Style. The word comes from the latin stilus, referring to a writing instrument or a mode of composition. Style is the visible or felt result of a fashioning, of a making. The Côte d’Azur is defined by its style, which is to say, above all, that it is defined by the human presence written upon natural landscapes. On every surface our imprint appears in its most basic and historical forms.
Because Nice is a major tourist destination, it takes time to settle in, to see the place for what it is, and to experience the quotidian. Nice, to me, really seems to be a city of workers and a city of simple pleasures, and it is in observing and seeking work and pleasure that a truer sense of the place—its everyday style—comes through.
In the quiet, diverse neighborhood where I rent a room I see many of the same people on a daily basis, most of them working. So much living happens at work. Day after day I pass by the owner of a pocket-sized pizza joint, a small, tattooed man, who sets up his sidewalk tables around 10:00 a.m., rolls out his dough, preps, cooks, and serves until at least eleven at night, Monday to Saturday. A younger guy, probably in his mid-twenties, works alongside him. Between orders, between lunch and dinner, they grab snacks from the supermarket a few doors down, sit down for coffee, joke and visit with friends and regulars.
It makes me think of Hemingway’s ¨A Clean, Well-Lighted Place¨:
“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.
“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“I want to go home and into bed.”
“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe.”
“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”
“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”
In Nice, added to the necessities of stone, sun, and sea, are flowers. Many of these flowers, like the bougainvillea, are not native to the region; rather, they are decorative imports, enhancements.
Building upon the region’s natural beauty and tipping the light-washed walls of beaux arts and art deco buildings, they are city’s final layer of style.
Walking home one day, I got caught up in thinking about seabirds and American poets. The seabird analog to Wallace Stevens, I decided, is the northern gannet, since the gannet is a remote cliff-dweller (lonesome, hard to reach) and all about style.
In Nice, the deco façade of Le Negresco calls up the gannet’s shape and colors, and set against it, the intermixing sky and sea invoke Stevens, especially¨Sea Surface Full of Clouds¨:
The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue
Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.
Here in this ambrosial latitude is the old domain of the gods, crowded with human bodies that still, in new ways, deify the sun. Sunbathing on the shore, I imagine the gannet dive from the sky and knife into the Mediterranean, passing with its blunt edges from fluid to fluid.