Another day on the French Riviera. The schoolkids I’m traveling with have a couple of hours free, they’re enjoying the glorious Indian summer and nowhere to be seen. My colleague and I go to the beach. From the beginning of our trip I was reluctant to go to the Mediterranean, again. Last time I saw it was in Greece. I heard of it again when in Calais. It feels very cynical to be on its shore enjoying this beautiful and peaceful scenery while knowing fully well that I’m staring at a giant coffin. Still, it is stunning to look at and for now there is nothing I can do to what is happening on its other end. But I can’t set foot in it, no matter how appealing the clear water looks like. I curse myself because this empathy is misplaced and whether I enjoy myself there or not won’t stop the course of things further south. I try to focus on taking pictures, on eavesdropping bits of conversation carried by the wind.
My colleague has long gone swimming, so I’m on my own looking at a sea as quiet as a millpond. In front of me, there is a woman cursing at the world (a typically French occupation) in epic proportions. The end of the world is near, according to her. I don’t know whether it’s the result of long exposition to the sun or whether she forgot her tablets but she’s far gone and slowly, the beach empties itself around her. There is nothing to be done, as she’s very aggressive to anyone trying to calm her down. People around exchange embarrassed looks.
I’m a few meters behind, when I see an elderly woman carrying a book and a beach bag setting her towel just next to the angry lady, who was pausing to fix her make up. As she remembered too quickly that she was here to warn us all about the failures of our world, chiefly by shaking her naked body and calling us all cowards for not looking at her, the newly arrived woman looked appalled. She must have been in her 60ies and was clearly not enjoying the vocal and physical display just next to her. She turned around and our eyes meet. “Has she been her long? Too much sun?” she asks. I laugh: “Long enough! but don’t try and argue with her, it’ll make it worse. Leave her be, she’ll be tired at some point”. Now, I’m saying that to a woman who was old enough to have been the lunatic’s mother, so as an elderly, she wasn’t going to be impressed by a younger soul. “Somebody dip her into the water that’ll cool her down”, she suggests, loud enough to be heard around. Fortunately, our doomsayer is too busy playing with her mascara to notice. Clearly the elderly woman wanted to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet, so next time she looks at me, I gesture towards my right and pat the sand: “Come over here, it’s quieter!”. She ponders for a moment but the woman is decidedly too loud. By the time my colleague comes back from his swim, we have a new towel neighbour.
When she carefully places her book on the towel, I notice it’s one I’ve read many years ago. “Good one!” I tell her. “You think? I just started, I wonder if the wife really is dead!”, says my new companion. We talk about books, it’s the third she’s reading this week. She tells me she’s from Paris but came to Cannes a couple of years ago, after having lived with her son for some time. She strikes me as a lonely old lady, so I’m glad to keep her company. Back in Berlin, a friend of mine pays weekly visits to Frau B., a very old woman living in a retirement home. I met her once and was delighted to get to know her. Elderly people are full of stories that they haven’t the possibility to share anymore. For a historian, they’re like an open book into the past. A book that more often than not would have been forgotten on the shelf of life by some too busy to live on their own to care. I wonder what Kate would make of this encounter, and she’s in the back of my mind as I keep the conversation going.
The woman seems delighted to be able to talk and after some small talk is eager to tell me all about her life. She speaks with that French way you only hear in Carné’s and Audiard’s movies, which is suiting enough since we’re in a town known for its cinema festival. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of a sudden Jean Gabin came and joined us. Colette even looks like one of those beautiful actresses from post-War France. I’m secretly envious that she was young in the Sixties and Seventies.
She tells me everything backwards, so I first hear that her husband died twenty years ago. They had a mansion in Paris’ suburbs and she had to sell it to give his share to her son. She then moved to Cannes to enjoy the good weather and the sea. That is how I learn that Colette was born in the Thirties in Paris. I’m baffled upon finding out her age. She’s delighted by the effect, even more so when I tell her she looks at least twenty years younger. Beaming, she tells me that she’s always been careful about her silhouette and looks. She’s sporting that tanned look of people living by the sea, and sports some wrinkles, but she clearly looked after herself a lot. She goes on: “You see, I thought life would be easier here, but people in the South are SO rude!”. I look around for a reason to object but the other woman is still vociferating threats of end of the world. “So have you had the opportunity to make friends though?” I ask, trying to bring up positive thoughts. Her eyes are sad: “Well..not so much. There’s that dance party every Thursday, and I love a dance, so I go sometime…”. “That sounds fun! what do you dance?” I ask. The eyes brighten: “Oh a bit of everything! when I was young I was very good at rock’n’roll, you should have seen me twirling around and I’d go wild! Now I can’t jump anymore of course..”. I can very well picture her in the Sixties in a Paris disco. She adds, coquettish: “I’ve even been pictured in the newspapers twice! Once in a ballroom, and another time in a bar with Jacques Brel”. I smile, that sounds like a lovely time she had. Born before the War, she also has a lot of memories of this time, which she happily shares. Her parents had sent her to the countryside, in a religious institution, where nuns were apparently a nightmare. At least this allowed her not to see Paris occupied. She became an adult as France was healing its wounds, and dancing was how she had met her husband, an architect.
We’re interrupted by a man who comes and sits in front of us both. I turn around, my colleague has gone swimming again. The man is probably twice my age, the kind of old leathery skinned show off that seems to roam on every beach. I dislike him instantly, because he completely ignores my companion. He tries to make conversation but I’m having a heart-to-heart talk with Colette and I’m not sharing his view about the deranged woman that “it must be hard for her husband, haha”. Colette and I look at each other, amused. Each time he talks to me, blatantly excluding Colette, I turn towards her again and include her in the conversation. He soon tires of us and go look for another target. Colette tells me: “I think he was chatting you up”. “I think he’s right looking elsewhere!” I laugh. Colette sighs: “You see, he completely blanked me out. For him, I didn’t even exist!”. I feel sorry for her. It’s true that elderly people seem to disappear in the eyes of many people. This man was being extremely rude just to pretend she wasn’t there. “You know Colette, I’m sure that you meet a lot of men during that dancing..?”. That seems to cheer her up: “Yes! and you know what, I always seem to attract men, without even doing anything! There’s Leon, he’s a good dancer! We’ve met once or twice but it didn’t work out. Still, he invited me for a dance or two, every now and then”. She smiles at the memory, and adds pensively “You know, I even tried one of those dating agencies once”. I smile as well, hoping she did meet nice people. “My God it was dreadful! I mean, I know I’m over 80 but I would never want to date an old and wrinkly stick in the mud! The woman dealing with me only sent me those decrepit, cheap men wearing sandals, and I would always come wearing my nice heels as you do for a date!”. This makes me laugh. I suppose it would be hard to fall for someone fitting that description indeed and I can very well picture Colette dressed to the nines for each date. The perks of being old is that you don’t care about rules of conduct that much after all, and Colette is delighted to share her dating recollections and more with me. “And let me tell you one thing, after 70, men can’t get it up anymore!”, she continues, looking quite dejected. She pauses and look at the sea while I choke on the water I was drinking, aware that my colleague has long come back from his swim and lies behind me, within hearing distance of Colette’s sexual musings. She doesn’t seem to notice and concludes that decidedly, dating agencies are not for her.
Still, I hate to think she’s lonely. I find out that her son doesn’t visit that often. Maybe she has a pet? Wrong question to ask, she lost her beloved cat some years ago. I have just made Colette cry as she starts talking about her. She sniffs and says she never again wants to suffer the loss of a dear animal. I know this pain, but also know the joy provided by a four paws companion when all human interactions fail. I pat her hand: “Colette, there are other cats out there whom you’d make very happy I’m sure!”. She smiles, yet unconvinced. The pain is still too raw. She reaches for a her bag and takes out a mobile phone. She wants to show me pictures. She has one of every pet she had, each of them departed. Now, she feeds the pigeons on her balcony and it’s my turn to feel a heavy-heart at the thought of Colette alone in her flat. I have to go, the kids are waiting and so is my colleague. It seems too soon and those two hours passed by really quickly. I know I won’t come back and so does she, so I take her hand again and tell her I was very glad to meet her. She smiles broadly and tells me she’ll try and finish that book this week. I stand up and before parting ways, I say: “Don’t forget Thursday though!”. She looks up, surprised: “Thursday?”. “The dance! you never know who you might meet there!”. She promises she’ll go.
On the way back to the meeting point, my colleague teases: “So, you’ve talked to everyone on that beach now?”. I didn’t, but I feel richer for having met Colette.