In Pursuit of Shiny Things

Monaco – July 2017

The French Riviera. In the height of summer. What on earth was I thinking? I spot a ridiculously cheap airline ticket and all reason flies out the window. I remind myself that traveling is all about getting out of one’s comfort zone. The only places further out of my comfort zone are Ibiza and Disneyworld.

The train from Nice is packed. A large man stands further down the aisle, one arm raised to steady himself. His stench permeates the torpor. It’s incredible how one person can stink up an entire train carriage.

The woman facing me fans her hat through the air. “C’est étouffant.” It’s stifling.

The train picks up speed. A slight shift in the air. The woman sets her hat down and holds her hand over the air vent. “Ah, peut-être…”

I snicker. “Avec un peu de vitesse.” With a little bit of speed.

Heads turn to smile. It’s a strange sensation, the ability to communicate at an adult level. To make jokes that are understood. To recognize innate cultural quirks. The little things so often lost in translation. I chat with these strangers about the weather, about Monaco. It’s the next stop, they inform me. The place where everyone will get off.

I roll my eyes and groan. I was hoping everyone was going to Menton. Mais, non.

My strategy is to hit the Oceanographic Museum first. Maybe most will head for the casino and then the museums. But a line has already formed at the ticket office. I am the sole solo traveler among families. Looks are cast my way. Some smug, others suspicious. Yes, yes. I know. I’m creepy. My kind does not belong here. Not even if I smile at the shrieking offspring. Which I don’t.

Thankfully, they don’t venture away from the aquarium in the basement. The upper levels of the museum are filled with vintage curiosities. Scuba suits, a stuffed polar bear, a replica of the first submarine. Massive whale skeletons hang from the ceiling. Creepy specimens from the deep float in glass jars. A humanoid head on an amphibian skeleton. All of it is arranged with the passionate precision of the eccentric.

Maybe there is depth under the glitz of Monaco. I’ve read that it leads the world in charity fundraisers. Normally, I’d regard this with cynicism. So many charity organizations, especially those of the rich and famous, are fronts to avoid paying taxes. But there’s really no point in such a charade if you already don’t pay any income tax, as is the case with the citizens of Monaco.

A shady path winds around the cliffs of Le Rocher. The Rock. Fontvieille, Monaco’s newest district appears to the left. It is entirely built on “reclaimed land”. I can’t help but smile at this clever use of language. How can you reclaim something that was never there to begin with?

I follow the path to the Prince’s Palace. Tourists jostle to get photos of the single guard marching back and forth. The opposite side of the courtyard beckons. It’s the other cliff of Le Rocher. Already. I sweep my eyes across the panorama. High rise apartment complexes are crammed into every centimeter of available space. It’s not difficult to discern where Monaco ends and France begins. New residences are being constructed in the gaps of the demolished. Higher and higher. So many potential citizens are clamoring at the gates. Frantic for shelter in this ghetto of fortune. The poverty here is of a different variety.

Up and down the narrow streets of the old city. Souvenir shops and restaurants. No dog poop or spit to watch out for on the sidewalks. No leers or invasive words to ignore. So much more pleasant to wander than Nice. The Cathedral looms ahead. I step inside the cool darkness. Except for a couple of couples and a guard, I am alone. The departed royalty are buried here. The Royal Family is said to be very down-to-earth. It is only recently that they seem concerned with keeping up the minimum of appearances.

It is time to go to the casino. The cathedral to the material. I slip into a shopping center for a quick espresso. A shoe shop glitters to my left. I screech to a halt. My face contorts in horror. Pastel rainbow platform flip-flops. And other blingy monstrosities. I snap a photo.* Because it takes a lot to shock me nowadays. The shop assistant marches towards me and barks, “No photos!” Jet black hair. Sharp cheekbones. Icy glint in the eyes. Eastern European. Romanian, possibly. A flicker of recognition passes between us. I’m often mistaken for Russian. Her voice softens. “You can’t take any photos here.”

“Okay, I didn’t know.” I clamp my lips against: they are just so fugly. It’s probably against the law to insult shop merchandise, especially fashion. Last thing I need is a police escort out of Monaco. I slink away. Back outside, I take a deep breath. I worked for years as a waitress in luxury hotels. Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons. Oh, the sneering that used to go on in the wait stations. They didn’t order appetizers or dessert! So cheap! Did you see those facelift scars? So tacky! The only people who are worse snobs than the help are the wannabes. You can always tell someone is on the way up by the way they treat the people who serve them. Those who have nothing to prove feel no need to belittle.

A few tourists mill about the casino parking lot. Looks of disappointment. Where are the Ferraris and Rolls Royces? It’s not as impressive to take a selfie next to a lowly Mercedes. I take a photo of the casino’s reflection. Objects in the mirror are more within reach than they appear. If you really want it.

A few days ago, I watched a documentary on Monaco. A well-known journalist interviewed residents and luxury dealers. Are the residents truly content? It seems that it is only the top ten of the billionaires who remain in a constant state of competition. The others just want to enjoy their toys in peace. One man stated that it was a relief to be able to drive his car down the street without looks of contempt. He folded his perfectly manicured hands together and attempted a smile on his waxy, unlined face. His shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an impeccable tan on his gleaming, hairless chest. Fast car, big yacht, glittery watch. Yawn.

I know people who are wealthy. Generous, kind people who worked their whole lives to get where they are. However, they tend to flit from one topic of conversation to the next, as if they have an innate aversion to the profound. Smile, smile. No melancholy allowed. It’s so much easier to throw money at the shadows. Here’s a thousand. Shut up and buy yourself a new dress. That’ll make it all better.

My queasiness does not come from a sense of moral superiority. It’s easy to pick on those who grasp at the material. But there are many things to parade in front of others: travel, causes, spirituality. It’s not so much the wealth itself, but the admiration and envy it inspires in others. It’s all about filling empty spaces. My yacht is bigger than your yacht. I’ve done more to change the world than you have. I vibrate higher than you do. I’ve been to Timbuktu, haven’t you? Such astonishment I used to feel when people weren’t interested in hearing about my adventures. Nowadays, my blog is my treasure chest. The stories are for me and for those who may be interested. It is okay if no one is.

In the late afternoon, I head for the Jardin Exotique. The last tour bus leaves as I enter. I am alone with the cacti. The biggest, most diverse collection of specimens I have ever seen. The garden is built into terraces on a cliff. Like the Oceanographic Museum, the love put into this place is palpable. I sit at a lookout point and gaze down at Le Rocher.

There is a point at which accumulation becomes monotonous. The shiny things in the distance lose their luster. You just want to sit back and enjoy what you have achieved.

I’m ready to go home. To that cozy apartment in that lovely little city in Anjou. My tiny castle. I’m ready to touch my feet to the Earth and let them sink in. Luxuriate in the stillness and silence. No whispers of “where to next” disturbing my hard-earned placidity.

*I didn’t post the photo, because I heard that they are not allowed because of copyright issues.