October 2008

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2008.

Spumante with a banana

A few years ago, on an 18-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, I sat in business class next a young woman from New Orleans, Christine, who clasped a bottle of Xanax in her sweaty palm as the plane took off.

Our flight left L.A. at 1:40 a.m. Sleep was out of the question, mostly because Christine talked nonstop, punctuating her monologues on James Spader (big fan) and collecting retro sunglasses (her hobby) with revelations like, “My therapist says if I talk to strangers I’ll feel less anxious and won’t need so much Xanax — am I boring you?”

Sometime after 3 in the morning, an attendant came by and spread white tablecloths on our trays in preparation for “dinner.” She asked Christine and me if we would like a glass of champagne.

My dilemma: Do you start drinking champagne at three in the morning at 30,000 feet at the start of an 18-hour flight? Probably not a good idea. In fact, definitely not a good idea. I was just about to decline the attendant’s offer when Christine put her hand on my wrist and said, “Honey, here’s what I say about champagne: Anytime, anywhere, if someone offers you a glass of champagne, you have to say yes. That’s just all there is to it.” And then she handed my glass to the attendant, who filled it to the top with Veuve Clicquot.

And so, streaking through an inky night toward sunrise in Malaysia, we finished the bottle of Veuve. And I rather enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. I didn’t even mind it when Christine told me the story of how, before coming on this trip, she’d gone to a Chinese fortuneteller in New Orleans who encouraged her to buy a silver monkey because this was the Year of the Monkey.

“I’m a Red Rabbit myself, but monkeys are supposed to be lucky,” Christine said, showing me the charm, which now hung on a chain around her neck.

“I hate monkeys,” I told her. “They remind me of sullen juveniles, always glaring at you and making rude noises.” I finished off the bubbly. “I say forget about the Year of the Monkey. This is the Year of Champagne. Let’s see if we can get another bottle.”

Christine’s eyebrows arched upward. “Honey, I agree. Let’s get another glass and toast to the Year of Champagne.”

And so I learned an important lesson in life: Anytime, anywhere, if somebody offers you a glass of champagne, you just say yes. You won’t believe how many wonderful things have happened to me because of this canon in what I like to refer to as The Holy Loving Church (there are other equally useful canons that we will reveal as time goes on).

I mention this story because yesterday, after many, many hours in airports and on planes, I finally arrived at my hotel in the south of Sardinia to find a lovely bottle of Torbato spumante chilling in an ice bucket, a gift from the general manager. The only trouble was that it was six in the morning and I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. Nevertheless, the Christine Rule triumphed over common sense; I opened the spumante and sat out on my deck watching the sunrise (by the way, all forms of sparkling wine are covered by the Christine Rule).

I drank about half the bottle of wine and then it really was time to collapse on the bed that was screaming my name. So I went to cork up the wine. But that didn’t come close to working. Sparkling wine corks aren’t meant to go back into the bottles from whence they came (perhaps as an admonition to always finish what you start). I tried some other stoppers. The foil refused to stay on and cellophane tied around the neck with a ribbon seemed pointless; I could hear the little sneaky bubbles escaping. Then I looked at the fruit plate that the GM had also left me and had a brilliant idea: I’d use a banana for a cork. So I peeled the little bugger, jammed it down the neck of the bottle as far as I could, and broke it off.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

It worked. Sort of. The spumante was still full of tiny bubbles when I came back to it after a refreshing six hour nap. Though it had given the wine an odd tropical top note. Never mind. I drank it. 

Good-by to all that

Marc St. John was off the boat so early this morning that none of us was even up to say good-by. Which, I think, made us all feel a little rotten. One by one we wandered up top-side, all of us looking as weary and washed out as the gray morning. It’s funny how the mood on the boat swings in such large arcs. So buoyant last night, fueled, no doubt, by excellent wine and a most generous meal. We stayed up late, sipping shots of tequila and whisky, talking about what? I can’t even remember. But there was the definite feeling that no one wanted to be the first to say good-night and thus end not only the evening but, for all intents and purposes, our time aboard Unplugged.

One by one, we’ll disband today. St. John already gone back to London, then Smaller, back to Dubai, and Nicholls on to Kuala Lumpur. By noon tomorrow, only Hardy and I will still be on board.

But, as Hardy pointed out, there was still time in the morning, before Smaller and Nicholls departed, for a final game of bocce. So we took the tender to the old pier just below the fort on Ile St-Marguerite where there is a café, La Guérite, that has a bocce court tucked away in a thicket of myrtle and eucalyptus. We ordered cappuccinos (and Hardy, preferring a little hair of the dog, got a beer), and played a final match beneath a steadily threatening sky. Once or twice it even started to rain, though the thicket was so heavy here that we hardly felt it.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Smaller and I teamed up again, hoping to regain the form we showed in St.-Tropez, and although we won our first match rather handily, our luck ran out quickly and in the second game, neither of us had the touch. There was no rhyme or reason for it; it just abandoned us. Like a player at the craps table who suddenly goes icy cold after running up a mountain of chips. And then Hardy got a call over the 2-way saying the tender was on the way to pick up Smaller and Nicholls.

We settled our tab, walked with them out to the pier, and said our good-byes. The sky was soupy; the wind was up. There was a definite chill in the air. Summer along the Cote d’Azur was over. As was our trip. 

The boys of autumn

We’d finished our hike around Ile St-Marguerite and were planning on meeting the tender at the stone pier in front of La Guérite, one of only two cafes on the island, when Hardy—or maybe it was Austin—suggested swimming back to Unplugged instead. This was a dicey proposition. For one thing, there was a dive boat between the shore and Unplugged so a swim would necessitate plowing through the dive school that was just now getting in the water. For another thing, these waters are famous for jellyfish and we’d seen a rather large school of them only the day before.

But what the hell. We’d just spent the last couple of hours leisurely strolling through the eucalyptus and pine forests of the island, breaking off into little groups of two or three and discussing those things of morbid interest to middle-aged men who’ve known each other for years, or even decades in some cases, and who’ve watched each others’ hairlines recede and paunches expand. We’d talked of friends we had recently lost; of the dissolution of more than one marriage. We’d reminded each other of when we played tennis every Sunday morning, of ski trips in Switzerland, of falling in love with beautiful women a long, long time ago, when we were more virile then we are now. Both the chilly walk and the conversation had, I think, made us all a little melancholy.

Joseph Conrad said it best: “I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort—to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires—and expires, too soon, too soon—before life itself.”

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

And so the boys of autumn—Hardy, Austin, and Roberts—stripped down to their shorts, handing off their shoes and packs to the rest of us, and minced their way down the rocky path, their hands above their heads, their bare feet pointed like ballerinas, until they made it to the chilly water. One at a time they lowered themselves into the water and freestyled, then breast stroked, and eventually back-stroked their pale bodies back to Unplugged. Where, with smug, if tired, looks on their faces, they waited for us topside on the boat. One couldn’t help but admire them. 

The weather has turned. This morning was windy and cold. I’d left my porthole open overnight and small rain slashed in sideways, waking me just after dawn. Usually someone jumps off the boat first thing in the morning as a tonic before breakfast, but this gray morn saw no takers. So we abandoned our plans for water sports and instead had a late, leisurely breakfast of mushroom omelettes and fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee.

And then just as quickly as the ill weather had blown in, it blew out. So we motored into the bay of Cannes, dropping anchor along the northern shore of Ile Sainte-Marguerite, the largest of the Lérins Islands and best known for its stone fort which was home to a number of famous prisoners, none more so than the Man in the Iron Mask who was imprisoned here by decree of King Louis XIV in the late 17th century.

During the summer a flotilla of megayachts moors in the shallows of the island—so many that they say while party-hopping you can practically step from boat to boat without ever getting wet. But this late in the season things are quiet. If you make it onto the island, which is less than two miles long and about half-a-mile wide, before the sight-seeing ferry from Cannes, you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself. Even if the ferry has dropped off its load, most of the tourists are here to see the Fort Royal or the creaky Musée de la Mer. Been there, done that.

Instead, we walked up the hill past the fort and circumnavigated the island on the sentier botanique—the botanical footpath. It’s a lovely stroll, the red earth path leading you through a thick forest of eucalyptus and Allepo pine trees. Because of the morning rain, the air was particularly fragrant. As the breeze shifted I picked up whiffs of spicy myrtle, sweet honeysuckle, and head-clearing pine.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Every once in awhile we’d come across a couple of bathers splayed across the rocky shore, bagging the last rays of the season, or young lovers snoozing on blankets, their recently-consumed lunch of cheese and bread, fruit and wine spread all around them. Sometimes the couples were in amorous poses and we’d hush our voices and quietly file by, trying not to disturb them.

The pastoral scene reminded me of a famous photo taken on this island 70-some years ago by Lee Miller, a strikingly-beautiful photographer (she began her career as a model for such famous early-20th century photographers as Edward Steichen) who hooked up with the Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray in Paris around 1930. She ended up photographing a lot of the most famous artists of that time, such as Picasso, Colette, and Magritte. Her work wasn’t as surrealistic as Man Ray’s but it did have an evocative, other-worldly quality to it. In a way, I guess, it seemed like she was photographing scenes that the Impressionists of that time were painting. You can see what I mean by this photo of hers titled “Picnic on Ile Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, 1937.” (By the way, that’s Man Ray wearing the cap on the right.)  

Lee Miller Archives, copyright 2008

Lee Miller Archives, copyright 2008

It’s a lovely photo–sort of a cross between a Gauguin painting, with the two exotic bare-breasted women, and something from Renoir or Seurat. It’s odd, but this island, as small and undeveloped as it is, has an air about it. It makes you want to try and capture it. Shadow, light, texture—as we walked, I couldn’t keep my hand off the shutter button.

A moveable feast

Just standing at the front of Le Club 55 and waiting to be seated is a waste of time. Even if you have a reservation. Particularly if you have a reservation. Unless you’re P Diddy or something. What you have to do is thread your way through the enormous bamboo-covered patio to the back, where you’re likely to find a surly waiter or two and emphatically tell them you are here and you are ready to be seated—now. Then there is the question of where to be seated. Is it better to be down on the main patio, closer to the beach, or at one of the slightly elevated tables in the back looking out over the scene? Most likely they’ll just seat you wherever there’s an empty table. That’s what happened to us.

The first thing we did was order the epic crudités pour la table. Not because any of us were really dying to gnaw on raw mushrooms or whole bell peppers but because it looks nice and gives you something to do while you’re looking around at the other diners and trying to figure out what to have for lunch. We also ordered a couple of bottles of rose from the nearby vineyards of Provence.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Somehow, Sanc-et-Sanc, which has been here for over 50 years, still works. I mean, you’d think that the most famous café on the Cote d’Azur would be nothing but a tourist trap at this point, but it’s not. The setting is simple and understated (I liked the way the busboys keep cutlery and napkins stored in wicker baskets stashed in the branches of the tamarisk trees)—wooden tables and chairs, like you might find under the trees of a farmhouse in Provence, and a few U-shaped white sofas for larger parties. They throw down a simple pale blue tablecloth, grab some cutlery from the trees, bring out your wine, and then you just kick back and enjoy. The sommelier doesn’t come around and no one wants to tell you about the specials du jour.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I would never imagine going to Club 55 for the food, and yet you know what? It’s quite good. And, like the setting, very simple. You start with a cold artichoke with vinaigrette or perhaps the salad nicoise, with salty, succulent anchovies, and then order something from the Mediterranean—grilled sardines, for instance, all smoky and crisp, or sparkling fresh St Pierre, moist and perfectly cooked, served with buttery slices of potato that have been smeared with olive oil and roasted. Nothing exotic. Nothing pretentious. Just good, local ingredients perfectly prepared that are, nonetheless, as beautiful and seductive as the Pucci-wrapped women sitting at the table next to you admiring your fine plate of crudités.

« Older entries § Newer entries »