« Archives in September, 2018

Still Writing?

“Still writing?” a friend recently asked.

“Sadly, no” I had to answer. “By the time I finish each week with high school students, drug addicts, and prisoners, I just want to grab the remote and go into couch potato mode.”

A few days after that exchange, I came across this old snapshot. It reminded me of a story, so I thought I’d see if I could still write.

The picture is from 1994, me hamming it up with some of the “birds” from the London ad agency I was running at the time. It was the office Christmas bash, held in the beautiful Pavilion at Kensington Gardens, just astride the Palace where Charles & Diana were presumably unhappily holed up in anticipation of another miserable holiday season together.

Sande and I lived just around the corner on Scarsdale Villas, and I used to jog through the park early each morning. On one such jog—a drizzly, overcast morning totally in keeping with the world’s image of London weather—I had a rather close encounter with Lady Di. Jogging along one of the paths outside the Palace, just around dawn, I saw a singular soul walking casually toward me under a large umbrella. The legs were my first clue—wonderfully long, beautifully sculpted, and endlessly photographed. But it was only when those large, sad, doe eyes looked over at me as we passed like ships in the night that it struck me how singularly special that moment was. Truly, there was no one else in sight…just an anonymous American ex-pat jogger and, arguably, the most famous woman in the world. All by ourselves…for a nanosecond!

But I digress.

This story isn’t about a princess or a Christmas party or, for that matter, Sande and my drunken scaling of the Kensington Palace Garden gates in the wee hours of the morning, Sande in one of her best designer party frocks and me, well, as you can see from the picture, I was at my dandiest. No, this story is about Sande and my Shining experience the day after the Christmas party at an iconic Cannes Film Festival hotel in the south of France.

The Christmas party was on Friday evening; the scaling of the “Palace Gates” early Saturday morning (who knew the Palace Guard locked the public entry gate closest to our home at midnight?); by Saturday afternoon Sande and I were boarding a British Airways flight from London to Nice, followed by a short drive along the coast to Cannes and The Intercontinental Carlton Hotel, all in preparation to tour potential rental villas that Sunday for “holiday” the following August. Early on in our London life, Sande had determined that spending the month of August in central London without air conditioning (ac, even then, being largely a novelty in the UK) was not acceptable. Besides, Sande reasoned, what’s not to love about a holiday on the Cote d’Azur? (Our entire eight-year London experience was pretty much a holiday for Sande but, again, I digress.)

The Cannes Film Festival is surely one of the world’s best known and most star-studded events—celebrity overload on the red carpet, movers and shakers of film and finance, the be’s and wannabes, all descending each May on the south of France to strut, self-congratulate, and self-indulge. Hotel space is at a premium, albeit A-listers are most likely ensconced in private hillside villas more in keeping with their perceived above-it-all status. Nonetheless, hotels like The Intercontinental Carlton, positioned at the very heart of Festival action, are bursting at the seams with the rich and famous. That’s how it is each May. December is a decidedly different story.

Sande and I checked into a hotel that, while unquestionably lovely and surely iconic, was largely empty. Not that that particularly bothered or surprised us, but when a hotel is that large and entire floors and half-floors are not only empty but without lights, it’s a little weird and somewhat unsettling. The corridors in that hotel are quite long and just beyond our room, the corridor angled off slightly into a virtual black hole. It was really a bit freaky. I couldn’t help but think that, at any given moment, Jack Nicholson’s demented character from The Shining would pop his head around the corner and go into “Here’s Johnny” mode. Or, “the ghostly twin girls” would be standing at the end of the hallway imploring us to “come play” with them. God knows what those creepy little ladies did with the boy on the tricycle!

All that notwithstanding, our room was quite nice and, after a simple dinner and multiple cocktails in the hotel restaurant, we prepared to hunker down for the night, excited for the next day’s scheduled viewing of half-a-dozen villas for possible August occupation. Just as we were getting comfortably situated in bed, it occurred to me that perhaps I had forgotten to put the safety latch on the door to our room, so up I go to double-check. This impulse was partly driven by my excessive case of OCD and partly by visions swirling in my head of Jack, the twins, and the tricycle rider. Anyway, I get to the door and decide to open it one more time to make sure none of those celluloid characters are hovering in the corridor, and…the door won’t open. Odd, I think. Try it again. Not this time either. Something’s gone wacky with the door lock and, after several more increasingly frustrated attempts, it’s clear that Sande and I are locked in.

What if there’s a fire in the middle of the night—a situation Sande and I had literally experienced several years before in a hotel in Baltimore. We were having the floors sanded in our home at the time (a very messy business) and decided to decamp to a hotel for a couple nights. At 3am on the very first night, we were awakened by an impossible to ignore, otherworldly voice coming through the emergency in-room speaker system directing us to exit to the hotel’s snow-covered courtyard asap. The next morning’s TV news showed us coming out of the hotel confused and disheveled in pj’s and overcoats, albeit in Sande’s case wrapped in a beautiful shearling she had recently purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue, so she wasn’t looking all that disheveled.

Now the memory of that Baltimore night’s very real scare and the reality of this French Riviera night’s lock-in suddenly merged. Sande immediately called a dozy front desk clerk for assistance. The two-plus hours that followed might have been funny if they weren’t so damn frustrating.

It was well past midnight when Sande finally hurdled enough of the language barrier on the telephone to convince the front desk person that she was not calling to order a bottle of champagne or complain about poor TV reception, but rather that a man with a crowbar was needed, stat. Impressive as that linguistic accomplishment was, it was fool’s play compared to grumpy, English-only speaking me on one side of our door screaming (that always helps when you don’t know the language, right?) at a befuddled French-only speaking nightshift bellman on the other side, each trying to make sense of the other’s nonsense.

It was about 2 am when the door was finally breached and we were moved to an adjacent room with a working door and Sande, who has never met a bellman she didn’t over tip, had finally found a language the befuddled young man definitely understood. God only knows how many dollars’ worth of French francs she forked over.

As for the next day, it went well, especially after Sande and I saw six villas in our price range that were unacceptable and decided to step up the number of francs we were willing to invest in the following August. The estate agent then whisked us off to a magnificent villa in the hills above the beautiful coastal village of St. Maxime and directly across a short span of the Mediterranean Sea from the rich-and-famous playground that is St. Tropez. We would spend the next five Augusts in that wonderland, loving every bit of it, often joined by family and friends from the States and London.

Sande especially loved her trips down to the village open-stall markets every morning to practice her French on the merchants who loved her for her pathetically cute linguistic efforts. One way or another, the language barrier could always be overcome. A case in point: one morning, a male American friend who was staying with us accompanied Sande to the market. He didn’t speak French either but he was a damn fine cook and was determined to prepare a special dinner for us that evening, for which a fine set of chicken breasts was required. After some initial frustration with the local butcher’s misunderstanding of the specific part of the poulet anatomy needed, our friend called Sande over, pointed to a chicken then cupped Sande’s breasts, and voila!, the deal was done.