I was inches away from death yesterday and didn’t realise it until moments afterwards.
My wife and I have moved from England to the South of France, to Menton on the Riviera. It is the last French town on the coast, a frontier town, wedged between Monaco to the west and Italy to the east. For centuries it had seesawed between one or other of the Italian dukedoms, France, the Principality of Monaco and, between 1848 and 1860 became a tiny, independent city-state like medieval Florence.
I love the idea of borders, margins and frontiers so it is little wonder that I have been so attracted to the town, holidaying here several times each year. Now, at last, my dream has come true and my wife and I live here. Yet my dream nearly proved the end of me.
Menton is a sedate and calm town, clean and well-ordered, with friendly and polite people. It is a French town yet many of its inhabitants illustrate the town’s roller-coaster history, bearing French first names and Italian surnames. Many people slip from French and Italian with ease and the town, although French, has many Italian influences in its architecture, its cultural interests and its food. The border between the two nations is now permeable, the austere border and customs posts decaying and forgotten. At weekends in particular, the town fills up with Italian families who own second homes here. Menton can feel both international and uniquely Mentonaisse at one and the same time.
This makes it easy for an English ex-pat to begin to assimilate, particularly given the long association between Menton and Britain. In the nineteenth century wealthy Britons flocked to the town to escape the cold of winter and it was a favoured place for those suffering with weak chests and consumption. Sadly, it did not prove a cure and many died here.
In the month since moving to the town my wife and I have twice attempted to travel to Ventimiglia, the nearest town on the Italian side of the border. We were thwarted by strikes on the railways, one French, one Italian. Yesterday, we were successful and took the fifteen minute train journey across the border.
Ventimiglia is a mere seven kilometres from France yet it might as well be seventy or seven hundred. Where Menton is open to the influence of Italy, Ventimiglia seems resolutely closed to any influence from France. Italy is, as I once remarked, a different country. By this I mean that the differences are startling in two towns so close together, the cultures so very different. In Menton the two different cultures inter-mingle, in Ventimiglia they collide or are ignored.
The noise level is louder in the Italian town, people speaking at higher decibels in conversation, yelling loud and lengthy calls across the street to friends, all accompanied with more vivid and flamboyant body language. The French have their Gallic shrug, the Italians have a vast and operatic repertoire of sign and gesture.
The coffee tastes different, the wine tastes different and the cuisine, which looks similar, proves different in the mouth. The two languages, estranged siblings from the parent Latin root, are articulated in very different ways so that a word which looks almost the same on paper can sound utterly unlike when spoken. The public buildings in Ventimiglia are more unkempt than those in Menton, the people more stylishly dressed.
My Lost King novels are set in the transitional time of the Norman Conquest when the English and the Norman cultures collided catastrophically. Crossing from France to Italy today must be similar to the experiences of our ancestors in 1066. Different outlook, different language, different expectations, different laws.
Different ways of crossing the road.
Yesterday, in Ventimiglia, I waited at a crossing in the centre of the town. It was after lunch and the roads had quietened. The symbol to wait changed to the symbol to cross and, along with the rest of the pedestrians I stepped out onto the crossing. I would do this in England with absolute safety and the same in France. Not, it seemed, in Italy.
A motor-bike appeared from nowhere, raced past me inches away and was gone. If my stride had been longer or his speed a little faster he would have hit me. I would have been killed or, at best, seriously injured.
It happened so fast that I was barely aware of it. It was only when my wife cried out and the bike flashed across my vision that I fully realised what had happened.
A middle-aged woman walked across the road towards me. Her look was concerned, sympathetic. Yet, at the same time, her look of pity was tinged with an expression which hinted that the incident was perhaps my own fault, that I should be aware that tearaways hurtle through pedestrians on a crossing in such a reckless, though thankfully, skilful, fashion.
Who was at fault? The speeding cyclist? The dawdling English pedestrian? Or was it rather that neither of us was at fault, both merely following our own cultural conditioning, he driving with skill and bravado, me trusting to the green man symbol to protect me as I crossed.
When cultures collide, indeed. When motor-bikes and I almost did as well.