A beautiful word.
I am done in. Italy has rolled me like a leaf in a tsunami. Exhausted. For the first time in my life I have been sick while travelling and I have not been myself at all. But two days ago I crossed the border from Ventemiglia to Menton and now all is (comparatively) well. My illness miraculously left me – a clear sign it was emotional in origin – and I am in la belle France. It astounds me every time that crossing an imaginary line on a map makes such a difference. Of course it is obvious on deeper reflection; culture, language, ethnicity, economy all change.
Yesterday I bought a baguette. It arrived from the wood-fired oven while I was waiting in the queue. I could barely hold it, even inside a paper bag. I took it to the park across the road, intending to just try it, hot from the oven. I ate the whole bloody thing in one go – just didn’t have the will-power to stop! While doing so, I looked across the broad bay and could clearly see Ventimiglia and Bordighera, just over the border. I thought “I could go there, then drive for thousands of kilometres, all over Italy, and I would NEVER find anything as good as this baguette to eat”. It cost 95 eurocents – $1.40.
On previous trips I have likened entering France to taking a hot, salted, scented, oiled bath after a two week hike through inhospitable terrain. It causes me to question my passion for Italy and the Italians when a three-week exposure nearly kills me! I suppose it’s a bit of a mirror to how I love women, always seeking some imaginary fulfilment that is unreasonable in the first place and perhaps beyond my ability to deserve! Right now I am thinking I will never go back to Italy again. Just as I say I will never get close to a woman again. On both counts I know that my resolve will crumble at the slightest provocation – a smile, a word, a glass of wine. What a pathetic little tart I am.
For example, as I type now, I am at a table outside “Brusketteria Zino” in Menton, France. I entered just for a coffee; then the proprietor, Aldo, greeted me with “Bonjour, bongiorno” and straight away I was off in Italian in preference to French with so much delight and gusto.
Everything about France is better in a material way – no doubt about it – but somehow I am more at home in Italy and with Italians than with their easier, more cultivated neighbours.
I decided to stay for an early lunch, choosing an Atlantic Salad (I need veges) and have enjoyed all the extra entertainment of Aldo with his wife and two children (one maybe four months old) living their life publicly alongside the business of the shop. At one stage, Aldo was stacking shelves of groceries with the the four-month-old tucked under an arm while mum was busy on the telefonino. This is Italy IN France, maybe the perfect compromise for my taste.
Hotel Imperial, Menton. During the First World War it was the Hopital Militaire de l’Entente Cordiale #222.
Earlier in the day I had visited the interior of what was the Hotel Imperial, what had been Percy and Helen Cochrane’s Military Hospital in WW1. Seriously, walking up the drive to it was one of the most physically-overwhelming sensations I can remember.
The sheer scale of the building is more than one could imagine. I had seen it from the road before, but as you walk up close it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Photos just can’t capture that sort of feeling. It LOOMS as the Victorian writers would have said.
I was escorted around by Luc Lanlo and Michel Imbert, both art historians and advisors who have an office/apartment in L’Imperial. They showed me their photos, I showed them mine – a fruitful sharing that may add to the stock of knowledge of the patrimony of the building. Sadly for me, just two weeks ago there had been a Gala Celebration of 100 years of something or other. Their kindness and enthusiasm was really appreciated.
Marion Curwen, niece of Helen Cochrane, adventurer and nurse. The model for the missing sculpture.
Menton Conservatoire de la Musique. Donated to the Ville de Menton in 1934. Before that it was Percy Cochrane’s Villa La Victoire.
Then (with my guide Eric Vincette, a journalist employed by the Ville de Menton (Town Council), I visited the Menton Conservatoire de la Musique, mainly in search of a certain sculpture. I knew in my head that it was long-gone, but my heart so desperately wanted to find that bronze bust of a beautiful WW1 nurse, a symbol of the new peace, that Percy had commissioned for his beautiful new villa “La Victoire”. It was not there, no-one knew of it (in fact no-one knows the pre-1934 history at all). I took some photos of the interior and the freshly re-painted exterior. It is such a magnificent building. It was commissioned in 1919 from the local architect Abel Glena, one of his last before retiring and thus showing the fruits of a lifetime’s work. I was immensely privileged to meet and enjoy a short interview with the Director, Paul-Emmanuel Thomas, an instantly likeable and impressive young conductor and organiser of the music festivals here.