I wasn’t even intending to go to the Côte D’Azur, let alone write about it. I’m not wild about the beach in general, and I’m particularly not wild about the Riviera beaches. In fact I loathe them: the crowds, the rocks, the monolithic high-rises, all the toned, stunning, indolent rich and their casual maritime sportiveness. Plus the traffic. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. My wife, as it happens, firmly agrees with me on each of these points save one. She loves the Riviera. Moreover she insists the kids will benefit from seeing it. Besides, there’s always the Chagall, she says. There’s always the Matisse.
This is true. And yet it’s equally true that I have been to Nice four times and have never made it to either the Matisse or the Chagall museums. For all I know they don’t even exist, but are merely phantom signposts, like those great classical facades in Vegas, to give a patina of high culture to a low place. And it works. In the end, whatever one’s intentions, one never winds up at the Matisse or the Chagall, but at the beach, which—have I mentioned this?—I seriously hate, and the gelato and pizza bars nearby, which ditto.
It has been unseasonably cool in the Var these past days, but at the sea it’s very hot. Parking is hellish. We have two arguments, then a dubious lunch. Then we go down to the beach, the public one, the free one. There is almost enough room for us to spread out our towels on the hard, lumpy rocks without stepping on the heads of the people next to us. Some clowns are parachuting overhead. Topless women are talking noisily into their cell phones. My wife lies back, molds a place for herself in the rocks, and closes her eyes, contented. The boys laugh and play in the waves. In the shimmer of their movements I see upside-down cows, fiddlers on rooftops, brilliant blue dancers swaying in a circle …
On the other side of the province, in Arles, we take in a bullfight. It is held in the ancient Roman arène—there are more of these magnificent Roman structures left in Provence than in Rome itself—which has been the site of such brutal exhibitions, along with the occasional reggae concert, for some two thousand years.
Never having been to a bullfight, I am unprepared for the alternating waves of lethargic boredom and terrifying blood-lust they inspire. And yet the ones in Arles are quite mild. They are Camargue-style; the picadors and matadors of the bloody corrida are absent, and instead we watch a deft, teasing, semi-excruciating ballet, where young men who look like ball boys at Wimbledon dart around the ring in white sports clothes, trying to remove, with a small, comblike hook in the palm of their hand, some tiny red rosettes that have been tied between the bulls’ horns. Six different bulls are trotted out, each with its own distinct personality. The first is very slow and stupid, but lethal: If he can’t gore one of the raseteurs he takes a go at the fence. The second, quick and smart, appears at first glance more dangerous. But perhaps he has been better trained—when he sees he cannot catch up to the men he pulls up easily, with a certain athletic diffidence, as if he knows all this is only a game. The kids are mesmerized, but I start to grow bored. I am, I realize with some horror, actually hoping that something awful happens. I can’t help myself: The tension between the elaborate, marvelous choreography of the 10 weaving men and the dumb intransigence of the drooling bull has gotten under my skin. Why arrange for all this, if not to have the brute win out once in a while? And yet always, after the 15 minutes are up, the bull is trotted back to his pen, and another one dutifully takes his place.
At last dumb intransigence has its say. The penultimate bull is very large and fierce, with a low tolerance for frustration. When one of his tormentors leaps the fence, the bull does too—he tumbles over it clumsily but with great determination, and goes chasing around the outside of the ring. People scream and run. We have gotten a peek at some other, enduring truth about the wild and the tame. But then I notice the faces of the raseteurs, calm and amused, neither surprised nor alarmed by this development, and I realize that this too is part of the show.