac, for about two months and my dear parents Paddy and Cinnie for about three weeks. It was a big occasion, and I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation before the trip. As a family we were never great at holding back, and a weekend together would provide a perfect opportunity to have a row from which there would not be sufficient time to recover. After my arrival in Nice Airport one Saturday afternoon, I was happy but perhaps a little anxious, made the more acute in the light of the terrible sadness that Nice had experienced in July.
Between us, we live in Canada, Jamaica, France, Spain and Ireland, and so we all had a distance to travel to get to Nice. Why Nice? My parents have a beautiful apartment in the Russian Quarter…and Nice is lovely, and there’s a beach, and great places to eat. Alas, there wasn’t room for all of us in the apartment, so I stayed in a tiny studio apartment on the fifth floor of a stunning Art Déco building near my folks’ place.
I woke up on the Sunday morning with a hangover. I had let my hair down over a wonderful dinner in my parents’ beautiful garden the evening before and was a little loose-tongued, everyone having been very generous with the wine. Now, all alone in a strange place and with no husband to laugh with about indiscretions, I obsessed about all the things I’d said, fretting, in true post-alcohol style, over the most trivial things. There was only one thing for it…sketch.
I sat on the balcony and drew what I could see of the Russian Cathedral around the corner. Once I had identified the combination of colours, I felt a calm descend, all peccadilloes forgotten. This would be fun. I saw the jade of the domes and the soft green of the window blinds, and the yellows of the awnings and the gold bits on top of the domes. The shadows were a bonus. Eventually my hangover cleared and I set off to join the family in my parents’ place.
It was the feast of Sainte Réparate in Nice, a day to celebrate all things Niçois. My parents and my brother Cormac were heading to the cathedral on Place Rossetti, where there was to be a “spéctacle”. I thought it sounded fun, so I joined them.
When we arrived, there were two security guards checking everyone’s bags on the way into the cathedral. That’s probably normal for French people right now but not for Irish people, or not those who don’t travel, like me. I looked over my shoulder and saw some gendarmes in combat gear, carrying guns (again, possibly normal police wear in France but it looks very combative) in front of the church. I felt very uneasy. As I said, all normal if you live in France, but I live in an Irish backwater where we haven’t had the kind of trouble France has had: I know we did in Northern Ireland but I never lived there and never felt its effects. One of the security guards, a tall, strong and beautiful woman with blonde hair, searched our bag and told us that alcohol wasn’t allowed inside the church: we had arrived fully equipped for a jolly picnic on the beach after the ceremony in the church. I said I didn’t mind not going in to the church, and my brother Cormac decided to keep me company. I turned to face the square and looked at the security arrangements and suddenly I felt scared. It was a feast day; we were in Nice; did someone have menace in mind? Was there someone lurking in a shady corner? I expressed my thoughts to Cormac.
“I’m damned if I’m going to let some fanatic dictate what I do and where I go,” said Cormac.
“You’re right, of course,” I said. “I’m just not as brave as you.”
Then I looked up at the red and white bunting…if you know my work at all you’ll know that I love sketching bunting. All those pointy flags! Those clean colours! The alternating pattern! The way they depict depth!
“I’m okay now,” I said to Cormac. “My urban sketching antenna have spotted an opportunity to sketch. Let’s have a coffee and I’ll draw something.”
We sat in Café Antonio looking onto the square, drinking gorgeous coffee.
A few guys in smart uniforms fiddled with their instruments in front of us. A small group of lads in flouncy white shirts, short pinstripe trousers in red and white and blue and white, with cummerbunds and matching pompoms around their necks, had coffee while they waited for their bit to start (on the right in the sketch). Then the uniformed guys in the band struck up; I do love a brass band. The dancers whirled and swung with each other on the left of the image, away from the cathedral (just beyond the field of the sketch, to the right). There was something a bit sailor-like about the dancing; it reminded me of a hornpipe, and their costumes looked a bit like something a sailor would wear on his very first day at sea, his kit still spanking clean and new.
I felt a surge of admiration for the French that they continue to celebrate their pride in their country despite the threats from those who would destroy their way of life. It was very joyful. I was starting to feel a little emotional when the band began to play La Marseillaise. That was too much, and tears flowed down my cheeks.
All too soon it was over. I switched back to punter mode and quaffed rosé in the warm sun with my folks, who had joined the crowd to watch the spectacle after the ceremony in the cathedral…my cheeks still slightly sticky with tears, I could think only “Vive la France!” Then we made arrangements to meet the rest of the clan on the beach for lunch, and off we set in the sunshine. Passing the site where those poor people were massacred in July was very sad. There are flowers and toys and photos and to think of it is heartbreaking. A minute after passing the sad scene, I saw lots of my own family at the rendezvous on the promenade, alive and well, lolling about on a white bench in front of me. It was like a dream where all your long-lost loved ones are there…but real.
Here they all are: from left to right we have Killian, one of the twins; Hugh, the other twin; my nearly-brother-in-law Cormac and his beloved, my sister Dairine; Bruce, my new brother-in-law; Bruce’s bride, my sister Fiona; my father Paddy; my brother Cormac, and last but anything but least, my mother Cinnie.
I swam in the turquoise water of the Baie des Anges with my twin brothers, and then my brother Cormac joined us, complaining that it was cold, because he lives in Jerez in southern Spain. Planes, having just taken off or coming in to land at Nice Airport, continually zoomed overhead, improbably big and close.
“Those planes are so fake,” said one of my brothers. “So CGI.”
I saw my mother and father further out to sea and tried my best to catch up with them. Mum likes to swim steady and slow and Dad swims alongside her, appearing not to move at all, but somehow keeping abreast of her. She’s had a lot of broken bones in the last couple of years and my father doesn’t let her out of his sight.
“Slow down, will you,” I called out. “I can’t catch up with you.”
“She won’t stop,” said my father, floating on his back with his beach shoes sticking up out of the water. “She’s going to Corsica.”
I gave up, got out and dried off in the sun, sketching each person as they came into view. We had a picnic and said goodbye to Dairine and her beloved, Cormac, who were heading home to Ireland that evening.
Later on, back at my parents’, we had another dinner in their beautiful garden and I had a chance to redeem myself and be a little less blabber-mouthed. Luckily, my brother Cormac can always be relied upon for a story. He told us the following tale, my favourite of the holiday.
“The girls went to a friend’s birthday party recently,” he said. “When the parents collected them at the meeting point, all the girls emerged from the coach beaming, each carrying a little cardboard box with holes punched in the front. We wondered what was in the boxes. Turned out they’d all been given a hamster as a going-home present.”
“A HAMSTER?!” came the shouts from his audience.
“Yes, and because our girl was the birthday girl’s best friend, she got two,” he added.
“Not male and female, surely?” I said.
“Yes,” said Cormac. “Male and female. They’re in two cages, obviously. And the girls aren’t allowed to clean out the cages themselves, in case the hamsters get together by accident.”
“Guess what their names are,” he said. “Seán and Orla.”
Cormac’s girls are very proud of their Irish heritage.
Cormac sent me a photo of the cages. Each looks like a hamster theme park. I imagine them gazing at each other all day long, cursing cruel Fate who keeps them from each others’ arms.
Next morning it was Cormac’s turn to leave the party, along with the twins, who were visiting Italy before their return to Vancouver. Later on the same day Fiona and Bruce would also take their leave, stopping in London for a few days before their return to Jamaica and the possibility of the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Luckily, Jamaica was to avoid the worst of it. I packed up and moved into my parents’ place, and began a sketch of their garden. The tree in the middle was heavy with oranges, earlier this year, my mum told me. But just looking at the sketch now I start to get itchy feet and calves – I was eaten alive by mosquitoes in that garden. I couldn’t finish it because in my parents’ garden there is always someone telling you it’s time to sit and eat. Oh well, we all have our troubles.
After breakfast the next morning, the beginnings of which can be seen on the table, my mother and I went shopping for table linen, and eventually, hot and bothered and carrying heavy bags of beautifully-made aprons, table mats and a smashing chef’s hat, met up with my father on the beach near Castel on the east end of the promenade for a swim and another picnic. Here I am on the beach, grateful for the hat in the sun…
Sitting around in a swimsuit is the ideal time to think about going on a diet, and my mother and I decided to get serious about it after we got home. My mother said she would swim a little farther every day if she lived in Nice, and for some reason I thought it useful to point out that she is a slow swimmer. She wasn’t in the least offended by this remark, but to make it was a mistake on my part: no one criticises my mother in front of my father. I have known this for many years, so I had no one to blame but myself when my father reprised an old theme.
“You cannot change the shape you were born,” he said to me. “You were born stocky, and there’s nothing you can do to alter that.”
“Stocky,” I said. “Thanks, Dad. Then again, I suppose I’m sturdy in a strong wind.”
“Now Cinnie,” he continued, looking at his beloved wife, “Cinnie has a very slender frame. She has very small bones.”
” I do too!” I said. “Look!”
I held out a slim wrist.
“I have a very small frame indeed! Don’t mind the middle bit, that’s just from eating too much. And look at my very slim ankles!”
“Cinnie has much more delicate ankles,” said Dad. “They’re so delicate that she actually BREAKS them.”
“Whereas I only sprain my ankles,” I said. “Okay, you win, I concede defeat.”
My mother was nearly falling off her deckchair laughing, despite the reminder of her recent breaks, which took a big toll on her psyche. Luckily we all knew that I wouldn’t mind being compared to my mother as an ox to a racehorse.
Here’s my father reading his book in the sun. His omnipresent “chariot” is beside him: it fits the swimming gear, a picnic and a bottle of wine so it always comes to the beach. My mother is stretched out on the stones in the foreground. She’s the lady with the delicate ankles.
The next day was my last. I popped off to visit the Russian Cathedral, which is about a minute’s walk from my parents’ apartment. I brought a scarf with me, thinking I’d seen something about covering your head when I had passed by during its lengthy closed period. The inside was stunning, and I’m afraid it’s beyond description here – it’s too fabulous. I only had a few minutes but I decided to sketch the two young beauties who were gracing the inside with their presence. Try to imagine butterflies all over the middle section of the girl in pink.
“There they are, in their scarves,” I thought. “They’re clearly Russian Orthodox. They must be so proud of all this majestic artwork. How at home they seem.”
I watched them as they moved, their chestnut hair almost to the backs of their knees. As you can see I made colour notes to paint later.
The two girls wandered about then headed for the exit…pulling off their scarves and replacing them in the basket along with all the other scarves that you could borrow if you weren’t Russian Orthodox.
Outside I had ten minutes to make some sort of impression of the exterior of the cathedral. Here’s what I managed.
I guess I have to return to the sun soon, and do it all over again. Far from having a row, we got on famously. Here are my mother and father, my sister Fiona and myself, loose-tongued and laughing, in my parents’ garden. Cheers!