Sweating the small stuff – Menton Week One

Well, here we are: one week checked off in our six month adventure in Menton, France. It’s been a roller coaster of a week – huge, ecstatic highs and equally plunging lows.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, to be met at Nice airport by the loveliest of men, William Rubinstein, Nice-based representative of the KMM Trust. It was such a help to be met by a friendly, smiling face and deposited into our lovely apartment, the sea immediately in front of us and the ‘Old Town’ of Menton rising through the trees. It’s gob-smackingly beautiful. The stuff of dreams.

With no stores in the cupboard we wandered along the waterfront in search of food, immediately running into the first huge cultural difference between NZ and France. No eating establishments open until 6.30 or 7pm here (sometimes even later)  – extremely civilised, unless you’re a hungry traveller who has just arrived.

Eventually we found somewhere and then came face to face with our greatest fear: with a few very basic French phrases under our belt we stared at the menu in the hope something would miraculously disentangle itself of its French vocabulary and reveal what it really was! It’s like ordering food blindfolded, while a somewhat bemused (my kind interpretation, which could also be read as haughty and disapproving) waiter let us fumble for the words. But we did eventually order something and did eventually eat it, stumbling back to collapse into an exhausted sleep.
The next day, Sunday, we discovered one to the other highly civilised things about French culture: they have no need to serve the 7-day a week, 24 hours a day god that NZ seems to have fallen prey to. In other words, nothing much was open! We couldn’t stock up on food and the only places open seemed to know we were at their mercy – charging exorbitant amounts for fairly basic meals. But then, this isMenton, a tourist town, and they know they’ve got you by the short and curlies!
We wandered up and found the Villa Isola Bella – a lovely building only a five minute walk from our apartment – and then kept walking. Four hours later (those of you who know me well will know that this is not without its difficulties for me) we finally made it home. But, oh, the place is beautiful. Dreamlike. Ancient. Nothing, not even an aching body, can change this fact.
Monday morning we got brave. We negotiated with the ticket machine at the local railway station and got ourselves to Nice to collect our leased car. Thank god for GPS! We have christened it ‘Mum’. It tells us in the calmest of polite English accents where to go (‘Do a u-turn, do a U-TURN, DO AU-TURN….) and when we fail to heed her good advice (still trying to figure out how the hell to navigate on the wrong side of the road) she patiently re-jigs her calculations and gets us back on track.
At this juncture I have to give a big accolade to my dear husband Brian. He is coping with this sudden shift of steering wheel and orientation incredibly well. I, on the other hand, have discovered that I’m even more navigationally challenged than I thought I was! After nearly 54 years on this earth, it is now apparent that, in times of stress, I have not yet learnt to automatically know my right

from left! If it wasn’t for ‘Mum’ we’d be seriously **cked! A Navigator I am not! That Brian hasn’t pushed me out the door yet, while he is multi-tasking with all these jobs (and I am panicking and jabbing at imaginary brake pedals  on the passenger side), is nothing short of a miracle!

We ventured forth the next day into Italy, which is only a kilometre from our apartment. We ended up winding up an extremely narrow road to a tiny town right at its top, and the views were spectacular. Then back to Menton to finally do some decent foraging for food.
Once we’d found a good sized supermarket we must have spent well over an hour there, peering at labels and contents as we tried to identify what each thing was. Actually, I’m exaggerating here – it’s not that hard – the hard part is not going crazy and filling up the trolley with every kind of cheese, olives, pastry, bread, exotic fruit …. you get the picture. I’m just warning those who know me now:   I am going to come home twice the size as when I left! And the wine, folks, is so damn cheap….
I’ve been very good for the last year, only drinking when I went out socialising (which is not that often) – but, honestly, it’s impossible not to live the dream! With a view out over the Cote D’azur and cheap, highly drinkable wine, all my good intentions have gone out the window. As an aside, though, there is an over-whelming and unnecessary amount of packaging – individual tea bags each sealed in both branded plastic wrappers and then more clear plastic inside; items like individual croissants in a pack likewise. I feel guilty each time I unwrap something and have to dispose of it. The thought of all this plastic makes me shudder.
Internet access was causing some difficulties at first, until our lovely landlady sorted it, and it took us three days (and another trip to Nice) to sort out our mobile phones. It’s strange how vulnerable this made me feel. I needed to know I had some connection to family back home before I could truly relax – and as soon as it was established and I’d caught up with people by skype I felt a hundred times more relaxed.


We’ve now ventured into Nice three times (I spent 4 hours  speaking to students at Nice University – a great experience) and survived! We’ve been welcomed officially in the Menton Tow Hall town hall, in the room set aside for marriages, painted in 1958 by Jean Cocteau – incredible — and met many lovely, friendly people who have opened their arms to us and made us feel very welcome.

What I’ve learnt from this week is how much I’ve come to rely on technology to connect me to those I love – and how much that connection means to me. And how wonderful and resilient my darling B is under pressure – and how bloody grateful I am that he’s here with me to help ease my way.
And I’ve learnt that if I preface any conversation where I need something by announcing that I’m from NZ, that I’ll get a much more friendly reception than if they assume I’m from England – I’ll leave the conclusions that can be drawn from this to you.
Tomorrow I will start my research – and am very excited to do so. This is a beautiful place. In the early morning, while the light is still silver and the sea shades of pink and the palest of blues, the sun hits the buildings of the old town and lights them golden, glowing like a precious jewel. I feel very lucky to be here. And I know that it can only get easier with each new day.


  1. Yay Mandy! Reading your post takes me back to my own European experience of their over-plasticising, different hours of service, and the er, 'love' of the English. But also of the ancient beauty, which I could never get sick of. And I put on approx 10kg in 5 weeks because of all that cheese, bread, butter, cured meats and yes, cheap grog (it was beer for me…) This was even though I was constantly walking everywhere! But what does it matter as long as you're happy? It's all experience! Penny G xxx


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