Behind the Book: Have Body, Will Guard: Finding Freddie Venus by Neil Plakcy
The Second Home of My Heart
When I was fourteen, my parents sent me on a six-week summer study program in France, organized by my high school. We spent a few days in Nice, five weeks in an intensive French language program at the University of Grenoble, then a few days in Paris. But it was those days on the French Riviera that made the most impression on me, leaving me with a lifelong love of sunny places, which determined where I live (South Florida) and where I write about – Hawaii, Florida, Tunisia, and in Finding Freddie Venus, the Riviera itself.
I remember being in a trance the day we left for the airport. I got dressed, finished my packing, went over last-minute details with my parents. Yes, I had my passport. My traveler’s checks. The addresses of my aunts, uncles, grandparents and second cousins were all written carefully in a small green book the size of my palm. My luggage tags were securely attached to my bags.
After a long overnight flight to Paris, then a short hop south, we landed in Nice and climbed down a portable staircase in the sweltering sun, the Mediterranean sparkling just behind us and rows of palm trees ahead. In the roar and turbulence I felt like one small scared American teenager let loose in the wide world.
I didn’t know what a bidet was or how to stumble through more than a few basic phrases in French. I was surrounded by strangers and everything was exotic to me, from the giant aloes in the Jardin Albert 1er along the ocean to the heavy-set ladies carrying baguettes in string bags.
My first purchase in francs was at the little tabac next to the hotel, where I bought a map of Nice. A good map can show you where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. When I was fourteen, in a strange hot city where a foreign language was spoken, separated for the first time from my family, my home, my town, I needed to know all those things.
My classmates and I clung to each other for security, traveling in packs through the narrow sun-drenched alleys and along the broad Promenade des Anglais by the pebbly beach, using our ignorance and our passports as our shields. We were walking on the Promenade near dusk when a French beggar girl, probably no older than we were, came up and asked “Avez-vous un franc pour moi?”
I was scared, confused. I shrank back, frantically trying to translate.
My friend Patty, who had cleaned houses to pay for her trip, pointed her finger severely and said “Allez chercher un situation!”
The beggar girl sniffed and walked away. Between trying to pay attention to the sights and the street signs, we were almost back to the hotel by the time I figured out Patty had said, “Get a job!”
Hibiscus, aloes and other tropical plants like the ones my mother raised under lights on our back porch grew in riotous profusion in the parks and yards of Nice. Everyone on the streets spoke French with an ease and a speed I knew I could never master. I was never quite sure where I was or how to get back to the hotel. Home seemed so far away, beyond the ocean, hours and seasons behind us.
It was intoxicating, especially for a fourteen-year-old who had never been away from home, never touched more liquor than a stolen mouthful of my father’s VO and ginger ale, a sip of sweet Passover wine. The city rioted with color and light and freedom. I was in the bright sunshine of the Place Massena, at a flower market in the columned Cours Saleya, at an ancient ruin on a hillside overlooking the city. I was in France. It was amazing.
Those few days in 1972 were the essence, the blueprint, of a large part of my future. I have been back to Nice over and over again, sometimes for months, sometimes only for days. The last time I was there, I stayed in Nice for only a week and I was bored. I had done all the tourist things many times over. I knew where every road went, how to find my way out of any quarter of the city without a map. It was not my home but I was not a tourist either.
I wanted to live in Nice, but I could never find a way to wrap my fantasy around reality until I arrived in Miami for a job transfer. I recognized in this city the things I loved about Nice– the sun, the sea, the cosmopolitan decadence. The same bright sun and deep shadow contrasted on Miami’s plazas as it did on Nice’s. Biscayne Bay sparkled just as boldly as the Mediterranean, and I could sniff the same moldy decadence under the arcades of downtown Miami as in Nice’s Place Massena.
After writing six books about my bodyguard heroes Aidan and Liam in Tunisia, Corsica and Turkey, I’ve finally been able to use my memories of Nice and my experience living in a hot climate to write about a place I’ve always thought of as a second home in my heart. I hope readers enjoy it.
Have Body, Will Guard 7: Finding Freddie Venus is now available from Loose Id.