I’m in Nice.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that this isn’t my first time in Nice. For 6-8 weeks every Autumn for three years beginning in 2011 – I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath after that weird sentence construction – I came here, supposedly, to write. That sounds very decadent, I know, but I was living with my parents at the time and had no real financial responsibilities. (Now I have rent to pay in Dublin “The Rent On This Telephone Box Will Make Your Eyes Water” City and university fees to cover, so it all balances out.) Plus the work I was doing was freelance, so all I needed to do it was a laptop and an internet connection.
In 2009, I’d rented a somewhat isolated holiday home near the sea in East Cork for a six week period that started in October. It rained most days. At night, high winds rattled the windows. I don’t drive – I never did get around to learning to drive on this side of the Atlantic – and so if I wanted to see other humans, it involved a walk of about 20 minutes to the nearest shop and back again. In the rain and wind. If I was feeling very energetic the beach was about 45 minutes away and, if I was suddenly gripped by the need to be social, there was a hotel at the other end of the strand where one could sit at a nice table by the window and have a proper coffee. While looking at out at the grey skies, grey sea, wind and rain.
There was no internet in the house, only three or four channels that weren’t Static TV. (That was the year I really got into Strictly. Those couple of hours on a Saturday evening were the only time the house felt alive.) By the end of the six weeks I had written a first draft of a novel from scratch, but I also was muttering to myself and hoarding plastic bags.
A couple of years passed and somehow in the box room of my parents’ house, a house filled with other adults and at times, children too, and with my sister’s music playing on the other side of the wall and the TV on downstairs and conversations going on everywhere – somehow – I hadn’t been able to recreate the productivity I’d had in the House Not Quite By the Sea. But there was no way I could survive another six weeks there; I’d definitely have stray cats clustered at my feet by the end of a second stint. So I started thinking: where else could I rent an off-season holiday home?
I’d never been to Nice but my family had been a few times. I knew it was sunny and by the sea and was a city but also had a gorgeous promenade and, hey, good coffee and France. I did some searching online and found an apartment that, when you did the sums, was not that much more per week than the House Not Quite By the Sea. I’d arrive in October and leave at the end of November; it’d be cold, but who cared. I’d spend as little as possible while I was there by walking wherever and whenever I could, limiting my cafe coffees to two per day and dining on meals of soup (less than a euro per packet) with fresh, crusty baguettes. Because I’d be there alone, I wouldn’t be going out at night either, spending my evenings reading instead. It would be perfect.
So I booked it and off I went.
And then I did it again the following year, and again the year after that.
Now, I have to be honest. Did I crap out three first drafts – or three any kind of drafts – during those three Nice stints? Hell no. I have basically nothing to show for them word count-wise. The first year I pretty much spent my time exploring Nice and the other towns along the coast. The second year I dragged a second suitcase that was just full of books and worked my way through them at various spots on the beach. The third year – because I sensed it would be my last, having applied to university – I did a little bit of both, plus I discovered that all the TV show DVD box-sets in the Virgin Megastore on Jean Médecin had – of course – their original English audio in the options menu.
Also, no one wants to come visit when you are in a cold, weird house by the Irish Sea in autumn which in Ireland is no different to winter, really, but everyone wants to come visit when you are on the French Rivera. On top of that, the apartment was a dream. It was big and it was bright and in the morning the living room was filled with golden sun, and all I had to do was make my coffee – in the Nespresso machine – and open the French doors and take it out onto the balcony, which was planted with enough basil to open a pesto store, and sit there and sip and think about how lucky I was and wonder how did I swing a life like this, eh?
But despite the scant word count, it was so worth spending that time in Nice.
On a practical level, Nice features in Distress Signals because that’s one of the places where the Celebrate, my fictional cruise ship, stops, and a couple of my characters spend a day there. So it was research, okay? (Don’t answer that.) I also kept a little pink notebook with me at all times, writing down any ideas or snippets of ideas that came into my head while I was doing Nice-y things (sitting on the beach, walking the Prom, etc.) and when the time came to start writing my book in earnest, I found some gems in there. I came up with the book’s biggest twists while sitting on Nice’s famous pebble beach with Nice’s famous pebbles digging uncomfortably into the flesh of my arse.
But here’s where I really got my money’s worth: the alone time. When you are alone – when you away from all the voices in your life – you get into a zone where you can start to believe in yourself. Your daydreams start to look like achievable goals, because there’s no one around to argue with you, to contradict you. No one to say that maybe you should downsize and reach for treetops instead of the stars.
(I remember clearly having a moment of realizing this back when I lived in Florida. The ESA had advertised for volunteers to participate an experiment that would simulate an 18-month mission to Mars, and I thought it’d be a great idea to apply. What happened next was… Nothing. No one said anything. No one tried to deter me. No one laughed. It was like shouting into a deep cave and getting no echo. It was disconcerting until I realized what the feeling was: expecting someone or someones to start talking me out of it. In Florida, no one did.)
And sometimes dreams need that kind of space to grow, a chance to set down roots and grow strong before you have to start defending them to everyone else.
Every year I came here to Nice, I was on a seriously limited budget. One of my favorite things to do was to walk through the Old Town early in the morning. The Cours Selaya has a famous flower market most mornings, and there was a cafe that would sell me a reasonably priced coffee that offered a great people-watching spot. Up a narrow little street from it was a shop called Transparency that sold tiny models of things set in acrylic cubes. (Never let me write auction house or art gallery catalogue descriptions, will you?)
I’d gazed adoringly in their window whenever I passed and tried to limit the times I went in because I’d only be a time-waster for the sales clerk on duty. My favorite piece was a small cube of acrylic, essentially a paperweight, in which a tiny model of one of NIce’s famous blue deck-chairs – the symbol of Nice – had been set. It was a beautiful piece. Depending on how you looked at it, there could be one chair or more than you could count. If I brought it home, it would be a gorgeous addition to my desk and a constant reminder of the sunny days I’d spent in Nice. Unfortunately it was €40, or as much as a week of baguettes and cafe coffees. My budget was so tight I couldn’t justify it. I whispered to myself that one day, when I got a book deal, I’d come back and buy it.
I could say “when” because there was no one around to correct me, no one to talk me down from the moon, no one to suggest that maybe saying “if” would be more appropriate.
About five and a half years ago I started this blog, in which I declared that my goal was to get published. I remember wondering what would happen if that never happened – the sting of public humiliation, the internet record of my failing. How long would I keep up the blog, if self-publishing didn’t work and I couldn’t even finish my novel?
Well, yesterday, I bought my little blue chair cube. I don’t want to get all Jimmy MacElroy but…
What do you think about aiming high? Do you dream of reaching the moon, or do you temper your goals with reality? Which do you think is the best approach? Let me know in the comments below!