With life settling down into more of a familiar pattern, we’ve started to notice the little things that are often initially overlooked by wonder-struck travellers to this beautiful region. Not that any of it is particularly surprising, but it’s interesting to observe it first hand. I’m talking of course, about the politics of the region, and the kinds of issues that revolve around it.
One of the first things that struck us (and how could it not? it’s so in-your-face) is the enormous wealth on display here. It feels like a good portion of the 1% have holiday homes and boats nearby! Monaco, particularly, is a fine example of ostentatious wealth. Top of the range boutiques full of outrageously expensive trinkets, chauffeur driven cars, tiny dogs on jewelled leases, women straight from fashion pages, security guards and CTV cameras everywhere, blah de blah.
Now, to make use of Monaco’s status as a tax haven one must be a resident there. And in order to prove you are a resident you must be able to produce bills for local amenities. So how do people get around this rule? We heard one story that pretty much summed up the feeling of the place for me: a woman who bought a tiny apartment there – only about 65sq metres all up (which, incidentally, was the size of an apartment Brian saw advertised for sale in Monaco for 2.4 million euros!) — and, in order to prove her residency, just left the oven on 365 days of the year, to make it look as though she lived there. Voila! Power bill! No tax! There are so many levels on which this disturbs me.
Another interesting little stat: the marinas along this coast are filled with huge super yachts – enormous bloody things that take a crew of six to keep running and polished up. Yet the average time at sea for each boat, according to one source, is 27 minutes per year!
So that’s one end of the spectrum: huge money, gobsmacking displays of wealth, little apparent regard for the issues that are dragging down the rest of us. At the other end are the people who have no franchise in this system — and the longer we have been here, the more obvious this group has become.
There are several resident homeless people who hang out in our immediate area, some sleeping under the railway bridge close to our apartment. Not that we don’t have them at home, but France is a socialist country! Its whole political system is supposedly ‘for the people, by the people!’ Clearly something isn’t working.
More disturbing though, is the daily game of cat and mouse between the African immigrants trying to cross from Italy into France on foot (the border is on our doorstep) and the French police who actively chase them. There have been days when we have seen the same groups try to break through on the road above us, only to be turned back and somehow scale down a massive hill to try their luck down on the road below. What they discover is a whole new van-load of police waiting down there! At other times they risk life and limb to sneak along the railway line below our house.
We’ve stood at the border and watched the exchanges. The would-be immigrants, mostly in their teens (I’m not sure where they originate from but they are strikingly good looking), will stand for hours in the hot sun, just shy of the border, waiting for the police to leave. And sometimes one or two will act as decoy – occupying the police while others try to sneak around, out of sight. These police wear guns; have automatic weapons in their vans. They look scary and act aggressively. And, at times, stop passing vans to make sure no one has slipped into the back.
It wouldn’t even be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone else crosses these borders without a glance; no passport checking, no kind of oversight in any way. We have come to conclusion it’s because everyone else is white. Sadly, this conclusion seems to be borne out. (Interestingly, when we first picked up our car and asked about road rules, we were told not to worry too much, that we’d be fine because we weren’t black.)
A couple of days ago the train screeched to a halt in front of our apartment, its horn tooting incessantly. Our greatest fear was that one of these young people had been mown down, trying to make a break for it. Sirens rushed towards us, but then the train moved on again after about fifteen minutes. Freaky. Worrying. Had it hit someone? Who knows? It seemed too ghoulish to go and look.
Now, I understand the police’s dilemma. Yes, every country has their own laws and own unemployment issues to deal with. But this situation is only going to get worse as climate change starts to bite – and yet we are still responding to this type of exodus in the same old way. It seems no one learns from the past. Nothing changes.
Just before we arrived here, France held its local body elections, very tied up to their national politics. In southern France 20% of people voted for the National Front. Twenty percent! How could this be, I asked someone? They’re very clever, came the reply. They have repackaged the party, made it sexy with front people like Marine le Pen — well educated, well-off, well-versed in PR and double-speak. No more booted skinheads, this is a party that spews nationalism and racism under the guise of respectability and well-cut suits. And they’re gaining votes by the day — dangling the riches of capitalism as their bait.
Our poor police dodgers at the border are merely pawns in this game – a game where hate is being fuelled again, ironically (and frighteningly) very like the conditions before the last world war. And it is happening under our noses.
Thousands of people turned up at Gallipoli and around the world recently to commemorate WW1 – ‘Least We Forget’ – but what is actively being done to prevent a similar sort of travesty like Hitler’s hate war from happening again? As climate change makes more and more people homeless, and wealth is increasingly siphoned off into the hands of the elite, what is going to stop this kind of hatred, jealousy and fear bubbling up again?
Or is that all part of the plan? That while we’re all fighting for the scraps, they run off with the family jewels?
Perhaps it’s not as bad as I think. Maybe I’m super sensitised to it, as we’ve just visited all these beautiful hill villages in Italy that had their populations decimated in the war. Next door to our apartment stands a giant date palm, its trunk supported by a metal brace and the strangest holes in its bark. We couldn’t figure out what kind of bird or animal would make such holes. It truly puzzled us. Then a local told us: they were bullet holes from the last world war.
My life has been extraordinarily privileged. Not only did I grow up with comfortably middle-class white parents who loved me, but I have never known war (despite it touching on our lives through my father’s need to flee Europe to escape it.) But that was old history to me. Yet here, with the bullet holes still apparent in the buildings and trees, and the underbelly of nationalism, racism and severe social inequality popping out of its polite corsets, it has confronted me in a way I did not expect.
One of the things about this fellowship that has always seemed so incredibly generous and insightful is the idea that just being somewhere else — and allowing time to observe new places, people and cultures — enriches us as writers and as people. Every day I feel this happening. I’m so grateful for it – even when it shakes me to the core. I will come home changed.