1. I hear people say that Cannes is like the Miami of France, but I’ve never been to Miami, so Cannes is mostly just the Cannes of Cannes to me. Curving gently around a bay on the Cote d’Azur, the city is sun-blessed and beautiful and tacky and utterly alive with luxe, ludicrous possibility. At least for the film festival it seems to be. The beach is lined with tented restaurants and clubs that thump with parties at all hours of the day. Arriving there on my first day, I’m struck by how close and upfront everything is. In New York, the fabulous stuff is largely carefully spirited away in anonymous buildings. Here it’s splayed out on the beach for all to see, in a way that is silly and exciting and sexy and very French. My boss and I find ourselves, three hours after landing, standing with glasses of champagne at one of these beach parties, making small talk with Adrian Grenier. I’m so jet-lagged and yet over-stimulated that this truly bizarre moment registers as weird but not that weird. I just floated dumbly into it, anyway. This was all my boss’s doing, he easily talking our way into the party, the girl with the clipboard saying “Oh, I’m sure you’re on this list somewhere.” There’s a lot of that in Cannes (at Cannes?), people trading false confidence, no one wanting to be caught out of the loop. It’s fun and makes you feel powerful, but it’s also the beginning, I worry, of a lie.
2. I’m a liar for being here. That’s what I spend a lot of the week thinking. What am I doing here? Everyone else, literally everyone else, belongs here, knows what they’re doing, fits into this opulent jumble in some crucial way. I meet other writers who speak in a language I barely understand, casual, familiar references to directors and oeuvres and styles and influences that make me feel like a dumb kid with a Blockbuster card. Is there a word for how smugness disappears, the way it sickly, sadly evaporates out of your body? Because that is what I feel at Cannes (in Cannes). As if all the years I spent reciting IMDb facts and impressing friends with not just movie knowledge but movie opinion were, it turns out, worth nothing. Because here I am, feeling so stupid, so useless, so unproductive compared with these journalists and critics, real journalists and real critics, who know so much more than me. Here I am with this fancy assignment but with nothing to back it up. This is a shaming experience, but a changing one too. I can actually feel myself changing.
3. Ego steps back in, of course. How could it not as I gape at the Hotel du Cap and Justin Bieber and Jennifer Lawrence and Edward Cullen and every other famous person you can imagine at this party I’ve mistakenly been allowed to attend. We’re right on the ocean and there are yachts twinkling in the distance, looking like a whole skyline there are so many of them, and I am drinking free but very good champagne and wondering, but secretly appreciating in some shameful way, what I ever did to get here. This is my second night, but on the first night I felt it too, at another beach party with a new friend, he very kindly encouraging me to uncynically accept the wild majesty of this place and these people, awed and amazed, guilty and grateful. It’s such an odd feeling to exist somewhere you know you shouldn’t, scared that you’ll be found out, but giddy at the continued success of the con.
4. Of course there are movies! And before each one the logo for the festival comes up on the screen, a mini presentation set to dreamy music that everyone applauds. Applauding because we all made it, and because the French really take this seriously. The cinema. There are kids all around the Palais des Festivals holding signs asking for tickets to the night’s red carpet premieres. All impossibly attractive teenagers desperately hoping to see, waiting all day to see, some art film that, I don’t think, kids in America will ever hear about. That strikes me as wonderful, as hopeful, as a sign that this really is something special. This event I’ve read about every year for well over half my life. This is how it works, and people care about it. Not just those hired to care, but these kids, with their good hair and nice outfits, all enviably cool and French. Old people, too. They queue up for the afternoon screenings, in smart windbreakers, tickets in hand, asking foreigners in lilting English if they too have seen “the film of Cronenberg.”
5. I begin to lose myself, to fall into the grand swoon of the whole experience. I stand on more beaches and clutch more glasses of champagne and think to myself that I don’t really know who I am. It’s like all that weird, surging growth you do as a teenager during the summer, every moment tingling with possibility, living in the yawn, the maw, of potential. Now, suddenly, I am someone who’s here. Who chats up a pretty blond Brazilian film student at a party, who doesn’t care when he says he has a boyfriend, who laughs when he says “You are Richard, I am Ricardo!” Who stumbles, way too late at night, to a gay bar and introduces himself to a certain young, beautiful, maddeningly successful Quebecois director and makes a total fool of himself in the process. (“Um, hi?” is the last thing I hear before I turn away from him in hot-faced embarrassment.) Who wants to hate this cocky director’s movie but winds up loving it, more than anything else. Who stands, one weird night, looking out across Monaco (who goes to Monaco!) with two new friends, still strangers, and feels for a second a sense of certainty. I’m here! Despite everything else, I’m here. And maybe nobody else here knows who they are either. Maybe that’s the point.
6. It’s strange to be this much in my head. It’s a surprisingly emotional experience, this whole festival thing. An epiphany every hour almost, which is exhilarating and exhausting and definitely pretty lame. It’s easy, but probably correct, to feel completely annoyed with myself, some brag-happy nightmare who’s asking people to marvel at and confirm his impossible luck. (Of course, in my head, these people never really call it luck. To them, these fantasy people, it’s all perfectly earned.) I have to stop talking about this already. I can’t be this gushing, bragging jerk when I get back. But it’s so hard to not feel special here, even with all this indignant doubt worming its way around.
7. On my way out of Cannes, the owner of the Airbnb arrives to drive me to the train station. I’d met his girlfriend, a Russian girl in cut-offs and a tank top, fled somewhere cold for this sunny place, and assumed her boyfriend would be some gruff, hairy European, idling outside in his Renault with house music blaring away. But he’s instead a nice, clean-cut guy in shorts and boat shoes, who speaks in apologetically broken English and is enthusiastic about his new rental enterprise. He asks me about New York as we drive in the rain, and tells me about living in Antibes with his girlfriend. She wanted a yard and a real kitchen, and that’s what her apartment has in Antibes, so that’s where they chose to live. He shakes my hand when we get to the station and then I’m on my own.
8. Aix is as lovely as everyone said it would be, but it’s also full of university students and I feel incredibly old and sad, there by myself, eating dinner and reading my Kindle, the lonely weirdo, table for one. It’s an odd sort of narcissism, the kind that insists that everyone is looking at you, but out of scorn and cruel pity. Of course no one is looking at me, I don’t even register, but it’s hard not to feel conspicuous when traveling alone, especially if you’ve never really traveled alone before. Here was this trip I was so excited for, and I find myself only rarely marveling at the beauty of the place I’m in. It’s mostly the loud echoes of recent ghosts—I was just on a beach with hundreds of people drinking champagne! I saw Jane Campion dancing like mad!—and worries about what’s waiting back home. It’s hard to not have someone to talk to, to break it all down, even at charming cafes in France.
9. So I go on Grindr, my first time ever on Grindr, and I get two drinks with an opera singer from Texas who is in Aix for the summer. It’s not as awkward as I thought it might be, but it’s not as fun either. Mostly because I know how quick it’s going to be, that we’ll say goodnight and that will be that. When I get back to my hotel room, though, he’s sent me a message asking if I want to hang out more. I do, in some small way, but I tell him I’m tired. It’s not a lie, exactly, but it feels like one anyway.
10. At another cafe, on another day, with another round of drinks, I strike up a conversation with another person from Quebec. But this time she’s friendly and warm and she tells me about how she came here on a business trip 20 years ago and never left. Now she has French kids, teenagers, and it’s funny to think about that. She says her son, 16, is very cultured, and when he goes to North America, Canada and Ohio, to see her side of the family, he is horrified by his grandmother who buys her produce from Costco. “They grow up faster here,” she says, and I can’t tell if she’s happy about that. Later that night I say fuck it and sit outside at the nicest restaurant I can find and order a steak tartare and a bottle of wine and smoke my Gauloises and am suddenly glad I’m not a French teen whose mother doesn’t quite understand him.
11. The train station in Marseilles has the most beautiful view, looking out across the city and a castle or a church or something on a hill. And the station is built like all the great old European stations, a huge shed with tracks leading out into the unknown. Weird that the Marseilles train station is one of the most enchanting places of the whole trip. But, there it is. Somewhere I’ve been now.
12. My last night, in Nice. What a place! As I walk down toward the water, walking like mad toward the water after four days spent inland in beautiful, boring Aix, I wish that I’d chosen to spend more time here. But an evening’s all that I’ve got, and I watch the sun worriedly, like the minute it’s dark the French gangsters will come out and get me. I sit on the beach one last time and pay too much for a glass of wine and take some obnoxious Instagram photos and watch planes land and take off, arcing up over the Mediterranean. On my way to Aix I met two kids from Indiana, just graduated from Purdue, who were backpacking across Europe. And on my way to Nice there were more American backpackers on the train, a bunch of kids just starting their trip. It’s comforting and sort of sad that someone else’s trip is always beginning as yours ends. My feet blistered and dead, these kids all bouncy and stringy and uncertain about what’s going to come. On the train platform in Aix I said “That’s great! Congratulations!” when the Indiana kids told me they’d just graduated. And I felt old, but almost cozy in that oldness. They were polite and said thank you and then wandered off to find their friends, leaving me with my cigarette and my suit bag, trying not to stare off after them with some small bit of longing.
13. For my last dinner alone, I rack up more insanely expensive data charges and fiddle on my phone, eating duck and potatoes and bread and drinking rose and smoking more Gauloises and good god I’m overdoing it. But I’m supposed to be, right? When else but this kind of stolen week can you let yourself be the most ridiculous version of yourself?
14. When I get back to New York I meet a girl who writes for Vogue who was on my same flight. We laugh at the small worldiness of it all as we smoke a cigarette outside JFK. She disappears somewhere and I get in the taxi line, right in front of an attractive family, mother and two handsome teenage sons, who have returned from, and I’m maybe crazy for interpreting what I heard this way, Kim and Kanye’s wedding. The way the kid says “And then I said to Kanye,” so casual and nonchalant, leads me to believe he knows him. But maybe I’m tired and just imagining things, maybe I’ve been alone in my head for too long, or exposed to too many impossible things in the last two weeks. I get in my cab and say my address and it’s nice to speak confident English again, to watch all of familiar New York spring back into being on the horizon.
15. The day after I don’t feel so special or magically confused anymore. That feeling fades quickly, both a relief and a disappointment. It’s muggy and my apartment’s a mess. Someone got my debit card number and charged $500 at a French version of Home Depot. I’m broke and tired and feeling guilty about how many times I tweeted from France. (“Was I annoying?” I ask a friend. He doesn’t say no.) But then there’s work, and the subway, and everything else. How nice it all is. How lucky I am. And then I go to a movie.