Three generations of my maternal family used to go to Sainte-Maxime at the Côte d’Azur, or the French Riviera, in Southeastern France in the mid 1980s. About 30 minutes away from the famous Saint Tropez, the city was a jewel on the Mediterranean. For four consecutive Summers starting 1983 we would spend a full month there. We all have such wonderful memories from those times, that I thought that writing about them would be a fun way to reminisce while at the same time share with you a significant and happy portion of my childhood.
At the time, $1 made 11 French Franc. Since my father then used to get paid in Dollars for working as a General Manager for Sheraton in Saudi Arabia, such trips were quite affordable. With today’s exchange rates, just thinking about doing the same seems like madness.
We used to rent a cozy flat and car and our sunny days were spent by the beach. There were plenty of beaches lined by the coast, one next to the other, but we had a specific one which we preferred to go to. It was there when I saw topless women for the first time, then went back to Les Jésuites in Cairo to tell the wide-eyed schoolboys about it. In fact, in the few home videos we still keep you could see how some of our uncles and their friends would wittily use us kids as models to be able to capture the naked women lying behind us with their oversized video cameras.
I clearly remember the long days spent playing in the sea, building castles, and digging tunnels in the sand, usually for hours. Also the crazy rides on the rented banana boat and the smooth cruises on the pedalo; some of which had a small slide that takes you right into the water.
When by mid-day we would get hungry we would go grab a hot dog with ketchup and mustard. Amusingly, it took my cousins and I three years to find out that the tasty meat was sometimes jambon, or pork, and not beef. We just adored those normal-sized hotdogs and our parents simply never told us the truth until we somehow discovered it.
Then for dessert, we would head to the cute, colourful ice cream stands or trucks to munch on some of the tropical exotic flavours they had. Framboise (raspberry) and lemon granita as boules on cone were a favourite. Slushy is another mouth-watering French Riviera memory.
Note that this was the mid 80s, meaning that we had none of that in Egypt. Ice cream, for instance, was vanilla, chocolate, and sometimes strawberry, but that was pretty much it. In actuality, our grandmothers used to go to Port Said to buy chocolate — Kitkat, Flakes, and Maltesers — as there wasn’t enough varieties in Cairo. Slushy, however, could be found at the Gezira Club but only for about a couple of years before disappearing once and for all.
Another memory from those Summer holidays is going to our neighbouring Saint Tropez to spend the day on the beach there for a change. It is 30 minutes by car, though sometimes we would get on the Ferry Boat with all the family, which was quite exciting for the kids. Once there, in fact, we saw The Gypsy Kings casually performing on some beach — obviously before they became super stars.
One more place we would visit at least once during every trip was luxurious Monaco. Just by walking along the pier one would come across a wicked selection of jaw-dropping multi-million dollar yachts.
The adults would then dress up and go out to the fancy Monte-Carlo casinos at night to gamble a little, for fun, while they leave us with a sitter; oftentimes, the grandparents would be the ones.
Nice and Cannes were other Côte d'Azur destinations we would sometimes visit, but never more than a couple of days. My parents had friends in Cannes from the significantly well-off Ojjeh Saudi-French family who invited us on multiple occasions to spend the day on their super-duper yacht. They had a daughter and a son who also had cousins our age.
Something I distinctly recall from those visits is a transparent glass toilet seat in one of the yacht’s many bathrooms which had a collection of rare coins as a display. Another is a play room specifically for the kids, which consisted of one huge couch, with numerous cushions, almost from wall-to-wall that worked like a trampoline. When you jump on it, it made farting noises. Seriously. That’s on purpose by the way. When I used “well-off” to describe the family’s wealth by the way I meant to say billionaire; I’m just so not used to the word.
Other than a few swimming pools, the yacht was also equipped with all sorts of big-boy toys; from multiple jet-skis to smaller speedboats to pull you either on ski or kneeboard/wakeboard. With all the neatly-dressed team of personnel, the experience was truly something out of a movie.
While writing this article, after three decades I curiously Googled “Mansour Ojjeh Yacht” to find 1,500 results consisting of articles with titles such as Mansour Ojjeh and his Amazing US$ 80 million Yacht Kogo. In fact, ranking number 120 in the list of the world’s largest privately-owned yachts, Kogo has its own French Wikipedia page. I kid you not. It is, however, relatively new (2006) and not the one we had been on in the 80s.
On the average day in Sainte-Maxime we would go back home after the beach to rest, shower, and get dressed to go out for dinner — most nights we went to restaurants, while on rare occasions the family would have a gathering at home. Sole meunière following moulles marinières was a local meal to die for. It still is, I’m certain.
Speaking of French food, the daily baguette I would buy for the family from the bakery underneath our building the first thing in the morning just popped into my head; with the red Babybel on butter. Yumm-ey. Holding a few coins in hand I would stand in line and this is when I would often get the unfortunate chance to smell some body odour. Not-so-Yumm-ey!
It is of significance to note that French people being smelly is nothing but a lazy stereotype, generally originating in America from a long time ago. I could probably smell those B.Os because I have a super-sensitive nose, I was a kid so my height made me right at the same level as adult’s armpits, and it was Summer time. You can read Why not a Bidet? to know more about the history of the complicated relationship between Americans and French when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene.
Some evenings our parents would take my sister and I to the Luna Park to play a little. Other times it was to spend the day at the bigger water park. For 6-9-year-old me, arcade games were another big attraction and whenever I would find them I would get mental orgasms. Wearing a small-sized helmet and riding tiny motorcycles around a track was an additional, more dangerous boy-only attraction.
The fun thing for us is that we had several second cousins who are all about the same age. Most were girls and, except for one year, I was the only boy in the gang. My cousins would reside at Modini Building where there was a swimming pool and a playground with balançoires (swings) and seesaws. I remember people, often older men, would play pétanque around the area. As we got a little older we began playing that fun Provence game ourselves.
One thing we used to often do was ride those yellow seesaws. So one night on our third Summer in Sainte-Maxime, A, my same-age second cousin, and I went to that playground to hop on one. The thing was, however, is that this year A had gotten a tad chubbier, which meant that her weight was strongly pulling down the side on which she sat. Once we began playing there was no problem; the difficulty was in how to ride on my ‘chair’ at the beginning... since this kiddo wasn’t strong enough to counterbalance her weight using my hands.
As a solution to the problem I learned to climb on the thin main body of the seesaw as the girl would be sitting down, then acrobatically turn around and sit on my ‘chair’. The body was quite narrow with about 12 cm (5 in) in width, yet I successfully did it four times in a row that night. It seemed that we had found a way to conquer her weight gain and the seesaw.
The next morning my mother and I were underneath our building when I asked her to go to the playground. Despite the fact that we were about two minutes away from Modini and that I did this almost every single day, for some odd reason she first said ‘No’ — it’s like mothers do have that sixth sense.
A bit of sweet nagging and she agreed. I ran to there and found A waiting by the seesaw. Without much talking, she hopped on and I proceeded to do my move so we could begin seesawing. As I was mid-way I like to think that she moved a little which suddenly rocked the body, making me fall on my right side. I got up to look at my wrist and found it sticking out from the right side and sort of ‘hanging’. There was absolutely no pain, probably from the shock, but the sight was a tad disturbing. Using my right hand I ‘held’ the left wrist and showed it to my cousin. We agreed that I better go see my mother who was still by the convenience store underneath our building.
I recall she had an acquaintance with her, a foxy woman in her late 20s, who calmed us down by saying: “Oh don’t you worry. This isn’t broken; as when I broke my arm in Milano last year I was in tears from the pain.” How lovely, I thought to myself. Yet, even though there was no pain the wrist looked quite odd.
We left the woman and headed to our apartment. My grandfather was there and my parents didn’t want to tell him because he gets worried, so they thought that it’s probably better to keep it a ‘secret’ for now. Soon after, we got into the car with my father and sister and went to the nearest hospital. They put some kind of bandage and told us to come back the next day. That night in bed I remember the excruciating pain emanating from my arm. There was no one comfortable position, which made me not able to rest or sleep.
In the morning we went back to the hospital. I think an X-Ray of my arm was first taken. And indeed it was broken. Damn you, Milano lady! Then they laid me on those movable beds and took me inside an operation room while my Mom and Pops remained outside. Dr. Schoegel and a couple of nurses started ‘working’ on my arm, moving it left, right, up and down. Five minutes through the man left and, as I was told later, went out to speak to my parents.
Doc Schloegel was back again into the room. The last thing I remember after that is them putting on a mask on my face. The smell was nauseous and it reminded of the smell of Detol and that of hospital bathrooms.
I woke up in bed — a couple of hours later apparently — exceedingly thirsty. I looked to my left to find my mother and father standing there. I asked for water, to which my mom said I can’t have any. What? I’m thirsty and I want to drink. What’s the big deal?
I was told that the effect of the anesthesia has to go before one can drink.
What the heck? I could still feel that chemical taste inside my mouth and even stomach; my mouth, lips, even throat were all so dry, making me not able to speak. My mother would pour a bit of water on a cloth then wet my lips with it. It helped but I was still in dire need of drinking.
And then, in a calm, soothing voice she proceeded to explain what had happened: “The Doctor tried to fix your broken arm, but because it’s a double fracture, or broken in two separate places, they needed to put a plate with six nails to hold the bone together. It’s called bone fracture repair. They will be left inside your arm for exactly one year then we’ll open again and remove them.”
Dafuq. “How come you didn’t take my permission?” I got into a cute fit of anger. “Can I drink water please?
No. Not now.
Grrr. Wait. What do you mean nails inside my arm? How come you didn’t ask me?
Well it had to be done”, she responded while trying to calm me down.
“Ugh. So I have to do all this again next year? I kept on bouder — is the French word, meaning pout, sulk, mope, brook. You know the stereotype of how typical French folks speak with an extended mouth: “Ahbunjesaispasquoi”.
Maybe one hour later I was finally given water.
When I began sobering up I looked around the room and found three other bed next to mine. One was occupied by a 5-year-old girl who was bitten by a dog… in the face. The poor kid was smashed.
I also reckoned that there is a tube coming out of my arm from underneath the cast and connected to a “sack”.
My sweet mother spent that first night with me — they gave her a couple of chairs and a blanket. The next two or three nights I spent them alone. My family would come visit during the day and then leave at night.
When I was finally discharged I spent the rest of the holidays in a cast; the first was covering the entire arm up to my biceps, then it was exchanged with a shorter one covering the forearm right below the elbow. This was my first cast ever, and also first broken bone, and I remember that the shower was one of those annoying things my mother had to help me with. I would cover the arm with a plastic bag while trying to keep it outside of the shower. The same was done at the beach. Other than that, nothing much has changed and the holidays were still highly enjoyable.
Back to Egypt I removed the cast and finally saw the opening for the first time. When the school year started, this young prankster used his imagination to lie to the schoolboys and say that I was bitten by a shark, which I punched right in the face. For 8 or 9-year olds, the story was believable. Though I did tell the truth to my close friends.
|The six nails next to the 32-year-old Ziplock and my scar which |
came to be hidden by the hair
As such, the next year in June we once again headed to Sainte-Maxime. The cute flat and car were rented and the date of my surgery was agreed upon. This time I was more at ease since it was a remake. The mask was put on once again and the operation carried on.
One thing that was radically different than the previous time is that Dr. Schlogel didn’t use stitches to close the opening. However, he used small adhesive bandages like Steri-Strips — I learned much later that in English they are known as Butterfly Closure. The year was 1987 and it was a new technology. The doc explained that this way the surgery will leave no marks. It looks like the man knew what he was talking about, because as you can see in the above photo — 32 years later — you can barely notice the 20 cm-scar. And it has been like that for at least 20 years.
Before leaving the hospital I was given a ziplock with the metal plate and the six nails. Soon after I wore the plate in a silver pendant I used to wear then, which was used to show off to my friends and to the girls at the club. Sadly, it fell a couple of years later. But I still have the nails neatly kept in my memory shoe-box; finding them during this trip to Cairo was the reason why I initially wrote this piece.
What was also new regarding the second operation was the type of cast I had on: It was plastic. Again, at the time this was revolutionary. When I went to the hospital back in Egypt to remove it, I recall the doctor calling his colleagues to come take a look at the new technology. He actually wasn’t too sure how to “break” it at first. But eventually he used the same saw and it was taken off. The Dr. asked if I needed the cast after removal, because he was interested to keep it; so in the name of science I donated it.
A remarkable thing I remember about this whole rigmarole was something a friend of my parents, Dr. Samir Fanous, had told me when we met by coincidence on the plane back from France to Cairo. After he had a chat with my parents who informed him about what had transpired he said: “You know because at this young age bones are still young and haven’t yet fully developed, the plate and the nails will make your bone and arm stronger”. I nodded as I stood there in the aisle in my socks, listening to him comforting me. But to be honest, down deep inside I truly thought that he’s just saying something nice to this kid who just had a surgery to make him feel better. In my mind I was like Yeah Right!
Surprisingly, two or three years later I began noticing that I use my left hand a lot more than usual. I use it to open jars among other activities that I used to normally do with my right hand. In basketball during my teens, it was easier for me to play with my left hand which was an added skill I practiced on. Years later I researched what Dr. Fanous had said during that flight and it actually is true.
Another fun memory is that one day, maybe when I was 14 or 15, my mother called me to the living room to show me someone on TV5, the International French channel. It was none other than Dr. Shlogel on a TV talk show on which he was discussing his new book. Yey! I was actually happy to know that the doctor who opened me up ended up becoming even more successful.
I would still share the shark story with kids for a few years after, before I began saying the truth. Interestingly I haven’t stepped into a hospital as a patient for 30 years until a couple of years ago in L.A when I was ran over by a car while on my bike and chose to go to the emergency room in a Marina Del Rey hospital to clean my wounds and get some painkillers. This is the Story of how I dreamed of the accident before it happened.
All in all, those few Summers spent on the Mediterranean with all the family epitomise what happy childhood is. Of course after moving to Cairo, my father stopped getting paid in Dollars, which made such trips almost impossible. The year I removed the plate and nails (1987) was our last there. I did go back to France, Paris in particular, but never to the Riviera.
The following Summer I was fortunate to go visit my aunt in L.A with my grandmother. North America was a whole different experience which I’m equally grateful to have been through at that young age. Compared to that endearing beach city, or France in general for that matter, everything in America was huge. The hotdog was about the size of two of the jambon ones; the aisle for cereals at the supermarket was endless and the varieties were just mind-boggling.
The one after that in 1990, we went to Madrid and Marbella in Spain for a couple of weeks. These were other beautiful places to see.
The following holidays throughout most of the 1990s were spent in Hurghada by the Red Sea, before switching to the Mediterranean on the Northern Coast of Egypt with the beginning of the Millennium.
However, despite breaking my arm and having two surgeries, those four years at the Côte d’Azur remain dearly special to me. One of the reasons is that the entire family haven’t spent any quality time together since then. Actually, going back at this age is a fantasy I’m working on achieving. Imagining myself having rosé wine on those beaches, maybe with a cool bombshell or two in my arms. Ah.
Truly, nothing opens up the mind like travelling, especially when you’re a child and your worldview — and bones — are still developing. It certainly leaves us with the best of memories. Echoing wih Ibn Battuta’s wise words: “Traveling ― it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
|Sister and I with the cousins on the beach|
The Night I Became a Stripper
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Share Toilet Paper
Why not a Bidet?
Not Sleeping With a French Hooker at 14
Dreaming of the Accident Before it Happened
The Bloke Who Thought I’m Too Much of an Alpha Male
The Joy of Being a Wanderer and the Credit Card Number
A Dollar & Thirty Four Cents in Me Pocket and Feeling Fine
The Couple Who Couldn’t Handle My Honesty
Rooting Into The Past