The Return of the Lotus Eaters

For much of Europe, the end of summer is a special time of year. I’m in Villefranche, Southern France, drinking coffee by the crowded port. It’s a deep-water harbour, which means the city-sized cruise ships can dock for day trips. Elderly Germans, Scandinavians, and a handful of Americans, many on sticks or in wheelchairs, are disembarking. It’s like Lourdes, except no one expects to get better. The passengers just want to “do Europe” one last time, which involves coming to port and having a drink with a sparkely straw in it before being wheeled back to the boat. For the boys and girls serving them, it means one final evening of feu d’artifice, fireworks arcing over the bays, before closing up their apartments and heading South for the winter.

Tomas, a chef in Cap D’Ail, has made enough summer money to head for Kenya. He has no interest in city clubbing; there are too many wild spaces still to visit. I ask Stefan, a waiter at Eze’s fashionable beach club Anjuna, where he’ll go this year. “To Bolivia”, he replies, “I just want to see what’s happening down there”. Last year he travelled to Tibet, staying in a hotel without glass in the windows, where the temperature in the bedrooms was below zero. “The worst part”, he says, “was having to chew the toothpaste every morning to soften it”. The year before, he went ice diving beneath the frozen lakes of the Alps.

During the summer months, Stefan and the restaurant owners, Patrick and Erica, work from midday until 4:00am. The place is packed, and the pace is so punishing that Stefan often sleeps on the beach rather than make the journey home. He and other summer workers throughout Southern Europe spend their winter months travelling. Patrick and Erica ship back artefacts from their journeys: an intricately carved temple door, statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god that doubles as the Anjuna icon, stencilled Moroccan iron lamps, a life-sized wooden giraffe.

Patrick and Erica rebuild the entire restaurant from scratch each spring. They arrive in April armed with planks and rocks and steel poles and build every last part: from the kitchens to the staircases and balconies. When the construction is done, the floors, stairs and walls of the dining areas incorporate themes from their prior winter’s travels — Polynesia, Thailand, India — Anjuna is endlessly reinvented. No experience is wasted; everything gathered from their travels is recycled for the pleasure of Anjuna’s patrons. Some bar owners not lucky enough to have a stretch of beach property actually cut and paint the rocky promontories to incorporate natural sun beds, penning off pools in the sea itself, then have waiter service down into the water.

In October, Anjuna’s is artifacts are removed and Patrick and Erica take down the structure, piece by piece. Storage would be too expensive. In the winter, I walk along an empty beach where not long before I dined with friends.

But while it’s up and in season there’s no pressure to conform at Anjuna, no need to catwalk the latest styles. Tourists are singled out by their cameras, shorts, obesity (French girls are the slimmest in Europe), and their tendency to overreact to the extraordinary setting. Patrick consigns them to the “redneck” area at the rear of the restaurant, far from the likelihood of getting slow service. At Anjuna’s, acceptance is denoted by the unhurried arrival of your courses. If you’re in a relaxed state of mind, Anjuna is a place you never want to leave. It is as hip as Byblos or Cinquante Cinq in St. Tropez, but more “hippyish”. At all such club/bar/restaurants, the season is celebrated at the opening and close of every summer with champagne, gifts and embraces. At this summer’s last Anjuna dinner, Stefan gives me a photograph of his guru to look after. “He has a good career”, he explains, pointing to the picture, “Look, he’s wearing a Rolex”. Out in the bay, the last jet-skiers are looping past each other in the setting sun.

Nearby, on Cap Ferrat, the summer parties are also ending. The warm Mistrale wind is rising, whipping petals and pine needles into the air, stippling the surfaces of sapphire swimming pools. This year the Russians have moved into Europe’s richest resorts, filling the hotels vacated by Americans. Everyone wants to know where the Americans have gone. They are fondly remembered. In past times they were generous and jovial, but now they have disappeared; fewer are visiting Southern France than at any time in living memory. Restaurant owners blame politics, but only in the most vague of terms. The towns of Provence and the Alps Maritimes are safe havens, far away from the threat of fundamentalist troubles.

The hot winds bring firestorms to the hills. Yellow seaplanes blast the flames with seawater, but already there are fewer people to witness the drama. Houses are being locked up for the winter. Entire areas fall asleep, even though the temperature has barely dropped from the height of summer. Many slumber beneath the cliffs of the Massif Central, the great fold of rock that creates a microclimate so warm it has been nicknamed “Little Africa”: perfect for growing figs and clementines, perfect for hiding from England’s winter.

And that’s what the English are doing in increasing numbers. The budget airlines are opening new routes through Europe’s sunbelt. (Easyjet’s latest sale is offering flights to the Riviera for around 10 dollars). Spain has long been a favourite with the English, but the Olympics have put Greece back on the radar as a relocation opportunity. London’s soaring cost of living is driving professional families to seek simpler lives elsewhere; lifestyle makeover shows can’t get enough of the topic. More employees are retiring between the ages of 50 and 55; spending the kids’ inheritance is seen as a better option than saving for a pension that might not exist. Europeans are rethinking the traditional wisdom of opting for a single, heart-damaging career; choosing to downsize and travel, instead.

Jean-Guy gave up his old white-collar job to become a gardener, and couldn’t be happier. Elliot abandoned his career in London to care for a French summerhouse. Simon did the same to become a nurseryman on the Cote D’Azur. Schoolteachers, doctors and media executives are discovering that life can be laundered with a one-way ticket to somewhere warm and calm, and tomorrow might be too late.

Figures for the rate of this new “dropout” society are hard to come by, although a recent Sky News poll suggested that 72 percent of British viewers are ready to live abroad, and everyone is talking up the benefits. It’s a big world, and there’s a sense that, thanks to the rapid escalation of the holy war we kick-started in the last century, we’re running out of time to see it.

In the 1960s, UK premier Harold Wilson referred disparagingly to England’s last wave of deserting droves as “Lotus Eaters”, but now the Lotus Eaters are voting with their feet, so much so that the current government was forced to introduce postal voting from overseas. Everyone, it seems, would rather be somewhere else. In London the summers are soaked in sweat or rain, but no one used to question the wisdom of being stuck there. Last week, the capital experienced five brutal murders in one night; the difference this time was that all the victims were innocent, and none knew their attackers. The Catholic Southern regions of Europe are safer, and have become surprisingly liberal. Gays beaches and nudist areas have proliferated in recent years. All lifestyles are catered for. The greatest fear of those relocating is that they will be bored, but small town Mediterranean life is as vibrant as any major city. At the age of 70, my agent left London’s Shepherd’s Bush, an area noted for little more than its bad food and ethnic violence, to live in central Spain. The experience of moving to a non-English speaking culture has taken 15 years off her face.

The argument against leaving is that you’re not putting anything back into the country that cared for you, but in the unseemly scramble for government wealth that has seen huge increases in British stealth taxes and investment in policies nobody trusts, many are asking why they should feel a loyalty to stay. The concept of “Ask what you can do for your country” is fast vanishing, and nobody is feeling guilty. Overseas studies are a hot new growth area in UK universities, and already, Florida and California are cashing in by charging a surcharge for student exchange visits. As Northern swathes of Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and England steadily empty out, one wonders if a new underclass is being created in geographically undesirable parts of Europe.

Ask why you shouldn’t be allowed to move where you want, and you find yourself championing the economic migrants of Eastern Europe. Britain’s Daily Mail, a newspaper that specialises in encouraging its readers to be terrified of everything, loves to raise the spectre of foreigners stealing decent folks’ jobs, but that’s exactly what its readers do when the paper encourages them to buy houses in the sun. The answer, perhaps, is to ignore the pleading of governments and the hypocrisy of the right-wing press, and head wherever the heart leads you.

But in the touchy-feely verse of going back to nature, one thing gets lost; the sense of gutter fun to be had in cities like London. Last month the city hosted Fright fest, the annual guts-out festival dedicated to horror, crime, and science fiction movies from around the world. Sandwiched between queuing goths, waiting to be grossed out by a midnight showing of Calvaire/The Ordeal, a Belgian film featuring cross-dressing, man-on-pig sex and a crucifixion, I overheard one heavily pierced skinhead expressing a desire to leave behind London and move to an apartment in Mykynos, because she thought it would be a safer environment in which to raise a child. Certainly, Europe has ceased to be the global centre for border warfare. How ironic that we may yet come to consider it the last safe place in which to live.