It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that friendship was first invented on France’s southern coast. The climate is perfect for it. The immense turquoise basin called the Mediterranean Sea glimmers in the equatorial sun, reflecting light and warmth and modifying cold storms from the Alps in the north into refreshing sprinkles that offer relief from the heat.
The people of La Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) seem to have learned their life-style from the Mediterranean—they don’t just bask in the light, they share it. Their friendliness is legendary throughout the rest of the country, their relaxed pace a welcome change for friends visiting from Paris or Nancy.
Perhaps nowhere is that enjoyment of life better exhibited, however, than in the lives of young Latter-day Saints in Nice. The Church is alive and growing in the area, and the young people play a prominent role in sharing the gospel with their friends and neighbors and with each other.
There are two branches in Nice, one in the neighborhood called Cimiez and one at St. Augustin, and several more in towns and cities nearby, including St. Raphael, Grasse, Cannes, and Antibes. When the young Saints gather for a district activity, they invite the adults and children and investigators to join them, and they fill the cultural hall in the modern chapel on Avenue Thérèse to near capacity. Such was the case last summer when the youth of the district met for a two-day conference, including a talent show and skit, a day full of workshops and games, and a visit to castles and the coastline.
Enormous figures of dancers in native costume adorned the back wall of the hall, while other walls boasted hand-drawn port scenes. Green construction paper chains hung overhead, adding to the spirit of merriment. Work on the decorations had taken nearly all of Friday afternoon, and now the show was ready to begin.
A chorus sang hymns. Dancers performed routines from “West Side Story,” a square dance, and a ballet. Comedians told jokes, guitarists strummed folk ballads, and dramatic passages from Victor Hugo’s writing were recited. The highlight of the evening was a comedy skit about a rich, deaf uncle with an immense fortune and a lot of scheming relatives. First class acting brought rich rounds of applause.
The show ended with another hymn from the chorus. Then an eager crowd of young folks swept the chairs back to their appointed places, hooked up the record player, and swirled across the floor in near-perfect ballroom form.
“We heard that elegant dancing is coming back into style in the U.S.,” one brother said. “So we tried it here. We saw the BYU dancers perform once and admired them. Now we dance like this all the time.”
All too soon, however, the dance music faded, the refreshments were gone, and it was time for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning at 10:00, about ten of the Niçois (as the people from Nice are known) gathered at the gare (train station) and headed for the hills. With them were two 16-year-old sisters from Marseilles. First stop, Mont Alban, an ancient chateau fort (fortified castle) overlooking the bay.
Looking out from the summit, Christiane Beltrutti, 18, mentally traced trails between the red tile roofs of buildings, then gazed at sails drifting on the azure bay. The mood of the moment led her to contemplate her love for her home.
“The most important thing we can do is to build up the Church where we live,” she said. “I love this area. I love these people. I want to share the gospel with them; I want to grow strong here and see my children, later on, grow up in the Church, along with many of their friends.
“People come from all over the world to visit Nice. Those of us who live here should really appreciate the beauty, not just of the coastline, but of the inland towns and villages as well. I think most of us do.”
It’s a quick ride from the top of the hill back to the old part of the city. Here tourists crowded the boutiques and souvenir shops, eager to gather memories of their days in the sun. Everyone seemed excited just to be there. “We call it la joie de vivre,” said Michel Demisse. “That means the joy of being alive.”
The young Latter-day Saints did, indeed, seem excited with life, excited to be exploring the city. On foot they wound their way through narrow cobblestone streets, between houses stacked haphazardly one upon another, past women who still carry home laundry in baskets on their heads. In the marketplace, bright red buckets brimmed with olives and clams and cod for sale. Flower shops peeked in colorful profusion from alley corners. Minstrels serenaded restaurant patrons dining on pan bagnat or socca, specialties of the regional cuisine.
Nice is a melting pot community. The Greek-French singer Georges Moustaki defined the area as a meeting place of continents and civilizations. A glance at the young Saints confirmed his analysis. Philippe Benarous, who now lives in Cannes, is of Tunisian extraction and was Jewish until he joined the Church one year ago. Chantal Daviot, a member of a year and a half, had ancestors who helped settle the French colonies in Africa. Isabelle Perez’s name reflects the Spanish influence in the area, and Christiane’s last name, Beltrutti, shows the Italian flavor of the sunlit coast.
After a pause at a fountain to eat their sandwiches, the group decided that, despite threatening clouds, it was worth the two-mile hike up hills and stairs to Le Château, site of a castle long-since destroyed. In their decision, they reflected again the philosophy described by Moustaki: “Il y a un bel été qui ne craint pas l’automne en méditerranée.” (There is a beautiful summer that is not afraid of autumn, in the Mediterranean.) Though the rain drizzled down, they knew the sun would eventually break through. They bounded up the steps and paused to catch their breath at the top of the first flight.
Huddled under umbrellas, they again shared their feelings about gospel ideals.
Isabelle, 18, is the only one in the group who was born in the Church. “I like what we are able to learn about ourselves by being active in the gospel,” she said. “It’s important to get together with other members of the Church because in different spiritual, cultural, and recreational activities, we get to appreciate ourselves and our brothers and sisters better. I especially enjoy meetings at which returned missionaries from our hometowns speak because it helps us see that the Church is not small; it’s worldwide and growing. This helps young people to want to go on missions.”
“In fact,” Brigitte Besson added, “one of the problems we face is that we have to change personnel so often—all of our young men keep leaving on missions.”
Jean-Paul Tran, 18, from Grasse, said one of the local goals is to get everyone working together so that soon a stake can be formed in Nice.
“We all have the same ideals, really,” said Chantal. “To progress together, to improve each other by being together, to find increased spirituality.”
The hike continued. The rain lessened, then increased, just as the group passed in front of a waterfall that tumbles from the summit. “Isn’t it nice to be so cool?” someone hollered ahe mist from the falls and flung it in his face.
One more flight of stairs, and the group was on top. Leaning over the railings, they looked at the beach, usually full of sunbathers, now empty and stretching for miles between la Promenade des Anglais (one of Nice’s main streets) and la Baie des Anges (Bay of the Angels).
Several minutes later, after stopping by the beach and listening to roaring waves, the group rejoined the rest of the conference attenders for an afternoon of workshops at the chapel. José Masse, who is studying agriculture, instructed a group of about 35 people on how to plant windowbox gardens.
“The prophet has said to grow gardens,” José said. “So I tried it at home. I know I can raise lettuce and tomatoes.” He continued with a lecture about planting bean seeds properly.
Next it was Brigitte’s turn. She joined with Daniel Jardon to present a workshop on how to lead music and how to follow the person who’s leading. Brigitte relied heavily on her training as a student at the conservatoire, or music school, where she is the first singer. She touched briefly on the topic of how to project the voice, breathing techniques while singing, and the idea that each voice has a distinct sound of its own.
Following the workshops, it was time for some games. First was le beret (drop the hanky). The group sat in a circle on the floor, except for one young man. He walked around the circle on the outside, then dropped a handkerchief behind someone and started running. The object was to circle the ring and take the person’s place before being caught.
The next game, salade, resembled musical chairs. The person called out the name of different types of fruit, then those assigned to that type switched places. One person was always left without a seat and became “it,” yelling out another type of fruit. Occasionally, the person who was it called “salade,” and everyone changed places.
As the afternoon wore on, the group also tried a few rounds of ballon prisonnier (dodge ball), then tire à la corde (tug-o-war) until the rope broke and there was a unanimous declaration that it must be supper time, time for sandwiches once again.
In France, however, it’s hard to tire of sandwiches for two reasons:
For one, there are hundreds of varieties of sandwich toppings, from meats and sausages to carrot salad to Camembert cheese. Peanut butter is rare (and very un-French), but jam, re-christened confiture, is the sweetened essence of fruit fresh from the trees.
For the other, sandwiches are made with bread—not air-whipped, white paste, commercial dough, but hand-fashioned loaves carefully glazed in the neighborhood baker’s wood-fired ovens.
No one complained about eating sandwiches for the second time.
After dinner a new mood prevailed. The young Saints knew there was a serious side to their conference, and the time for it was now. They filed into the Relief Society room where the district president waited with a presentation about living worthily in order to be ready to someday enter the temple.
The conversation covered hair and dress standards, with a special discussion about swimwear; civil disobedience and protest; morality; sustaining of Church leaders; the use of symbols in teaching; and the value of making promises to the Lord. It stressed the importance of making good decisions at good times, building on a foundation of missionary service, and choosing eternal peace rather than momentary pleasure. Questions were sincere, answers based on years of experience. When the discussion stopped, there was a sweet peace in the room, a spirit no one wanted to disturb.
Finally, a young man rose to offer the closing prayer, and then conversations, quiet and reverent, were renewed.