the travels & travails of an escaped lab rat


Monaco has been my home in Europe since I started working abroad in 2006.

Ideally situated on the Mediterranean and nestled at the foot of the Alps where France meets Italy, Monaco has proven an excellent jumping-off point for numerous adventurous day-trips and forays into the surrounding area (with Nice, Marseilles, San Remo, Genova, Milano, and several smaller towns and villages all within explorable driving distance).

Monaco enjoys nearly 300 days of sunshine and experiences extremely mild and pleasant weather, with average daily lows and highs hovering between 13 and 20 °C for the year.

Most people know Monaco’s a small place, but I don’t think that they understand just how small it really is. At less than 2 square kilometres (1.95 if I’m being exact), the city-state of Monaco could easily fit into the contiguous area occupied by Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London (2.53 square kilometres) and would practically rattle around inside of Central Park in New York (3.41 square kilometres). It is the second smallest country in the world — Vatican City being the smallest (at 0.44 square kilometres).

Monaco has a population of roughly 33,000, nearly 80% of which are ex-pat tax-exiles/refugees. The principality’s policy of not levying income tax on individuals makes residency in Monaco a sought-after status (and pushes rents and real estate prices into the stratosphere, as there are only so many physical places to live in such a small geographical area).

Intrigue and gossip are the national pastime and sport. Monaco has no significant natural resources, save for rich veins of extraordinarily wealthy individuals that can be found concentrated in luxury condominium block formations by the seaside.

If it sounds as if I’m getting down on Monaco, I’m not. I really like it here. It’s just that I feel the need to impress upon you all that Monaco just isn’t a place like any other.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Say, after an evening of fine dining in Beverly Hills, I was walking up to the valet to retrieve my car. I could say, “It’s the Bentley,” and they’d smile and run off to fetch it for me. In Monaco, if I said, “It’s the Bentley,” they’d look at me blankly unless I added, “…the black one…” and it would help even moreso if I also offered, “…the one with the fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror and small nick on the left-rear panel.”

Normal in Monaco is simply not “normal” anywhere else.

And despite all its glitz and glamour, Monaco is still at heart a small town. You can’t help but eventually bump into everyone who lives here, given enough time. The Monegasque (native citizens of Monaco) are a very friendly people; Monacoians (non-permanent, non-citizen residents of Monaco) are a bit more transient (and mercenary) in their demeanor.

Living in Monaco is like having a bit of the surreal off-handedly injected into every facet of day-to-day life — interesting and just a little unsettling all at the same time.

Still, it beats the crap out of having to shovel snow just to get to your car every morning.

Bond…James Bond.

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London is another city that holds a special place in my heart.

While perhaps not the oldest settlement in Europe, it is certainly the largest and most populous metropolis in the European Union today by most metrics (14 million inhabitants within its 1,700 square kilometre area).

It’s home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the oldest and most extensive underground railway network in the world, the world’s busiest international airport (by number of passengers), some of the best Afternoon Tea on the planet, and for nearly 400 years, it was the heart of an Empire where the sun never sets.

London’s got it all: history, architecture, culture, style, and drive (drive, being something that can, at times, be somewhat lacking on the rest of the continent proper). Without the strict building restrictions that can be found in some other European cities (like Paris), London may not have as uniform a feel to its facade and skyline — you’ll find bright and modern right next to stately and historic all over the city — but juxtaposition of styles seems to inject a kind of energy (or vibrancy) rather than detract in London’s case.

Of all the cities I travel to regularly, I’ve been coming to London the longest (over 15 years — yikes). And while I’ve settled into several favourite haunts, I always discover something new on each visit.

I like walking in London (and that’s not just because I absolutely detest driving in London). The streets are generally clean and the people are cordial, if not friendly. There’s a surprising amount of green space for such a busy and crowded urban area. The Tube system is brilliant (oh sure, there are breakdowns and omnipresent construction, but it works far more than it doesn’t — and several billion extra bonus points for not smelling like a urinal).

It’s hard to get bored here; plenty to see and do regardless of taste or proclivity. I could see myself settling here for a while and managing to keep myself amused in one fashion or another the entire time.

It can get expensive though. The British Pound is still rather strong against other currencies, and on top of that, the general cost of living in the UK is higher than that it is in North America. Goods and Services Tax (V.A.T.) is also slightly higher. Overall, it’s not hugely more, but over time it all adds up. Stay for a few days or a week and you won’t really notice (unless you’re already coming over on a budget), but linger for any longer, or visit repeatedly, and you’ll quickly realize your dollar doesn’t stretch as far in London as it would in Toronto or even New York.

London traffic is killer though. I mean that quite literally. This whole right-hand-drive combined with oblivious/forgetful-foreign-pedestrians thing is a recipe for daily injury or death. We North Americans are conditioned from birth to look primarily left before stepping off the curb to cross (yes, yes, I know we’re supposed to look both ways), but in the UK, looking only left before crossing will get you killed. I have pulled back people from the street on more than one occasion as I watched them step out into oncoming traffic without realizing they were looking for danger from the wrong direction.

Still, pedestrian incompatibilities aside, London is the world-class city that all cities secretly want to be when they grow up.

“Big Ben” is the name of the bell — not the clock.

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