The Royal House of Monaco (Monaco)

Monaco portby John Glatt

One summer when I was 12 years old, my mother, her mother, and I grabbed big glasses of iced Coke with lemon wedges and headed on into the living room to watch what was being billed as the Wedding of the Century–Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Little did I know that decades earlier, my mom and grandma had watched another Wedding of the Century together, when my mother was 12. The wedding of American film star Grace Kelly to Monaco’s Prince Rainier. (Ironically, Princess Grace once considered Prince Charles as a top candidate to marry her eldest daughter. Caroline dodged a bullet there.)

Monaco is one of those strange little countries:

  • It is an enclave. Totally surrounded by France on three sides and the sea on the other.
  • It lost over 90 percent of its land a few centuries ago.
  • The indigenous people who live there are called Monagasques.
    • There are about 5,000 of them and the rest of the citizens are French, Italian, Belgian, British and Americans, who can’t vote.
  • The ruling royal family, the Grimaldis, have been in power for 700 years.
  • It is a police state–don’t criticize the ruling family because you never know who is listening.
  • Thanks to a friend of Princess Grace, one of the hottest restaurant/bars is a Tex-Mex place called Le Texan.

Some of the medals on Rainier’s uniform were earned by him during his time with the Free French in WWII. Something else I liked about him.

Although this easy-to-read non-fiction book is the story of the current Grimaldi family, you do get interesting glimpses of Monaco and its history along the way. How the family got its hands on power originally? The book and Wiki differ substantially. According to the book, during a border war, Grimaldi ancestor Francis”the Spiteful” of Genoa disguised himself as a monk and begged admittance to Monaco Castle. When the guards let him in, his army slaughtered everyone. That was in 1297, and the Grimaldis have been absolute rulers in Monaco ever since. Should they die without issue, or without adopting an heir, the principality will revert to France.

The Wonderful World of the Grimaldis

Curiously, my DK World Atlas says that Rainier surrendered absolute power in 1962 and they got a democratic constitution, but that isn’t mentioned in the book. Only that Rainier behaves like a dictator and believes in the Divine Right of Kings. It is true that members of the royal family still have to get his permission, in writing, to marry, which has led to some sticky moments over the years as both of the wild daughters have taken up with extremely unsuitable and embarrassing boyfriends. Many of the family friends quoted in the book say that if Princess Grace had lived, Caroline and Stephanie would have behaved better. But I doubt it. They were brought up spoiled and entitled, and they behaved just as badly when she was alive.  (Unfortunately the book ends in 1998 when it was published, so we don’t know if “Dirty Bertie”–Prince Albert–ever marries or if Stephanie has any more kids out of wedlock or if Caroline marries for the third time or if Rainier is still alive.) Hello, Google.

map of MonacoOne way in which you can tell Rainier is a royal is that he loves things most people don’t…not the opera in his case but…clowns. According to the book, Rainier has always loved the circus. It was a dream of his for awhile to retire and then get into a decorated VW bus and follow a circus around Europe. I found this rather endearing. Apparently there was a famous Italian clown called Grimaldi and Rainier was in the habit of signing his correspondence with a clown face. (You have to wonder if this influenced Stephanie’s year-long marriage to a trapeze artist.) Bertie loves sports, especially bobsled racing, and Caroline is a big patron of the arts, especially ballet. Stephanie was once paid $1,200 per hour to model, but was made to give that up by her father.

It is fun to fantasize about what I would do if I had the Grimaldi money and were a royal, and I would like to think that I would not be such a boob. But I probably would. I don’t think they can help it, growing up with everyone treating you with such servility. The girls have had all sorts of public temper tantrums, flipping off reporters. Their father gets upset and punches paparazzi and slaps comedians who make fun of his son’s hair loss. But Bertie, it was mentioned, enjoyed going to college in America where his dorm mates referred to him as “Big Al” and didn’t show him the deference he was used to in Europe, especially Monaco. (Rainier on the other hand was bullied at his English boarding school and called “Fat Little Monaco.”) It was also mentioned several times that the British Royal Family declined to attend either Princess Grace’s wedding or her funeral, as it doesn’t consider the Grimaldis as social equals. Only Diana came to the funeral, because Grace was kind to her at her first public appearance with Charles. You have to wonder if she felt any foreboding. (Stephanie also once had a fling with Dodi al-Fayad…small exclusive circles.)

I liked Prince Rainier at times–he  enjoyed watching cowboy movies and “football”; he once fell asleep during a poetry reading; he became very upset after his wife’s death at how much he had taken her for granted, he got furious with his children but never cut them off completely, and he once dreamed of inviting the American hotel chain of Holiday Inns to come to Monaco and enable people to stay there for $15 a night. I didn’t like him so much when he was punching and slapping the little people, having a hair-trigger temper with Grace (he yelled at her for putting the wrong flowers in a guests room, screaming that white carnations were the flowers of the dead) or referring to Stephanie’s policeman lover as “that servant”.

“Monaco is Part Police State, Part Disneyland”

The Grimaldis go to great lengths to be sure the super-rich feel comfortable in their country.

“Each morning a team of gardeners gather in the garden in the casino square to pluck out any wilting petals that might spoil the immaculate flowerbeds; at night a tape-recording of a bird of prey plays through discreetly-hidden speakers to stop sparrows from landing and soiling the park with bird droppings.

“Locals claim that unofficially some police discreetly drop any unexplained bodies over the border in France and leave their police to deal with the problem.

“Many a weary, bedraggled backpacker has been stopped at the station and put on the next train out, deemed an unwanted eyesore.

“Using the latest fiber-optic technology, the state observers can instantly rotate any of the cameras placed over all banks, chemists’ shops and jewelers through nearly 360 degrees. Back at HQ the watchers can even zoom in to see what newspapers are being read.”


A Word About Words and Parts of Speech

casinoI kept wondering why people who are indigenous to Monaco weren’t called Monicans, but Monegasques. Wiki tells me it is the name of a language. Since Monaco used to be the very Western part of Genoa in Italy, it is no surprise that Monegasque shares many features with the Genoese dialect of Ligurian. The Nicard dialect of Occitan is also spoken in Monaco. Charmingly, the Monegasque language is being taught in schools and in the old part of Monaco, the street signs are in Monegasque and in French.

Rating: Five stars to this gossip-filled yet balanced look at one of Europe’s most scandalous royal families and its interesting tiny country.

PS–Second Verse, Same as the First

Since the ending of the book, Prince Rainier has passed away (in 2005, just one month before news broke of Bertie’s son by a black flight attendant from Togo–the second of his children born on the wrong side of the blanket.) Bertie did marry, a South African woman with whom he has now had twins. Stephanie had another kid with another bodyguard. (She coyly refused to name the father, but the kid has his last name.) Caroline married the guy she was having an affair with (while he was still married)–that’s Prince Ernest of Hanover, who would have been a King of England if Victoria hadn’t come to the throne instead. This charmer once assaulted a disco owner in Kenya and has also broken a cameraman’s nose with his umbrella. Look, I get that having paparazzi in your face all the time can’t be pleasant–give up your money and your perks and your fame and your royal title if you don’t want all that then. No? Then deal with it.

Ironically, Princess Grace had tried to set up Caroline and Ernst back when she was alive–he was her number 2 choice to marry her daughter. At that time, Caroline found him stuffy and boring. Looks like Mother Knows Best after all.

Dreams of Bread and Fire (Armenia)

book clubFiction

by Nancy Kricorian

for my friend Zan Agzigian

While kayaking Toda Lake in Tokyo, I used to tell my friend Julia stories about my ex-boyfriend. The one I’d come to Japan from Hungary to forget. And she used to tell me that every time I spoke about him, she “just wanted to punch him in the nose.” (It did help me get over him.) I felt exactly the same about Ani’s ex in this novel. Within two sentences, you can tell he is a big fat jerk.

Ani is half-Jewish, and half-Amenian. I did a lot of Googling of the Armenian genocides. I last read about Armenia while reading the history of the Papacy, and in that book the country was doing well. A Christian nation in the Middle East with deep roots and a long tradition of church prominence in the region.

But then the Ottomans came along. That wasn’t particularly good for anyone except for selected Ottomans. Now, I’ve always read about how tolerant the Ottoman Empire was toward citizens who were different. This novel made clear to me just how much discrimination Christians and Jews did suffer under the Ottomans, how much contempt, how much disgust. All of that hurts, whether or not you are “allowed” to practice your minority religion, and whether or not your church-building is “tolerated.” Christian churches in Armenia under the Ottomans could not be taller than mosques…

ancient map of ArmeniaBut all of this takes place in the background of the novel, which is mainly a love story. A story of Ani healing from a relationship that, whether she realizes it or not, was abusive. A story of Ani performing that most important work of a young adult–answering the question of Who Am I?

The Most Important Work…in Paris

Ani goes to Paris. Ani is an au pair. Ani goes to a university on scholarship. Ani is poor. Ani makes judgments about the unhappy marriage of the people she works for and the snottiness (but also loveliness and sadness) of their daughter Sydney. Ani gets phone calls from her ex. He wants her badly–but only when he can’t have her. (I actually cheered one time when she Hung Up On Him.) Since I once had an ex that I broke up with and got back together with approximately 18 times, I know it isn’t easy.

modern mapWho Ani Is is part societal construct (she grew up in America), part family history–is she Jewish? Is she Armenian? If so, how much? What must she carry forward? What must she leave behind, to be healthy? And part, of course, is all her.

And then into her life comes Van, a person she knew when they were kids, a person who rescued her from bullies, a person who is now a good-looking man. Van happens to be stationed in Paris, working for an NGO which assist Armenians who are victims of the diaspora. It is in this moment, when we meet and recognize him and are glad, and he explains to the politically-oblivious Ani what he is doing and why, that I felt the first stirring of impatience with the book.

I am tired, you see, of books in which a Female is Led to a Greater Truth by a Boy or Man Who Has a Mission. It just feels so man-splainy.

To be fair, however, it’s a thing. It happened to me as a young woman. I was a chameleon, so desperate to be loved that I was willing to take on the interests and mission of whatever man found me worthy. I lost myself in him and thought that was lucky. The benefit of middle age is that now, I think for myself, I know what I’m passionate about and what I’m not, and I’ve stopped seeking approval–quite so much. So it does ring true for Ani’s age and background. As does her free and easy sexual seeking.

Of Hedgehogs and Crosses

churchIn some ways, this delectable novel reminded me of my blog book on France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. They’re both set in Paris, they both have characters you root for, and they both teach you a lot about the subcultures that thrive there. There are scenes that will delight your five senses…the sights, smells, sounds, textures, and feelings of the Eternal City of Light. The novel, though easy reading, doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of wealth and class. Her erstwhile ex, named Asa Willard, has some pretty awful parents. They’re rich. Here is a scene from them meeting her for the first time. The dad has been drinking.

“Asa tells me you’re from Watertown [Massachusetts], Ani,” Peggy Willard said. “You’re Armenian?”

“My mother’s Armenian.”

Ben returned to the dining room. “You know what George Orwell says about Armenians, son?” he asked, winking at Asa.

Armenian cognac with Greek letteringAni’s breath halted in her throat for a few seconds, while she waited for Ben to drop the blade.

“Don’t trust them. They’re worse than Jews or Greeks,” Ben said.

Asa colored deeply. [Not a total asshole.] “Dad, what kind of thing is that to say?”

“Ben, that’s not very  nice.” Peggy’s voice was edged with false cheer.

“Can’t anyone around here take a joke?” Ben asked darkly.

In the library’s stacks, Ani had scoured Orwell for the line and found it: Trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.

You Never Forget Your First Armenian

church by waterThe first time I even heard of Armenia was when I read the book Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. It is a love story between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in Azerbaijan, and the bad guy  is Armenian. The second time I heard of Armenia is when I was discussing World War II with my husband, and he quoted Hitler’s speech in which The Most Evil had said he could get away with exterminating the Jews, because look, ‘Nobody remembers the Armenians,” referring to the Turkish genocide, which the Turkish government (not The Turks) denies to this day. Much as the Japanese government denied for decades their shameful atrocities against the Korean “Comfort Women”, also in WWII. The third time I heard of Armenia was when my poet friend Zan Agzigian told me the ethnicity of her name. Once you hear an Armenian name, you never forget it. It is very easy to identify an Armenian name. Van’s family name, for example, is Ardivanian. Ani’s mother’s name is Kersamian, although her late father’s was Silver (likely short for Silberschmidt or something Eastern European that got chopped off at Ellis Island, in the way that Americans and Australians are wont to do.) The man in Ani’s English-Armenian exercise book is called Mattheos Garagosian.

Armenian traditional costume“Miriam was Ani’s grandmother’s name. And Baba was called Mattheos.

Ani saw them suddenly, a young man in a black cloth coat standing beside his diminutive dark-haired wife. They were at Ellis Island being questioned by an immigration official. The man tapped his pencil impatiently on the desk. Mattheos repeated his last name slowly and the man wrote the letters down. He showed it to Mattheos.

Is that it? The man asked.

Yes, that’s it, Mattheos said.

Mariam, following the proceedings skittishly, didn’t understand English, so Mattheos translated for her. She gave the name of her town and the approximate year of her birth.

The vision faded.

Mountains of ArmeniaHad Baba known English when he arrived? How had he learned it? Why had he come to America? When they emigrated, whom had they left behind? Her grandparents drew a curtain of silence over their early lives. And Ani, growing up amid Old World shadows, had never thought to ask.

Rating: Brilliant. Five helpings of manti, and also fresh madzoon!

PS 1–My beloved DK Atlas of the World, circa 1990, says that Azer-Baijan and Armenia are at war. (Just like the protagonist in Ali and Nino and his Armenian friend.) There is a disputed enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh that was Azeri and the Armenians wanted it or wanted it back. You will want to know what an enclave is because the upcoming blog on San Marino features one.

PS2-Armenia is famous for its cognac-producing regions. Anybody know if cognac is gluten free?