MUSINGLY By Karen D'Or

Writing Portfolio, Travel Stories & Other Diversions

Tag: nonfiction

Cycling Back Through Nice

Cycling Back Through Nice

In the tiny Cote d’Azur town of Agay, the tired brown brick hut that was once the rail station is shuttered, and the single plastic overhang on the far side of the rails doesn’t offer much shelter as a soft rain begins. Bullet trains race past the platform. My husband and I find cover alongside well-dressed strangers, both of us hoping we haven’t missed the coastal train bound for Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. A little before eleven o’clock in the morning, second class tickets in hand, we embark the #3 TER (Transport Express Regional) train, settle in with a late-morning picnic of baguette and prosciutto, and watch out our window as the red ravine landscapes give way to famous port-filled colonies.

Red mountains above Agay, France

Red mountains above Agay, France

This is our second visit to Nice, and as the train nears the central station, I’m struck by the city’s urbanity: freeways, indistinguishable chain hotels, and gray apartment buildings congregate on the city’s outskirts before the train veers north and enters the downtown station. I know that Nice is France’s fifth largest city, and the country’s second most popular city for tourists, but this second entrance is startling, for I recall a very different arrival back in 1998: we arrived from Venice on a summer night train, with two teenagers– his son, my daughter. That first journey was only one year after I married Bob and our family was just forming, and still fragile.

It was a steamy August night, on an express overnight train chugging through tiny countries that still had kings. I awoke early, exhausted from a sleep interrupted by Italian porters who roused Bob and I repeatedly to check our documents as our children slept. (Predictably, we hadn’t loaded enough lire on our family rail pass, but after handing over all the bills we had, we were allowed back to our sleeping car.) Disheveled and groggy, I snuck out of our compartment, and tiptoed down the corridor to the vestibule window to find one of those transcendental travel sights: an ochre-hued Mediterranean sunrise illuminated sandstone apartment buildings perched between the narrow sea cliffs and the rail tracks. I lingered there alone, as the train crawled slowly toward the edges of Nice, and caught intimate glimpses of lush backyard patios, and men in yellow hard-hats getting ready to start the work day.

On that long-ago trip, Nice welcomed us with butter-pastry mornings, afternoons watching pretty sunbathers while their children negotiated the waves, long evenings trying out exotic gelato flavors, and warm nights at the quirky Hotel Canada, a divey apartment-style hotel, just two blocks from the city’s rocky beach. Nice seemed to me manageable, family-friendly and quite middle class.

I am hoping to recapture the achingly beautiful memories of that summertime “grand tour” when our teens were obedient, and still curious about grown-up beverages like coffee and red wine. All these years later— our young adult children now off on their own exotic travels — Bob and I arrive in the same Nice Ville train depot, but this time the platform looks cavernous and unwelcoming. We each drag our bags through squeaky metal turnstiles, the rooftop rattling as the storm begins to intensify.

It is only noon and already we are arguing about the best way to get to our hotel.

Approaching an empty taxi, we interrupt the driver’s lunch break — he holds a fragrant plate of rice and lamb — asking hesitantly if he can take us the scant mile to our hotel. With the grace of an expert, our driver guides us through a harrowing twenty-minute trip, a scene of streets brimming with rainwater, erratic streetlights, and shopkeepers shuttering their doors. Paul tells us this is a particularly violent September storm. At the hotel, drenched tourists who were huddling in the doorway jump out to grab his cab, but our driver firmly turns them away to go home for the day, “You are my last customers, it’s not safe!” he tells us as I hand him our Euros, and Bob wrestles our still-damp luggage onto the curb.

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Six-Year-Old-Karen

Gray Matter

“People will treat you differently,” said my hairstylist, Robert.

I’m face-up in a tortuous salon chair, my neck vulnerable like I’m lying upside down in a guillotine. Robert is a hair color artist and a tolerant man, so I’m shocked and feeling defensive. I’ve decided to stop dying my hair.

It was a visceral decision after watching Emmylou Harris sing on a warm July night. Wondering if I’m the only one with this gut reaction, I size up the trendy brewery’s crowd. Truly, I can’t take my eyes off of Emmylou for long— she’s a 66-year-old alt-country goddess who brings me to tears with her otherworldly, twang-tinged voice. There are plenty of gray hairs in the crowd, though none match hers.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris

Her hair is long, full, lightning-colored, and fitting for a stunning music icon. She’s dressed in a short black tunic, maroon cowgirl boots, strumming a very large acoustic guitar. My hair won’t ever look like Emmylou’s, but the vision is too tempting — right then and there, I decide no more color, no more highlights, nor more lowlights. Done.

I realize the source is somewhat suspect, but a 2008 Clairol® study says that 75 percent of American women dye their hair, and 88 percent of them feel their hair impacts their confidence. Of course it impacts confidence. We’ve got How to Not Look Old author Charla Krupp —a young, blond style expert — saying things like, ‘Go gray at your own risk…Going gray is step one of letting yourself go.” She goes on, in a Today Style interview[1], “Women cannot afford to go gray in this economy.”

I’ve been coloring my hair for nearly three decades.  Since entering the business world in my twenties, I’ve shopped stylists trying to find that perfect blond color: the match for my six-year-old shiny, streaky, out-in-the-sun all day hair.

Six-Year-Old-Karen

Six-Year-Old-Karen

I’ve done box color, bargain salons, and upscale salons, with a spectrum of results. For the three years before the Emmylou epiphany, Robert got it just right. He is a master. And so it was understandable that Robert doubted I would stick with my pledge to unblond.  He was not the only one. My best friend thought I would look like a raccoon, or maybe it was a skunk. My husband was supportive, but when he and I were courting even he colored his hair! My daughter saw me, after six months, and she called the look “ombre.”

I haven’t colored for almost a year. There have been some awkward, too-short haircuts, as Robert impatiently axed the old color. I struggle with the texture, trying to tame wirier, un-dyed hair. The transition went by quickly: now the salon women offer compliments when I walk in, and tell me that gray is the newest color for Hollywood starlets. Robert, once skeptical, is now proud.

Of course, I miss Blond Karen. Her hair was often very big. She was a sexy cocktail with a smart shot back, although sometimes she hid her true talents behind that hair.  Now, I have these silver-grey-blond-mercury colored strands. Thinner, harder to handle, I love my true color.

If people are treating me differently, I cannot tell. In fact, the only person whose behavior has changed radically is Robert. He doesn’t even spend half the time he used to with me.

Hellgate 1999

Camping With Sheryl Crow

Dancing in a stodgy music hall usually filled with symphony-lovers, I’m reminded of the summers Sheryl Crow went camping with us. Although she says this is her first time in Santa Rosa, I know she traveled with us to dusty, obscure backwater campgrounds we found— often by chance— at the end of a hot day in a cramped car.

Sheryl, with her mighty soprano pop notes and husky red-wine lower range, was a great traveling companion. Four very strong personalities were trying to make sense of this new “blended” family, and its clumsy, rustic camping traditions. Sheryl’s music would surprise us, telling stories of Las Vegas and Santa Monica Boulevard.

She brought along sleazy characters all longing for escape, or love, or both.

1994 was the year Bob and I moved in together, and was our first year camping together as a family. We went to Alpine County, new territory. It was Sheryl’s breakout year with Tuesday Night Music Club. I recall Bob telling our children –Travis was 9, Robyn 10 – that the “Leaving Las Vegas,” and “All I Wanna Do” stories were not Sheryl’s literal life experiences, but rather her ability to become the fictional narrators of the songs. I was so very grateful he explained this, because I, too, was befuddled about the lifestyle of our favorite songstress.

But whether she was a dancer from Nevada or a barfly in LA, it didn’t matter. She knew, and still knows, how to weave her fragility, her strength, her independence, and her unending longing for love through a masterful blend of blues, folk, pop and rock’n’roll songs.

In 1997, Sheryl accompanied us to a rainy Stanislaus campground with “Change (Would Do You Good).” We followed her advice, headed out of the rain north into Yosemite, singing: “Every Day is a Winding Road.” It was great trip. We fished, rubber-rafted the river, and hiked to the uppermost Mariposa Grove of redwoods. The summer flu cut the trip short, but Sheryl got us home with ”Sweet Rosalyn.”

Hellgate 1999

Hellgate 1999

In 1999, on a trip to Hellgate campground, she brought us “The Difficult Kind” from The Globe Sessions (which sadly she did not perform at her concert). Sheryl’s deep throaty sadness in the foreground, and dramatic back-up harmonies behind tell a heart-wrenching story of love gone sour; I insisted we play it over and over and over again.

I memorized the melody and Robyn, with her magnificent voice and an uncanny ear, picked up the harmony. The song became our daily anthem making the journey difficult for our tolerant male traveling companions. For those were pre-iPod road trips; music experiences had to be shared in a more communal and participatory way. We listened and sang together. It was better that way.

But good news: Sheryl seems very happy and relaxed. She is supposed to be a perfectionist, so the small Santa Rosa venue helped her feel “she could do what she wanted” and even “mess up.” As she performed, she paid particular attention to a couple of ten-year-old fans in the front row. I hope those youngsters have the chance to take her camping.

But mostly, selfishly, I hope that — before my children move far away and get too busy — we can take Sheryl Crow on a road trip, again, someday.

© 2009 Karen D’Or

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