It was everything I’d imagined it would be: impossibly charming architecture, gentle sea air, and endless gelato. Families of tourists meandered about and made up much of the visible population, and there was a giant park in the center filled with children playing in fountains.
I was taking the grand tour with the four guys: Phillip, Jason, Will, and Cullen. Davidson had sent us as a group to participate in the European Innovation Academy, which consisted of about two hundred students from all over the world coming together to build startup companies in a fast-paced workshop environment. That was exciting and all, but as of right now we were more interested in finding the alleged waterfall that overlooked the city and trying out every single gelato stand we encountered, respectively. I was already good friends with Will and Cullen, and it was a giddy kind of fun to explore a new place with familiar people, screaming, “We’re in France!!!” on more than one occasion.
The waterfall, once we found it, would quickly become my favorite spot in the city. You could see everything from its misty vista - the green hills of the extended French Riviera cascading down into the white modern part of the city, then, right beneath us, the sherbet-colored shops and steeples of the Old City neatly edged with road and an endless, wide promenade, and then the beach of white rocks hosting a plethora of nightclubs, and then there was nothing further beyond but the jewel-toned sea stretching into oblivion. It was perfect, and the gelato was perfect and tasted like the scent of flowers, and we were like mischievous children on the field trip of a lifetime.
The European Innovation Academy, however, was a parade of overwrought lectures and synthetic prestige. Almost half of the students and speakers were from Berkeley, which made me wonder why we couldn’t have just met there - though I certainly wasn’t complaining. Nonetheless, I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity, and I was able to find a team of five to work on an idea for a social media application I had pitched: an app designer from Berkeley, two marketing experts from Australia and China, and a programmer, also from Australia. We spent most of our days in these lectures, sometimes nodding off or writing droll comments on the Twitter feed that was featured on a giant screen behind the speaker. At the end of the day, we would meet to work on our projects, and then the rest of the evening was ours.
It was an easy place to make friends. Though admittedly not the hippest group of young people (a large percentage were programmers), most of them were outgoing and friendly. Cullen, Will, and Jason had become fast friends with a duo of Australian boys the night before I arrived, a night which didn’t end until morning light and had already yielded a fair amount of inside jokes. They were going out with them again tonight, and I wanted to tag along. “You won’t like them,” said Will, smiling wryly at Cullen.
“If I won’t like them, why would you?” I accused. They didn’t answer my question.
“They’ll like you, though,” Will snarked. I rolled my eyes and wished Davidson could have sent more girls.
Steve and George were, indeed, quite the pair. Steve was lanky and impossibly sunburnt, and George was a stocky soccer player who was born in Sudan. They were indeed flirtatious, but their rapid-fire humor and Australian accents made it worthwhile. Watching the two of them and the Davidson boys get on over a plethora of beers was great entertainment, though at around 3 AM, I realized I would not be able to keep up with them any longer and turned in for the night.
There were many nights like these. The people and bars changed, but the core of it remained the same, blending together into a rosy stream of draught beer, witty banter, and amusing advances (usually from George). These nights were carefree and balmy and lit with golden light.
I had different friends during the day, the ones that didn’t go out at night. Asha, another West African-born from Australia, was a marketing expert on my team. We often got lunch together and shared some much-needed girl time. Another group that I fell into was the Jordanians. There was a surprisingly large population of Arabs in Nice, so I got to practice Arabic more than I would have thought. However, I could feel myself getting rusty, and I was glad when the Jordanians insisted that I sit with them in the mornings to practice. The most charismatic of the group was Salahadeen “Salah”, who was already one of the “popular kids” in EIA who everyone seemed to know. He was goofy, with kind, wide eyes, and he quickly became a primary friend.
One night, the guys invited me to a party on the beach where a large number of Berkeley students were convening. Salah had asked me if I had plans tonight, so I asked him to come with me. He was a devout Muslim and therefore, did not drink, but I promised that he didn’t have to. “I won’t be drinking much either,” I assured him. He was a bit apprehensive, but I managed to coax him out.
We headed down the steep hill from the dorms and joined the dark mass of people on the rocky beach. Judging by the sound of them, they had already been drinking for a while. The guys were laughing raucously and there were girls shrieking with little provocation. No doubt, I heard my party girl app designer in there somewhere. I spotted Will, Cullen, and Jason sitting side by side, talking way too loud. I also saw George near the water, holding a bottle of liquor and navigating the rocks with tremendous effort. “Umm…” I turned toward Salah. “How do you feel about this? We can go back.”
“This is great!” Salah beamed. “Everyone is having so much fun!” I smiled at his innocence.
“Let’s go put our feet in the water.” I had seen George approaching and thought it best to avoid him in his present state. We waded up to our knees in the syrupy warm ocean, chatting happily. To my dismay, George had seen me and was drawing near. “Hi, George,” I probed warily.
“DAKOTA!!!” he screamed, bottle raised above his head. “Who’s your friend?” Salah introduced himself earnestly. I wondered to what extent he had experienced drunk people before this, if at all. “Look at you two, out here in the water all by yourselves.” George wriggled his eyebrows suggestively, but there was a bite to his tone.
“Just hangin’ out, George,” I sighed.
“Where you from, Salah?” George interrogated.
“Ah,” George peeled a finger away from the neck of his bottle to point at him, “so you’re a Muslim then?’
George took a swig and began laughing in a way that I did not like at all. “Oh boy!” he shook his head at the ground. “You know, can’t tell from my accent, but I’m not from Australia originally - I’m from Sudan. D’ya know why I had to leave Sudan?” he was now looking Salah dead on, though swaying slightly. “Because you people forced us out. You were killing us.”
“Okay, George,” I interjected lightly, though my ears and stomach were burning.
“It’s okay,” insisted Salah. He maintained his steady smile and patted George gently. “I’m very sorry that happened to you.”
George laughed again, almost hysterically. “I bet you’re pretty rich, aren’t you?” Salah shrugged in humble affirmation. “Well, I hope you’re thankful to be here. You are very, very fortunate.” The way he said this sounded like a threat.
“Yes, I am very fortunate. I know this.” Salah spoke sincerely, his smile fading at last.
“Alright then!” George exclaimed, almost cheerfully. “Be good to her…. And you,” he pointed at me, “be careful.” And he stumbled away.
“Oh my God, Salah - I’m so sorry,” I moaned. “I never should have dragged you here.”
“It’s okay,” he said, his smile returning brightly in the moonlight. “It’s okay - really! I’m used to it.” I smiled back sadly. “Also - he was drunk, right?”
“Yes, Salah,” holding back a giggle. “He was very, very drunk.”
“Well, you can’t blame a man for what he says when he’s drunk. Right?”
I considered for a moment. “Yes,” I answered grimly. “Yes, you can.”
I brought Salah over to the Davidson boys, determined to make it a good night for him somehow. They conversed gaily, and Salah had no idea how drunk they were. However, I was still rattled and raging internally from the exchange with George, and I felt the need to tell Will. Quietly and gravely, I informed him of our “best bud’s” racist rant in Salah’s face. Even in his drunken state, I expected immediate outrage. “But Dakota - black people can’t be racist!” was his reply, as matter-of-fact as the sky is blue. I felt my whole face flush red and hot tears welling up.
“Let’s go, Salah...I’m done.”
As we trudged back up the hill, Salah seemingly unaffected and I very much so, I wondered if, even after all the things I’d seen this year, I was still just as naive as he was. But now we were speaking of lovely things in the placid darkness, far above the wild howls that were rising from the beach, and I thought, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing at all.
I never brought up that evening with Will or George, mainly because I doubted they would remember it anyway. Even so, I became much warier of George. I knew that he had suffered a rough childhood and had more reasons than most to be angry, but from that night forward I perceived his playful banter to be less benign.
Nonetheless, there were many good nights to follow and weekends spent floating in the ocean without a care. France was playing in the World Cup, and two giant fan zones were erected in the main square. On the night of the big game, they were practically bursting with hundreds of rowdy enthusiasts. Part of me yearned to watch the game inside with the guys, as it seemed like an important cultural experience. However, it made me nervous to squeeze into a large enclosed crowd - Bethlehem had taught me that fear. So, I sat outside at a restaurant where I could see the screen, eating lobster pasta and drinking wine.