Getting high in Nice

As the huffing and puffing visitors got to the very top of Parc de Colline du Chateau — Castle Hill — in Nice, their sounds of astonishment at what they saw were so predictable and repetitive that they became comical.

Even the view itself was funny, in a way  — so perfect, so unreal, so ready-made for photographing and distribution that all you could do was let out a spasm of stunned laughter at how ridiculous the beauty was, and how ridiculous your good fortune to be able to see it. 

To the left, the Mediterranean a radiating blue that seemed manufactured by the imagination, a thin band of tan beach that curved off into the distance, the peach and terra cotta buildings of Old Nice huddling up against the sea as if trying to get a view of it themselves, and past that, the dusky beginnings of the Maritime Alps.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore — and our family was one of the least well-off even among our working-class friends. And although I’m only here for a job writing about research in Parkinson’s disease, as I sit here listening to the street sounds drifting up to my third-floor apartment in the oldest part of the city — friendly French chatter, yapping dogs, a flutist, motor scooters, the European hee-haw of emergency trucks —  it’s hard to believe I’m in the French Riviera, inside a postcard.

As I made my way back down to the shadowy, narrow corridors of the old city with its endless creperies, patisseries, butcher shops, cigarette-smokers, and pigeons, I saw a woman who looked confused. I assumed she was a tourist who didn’t know which staircase to use to get to the top of the hill. I pointed and said, “Castle Hill.”

She said, “Yes, Castle Hill.” It turned out she was a local artist, and she was trying to figure out where to sit and sketch, but was frustrated because she couldn’t decide. There was mystery and beauty in every direction.