I was in highly esteemed company, with Cyril Kelly; poet Jessica Traynor; Historian Conor Mulvagh, and Paul Howard aka Ross O’Carroll Kelly in the Coach House at Dublin Castle for Sunday Miscellany Live on Culture Night 2016. My contribution was on the topic of my recent return trip to Nice, just 6 weeks after the tragic Bastille Day Massacre, which turned out to be quite an emotional and somewhat surprising trip for me. You can listen back to the whole show here – I’m second last between Conor Mulvagh and Ross O’Carroll Kelly [some sandwich!]:
I am walking down a road in Nice I have not set foot on for a lifetime. Over twenty years. That’s a lifetime, right?
Merde, walking down this street, I can’t avoid the fact (that I have been avoiding), that I am middle-aged.
I’m looking for “International House for Young People”, 22 Rue Pertinax, the youth hostel I ran with my Limerick school pal Brenda fado fado after we had both just finished first year in college.
Looking for “International House for Young People” decades later? I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the place does not exist any more.
My first ever summer as a fully fledged adult, let loose on the world, was the first time I ever set foot on this very rue.
We came here at the advice of a lovely French rugby player. “Non, don’t go to Paris”, he advised, when I told him I was going to Paris to improve my French. “Go to Nice”.
When our TGV pulled into Nice train station, we were accosted by people beseeching us to come and stay at their hostels. Huh – did they think we were born yesterday? We listened politely to their enticements, but we weren’t about to fall into the trap of following total strangers deep into the labyrinth of an unknown city.
It didn’t take long wandering around with our over-stuffed rucksacks however, before we realised we actually had nowhere organised to stay, and where was that place again?
Unable to find it, at nightfall, we ended up settling for grim lodgings. The next morning Brenda urged “come on, let’s try the next floor”. Grumbling like a teenager about how heavy my rucksack was, I reluctantly followed.
Lo and behold, “International House for Young People”!
We booked in immediately, delighted and contrite all at once. Our minds turned to – what job could we get? Our French was not exactly très bien. We wondered where McDonald’s might be – the only possibility we could think of…
Later, the young Scot who had booked us in asks can we have a word. Showing me his inter-rail card, he confides that he had never intended on getting stuck running a youth hostel in Nice. Would we possibly consider taking his job?
Next thing you know we were scrubbing the hostel from top to toe, to the point that our new boss, Antoine, complained it was too clean. We hand-drew and photocopied advertisements, and next morning, we were those people beseeching “Come and stay at our youth hostel” up at the train station, pouncing on likely victims as they disembarked the TGV.
We developed a system. First checking people out. Then going to meet the trains – recruiting the next bunch. Guiding them down, and checking them in – taking their passports. Cleaning the hostel, and at lunch-time, heading back to the train station and onwards a la plage to Juan Les Pins, or Monaco, or Villefranche, or Italy! One afternoon we even ventured as far as Cannes (and missed the last train home).
There were parties on the Promenade des Anglais every evening. It was a dream summer for these “two Irish girls” who even got a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide to Nice.
A lifetime later, I am finally back, but in light of the Nice attacks, it is bittersweet. My lament for lost youth, and reality check on how much time it has taken me to get back here pales in comparison to the eerie sadness hanging in the air, and the realisation of how lucky we are just to be alive.
Like New York after 9/11, the Niçois are completely shook, but carrying on. Everyone has a story about how they narrowly escaped being on the Promenade des Anglais that fateful Bastille Day evening.
The blood on the pavement has given way to a monument of teddy bears, sun-faded “Je sois Nice”, notes, wilting flowers, and votive candles right at the tragic spot of the massacre, on the Promenade des Anglais. Sun-worshippers, parachuters, and holiday makers face the other way now for their selfies, with Nice’s stunning light and Baie des Anges as a backdrop. But 6 weeks on, there’s an unavoidably sad aura hanging over this Bay of Angels. And clusters of soldiers with machine guns patrolling paradise. The people of Nice express gratitude for your presence, and many add “come back”.
Meanwhile, back on Rue Pertinax, a fanfare of international flags and an incongruous bright pink Tuk Tuk announce another youth hostel – picking up where ours left off. Its eccentric 74 year old owner introduces herself as “The Pink Lady”, and shrugs her shoulders when I ask her about Antoine and his great establishment of yore. It was simply swept away by time and tide. Et voila. C’est la vie.
Next thing I am offered another job here, pedalling tourists around Nice in the Pink Lady’s bright pink Tuk Tuk.
Surely, I have landed back in Tir na nOg, a place where, in spite of tragedy, hope, and the Côte d’Azur spring eternal.