Being there

posted 17 January 2005

Just after noon on Saturday, January 8, we were met at the Nice airport by Laurence Guidi-Guilvard, David's colleague and host at the Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche. You can tell that the airport serves rather an affluent clientel because, for example, if your final destination is Monaco, perhaps 15 km away, it's cheaper to take a helicopter than a taxi. But we were not faced with the choice, because our very own Renault Clio was waiting for us there. It seems that the difference between the sales tax on a new car and that on a used car is so great in France that Renault can turn a better profit selling its new cars as used. So they've worked out this system where they sell them to visitors like us--those who are staying more than two weeks but less than six months--then guarantee to buy them back when we leave. They get a pristine used car to sell, and we get use of a new car for six months (minus one day) for the difference between what we pay them and what they pay us (which is about half what renting a car would cost). A good deal all around.

But first, you have to find the Renault counter. It's in the international terminal, of course, because the deal is designed for foreign visitors. But we came in on a domestic flight, because we changed planes in Paris. (Laurence assures us that the last time she picked up a foreign visitor, he came in on an international flight, but the Renault counter was in the domestic terminal then.) Once we located the counter, we found that the young woman in charge there was all alone, and we were third in line, so we waited while, for each of the people in front of us, she filled out all the paperwork, explained the insurance, processed the credit card, then hiked the quarter-mile out to the parking lot to show the new owner how to operate the lights, windshield wipers, climate control, etc., before returning to start the next. When our turn finally came, she explained that our car was so new that it's second key had just arrived from Paris that day and had not been activated yet. But any Renault dealership of our choice could activate it anytime--it would take about 5 minutes.

We were tired, though, so the first order of business was to get us checked into our apartment, actually a vacation condo on the eastern edge of Villefranche-sur-Mer. Each of the towns along the Riviera--or Côte d'Azur (Azure Coast), as the French call it--surrounds a bay, and each is separated from the next by a point of land. They're linked by three coastwise roads, high, middle, and low, called the Haute, Moyenne, and Basse Corniches. ("Corniche" means "cornice," just like the little ridge that runs around the top edge of a building, and it's an apt designation, considering how these roads are cut into the faces of the cliffs.) We followed Laurence along the Basse Corniche, the one nearest the sea, eastward first around the bay of Nice, then around the bay of Villefranche to our complex--the "Résidence de l'Ange Gardien" (Residence of the Gardian Angel, so named not because a gardian angel lives there but for the tiny 18th-century Chapel of the Gardian Angel, a registered national monument, that was there before it and can still be seen on the grounds). There she left us for a few hours to unpack and settle in before returning to drive us first to the supermarket for the first essentials and then to her place for dinner. She lives quite near the lab, in at least one dimension, but the difference in elevation is probably greater than the horizontal distance. After an intricate series of winding hairpin turns, on tiny streets not wide enough for even two small French cars to pass (and only some of which are one-way), we came to her hair-raising driveway, which rises the last hundred feet or so in two (mercifully straight) flights with a 180-degree switchback at the midpoint. The "landing" accommodates three parking spaces, and the little space at the top has two. One can only turn around by backing down the first flight into an empty parking space, then proceeding forward down the second. If all three spaces are filled, one backs down the entire driveway. But the view from the top is spectacular. Dinner was delicious, but by 10 p.m., we'd been up for about 40 hours straight and were reeling, so Laurence ferried us home lest we fall asleep with our faces in our dessert plates.

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