I traveled only thirteen kilometers from Nice, but…I wasn’t in France. I was in Monaco, which is a sovereign city-state…essentially it’s a country, even though it is surrounded by France and French is the official language. It has a poverty rate of 0% and the highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world. Mind you, it is the second smallest country (only the Vatican is smaller).
Getting to Monaco wasn’t easy. There was a problem with the train and the SNCF staff was telling everyone just to take the current train. So, we all got on board…but that means that everyone from that train and my train (two trains) were trying to cram on one train. We were all packed like sardines. This led to a strange closeness that can only be achieved by literally breathing the same air as your neighbor. I was stuck between three old British tourists, one enthusiastic French woman who could speak English, two old American tourists and two French women who couldn’t speak a word of English. Oh, it was interesting…very interesting. We switched languages like seven times just to tell one story so that everyone understood…and it usually ended up being a very unimportant story (“one time, there was a landslide, but I can’t remember where”), although the enthusiastic French woman gave us some interesting facts (“this is the town where that famous British singer lives…what’s her name again?”). I felt a little awkward because I was younger than my companions and I could tell they were dying to know where I was going and what I was doing in France, but the train ride was only twenty minutes and I escaped without having to tell the story of my life.
Once in Monaco, I realized that I wasn’t in France any more. Actually, it felt like I wasn’t even in this world anymore. It was like stepping into some alternate reality where everyone is wealthy and poverty doesn’t exist. It’s a bubble. Unlike other places in France, I didn’t see beggars on the streets. No graffiti. No dog poop, since dogs are banned from most of the parks. No torn lawns, since people aren’t allowed to walk on the manicured grass. It was weird, really weird.
In many ways, my trip to Monaco reaffirmed my class status. I’m a middle class individual and I prefer it that way. Really? Do you need a yacht that big? Do you need to buy a meal that’s a 100 euro? Do you need a dress that is a 1,000 euro? Do you need a shiny red sports car? To me, it seems like waste. I spend my days saving money…buying pink toilet paper because it’s cheaper, buying generic food instead of name brand food…so that my children can live a comfortable life, not a life of excess. Confucius has a quote that goes something like, “To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.” Extreme poverty and extreme wealth are both wrong in their own ways, but…the world is not perfect.
My first stop in Monaco was to the casino at Monte Carlo. I just looked at the outside. It was a pretty spiffy place. I then walked along the harbor, where there was no beach, just yacht after yacht. There was this huge one that was blasting music…at ten in the morning. A little early for a party, isn’t it?
I went to the Oceanographic Museum, which was founded by Prince Albert I, who was actually a very scientific guy. I learned a bit about Monaco’s role in oceanology, but my favorite part was the aquarium. I love aquariums. My father said that I could have a fish when I was nine and even got me a fish tank…but no fish even eleven years later. Now, I just have an empty fish tank. It’s sad.
I was hungry. I checked out the restaurant in the aquarium, but it was too expensive. So was every other restaurant I had seen in Monaco, all of them were way over my college budget. I started to think that I was going to starve, but thank goodness for two streets of Monaco which I dubbed “tourist streets.” Here, you can find souvenir shops…and affordable restaurants for tourists. The locals of Monaco probably refer to this place as the “bad” part of town, but for me it was heaven. Food. Cheap food.
I ate lunch. I visited the cathedral. Then, I went to the palace. Since I’m a student, I got a super discount on a combined ticket for the oceanographic museum and the palace. The palace was quite interesting because it is still in use by the royal family. They use the rooms we were viewing (such as the state room and the throne room) for state affairs! As such, we weren’t allowed to take pictures or video or even have our phones out! I had been to Versailles, but that was different. The time of kings and queens had passed. But this? This palace was real…it was being used! It was certainly an experience.
From here, I began one of the most epic searches in human history…finding the exotic gardens. Now, I had a map so I was pretty confident in my abilities to get to where I needed to go. Unfortunately, what I discovered was a mountain, several roads without sidewalks and lots of construction, which caused many roads to be closed. When one route was blocked, I came up with an alternate route…then another and another. I was starting to get very frustrated and wondered if it was even worth it. Still, I kept trying and, after an hour, I found the exotic gardens on the top of a giant mountain. What I didn’t know was that you had to pay for the gardens… Pay for gardens? Are you kidding me? I was so frustrated that I refused to enter. I don’t really know much about plants anyway. I was just hoping it would be something pretty to look at, a nice place to sit and enjoy the natural beauty of life. But, oh no, Monaco had to make things tough for me. I gave up and went to a neighboring park, which was free, by the way.
Speaking of free, there is one thing that Monaco has…free bathrooms! I cannot describe to you how important free bathrooms are to me. They symbolize the essence of humanity. I mean, who makes you pay to use a bathroom? Well, apparently, all of Europe.
After my park adventure, I began the great descent, off the mountain. This is when I discovered Monaco’s weird multi-level subterranean elevator thing. I first found it in Monte Carlo, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use it or if I made a mistake. I didn’t. There are public elevators all over Monaco, which lead you to various underground tunnels. Now, I’ve been in a lot of tunnels in my day and all of them are dirty, dark and usually filled with urine or dead rats. Not these. They’re made of marble, but they aren’t labeled. You would have to be a local to figure them out. This is what made my navigating so difficult. I literally went down ten stories one time on this underground elevator. It was strange.
I made it out alive and got some cheap dinner. But to top off the day and the end of my vacation? I needed something special. What? Gelato. Glorious gelato. I ate some as I watched the changing of the guard at the palace.
I returned to the train station, where the workers in Monaco were returning home to France and Italy (I read on Wikipedia that there are over 48,000 people who commute every day). The train from Monaco to Nice runs right along the sea and I got to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean. What a view.
So, that was my day, my vacation…Tomorrow, I head back to Nantes and reality begins once again.