Because the climate here is so temperate, thanks to the Gulf Stream, we North Americans tend to forget just how far north Paris is. The entire landmass of the contiguous United States lies further south on the globe than Paris. New York City, for example, is at the same latitude as Madrid and Naples.
That’s why the days are so long in the summer, which is great. And so short in the winter, which is, well, not so great. And that in turn is why, in December, my wife Nancy and I decided to do what Santa Claus does every year and go south for Christmas.
Specifically, we spent a week in the Mediterranean port city of Nice. There I discovered that, in addition to large and readily accessible quantities of saltwater, Nice has a number of things that Paris doesn’t. According to my careful calculations, that number is six.
1. Pathetic pun potential
For congenital wisenheimers like myself, the name of the city lends itself to a facile, obvious, brain-dead pun in English, a pun too lame to explain but that has a certain potential in one of my favorite categories of “found” humor: inadvertently funny business names (a topic I have already explored on Paris Update here and here).
I had my eye out the whole time we were there, but only spotted these two:
I was hoping to find some better examples — somewhere there must be a Nice Self Defense Academy, Nice Prison or Nice Gun Shop.
Not only is Nice far enough south to get a good half hour more daily daylight than Paris, it can get downright warm down there even in the dead of winter. This photo was taken on Christmas day:
We saw people tanning on the beach every day between Christmas and New Year’s, including many in an advanced state of undress, including many women in the particular advanced state of undress for which the Riviera is famous and that would get you arrested on most beaches in the United States.
Not surprisingly, there was usually a phalanx of blimpspotters leaning against the blue railing up there on the promenade. Which, of course, leads us to the topic of dried, ground legumes.
Speaking of checking out the local garbanzos, the emblematic snack food in Nice is a savory concoction called socca — essentially a large pancake made of chickpea batter and cooked lightning fast in a big blast furnace of an oven.
There are restaurants and lunch stands all over town offering socca, and every single one has a sign saying something like, “Here only: the one sole singular authentic genuine true original socca made from the bona fide recipe handed down by God and my grandmother.” Nonetheless, the vast majority of them serve a socca that, if it really is God’s recipe, puts forth a compelling argument for atheism.
Perhaps because the dish is so simple (it’s essentially just chickpea flour, water, salt and pepper), its quality depends on painstaking attention to detail in the proportions and cooking process and, most importantly, the fresh-out-of-the-ovenness.
So you want to get your socca from a place that serves a lot of it and therefore keeps it coming all day long. And that means a place with a line out front — in any case always a propitious sign when it comes to food shopping in France (as I discussed in a previous, pre-Ironique, article).
After two or three dry, cold, nearly flavorless and far from satisfactory soccas, Nancy and our friend Stefan, who was traveling with us and happens to know his stuff in the socca sector, finally found a good one by applying the logic of the line: Chez René Socca at 2, rue Miralheti in the Old Town, just south of Place Garibaldi.
René serves a whole array of Niçois specialties, including stuffed vegetables, pissaladière (onion-anchovy pizza, more or less) and approximately 381 kinds of deep-fried fritters, all of them cheap and good. The lunch line there starts forming at about 11:00 am and continues until at least 3:00 pm. And, due to the temporal and logistical constraints involved in socca production, it doesn’t move fast. This is not a complaint — for a superb socca you have to be ready to spend a little time standing and salivating.
After sating our socca jones, we went to a pasta shop to pick up some panisse, which is yet another regional reorganization of chickpea particles. While socca is chickpea flour batter, panisse is chickpea flour paste formed into a large, thick round, like a little edible Olympic discus.
Its preparation is very simple: you cut it up (optional) and fry it (required — unlike socca, it comes uncooked). If you’re in Nice and have access to a kitchen, I actually recommend panisse over socca. It’s guaranteed to be freshly cooked, for self-evident reasons, and if you overcook it you can always use the disk as a Zen pillow or curling stone.
And speaking of deadly projectiles…
4. Artillery fire
Okay, I don’t get this. Apparently in a tradition dating back to the days when watches were unreliable and needed to be reset regularly, a cannon is fired in Nice every day at noon. Yes, a real cannon. Yes, it’s loud. It booms and resonates all over town, scaring the enfer out of the seagulls. And it startled the guano out of me, making me jump a foot in the air every single day I was there.
I found this just plain annoying. And it must be considerably more annoying for the local recording studios, dog kennels and brain surgeons. It is also no doubt why the record for the world’s biggest domino chain has never been broken in Nice.
Noise notwithstanding, the citizens of Nice do achieve a world-class performance in another, although less Guinness-worthy, field of endeavor:
5. Municipal pastime No. 1: double parking
Okay, I don’t get this one either. Except in the old town, which is mostly closed to traffic anyway, Nice has — in remarkable contrast to Paris — wide, straight streets that should make getting around by automobile a breeze. But, and I’m speaking from experience here, it isn’t.
Apparently in a tradition dating back to the days when people were selfish jerks (remember?), double parking is so commonplace that it’s considered normal in Nice. Consider this photo of a downtown street in mid-afternoon:
A two-lane street is effectively reduced to one lane. I doubt that all of those drivers just paused for a minute to pick up a pound of chickpeas.
Furthermore, none of them has a ticket, possibly because there’s no place for the police to park. Either that or they’re too busy engaging in…
6. Municipal pastime No. 2: bird watching
I loved this. Every day at sundown, thousands upon thousands of sparrows (I’m ornithologically challenged, but I think they were sparrows) swarm en masse to their roosting spots in the trees of Nice.
Presumably this means that every morning at sunrise those same birds swarm en masse out of their roosting spots and over to their feeding (preening, brooding, breeding…) spots, but frankly I was unable, due to a chronic inability to get out of bed before it was warm enough to ogle sunbathers, to test this hypothesis in the field.
For Nice residents, this is an everyday occurrence, but for a Parisian it’s quite an impressive sight. Every evening there were flocks of out-of-towners like us standing transfixed in Place Garibaldi, the nearest roosting site to the apartment we were renting, watching the hordes of birds swoop down to stake out their personal space, such as it is, in the trees.
In the late afternoon you can see them flying over the city in tight formation, like tiny stealth bombers:
I love the way the little drill teams move in unison, forming a fluid, constantly shifting ovoid mass. (Sorry about the siren sound — just before I started shooting an alien spaceship landed right next to me and was shooting out bundles of €500 bills, so the cops had to come control the crowd.)
My guess is that each flock is led by a self-appointed alpha sparrow who insists that he can lead them all, Moses-like, home for the night, and then they spend 30 minutes flitting around aimlessly because the leader bird forgets where the tree is and is too ashamed to ask for directions.
But finally, the magical moment comes when they peel off from the pack and alight in the boughs of the target tree:
The woman you hear toward the beginning is not (to my dismay) having sex — she’s oohing and aahing about the birds.
They don’t seem to have individual nests — they just crowd into the branches. And I mean “crowd“ — the flock shown here was only one of about five or six separate throngs that all jammed into the same two trees like clowns in a Fiat.
Then, of course, the limbs are alive with fluttering, squawking birds. Strangely, there are four or five trees in the square but the sparrows only roost in two of them, right next to each other. After about the first 3,000 pack in there, doubling the weight of the tree, I’d think they would want to (pun advisory in effect) branch out to other accommodations.
Look at this video of the occupied versus unoccupied treetops:
The adjacent trees are the same height, breadth and species, but obviously suffer from empty-nest syndrome.
As I’m sure you have noticed, the little guys have a lot to say to each other while bedding down. My guess is that all that chirping is birdlish for “Hey! Gimme a little wingroom, willya?“ “Stick an acorn in it — I’m trying to get some rest here!“ “Don’t be so flighty, you humanbrain!“ etc., etc.
I imagine that the ones further down, who were the first to arrive, tend to be the older birds who get tired sooner from all the soaring around before bedtime. And I imagine them admonishing the others, in the sparrowesque equivalent of my grandmother’s voice, “All righty now, did everybody remember that in this flock we go to the potty before we get in the tree?“
Eventually, about 15 minutes after sunset, the little peepers pipe down and, heads tucked securely under one wing, drift peacefully into the coddling nest of slumber. And just about then they fire off that blasted cannon again.
I wish. I’d love to see that — but I’d hate to be under the tree at the time.
Reader Millie Ornett writes: “I lived in Vichy one summer and instead of using the radio/TV sirens for bad weather alerts, they’d fire off an extremely loud fusillade (I presume fireworks) or two or three (another presumption: the number had something to do with either the severity or the type of storm).”
© 2012 Paris UpdateFavorite
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