If I were to ask you to picture the Cote D'Azur and the city of Nice, what images would spring to mind? I would imagine that the first thing to float across your brain would be palm trees, perhaps closely followed by bright blue seas. Then, in quick succession, we might conjure the idea of expensive cars – convertibles with their tops down – or well-dressed locals sporting over-sized sunglasses and Prada handbags. In fairness, you do not need to spend too long in Nice to see all of these. In fact, a brief stroll along the Promenade Des Anglais provides a plentiful supply of them all. However, since moving to Nice, I have noticed that it is not all tres chic. There are a few other things that you might encounter that really do not fit with the image of the French Riviera.
For the first of these factors, we need to look at a passion that is rooted deeply in French culture. Dogs. Around Nice, you see hundreds. These range from large animals straining their owners leash, to tiny pampered little creatures that sit in handbags. In short, the French love their chiens. Sadly, they are not so keen on cleaning up after them. As a result of this, the streets are covered in a frightening amount of excrement. On most streets, the average pedestrian really has to keep their eyes open and their wits about them to avoid stepping in something sticky. During my first couple of weeks on the Cote D'Azur, I had to move between hotels a couple of times. This involved me wheeling my suitcase around town, a process which left its wheels in less than pleasant condition. No-one enjoys cleaning the wheels of their case with a toothbrush and a peg on their nose!
It is not just, though, some unpleasant canine surprises that haunt the streets of Nice. There are also a couple of other factors that are quite alarming. The first of these is the beggars. In an area of such wealth and beauty, homeless people begging in the street become highly conspicuous. They are also highly frequent. As I walk to work in a morning, I cover 2 or 3km along Avenue Californie and Rue De France (Roads which run parallel to the sea-front). On these roads, I will regularly encounter five or six beggars before I get to my office. Having lived in some countries where poverty is high – China and Mongolia being the strongest examples – sights like this are not new. But, I must admit, they were a major surprise when I first arrived.
Not only was I shocked by the prevalence of beggars, I was also deeply shocked at just how cosmopolitan they were. For example, one occasion I came across a rather intimidating looking chap with tattoos over both arms and a large scar across his face. He approached me asking for money in French. As he looked quite frightening, I was not particularly keen to engage him. So, I simply told him in French that I was English and did not understand. To my surprise, he responded rather eloquently telling me that he had no food, and, asked if I could give him two Euros for breakfast. I must admit, I was not expecting such an intimidating and ragged looking figure to be bi-lingual. So, I dropped a few cents into his palm and moved on. Even though that encounter certainly surprised me, it proved to be far from unique. As the Cote D'Azur is such a cosmopolitan area and attracts people from across the globe, it must surely pay for those living on the streets to make their pleas in different languages. On several occasions, I have been approached and found myself in a similar scenario, with the beggar speaking to me in my own language.
To illustrate the final surprise from the streets of Nice, I need to describe the end of an evening out in Nice Old Town. My colleagues and I had been to a bar in the main area of the Old Town, a couple of blocks from the sea-front. After a few beers and a little dancing, we parted ways and I began to walk home along Promenade des Anglais (The main road along the sea-front). The first thing I noticed that was a little amiss was the amount of people waiting at the bus stops. I found it strange that the buses ran so late as it was well into the early hours. I was also surprised at how many of those waiting seemed to be rather scantily clad young – and youngish – women. Only then did it begin to dawn on me that they were perhaps not waiting for a bus and were, in fact, waiting for customers. They were all prostitutes.
Feeling rather embarrassed and also a little nervous and intimidated, I decided to change my route home. So, I moved onto Avenue de Californie. However, the scene was the same, except the women seemed a little less young and a little less glamorous – although I am sure 'glamorous' is not the correct word. The following day I asked one of my colleagues about what I saw. He confirmed that it was a common sight, particularly on weekend evenings. He also confirmed that the young ladies on the Promenade were considered to be of a far higher standard, "executive prostitutes" he termed it. I decided that I did not want to learn any more and would try to find a slightly more sedate route home.