The sun battered through the windscreen as we crawled our way at snail pace through the afternoon traffic. People were making their way to the beach on foot, toting lorryloads of parasols, beach mats and toys. A woman in vicious pink flip-flops flapped across the road in front of our car, dragging a screaming child in her wake. She was scantily clad under a tight, crocheted dress, resulting in a disconcerting effect of blancmange trying to escape through a fishnet stocking.
The roundabout was jam-packed with determined holidaymakers and locals, all jousting for a place in the traffic. My muscles crisped as P.F swore in his usual elegant way and threw himself into the battle. I stamped my foot on non-existent brakes in the passenger foot well, grimly realising that just one season driving here would be enough to make my pelvic floor tauter than Paris Hilton’s G-string. Hell, my idea could maybe save the French state millions in postpartum physiotherapy.
P.F is no beginner in the bumper-car game; his studies in Marseille made him a champion of driving in the French vehicular jungle. He pushed dexterously in front of a battered Citroën. The oily, sweaty, and determined local clutching the wheel promptly hit his horn and waved his arms around in indignant French semaphore. P.F. grinned, waved at him and yelled “Thank you, so kind!” out of the window. There was no doubt about it, we were on the infamous Côte d’Azur.
After squeezing the car into a minute parking space, we finally unloaded the kids and beach towels and headed towards the sea. A pocket-sized piece of beach was all that central Juan les Pins had to offer. The remaining 90% of the pristine sand was covered with empty restaurant tables and plastic recliners, all jealously guarded by seasonal pit bulls who were apparently awaiting the improbable arrival of George Clooney and a team of German top-models to break the monotony of their day.
St Raphaël: under all this there is a beach.
We found a space between a family of four and a young couple on the miserably small area left for the population to squabble over. It strangely resembled a refugee camp, with blankets, parasols and beach tents jostling for space. Laurence of Arabia’s eyebrows would have hit the roof at the amount of rubbish required for the average French family to survive 6 hours on the sand. Whilst towels and a bottle of water sufficed for our beach needs, the rest of the population had brought everything bar the kitchen sink: blankets, tennis rackets, parasols, beach mats, inflatable crocodiles, footballs, sun-tan lotion, half of the shelf at the local magazine kiosk, mobile phones and an icebox full to the brim with victuals. This junk was then distributed over the minimal space available on the sand, hence creating a protective barrier to keep other people at bay.
I hate swimming (I learned how to swim for the same reason that I learned to run: it’s what I would term a survival tactic). However, I have found the ideal activity to avoid getting bored whilst my husband swims to the buoy and back and my kids build multi-storey castle complexes for miles along the beach: I “people watch”.
“Voyeurism, aha!” I hear you mutter under your breath. Non, non, et non, mon ami! Does anyone remember those “I spy” books? You could tick off multitudes of trains, birds, buildings…. Whatever subject floated your boat, you could buy the book and get ticking. I have my virtual list of beach populations, and check them off every time the kids hit the waves.
“Blancmange in a fish net” arrived, and stripped off to reveal newly imported white flesh wrapped in a mini-bikini and decorated with maori tattoos. She pulled a cigarette out of its box and lit it, then left the fag hanging out of a corner of her mouth, squinting and blowing smoke into her child’s face as she tied his float belt around his waist. She launched him seawards with his bucket and spade, then collapsed on to her towel hissing like a punctured tyre, a copy of Gala magazine clamped between her strassed purple claws.
My trained eye wandered off to investigate further. All my favourites were on the beach, and I almost squealed with the frustration of having forgotten my notepad and pencil to jot everything down. This was the ultimate whammy for my collection.
They were all there. The cool young couple who barely acknowledge each other’s presence, sending text messages (perhaps to each other) between sips of Perrier water. The poser papa with white-framed, Polnareff sunglasses, prancing through the surf and tossing his curly locks in the sea breeze whilst his silent, wiry wife desperately tried to control his gobby offspring. The bored grandparents. The pseudo-philosopher, ostentatiously waving his copy of Bernard-Henri Levy in the air and thoughtfully chewing the end of a brand new pencil. The African selling beach junk, a tower of straw hats listing dangerously on his head. The aspiring pin-up. The English tourist with his beer belly flopping over the elastic of his pink Hawaï trunks. His son, yelling “Did you see a shaaaaaaaark?” at his sister as she emerged from 60 cm of urine-saturated surf wearing matching Barbie flippers, mask and snorkel. The Thai masseur, hoping to be paid for the pleasure of feeling up complete strangers on their beach towels. The ogler, strutting along the water’s edge like Aldo Maccione, ignoring the vast turquoise waters with his head turned at right angles to shamelessly evaluate the boob community on the beach. The topless wonder, breasts sagging like grandfather clock pendulums, checking from behind her heavy Prada sunglasses that the ogler had seen her. Even the sunbathing granny was there, uncomfortably stretched out across the rocks in a grey swimsuit. She was so motionless that when I first saw her, I thought she was a piece of driftwood.
Cool couple in foreground, Poser papa Polnareff in background.
And there were my all-time favourites: The over-concerned parents with the three-year-old they still see as a baby. You know, the frustrated kid with the huge hat, sunglasses and enough buoyancy aids to refloat the Titanic. This child runs more risk of getting lost or injured because he can’t see where he’s going than getting sunburned -he’s so generously smeared in sunscreen that if they tried to pick him up he would shoot out of their grasp into the sea, where his factor 700 Bergasol would bleed into the Mediterranean and kill off more species than the Erika.
Anyone else who indulges in people-watching? Hands up, folks, don’t be shy! Chances are that if you smiled at any of this, you do it too…..
Post scriptum: This is a post written last year; I am reposting it as a) it went unnoticed and b) I am currently on holiday in the same context, so i would have written about the same topic anyway!