We dropped anchor the following morning just off the coast of France. After a short delay, passengers were ferried ashore through a maze of yachts docked tightly against one another. Our tour guide would later point out that during the film festival, it’s actually possible to run through the harbor, skipping from one boat to another. It was 8AM in Cannes.
Our guide was a middle-aged man with a closely shaved head and a few small tattoos behind his ear and his ankle. The tops of a few larger tattoos were barely visible, peeking out of the top of his faded orange golf shirt. Being a former military man, he sat with a rigid posture and spoke seven languages fluently. Though he wasn’t brawny, he was intimidating.
He spoke strongly about even the most ordinary topics, though his passion seemed carefully calculated. One outburst came close to noon, when he tried to explain why it takes a Frenchman a full hour to eat lunch and why calling a man at this time was tantamount to taking a crap on the Fleur de Lis. He wasn’t eager to fill the silence like the other guides. He would often wait for us to ask a question then make us to repeat it so he could give us exactly the answer he thought we were looking for. His accent was a rich French and British mixture and his laugh was deep and artificial, like the way you’d expect a millionaire to laugh at one of his own jokes. His name was Câlin, that means “cuddly” in French.
Even before we stepped onto land, the first thing we noticed was the wealth – the cars, the yachts, the tans (not to be confused with the reddish or uneven ones most of us get over the summer months). Naturally, our ride to Monaco was all about finding out who had the most money, the biggest yacht and how many diamonds encrusted the large letters along the side of that yacht.
Monaco is a separate state like the Vatican is in Rome and it’s a tax haven for the people whose lives are unimaginable even for the “very rich.” To illustrate just how rich these people are, Câlin offered the following comparison: The very rich will live in nice big homes, take an expensive vacation once or twice a year, and enjoy overpriced groceries from a fine foods store on Sundays and special occasions. When a Monacan (or the wealthiest among them) decides he wants to go on vacation, his private helicopter will fly him out to his 85-foot floating villa anchored off the coast where his crew (at the ready year-round) will be waiting to take him anywhere in the world. During that several week tour, the money in his bank account will continue to pile up – like a pyramid, I would imagine, of freshly stacked bills in a walk-in steel safe – free from pesky government tax cuts, as he stuffs his freshly-lotioned face with black caviar and enjoys the view of the heavenly, azure oceanscape.
“This is normal for them,” Câlin sighed.
It gets better. In many cases, that person will then return to his modestly-sized but, likely, beautifully-decorated apartment to watch the sunlight shimmer off the bejewelled sides of his yacht parked in the harbor and proceed to do little else except, maybe, pursue some ill-conceived artistic inclination or playboy hobby until he goes on his next vacation.
I say “modestly sized” because, unless you’re the prince of Monaco, you’re not going to live in a palace. Not there anyways. In Cannes real estate is about €600 a square foot but in Monaco it’s €6,000. That means a million euros will buy you an apartment that’s smaller than a large living room in the Canadian suburbs. But the more I read this over, the more ridiculous that seems. You can’t find any apartment in Monaco for a million euros – shoebox sized or not.
“Don’t blink,” Câlin commanded as we approached the border: a roundabout built around some statue of I don’t know what. After parking in one of the garages and hiking up an outdoor staircase winding through a valley of stucco, we reached a modern art cast of a massive supine baby. It seemed to be floating at the entrance of some museum that we didn’t have time to see (as Câlin tersely pointed out). He waited for us there while we went on what resembled a safari – only to stare at rich people instead of rhinos.
Money may not buy happiness, but it does seem to buy a lot of things that make people happy. Despite my obvious distaste for those who lead such cushy lives – which is only enhanced by my equally obvious hypocrisy – that day in Monaco only strengthened this opinion. But my reasons are considerably more subtle than the diamond-encrusted, dick measuring contest that was going on in the yacht-lot.
There are a lot of nice things about Monaco. For one, I’ve managed to convince myself that a massive cleaning staff descends on the city at night to scrub every street corner the way an overpaid nanny would in one of those shoebox apartments. This is the only way I can make sense of the absurd degree of cleanliness. The buildings are painted in warm summer shades of orange and yellow – not a chip missing or a blemish noticeable. But this seemed to be little more than a nice touch. There was a more carnal kind of luxury to this place it seems money can buy: women.
If you will indulge me for a moment, allow me to explain. From what I saw, the wealth of this place was in striking proportion to the beauty of it. Because I cannot assume that the wealth followed that beauty to the extent I saw, I must assume the opposite: That many of these beautiful women were attracted to wealth or, at the very least, somehow made more beautiful by the wealth.
Thing was, there we didn’t actually see many people that lived there. After our tour around the city, Câlin told us that we probably didn’t see a single local in Monaco. Everyone in the street was a tourist.
While my argument should fall apart here, I don’t think it does.
Based on my impressions of this place, I would argue that the truly happy ones are those who visit and can choose never to come back. And maybe it’s just me, but I think those women—the tourists—were insanely gorgeous for that reason. It’s not that they were actually more beautiful than the women in Spain or Italy; it was the fact that they were in Monaco. I saw so many people who seemed to have dressed for the occasion in what looked like subconscious attempt to fit into an imagined image of one of the most exclusive spots in Europe. That image began to rub off on every part of their character; the way they walked, posed for pictures, smiled, laughed. Money may not have bought that feeling but it does pays the entrance fee to one of the few places in the world where you can feel it.
That brief escape to Monaco was steeped in a far-removed promise: that every millionaire, wife, girlfriend, concierge, high-priced prostitute, black jack dealer or tourist will always be that beautiful and that desirable simply because that is the way the people in Monaco are.
Yet, that’s a lie. You knew that as soon as you started reading this weird (probably a little chauvinistic) segment. All this stuff is really, at its core, the wishful thinking of semi-reflective tourists and maybe a few locals (because why else would you pay the downright obscene price for a place here). But everyone seemed to buy into it.
So, I bought it too, because I knew once I recognized that the women here weren’t actually any more beautiful than anywhere else, the precious scenery would begin to look a lot different. I wanted to savour that tingly thing I felt when I imagined living in a small Monacan loft with this one girl in a white sun dress. I did it so I could feel the wonder of living in a place like this without dealing with the disappointment of actually living there. Because once your perception is coloured by that dull shade of reality, the magic of the escape is reduced to a shining compliment of the clean streets and a contrived conversation about how a Ferrari handles.
Our next stop was the hilltop town of Èze, an ancient Phoenician settlement circled by tall stone walls. This fortified town is famous for its inaccessibility. “Only about 30 people live in the city itself,” Câlin said as if to proudly foreshadow what we would see next. “I’ll try and get you as close to the top as possible.”
Câlin pointed out that this is where drivers from his tour company come to take their driving test. Past the parking lot and a few souvenir shops at the bottom of this thing that’s too big to be a hill but too small to be a mountain, there is a single lane driveway that climbs to the entrance. This narrow ramp was as steep as a staircase in many parts with hairpin turns at the end of each level. When he got to these turns, Câlin carefully stopped and reversed, coming within inches of the sports cars parked along the edges. After letting any down-coming traffic pass, he would gracefully pull out of the, sometimes, 5-point turn and keep going.
After this rather impressive feat – though not nearly as impressive as having to reverse the van back down – we had about an hour to look around. The walkways that funnel through the city are, in many places, as steep as the driveway leading up to them. We browsed through these enchanting little shops filling the stone grottos cut into the walls. Most of them sold art or odd trinkets that seemed to overflow from the small space they were given. When it didn’t, we would have to look for a small sign in a window or twisted iron name secured somewhere close to the entrance.
Besides the shops, a handful of quaint lunch stops, and the peculiar wooden doors and windows in the stonewall faces, there are two historical hotels in Èze. Because these are tucked away on the fringes of the city, we never would have seen them if we didn’t go looking. We began asking questions when we saw men in work clothes running up and down the streets hauling trolleys full of white hotel linens. The sound of the trolleys bouncing along the uneven pathways clanged loudly off the walls and you could hear them coming as soon as they started running. If you didn’t, you could be pretty sure they would be yelling at you to move once they got closer – like a train blowing its whistle without any hope of stopping in time. To find the hotels, you just needed to follow the trails of sweat they left behind them.
After a quick – and therefore, quintessentially un-French lunch – I noticed a large, tiered garden than extended along the sides of the town. It looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland and there wasn’t a single person walking there. Believing we’d seen every part of the town, following every sidewalk to the grotto at the end, I immediately became curious as to how we missed this secluded spot that sat just over the wall.
At this point, Aidan was predictably unsupportive of my desire to find this secret garden. So, he turned around and waited for us near the front. Mom, Norm and I soon found out that this was actually the private property of one of the hotels. As we began our disappointed walk back to the town’s entrance, we ran into a few tuxedoed hotel staff who said they would let us in.
We followed them through several unfamiliar sidewalks before we reached a large cast iron door. Above it was a gold sign, emblazoned with black letters reading:
“This will take you to the hotel’s parking lot,” one of them told us as he unlocked the door. As we stepped into this perfectly tended Wonderland, the heavy weight clanged shut behind us to seal in the silence.
There was a strange variety of statues there – a tall, white stone model of Hercules, a golden cast of a watchful lion, a big green tortoise with a golden hare on its back – all of them purposefully placed around the vacant garden. They were all frozen in some dynamic pose, as if we caught them living when we walked through that door. All the movies I saw as a kid now became proof that these lifeless figures weren’t lifeless at all. They were just waiting – nestled closely to their tree, sitting perched atop their ledge, or cradled amongst the vines – for us to leave so they could come alive again in this magical oasis between the hilltop town and the rest of the world below.
We came out through the parking lot further down the driveway and met Câlin at the bottom while Aidan sat waiting at the top. After the annoying drive back to pick him up, which left us even shorter on time and more annoyed, we set out back to Cannes to spend some time at the beach before boarding the cruise ship.
Before he left us, Câlin quietly mentioned that these French beaches were “the stuff of lore,” famous for the scenery. As I swam out into the crisp blue ocean, I looked back on the small, crowded beach by the pier and saw it – every taught bit of it. It was mostly the French locals here, he told me, the ones who opted for a more cost-effective vacation in these summer months, but there were also some tourists. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw a few of the people from Monaco earlier that day. The girl in the white sun dress had come to the same beach, and she was just as beautiful as I remembered.