When I tell people I live in the south of France, I am met by jaws slack with envy and any number of variations on that old "must be Nice" joke.
To be sure, there are plenty of wonderful things about living here. It is indeed very nice. But I don't live in the south of France that I think resides in many people's imaginations. I don't live in Peter Mayle's Provence. And I am not meticulously renovating a sprawling 18th century country villa like Patricia Wells.
That doesn't mean I don't love my little slice of France. But I am not running barefoot through lavender fields over here. I live smack dab in the middle of France's 5th largest city. And in some ways my surroundings here feel more chaotic and urban than back in Washington, DC.
For one thing, I am much closer to the people living around me. In fact, as I write this, I am being treated to the deafening music choices of my neighbor, pumped though the paper-thin wall we share.
I find my next-door neighbors equal parts fascinating and frustrating (although at the moment frustrating is winning out). For one thing, I have no idea how many people actually live in the apartment. I have shared many a "bonjour" with a woman and her sweet young daughter coming and going in the hallway, but I know those two aren't making all the racket.
There is a constant barrage of noises blasting through the walls. And it's not always music - there are plenty of screaming matches, outrageously loud Portuguese game shows, and the always popular: loud and incessant banging on the front door -- but the music is so bizarre, it deserves a bit of explaining.
In the course of any given day, I will hear, in no particular order: hard-core gangster rap, Italian opera ballads, salsa, top 40, reggae, some kind of odd and absolutely infuriating call and answer song, and a selection of Euro club mix. The only things that are constant are the headache inducing volume and the thumping bass.
I have tested where the music is loudest, and incredibly, it is many, MANY decibels louder in my living room than in the hallway outside the neighbor's door. Which leads me to believe that they might actually have the speakers facing directly into my apartment.
It's not just the level of the noise either, the music is prone to start and stop and the volume will range from just loud to earsplitting and back multiple times in the course of one song, as if someone is just playing with the knobs. This of course renders my attempts to try and think of it as a free concert useless.
I am a somewhat reserved person. I generally shy away from confrontation, but loud noises, especially prolonged loud noises that I can't escape within the walls of my own home have a particular way of propelling me into action.
On a recent visit, while being bombarded by a singularly crazy-making trumpet based tune, I asked the Englishman how he would deal with the noise. He matter of factly grabbed the wooden and of a broom and gave the adjoining wall a few hard knocks. To my surprise, the music was immediately turned down. That was all it took. Of course the volume crept back up as the minutes passed, but the message seemed to get through.
I thought banging on a neighbor's wall only happened in sit-coms. But apparently the age-old practice is alive and well in the French Riviera. At first, I felt bad banging on the wall. Some of the music is really uplifting, and what kind of Grinch shuts down a reggae dance party? I wondered if I could carry on smiling and saying hello in the hallway after spoiling their fun.
But I have noticed that if I listen closely I can hear other brooms knocking on other walls of my neighbor's apartment when the music gets offensively loud. So sometimes I can wait it out, and let someone else in the building be the heavy.
I have had to take matters into my own hands a few times though, and I will say that there is a certain satisfaction that comes with telling the neighbors to just shut the F*%@ up every once in a while.
I find there is less personal space outside of the apartment as well. The international crowds in search of sand, sea and that golden Provencal sun are arriving in hordes now and the town is filling up.
No matter where I happen to be at any given moment, someone else seems to need be right there with me. Whether it's having a giant stroller rolled over my foot, or a motorcycle backing up onto the sidewalk where I am walking, or just getting stuck behind what my friend Rachael calls a "slow-moving roadblock" it's hard to find a whole lot of space here at the moment.
But for all my complaining, I do love the busy feeling of Nice in the summer. The markets are piled high with the season's first fragrant peaches and nectarines, the long nights are getting warmer and summer is finally in the air.
You can hear just about every language being spoken on the streets and from French teenagers drinking beer on the beach, to English tourists with their pale skin roasting in the sun, to the uber rich perusing the offerings at Louis Vuitton and the like, the people watching here is in a league of its own.
Now If I could just get the neighbors to lay off the sub woofer.