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A propos de Nice

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In the early evening of 14 July 2016, I grabbed a beer with my parents and brother on the Place de la Préfecture in Nice. Armed soldiers were patrolling the streets, following the procedure of the State of Emergency declared after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. After dinner we went home to watch Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice on DVD. The city as it appears in the film is by turns familiar and remote, sometimes both at once. The images of the carnival, for example, are uncannily close to the event as we know it; the papier-mâché structures parading the streets have been the same for decades, it seems.

Then my brother and I went up to the roof to watch the fireworks, rather than going to the crowded seafront. I didn’t stay for the whole display, thinking, like every year, that when you’ve seen a few Bastille Day fireworks, you’ve seen enough fireworks for a lifetime.

Later that night, my phone woke me up. Text messages from friends in London asked if I was OK. There had been an ‘accident’ in Nice.

In the living-room, my mother and brother were wordlessly watching the 24-hour news channel. It ran images of the Promenade des Anglais on a loop, chaotic shots of emergency vehicles, people in summer clothes, red-and-white police tape. I thought the images – some of them filmed by phone – were live at first, until they started repeating. A white refrigeration truck had driven into the crowd, the news report said, killing at least 30 and leaving many more injured.

The next morning, the same TV channel replayed the same images, but the death toll had increased to nearly 80. I struggled to eat breakfast. My brother tried to locate a friend from Paris who was supposed to be in Nice. We later learned she was among the victims.

My father suggested going for a swim. The two of us made our way to the beach through silent streets. The local flower market had been cancelled. Access to the Promenade had been cut, blocking entrance to the Old Town. On the pebbled beach there were three bathers in black swimsuits under the shade of a parasol. A woman, perhaps Korean or Japanese, smiled at me. Had they not seen or heard the news? I thought. If not, what must they be making of this desolate beach?

At the end of the day I flew back to London. On my phone at the airport I scrolled through pictures of Nicolas Sarkozy on a ‘visite éclaire’ to Nice. He went to a mass for the city’s victims with the former mayor Christian Estrosi, then president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur region, as well as a friend and supporter. (Emmanuel Macron met with Estrosi in Marseille a few weeks before he was elected president.) Sarkozy didn’t attend any services at the city’s mosques to commemorate the Muslim victims of the attack.

I didn’t go back to Nice until March this year. There was a shrine in and around the bandstand in the Jardin Albert I: cuddly toys, roses, handwritten notes. People were ambling past along the seafront. Workers were building a new security railing around the green space in the middle of the main road.

Nabokov and his wife lived for a few months in the winter of 1960-61 at number 37 Promenade des Anglais; he completed a version of Pale Fire there. I decided to go and see it. The cream stucco of the Belle Epoque building dazzled me in the open light. The ground floor is currently occupied by a legal practice. I pressed the buzzer.

There was only one person there. He showed me through to his office. He said he’d heard about Nabokov living in the building. The windows overlooked ‘la Prom’, but the sea was obscured by the trimmed green hedges surrounding the property. ‘Now of course they are shutting the place down,’ the lawyer said, ‘building these railings to separate the pedestrians from the road, as if to reassure people that the same thing could not happen twice in the same place. And it won’t, you know, happen twice in the same place. Regardless of what they build.’

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