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Nice Russe (or Chekhov Slept Here).

For many of us--scholars, biographers, translators, directors--it's a labor of love. Artistic pilgrimages, they're called, in search of Chekhov, that great Russian dramatist and short story writer. To Taganrog, his birthplace by the Azov Sea; to his house in Moscow on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street (the "rose-colored chest of drawers," as he called it, with the Dr. Chekhov sign on the door); to Melikhovo, his "estate" south of Moscow; to the Moscow Art Theatre where his later plays premiered; to the Slavyansky Bazaar where he dined with his publisher; and finally, to Yalta, his "hot Siberia." We ardently follow his every step, confident that his spirit will be revealed to us and only to us, despite the fact that the paths are so well trodden. Every Chekhovian scholar, every director, each with his or her secret itinerary, believes that he will discover the true Chekhov, some clue, some trace, that the one before him hasn't.

So this past June, while on an academic stint in Prague, I sought to flee that teeming city, choking with heat and too many eager young tourists--and I thought of Nice, a city Chekhov loved and visited on numerous occasions. I'd just translated some of his letters from Nice to Olga Knipper in 1900, while she rehearsed in Moscow for the premiere of The Three Sisters. Why not go down to Nice for a day or two, and sit by the ocean where he sat? Walk his walks, gaze into the sea, see what he saw? Perhaps I would discover something new.

First, I consult the guidebooks. No sign of a Pension Russe, the hotel he'd stayed in during his third and fourth visits (1897-1898 and 1900-1901). Oh--here's a note, under the listing of the Beau Rivage, a four-star hotel just a block from the sea. "Chekhov slept here in 1891." Wonderful! I hurry to the telephone. "Bonjour, Beau Rivage." I identify myself: Chekhov scholar, translator, etc. Is this the hotel where Chekhov stayed in 1891? I inquire. "Non, madame." But the guidebook says so, I insist. I entreat her to inquire. "Ne quittez pas, madame." A concierge gets on. "Oui, madame, Chekhov a sejourne ici. C'est vrai." Good. May I have a room for this weekend? "Mais non, madame, je suis desole." The weekend of an international conference of cardiologists. 5000 of them. Nice is booked.

And then I find it, in a guidebook--a note under a Hotel L'Oasis: "This hotel once entertained Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, and his compatriot, a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov--more commonly known as Lenin. 10% discount." Perhaps this is yet another hotel where he stayed! I call immediately. "L'ecrivain Chekhov est reste dans votre hotel?" I inquire. "Mais oui, madame, bien sur." When? I ask. "En 1900, quand l'hotel s'appelait La Pension Russe." My heart leaps. Voila! The hotel where Chekhov stayed when he rewrote The Three Sisters! This is it. I absolutely must stay in this hotel. But no rooms there either. (Again, the cardiologists.) Still, I persist. "Je peux voir le chambre?" The room where he stayed--can I see it, at least? "Ah, mais madame, c'est tous renove, l'hotel. Je suis desole, madame, vraiment." (What century am I in, anyway? He stayed there one hundred years ago. Of course it's been renovated!) But the garden is the same, she assures me. And the facade of the hotel. So, perhaps sit i n the garden, and savor the coffee and croissants where he did, I fantasize. Undiscouraged and unreserved, I set out on another Chekhovian pilgrimage. To Nice.

12/15/1900: "Strange as it may seem, I feel as if I've landed on the moon. It's warm, and Nice is bathed in sunshine."

12/17/1900: "It's wonderful here in Nice; the weather is amazing. After Yalta, the climate and terrain here make it seem like heaven. I bought a summer coat and parade around like a peacock."

Nice. The glorious Cote. The approach by cab from the airport--dramatic, as always. I check into a chic hotel on a cliff, with a swimming pool overlooking that majestic bay. Indifferent to its allures, I set out immediately for the Hotel L'Oasis. Without unpacking. With trepidation, though, I might add. On the plane, I've just found a passage in one of Chekhov's biographies (Donald Rayfield's) describing the street where La Pension Russe was located as "the Rue Gounod, then a stinking alley that ran from the station to the Promenade des Anglaises." (I mentally thank the cardiologists.) But as I wind my way through a clean, quiet quartier, past stately white mansions and graceful churches, past small gated gardens cascading with bougainvillea, I have second thoughts. It's a lovely part of town. Serene, pristine. Far from the madding June crowds. And then I find it, the Rue Gounod, a discreet, inviting side street leading straight from the sea toward la gare. A sign with an arrow: Hotel L'Oasis. My heart quicke ns. I turn into the hidden drive, overhung with heavy, leaf-laden boughs. An esplanade of palms so dense they screen out the sun, a sudden, sweet stillness in the air, a beckoning vision of lushness beyond. And then there it is, a few meters ahead--the warm, ochre-colored facade of the most charming nineteenth-century auberge imaginable, graced with delicate wrought-iron balconies, elegant louvred shuttered windows, and before it, yet another vision! A hushed and enchanted garden, overgrown with olive and date trees, with soaring, vine-entwined, century-old palms towering high over the hotel rooftop. Cool, shaded. Tranquil, untouched. How could I have ever doubted it?!

Snap goes the lens of fantasy, taking each and every square frame of this Chekhovian mirage. The garden, just as he sat in it. I'm aux anges, as they say. In Chekhovian heaven. I seek out the hotel manager. "Bienvenue!" the congenial ginger-haired madame welcomes me warmly, thrusting a dog-eared scrapbook on the hotel in my hands. Did I know that Ulianov also stayed here, and that his name was also Lenin? "Oui, madame," I reply, appreciatively. "But, do you think it would be at all possible . . .?" I hesitate. France is tres reglee, as you know, and I'm longing to see the room where he'd stayed, but fearful of making a faux pas. (I'd checked Chekhov's letters; he mentions a room with a balcony and huge French windows on the second floor, facing south, and I spot it, looking up from where we're standing in the garden. "With a bed as large as Cleopatra's!" he boasted, in a famous letter to Olga Knipper, celebrated actress of the Moscow Art Theatre. And now it's only a scant flight away! My imagination soars.) I plunge on with my request. "Attendez un instant," she replies and ducks into the lobby. I linger in that enchanted garden, chatting with a young couple from Manchester who'd come down to Nice to run in the marathon. (A Chekhov translator? Really? They smile vacantly.) The yellow-and-white-striped umbrellas are open now--the anxious young waiter has set them up--and he's bringing the marathoners their morning cafe'au lait, balanced precariously on a metal tray. I look longingly at the steaming cups. Then madame returns to say that it's best to come back tomorrow morning, when there is a turnover and the room has been cleaned. "Demain matin, c'est certain." And I return reluctantly to my sea-view to dream of that secret Chekhovian garden.

It's Saturday at last, the day of the sacred photo-taking. I return to the lush, verdant L'Oasis, armed with a camera and every literary fantasy of the past twenty-four hours. (A lock of hair under the carpet, perhaps? A line from The Three Sisters scribbled on the wallpaper? A forgotten straw hat on the top shelf of the closet? Stay calm.) In the garden, while discussing preparations for the great ascension with madame, a tall, elegant gentleman approaches me, saying in soft-spoken French: "Vous traduisez Chekhov? Permettez-moi." He beckons me over to his wife, who sits serenely in a low chair under a shady date tree, an open book in her lap. "Anton Czechow: Listy"--the letters of Anton Chekhov (in Polish). They introduce themselves. And it's another epiphany: she (Barbara) is a Polish scholar of Russian literature, and a translator of the letters of Chekhov's publisher, Suvorin; he (Lucjan) is a (Polish) physics professor who consults in the theater and has helped to translate Copenhagen (a new play by Mich ael Frayn I happened to have just reviewed.) They reside now in Paris, and are making a Chekhovian pilgrimage, too. And an hour of frenzied photo-taking ensues. Lucjan and Barbara, under the sign at the hotel door: "Antoine Chekhov: 1860-1904; Ecrivain Russe et Homme de Theatre sejourna ici les hivers 1897-1898 et 1900-1901 et il y a ecrit Les Trois Soeurs." Me, by the fountain with the cherubim. All of us (madame snaps this one) beneath a magnificent medlar tree.

Then, at last, madame and I mount the stairs to his room on the second floor. The moment of revelation is at hand. The door opens. Disappointment: a smallish room, not too bright (I'd pictured it sundrenched), thin carpeting (I'd imagined oriental), innocuous rose-patterned wallpaper (I'd fantasized antique portraits). No "bed as large as Cleopatra's"--not even dose; no desk in sight, either. But the window . . . I look through the floor-to-ceiling, grandly shuttered window--and out upon that towering, majestic, vine-covered palm which shades all the garden, the very same one he'd looked out upon. I step out on a balcony of wave-curled wrought-iron. Lucjan stands below, camera in hand, waiting for his cue. And I think: how Chekhovian, that the sole element remaining, that we share with him one hundred years later, is ... the view.

We're sitting in a corner of the garden now, in our Oasis, reunited under the oleander tree. Barbara holds the brightly-covered book of Chekhov's letters in her hand. We peruse them together, including the many he wrote from this very hotel--to his sister Masha, to his brother Misha, to Suvorin, to his lover (later, his wife) Olga Knipper, to countless others. And we reminisce about him, fondly, as if he were a fourth, now absent, friend. "That was the room he occupied when he came in October 1897," I tell Barbara and Lucjan, pointing to the balcony where I'd just stood. "He stayed here for six months, till April 1898." By that time, at the age of thirty-seven, he'd already achieved the status of Russia's leading young belletrist, his volumes of short stories published, praised and wreathed with awards, his career as a dramatist evolving. And yet, he'd just been diagnosed with consumption, an illness that had shadowed him for years--prompting doctors to exile him from the harsh Muscovite winters. "Look there, at the corner room on the ground floor," I point out to Barbara and Lucjan. He had to move down from the second floor in December 1897, when he began coughing up more and more blood. His doctors were deeply concerned; they even imposed a curfew to protect his weakening lungs from the night air. (He was just about to celebrate his thirty-eighth birthday.)

Yet what a vital six-month period he spent in that Pension Russe, determined to live life at its fullest. He strolled along the Promenade des Anglaises, sat in cafes, perused the papers, read Voltaire and Maupassant, listened to open-air concerts, studied French (with a lovely, nineteen-year-old French girl as his tutor). "I speak all languages, with the exception of foreign ones," he explained (8/19/1897). An eclectic entourage of Russians were also wintering in Nice at that time--a professor of history, a painter, a vice-consul, among others. Together with Chekhov, they played piquet, frequented the Taverne Gothique for oysters; or the Casino Municipal for entertainment. Even when confined to the Pension Russe, he found fascination there, too. Arriving in October, he found it filled with a colorful coterie of forty Russians, mostly women, mostly convalescing--a garrulous baroness with her aging maiden daughter, a corpulent old wife of a Moscow merchant, an irascible widow who scowled at him each night acros s the dinner table. "I look at these Russian Ladies of the Pension Russe--" he wrote Suvorin, "--frights, bores, idlers, a self-indulgent lot, and I'm terrified I'm becoming one of them, for it seems to me that convalescence--and that's exactly what we're doing here, these ladies and I, convalescing--is the most repulsive form of narcissism" (12/14/1897). So he found a way of making mischief of it all. He and a coconspirator, a young painter named Aleksandra Khotyaintseva also staying there, delighted in shocking their fellow pensioners by breaking house rules and taking tea together in his room--then running out into the corridor while Chekhov made the sound of braying, like a donkey. Chekhov's and Aleksandra's escapades also included dubbing all the ladies with special names, like The Fish, The Doll, Red Ribbons, The Clothes Moth, and the Slum. Aleksandra even did a satirical sketch of them all. And yet, he found himself treating the dour Russian ladies in the Pension for all their various ailments. He, the invalid, who, in addition to his encroaching consumption, had to suffer emergency surgery while in Nice as a result of a bungled tooth extraction, a procedure which caused him agonizing pain. Ever the dedicated Doctor Chekhov.

So we marvel at his spiritual resilience, as well as his constant vigilance of responsibilities at home. By letter to his sister Masha, he managed the family affairs, even down to the minutest instructions of bank deposits and the pruning of the trees at Melikhovo. He avidly kept track of all their news: the family fights, financial woes, servants' mishaps (births, hospitalization, etc.), the Elder whose finger was bitten off by a horse, the typhoid epidemic in the village, the mare who died, the dog who bit the peasants. He ordered flowers to be sent to his mother at Christmas. And even with his own financial worries (Russian philanthropist Savva Morozov, who later funded the Moscow Art Theatre, sent Chekhov money in Nice to help him survive--he promptly sent it back), Chekhov diligently kept up with his philanthropic activities, buying three hundred volumes of books for the library of his hometown, Taganrog, and raising money for a dermatology clinic in Moscow.

But the most passionate diversion Chekhov found for himself during his stay at the Pension Russe was his involvement in the Dreyfus case. Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, had been accused of spying for the Germans in 1894, three years prior to Chekhov's visit; and was imprisoned for life. The French writer Emile Zola blew the case wide open again with his letter J'accuse, written in January 1901, during Chekhov's stay, in which Zola denounced the French government for its cover-up of the Dreyfus case and indicted both it and the country at large for anti-Semitism. As a result, in February, Zola was tried for libel, convicted and sentenced to prison. Chekhov avidly followed every scrap of press coverage of the proceedings, and spoke out passionately in Zola's defense. And now Barbara is searching in the book for the fiery letter Chekhov wrote from the Pension Russe to Suvorin, his publisher/mentor, attacking Suvorin for his own anti-Semitism and anti-Dreyfusian stand in his prestigious, Petersburg publication New Times (and causing a permanent rift in their long-time friendship). Chekhov, the philanthropist and humanitarian, undeterred by his own physical deterioration... How we admire him!

And yet, at the same time, we are reminded, as we turn the pages of the book of letters, that Chekhov was no angel, either.. Enter Potapenko, Chekhov's flamboyant writer/friend (and some say the model of his character Trigorin in The Seagull), arriving at the Pension Russe in March 1901--and off they go to Monte Carlo for a feverish period of gambling. Potapenko dreamed of winning enough money so that he'd be free of his publisher's advances, and he and Chekhov were convinced they could master the game of roulette. So they actually bought their own small roulette wheel, sequestered themselves in their rooms at the Pension Russe, spent hours practicing, and returned to play day after day. (Potapenko gambled recklessly; Chekhov, cautiously. In the end, Potapenko had to borrow money from Chekhov to return to Russia, while Chekhov broke even. Just like Chekhov, said Potapenko.) Throughout it all, Chekhov also managed to maintain an intimate correspondence with one Lika Mizinova, a young friend of his sister Masha , who--her love for Chekhov unrequited--had turned to Potapenko a few years before (who was married for the second time) and had a reckless affair with him. Lika fled to Paris, pregnant, abandoned by Potapenko; she had a child there, the child died. ("An idea for a short story," I quote to Barbara and Lucjan, the line Trigorin recites to Nina in The Seagull, and we pause to ponder the startling similarities in Nina's and Lika's story... and Trigorin's and Chekhov's). In 1898, at the time of Chekhov's and Potapenko's forays to Monte Carlo, poor Lika was back in Russia, childless, penniless, struggling to open a milliner's shop. And yet, despite Potapenko's irresponsible behavior, Chekhov continued to maintain contact with them both, without either of them ever knowing it. An aspect of Chekhov that few know, let alone understand, we say to one another.

Ultimately, however, from these letters; a profile, of the modest Chekhov prevails. The prestigious Russian artist Braz came all the way to Nice to paint Chekhov's portrait--a project to which Chekhov begrudgingly tolerated. Having seen the results, he complained to his cohort, Aleksandra, that the portrait made him look as if he were sniffing horseradish. "If I become a pessimist and write dreary tales, the fault lies alone in this portrait of me," he wrote.

"What about his work?" Lucjan asks. "Did he write here at the Pension during that period?" Good question. We search the letters. "I write slowly, laboriously, in fits and starts," Chekhov wrote to the editor Batyushkov (12/15/1897). "To write in a hotel room, at a strange desk that isn't yours, when the weather's wonderful and beckons you outdoors, makes writing all the more difficult. You see what a good-for-nothing I've become." And: "I long to write, but writing away from home is enforced labor; it's like sewing on someone else's sewing machine" (12/14/1897, to Masha). (Later, after I return home, I look up the dates of the stories he wrote during that period: "Pecheneg," "At Home," "In the Cart," and "A Visit to Friends," the latter a precursor to the Cherry Orchard. Despite it all, he still managed to be prolific.)

So much living in those six short months! His sejour in Nice reads like one of his own stories. "Remember his description of the Russian cook?" I tell Barbara and Lucjan about that flamboyant figure who added so much exotica to the pension ambience. A former. Russian serf, she was married to a black seaman, and their daughter walked the streets of Nice at night. "Let's find the dining room," I say. "I want to see where she served that borshch and shchi he raved about." And off we go to inspect the kitchen, but of course, it's all been renovated. And the dining room, where le petit dejeuner is now served buffet-style, has no windows. Surely, we say, that couldn't have been the room where he took all his meals with the other pensioners, where the irritable widow kept an eagle-eye on Chekhov lest he snap up a coveted piece of meat on the communal plate. Madame wasn't certain, either.

Outside again, we pause under the sign: "Chekhov wrote here, etc." "But he didn't write The Three Sisters here," I explain to them. "He rewrote it here, in December 1900." He'd come up from Yalta to Moscow with the new draft of The Three Sisters in November 1900. And despite his love for Moscow life and the glamour of the Art Theatre, he grew highly anxious over impending rehearsals for his new play that no one in the company seemed to understand. Enervated and feverish, he fled to Nice and the Pension Russe in December 1900, where he rewrote acts 3 and 4 from a comfortable distance. "I sent act 3 to Moscow yesterday and will send act 4 tomorrow," he wrote Olga Knipper, his lover and the company's leading lady, for whom he had written the role of Masha. "I've only made a few changes to act 3 but I've made drastic revisions in act 4. I've given you a lot more lines (now say 'thank you'!). So write, and tell me how rehearsals are going. Tell me every little detail!" (12/17/1900). Those anxious requests continue d by post until the play opened on January 31, 1901.

To compound his anxiety, Nemirovich-Danchenko, the Art Theatre's cofounder (with Stanislavsky), himself visited the Pension Russe in mid-December, Chekhov wrote: "When I saw Nemirovich here and spoke with him, it made me so depressed; I got the impression that the play is an absolute disaster and that I won't be writing for the Art Theatre again" (1/14/1901). "Is there anything that needs adding or cutting? Are you acting well, my darling?" he wrote to Olga anxiously (1/2/1901). "None of those miserable hounds write to me about it," he complained about rehearsals for The Three Sisters. "You don't write about it either, and I ought to give you a beating for that" (1/6/1901). She answered, expressing her frustrations with Stanislavsky's direction, begging Chekhov for assistance. Chekhov distrusted him deeply as a director, too--his flamboyant, sentimental interpretations and his infuriating penchant for adding sound effects where Chekhov hadn't written any. ("A mouse scratching during the Masha/Vershinin love s cene in act 2? What is he thinking!") Above all, he was furious about the added cues in act 3. "Noise in act 3? What noise? There is sound, but it's offstage, distant, indistinct, a muted sound, while onstage everyone is weary, somnabulent. If you spoil act 3, the whole play is ruined," he wrote (1/20/1901). So anxiety ridden was Chekhov that he moved on from Nice to Italy before the opening night of The Three Sisters on January 31, and didn't hear a word of its success till weeks later, after he returned to Russia.

A pause in our reminiscences. The time draws near for me to depart. My plane for Prague leaves in several hours, and yet I can't part with my newfound friends. They smile conspiratorially. "We have a surprise for you," they say. And Lucjan disappears and returns, beaming, with a treasure: a combined history/guidebook of famous Russians who have visited France. They can't give it to me--it's their only (precious) copy, they explain apologetically, most likely it's out of print, but would I like to see it? I glance through the index at the names of all those Russian artists and writers who have been to Nice: Gogol, Glinka, Rimski-Korsakov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, the list goes on and on. The precedent to visit Nice had been set by the royalty, of course: the Nicolases, the Alexanders--all the tsars had been there. The Russian intelligentsia--its writers and artists--simply followed. And a whole new world reveals itself--the colorful, glamorous world of Nice Russe, a new exotic FrancoRussian subculture, rich in histo ry. The Russian church in Nice, where Chekhov visited: "Yesterday, Sunday, I went to the local Russian church. Peculiarities: palm branches instead of willow; ladies singing in the choir instead of boys, adding an operatic nuance to the music; foreign coins on the plate; French-speaking church elders, and so on" (to his brother Misha, Easter Monday, 4/15/1891). The Russian Orthodox cemetery at Caucade, west of Nice, where exiled revolutionaries, war heroes, consumptive aristocrats, doctors and priests lay under the hibiscus ... I vow to return to America and my library, to research it thoroughly, and write about it all.

Barbara and Lucjan insist we repair to my hotel, to photocopy the pertinent passages on Chekhov's visit to Nice from their book. When they return to Paris, they promise to comb the bookstores for another copy, and send it to me. So we walk together through the streets of Nice, taking the route he must have taken on his cherished morning strolls. The sun shines gloriously on us, just as it did on him, as we wend our way along the Rue Gounod toward the Promenade des Anglaises. ("The weather here is paradise. Hot, quiet, the air caresses you ... Orchestras pass through the streets, there is tumult, dancing, laughter" [11/10/1897]). We sidestep into a colorful pedestrian walkway. An accordionist sits on a stoop, entertaining delighted passersby. A right turn again, down a street toward the sea. The door of a town hall building opens, and a group of young girls in tight white dresses tumble out onto the sidewalk, laughing, an eager tuxedoed admirer in hot pursuit, bearing a glass of champagne. A gay wedding party. "The people on the streets are gay, boisterous--" (so he'd seen it, too!) "--they are always laughing. Not a policeman in sight, no Marxists, either, with their sulky expressions" (12/26/1900). Ever the short-story writer, he captured in a small detail the essence of what is true and lasting. And just as he described it a hundred years ago, we find Nice harmonious and affable, on this, a sun-drenched Saturday morning.

We turn down rue St.-Francois-de-Paule, toward the Old Town market. Past the four-star Beau Rivage, a blandly renovated building with a pretentious marquis bedecked with flags. It's a short block from the sea. A plaque announces: "Anton Chekhov: Le Romancier et Dramaturge Russe lors de son Premiere Sejour Nice en 1891 habita cette maison." And it's true; he had come there for six days in April 1891, on his very first visit to France, as the guest of his publisher Suvorin and his wife. He was thirty-one, and wide-eyed with wonder. The first Easter he'd ever spent away from home. "They fleece you mercilessly and feed you magnificently," he wrote his brother Misha in astonishment, of the restaurants in Monte Carlo where he visited with Suvorin's son. "Each serving is a composition you should worship on bended knee, rather than dare to eat it. Every morsel of food is ornately adorned with artichokes, truffles, nightingale tongues-all kinds of things!" (4/15/1891). His letters thrilled with the illicit glamour of the casinos. "We went [to Monte Carlo] with 500 francs apiece; on my first bet I won a couple of gold pieces, then more and more," he continued, "and my vest pockets bulged with gold. In my hand I held French coins from as far back as i8o8. Never ever had I seen so much gold and silver. I start playing at five, and by ten I didn't have a single franc left in my pocket. It's a good thing I already had my return ticket to Nice. How do you like that! Of course you'll say, 'How vile! We're all living in poverty, and he's playing roulette.' Well, you're perfectly right, and I give you permission to slit my throat. But actually, I'm quite pleased with my self. At least now I can tell my grandchildren that I played roulette and experienced the thrill that the game arouses." (He'd returned again to Nice for four days in 1894, partly for health reasons and partly out of curiosity over Lika, who had fled from Russia to France, pregnant and rejected by Potapenko.) I enter the lobby of the plush Beau Rivage, and eagerly inquire at the desk about Chekhov's stay there. A brusque clerk says he has neither the knowledge of Chekhov's visit nor the time to discuss it. Back on the street again, on that busy, concrete, touristic corner. No Oasis here ...

And now we're in the marketplace. I leave Lucjan and Barbara sitting at an outdoor cafe under a bright red awning, while I rush back to the hotel to photocopy from their book. I instruct them to order; the treat's on me. When I return, they're laughing. "Look what we're having," they say, embarrassed. And there before them were two huge, frosty pina coladas, complete with colored umbrellas. ("We taught in Berkeley, you know," they explain.) I order a champagne aux framboises. Before us is the spectacle of the Saturday morning Old. Town outdoor market. It's a full palette of hues and fragrances and melodies--the brilliant reds and yellows of fresh peppers and peonies, the oranges and purples of kumquats and candied figs, the fragrances of spices and garlic cloves, the abundant baskets of shapely loaves of bread, the sound of laughter, voices, a guitar ... "Here, culture oozes out of every shop window, every wicker basket, every dog reeks of civilization," he wrote (11/10/1897, to Suvorin). I snap photos while Barbara and Lucjan sip their pina coladas. A picture Chekhov savored, too...

And then the market starts to dose; it's almost one. The hour of le dejeuner upon us. Everything comes to a halt. After all, c'est la France. "The life here is altogether unlike ours, altogether different. The people are outrageously wealthy and healthy, they never age, and they're always smiling," he wrote (12/19/1900). We embrace and make plans for a reunion, at the Hotel L'Oasis, of course. "I'll be living in Nice every winter," he had vowed too, in a letter during his last visit to the Pension Russe, to the hotel that we now share.

But he never returned. He was too ill. And then his life ended three short years later, so prematurely, so tragically. How he had loved it in Nice! "The weather is magnificent here, sheer enchantment. Warm, even hot; the sky bright blue, the sea sparkling, the fruit trees blossoming," he wrote (3/13/1898). "1 stroll without an overcoat, in a straw hat. I have grown lazy, and do nothing, absolutely nothing and looking at myself and other Russians, I am more than ever convinced that a Russian can't work and be himself unless the weather is utterly wretched." Yes, how he had loved it in Nice...

If not for our absent friend, then for us, one hopes, there are many happy returns.

CAROL ROCAMORA teaches theater in the Dramatic Writing Program of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Here three volumes of translations of Chekhov's plays have been published recently by Smith & Kraus. Her volume of translations of Chekhov's letters about the theater is forthcoming. She is currently working on a biography about Chekhov in Nice.
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Author:Rocamora, Carol
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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