Founded in 1965, the Parent-Teacher Association of Monaco (Association des parents d’élèves de Monaco, APEM) represents the majority of 6,000 families who have children attending one of the country’s 10 French public schools and 2 private Catholic schools (see list below).
APEM is non-political association made up of volunteer parents of different nationalities and religions, residents and non-residents, acting as the link between parents and the schools with the Board of Education and government. Martine Ackermann has been president since 2018, voted in three consecutive years at the AGM held every October.
While the association has its challenges every year – from increasing visibility so that parents understand that APEM is about more than book fairs and school snacks to finically helping families in difficulty for school trips – it goes without saying that the year 2020 presented a whole new ballgame.
“With the health pandemic last year, we have been approached massively by parents who have expressed their concerns,” explains Martine. “For example, we had to answer questions about wearing masks in class, online courses and the 2020 end of year Bac, which confinement completely derailed.”
Martine reveals that concerns over the health protocol in place at schools has also been a big issue for parents. “We have discussed this with the Department of National Education as well as the government. And even though the situation is being handled very well, parents have legitimate fears. We are here to help them and make their voices heard.”
In a bid to drive membership and help local businesses during this difficult time, Martine has organised a project under the motto “APEM is committed to supporting local businesses.”
As she says, “The Covid crisis is a disaster for commerce, so APEM is partnering for free with local businesses and offering a 10% to 15% discount to our members when they present their valid membership card. This benefits both shops and our members, who very often are running a business themselves in Monaco.”
As president, Martine heads the Steering Committee, which includes two vice-presidents (Raffaella Olivieri and Penda Gebel), a treasurer, (Maria Contaldo), general secretary (Vanessa Erbaggio) and six additional members representing different schools for checks and balances. At the start of each school year, parents can volunteer as part of the General Committee.
“These branches of each school are key,” she states. “It’s the way they represent parents and manage activities in their schools that can give good visibility for the wider APEM.”
JOB ALERT APEM is looking for a secretary who speaks French and some English for a part-time CDI contract, Monday to Friday, from 9:30 am-1:30 pm. Flexible hours, minimum wage. Contact: email@example.com
In a “normal” year, APEM attends various committees, like the National Education Committee and Scholarship Commission, where they participate in the allocation of grants for students. They also organise conferences, like the annual Language Travel Forum for parents looking to send their children on an internship at a school abroad (the forum has been postponed to February 2022.)
Up until Covid, one of the big issues APEM was quite involved with was the Catering Committee, discussing organic canteen options and less food waste (especially bread) with the National Education and caterers of the various menus offered to students.
They also work with a commission for children with learning difficulties, the DYS commission, the administrative commissions for the Pavillon Bosio Visual Arts School and the Rainier III Music Academy, the Energy Pact commission and others.
“The commissions are used to transmit all the parents’ concerns and to offer solutions. We group together recurring questions and then work with the Department of National Education to get results – like reducing the weight of school bag and cutting down on homework during the holidays,” Martine asserts. “All information is confidential. We never give the names of parents who trust in us completely. We are here to defend the interests of students and parents, as well as represent them.”
Martine points out APEM measures progress by the number of new members from one year to the next. “The message to parents is that APEM is all of us – we are all one! Even if parents don’t have the time to get involved, they can join and we’ll represent them.”
I first met American Merrily Lustig-Tornatore at Stars’n’Bars on November 3, 2016. It was election night in the US and MonacoUSA was hosting a party in the days when it was normal to have a room full of mask-free people sitting on top of each other, drinking from the bar and cheering on a country that was once synonymous with democracy.
“I decided that the only way Europeans and the rest of the world could know who Americans were was to be exemplary and bright and funny so they would not get the wrong idea by seeing Trump,” says the long-time Monaco resident.
Born in New York, Merrily moved in 1964 to Killington, Vermont – via boarding school in Switzerland with a couple of months in Karachi and also in Paris – to be a ski bum. “I got my Vermont real estate licence in 1971 … I think!”
What a unique name. “When my parents were married, in the Forties, there was a cartoon in the Sunday paper with a little girl named Merrily who had long reddish-blond braids. My father liked her so much that I ended up being Merrily and having to live up to her reputation.”
Merrily comes from a line of accomplished women. In the Thirties, her mom started Airlines, the first in-flight aviation magazine, and was a speechwriter at NASA for the associate administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight for the Apollo program.
In 1983, she had just received a “hard-earned” Emergency Medical Technicians accreditation in Vermont when she got a call from a family member in need. “My mother’s sister who ran Society Magazine for Société des Bains de Mer needed help so away I went to Monaco. It was really an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Working alongside her aunt, creative genius June Quin, and her financial guru husband Mark, Merrily replaced her cousin Vally who had left for London. “You name it, I did it. Having been brought up in the publishing business, it seemed second nature. I think I learned to read by helping the family proofread.”
In 1986, she met Rémy, her first aid instructor at the Monaco Red Cross and “after a long engagement” they wed in 2009. “You can never be too sure you have made the right choice,” Merrily laughs. (Rémy retired two years ago as director of First Aid for the Monaco Red Cross.)
Merrily has been a member of MonacoUSA for over 20 years and also serves on its Board. She has laid the memorial wreath for association to commemorate when the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team led the liberation of Monaco from German occupation on September 3, 1944.
She was also vice-president of the American Aid Association of the French Riviera, founded in 1948 “to assist American citizens who find themselves hospitalised, jailed, resident in retirement homes or facing other temporary financial difficulties.” For years, Princess Grace worked personally both with the association and with the former American Consulate in Nice, assisting Americans living in the region. The association, which shut down in 2019, had strong ties with the Monaco Red Cross and its social work and youth outreach.
Following the Bastille attacks in Nice in 2016, Merrily spent ten days in Nice as a First Aid volunteer with the Monaco Red Cross. “We were helping the psychologically wounded and sat with people until a professional could see them. There was an American woman who came in with an aura of pain, and I just sat apart offering to translate if necessary. If I ran into Americans, I would help them liaise with the consulate in Marseilles if they so desired.”
Merrily’s current claim to fame is to have received the Covid vaccine yesterday in Monaco. “It is absolutely fantastic, considering the world population, to be one of the first people to have the honour to live in a place where I am so well treated.”
She was contacted by letter from the Ministry of State (see letter), signed both by minister of state Pierre Dartout and minister of health and social affairs Didier Gamerdinger, explaining who, when, how and why to get vaccinated. The letter invited her to make an appointment if she wanted to get the vaccine. Additionally, there was a full page of information addressing “Les Vaccins à ARNm” – how it differs from a traditional vaccination, benefits, possible side-effects and so forth. It states that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna (EU-approved this week) are the vaccines that will be used in Monaco.
“The organisation of the campaign is fantastic. I phoned, it took ages to get through, and said YES. They called Monday and asked if I could come in Wednesday. I was so excited, I could hardly get the words out.”
Merrily says she becomes livid when people don’t wear masks. “Being really short and OLD, I occasionally walk into a grocery store and what not saying loudly, ‘SVP, mettez vos masques sur vos nez!’ It feels great. I’m too small to hit so they usually obey.”
Her vaccination appointment was for 9:20 am and she arrived 10 minutes in advance to check in and be interviewed by the doctor with the usual questions.
“I told Rémy after I got the Covid shot Wednesday morning that if I passed out during the day, don’t blame it on the vaccine. It could very well be because of the on-going election debacle in the US.”
Bertrand Petyt comes from a long line of scientists. The Monaco resident was expected to follow suit, as well as manage the family business, but after completing a Master of Science in Paris he moved to New York on a whim. “In 1996, I graduated from Long Island University with an MBA in Managerial Finance and that was the beginning of my career in hospitality.”
With persistence, and after a few years of learning the ropes in the American hotel industry (where he found a mentor in his general manager), Bertrand had his first opportunity to pursue his passion in the cruise line industry. “Don’t ask me why, but even as a little boy I can remember looking at cruise ship catalogues and I have collected more than 35,000 cruise brochures from all over the world, from all cruise lines, past and present.”
He says he will always remember joining his first cruise ship, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ flagship Seven Seas Mariner in Vancouver as a junior officer. “Stepping on the gangway, I cried. The HR manager thought I needed comforting but I told him they were tears of joy as I was living my dream.”
He worked for two cruise lines, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises (formerly owned by Monegasque Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio), both at sea and on land, in various positions, including corporate HR manager and hotel director. “Cruising the world was amazing and I believe that travelling is the most precious learning experience. I left the industry in 2014 but I still carry that passion and, who knows, maybe one day the sea will beckon me again.”
Bertrand returned to Monaco and became Chief Executive Officer managing the professional assets of a prominent Chinese family established in the Principality. “The family’s wealth came from real estate development but by then Parkview World had become an operator of luxury sites and assets, including hotels, restaurants, yachts, luxury shopping malls, luxury residences and museums.”
In September 2020, Bertrand transformed his knowledge of the hospitality and luxury sectors into Vitruvius Partners Group, a business he launched with his friend Lilian Bougy, first in Paris and, later this year, in Monaco. This game-changing advisory firm with 12 expert advisors and six Business Ambassadors specialises in an externalised Change Management Office solution.
“In short, we offer small- and medium-companies in corporate hospitality the benefit of change management, leadership development and corporate eco-system redesign services, a business format similar to the one of a family-office or a legal firm providing a specific service at a cost-effective price,” explains Bertrand.
Vitruvius Partners Group advises leading organisations on the four dimensions of business change — people, processes, technology and risk control — identifying problem areas and making organisations more responsive to change in their industries and markets, equipping them to take maximum advantage of emerging opportunities.
“Our business model is highly relevant and also innovative in its approach to change but we are not consultants,” he emphasises. “We are expert advisors that bring a wealth of strategic and operational experience, as opposed to only the ability to audit and sell ‘off-the-shelf’ systems like most consulting companies.”
Although the idea of this venture had been brewing for a while, the first Covid lockdown gave Bertrand that final now-or-never push. He decided to leave his secure CEO position and jump into entrepreneurship with the launch of Vitruvius Partners Group.
In the same year, the academic’s Iconic In The Midst Of Chaoswas published. “This book was written as an attempt to provide guidance to those who understand that chaos – like what we are experiencing today – can be an opportunity to become iconic. The approach is a very holistic one, albeit based on proven techniques to install great leadership skills in every manager.”
On a personal level, Bertrand reflects that 2020 was a year of empathy as he witnessed most of his friends in the cruise industry affected on so many levels – losing their jobs, stuck on ships for months, separated from families, and a few suicides as well.
“I felt powerless yet during this crisis, I witnessed such kindness, community cohesion and incredible support from colleagues and friends. It produced my motto, “to enable people to tell their true stories so they may inspire greatness in their lives and for others.”
Bertrand admits that when he left Europe in 1994 for the US he never thought he would return to the continent and relocating to Monaco in 2007 was with reluctance based on his experiences as a teenager. “When I was young, Monaco did not have much to offer except for glamour and tourist-oriented activities and it was difficult for a teenager to grow with a sense of what the world had to offer. I would often spend free days in Nice, where I felt more challenged intellectually. Monaco has evolved in a much more dynamic and open way. It is a place of innovation, creativity and education – the International University of Monaco is, in my opinion, a great success story for the country. Monaco is still a village but a vibrant village,” he comments.
Bertrand, whose surname evolved from its Dutch origins Petïjt, is not a natural networker and in a large group you’ll most likely find him in the corner of the room with the people he knows and trusts. “I network for business, mostly online through LinkedIn as it offers access to a wider array of interesting people.” In Monaco, he’s been involved with various associations like Skal Monaco, the Propeller Club and Global Business Owners.
While Bertrand would chalk 2020 up as a success professionally, over the past two months an autoimmune disease has been causing him debilitating inflammation. “Nothing to worry about long term but I could not even open a laptop let alone have the energy to think. I am an extremely positive person but I can tell you that when faced with such pain, your positivity disappears and you discover a darker side of yourself, one that does not allow you to see the future as bright as you should. For the time being, I have had to slow down all my activities and focus on fully recovering my health and energy. I talk about this in my book, how our abilities rely on four pillars – our health, spirit, mental and emotional state.”
Bertrand Petyt adds, “Sometimes life has a way of reminding us how important it is to take care of our bodies. Health is the cornerstone of everything.”
Madeleine Karlsson and I met in October 2016 on the Run For Laura, in memory of the 13-year-old Bastille Day victim and daughter of SBM employee Jacques Borla. We instantly hit it off, especially as we share a passion for Sweden (she is part-Swedish and I write for ÖTILLÖ Swimrun). Gorgeous on the inside and out, she is the real deal.
At the time, Maddy had been living in Monaco for about seven years and teaching Pilates privately. “I had been doing this for years and was often asked to provide clients with workout videos for when they were travelling or when I wasn’t around,” she says.
She also started training as a Nutrition & Health Coach online, working with people from all around the globe, who were also asking for workouts. “My clients in Monaco started asking for recipes and my clients online asked for workouts so the idea came to put it all in one program online,” she explains. She started Fit Body Fresh Mind at the beginning of 2019.
Maddy confesses: “I’d always loved the idea of having an online business but it wasn’t something I ever thought I could do since the tech part really scared me. The early days definitely involved a steep learning curve and a lot of cursing at my computer but somehow I ended up with an online program that is now followed by several hundred people from over all corners of the Earth.”
In 2019, she partnered with Monaco resident and fellow Swede Janni Deler Olsson (wife of influencer Jon) and they added a pregnancy program for women expecting. Maddy also added group coaching programs and a mini-program in French, as well as (pre-Covid) Pilates, Yoga and Surf retreats.
In October 2019, she packed up a decade of her life in Monaco and moved to Costa Rica. “It had been my dream to live here since I first set foot in the country in 2008 but somehow the time didn’t feel right until now. I think having an online business definitely helped in taking the leap.”
Life in Costa Rica couldn’t be more different than life in Monaco. “I live in a jungle town on the Pacific Coast, around a five-hour drive from the capital. The roads here are pretty crazy, although they did get paved recently, and I replaced my Mini with a 4WD that I only just manage to squeeze my surfboard into. I haven’t seen or heard a sports car since I left Monaco and I can’t say I miss it.”
A fixture in Monaco’s social scene, Maddy says, “I don’t remember the last time I wore makeup or heals or that I dressed up for that matter. There is no real occasion here so I spend most of my life in swimwear, Yoga wear and flip flops.”
With the rain, she sometimes wears rubber boots (especially with Hurricane Eta) and she recently bought a horse. “So yeah, life is pretty different and I can’t really think of anything that is the same as my life in Monaco, but I am loving every minute of it. I really needed the change.”
She admits Covid was challenging and the drastic lockdowns prevented her from going to the beach, the main attraction where she lives. “I did miss Monaco at times, especially during the first confinement when I watched on Facebook my old neighbourhood being entertained by Martine Ackermann and Didier Casnati of the Gypsy Queens on their balconies. It would have been a lonely time regardless of where I was living so I am grateful I decided to stay here even though it means I am far from my family in Belgium and friends in Monaco.”
As we kick off the New Year, Maddy encourages women to forget the pressure of resolutions but rather aim to make 2021 a healthy one mentally and physically, despite Covid and all its excuses. “The biggest hurdle a woman needs to overcome in her body and mind is to stop being so critical of herself. This will only backfire when you try to get in shape and feel you are not living up to perfection, which leads to ongoing cycles of being ‘really good’ followed by periods of being ‘really bad.’ This produces feelings of guilt, which serves no purpose other than keeping you stuck in that vicious cycle.”
A large part of her work is about teaching women to be less critical and kinder to themselves by working with their bodies, not against them. “Not only does it make us feel better mentally but our bodies thank us for it by responding really well physically, too,” Madeleine Karlsson reassures.
With ski lifts and restaurants on the slopes closed, Fred Bouazis has “brought the mountains to Monaco.”
The owner of Before in Port Hercules has teamed up with Le Coin Fromager to put on Raclette Wednesdays. “Raclette is an amicable meal you share with a group of friends and we have created a very cosy terrace with heaters and blankets to recreate that après-ski vibe,” says Fred.
The first two Raclette soirées have been completely booked – there’s a 70 person limit and it’s reservation only – and the New Year’s fête on Wednesday, December 30, only has a few tables left.
No surprise. Le Coin du Fromager at Marché de la Condamine needs no introduction and if Michel Poma’s extraordinary cheeses and charcuterie (he’s also providing all the material to Fred) don’t tempt you, the €35 price for all-you-can-eat, not including drinks, surely will.
A year ago, Fred Bouazis would never have imagined he’d be a restaurateur serving melted cheese dishes. Named one of “Les 100 qui font Monaco” in 2020 by l’Observateur de Monaco, the niçois has built his reputation in after-work bars. He opened Before in Nice and Isola (both are closed) before bringing the concept to Monaco in June 2010.
He’s been in the industry for 25 years – including as artistic director at Sea Lounge, Director at Blue Gin Bar at Monte Carlo Bay and a stint promoting events at Twiga. “I had the opportunity to bring the concept of a place to meet after work to Monaco. And a decade later, we have become part of daily life here,” says Fred.
Prior to Covid, Before functioned as a bar open from 6 pm to 2 am with live music, DJs, finger food and drinks – wine was the top seller, but lots of cocktails and champagne in winter– and had anywhere from 150 to 200 people a night.
While the bar in Nice was popular with 30 year olds, in Monaco the clientele is local and active, mostly in their 40s with disposable income. “It is very international, people working in yachting, property and banking. Year round we have a local base, residents and those working in Monaco, but in the summer we also have lots of tourists.”
Not last summer. With bars closed by decree, Fred decided to transform his after-work hotspot into a restaurant. “This year has been special. We were closed completely the first confinement like everyone else. It has been a physiologically difficult transition but you have to make an effort,” he explains.
“It was a huge adjustment for our chef and for our kitchen but our team has been terrific. We have had to invest in restaurant tables and chairs, among other things. The government played its role well, quickly offering financial aid for employees and assistance for a loan to refinance, and even rent relief. We have six employees now, we had to let a few go, but we are super satisfied and grateful with the government’s assistance.”
Before started by opening only at lunch – €15 plat du jour, a €19 daily suggestion with glass of wine and coffee – between noon and 3 pm. “Our loyal after-work regulars started coming for lunch and we have new clients. With each lunch we got better and better at serving Mediterranean dishes beyond finger food – daube with ravioli, curry, and even the new trend of kangaroo. For €25, you can eat very well.”
The restaurant added dinner service, averaging about 60 diners per service. For Fred, respecting the current Covid measures – hand sanitizing, wearing masks, mandatory distance between tables, among a list of other protocol – is taken very seriously as the eatery is subject to random inspections, like those over the past week that shut down Beef Bar, Planet Sushi in Port Hercules, Huit et demi and Brasserie de Monaco and Cantinetta Antinori.
“I don’t know if things will remain the same after Covid but there are certain work methods and opening hours that I will keep, like lunch service during the Yacht Show or Jumping.” One thing he does know is that restaurants in Monaco “are lucky” to be able to remain open during the epidemic while neighbours in France are closed. (In a bid to reduce the rising number of Covid cases in the Alpes-Maritimes, Nice mayor Christian Estrosi is trying to have the France-Monaco borders closed except to those French with work attestations.)
“The misfortune of Covid, which has confined us and deprived us of going to a bar to have a drink with friends, has made us question our lives and open new horizons that are good,” Fred reflects.
“We are running businesses with la bonne franquette and trying to make money by welcoming as many people as possible within the health protocol. And all I know is that, for now, I have a new profession.”
Open noon to 3 pm and 7 to 9:30 pm from Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday lunch.
Before 6 Route de la Piscine
During Covid and confinement, let’s make an effort to support local businesses and services. Do you have a business or service to recommend for I ❤︎ MONACO? Email: GoodNewsMonaco
I was never a fan of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a household full of love and festivities during the holiday season – a steady stream of family, friends and neighbours gathering over for food and drink, mixed with traditional choir carolling at church. I just never understood the consumerism, this idea of having to buy gifts for people because it’s Christmas.
From a very young age, I decided that December 25th would be more rewarding volunteering at nursing homes, soup kitchens, a suicide hotline … anything to focus on something other than gifts.
My bah-humbug came to end in 2008 when I was invited to interview Santa at his workshop in Lapland. At the end of November that year, I flew to Helsinki and then, along with a plane full of tiny tots in Santa hats, took the 90-minute flight to Rovaniemi to be there for the official opening of Christmas Village.
Standing in the middle of a crowd (remember those?), I was surrounded by hundreds of screaming children, many perched on their parents’ shoulders, excitedly waiting for the real Santa Claus to come onto the stage as a lightshow and carols on the loudspeakers entertained. And then, the Jolly Man in Red appeared to deafening cheers. I didn’t get it.
The next day, questions in hand, I went to interview Santa. An Elf gave me a press vest to put on before being escorted up to his office. The winding walkway is lined with photos of Santa with politicians, comedians and actors – all of them beaming with joy.
I sat, nonchalantly, next to Santa’s throne and waited. And then a giant of a man appeared – magnificently, majestically and merrily. I remained unaffected, asking him my first question. He looked at me, with a twinkle in his eye and he didn’t answer my question but talked about Mrs Claus and downhill skiing. And as he spoke, something magical transpired. I began to feel hope – that pure non-jaded hope of a child that anything was possible if I believed in it enough.
By the time my visit with Santa ended, I was a giddy kid. I literally ran down to his post office and sent dozens of letters on behalf of friends and family. I jumped on a sleigh ride as reindeer pulled me across the Article Circle (it runs through Santa Claus Village). Huge flakes of snow fell upon me and I whispered out loud, “I believe! I believe.”
When I flew back to Nice, I bought a ticket to Toronto for December 25 to surprise my family by showing up for Christmas dinner. I hadn’t spent Christmas with them in over a decade and the time together was so extraordinary I was convinced that I could carry on the hopeful spirit to make anything possible in the New Year.
In 2009, I reconnected with the love of my life whose proposal I turned down in 1992 because I was too young. In 2009, I said yes. A fellow lover of all things Christmas, we married on December 24 the following year. Every year, we begin to listen to all-Christmas radio on November 1 and dance around the kitchen. It has nothing to do with gifts.
Even this year, as Covid continues to try and bring us to our knees, the past few days have reminded me that nothing, not even an epidemic, can take away our hope and kindness at Christmas. And in that spirit, I want to say thank you to everyone who has taken the time to reach out this year, with supportive and encouraging comments, especially when delivering the news during coronavirus is not done with joy.
So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Santa & Covid
Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director at Christmas Village in Rovaniemi, tells me that this year there are health measures in place to ensure safety to visitors, Elves and staff working at Santa’s Village and Santa’s Office.
This includes Santa, too,. “Santa is sitting behind Plexiglas and so not wearing a mask but all visitors are advised to wear a mask in the Office and Village,” says Sanna. “The playful Elves show a good example of this.”
Sanna says Covid is impacting tourism in Lapland. “We estimate a loss of around €700 million in tourism revenue with 5000 less people working in Lapland.” (These figures are for the period covering mid-March 2020-mid-March 2021).
“Even though this is dramatic time for local livelihoods, up here in the Arctic we look positively towards this winter,” Sanna shares. “We may be able to still welcome individual travellers to enjoy a beautiful and snowy winter season when the travel restrictions ease – and hopefully, in the end, the Covid-19 vaccination will save tourism.”
Yesterday, I came across Peter Allen’s article “EXCLUSIVE: Prince Albert of Monaco to appear in court in new year to fight claims he fathered a THIRD love child before marrying wife Charlene.”
It is hardly surprising that a “bombshell” piece would follow the recent photos of Princess Charlene with her partly shaved head. Clearly her unspoken words are manifesting and sending tongues wagging.
In the mid-2000s, I was a stringer for People Magazine (which, I confess led to a life-long habit of reading the Daily Mail as it was available in print along the Riviera while People was not) and part of my stint was being a liaison with the Palace.
In fact, in 2006, I contributed to “Who’s Your Daddy?” – a piece on the Prince and the recognition of his daughter Jazmin Grace. I spoke to his attorney, Thierry Lacoste, who was very down to earth and forthcoming about the situation.
While I am grateful to People and the by-lines, I have never been comfortable trying to get “sources” to diss on friends or employees, and the pressure of being asked to find palace insiders gave me nothing but diarrhoea.
By the way, 2006 was also the year Prince Albert started a more serious relationship with Charlene Wittstock, five years after their first date.
Fourteen years later, I certainly have a deeper understanding of all things Monaco. Sure, even with the cafés closed, gossip is an active sport in the Principality with people carefully whispering and texting in code, but what the outside world will never understand is that the loyalty between the people and the Prince can never be broken – not by headlines, not by illegitimate offspring or by supposed marriage woes. This is not to say that residents are always happy with the quality of life or decisions made by his government, but the Prince’s personal life is his business.
What does matter, especially during trying times of a pandemic, is how Prince Albert supports the community, like making a surprise visit under the radar to a local business, one that has been working non-stop trying to survive and to help others on the Rock survive during the Covid crisis.
“How truly awful, says Maureen Emerson. “Warships in the Channel to protect us from the French. Britain has been part of Europe for 47 years. This has brought a much treasured peace plus tariff-free trade. Many people who voted to leave do not understand the impact that the loss of the latter will have on our small country. The fact that we now seem to be squaring up to Europe distresses those of us who feel both British and European and are now preparing to mourn the coming rift, which will surely affect us in Britain both economically and even socially.”
For well over a decade the Valbonne resident has been captivating our minds with biographies about expats on the Riviera in the 20s and 30s and how the Second World War impacted their lives. The author of Riviera Dreaming– Love and War on the Côte d’Azur and Escape to Provence, as well as several published articles, including Before Chanel – The Story of La Pausa and The Affair of the Hotel Martinez, Cannes, shares her own story and what led to her fascination with the history of life on the Riviera.
Maureen’s parents grew up in Dublin (her mother was a model along with Maureen Fitzsimmons, later Maureen O’Hara) and they ran away to get married. “I was born in a cottage in a Somerset village at the outbreak of war. I was never allowed to see their marriage certificate! In 1940 my father joined the RAF and my mother and I returned to Dublin where I spent an idyllic six years where I was even allowed to walk alone to my infant school at the age of five.”
When the war ended, in 1946, the three left for a new life in England and a war torn London. “It was a land of fog, desperately sad blitzed buildings, rationing and shared apartments. I thought the world had come to an end. But the world was West London, and again I was allowed much freedom and grew to love the streets with their varied and fascinating people – and I still do. For, if there is tension in the home, outside the front door in a big town all life is there and anything is possible.”
Young Maureen was sent to a very traditional convent school in Hammersmith where she made many friends and did zero work, leaving at 16 with, “if I remember, two ‘0’ levels. I couldn’t take academic work seriously and tended to challenge rather than learn.” Secretarial college in Regent Street followed, and a job in the post room of J. Arthur Rank Productions, which brought pocket money for coffee in the new and thrilling coffee bars with their handsome exotic waiters.
“If I wanted clothes I had to make them – apart from the vital layers of net petticoats. It was all wonderful, but it wasn’t enough. After college I took temporary jobs with an agency, being fired by the AA and RAC in quick succession, as I was unable to get my shorthand back accurately.”
Her funds, however, bought her a ticket to a very post-war Paris where a friend was working in a parfumerie in the Rue Scribe. “How elegant were the elderly hard-faced manageresses in their perfectly cared-for black suits. Anne lived in the centre of the city in what had been a maid’s room under a mansard roof, with a shared basin and loo in the corridor. Oh, the thrill of it all.”
Back in London, Maureen’s shorthand improved and she returned to temporary work, before having an amazing stroke of luck. She was introduced to a female paediatrician who, although single, had adopted three children and needed an au pair. The extended family spent part of the year in Paris in the rue de Varenne and Sucy en Brie and an ancient farmhouse in Normandy. The parents were rich, artistic haute bourgeoisie, who had known Proust and been friends with the artist Berthe Morisot.
“The practice of chamber music filled the old rooms Normandy and learned international people came and went. The kind of people I had never before encountered. What an introduction to France and, for this, I have never ceased to be grateful,” she recalls.
Marriage and life abroad
Maureen had already met her husband, Philip, at an Imperial College dance – dances or hops were generally how couples met in those days. He was studying geology and was sent to the Algerian Sahara while she remained in England “quickly becoming bored” and insisting she would visit him in Algiers. Maureen shares, “This was not encouraged, as the country was in the throes of a civil war. But the train from Victoria to Dover didn’t leave without me and I found myself at the Gare du Nord boarding another for Marseille. When we are young we have virtually no fear. It was the most sombre of journeys, being basically a troop train packed with enlisted young soldiers who did not want to be there. The death toll among French soldiers was extremely high in Algeria and their fear and unhappiness was palpable. It was the most silent train I have ever been on.”
In Algiers she found a job with the US Information Service for six months. “I rather pleaded with them to take me and how I loved working with those clever State Department people with their dry wit and love of an international life.”
The couple returned, in 1961, to a registry office wedding in Windsor, and a honeymoon at the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds, followed by a journey in an Air France Caravelle back to an Algeria on the verge of a troubled independence. “My daughter was born a year later in the famous Clinique Laverne, now a deserted, echoing building in downtown Algiers, where I was attended by one of the very few remaining French doctors.”
Then it was on to lovely Tunisia with its kindly people, empty golden beaches, sparkling pure sea and blue and white villages. Here Maureen and her husband watched a Principal Dancer of the Béjart Ballet perform the Firebird Solo on the top of the remains of a floodlit Roman column in Carthage. “Unforgettable. We love North Africa, Algeria is beautiful too and we feel for all of it.”
The following years brought two boys born in Crawley, Sussex, then it was Beirut for two years (“Lebanon also has a special place in our hearts and we think of its people and hope for peace there”), Dallas for another two years and then a posting to Singapore. As Maureen recounts, “In those halcyon days one was allowed to take every stick of furniture, down to the last teaspoon. The packing team came in, packed and sent it all off to the next posting. After a couple of months another team came and undid it all again. For the children it was always an extra Christmas. Now, though never a good coffee party wife, I also became an international house frau, in a bubble bringing up three much-travelled children and becoming slightly brain dead.”
Posted in Provence
Philip, having by then “converted from digging power wagons out of the sand to management,” was asked how they would feel about being posted to Provence. “What could we say? Philip had been born in Bordeaux, having been evacuated on one of the last British ships leaving in 1940. We tumbled over each other to say ‘yes.’”
Near the village of Valbonne, they found a small converted farmhouse set in ancient, open terraces, where, in spite of “three, very neat, burglaries” she never felt unsafe.
This was 1977, as Maureen describes, when the two great plane trees were still in front of the Café de la Place in the village. “These had seats around them and in the afternoons the elderly ladies in their long black dresses and cone-shaped straw hats, would sit and murmur to each other in Provençal. How lucky we were to have known this, for we just caught the flick of its skirts as pre-war Valbonne disappeared around the corner. My brain, formally mired in domesticity, began to show signs of life. It was the hills that entranced me, they were then quieter and gentler.”
During this time, along with many friends, Maureen worked as a local representative in the television festivals held in Monaco and Cannes. For CBS, she “had the great fun” of organising large receptions at the Musée Massena in Nice and the Château de la Napoule. Then on to NBC, which had a more serious, less flamboyant, profile.
Moving back and forth between England and France, she had always done voluntary work with the donated books at the old Sunny Bank Hospital in Cannes. “And what stories that little hospital was able to tell,” she reveals. “In the early years, as the great villas changed hands, many of the books were a bookseller’s dream. Often very old and very learned. Among them was one by an author I had never heard of, and that book changed my life. Who was Winifred Fortescue and what was this book Perfume from Provence? Did she really write five other books on Provence? I must find them, I must find the two houses she lived in, her friends and what happened to her during the war.”
Just who was Winifred Fortescue?
It would take pages to describe the journey from the dusty book room at Sunny Bank to the end of the research eight years later, which enabled her to write the biography of Winifred, her friends and adventures, about her Perfume From Provence house in Magagnosc and her second and last house on the Colline des Anglais in the village of Opio. “I discovered this was the next village to ours, which she had moved to as a widow and where she lived a bucolic existence until the war turned all their lives upside down.”
Maureen adds, “Many biographers say, whether they are spiritual or not, and I am not, that your subject often guides you. Winifred certainly kept an eye on me. But I must tell the truth, that was the condition. During those years the research on the book became a spider’s web of information. Sunset House, set in Opio, said much about an American called ‘Elisabeth,’ no surname. She too, had to be discovered. During those years of research I found that, metaphorically, every relevant door in France, America and England was flung open and my questions and enquiries always eagerly responded to. The generosity was extraordinary. Letters, even original documents from Elisabeth’s family, were sent across the Atlantic from New Jersey. I did send them back.
“The 7th Marquess of Anglesey at Plas Newydd in Wales repeatedly allowed me free range of the exceptional family archives kept two stories deep under the house. Here I found letters, both sad and amusing, full of history, from everyone on the hill in Opio, which had been sent to each other over the years and were now gathered there. I found Fay, ‘the daughter Winifred never had’ living in Petworth, which is not far from us in Sussex. We became great friends and she gave me copyright permission to use Winifred’s writings.”
Sitting under an apple tree in Amberley village in Sussex Maureen read letters from the Front from Elisabeth’s cousin Dillwyn Starr, written during the Great War. Dillwyn was an American who had joined the Coldstream Guards. The letters were written before he died leading his men “over the top.” She met Claude Marcus in Paris, a French gentleman who had escaped from Opio when the Gestapo’s black Mercedes roared up the hill to arrest a Jewish family who had sought sanctuary there. “Claude allowed me to devote an entire chapter to his account of those terrifying years. There were many martyrs in Provence during the war and I visited a boarding school in Ascot in Surrey where one had once been a happy young girl.”
Researching Elisabeth’s years as an ambulance driver in the Great War took Maureen to the Franco-American Museum at Blérancourt in the Aisne, in Paris to the Hôpital Militaire at Val de Grace, the Bibliothèque National and the Archives Diplomatiques on the Quai d’Orsay. The Musée de la Résistance in Nice was the hardest of all to access. The Archives Municipales at Nice and the Archives de Cannes followed. These visits were interspersed with numerous trips to the British Library in London to search their wonderful French collection, which included many books on the Resistance.
She discovered coincidences, too. “In Perfume from Provence, Winifred wrote of the two Italian cypress trees that flanked the entrance to La Domain, her first house in Provence. These were often planted at the entrances to farmhouses and named Peace and Prosperity. According to Winifred, Peace was usually on the left and never as strong and healthy as ‘there was never peace in the world.’”
One day, house hunting in England, she and her husband drove up to a house in a small street in a Sussex village and there, either side of the gate, were two tall Italian cypresses, Peace and Prosperity. “We had to have the house – and liked it anyway. We have lived here for 20 years and three years ago “Peace” slowly died and had to be removed. So now there is only one.
Maureen had discovered Winifred lived in Opio, the next village to us in Valbonne. When she fled France, in her book Trampled Lilies she described escaping to a woodsman’s cottage in Sussex where she would spend the war giving talks on the plight of France in order to raise money for the Free French. “Sussex is large and she named no villages but only her journey from the local station to the estate where the cottage was situated. I recognised her landmarks and found her cottage in the woods, deserted and just as it had been left. I was able to explore it and see some of the small amendments she had described, before it was finally pulled down. The cottage was, once again, in the next village to ours, but this time in England.
“I have touched on just a fragment of Winifred’s beautifully written and evocative books. The pleasure of working with this departed lady has been a privilege. Her first house, La Domaine, is now owned by Valerie and Pierre who have kept Winifred’s garden design but improved and embellished it so that it is now a garden paradise and has been included as a ‘Jardin de France.’”
Barry Dierks and the rich expatriate community
So that was all about her love affair with the hills of Provence. But what now? “I felt a little adrift. I asked the advice of the biographer Hugo Vickers, who knows the history of, and often met, many of the most interesting personalities in Europe and America, and with the kindness he has shown to so many other authors, suggested someone I had never heard of – an American architect named Barry Dierks.” Hugo told Maureen that Barry had built and/or designed many houses for rich expatriates during the 1920s and 1930s and that he himself had stayed in three of them. “This would be a story of a sophisticated and elegant world, so near and yet so far from Opio. A world from which Winifred and Elisabeth fled at every opportunity until the time they would join the many charity committees at the threat of a Second World War.”
She began with the local archives on the Riviera once again, feeling “rather like a guest” in these new surroundings. Research brought her to discover the first of Barry’s houses, high on a cliff face at Miramar, near Theoule. “It seemed to be closed up so I trawled the surrounding area asking if anyone knew who owned it. This produced two gentlemen who owned a nearby hotel and had known both Barry and his partner Eric. Here was a well of information scarcely hoped for.”
Maureen was then able to contact someone who became my knight in shining armour, the great nephew of Barry’s partner, Eric Sawyer and the godson of both men. Andrew not only gave her, over the next five years, every scrap of information he possessed but also pleasant meals at the Garrick Club and a very clever deal with Taurus/Bloomsbury which enabled the book to be published as a hardback.
Barry and Eric, who was English, had met in Paris in 1921 at the beginning of les anées folles. Barry, from Philadelphia, was studying architecture at the Beaux Arts School and Eric was working In a Paris bank. They would remain partners for life. Their club was the Ritz Bar, a sophisticated American enclave during those years. Eric had been a young officer during the Great War. He was an engineer, which would become vital for the career they would decide on. Helped financially by Eric’s mother, they travelled to the Riviera to form an architectural practice. Now the Carlton Hotel would become both their club and post box and Cannes, to the east, their hometown.
“They were humorous and urbane, ‘those two charmers.’ Accompanied by the frisson, which went with their relationship, they were immensely sociable and accepted virtually everywhere by the international set, if not by the French bourgeoisie. They were also extremely hard working. Le Trident, the iconic house they would build into the cliffs at Miramar, near Theoule, would be a template for their work and their home for life. Here handsome young men, shielded from view, would sunbathe naked on the tiny beach far below. They could not know it, but this happy place would also become the setting for future, very different, events.”
The story of the couple’s work, their clients, friends and adventures, meant that this book would need to be a series of chapters, each telling the story of the person who commissioned the house and the house itself. “A fascinating project. Barry’s clients were drawn almost exclusively from the rich expatriate community, those who had either moved there permanently or wished to have an exotic holiday home to travel to from their own countries,” Maureen says.
Among these were the writer Somerset Maugham, the American actress Maxine Elliott, Lord Cholmondeley from Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the film producer Jack Warner, Paul Louis Weiller, an aviator and one of the founders of Air France, Eric Dunstan with a fascinating background who, through a tragedy, came to wealth late in life, and Beatrice Cartwright of Standard Oil, the mother of Dallas Pratt the founder of the American Museum of Britain. “There were many others, for Barry and Eric would build or remodel around 70 houses on or around the coast. Strangely, they never appeared to work in Nice.”
The architectural practice weathered the Depression – there are always the rich – but the Second World War changed everything. As almost all the expatriates fled, Barry and Eric stayed on. Barry working with the American Red Cross until he was arrested by the Germans who had now occupied the south and sent, on a crowded train, with around 127 other Americans and their dependents to a comfortable, but guarded, hotel at Baden Baden. Eric joined the Resistance, an experience both exciting and frustrating, before escaping to England over the Pyrenees.
“Research for this book was involved more with people than archives. But I did turn up again at the Musée de la Resistance in Nice, where I was no more welcome than before. Again I made many visits to the Archives Municipales and those in Cannes and, back in England, once more to the British Library for their books on the French Resistance. As for people – I chased them everywhere. The affair of the Martinez Hôtel for example, brought me to the family, which had been tricked out of its possession in 1945. Again there was an abundance of help and generosity.
“Riviera Dreaming – Love and War on the Côte d’Azur is now out in the world, and I must pay tribute to Peter, my wonderful and creative web master of 10 years, whose expertise has enabled the books, pictures and Riviera Stories to be found at the touch of a button.
“But the history of life on the Riviera with its glamour, intrigue and often drama will not leave me alone. The area has changed fundamentally since the Second World War but the stories of it all are as fascinating as any prize-winning novel – more so as they really happened. And I really should keep telling them,” says Maureen Emerson.
Lesley Blanche, the girl from Chiswick in London, who became an Arabist, an adventurer, enamoured with Russia, and best selling author. She ended her long life in a small villa at Garavan in the hills above Menton.
“Dear French friends, from December 15th to 20th you will finally be able to come to Ventimiglia! To come to Italy, you must respect the health regulations in force in our country. Please wear a mask and obey the safety distances and health laws, inside and outside the stores. We are waiting for you!”
The Italian government has made it very clear that anyone entering the country would have to quarantine for two weeks, even if the traveler provides a negative Covid result within 72 hours. Only people who are traveling for work or medical reasons would be exempt – this does not include anyone hoping to buy cheaper cigarettes across the frontier.
I contacted the Tourist Office in Ventimiglia to see if we can indeed visit without any quarantine or testing restrictions and was given two different answers.
By direct message I was told “the laws are unfortunately not very clear, you should ask the border police or have a negative swab for security (le leggi purtroppo non sono molto chiare, le conviene chiedere alle forze dell’ordine in frontiera o avere un tampone negativo).
By email, I was told “there is no requirement for a swab or quarantine for those returning to France from Italy, even during the Christmas period.”
To clarify on the French side, I reached out to a contact who is in the know about all things police, and this person had just been to Italy the day before yesterday and suggested anyone wanting to visit should go via the highway, and not the coastal road where the border police could turn you back.
As the battle of the ski lifts intensifies across Europe, Macron & Co. warned this week that skiers hoping to hit the slopes in bordering countries over the holidays would be met with prefect-coordinated ‘random” border checks and week-long quarantines.
France – where downhill skiing is banned until January 20 (although resorts are open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing) – is in agreement with Italy and Germany about a European-wide closure of all remontées mécaniques (ski lifts) until the New Year to avoid a third wave of Covid. Their diplomatic plea has fallen on deaf ears in Spain, Austria and Switzerland who are offering travel-deprived populations the possibility of a white Christmas on the slopes.
The Alps accounts for 43% of the world’s skiers that brings in €28 billion in revenue every year. After Austria, France generates the second-largest share of profits. The 350 ski resorts across France employ around 150,000 people and rake in $10 billion a year.
Unsurprisingly, there were protests on Wednesday in Chamonix as the first snow of the season fell. “It is devastating for everyone who works and lives here … everyone,” says Monica Huszcz Delevau, an American from Irvine, California, living in Chamonix. “Chamonix is based predominantly on tourism. If we don’t have tourists we don’t survive, it’s as simple as that.”
Monica, founder of Haute Wedding, one of Vogue’s Top 5 International Wedding Planners, illustrates how Covid is hitting her adopted ski resort by sharing the example of her business partner, Charlie Charlesworth, who also owns a transfer business, with the Geneva airport-valley route making up the chunk of its service.
“Charlie’s 2020 summer revenue was down 95% and instead of the ten chauffeurs he usually employs, this summer he had one driver. Projections for winter 2021 show that business will be down 90% over last year, and he will take only two drivers compared to 25 in a normal winter season. This is a decade-strong healthy company that saw its best year in 2019 and has now literally crashed overnight.”
The bilingual American in Chamonix
I first met Monica in 2018 at the inaugural ÖTILLÖ Swimrun in Cannes, where she was the finish line announcer and interviewing teams in English and French. The bilingual sports announcer also does the Nice-Cannes Marathon and Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc and worked at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne.
Her French is flawless. “I studied French for six years in high school and college, which gave me a solid grammatical base, and then during my undergrad studies at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in the late 90s, I did a study abroad in Aix-en-Provence for a year. Being a college student helped, of course, but the real answer is a French boyfriend. Hands down, the best way to learn a language,” Monica laughs.
During her year abroad in France, Monica travelled throughout Europe and met a group at a youth hostel in Biarritz that were from Chamonix. “I came to visit them, loved it, came back for a ski season … and one ski season turned into two ski seasons, turned into three… and 20 years later I’m still here!”
Chamonix, she describes, is a mix of local Chamoniards and a strong international community so “it was super easy to fit in, but I also spoke French so that always makes things easier.”
Chamonix is vibrant 11 months out of the year and so benefits from longer seasons than most resorts in the Alps, which are only in full swing for three months in the winter and two months in the summer. “November here is usually grey and drab and that’s when locals go on vacation to exotic destinations to take a break from the mountains,” says Monica.
In the winter it’s all about skiing, Nordic skiing, skijoring (being on skis and pulled by a horse, a dog or a motor vehicle) but in the spring, summer and fall there are countless activities like mountain biking, road cycling, rafting, climbing, hiking, downhill biking, paragliding, photography walks, museums, concerts, trail-running, mountaineering, skateboarding … take your pick.
Monica reveals that life in the mountains consists of “regular stuff” – work, kids, homework – but that living in such a gorgeous place also “allows us to pursue a certain lifestyle with time spent outside doing one of the above mentioned activities whenever possible!”
After two decades, the American living in France admits she still gets frustrated with the lack of positivity amongst the French. “I wish my kids would experience school and sport in a way that is uplifting and hopeful, that type of positive mindset and perspective is more prevalent in American culture.”
On the flip side, when she goes back to California, American consumerism shocks her. “People are constantly buying, buying, buying …all the time. I, too, love my retail therapy, however, I find it over the top whenever I do get back stateside.”
She confesses she gets homesick for things like good Mexican food. “I am still on the hunt for an authentic Mexican restaurant in France even after 20 years!”
The Wedding Planner
Monica started Haute Wedding in 2009 with Charlie, a Brit with a corporate events background, and the pair began planning weddings in Chamonix and the Alps. They quickly noticed Americans were attracted to the French Riviera and Provence so they expanded their service and now specialise in only these three regions in France – the Alps, Provence and the Riviera. “We don’t do Paris, the Loire valley, or other regions … we are true experts in our chosen geographical locations.”
The must be experts. In 2016 and 2018 Haute Wedding was selected by Vogue USA as on the world’s Top 5 International Wedding Planners. “We honestly couldn’t believe it and we only found out from another planner who congratulated us when the Vogue publication came out. My theory is that one of their journalists went undercover, pretending to be a bride reaching out to us.”
Monica describes their couple clientele as being 98% international although they work with a lot of Americans, British, and expats. She gives an example of a French man engaged to a Brazilian living in NYC, or a German marrying an American living in Dubai. “Our international team grew up outside of France so we know where our couples are coming from, yet we have been living and working in France for so long that we ‘get it’ and know how to accomplish things efficiently and smoothly.”
For Monica, their “haute” weddings are a mixture of high quality service, attention to detail and vetting the best partners and suppliers all to the background of unique “jaw-dropping gorgeous” settings – historical palace hotels overlooking the Med, castles, vineyards, exclusive villas and luxurious mountain hideaways. “This is more than just a business for us. We honestly love coordinating and producing an event that brings together our couples’ love story with their friends and family – it is better in real life than in a fairy tale!”
Pandemic And The People
And how is the wedding planner coping in the year of Covid? “Covid started to affect our business in March 2020 for the spring and summer weddings, and our revenue has dropped painfully low as cash flow has become almost non-existent. Couples usually book weddings 12 to 18 months in advance and we charge 50% of the planning fees when they start the planning process, and the remaining 50% of our fees are due six to eight weeks before the wedding date. So the income we were supposed to get this spring and summer for the second half of payments has been pushed to 2021.
“Compared to other businesses we are ‘lucky’ because people still want to get married and they aren’t cancelling weddings, just postponing. Hopefully, those second instalments will come later down the line. For the time being we are in survival mode. It’s hard, no money, just hope to keep pushing us forward.”
The Haute Savoie is one of the regions in France where the second wave of the virus has been circulating the most. “The mood of residents here is basically frustration, distress and fear of losing everything they’ve worked so hard to build. We need to be allowed to continue living. The economical, psychological and emotional damage cannot be measured. At this stage we will be happy if we survive.
“During lockdown, I’ve continued coming to the office, the kids are in school and we’ve been trying to keep morale up by keeping busy, going outside and being even more thankful for what we do have in this beautiful place where we live … but the bank account is diminishing too quickly, and government aid, help from family and personal savings will not last forever.”