We came to Menton, in France but so close to Italy that it almost could be, just for a few days, warming our bones after what feels like the longest winter for a long time. I could show you a few pretty pictures before I get down to the nitty gritty, couldn't I?
After a long day travelling - a relatively simple one, but any travel with children turns into what feels like a longer day than it should be - we are ensconced on a bus from Nice Airport to the end of our road in Menton. The journey is a memorable one, one that makes us crane our necks and move from one side of the bus to the other, to take everything in: tunnels, hills and ravines, ramshackle houses on impossibly steep slopes with terraced gardens, a landscape made of green with terracotta, yellow and red tones against an occasional backdrop of the bluest sea. Suddenly the atmosphere changes and we are into Monaco: built up, swankier, cleaner, shinier, more sterile, and there are shouts from the boy by my side, pointing out of the window: "Lamborghini!" "Maserati!" and "Ferrari!". The bus weaves down the hills to views of obscenely large boats and shop windows sparsely arranged with items but no price tags, then it winds back up the hills again. The paintwork gets a bit more flaky and faded, the houses have more space and we realise we are back in France. As the bus gets back down to the next stretch of coastline and our destination, my heart starts to sink about getting everyone fed; we will get there after six, will the shops be open? Will a meal out go well or will we all be too tired? Will the children get grumpy and misbehave, in the way no French children ever seem to? Will it be a disaster?
We finally arrive in the street where our apartment is, oranges rolling on the pavement, fallen from the trees lining the road, and we prepare to meet the owner. Last time we came here, he was away in Moscow, where the mother of his child came from, and someone else let us in, so, after countless messages where I have become aware that this is no ordinary holiday apartment owner, it is good to finally meet Monsieur Raybaut.
We go inside after the children have been vigorously kissed and hugged, and he is hopping from one foot to the other with excitement to show us what has changed since last time and more importantly what he's prepared for us. There on the table - he is so animated I can't get a word in - lie two loaves of bread, a whole Coulommiers cheese, a log of goat's cheese, a bowl of home-made rice salad, a plate of goose rillettes (unctuous pâté made by cooking the meat slowly, slowly, slowly in its own fat), surrounded by cornichons arranged like the rays a small child would draw around the sun, a big slice of courgette tart, a bowl of fruit and a rather lovely salad he's made with eggs, potatoes, olives, apples and peppers, all in a mustardy dressing, and hidden under a layer of lettuce so it's a complete surprise when I start to serve it. I have visions of exactly how the Russian woman must have been seduced. The tablecloth is strewn artistically with leaves from the garden, kumquats and sprigs of jasmine heady with fragrance that becomes sickly after the first hour. "And that's not all, come and see!" he takes my hand and shows me the bottle of champagne, another of Perrier and incongruously a pack of four vanilla soya yoghurts and a box of raspberry wafers. Then before I know it, he has charmed me into paying 40 euros to hire the sheets that he told me last week were included in the rental price.
The next morning is a rainy one, and we stay where we are for most of it, reaching for the pack of cards. Just before lunch there is a knock on the door, and there he is... "I was out shopping and I thought you ought to try this, it's really special, artisanal, you know, made by hand by an old man, even older than me, you can't always get them, and he had just two, so one for me, and one for you... but if you don't like it, don't throw it away, keep it for me..." He fumbles in his bag, too busy talking to concentrate, "just boil it for twenty minutes, it's wonderful with some lentils" and produces a monstrous garlic sausage. "I thought you'd like it, because I know you're interested in food... " - this is where I notice he's got familiar and is calling me "tu" instead of "vous". Interesting that someone would think of me when they saw a fat saucisson and then start getting on first-name terms. There is more: "I have something else in mind too, I will come back, I am thinking of something local, something sweet, that the children will love" then he starts telling me about a restaurant far up in the hills that he loves, "but you need a car, I could take you all there on Tuesday evening maybe". Eventually he goes, and with some misgivings (I was looking forward to finishing his mountain of food this lunchtime so I could start eating some holiday food of my own choice) I start to boil the sausage, hoping desperately that it will be bearable, and that it will go with all the leftovers.
It looks puny here but let me explain that the plate is a full-sized dinner plate and the sausage has a girth larger than my children's arms. Thankfully it is perfectly edible, quite tasty even, but we only manage a third, and the remainder and my misgivings go back in the fridge for another day. What will he come with next? What excuse can we make about Tuesday night? Or am I being mean? Or too English?
The next morning I nip out for some breakfast for us all, pains aux raisins and brioches au sucre, and on my return, outside the front door, is a big cake box, and a note asking me to check out his book on French Amazon (he's written in English "ON THE TOP 100 WORLD! by L'Express"): Les Corps Indécents, or literally "The Indecent Bodies". I remember him emailing me about this before, four years ago when we last came, and when we see him later he describes it as "adult, very romantic, but proper" although I distinctly remember a front cover photo of a naked couple playing "Chase me chase me" in front of an onion-domed church. I am vaguely interested still, as I know that for my MA, I have to find an untranslated 10 000-word text for an extended analysis and translation, not sure this is the one though...
The box contains two of the biggest slices of cake I've ever seen, dusted with plenty of icing sugar and stuffed to the gunnels with an inch-thick layer of crème patissière mixed with whipped cream. If you took the top layer of cake off, they would make classic comedy custard pies to push into someone's face. When I ask Monsieur Raybaut what they are, he mutters something about Saint-Tropez in between the subjects he actually wanted to talk about and it turns out after some research that they are slices of Tarte Tropézienne - allegedly given its name by Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s.
Again the picture doesn't do it justice (I must start using a coin to show the scale in photos); the box is so full I have to dismantle it to get the slices out, and when I've cut each slice into two so the four of us each have a piece, they are still larger than any piece of cake I'd serve. It is though delicious, in the way that a cool cream cake after a hot day can feel intensely refreshing and light (although all sensation of lightness disappeared after it was all gone and we felt a little queasy).
Tuesday evening has now been and gone, and rather thankfully after a tiring day with no proper excuse up our sleeves, Monsieur Raybaut had forgotten about taking us up into the hills to his favourite restaurant, although he does say he will cook for us the next time we come. I feel a vague need to repay him, although in all probability the 40 euros I paid for the sheets approximates to the amount of food and drink he has given us. As we get ready to leave, we talk about his 11-year-old son in Moscow, and he moves on quickly, concerned about what the future holds for him and his fragile family spaced so many miles apart: "I worry, you know, about all these Muslims in Europe..." and as he starts on a monologue, I am saddened. I am reminded of the reviews I read of his book, which was not all French and Russian lovers. In his words that I found online, he had covered in his novel all the themes that were important to him, citing John Lennon and the purity of love. Others, however, had noticed his worries over what happens to an indigenous population when it is engulfed by outsiders. The book had apparently lost popularity after becoming associated with the French National Front, to his great surprise. Maybe this explains the barbed wire and security cameras along the fences around our apartment. There we were, getting so happy, salivating together talking about food, the pissaladière, a beautiful onion and anchovy tart from Nice, and socca, a local chickpea flour pancake, and suddenly I am looking into a dark chasm. Go back to the food, Monsieur Raybaut. Every time.