When the living is easy

<em>Summer Special</em> - Bonnie Greer discovers the hidden France of Hemingway and the Commune

Summer is a place and an hour: 4pm in the Cave Wilson, Nice. Summer used to be other things: it was Chicago, and the stifling heat and the sound of the screen door slamming in our kitchen. It used to be New York City, and the gush of water from the fire hydrants that made artificial rapids and turned the gutters into rivers.

Now it is Nice, and a wine shop and bar called "Cave Wilson". The "Cave" is situated off Place Wilson, one of the innumerable squares throughout France named after the US president who was one of the architects of the League of Nations. Since I am nostalgic only for the past I have never experienced, Place Wilson is to me the France of Hemingway. And the Cave is the France of the Commune, that brief time when the workers had declared Paris a republic.

One day, my husband, David, came home with the news that he had found a place - slightly "clochard" - that sold exquisite vintage wine at a good price, although it seemed to be frequented by the local down-and-outs. Always eager to improve my French, even at the expense of acquiring a southern twang, I asked him to take me there.

I saw right away that the Cave was a true "zinc". The tradition of the "zinc" is dying out in France, and here was one not far from where we lived. The zinc counters were where cigarettes and drink were sold in working-class pubs. Gulping down something strong to fortify you for the stupidities of your boss and the state was the only way to start the day.

But zincs and true zinc culture are rare now. The young Nicois instead flock to theme bars such as the Australian pub in the Old Town. There you can watch videotapes of Aussie television, drink beer and perfect your English at the same time. Only your grandparents, the tragically uncool or the likes of street cleaners drink in zincs on a regular basis. The minute I walked into the Cave, I knew it was my kind of place.

I proceeded to the zinc with caution. As a black person in France, you have to listen very carefully to how you are addressed by strangers. To be referred to as "tu" or "mademoiselle" is the same as being called "girl" in the bad old days of American segregation. It is always important to remember that parts of southern France are staunch National Front territory, and worse.

But when I walked into the gloom of the Cave, I felt that I was both welcome and in "la France profonde" - the hidden France. At 4pm, those who come to Nice for the sun and sea are lying on the pebble beach 20 minutes away by foot. Many of the Nicois have escaped to the cool of the Alpes- Maritimes or life behind their heavy wooden shutters. But I was somewhere else.

Francois (naturally) greeted my husband and, after being introduced to me, he addressed me correctly, but we very quickly progressed to first-name terms. I liked the look of him: he was in his late sixties, and had the straight back and muscles of a man who had worked hard all his life. He motioned us to an empty space towards the end of the counter and gave us the customary small jug of water to drink.

At 4pm, away from the beach, you can smell the pine in the air. Inside the Cave, the pine mixed with the scent of strong cigarettes and liquor.

Sometimes, after ordering our pastis, we would look at the rows of fine wines that Francois had stored on shelves all around the room. He had a story about each one. It was easy to understand, listening to him, the meaning of the word "patrimonie". Wine is not only a part of France's commerce, but a part of its culture, its very soul. And the Cave was a place of worship.

At 4pm, while the beach is vibrating with the sound of games and motor boats and techno music, I would eat peanuts from the ancient peanut machine on the zinc, and eavesdrop on conversations or read the newspaper. Like so many of the French working class, Francois was beautifully well educated. Sometimes he would talk about the most esoteric aspect of French culture, quoting from this or that book, or showing me some obscure text that he had found.

His bright blue eyes would light up when I told him about how cheap it was to fly to London. But we both knew that he would never make the trip. To him, as to most French people, the anglophone world is on another planet.

During the afternoon, some of the down-and-outs would come in to spend the money they had begged from the tourists and have a gossip or talk politics - always a dangerous subject. Before they left, they would fill up their old wine bottles from the spigot near the edge of the counter. Francois would wipe his counter and smile at me.

It was 4pm in August in the south of France and nothing was happening at all.

Bonnie Greer's latest play, Jitterbug, opens at the Arcola Theatre, London, in November

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame