The Mentonese Greenhouse

Courtesy of Côte d'Azur Séjours

“How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.” – Benjamin Disraeli

I feel that I can not possibly be the only one who thinks that the fact of the cemetery being the highest place of town is a little bit odd. It gives the impression that, in Menton, to reach the top, one must die first. How unsurprising that our little city is – in fact – the oldest city of France. No, not historically, but in terms of median age. Menton, La Perle de la France – trapped in the collier of an Italian grandmother. No wonder that the announcement and prayer for the deceased is by far the longest part of Mentonese liturgy, every sunday at Saint Michel. Our campus, before becoming what it is today, was what is generally (and gallantly) referred to as a hospice. That is, a place where people go to die. Indeed, in Menton’s history, death has been a prime industry and source of income: throughout the 19th and 20th century, doctors all over Europe (and England) have suggested to patients with pulmonary diseases to install themselves in Menton due its warm climate and humid air; because indeed, the second superlative of Menton is that it’s officially the warmest city in France. Hence all the foreigners in the graveyard, and hence street names like Avenue Katherine Mansfield. Let’s sum up: a city constructed around a graveyard, historically a colony of the terminally ill, presently a giant maison de retraités – what a place to install a campus.

Yet, after having spent two years here, I think I figured it out: the great why of Sciences Po Menton. A clue lies in the motto that the local tourist agency came up with a few years ago: ma ville est un jardin. Or as I would say it, Menton is a greenhouse.

When I arrived in Menton, fresh out of Palestine with a two-night stopover in Vienna, I thought I had seen it all

Menton is the warmest city in all of France because it is what boring people (aka meteorologists) refer to as a microclimate. Due to its exposure to the Mediterranean, and it being in essence surrounded by mountains, warm air and humidity that travels over the mediterranean from North Africa gets trapped in the bay which allows for Menton to have a climate that is fundamentally different from all other cities in France. Meteorologically speaking, Menton is more a part of Algeria than it is of France. This microclimate allows for plants to grow here in Menton, that grow nowhere else in France. Hence the exotic gardens, the lemons – and hence, us. What follows is admittedly a kitschy analysis; but remember this comes from a man who grew up in the land of Sissi and Heidi, so bear with me.

When I arrived in Menton, fresh out of Palestine with a two-night stopover in Vienna, I thought I had seen it all – as most people who have at some point in their lives called Palestine their home. I thought the Julian that looked at me in the mirror was the Julian I was going to have to deal with until the end. I thought, naively, that I was done growing. After two years of microclimate and Mentonese microcosmos, I realize how fundamentally in error I was.

Menton made me grow in ways I did not know was possible, and it made me grow fast. My regard on the world, on society, on me and what surrounds me has developed, changed, opened up. And no, this is not solely due to inspirations from A as in Azab to Z as in Zenon of Cythion – but due to this specific way of life we have here in Mentonistan. It is due just as much to endless all-nighters bathed in coffee and cigarette smoke, discussing with your comrades on how to coherently finish the paper due the day after, as to endless, liquid nights on Sablettes and Bastion singing, shouting, dancing the dark away. It is due to the people I’ve met and learnt to love, it is due to the intensity of this community, the force of the tribe. A large part of this force is due to geographical reasons, for indeed, Menton does not allow for solitude: like it or not, your tribe is always there. Whether it is class, the twice-weekly pilgrimage to Carrefour, or getting lost in the maze that is the old city – it is impossible to be alone. This is why we grew so close to each other: because we are so close to each other, in the spatial sense, all the time. Menton allows for friendships and conversations that in any other circumstance would have been impossible. Go on and count the countries, regions and cities our student body comes from. Go on and try to spend one day on campus understanding all the languages that are spoken on it. Go on and try to find two students on campus, who agree on say the interpretation of Novalis’ Europa or the perfect amount of Barilla Pesto Genovese for 250 grams of spaghetti. Sciences Po Menton is beautiful chaotic diversity. Sciences Po Menton students’ are colourful children of cultures and memories that, in more profane circumstances, would have never taken the time to understand each other. Yet, in Menton, it all makes sense. Our university does something that gives perspective to the massive mess we are, for it gives us a shared centre of attention: the infinite realm of the social sciences and the place – where, oddly enough, Menton’s warmth comes from – the MENA region. Yes, my books and readings, lectures and researches taught me a lot, but the most important lessons I learnt came from the beautiful people of Mentonistan.

Menton is a greenhouse, and we are the exotic plants from all over the world the gardener collected.

We all have our roots somewhere else, and none of us are done growing. Menton collected, and planted all these roots in its soil, one next to the other, watered them with thought and inspiration, and let them grow. Menton confined us, nourished our minds, and gave us warmth. Menton is a greenhouse, and we are the exotic plants from all over the world the gardener collected. Imagine a greenhouse where the plants talk to each other. And we are magnificent plants indeed.

Sadly, after two years, we are ripped out of the soil that became ours, and sent off to god knows where, and replaced with plants of different origin, with equal potential as the ones before them. This is what frightens me the most: that in one year my Menton will have left. In one year, my greenhouse will be – to my eyes – nothing but an empty glasshouse.

Menton will have such an important place in our memory not only because it made us grow, but also because we can not return there. It is an experience that doesn’t allow for itself to be re-created, re-lived. Certainly, the friends we made here will stay for life. But our time in the greenhouse is limited. In the future, we will have to – as it was the case before – travel far at times to find the precious plants we’re looking for; we won’t just run into them in on the terrace of Bistrot.

The future is bright and full of adventure, it always is, but our present in Menton is preciously finite. Therefore, take this as an appeal – 2As and 1As alike: appreciate the garden you find yourselves in and, profit from its wonders. Do not forget how lucky You are, and never forget to embrace the glorious mess this little city is. Go to all the parties there will be, talk to all the people You haven’t yet talked to, invite the beautiful person You never dared to approach for a stroll in the Jardin Val Rahmeh. Continue to eat too much Pizza, to stay up late and to be late to class. Sing the Mentonese, hit the darabakeh, sing, dance and shout. Be truthful to your love for what surrounds You. And once You leave, keep alive Your memory of the greenhouse. Remember the garden and its plants. And wherever You are, from time to time, take a moment, calibrate your position to turn accordingly, stare at the horizon and think about the pearl that was Menton.

-Julian Vierlinger, rising 3A

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