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Tessa Duder - Memories of Menton

2003 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, Tessa Duder, recalls her memories of Menton.

"Back in 2003, the lucky Katherine Mansfield fellow set off for six months in Menton, double today’s residency. I arrived in early April, with spring snow still on the Alpes-Maritime behind the township, and left with the first autumn snows late October. In between lies a pool of sunlit memories that even seventeen years later retain the power to render me giddy.

I look at my report for the Winn-Manson Menton Trust, did it all really happen: the adult short stories that I wrote in a sudden burst of confidence (and yes, published 2004 by HarperCollins as Is She still Alive?); working in the KM room at the Villa Isola Bella, where writers from Mansfield to Frame and others before me had toiled; the fabled Mediterranean viewed from the once grand Palais Lutetia apartment; the growing familiarity with Menton itself, the Ventimiglia markets, the spectacular coastal train trip to Monaco and Nice; driving down to Genoa through the terrifying tunnels of the Fiori Autostrada; the longer travels to Tuscany, Rome, Paris and Berlin.

Not every experience or discovery was positive, of course. In contrast to the warm on-going hospitality of William Rubinstein, local identity William Waterfield and the formal welcome of Menton’s town officials, the English expatriate community showed no interest in a Kiwi writer temporarily resident; my forays into the English library were intimidating. To swim in that turquoise sea meant first walking over large grinding stones, painful without rubber shoes; the sands, overcrowded with sunburnt and often nearly naked tourists, were a disgusting 50/50 mixture of gravel and cigarette butts, but to be fair, the water itself clean enough. Other writers have grumbled about the dog poo on Menton’s sidewalks yet the town I enjoyed walking round I thought overall remarkably clean, bright with well-kept flowerbeds, oleander, bougainvillea and lemon trees. And yes, sometimes, between visits from family and friends, I was lonely, isolated by my poor French and the writing slow.

During those seven months, the live music proved a glorious bonus. Receiving courtesy invitations from the town council, I went regularly to concerts in Menton’s small ‘opera house’. A New Zealand summer is a cultural wasteland, but along the Côte d’Azur summer brings a plethora of music festivals. June 21 is the national Fête de la Musique, one day of live concerts galore, government subsidised. At Menton’s own festival in August, musicians of the calibre of violinist Joshua Bell and Portugese pianist Maria João Pires played by moonlight. I heard Berlioz’s epic The Damnation of Faust in Monaco’s new concert hall built almost entirely underwater, and saw an unforgettable Giselle at the Paris Opera Garnier.

Oh, and who could forget the food! Not so much the touristy fare in Menton’s restaurants, but the colourful local markets: cornucopia of tomatoes, cheeses, olives, pastas and pesto from Ventimiglia; white asparagus bought before climbing the steep hill up to the Palais Lutetia. We ate some wonderful salads that year of 2003. Yes, it all happened, and will always be remembered with much gratitude."

- Tessa Duder

Tessa Duder