Pretending to Be Rich in Nice
I live in a student city, and come the second week of June, it empties abruptly and without fuss. Last summer, my girlfriend and I stayed on with our part-time jobs and spent long evenings sloping around an abandoned town, sitting in beer gardens, ordering pizzas, meeting on Sundays in the park with celebrity magazines and cartons of fruit to sprawl in the long grass and wait the slow hours out.
It was a good summer, one we spent spying on Bristol locals—the real citizens, not the transient students who are packed in and out every year—with occasional day trips into London to sprawl in other gardens, but midway through we were getting restless. We compared work schedules and found three days in which we could pack up bikinis and flee.
Our first thought was Budapest. We found a deal on Groupon: flights and the traditionally shitty hotel for £189 per person, three nights anytime in the month of July, and in a fit of glee bought it without checking the fine print. (Adults!) We were already half-planning a weekend of strolling around paved squares and exploring the lavish baths when I called the travel company to book our flights and was told that actually, all of the dates in July were covered by the deal except the only weekend we were free. Annoyed but unbothered, I called Groupon, and was told that the travel company, Weekender, had marked our vouchers down as “validated” and we couldn’t get a refund if we’d used them.
“… right,” I said, and embarked on a week of angry calls to Weekender. We got our refund in the end, though not before I had gotten very good at saying, in my iciest and most cruelly polite voice, “I’m sorry, can I speak to the manager?”
We gave up on finding the best deal after that fatiguing experience, and instead went to see what the cheapest thing we could find on Expedia was. It ended up being Nice, on the French Riveria: £400 for two people, two flights, and two nights at a hotel that didn’t look too bad. It was more than I’ve ever spent on a holiday, but it was peak season in the U.K. and Europe, and I was flushed with success from defeating the evil holiday company. We decreed this money a worthy sacrifice to the altar of holiday gods, and we commenced on a couple of weeks of eating oatmeal for two out of three meals to properly pay for it.
Two nights isn’t a very long holiday, but we’d spent an extra £25 each making sure we got the earliest flight in (leaving Gatwick Airport in London at 6:05 a.m. and arriving in Nice at 9 a.m.) and the latest out (leaving Nice at 9:55 p.m.). It was well and truly three full days, and the sleepless night spent on the train travelling to London (£24.20 each) and then in the airport when we got there the night before our flight was worth it. When we arrived, Nice was bright and the little bus from the airport (about £4.30) was easy to find and navigate. By the time we got to our hotel, we were each £251 out of pocket, exhausted, and smug.
On the bus ride into the city, we’d watched tall blocks of shabby looking apartments—peeling cream paint and balconies packed full of plants, people’s washing, large pieces of furniture and soggy cardboard boxes—change into holiday hotels facing the sea: tall, proud, getting brighter and brighter as we went. And bordering us on the other side of the road, that sea, the likes of which I’d never seen before: a sea that looked like every Hemingway novel I’d ever imagined without reading, green and blue and clear all at once and the sun hitting it in shimmering, bouncing beams of light. We were gaping and silent. At the hotel, we dropped off our bags and then—told we couldn’t check in until 1 p.m.—headed into town for lunch and a closer look at that beckoning water.
There was water everywhere in Nice, usually somewhere in the process of evaporating. The city was hot and yellow and blue and every now and then it would rain, gusting bright gray across the city that left me stretching and luxuriating in it. Steam rose from every corner. A gentle haze of mist flowed through the streets and out toward the sea.
Overheated and dizzy with exhaustion, we climbed Castle Hill and wandered around old ruins with peach and chocolate ice cream cones (£2 apiece—not bad). The view from the top reminded me unaccountably of Los Angeles, in the way that European cities, like Barcelona, do occasionally and usually when viewed from a height: the palm trees, I think, the grid of roads below like LA in miniature, the color of the stone and the silhouettes buildings make against that wide open sky, the overwhelming impressions of sunlight and fog. Back on Castle Hill, the waterfall took me by surprise, thundering down in a spare piece of shade, and we lingered under it, leaning against a little fence and watching tourists take selfies, stick their heads into the stream.
A town of tourists, that city in that month, and we found ourselves unavoidably and somewhat unapologetically amongst them. My girlfriend has a little French leftover from school, while I have the annoying conviction that if I speak with a Disney-esque French accent, it’s very likely that people will understand me as though I were fluent. We excused ourselves: “Surely we can’t be the worst people here.” We—forgive me—made jokes that at least we weren’t Americans, hailed the world over as the loudest tourists. We leaned back in chairs over charcuterie boards and flirted with waiters who giggled as they brought us another bottle of overly expensive wine.
Because that is the other unfortunate side effect of a tourist town in full swing: It was by far the most expensive city I’ve ever been in. I spent the first day outraged by the cost of a bottle of sunblock—the cheapest seemed to be about £15.
“Unaccountable,” I hissed, “it’s unaccountable,” but there was no getting around prices in Nice, and in the end we gave into it, resigning ourselves to a summer back in Bristol featuring yet more oatmeal. Meals were at least £20 per person, and a bottle of wine at that price was considered cheap. We quickly made friends with the supermarket close to our hotel, buying bread rolls and oranges to take down to the beach and eat for breakfast and lunch, but even that couldn’t protect our bank accounts from the inexorable effect of a popular Western European city in high season.
The best day came when we gave into it, and stumped up the cash for a private beach. Private beaches were a new concept to me: essentially, they are small (perhaps 10 meters wide) sections of the beach that are cordoned off and owned, and that you have to pay an entry fee (around £15-£20 depending upon the beach) to get access to. You can pay an extra £5 for a deck chair and parasol, and then there is a team of waitstaff who attend on you to bring you food and drinks which you would surely buy were they not so entirely out of your budget.
We snuck our bread and oranges and bottle of water into the beach hidden under our towels, and then spent close to six hours lying on the deck chairs, reading, dozing, occasionally getting up to dip into the sea and strike out on a swim. As good as all of this was watching the other people around us: the people to whom a private beach was clearly so normal and unintimidating an experience that they acted as though they were the only ones there.
Next to me was a Canadian woman in her early 20s; she ordered cocktail after cocktail, usually only drinking half of each £25 drink before she decided the ice was too melted and hailed the water to bring her another. On the other side of my girlfriend, a group of American women passed their cocktails around and got cheerfully and delightedly drunk, ordering big and enticing bowls of salad. A row of beach chairs down, we speculated furiously over whether a particularly attractive pair of people were actually together; the guy ran laughing into the sea while the woman lay back in her chair smoking and watching with idle amusement, occasionally ordering another bottle of wine. The wine, when it came, hung in transparent plastic tote bags filled with ice off one corner of her deck chair.
It was as though with our £15 we had paid the entrance fee for a rich people zoo. It was fascinating, and only a little envy-inducing.
Later that afternoon I swam out to the buoy, further than it had looked, and felt each aching stroke draw something panting and fearful out of me. When I got back, safe and sound, I collapsed breathless onto my chair to nap, and felt, quietly and surely, the last pieces of plot for a novel slot into place.
I spent the evening explaining it to my girlfriend over dinner, giddy and no longer concerned about how much money I was spending to be in that place. Nice in all its hazy, heated glory had become a perfect fictional setting and I would, as the easiest of results, write it off as a work expense.
This story is part of our Travel Month series.
Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer based in the U.K. She occasionally remembers to make shy jokes on Twitter.