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notre damned

notre dam strasbourg

Look at this thing.   It cannot be ignored.   When you’re in Strasbourg, or even 100 miles away, it’s there.   Either a pale ghost in the background, or an ornate, breathtaking, slightly ominous presence that leaps out at you between streets and alleys.

It’s Cathedral Strasbourg de Notre Dame.  Or as Goethe described it, “a sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”

The first time I saw it was from the airplane.  Flying over the Vosges Mountains, then the Alsace plains from which this gothic beast rises, ringed by the city and the Ill river like a huge moat.

Visiting the Cathedral certainly wasn’t on my list of things to do (not that I had a list).   My objective was to see Strasbourg and fill my annual quota of one top IMG_6441European Christmas market city every December (last year was Vienna and the year before was Berlin).   Strasbourg is the self-proclaimed Capital of Christmas, and home of the best Christmas market in France.

I generally try to avoid churches or God forbid, enter them for fear that He will sense my agnosticism and smite me.   But everywhere I go, every Christmas market, every sight, every stroll, every place I visit, it’s there watching me.  And yes, I’m intrigued.  It seems to have a gravitational force all its own.

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I resist for a couple of days.   Distracting myself with all forms of wursts, choucroutes, flammkuchens, pastries, mulled beverages, the full moon and Christmas displays that would be tacky almost anywhere else in the world, but somehow, are cute and picturesque here.

I’m mildly interested in the fact that the first printing press (the forerunner to the internet for those of you unfamiliar with books) was invented.  But my main preoccupation in Gutenberg Square, where this year’s Croatian Christmas Market resides, is to wonder what the view must be from that 466 foot spire looming overhead.

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By the third day, the lure of the church is too much to resist.    I hesitantly approach the door and enter, waiting for either a person or powerful Godly force to stop me.   No such luck.   I take a quick look around at the statues, astrological clock, soaring buttresses and stain glass windows.   It’s beautiful and it’s impressive and I’m kind of itching to get out before something falls on me.

I emerge from the church, and take a few gulps of pagan air in relief.   I take one last lap through the Christmas market in front of the cathedral to fortify myself for the more daring task ahead. I’m going to climb that 330 step spire and have Strasbourg at my feet!

I’m hoping that I’ll be less exposed to the wrath of God in a dark, narrow, cobbly stairwell than the chapel.    I buy the five Euro ticket from a women who wishes me “bon courage.”   I wonder if she knows something.

There’s a 20-something-ish couple also making the climb and I strategize whether to go first and have the luxury of falling back on them, or letting them go first and not have to worry about slowing them down when I collapse in heap of exhaustion on the 207th step.

I opt for the latter, but we quickly change places when it turns out they’re slowing ME down with their incessant photo taking. Fortunately, the stairwell isn’t completely dark, and little glimpses of  outside pop up along the way.   It makes the climb a lot less tedious.  It also allows me to stop and pretend to look at the view while nonchalantly gasping for breath.

I don’t know if the endorphins are kicking in, but I make it to the top without becoming a doubled up, sweat-drenched, cramping, pile of protoplasm.   On the other hand, it’s also possible I am all that, but too delirious to notice.

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The view?   Eh.

I kid, it’s great.   But as with most things arduously won, a wee bit of a disappointment follows the win.   When you climb 330 stairs, you kind of feel like you deserve to see God and Truth and blinding beauty.   My real reward was to see the two young photo-taking whippersnappers emerge from the stairwell 15 minutes later wheezing and doubled over.   Score one for the older woman!

But this is no time to get cocky.   Sure, going down as opposed to up has it’s advantages, particularly from a gravity point of view.   But it certainly has its perils.  Those stone steps can be slippery.  And they’re freaking narrow and it’s dark.  For a moment, I freeze in terror and consider calling for a helicopter rescue.    Must. Not. Dwell. On. It.

Every step I get closer to the bottom, the lighter I feel.   Wow.   I climbed up and down all those steps and I’m not all that tired.   But maybe that’s how you feel right before you die… Then I see the light coming from the door leading from the street to the entrance.  Well, it’s either the exit or the white light of death.

My heart leaps as I take the 559th step.   The only problem is, it turns out to be the 558th th step and while my heart is leaping, I fall.   I come down hard on my left foot and fall into a belly dive across the floor.   Yes, I have been felled by the “tree of God” and damn, does my foot hurt!

Somehow, I make it back to the hotel (cursing everything from God to Gothic architecture to Germans who I’m sure have some part in all this), which is fortunately only about 100 hops away.   I tell the receptionist that “je pense ma pied est casse”   She gets me some ice, calls a Doctor and asks me how I did it.   I tell her I was smote in the Cathedral and that I think God must be punishing me for something.

She exclaims, “No, it is a miracle!   You could have fallen at the top!”

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my lavish lunch at the hotel du cap (or thereabout)

hotel du cap eden roc exteriorThe Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc is a landmark.   Well, it should be a landmark.  Maybe even a UNESCO world heritage site.   It was built in 1869 by the founder of Le Figaro newspaper as a sanctuary for writers seeking inspiration.

In 1889, it was sold to an Italian hotelier and became the Grand Hotel du Cap.

Up until the 1920’s the hotel was a winter escape for the wealthy and was closed for the summer.  Until Cole Porter introduced Gerald and Sara Murphy, two wealthy American ex-pats to the Cap d’Antibes and they fell in love with it.   The Murphys begged the hotel management to keep the hotel open for summer to accommodate them and their friends.   The management was more agreeable back then —  in 2011, they refused to open for President Barack Obama during his visit to the Cote d’Azur for the G20 conference in Cannes (maybe the current owners are Republicans?).

The Murphys brought F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and ultimately ushered in a resurgence to the area.

Fitzgerald immortalized the Hotel in Tender is the Night as the Hôtel des Etrangers. Marc Chagall sketched from one of the shady beachside cabanas (now over 500 Euro a day) .  Kennedys had trysts here.   World leaders negotiated here.   Everybody who is anybody in Hollywood has stayed here, from Gene Kelly to Cary Grant to Robert Redford to Johnny Depp.

The hotel is now owned by an elite German hotel chain.  It may be the only place left on the Cap not owned by a Russian or Saudi.  These days, a room goes for 830E -6150/night.   Cabana not included.   And don’t even ask about the Villas.   No prices are listed and I assume, they’re going by the philosophy that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

Up until now, I’ve walked by the gates of the hotel, but was afraid to go within 10 meters of it for fear of setting off some poverty alarm and being tackled by the security guards flanking the gates.   But today, dammit, I’m going in.  Even if I have to shell out for a 90Euro lunch!   Rumor has it, the food is impeccable and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a room (hell, I’ve stayed in hotel rooms that are cheaper than lunch at the Hotel du Cap).

I take the number 2 bus from the Antibes Gare Routiere to the tip of the Cap (probably not the most elegant vehicle from which to make one’s entrance to the hotel, but what the hell).   It’s about a 10 minute bus ride.

I get off the bus and walk confidently towards the hotel, getting closer to the gates than I’ve ever been before.   My heart is racing.hôtel du cap Then I read the sign:   Fermature Annuelle.    Sigh.  A couple of gardeners open the gate a bit to roll out a dumpster of leaves.  I consider making a break for it and running through the gates, but figure I’d be shot.    Damn, I’m going to have to wait til April to see this place. And I’m as hungry as hell all of a sudden.  And there aren’t a lot of (any) restaurants here on the tip of the Cap d’Antibes. 

My plans are ruined.   I intended to eat a lovely, civilized  lunch, walk the grounds, look for famous people and walk back to Antibes.   But here I am, locked out, starving and weak.    How will I make it back without sustenance?   Maybe I’ll collapse in the middle of Boulevard Kennedy and get run over by a rich handsome man with an exotic accent in a Ferrarri.   Maybe he will stop, pick me up and gently deposit me into his Ferrarri,  drive me to a hospital and never leave my bedside until I fully recover and by then of course, we’ll be madly in love even though I’ll never walk again.  That sounds great!   Clearly I’m getting light-headed.

IMG_5880Then I remember that I wisely put a banana in my purse before I left.   I find a nice spot across the street from the hotel, which just happens to be the garden of Les Chenes Verts, the villa where Jules Verne lived and worked.   I sit down and elegantly devour the banana (pinky finger out) and savor the sweeping vistas over the Golfe Juan.

I still can’t speak to the splendor of the Hotel du Cap or the skills of its chefs. But I can honestly say, this is the best damn lunch I’ve ever had.

recent photos of Antibes (give or take a century)

Antibes has been around since the 5th century BC when the Greeks discovered that its protected port made it an ideal trade center.   Unfortunately, they didn’t have cameras back then to document the changes over the millennia and archaeologists have yet to unearth any ancient postcards.

I did, however, find some postcards from the early 1900’s to compare modern Antibes with what it looked like over 100 years ago.   This is before the jazz age.   Before Zelda and F. Scott got here.

I’ve tried to match the old shots with photos of the same location here and now.   We should all age this well.

Place Mace (now Place de Gaulle)

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Place de Gaulle is in the new part of town (new meaning 100 years old, as opposed to 700), about a block from the entrance to the old town.

I looked up Ernest Mace, who this Place was formerly named after and found nothing.  Maybe he was evil and has been stricken from the records. Why the hell didn’t they name it Place de Gaulle in the first place?   Oh yeah, Charles De Gaulle was still in military school when the top picture was taken.

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Port Vauban

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Ahhh, the ancient port.   This is where the Greeks, Romans, and various barbaric tribes first staked their claims on Antibes.   Today’s port is where the Arabs, Russians and now the Chinese are currently staking their claims.  A berth here today costs upwards of a million Euro.

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Rue de la Republique, old town

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Rue de la Republique is the “main drag” from Place de la Republique through the old town to the Cours Massena and Hotel de Ville (town hall).

I want to know what was behind that wall on the right in the earlier pictures.   If there’s a shoe repair shop, would somebody please give me directions?  I’d gladly travel through time to get there.

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Place Nationale

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Place National is in the old town center.   The war monument is no longer a fountain and the trees have grown significantly. Other than that, not much has changed.   Note the piece of ancient Citroen in the lower right hand corner.

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Boulevard d’Aguillon

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Boulevard Aguillon in the old town, lines the rampart walls near the port.    While it appears that nothing has changed over the last 100 years, I’m willing to bet that not one of the cafes lining the street had a karaoke bar back then.

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Place du Château (now Place Marijol)

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This is Place Marijol, in front of the Picasso museum.   Back then it was just the Place du Chateau in front of the Chateau Grimaldi (which was built on top of the ruins of an ancient Greek acropolis).  The chateau has been here since the 1300s.  Picasso didn’t move in until 1946.

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The port with Fort Carre in the background

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Fort Carre hasn’t changed much over the years, but clearly the parking lot has grown.

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View of the old town from the rampart walls

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Again, the old town remains the same where the world around it has changed drastically.   Fortunately, there is still no Walmart within 3,000 miles.

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Rue Aubernon, Port gate

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This is a street in the old town leading to the gate that leads to the port.  As you can see, people dressed a little more formally back in the day.

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Cours Massena/Marche Provencale

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They put a roof over the market in 1900.   Perhaps it now lacks the charm of the Cours Massena of the 1900’s, but it’s got a much better selection.  In the summer it gets a little crowded and pushy.   Kind of like Whole Foods in the US.

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Rue de la Republic (in the “new” part of town)

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This street spans the one block from Place de Gaulle in the “new” part of town to the old town entrance.   It’s astonishing how similar it looks.   But the chances of getting run over by a car here are much better today.

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View of Antibes from Port Aubernon (now Port de la Salis)

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While one might be a bit nostalgic for the peace and quiet of the good old days, you’ve got to admit, the view is still pretty darn nice.

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View of Antibes and the Cap d’Antibes

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When the top picture was taken, the population of Antibes was approximately 10,000.   It’s now almost 75,000.   From the looks of things here, it would appear the 65,000 newer residents are living on boats.

Post cards courtesy of notrefamille.com

what are these people smoking?

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Over the last couple of months I’ve been noticing them everywhere.   People contentedly suck on them (sometimes greedily) in airports, cafes, and the street.   And they’re exhaling billowing clouds of what looks like smoke.  They look like a a seductive mix of toy, high end tech gadget, and drug paraphanalia.   I don’t know what they are, but I know I want one.

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Turns out, they’re the latest trend in France. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.   E cigarettes are supposedly healthier than smoking because you’re not inhaling burning carcinogens, just vaporized nicotine and flavor.   No smell.   No fire.   You recharge the battery in the USB port on your computer.  You can get them in various nicotine strengths and in more flavors than Baskin and Robbins.   They even have a cannibis flavor, which I was sad to learn, contains no actual cannabis.

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On a one-mile walk to Juan Les Pins the other day, I noticed five new e-cigarette stores have opened on Boulevard President Wilson. They display an array of lovely and varied e-cigarettes, pipes and even cigars as well as small bottles of the nicotine liquid.  There are also  necklace clips, carrying cases, stands, travel packs, fancy cartridges and so on.   It’s like buying a Barbie…the real money is in the accessories.

I’ve got to admit, I’m tempted by the concept.   I’ve even tried a disposable one, and while not as satisfying as a real cigarette, they’re not bad.

Granted, it might be just another ill-fated attempt to get people to quit smoking and spend a bunch of money in the process.   Not long ago, my neighbor Joc was smoking a lovely silver etched e cigarette.  Oh how I coveted it.    I asked her about it and she told me it was great.   She swore by the virtues of the ecigarette.    I was almost convinced, but the following week, she was back on the cigarettes. That doesn’t bode well for the long term.

IMG_4024But still, they’re so…shiny.  And they have the added benefit of being able to pretend I’m actually making a healthy purchase.    I’m tempted to get something really blingy.   Something that will make me feel like my name should be Zza Zza.   Or maybe something sleek and classic (in which case my name would be Inga).   Or one of each.

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I can see it now.   I’ll convert to the ecigarette, my lungs will be purified, I will be healthier than I’ve been in years.  My skin will become  luminous and dewey. My apartment will always smell fresh, and there will be no new burn marks in my clothes.    Then I’ll choke to death on a loose Swarovski crystal.

an inconvenient truth

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View of Alps, mid-November 2012

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View of Alps, mid-November 2013

One of my favorite things about living here, is being able to step out on the balcony and see the port, across the bay to Nice with the Alps looming majestically in the background.    There are still moments when I gasp at the shock of its beauty.

However, lately that gasp has been tinged with a wee bit of concern.  Last year, there was already snow up there in September.   It’s now mid-November, and as you can see, nothing.  Maybe Al Gore is right about this whole global warming thing.

If that’s true, the way I figure it, pretty soon (less than a millennia), Antibes is going to be unbearably hot.  OMG, August is going to suck so bad.   Hell, if the ice caps melt, it could be underwater!   Well, I suppose that would solve the tourist problem.

No, this is very inconvenient.   If all the evidence bears out, I figure I’ve only got about 300 years to find a new place to live.

the best medicine

Today I called the dermatologist’s office to get the “resultats de la biopsie sur mon mauvais bouton”.  I’m not sure what I feared more:   the results, or having to speak in French and offending someone for mangling their language.

Naturally the doctor was busy, so I spoke to the receptionist, who tried to take a message.   “Tried” being the key word.

She tried valiantly to speak English and I tried to speak French.   We ended up laughing so hard I could hear her gasping for breath.  After about 20 minutes, we had to hang up, because we were unable to conduct a conversation without laughing hysterically.  Hell, we couldn’t get a word out without laughing hysterically.

I still don’t know the results, but I know the doctor will call me back later.   I also know that if laughter is the best medicine, both the receptionist and I are going to be fine.

*

Update:   The doctor called back and the results are in fact,  fine.   

a tale of two dermatologists

I’m fair skinned.  That means I have to go to the dermatologist a lot to make sure one of my 8 million freckles hasn’t become deadly.

After hearing about a few people dying of melanoma recently (thank you Facebook), I figure it’s time for a check up.

I have two choices, find an English-speaking doctor, who is probably in Cannes and costs a gazillion dollars, or find one in Antibes who probably doesn’t speak English and is a fraction of the cost.    Being lazy and cheap, I make a rendez-vous with a Dr.  Michelle Bagni, Docteur Dermatologue-Venereologue, about 5 minutes from my apartment.

There is no receptionist.   The walls are bare.   It’s basically a big unfurnished apartment with a lovely bay window and hardwood floors.   The waiting room has a few mismatched chairs, a coffee table with magazines and brochures on how to identify skin cancer.

Everyone in the waiting room is older than me, and none of the visitors seem to be here for cosmetic purposes and if they are, they’re either actually 120 years old and don’t look a day over 90, or my doctor is a really crappy cosmetic dermatologist.   Who knows, maybe that makes her better at the health-related stuff.

After a 15-minute wait, she comes out to get me.   She’s barefaced, and I dare say, all natural.   She’s probably in her 50’s.   Her office is like her, no-nonsense, no frills, but good bones.   There’s a desk, chairs, files, computer and an examination table in the adjoining room.

As I suspected, she only speaks French, but this is just a check up, I can get through that.

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She thoroughly examines every inch of my skin and finds two boutons (isn’t the word “bouton” so much cuter than “grotesque growth”?) for biopsy.   One on my leg and the other on my arm.    She cuts them out, stitches me up and sends me on my way.   The bill is only 30Euro, which thrills me (I read some guy in Cannes charges 100 Euros for a consultation!)  For some reason, I don’t worry about it.

Until I go back to get my stitches taken out and get the biopsy results.

Dr.  Bagni finds my file and scans it.   A look of concern passes over her face.   My pulse shifts into high gear.

I’m relieved when she says “Ce n’est pas grave,…” but my relief slowly dissipates as she continues speaking and I don’t understand a word she’s saying.   Worse, she’s using hand gestures that indicate cutting and scooping a large chunk of my arm.  On the positive side, she doesn’t use amputation and death gestures

.From what I can gather the bouton on my leg is nothing and the one on my arm is in fact, mauvais.  She thinks I should go to a doctor with more medical equipment because  they have to go pretty deep to get it all out.   Or something like that.

She asks me whether I’d rather go to a doctor in Cannes or In La Fontonne.   I ask which is better and she says a bunch of stuff in French and I agree to whatever it is she said.   Turns out I’m going to Cannes.  Next week.

I rush home to translate the test results clutched in my hand.  It seems I have  squamous skin cancer on my arm and the borders need to be widened.   Which leads to a day of Googling squamous skin cancer (somewhere between Basal Cell which isn’t usually deadly and Melanoma which often is) and funeral homes in the South of France.

While it’s only a 10-minute train ride away, Cannes is a whole other world than Antibes.  Apparently, so are their dermatologists’ offices.

Dr. Mangiavillano’s “Centre Laser and Chirugie Dermatologique” has art everywhere in addition to obviously expensive carpets, drapes and furniture.   There’s a huge TV monitor in the waiting room/receptions area playing some demonstration of all the fabulous things you can have done to look better using awesome looking machines and lasers.   There’s a library of brochures for things like liftmassage, laser this and botulism toxine that.   A very friendly receptionist speak a bit of English.

The clientele here is younger than the one in Antibes (well, they look it anyway).   A good-looking man with a beard asks me in French if this is my first time.   I have no idea what he’s referring to, so I just nod, say “oui.   J’ai peur.”   He reassures me in French (at least I think he’s reassuring me, and God knows what he’s reassuring me about).   I wonder what scars his beard is hiding.

CannesThe doctor comes to get me.   I’m pretty sure he’s had some work done.

His office has lots of art, fancy furniture and a bunch of really cool looking technological gadgets that I’m sure could take years, maybe decades off my face.   But right now, I just want this damn thing off my arm.

He asks me in French why I’m here.   I tell him I have a mauvais bouton and hand him the envelope Dr. Bagni gave me with the results.  I nervously study his expression as he reads my file.   He looks pretty matter of fact, which I consider a good sign.   Of course, it could be because his face doesn’t move.   He tells me to take off my shoes and lie down in the cushy treatment lounger.

He asks me if I would prefer to speak in French or English.   Angels sing “hallelujah.”  Even though I came prepared by double checking how to say “you’re going to die” in French  (“vous allez mourir”, unless he addresses me in the familiar in which case it would be “tu vas mourir”)  I ask him to speak English.

He tells me that I have skin cancer, it’s not serious, he just needs to cut a wider border than the piece Dr. Bagni cut out for biopsy and then it will be gone.

He leaves the room for a moment and his assistant/nurse/whatever appears. She’s an an ageless woman (who has obviously had work done).   She holds my hand reassuringly while scrutinizing my face.   She tells me (in French) I have rougeurs and need something laser.   I’m sure I do.   I just wish she’d stop looking at me.  Now she’s saying more stuff that I don’t understand…probably telling me I need botox, a face lift and maybe some tasteful breast implants.    Now I’m really scared.     Dear God, is there an  anesthesiologist?

IMG_4803The doctor returns and they do their work, chatting to each other in French (probably talking about all the work I need done).   In all, it probably takes 30 minutes and I don’t feel or see a thing. I walk out with 12 stitches and a large gash across my arm that looks like a failed suicide attempt made by a very stupid drunk person.

I go to the receptionist to pay.   E300!   That’s 10 times the cost of the Antibes doctor!   Sure, more stitches, but jeez.   I do some quick math…that’s 25 Euro a stitch, compared to 6 Euro a stitch in Antibes.   This thread must be some rare tibetan silk woven by albino yaks.  I’m starting to feel a little sick so I sit down.  The assistant brings me a glass of water.

When I’m feeling better I head to the pharmacy to fill the prescription Doctor Mangiavilla gave me.   I drop E30 on the various bandages, gauze, disinfectant and healing unguents, plus another $70 on some miracle anti-rougeurs cream (it’s gotta be cheaper than lasers, oui?).

All in all, my dermatological excursion to Cannes cost E400.   All I can say is, when these stitches come off, my arm better look at least 10 years younger.

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