Back on the train after pausing in Èze, I now found myself standing pressed against the doors. While the morning shipment of Niçois persons to Monaco had been small, with the cars relatively empty, an hour later I was surrounded by so many middle-aged men in brightly-colored pants and white linen shirts that it seemed certain some New England boarding school was having a garden party reunion. The case was quite different, as it turned out, and I gathered from the conversations around me that today was the occasion of the Grand Prix de Monaco. The races, which occur over a few days and began today at 11 o’ clock, had precipitated a deluge of holiday-weekend revelers eager to observe the cars go round and round the circuit.
My plans for the day did not include sitting in the stands, and so this event was an inconvenience at best. Arriving in the station, the masses poured forth and struggled to squeeze onto the escalators, many attempting to maneuver casually enough for their jackets to hang just so over their arms. Monaco was not peaceful, as the racecars zipped by noisily like mechanical bees while tourists clamored to the numerous stands selling garish Grand Prix baseball caps and tee shirts. Tickets were being scalped for only twenty euros and, judging by the appearance of the attendees moving towards the entry gates, Monaco attracts a crowd of similar sophistication to that which watches car racing in the United States. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
My knowledge of Monaco was limited although, since I have a past intimate partner in common with a member of the royal family, I had some preconceptions. But, hoping that the object of this relation was also an unfortunate choice for the royal member, and not instead reflective of the Monegasque character, I attempted to shed notions of the principality as a superficial and uncultured shell. This even though, apart Prince Rainier’s marriage to American actress-turned-Princess Grace Kelly, I knew it only as a tax haven that harbored yachts and casinos. According to several insistent notices I saw posted in the Cote d’Azur region, Monaco had a distinct culture of its own, separate from and not to be confused with that of France. Of this I was not sure, unless the culture of Monaco was as different from that of France as Nice’s was from that of Paris. But perhaps Monegasques – or at least those who visibly occupied the country, since Monegasques form a small minority of the population – did value more than speed and bling; although from appearances thus far the possibility wasn’t high.
Attempting to break away from the chaos attracted by the fast cars, I wandered uphill until I reached the Prince’s Palace. Here one could look off the elevation to the left and observe the races taking place in the near distance below. I did so, briefly, and noticed that the stands were much emptier than seemed possible considering the attention garnered by the event. The race was also rather slow, and drifted around the circuit with an excitement that could only be felt by either close friends and family of the drivers or those who had wagered more than they could afford on the outcome.
Luckily my attention was soon drawn to the melodious chiming of bells in a nearby tower. Others seemed to be attracted to this sound too, but it unexpectedly incited more rapid movement than I had seen in the race below. Apparently, these sounds were an indication that the Palace ceremony for the changing of the guards was underway, and everyone wanted a place close enough to get a photograph of the performers. Everyone was overwhelmed in the moment: there was so much to do within fifty paces! We could continue to watch the cars zip round the streets below, or scramble for a space closer to the palace walls. As for many others nearby, it was a confusing choice, and since the skies were overcast at the moment, my large Christian Dior sunglasses were making it difficult to see clearly.
Since I had finished watching the races and observing the boats in the main port, I decided to walk across the square to see if there was anything to see. While I am rather tall, my ability to view the ceremony was impeded by a hundred pairs of arms extended wildly over the heads of the crowd, each attempting to hold a camera at a better vantage. In other words, apart from those tourists who had arrived early enough to stand directly along the path of the procession, no one could see the ceremony clearly except through photographs, which they frequently viewed (if they were not taking a video recording, of course) in order to check the quality of their cultural experience.
A question that struck me in this moment was that of what we were watching in the first place. While the guards lifted their rifles into the air together, then slapped their thighs in unison before turning ninety degrees, I wondered who choreographed these dances in the first place, and the extent to which it was related to local history or military culture. Was there a reason, for example, that the Monegasque guards marched and clapped in a different pattern than those at Buckingham Palace in London, or at the Royal Palace of Stockholm? Does the choreography change over time, and did it exist before tourists were around to watch it? My expectation is that each ceremony devises arbitrary choreography to maintain the appearance of specific cultural and historical significance, even though there is no greater depth than that captured in the tourists’ lenses held overhead.
Walking away from the flashes illuminating the palace, I spent some time trying to be alone in nearby gardens overlooking the Port of Fontvieille before having lunch at a nearby restaurant with outdoor seating. Afterwards, on my way to visit the Musée océanographique de Monaco (formerly directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau), I was relieved to hear the cessation of the races, and welcomed the sudden silence that had been unavailable in the morning and early afternoon. But then, sailing over the walls and up the sloping Monegasque coast, I heard with uncertainty the notes of the Star-Spangled Banner from a brass ensemble in the direction of the Grand Prix. Had an American won the day’s events? Do Americans even participate in the Grand Prix? Then, however, the band switched to a rendition of the Prelude from Bizet’s opera Carmen, and I realized that the songs – like nearly everything else I had seen lining the Port of Monaco – had no significance apart from being recognizable for its audience.
Upon my arrival at the museum, I observed a banner hanging from the façade that ensured my experience would be as edifying within as elsewhere in the principality. Beneath an image of Prince Albert, apparently on an Arctic rather than oceanographic expedition, was a quotation presented as though it was written by an eminent poet of the eighteenth century: “The union of Art and Science leads to emotion and reason. It prompts one to reflect on the state of the World and the future of Mankind.” Now, while I will admit that the English translation is slightly worse than what I assume is the original French, I’m not sure that I’ve seen such a grandiose statement that says nothing in quite some time.
But then maybe I have. As it turned out, Prince Albert’s banner statement simply underscored the professed relevance of the museum’s centenary exhibition of the British artist Damien Hirst’s work, Cornucopia. Upon entering the museum, my first encounter was with a large shark, mouth agape, in a glass tank filled with bright blue formaldehyde: Hirst’s revision of “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1992) with a Great White instead of a Tiger shark. (At least I believe this is not the same work I saw displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; but since the original shark from that piece had decayed and been replaced, and since Hirst is a conceptual artist whose work is created by a team of assistants, I’m not sure it matters.) While some of Hirst’s works, such as this shark and a Hammerhead shark upstairs, were relevant for placement in an oceanographic museum and aquarium, I couldn’t understand the reason for placing his bifurcated sheep “Away from the Flock, Divided” (1995) near the gift shop, or his enlarged model of human anatomy looming over the ticket counters. Butterflies and a floating beach ball were also included in the exhibition. But, since Hirst is famous, and somehow the wealthiest living artist in history, it is no surprise that Monaco accepted or requested an offer to display the collection.
While the museum’s permanent collection contained a relatively small array of jarred specimens and skeletons, much less impressive than what can be found in the basement of Harvard’s wonderful Museum of Comparative Zoology, for example, there was also an enjoyable aquarium in the lower levels. Here I experienced my most fascinating encounter in Monaco. In an obscure and small tank that first appeared empty and diminutive in comparison to the coral reef displays nearby, I observed in close range an unborn dogfish shark wriggling excitedly, attached to his yolk within a leathery transparent egg case. (The very insufficient video recording that I obtained can be seen here.) In person it was incredible to see this shark swimming around an abandoned replacement for a mother’s womb, looking as though he had wandered into the shell merely by accident and was searching for the way out. Somehow he appeared more expressive and lively than his older and freed counterparts, resting blankly on the sand beneath him. As an observer I considered this miniature scene much more insightful and interesting than the glass-encased shark upstairs.
I also saw a display of glittering, reflective fish that were round and flat as silver dollars, evolved for speed and to distract predators when they moved together in the open seas. Surely this fish embodies the Monaco zeitgeist, I thought, especially when its common name is considered: the Money Fish.