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Going under cover in Monaco

My miracle on Larvotto beach

If I can help somebody as I pass along

Taste of village life in Monaco

The Water's Edge: A fishy tale

Why I choose to be involved
"...I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Like Thoreau, I love the simple life. But while he  left a bustling city to move to the woods, I have taken the opposite route. I have given up life in a tiny town on the edge of the Canadian boreal forest for work that takes me to luxury-loving Monaco, the most densely populated nation in the world. Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days at Walden. I'm giving myself at least three years for this experiment.
--Celia Sankar

Taste of village life in Monaco

I sometimes refer to Monaco as a village. To be honest, I enjoy seeing certain people's faces turn crimson with annoyance when I do so. But in truth, I don't mean any offense. In fact, I happen to love villages. Some of my best memories are of village life.

I grew up in a tiny community on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Typical of village life, everybody knew everybody else. Everybody also knew everybody else's business. There was a characteristic of that life I was vaguely aware of as a child, but which I've come to fully appreciate only in adulthood. It was that in knowing each other and each other's ups and downs, the neighbours of our village were more than just people living in close proximity; we were a community, a family even.

I remember playing a game of imagining what would become of my siblings and me if something bad were to happen to our parents. In my mind's eye, I would see us moving in with the family of the neighbour to our right, a gravedigger; or with that of the bus conductor to the left; or with the fisherman up the hill; or with either of my uncles who lived in the next yard below us; or with my grandfather down the slope.... I could think this way because if such a situation arose (and thankfully it never did), even though everyone was scraping by in life, there was no question someone would take us in. That's just the way people in the village lived.

Fast forward to today. While I'm new in the region, here are a few of my Monaco experiences.

* The first day I arrived, I stopped a pleasant-looking lady on the street and asked for directions in French. Recognizing my accent, she replied in English with a British accent (she was from the UK), and offered to walk me to my destination. Along the way, we chatted about ourselves, and I think something clicked between us. We agreed to meet for coffee after my visit to the place I had been seeking. It turned out that TH's business as a private consultant involved helping English-speaking newcomers to Monaco to understand the system and to settle. She offered to help me. No, she wasn't trying to drum up new business; in fact, she was on hiatus and this was purely an act of kindness.

The weeks that followed my arrival were to be crucial for me. I had a deadline to prepare a publication to be printed in Canada and this meant I had to be online most of the time. The lodging I was staying at had promised I would have Internet access, but was unable to provide it during those first weeks. Things were looking desperate. When next we spoke, I told TH about my crisis. Without the slightest hesitation, she offered to let me use her office – although we had met on the street only a few days before. (By wonderful coincidence, TH turned out to be a song leader at the Monaco Christian Fellowship, an evangelical church I'd seen on the Internet when researching Monaco and which I had planned to attend, even before coming here.)

* One quiet Sunday afternoon, as I strolled through the almost empty streets of Monaco, I came across a scene of near chaos. Spread out on the pavement outside a restaurant were empty 10kg detergent buckets, tall black plant containers, new ceramic plant troughs filled with just soil, older troughs with leafy plants whose branches had been freshly clipped, and a bit further off, some cedar shrubs. Standing in the midst of all this was a short, middle- aged man with a trowel in his hand and deep furrows on his brow.

Ever unabashedly curious, I asked what he was up to. He was the restaurant owner and had decided to give his patio a new look by replacing some of the leafy plants with the cedar shrubs. When I asked what he would do with the plants that were no longer wanted (which, sadly, most people in Monaco would throw out as trash), he shrugged and creased his brow even more. “Don't know,” he said as he surveyed the confusion at his feet. Then he asked, almost pleadingly, “Would you like to have them?” Strange as it may sound, as a matter of fact, I had been longing – longing – for precisely this sort of plant, and could hardly believe my luck. “How will you take them away?' he asked. That was no problem. TH's office was not far. If he put the plants into the detergent buckets, which had handles, I could carry them off one by one. When I returned from my first trip, without my even thinking to ask, the restaurateur packed the rest of the plants into his BMW and delivered me and them to TH's office.

* Another Sunday afternoon, after church, I wandered along the port with my camera. It didn't take long to find a subject, a fellow in a tangle of fishing nets. He let me photograph him and his bright blue boats. As I clicked away, Andre Rinaldi explained his family was the last to be fishing in Monaco. Despite the long hours, hard labour and uncertain income, he had not lost his passion for the job, he said, and was proud his son was also carrying on the tradition. He showed me how he knotted the line to make the squares of his net, and said his widowed mother, even in her old age, continues to help repair his nets. Inside his shed, which was chock full of decades of accumulated nets, hooks, lines and sundry fishing equipment, Andre showed me family pictures of Monaco taken before the port where we stood existed. Before he closed up his shed for the evening, he filleted two fish and gave me, along with his favourite recipe.

* As we left the fishing shed, Andre for home and I for the train station, a lady called out to him (“Monsieur Andre!”) and stopped us to chat. As dusk set in, the three of us stood on the red paved promenade, dominated by the monarch's pale peach palace, and discussed life in Monaco. “I love it here,” said the middle-aged lady, who was originally from South America. She said it was only partly because of the clean streets and lovely buildings. It was mostly because of the people. She once owned a boutique in Monaco, but life's circumstances had changed and she was now a cleaning lady at the hospital. But the people who know her don't look down on her or treat her any differently, she told us. “I don't think I'll ever leave Monaco,” she said.

* One Saturday, the trains were not running because of repair works on the tracks and a railway employee told me I had to catch a special bus that was to arrive in fifteen minutes. Outside the station, I saw a very wrinkled, grey-haired couple sitting at the bus pick-up area. I sidled up to the woman and asked, in French, whether they were waiting for the same bus I needed. Actually, she said, they lived just up the street. They had set out for an afternoon walk but this was as far as their tired legs could carry them. This led to a rambling conversation about her retirement and my work, our mutual enjoyment of Monaco, my country of origin and her childhood in the French countryside.

Some twenty minutes later, my bus hadn't arrived and, suggesting I was mistaken about the special service, the lady took it upon herself to help me figure out which bus I might really need. She began pointing out the regular buses and said I'd have to read the sign to get on the right one. Every time one of these big vehicles came into view, she would comment. “This one,” she said, “will take you to the port.” After a while, she added: “This one, will take you to the Exotic Gardens.” A few minutes again: “This one will take you over to the city of Menton, in France.” Then I heard her say, “This one will not take you at all.” As she broke out into peals of laughter, I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw a red fire engine trundle down the road. “I'm just joking with you; I hope you don't mind,” she said. Mind? Actually, I felt honoured that this frail, wrinkled stranger would share with me the mischievous little girl that was still vibrant within her.

Do encounters like these make me think of Monaco as a village? Without question. Yes, the term has to do with size, but for me, it has more to do with the quality of interactions among people a place engenders. And for me, to call Monaco a village is to give it the highest compliment I can offer.



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Celia Sankar

by Celia Sankar

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