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Postcard from Abroad

Church in Old Town Nice, France

This is an excerpt from the long and winding letter we sent our families after our trip to Nice, France, and Camogli, Italy. This is not a travel guide—it is a straightforward account of our trip.

Day 1

On Sunday, we flew from New York to Reykjavik, Iceland for our first layover. We’ve had good experiences with Iceland Air before—the economy seats are nice and spacious, and on red eye flights they even give economy class pillows, blankets, and TVs—but unfortunately this time our first flight arrived about a half an hour late, causing us to miss our layover.
At the Reykjavik airport, we learned we had two options: stay in Iceland for a night and get a direct flight to Paris the next day, or fly out today via Copenhagen. We opted to take the extra flight that day so we wouldn’t miss out on the brief stop we had planned for Paris. We landed in Paris around 7 or 8, a good ten hours later than our original plan. In keeping with tradition from our first trip to Paris, we were so tired we opted to eat at a familiar American restaurant (ahem, Five Guys).

Day 2

The next day we woke up ready to explore Paris by bike (they have a similar bikeshare system to those in DC and New York). Unfortunately, not long after we started out, I accidentally clipped a curb and tumbled over on the bike. I got a little banged up and was feeling moody about my fall. I was the height of Paris fashion when entering Holybelly with a slightly bloody foot.
This is a good time to say that David and I have both taken multiple years of French classes, and we are still surprised by how little that has prepared us to communicate in this language. We’re pretty good at reading signs and putting together context clues, and we try to be respectful enough to order in French even if it comes out sounding unintelligible, but usually we barely get past introductions before we are hopelessly confused. The French locals were mostly patient with us and seemed to appreciate (i.e. giggle at) our Americanized “Bon-jeur” and “Mare-ci,” but they quickly switched the conversation into English. It is very humbling to realize your waiter is more fluent in multiple languages than you will ever be.
Later that afternoon, we walked to Gare du Nord and boarded the TGV—France’s high speed train. I had convinced us to take economy class, which turned out not to have power outlets (oops), but we did have incredible wi-fi and comfortable seats for the whole ride. I think at our max we were going about 130 miles an hour. David and I have both said this was one of our favorite parts of the trip—watching the French countrysides roll by and eventually turn to beaches. It was about a 6 hour trip, but it flew by. We took turns napping, reading, and watching Netflix.
That evening we arrived at our apartment in Nice. We like staying at AirBnBs because we find it brings us a little closer to the “local” experience and we can often ask our neighbors questions. This AirBnB was on the third floor of an apartment building, and the host left us a nice bottle of rose wine to welcome us.

Days 3-5: Nice

We were staying in what is considered “old town,” an area which has maintained the style of the city’s early days. It’s definitely the tourist part of the city, but David and I were surprised by how charming we found it. The “old town” area is mostly made up of winding pathways—to call them streets would be too generous—the kind of you see in movies and literature.
Winding streets of Nice, France
Nice, you beautiful son of a bitch
Nice Flowers
One of my favorite things about Europe is that because most spaces are small (including fridges and cabinet spaces), the locals often only get enough food for a day or two, so the things they tend to eat are usually picked up fairly fresh from the market. The old town area is full of tiny shops that locals will frequent—the boulangerie (bakery) for their daily pain(bread), the fromager (cheese shop) for their cheese, etc.— as well as a robust daily farmer’s market. We had a bit of a scare on our first day when a cannon suddenly went off at noon–turns out that is the signal to the vendors at the farmers market to start marking down prices to get rid of their wares! Usually most shops and stores and businesses close between noon and 2 PM every day. As a tourist, this is incredibly annoying, but for locals it is their time to run errands, or have a family-style lunch with their co-workers, or take a siesta.
Nicoise salad in Nice
Petit Dejeuner at Marionette
Most of our food experiences in Nice were enjoyable, but we did have a couple that will stay in our memory.
  • On our first day, we found a coffee shop (Cafe des Indians) that would be our go-to spot for the rest of our time there, and we would often stop in, get our noisette (machiatto) for me and glacé frappe (iced coffee) for David (PS: ice is scarce in Europe–they don’t naturally put it in drinks, which was a win for me and an annoyance for David).
  • In France especially you will see prix fix (fixed price) menus. For example, a restaurant may offer only one petit dejeuner (breakfast) option: for 6 euro you get coffee, juice, and a pastry. You can very which kind of pastry you get, but that menu is the only option you have if you want to eat there. There were some tourist spots that catered more to American tastes, and for 15 euro your petit dejeuner fixed price menu might include eggs or sausage. We ended up finding this lovely little spot called Marionette that served the best petit dejeuner we found—for 10 euros we got pancakes with fresh mixed berry jam, coffee, freshly (VERY FRESHLY) squeezed orange juice, and yogurt with granola and honey.
  • Finally, on our last night in Nice we stumbled on Peixes (“fish” in Portuguese), an incredible, incredible seafood restaurant. We shared oysters and ceviche (raw fish in citrus juices) and a delicious almond cake.
  • Wine is relatively cheap in Nice, but to be honest, we couldn’t keep up and didn’t try to. We saw people drinking at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but usually we would have a single glass with dinner.
  • Gelato was delicious and plentiful in Nice.
Although Nice is known for its beaches, this is not where David and I spent most of our time. The beaches, while beautiful, are rocky—there is actually no sand! The water was beautiful and clear blue, but surprisingly chilly too. We would just walk to the beach for a quick view in the morning, and then walk and sit on the rocks at the beach after dinner.
Beaches along Nice, France
One night we saw a mysterious light lurking just below the surface of the water near the shore. Soon we realized it was someone swimming at night with a headlamp and a snorkle. We thought this was a pretty cool hobby until the swimmer rose out of the water—with a spear! It turns out the swimmer was spear fishing and had caught a number of fish that he placed in a belt around his waist. This was probably one of the coolest things we stumbled on during our trip.
Mercantour National Forest
On our next to last day in Nice, David went to pick up our rental car. Being Americans who don’t drive a stick shift, they stuck us with a mammoth luxury station wagon that we did not want (everyone in Europe drives small cars–we had no idea where we were going to park this beast). We used the car to travel to Mercantour National Park for what we thought would be a lovely little hike, but turned out to be a terrifying (for Ashley) assent up winding mountain roads to THE FRENCH ALPS. That’s all we’re going to say about this part of the trip since Ashley needed to be heavily sedated afterwards (kidding…but also not).

Days 6-8

We left Nice by car and headed (again, along winding mountain roads) to Camogli, a small port town outside Genoa, Italy and about 3 hours away from Nice. David had a chance to test out the French/Italian highway system known as the Autostrad and we did pass by the collapsed bridge in Genoa which was eerie to see.
View from Camogli Italy
We eventually made our way to our next AirBnB, which was a tiny house studio attached to a larger home. It was really fun to see what it would be like to live in a tiny house and we found that we liked it quite a lot. But what made this location really special was the outdoor space and THE VIEW—we could see the ocean and the entire hillside community. The only downside was the large, heavy sliding doors which were difficult to open and close; David actually ended up smashing his finger trying to close a door one night (ouch).
Most European places we’ve stayed have a washer, but no dryer, so people hang their clothes out to dry from windows or from lines in their yard. We washed our clothes in the tiny Italian washer and then David jiggered a homemade clothes line for us to use during our stay. The clothes are stiff and wrinkly once their dry, and we both agreed a dryer was about the only American appliance we missed.
Camogli cat

I am very allergic to cats, and we learned this one usually “hang out inside” our AirBnB. Turns out he was very amenable to “hanging out” in the chairs on the porch instead, so we’re cool.

Camogli is another port town (but smaller and less touristy) on a hill so we knew we wanted to find our way to the water. Running through the middle of town is a 1 mile-long winding staircase that goes along behind the houses and homes to the center square. Our first day there, we walked from our AirBnB to the town square and took a ferry boat to a nearby town called San Fruttuso. It was incredible to be out on the Mediterranean and look back to see the colorful town from on the water.
Another day, we walked down to the waterfront and rented beach chairs for a few hours. We sat in the brilliant sun and tested out the warm clear blue water. We couldn’t help but be in awe of the way the water had smoothed out the rocks along the shore and the sounds it made as it pulled the rocks back out with each wave. No matter what we do, we’ll never be able to describe how beautiful the water and the shores are along the Mediterranean.
Port of Camogli, Italy
Overall, our food experiences in Camogli were less memorable. We did find one incredible coffee shop that we went back to visit three times. We also had a chance to sample a good piece of Camogli focaccia bread and we grabbed homemade pasta sauce to use over pasta we made at the apartment.
We did learn one lesson: We had failed to learn any conversational Italian before coming, and being more rural than Nice, most of the locals were not multi-lingual. A lot of experiences involved pointing at words, or pulling out our phones and getting translations, and I don’t think that made us very likable to people.
My best memories of Camogli will be its remoteness. Because we didn’t feel we could easily go explore other towns, we kind of stayed put and relaxed a little. We read books, we slept in, we put our feet up and watched the sunsets and sunrises from our little porch. It was incredibly relaxing.

Day 9-10 

On our last day in Camogli, we woke up early in the morning to drive back to Nice and drop off the car. Then we boarding the TGV for Paris. We landed at the Gare du Nord and then on to our hotel.

Notre Dame

Our second Paris hotel ended up being near Notre Dame, somewhere we had been before, but we decided to take an evening stroll there with fresh eyes and found we really loved everything about that part of Paris. We revisited the places we had stayed on our last visit in Le Maris and while it was fun to reminisce, we couldn’t believe how different Paris felt to us just six years later at this different stage of our life.
The next morning we woke up early and boarded our flight back to the US.