By Craig MacInnis
The 70th Cannes festival opened this week, and after reading Peter Howell's vivid scene-setter in The Toronto Star on day one, my brain shunted into reverse and I recalled my own first trip to the Cote d'Azur in 1991.
I'd never been to France before, or for that matter any other precinct of Europe. And I arrived in a seriously jet-lagged funk, deposited by the shuttle from the Nice Airport at a scorchingly-hot downtown square far from my alleged hotel (which was at the other end of the long, curving Rue d'Antibes, close to a mile away).
Fumbling in a halting, unmusical form of French - which certain linguists refer to as 'Broadbent-ese" - I sought directions from a dead-eyed transit agent, who listened to the first three or four words out of mouth and just walked away without saying, “Au revoir.”
This was the second abrupt kiss-off I'd received that morning on French soil. While trying to transfer planes at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I had approached a commissionaire for directions to my connecting flight to the Riviera.
This was to be my first actual conversation in France, which began, hopefully, by me saying: "Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais...," to which, without skipping a beat, he replied: "Eat shit, H'english!"
I am not making this up.
I felt like King Arthur and his knights when they approach the French castle in Monty Python & The Holy Grail and the guards, after hurling copious insults down at their anglo visitors, catapult a bovine missile over the ramparts at them. ("Fetchez la vache!" became my operating slogan in the south of France for most of the next decade.)
So, in Cannes' searing noonday sun, I dragged my sleep-deprived carcass and two large suitcases (a rookie packing mistake I would never repeat) to the address of the hotel where my masters at The Toronto Star had assured me there would be a 13-night reservation in my name - just as there had been for every previous Star correspondent covering the Cannes Film Festival dating back to Ron Base and Sid Adilman.
When I arrived, the sharp-faced clerk behind the desk appraised me as if I'd wandered in off an illegal shrimp boat.
I told him who I was and that there was a reservation in my name. He emphatically shook his head "Non!" and disappeared into his office and produced an envelope with a Canadian postage stamp on it, dating from January of that year.
He removed the letter, which contained some illegibly scrawled boilerplate about holding a room for "Craig MacInnis" and a ludicrous deposit of 50 french francs, the equivalent of about 10 Canadian dollars.
"I do not know what zees ees, monsieur," he said, waving the letter and the French bill in my face. "What do you suppose it is for? A tip for me? It is ridiculous and you may have it back and I am sorry there is no room for you here."
After some cajoling that led to outright pathetic begging, I was told I could stay "for one night, but one night only." This charade of renewal and ouster, a sort of cinephile's Scheherazade, played out for each of the next seven days and nights of the festival, with Monsieur discovering, usually in the early afternoon, some late room cancellation that allowed me to stay "just one more night."
Finally, having evidently passed some French test of character and good humour, I was granted status as a fully-privileged guest.
Down at the festival, no one was much moved by my hotel plight because the Cannes press corps was a hardened, jaded bunch, all too happy to regale a newcomer with war stories and hardships of their own, and far better than mine.
"That's nothing, Craig, I crashed on the beach the first year I came here," the Globe's Jay Scott told me over a bottle of rosé. "Here's the thing. The French never like you until they do, and then you're golden."
Craig MacInnis is a former film and music critic for The Toronto Star. He lives in Toronto.