the time i got lost in cannes

It’s summer 2004.  I’m in Cannes with my junior year French class.  We’re nearing the end of our ten-day expedition, which has culminated in a luxurious jaunt through Cannes and Monaco.  We enjoyed seeing castles and lavender fields, but now we’re star-struck by the huge yachts, expensive cars, and the shadows of celebrities who have been here for the Cannes Film Festival.  Kevin Costner’s handprint hangs in our hotel’s restaurant.  Rumor says Gwenyth Paltrow is in town.  We’re teenagers and most of us are away from home for the first time ever, and we’re a little stir-crazy, itching for American pop culture, and we’re tired of learning about history.

Well, most of the students are stir-crazy.  Because I am a shy nerd at this point, I’ve been very much enjoying the history and the dorky jousting reenactment and the artists’ country homes.  Being in the big city again is fun, and I’m keeping my eyes glued for famous people just like everyone else, but I’m not wild about suddenly being around all these French people, especially when they’re all rich and good-looking.  The student group has begun to fracture into cliques, so I no longer have a protective bubble of other Americans to hide inside.  I’m not even attached to any particular clique, which makes things even worse.

At one point I latch onto to a small group to go walking on the boardwalk.  As we walk, we’re followed by a gaggle of twelve-year-old French boys, who are tagging along and either flirting with us or insulting us from a safe distance of around ten feet.  We ignore them, partly because that’s what you’re supposed to do to strangers and partly because we have no idea what they’re saying.  Also, they’re like, twelve, ew.

One of them decides to start kicking his flip-flop at us.  We can hear it landing with a slap a few feet behind us.  The boy will catch up to it, stick his foot back in, and kick it at us again.

My culture-shocked fuse is shortening rapidly.

The flip-flop flies again and this time it hits the back of my leg.  I whip around and kick the thing off the boardwalk into the sand.

The boys leave us alone.

The next day, the group breaks into cliques again and before I know what’s happened, the only group left is full of girls who want to go tanning on the beach.  Again, I am a scrawny sixteen-year-old nerd, and I have very little interest in exposing my white nerd flesh to the Mediterranean sun – especially not when we’re in France and there’s cool old European stuff to see.

What the heck, I think – I’ll go exploring on my own.  My sense of direction is pretty good.  All I need to do is get back to the boardwalk and go right, and I’ll spot the hotel.  No problem.

It’s only within the last year or two that I’ve finally admitted to myself that my sense of direction is actually horrendous.

But off I go.  I find some neat shops and some elegant buildings.  I see some enormous yachts and squint to see if anybody famous is on them.  Heck, maybe Prince William is here, and I’ll see him and he’ll see me and he’ll invite me onto his yacht for tea and I’ll get to go back to the hotel and tell all my sunburned friends that I had tea with Prince William.

No celebrities appear, and I decide to make my way back to the hotel for our next scheduled activity.  I find the boardwalk and head right.

The beaches here are all owned by the hotels and each hotel has filled its little patch with custom umbrellas.  I see white umbrellas, green-striped umbrellas, and bright blue umbrellas, but after several minutes of walking, I’m not seeing the yellow umbrellas for our hotel.  I double back and check street signs.  Naturally, I’ve never heard of any of these streets.  I start seeing unfamiliar archways and restaurants.  I’m sure at this point the sun was setting and wolves were howling for blood, or something, because I start to panic a little.  I don’t have a cell phone and the streets are empty.  I’m going to have to find someone to ask for directions.

Finally I slip into the first shop I find – an upscale home-decorating store, full of sumptuous fabrics and delicate hardware.  The woman at the counter hands change to a man buying a bag full of something, and he looks at me on his way out like I’ve accidentally wandered into his house.

I approach the counter and hold up the little card we were given with our hotel’s contact information.

“Excusez-moi,” I manage to get out before bursting into tears.  “Je suis perdu…”

The woman is very polite and she calls the hotel for me.  I can’t understand much – I hear her tell the concierge that she has an American girl in her shop who is very upset and she’s lost, but that’s about it.  In the meantime, I am standing with my back to the door, trying to catch my breath and clean myself up.  I’m pretty irritated at myself, not just for getting lost, but for freaking out about it.  After all, I’m in France, not Vietnam, and my chances of being kidnapped or whatever are pretty slim.  (This assumption changed quite a bit after seeing “Taken,” but that’s another story.)  But I panicked and gave myself away as a pansy American who needs to be spoon-fed and can’t leave the country without a GPS and a nanny.

Finally the cashier hangs up and tells me very slowly and clearly to go this way and then left on this street and then right on that street.  I thank her and leave with my remaining shreds of dignity.

I make it back to the hotel with plenty of time to spare.  No one has even noticed I was gone – in fact, the girls who went tanning haven’t even come back yet.  So not only did I panic over nothing, no one could even appreciate my epic tale of urban survival.

Maybe I need to throw in an evil sheik and a sex-slave ring to make it more exciting.

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