29 July 2013, 12:56
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Roads of the Diaspora: Côte D'Azur

According to a famous song, every coastline and every seashore is unique. There are the shores we'd like to forget, such as the Turkish Shore. There are foreign shores, such as the Ivory Coast in West Africa or Bondi Beach in Australia. Finally, there is the Côte D'Azur: the most gorgeous and the most familiar of all European shores.

A Very “Armenian” City
Real places and real things rarely live up to our imaginations. Marseille, however, does just that – it is a dazzling city by the sea, festive, cheerful, ethnically and culturally diverse and more than a little bit adventurous, depending on what the visitor has in mind. “Only 50% of people who live here are native citizens – all the rest are new immigrants,” lamented an Armenian from Marseille who, like most of the diaspora there, considers himself a Marseille native. The most recent immigrants come from former French colonies – the Congo, Senegal, Morocco and Algeria as well as other developing countries.
One can find newly arrived residents at the local port – one of the most beautiful in the world. On the quayside, they sell souvenirs, steamboat tickets and fresh seafood on the colorful street lined with vendors and peddlers. White motor boats and yachts, an imposing fort and a “crew” of two swimmers crossing the bay complete the picture. Something isn't right though… why bother to swim across? It takes only five minutes to go around the bay the ”the long way”. But that’s Marseille for you, always offering what one least expects!
The beautiful Notre Dame de la Gard Cathedral, visible throughout the city, sits atop one of the highest hills that encircle Marseille. There are few Armenian churches among the large number of houses of worship located in Marseille. Overall, it is a very “Armenian” city. After all, ships first brought our countrymen here in 1915, as they were fleeing the Genocide. There are many Armenian establishments in the city, among them a monument to Misak Manushian – a hero of the French Resistance. One can also see several street names that refer to Armenia: Rue Armenie, Boulevard Ararat, Boulevard Charles Zeytountsian, Avenue du 24 Avril 1915. Armenians are greatly respected here and thought of as natives. The city government and citizens alike hold Armenians in high esteem. 
It was in Marseille that the Armenian director, Henri Verneuil, shot his great film Mayrig. By the way, in Marseille and throughout France, for that matter, it is widely known that Verneuil is Armenian. It is also common knowledge here that the late, great author Henri Troyat was an Armenian, although for some reason in Russia he is considered to be a Russian writer. Cafe Mayrig is located on the street where the motion picture of the same name was filmed and is patronized by Armenian and non-Armenians alike. 
Various Armenian organizations ensure that events such as concerts, festivals, conferences and meetings take place in the city throughout the year. For example, during our stay the first All-Armenian Youth Convention, organized by JAF (Jeunesse Armenienne de France, “Young Armenians of France”), met in Marseille and young Armenians from 20 countries flew in for the convention. 
Marseille is the largest port and second largest city in all of France. However, despite its size, the city does not seem big, but compact and cozy. Furthermore, one can always expect to feel warm, regardless of the season, thanks to its fortunate location on the coast, sheltered from the Continental weather patterns. In addition to the sights mentioned above, Marseille has wonderful museums worth visiting, devoted to city's history, French fashion, fine arts and so on. However, unlike Paris or Lyons, one does not feel obligated to go to the museums here. It must be the natural offerings – the sea, the sun and the fresh salty air that are to blame. Nevertheless, I decided to visit the museum devoted to the ancient Roman docks. After this experience, I decided that it might be better to see Roman docks in Rome itself. In Marseille it seems to make more sense to take long walks and have leisurely visits with good friends at the many local cafes.

The Chateau d'If
Marseille is the setting of one of the most famous stories in all of Western literature. Here, on a small island close to the port, stands the mighty Chateau d'If, where one of Alexandre Dumas' most renowned characters, Edmond Dante` s, the Count of Monte Cristo, languished in captivity.
This heart-wrenching story has enchanted millions of readers all over the world. They dream of visiting the chateau, to experience firsthand what this unfortunate sailor underwent. Everything inside the chateau is authentic – cells that once imprisoned royalty, criminals as well as the intriguing Abbe´ Faria (a genuine historical figure) whose cell was adjacent to the fictional one of Edmond Dante` s. Once inside, one forgets that Dumas' masterpiece is a work of fiction, the product of the imagination of a great French romantic novelist.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that while visiting this fabled city, I became part of another story, itself suitable for a work of fiction. I was part of the television crew working on the Roads of Diaspora, a documentary dealing with Provence and the Côte D'Azur. Having taped everything that we needed within Marseille, we headed to the Chaˆteau d'If. We hardly dared to hope for a chance at filming the Chateau’s interior because we were warned even before setting sail to the island that cameras are not allowed.
When the security guard noticed tourists with a video camera approaching the Chateau, he politely but firmly stated that videotaping was not allowed. Nevertheless, we asked him to tell the museum director about our visit because we had come a long way from Armenia specifically to videotape this marvelous chateau. But our “Armenian wiles” had no effect on the vigilant guard. He repeated that videotaping the interior of the chateau is forbidden, but decided to call the director anyway.
“Where did you say you were from?” The guard asked. We replied, “From Armenia.” “From Armenia,” he repeated into the phone. And then his facial expression underwent three dramatic changes – surprise, then perplexity, succeeded by deep anxiety. He turned to us and said: “Please, go ahead. The director said you can videotape.” Then he mumbled to himself: “From Armenia…”
Unable to believe our ears, we began shooting everything in sight, fearing that the misunderstanding would be cleared up at any moment and the video camera and tape confiscated. Fortunately, nothing of the kind happened; all went well and we thoroughly enjoyed our brief immersion in the marvelous world of Dumas.
An administrator waited for us at the Chateau's exit. We expressed our gratitude, saying that we did not expect such kind treatment. “It is very simple,” the Frenchman said, “you can videotape anything you want.” We asked why. He responded, “Because you are Armenians. Like Peleshian. Peleshian is a genius. And you are from the same country. And that means that everything you do deserves respect.”
He told us that he recently saw a few of Peleshian’s documentaries and that they completely changed his perspective on cinematography; then he added that an individual capable of something like that undoubtedly represents a great nation. The pride we felt when we heard these words is almost impossible to describe.
We came out to the pier, awaiting the arrival of the next motor boat and watching the Marseille port, where the disconsolate Edmond Dante`s’ beloved, the beautiful Mercedes, once stood. Standing there, I remembered the Count’s words, with which Dumas concluded his immortal novel: “To wait and to hope”. In the meantime, one should endeavor to do something useful, of course. One day, with enough work, one might hope to leave a legacy as enduring as that of the Frenchman, Dumas or the Armenian, Peleshian.

The City of My Dreams
One day as a child I discovered a city named Saint-Raphael on the map. I thought it was named in my honor and promised myself that I would visit it one day. Not far from it while visiting Marseille, I decided to take the opportunity to transform my childhood dream into reality.
Saint-Raphael is a small gem of a city. A French tourist guide describes it this way: “Conveniently located, Saint-Raphael is a charming resort on the Côte D'Azur, with modern style architecture and alle´es of Palm. Aside from the beaches, there is a marina, a casino, Roman ruins, a 12th century church and museums displaying Roman treasures, discovered by Jacques Cousteau.” Frankly, I don’t have much to add except that I was happy to be there and not only because I succeeded in turning my childhood fantasy into reality, but, oddly enough, because of my name. It differs from most other Armenian names, it seems – after all, a French city and I share it. There is no Saint-Varazdat, Saint-Armen, or Saint-Khachatur in France, but there is a Saint-Raphael, and for some reason, this brought me pleasure.

It’s just My Jealousy Talking…
Nice is one of the biggest resort towns of the Mediterranean. Actually, it was the British who turned the city into a resort. The mild climate and other pleasant aspects of the city attracted British aristocrats, as well as Queen Victoria herself. She apparently loved to stroll around Le Boulevard des Anglais, built in 1830 with funds supplied by England herself. I do not know how to explain it, but when in this city (also by the sea and with a port), one is inclined to visit the museums. That is perhaps because the local museums are one-of-a-kind, featuring works of Matthias, Chagall, important Asian artists and many others.
Of course one should not leave Nice without first seeing the Roman ruins. In this case, the ruins are of a number of thermae, or bathhouses. It is possible that ancient Roman dock-workers came here to bathe and to socialize. Nice is not simply beautiful, it is spectacular, especially when observed from a convenient veranda designed to provide a sweeping view featuring the magnificent bay with fabulous yachts and motor boats, the well-groomed green hills surrounding the city, the stunning buildings and Boulevard des Anglais promenade filled with sauntering tourists, apparently without a care in the world. Don't mind my envious tone, it’s just my jealousy talking…

“Le Petit Juge De´shabille´”
According to reports, there are a number of Armenians in Cannes. That said, having taken a walk along the main street of this city, Croisette Avenue, I started to wonder if that is really the case. Maybe the reports of a significant Armenian population were due to the presence of a large Armenian restaurant, Le Restaurant Armenien, right at the seafront, which immediately caught my eye.
Another reason might be that one often encounters our brethren in Cannes, walking about grandly, speaking fluent French that is occasionally enriched with an Armenian word or two. First and foremost, the reports of an Armenian community in Cannes must be due to the impressive monument to the victims of the Amenian Genocide located near one of the main streets of the principal park of Cannes.
We must be an indestructible nation. One piece of evidence: this monument to the genocide victims – a khachkar in the midst of the glamorous city that is Cannes – seems somehow extraordinary. “We absolutely had to place a monument here”, confessed one of those who conceived the idea for the monument. He elaborated: “One cannot do without it. It is Cannes after all!” Well, maybe he is right.
People all over the world know everything about Cannes - the famous Film Festival held annually in this small French city on the Côte D'Azur has made it famous for over half a century now.
Many people dream of ascending Cannes’ legendary red stairs. These are mostly cinematographers and film lovers, striving to learn more about this great art form.
Although I was not here during the festival and have nothing to do with cinematography, I must confess to a desire to climb the stairs myself.
But as luck would have it, a conference of some kind was being held that very day at the Festival Hall and a pass was required to enter. I was disappointed at first, but then realized that I could make a persuasive case for being allowed to climb the stairs. I could say that quite recently, another Armenian had ascended those stairs – Atom Yegoyan, the first Armenian to be honored at Cannes and that I felt obligated to videotape them for the benefit of the Armenian nation. The combination of a professional video camera, the presence of my “stylish” cameraman, my fancy suit and sunglasses must have distracted the security guard, who listlessly asked for a pass as I walked by him. I muttered, “Le petit juge de´shabille´”, (the first French phrase that came to mind) and jauntily walked towards the stairs. As I was videotaped walking up the Cannes Festival red stairs the stunned security guard looked on. And when I said “Bonsoir” as we returned, he froze.
It was only later I discovered that the phrase, “Le petit juge de´shabille´” loosely translates as “the little nude judge”. There can be no doubt that following my reference to naked official with a friendly “bonsoir” (French for “good night”) at 2 in the afternoon made quite the impression on the guard.

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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