The Cote d’Azur stretching along the Mediterranean from Ventimiglia to St. Tropez has been populated since before the Bronze Age, but the French actress Brigitte Bardot renewed interest in the Riviera with her debut appearance as a sultry teenager in the 1956 film ET DIEU…CREA LA FEMME.
That summer the blonde sensation adorned every magazine cover in the USA and her body screamed out French from movie posters.
I dreamed about Brigitte Bardot for months.
I was four years old.
The dreams were of a 3-D smoothness blessed with the starlette's face.
I pestered my parents to visit France.
"France is across the ocean and people there speak French."
My mother thought that my request was cute.
That weekend my father drove our family to Nantasket Beach.
I stood at the water's edge and asked my father, "Is France that way?"
"3000 miles away."
"Too far to swim."
"What's with the interest in France?" My father was suspicious of a young boy's whims, but expected the truth from his second son and I said, "Brigitte Bardot."
"Your first love."
"No, I love Mom best."
My father and I waded in the cold green sea, thinking that BB was waiting for me.
It was a lie only a young boy could tell himself.
Thirty years later I lived in France. My friends and I opened a nightclub in Nice. The captain of the hovercraft plying the Cote d'Azur offered us a ride to St. Tropez.
I didn't see Brigitte Bardot.
The quaint fishing villages had been transformed to first-class resorts for the rich and famous.
Cap d’Antibes was in the dead center of the Riviera and my roommate, the Model from Paris, was married to an ex-French paratrooper, who had a house on the rocks of the Baie Doree.
Guy was the jealous type, but his wife told him that I was gay.
There was nothing between us and I could affect a limp wrist that Noel Coward would have envied, so Guy graciously extended an open invitation to visit his villa overlooking the azure sea stretching east toward Nice. A good guest has the gift of timing and I stayed away from Cap d’Antibes during the frenzied summer months.
By late-September the tide of vacationing hordes retreated from the Cote d”Azur and I traveled by TGV south from Paris for a long weekend in paradise. Guy and Bridgit lived above the guest room. They had sex all night long and I slept with cotton in my ears.
One morning I went into the kitchen. The Model from Paris looked like she had serviced an Alaskan oil camp. That tawdry look had earned her a place on the covers of French Vogue. She had a beauty on her own and men wanted her for that beauty.
“Morning.” She was pouring herself a coffee. There was no offer to make another cup.
“A good one.” The blue sea rivaled the cloudless sky.
“We have to do some shopping this morning.” Bridgit wasn’t a much of a morning person.
“Okay.” I had shopped with her many times in Paris. Her purchasing process for a loaf of bread lasted an hour. A visit to the open-air market in Antibes could take most of the day.
“I’ll be back after a quick swim.” I grabbed a towel.
“Don’t disappear.” She went to take a shower.
I had about fifteen minutes and walked down the rocky path to the Baie Doree.
An older woman swam twenty meters off the popular sand beach.
I stripped off my shirt and kicked off my sandals. The sand was unsullied by footsteps and I waded into the water. The sea temperature matched the warm air and I dove into the calm bay to surface a few meters from the old woman. She could have passed Greta Garbo.
“Bon jour.” I put down my feet and stepped on something sharp. I thought it was glass, until I spotted a foot-long fish wriggling from the sand. The older woman said, “C’est une vive.”
“Une poisson avec les barbes poison aussi," she spoke with the sing-song accent of the South.
I thought she was making up a word game about poisson for fish and poison, for the French were clever with their language, but several seconds later a burning sensation crawled up my leg intensifying with every heartbeat.
She nodded her head.
“Ouais.” She suggested that I get home and called SOS Medicins.
I obeyed her advice, for my foot was on fire and my knee felt like acid was running in my veins. I made it to the beach and climbed up the rocks to Guy’s villa.
Bridgit was dressed in a striped sailor’s shirt and levis. The pout of her face was for me. She looked at the wall clock. I was ten minutes late.
“It’s about time.” Beautiful women hated waiting for men.
Probably Brigitte Bardot too.
“I think I stepped on a poisonous fish.” I sat down and checked the bottom on my foot.
“Great excuse.” The Model from Paris sputtered out the words.
“It’s not an excuse.” Two puncture holes dotted my sole.
“If you don’t want to go shopping, just say so.” She had no use for men who stood her up.
“I think I need a doctor.” My waist was on fire.
“Right.” She stormed out of the house and slammed the door. “This is another day you’ve ruined. I don’t even know why you came here.”
The brunette drove away from the villa in her Mini-Cooper, grinding gears through every shift. I was on my own and called SOS Medicins for a house call. The young doctor arrived within ten minutes.
“Ah, une Wivre.” It was the Old French word for dragon.
The doctor examined the wound and said in English, “A Weeverfish hides in the sand in wait for their prey. Their spines are poisonous. They are also very delicious. The restaurants cook them for boullabaise.”
“I don’t feel so good.” I was panicking, as the poison reached my groin.
“You have pain, itching, joint ache?” He sounded familiar with the symptoms and picked out the tiny spines with tweezers.
“Yes.” I was breaking out in a sweat.
“A little nausea?” The doctor searched his medicine bag for a syringe wrapped in plastic.
Nodding my head welcomed a wave of vertigo.
“You were unlucky to step of a Wivre with a strong poison. Normally fisherman stick a lit cigarette on the wound and it burns off the toxin.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“And it’s too late for any kind of heat treatment.” He filled the syringe with a liquid. “This is a histamine. I should take away the pain in a hour. Pull down your pants.”
I bared my ass and he stuck in the needle.
It hurt more than the fish spines.
“Thank you.” I was grateful for his care. Doctors in America stopped making house calls in the late-60s. The cost of his treatment was less than $50.
“Don’t worry, you will live, but you might be tired from the poison.”
“I’ll be taking it easy.” My body was sapped of energy.
“That’s part of the cure.”
He drove off in his Renault and I went down the small bedroom to pass out cold within twenty minutes.
The next two days I drifted in and out of consciousness. I had several dreams about Brigitte Bardot. She was naked in every one of them. It was a great sleep.
Bridgit suspected that I was on dope and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the weekend.
By Sunday night I was feeling better and her husband drove us over to Eden Roc. The hotel terrace glowed with a Riviera sunset. Guy ordered a bottle of champagne.
“I’m not sure if I should.”
“If you were going to die, you would be dead already.” Guy poured his wife the first glass.
We raised our glasses and waited for her to offer a toast.
“Here’s to small fish.” It was a cruel toast, but then I expected nothing less of the Model from Paris.
“Le Wivre.” Guy and I clinked glasses and the Model from Paris smiled with pleasure. She loved her life and I couldn't blame her.
We watched the sunset and ordered the bouillabaisse.
It tasted great, for even if there was no Brigitte Bardot, this was the Cote d'Azur, where God one time created women.