Beth Curtis first started visiting Villefranche as a teenager for an annual holiday and her love for the place just blossomed from there.
“In my late twenties, I had my own graphic design company so it meant I could work remotely and Villefranche was that place,” says Beth, who owns The TapHouse. She split her time between the UK and France working as a graphic designer, creative director, private event chef and music event organiser. “Unfortunately life then threw me a few curveballs, including two awful divorces, where I lost everything, and my extremely poorly 4-year-old nephew was diagnosed with AML leukemia. Thankfully, he has since recovered.”
She was finally able to put down some roots. “A few years later, the bar that was my local was up for sale. I knew people in the area and a few in London that might be interested so I spread the word. One day I received a message from an old friend in Nice who had owned and run very successful bars and we discussed what might be possible. He suggested I take it on and make it a great place for me and my customers. So The TapHouse was born and that is what I set out to do.”
She opened the doors on June 7, 2018, and the inauguration was attended by friends, locals and tourists who came from as far as Dubai to attend. The mayor of Villefranche, Christophe Trojani, also supported the opening by cutting the ribbon.
That first summer gave her time to learn the ropes as she was operating a bar business on her own. “I had many things to learn at once and spent every waking minute working and thinking about the bar. I opened from 2 pm all the way through until 2:30 am every day. When the doors were closed to customers, I was cleaning, cooking, buying food and supplies, organising the endless paperwork that comes with running a business in France and organising and marketing the music events that I’d become known for in the area.”
Beth recalls that every day brought new challenges, some disastrous, some great. “During the crucial and final 15 minutes of the World Cup football we lost the Sky signal. I had a completely full terrace and I was trying my best to restart the connection when the local police arrived and insisted on checking all my documentation. Hence my customers all moved to the next bar to see those last minutes of the match.”
Her greatest memories come from seeing people having fun, mixing together and enjoying the atmosphere and music. “People come for my playlists but for me it is the live music events that make the bar so special. We have had international artists come to perform and because the space is so small, it makes them so intimate and wonderful. The first was in 2018 with Omar MBE, the outstanding British soul singer, songwriter and musician who has duetted with the likes of Stevie Wonder.”
In 2019, she then hosted an event to support her association “Music Therapy” that raises money and awareness for children’s cancer and leukemia charities. Derrick McKenzie, Jamiroquai’s drummer for over 20 years, was the headline act and was supported by a local DJ and vocalist Terrance James “The Voice France 2020”. The 2020 season had another amazing performance from Lifford Shillingford, Britain’s Got Talent golden buzzer winner and supported by Charley B from The Voice UK.
Beth describes The TapHouse clientele as extremely varied. “We have customers ranging in age from 4 to 94, locals originally from Villefranche and the Côte d’Azur, expats living in Villefranche and the surrounding areas, males, females and many dogs have become our extended family.”
She adds she has a huge following from tourists all over the world, due to the Channel 4 UK TV series A New Life in the Sun, which featured her story over two seasons. “They originally found me because of my social media. I was invited to a Skype interview which went well and I was chosen to appear on the show.”
The series first aired in the UK and was then sold to English-speaking countries around the world and to Netflix USA. “Channel 4 told me it was successful and was in the top three prime time terrestrial TV shows in terms of viewers. This meant that I was chosen to appear on the follow up revisited series, which was filmed in 2019 and followed the complete bar renovation and the ups and downs of the season. Channel 4 has recently been in contact to schedule filming the next instalment of the story.”
One couple from Israel visited The TapHouse because they wanted to find Beth after seeing the series. “This happened with many others who have now become regular clients of The TapHouse.”
Business was just starting to gain momentum and then early 2020 Covid happened. “It was absolutely devastating and an extremely stressful time,” Beth shares. “We were closed for four months and it was announced that we were allowed to reopen early June. I was planning the reopening and sent an application for the permission of the late license to be open until 2:30 am, as I had previously been allowed to do. It was refused and I only had permission to open until 00:30, even though other bars were given extended permission. Because of this and the pandemic, my turnover was down 60%. I spent many sleepless nights and became very down because of the situation. I was literally turning away customers and telling them to go to other bars.”
Beth’s problems were about to get worse. “The whole 2020 season was a big fight to keep the business afloat. Bars and restaurants were granted free terraces that normally we pay a yearly rent for. There were regional events organised, like the Fête de terraces, to try to help and I put together events to maintain a steady flow of customers coming to the bar. For these, I sent official requests to have an extension of my terrace, these requests were granted.”
Her events had a great following so not only was she busy but it brought customers to other bars and restaurants in close vicinity. “People would praise me for bringing life into the village. But then, right at the end of the season, I was issued a letter by the police, from the mayor, stating that because I had failed to apply at the beginning of the season I no longer had the right to occupy the terrace space outside. To say I was upset and angry is an understatement. I spoke with many people to seek advice and, with help, I sent a letter to reapply and ask for permission again.”
In January 2021, the response came with a polite refusal although no reason was given. (The bar to the right was also denied but the bar to the left was not).
“It makes absolutely no sense at all,” Beth states. “I had events and group bookings lined up for this season and I have been forced to cancel everything. Including one of the Côte d’Azur business clubs who wanted to hold regular lunch events at the bar.
“I sent another letter of request to the mayor explaining how devastating this is and the impact it is having on me and my business. I’m yet to receive a response.”
The denial of a terrace means that it is impossible for Beth to open. “The reopening costs alone are more than I could make in revenue during the season.” With the current Covid restrictions, she would be allowed to welcome four customers. During the summer season, she would be allowed to open inside but for those who have visited or seen the bar on TV, it means maybe 10 customers. Plus with summer temps and Covid, she is certain people will take their drinks on a terrace somewhere.
In January of this year, Beth realised that the only way to save her mental health was to remove herself from Villefranche. “I have stayed away which means that I haven’t had to witness others opening their establishments, some even with new terraces. It has undoubtedly been the right decision because it would have destroyed my state of mind. Even seeing it happening on social media has been tough.”
Beth is at a loss as to why the municipality would want to revoke her back but reveals “people have speculated that maybe someone wants to buy my business cheaply.” Her silent partner was issued with a police summons and he was later “told to tell me to stop fighting because I can’t win.” She understands that “the mayor has the last word and has decided to make the space a public garden.”
Beth Curtis has stated a petition and is hoping that by making some noise, maybe, just maybe, the mayor will change his mind. “I need at least 1,000 signatures to even begin to be heard. I’m also asking for comments on the petition and for people to share it with as many people as they can.”
Chrissie McClatchie is one of the region’s most established freelancer journalist. FromWine Enthusiast to easyJet Traveller, and from Business Insider to Superyacht Digest, the Australian from the Northern Beaches of Sydney demonstrates her lexical versatility in wine, travel and yachting, subjects often associated with life on the Côte d’Azur.
It was in 1993 when Chrissie first came to France to visit one of her sisters (she has four much older siblings) living in Lyon. She was accompanied by her geologist dad and mom, who was born in Vietnam to French parents. “I still remember that flight with the now-defunct airline UTA,” Chrissie recalls. “It had started in New Caledonia before stopping in Sydney, Jakarta and maybe Melbourne, and was full of returning compulsory conscripts who spent the whole flight smoking. As soon as we landed at CDG, they all cheered and kissed the tarmac. It was pretty impressionable to a 12-year-old who had never left New South Wales before.”
She returned to France a few years later with her mom to spend Christmas with her sister, who by then was working with her husband as villa guardians in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. “That is the moment when my love affair with the South of France started,” she says.
Chrissie has had Australian-French dual nationality since she was eight and even though her mom never spoke French at home, she did emphasise her European roots to the family.
“My mom and I used to follow my dad on his geological trips to the bush and we’d often visit a town called Mudgee, where mom would take me to cellar doors while he was working. I remember deciding, much to her delight , that I wanted to be a winemaker.”
Both wine and France would niggle in her brain for years to come.
By the time she graduated high school, her sister, who was now living in Nice and had just had a baby, suggested that Chrissie come over for a gap year to improve her French. “I spent nine months studying in the morning at the Alliance Française on rue de Paris and quickly found an international friendship circle. I loved the global vibe, beach picnics, ease of travel, and sense of history, although I may have spent too much time in Vieux Nice, particularly at Chez Wayne’s and Thor!”
Post-immersion, she returned to Australia to study Medieval History and language at the University of Sydney and in 2002 vended up back in France as part of a six-month exchange in La Rochelle, in the southwest of the country.
Clearly cut out for the jet-set life, as soon as her exams were done, she took a “trip of a lifetime,” travelling through the Middle East – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Georgia, Armenia and Iran (“It was incredible to visit places like Palmyra that have suffered at the hands of IS”) – and then spent some time in Washington DC as another sister had moved to the US. “I volunteered at the Smithsonian, which was incredible, but as I couldn’t get a work visa I booked a cheap flight to Nice and gave myself six months to find a job.”
When in wine country
Within the first week of arriving in the Mediterranean city, she got a job at Vins sans Frontieres (VSF), fine wine and spirits provisioning for yachts.
“There is actually a thriving local wine community here, with four Masters of Wine – the highest qualification in the wine world – living in and or around Nice, plus plenty of other interesting characters.”
She worked at VSF from 2007 to 2014, and was mentored by Rod Smith, a Master of Wine, and Helen Brotherton, a WSET diploma graduate. “We all had a crash course in the superyacht world, though.”
She wouldn’t realise at the time, but she had really fallen into a niche segment of the market. “The wine yachts order for their owners or charters is really top end – the best chateaux, the best vintages – but the flip side is that ‘no’ isn’t an answer.”
As Chrissie points out, acclaimed wines may be produced in finite quantities but as a yacht supplier you have to make sure you can find what your clients want, when they want (“yesterday”). “It is definitely more competitive now than it was when I first started. I remember a client calling at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon and by 4 pm we were delivering €80,000 of wine to his yacht in the port of Nice. I think now quotes and management company approvals would be required.”
The job was demanding but there were some incredible perks. “I will never forget a three-day trip to Champagne as guests of LVMH. We had dinner at Veuve Clicquot and Krug and a tour and tasting with the Dom Perignon winemaker,” she describes.
Chrissie started to share her local wine discoveries on her blog Riviera Grapevine, which became “the catalyst for everything that has happened in my career since.” It led her to the Bellet vineyards, behind Nice, doing cellar door tours of both Château de Bellet and Château de Crémat but, most importantly, led to regular writing work. “I have had great opportunities come my way from people discovering the blog, starting with a column for the Riviera Reporter. It all helped me build a portfolio that took me to The CEO Magazine, a global business publication that profiles high-level executives from around the world.” By this point, she was back in Australia.
Chrissie and her Irish husband, whom she met though friends in Nice, decided to move to Australia in 2016 for a year. “We just had our first child and it seemed like the best time to head back home. The CEO Magazine was my first in-house writing role. I learnt so much about the magazine production process in the ten months I was physically there but while it was great to be near family, there were lots I missed about Europe.”
In 2017, the family moved back to France, swapping Nice for Villefranche, where they have very much embraced French village life, playing football with the local club and sending the kids to public school. “Even though I have spent the best part of my adult life here, I still feel like an Australian in France. And I think I always will.”
Bilingual Chrissie has been working remotely for The CEO Magazine since June 2019. “Last week I interviewed the CEO of La Monnaie de Paris, the French Mint, as well as the CEO and Founder of a Swiss electric vehicle company. No profile is ever the same, which keeps the role exciting and challenging.”
The magazine has five editions (ANZ/EMEA/North America/India/Asia) and Chrissie writes across them all. “The cover story on Calin Rovinescu, CEO of Air Canada, was a particular favourite as it was just when Covid hit and air travel ground to a halt. A tricky, topical subject and the client loved the story!” she enthuses.
Chrissie also writes travel and lifestyle features for the monthly magazine. “Last year’s Norway trip was a definite highlight. A five-day cruise with Viking from London to Tromsø in search of the Northern Lights – although the story is still on hold because no one can leave Australia to travel.”
She has tapped into her base in Nice to become a local expert on the French Riviera and her travel stories have appeared in easyJet Traveller and The Culture Trip. “For Atlas Obscura, I really enjoyed tracking down Philippe Arnello, the man behind Nice’s midday cannon, and witnessing him light the cannon at noon.”
Hands down, her proudest publication moment was in easyJet Traveller. “I love the magazine’s fun spirit and it has always been the goal publication for me. I pitched a behind-the-scenes Nice carnival story for the February issue and found the perfect angle – a new, high-tech piece of equipment that the carnavaliers were using to sculpt the floats. I’d sent numerous pitches for other stories before with no bites but this one in late December was commissioned two hours after my email – and I filed it five days later. I was actually flying on easyJet the day the issue was released and it was cool to see my name in print, fresh off the press.”
Thanks to a year as a content editor for Relevance in Monaco and some freelance content marketing for yachting companies, Chrissie has also penned for industry publications like Dockwalk and Superyacht Digest. “I love having the chance to tell unique stories, like digging into the world of designing crew quarters on yachts and speaking to Espen Oeino, Zaniz and Winch Design.”
Covid when you’re already working from home
As a freelancer, Covid lockdowns fortunately haven’t affected Chrissie’s writing routine. “Since I already work from home, I’ve been able to continue to do so since the pandemic hit, even when schools were closed. I’m lucky to have the backing of a supportive employer at CEO mag,” she admits.
She wrote a piece “A postcard from the future: Living in lockdown in France” for The CEO Magazine, an insider’s view on how one of the world’s toughest confinements touched the community of Villefranche, including Foccaceria Mei, the local cold cuts and cheese shop where Alessandro (above) lives across the border in San Remo, Italy.
Chrissie had just cracked the airline magazine market when Covid brought travel to its knees. “I had four stories –Turkish Airlines, Hemispheres for United, easyJet and N by Norwegian – that I doubt will see the light of day. Yet at the same time, there was a wealth of more news features and I started writing about real estate and yachting pandemic angles for Business Insider. The work has been there, it’s just about taking a different approach.”
Chrissie can imagine much worse circumstances than her household of four (she has a 5- and 3-year-old), which has some outdoor space. “As a mom, I’m rarely out in the evening and with the French schools open and the 6 pm curfew like there is now, things don’t feel too different. I am looking forward, though, to having a meal at some of my favourite restaurants when they re-open.”
Like many other working moms, Chrissie, says her biggest accomplishment is being able to juggle young children and a career. “To have landed a dream in-house journalist role at a global publication when my first child was 12-months-old and to be able to continue to acquire career skills while having another is something I am immensely proud of.”
In another life, or some 20 years ago, relationship psychologist Mairead Molloy decided to put her degree in hotel management to good use and bought a small hotel in Cannes. She had “great fun” running it for seven years despite the occasional culture clashes between the Irish and the French.
“Sure, it was hard but there are cultural differences between neighbouring villages in both countries so you have a choice – get on with it or bury your head in the sand,” says Mairead, who hails from Wexford. “I did struggle at the beginning but I learned French, which definitely helps, and have gotten used to how the locals think and behave.”
Part of her language improvement came from her partner. “Marrying a French man was indeed challenging but divorcing him was even more challenging,” she remarks with a smile.
She sold the hotel and moved to the UK and picked up a Psychology BSc and then a Masters in International Law at Birkbeck, University of London. It was then that she stumbled upon Berkeley International, a specialist elite dating agency and international introduction agency offering an exclusive matchmaking service to find perfect partners and soul mates for discerning and affluent members.
“I have been the Global Director of Berkeley International for 17 years and I still actively run it day-to-day. As a global operation, we have never been so busy. Covid has really made people see what is valuable in life,” she shares.
It’s Valentine’s Day and who better to ask about love than Mairead? “There are songs and books and films about this but for me, love is finding that one person that you are totally yourself with, and you can’t imagine what your life was like before they came along.” She points out, “Relationships depend, though, on what each party brings to the table and people tend to want love all wrapped up under the umbrella of Keepers-Friends-Laughter-Fun.”
One true love is not her philosophy but Mairead, who says “it only took me 52 years to find love,” does believe that it is rare to find that someone that fits perfectly to you. “We make mistakes in our early years and so hindsight is a great friend so follow your instincts I say … you can’t go wrong.”
For Mairead, the biggest mistakes super-wealthy clients make when looking for that perfect partner are being too fussy with lengthy wish lists and not managing themselves and their expectations properly. Also, thinking sometimes they know better than the professionals.
“Dating agencies offer a sense of security as everyone you meet is vetted and we take the stress out of dating someone, clients never face online rejection,” explains Mairead, who was featured in RTÉ2’s “Irish in Wonderland” program on Monaco in 2017.
“Our membership has increased over 200% since coronavirus began and couples are getting together quicker – our success rate has gone up by nearly 80%. That’s not to say people are settling but they have become less picky realising what their real priorities are now,” she conveys.
“We even had an engagement over lockdown, a man in Brazil met one of our members in Milan and after a few zoom calls and they decided to meet up in Paris, where they are now living an planning their wedding and futured together.”
Mairead reveals that her psychology background “comes in very useful in the dating business,” but as a qualified relationship psychologist and eating disorder specialist she also concurrently runs her own consulting company, Mairead Molloy, which focuses more on specialist disciplines, from nutritional interventions for eating disorders and psychological approaches for dealing with obesity to marriage mediation and coping with being single.
“I have noticed over the years that food and weight are big factors in relationships,” she states. “How we feel about our bodies and how we look have a massive impact on our self-confidence, which has a roll-on effect as to how we manage or harm our relationships, even preventing us from having one altogether.”
Monaco and the South of France can be pretty tough for people who struggle with body image. “Most eating disorders are triggered by someone deciding to go on a diet. It becomes no sugar, no fat, or whole food groups could be eliminated. It really depends on what you believe, what piece of information you take to an extreme: I’m not going to eat any bread, or I’m not going to eat anything with salt on it, for example.”
She says irregular appearance or disappearance of food in the household can indicate an eating disorder, as can a new anxiety around particular foods. “Look for whether a person has changed their thinking around food – talking constantly about food, weight or calories if they never really talked about those subjects before. Or if a person who was once not picky becomes inflexible about the type or amount of food they eat.”
Overexercising is one sign that gets overlooked in this culture. “Rapid or extreme weight loss or gain is another sign of an eating disorder. As is when people start eating because of emotions rather than for hunger or appetite.”
She implores, “Talk to someone. Early detection, initial evaluation and effective treatment are important steps that can help an eating disorder sufferer move into recovery more quickly, preventing the disorder from progressing to a more severe or chronic state.”
The Covid pandemic has taken a toll on all of us. Mairead says last year Covid gave her time to sit back and breathe for a while. “Now it is a very frustrating time indeed but I take the good with the bad and am grateful for what I have. Business wise, building personal relationships is vital and person-to-person has become screen-to-screen taking away that personalisation of how we work.”
Mairead has not seen her family face-to-face for over a year now. “That really hurts but the pandemic has also shown me how resilient we all are.”
Her advice this Valentine’s Day? “Be kind and do something thoughtful for someone,” encourages Mairead Molloy.
More From Good News, Monaco’s Valentine’s Special Edition
American Kaitlin Kraemer grew up playing a variety of instruments, taking dance lessons, and trying her hand at painting courses.
“While I’ve not descended from a family of creatives per say, my parents have a great appreciation for the arts,” she says. “I suppose my folks recognized my passion for the arts at a young age and did everything they could to foster that.”
A full-time artist whose solo exhibit “Confessions Intimes” is at the Monaco Yacht Club this week, Kaitlin originally decided to major in Anthropology and minor in Studio Fine Arts. “This stemmed from this innate passion for creating, as well as my desire to understand human behaviour – why we do what we do, think how we think, love what we love – and how many of these traits and evolutions are quite similar cross-culturally,” she explains.
An opportunity to study in Aix-en-Provence came at the recommendation of her undergraduate arts professor and mentor, Walter Hatke, who believed she was an ideal candidate for this immersive painting program. “He strongly encouraged me to apply to the summer semester course at The Marchutz School of Fine Arts. The experience honed my French language skills and really legitimised my own ability to see myself as an artist,” she recounts.
That summer of 2007 she fell in love with painting, as well as with the South of France, which influenced her permanent move back to France in early 2018. “I decided to return to a part of the world that I love, to continue to do what I love – in the sunshine, with a glass of rosé. As a full-time as an artist, you have the unique ability to live and work from anywhere.”
The move, she says, definitely wasn’t a seamless or easy transition although being proficient in French helped, as does being an extrovert. “There have been many ups and downs, but that is par for the course when you’re an expat. I wouldn’t change any of it – except, perhaps, having my family closer. Being so geographically distant from them has been the only downside.”
Kaitlin has been painting regularly for 15 years now, but didn’t become a full-time artist until 2017. “The decision was one part mind-numbingly terrifying, the other part, an absolute necessity. I woke up one morning and realised how stuck and unhappy I felt in my seemingly ‘perfect’ life – I had a good job, a husband, lived in a nice apartment, but was fundamentally unhappy and unsatisfied. So I did something about it.”
Within six months, she changed everything about her life: she gave notice at work, filed for divorce, left London where she had been living for four years and moved back into her parents’ house in the US, and enrolled on a year-long rigorous graduate arts program at Tufts University.
“I look back at that time now and it both shocks and thrills me. I kind of can’t believe I had the courage to do it, but am incredibly grateful that I followed my instinct and made it happen. It’s not been an easy journey, but the fact that I’ve done it – that I wake up every morning passionate about and proud of what I do – is definitely my greatest achievement to date,” she admits.
Kaitlin, who has had shown her work in Boston, London and on the Riviera, was given the opportunity to exhibit in the IQOS Showroom at the Yacht Club through the Monaco-based consulting agency, Highlights. “I was put in contact with them through a mutual friend, and worked with their team over many months and pandemic-related setbacks to organise this exhibit.”
In normal times, Kaitlin would have held a vernissage but obviously this was not possible under the Covid guidelines. However, she emphasises that everyone is welcome to visit her exhibit this week (up to four people at a time, with a terrace to accommodate those waiting) at IQOS, just steps from the Wine Palace. “There are only four days left so please pop by this week to have a look, up close and in person,” she encourages.
Kaitlin wants to inspire others with her art and her story – to show people that almost anything is possible if you want it badly enough – and “that through chaos, there is beauty.” But finding beauty in the last twelve months of Covid have been incredibly difficult for her.
“I am an eternal optimist, and have tried to keep as busy and productive as possible, but I’ve found it more challenging than ever this past year. My younger sister, whom I was very close with, passed away in a tragic accident in July. I still find it incredibly hard to talk about.
“My family and I have experienced a loss that no family should ever experience, during a time when gathering and consoling one another has been nearly impossible. It has been horrific and heart-breaking, to say the very least.
“I’m still not a point where I can share these emotions in my art but I carry my sister in my head and heart each and every day, now more so than ever, and am trying to live my life stronger and bolder and better, for both of us.”
Visit Kaitlin Kraemer’s “Confessions Intimes” exhibition at the Monaco Yacht Club’s IQOS showroom until February 6, from 10 am to 7 pm.
Natalia Langsdale’s connection to Monaco goes way back – be it with yacht brokerages Fraser Yachts and Camper & Nicholsons or private jet resellers Hawker Beechcraft and Boutsen Aviation.
“My professional career spanning the likes of London, Dublin, Auckland and Monaco has always been affiliated with event planning in one capacity or another, working in and for companies targeting a UHNWI clientele,” says Natalia. “It must be in my nature – being a Capricorn – and upbringing to be organised, disciplined and a people’s person.”
Born in England, to a British father and Polish mother who met in Sweden, Natalia grew up in Sweden until the age of ten and then for health reasons related to her mother, moved to the South of France, which she called home for 28 good years, in and out of studying and working abroad too.
In 2015 she launched Bright Creativity, a marketing, PR and events agency in France. “I have been fortunate with my upbringing and family to be fluent in six languages. Having learned French at a young age even before coming to France any bumps in the road that people encounter with not speaking the language were eradicated.”
The Villefranche-sur-Mer resident advises, “Regardless of language though, the bureaucracy of setting up a business is the most difficult if you do not have the right advisor. Your number one priority is having an excellent accountant and in the South, it is extremely hard to find a good one who speaks English and can help you. For most it is understanding under which form to open your company under, for example, if it should be auto entrepreneur, EURL, SARL, or another entity.”
Through a friend, Natalia was encouraged to try her hand at high-end wedding planning. She had organised her own nuptials – a civil ceremony and a church wedding in two different countries – and “was looking for more of a human contact, and loving all that surrounds weddings, bringing the best vendors, allowing my creativity and fine eye for detail together.”
Under the umbrella of Bright Creativity, she added My Riviera Weddings catering to an international clientele to deliver a stress-free and impeccable service. “The website is a testament to who I am reaching out to and what makes me different, existing in the languages I speak and additionally to include Japanese and Chinese.” The business took off through word of mouth.
“Most couples forget that their wedding is THEIR day to be enjoyed and so My Riviera Weddings puts couples at the forefront,” explains Natalia. “The concept itself was born out of years of event organising in the luxury industry, where bespoke events such as ‘Dinners in the Sky’ 50 metres above ground level overlooking the port of Monaco or golf with biodegradable golf balls and floating targets at sea with the backdrop of the Principality while on a 70-metre superyacht are just some of the specialities that I have proven to my discerning clientele.”
Then along came Covid. Immediately Natalia’s phone started ringing with cancelations and postponements, with the next wedding not even taking place until … 2022. “The pandemic has an immediate impact on My Riviera Weddings and other conferences and events that I had in my books for 2020 and 2021 as my clientele is all international, either coming from abroad, or residing in Monaco and the French Riviera, with the intentions of having friends and family from abroad come to the wedding here.
“Many of my favourite vendors I had lined up, began showing signs of closing their businesses or moving away from the coast to start a new life and forced to pivot. Some of the top-end hotel choices closed for the year and unable to plan so far ahead could not commit to the new dates. It has caused a lot of extra work on top of what currently was a lot of work shall we say, with the reduction of the size of weddings allowed down to only 6 from big events of 100-plus sized groups.”
Natalia, who has a M.A. Hons with distinction in European Union Studies with German and Scandinavian Studies from Edinburgh University, shares that intimate elopements are now more on the cards in the safe havens of renting a private villa and enquiries from small, private affairs “trickling in if at all that.”
She has been approached to speak this week on TF1 on behalf of UPSE – L’Union des Professionnels Solidaires de l’Evénementiel – which represents the events and wedding industry to share her personal account on how the pandemic has affected the industry.
Like so many others in lockdown last year, Natalia found herself from one day to the next wondering how to keep herself going. “The first confinement made me understand what I truly believed in, who my trusted entourage were and that I was ready to turn a page to follow values I believed in. Coupling my love for the finer things in life with my ingenuity, I was able to see promise during the pandemic and not give in or up to the hardship that was threatening.”
Scraps of cord lying around the house with washed up driftwood from the beach made her realise she could create sustainable beauty for the home and soul while the world was trying to come to grips with a new reality.
“I need nature around me to thrive and remain charged creatively and I found raw beauty in simplicity and wanted to share my values and express my personality by creating something handmade, durable and above all sustainable. A circular brand was thus born – Made with Love by Natalia – a nod to circularity and putting the planet first, one knot at a time.”
Natalia says a positive thing to come out of the Covid crisis is her Collection and the community of like-minded people and supporters that she has built up. In addition to selling her crafts online, she also passes on her knowledge by connecting and sharing with people around the world though online Zoom masterclasses. ”It’s my way of saying my thanks to those who have followed me since the outset, who wish to learn a new craft and gain the same confidence to trust what they’re good at and just go for it! A kind of booster to the morale while actually learning.”
In just one year, the Made with Love by Natalia Collection with its photo shoots and media coverage has allowed Natalia “to be the person I truly am. I have empowered women with my eclectic designs, captivating people, who appreciate quality yet want to look their best or feature handmade in their homes, to stand out, be bold in a new sustainably-minded society.
“It allowed me to combine all my skillsets and produce something that today proudly sits in homes, on yachts and are worn matching the positive ethos that makes me, me,” Natalia Langsdale beams.
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.
“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.
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.”
“People forget quickly,” says Elizabeth Gabay, “Many people presume life has returned to normal – they do not realise the extent of the devastation. Both the Vesubie and La Roya should not be forgotten. We need faith and optimism.”
Elizabeth lives in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, one of the villages heaviest hit by Storm Alex eight weeks ago, on the night of October 3, that left 8 people dead and 11 missing in France. The town, with a population of 1,411 (Source: INSEEE 2017), was cut off from the rest of the world when its roads were washed away, along with hundreds of coffins from the local cemetery. To date, over 80 homes have been lost and this number continues to rise as the land remains unstable and wet winter weather is upon us. Temporary roads now provide a lifeline for the town but the Vesubie still has no sewage treatment works.
“It was like a war zone with helicopters 24/7. Three days after the storm, everyone was saying we would have to evacuate, which meant the village would be abandoned and die. There were no roads and we were isolated. About half the village left. The rest of us decided to fight to keep the village going,” Elizabeth describes.
“Communal soup kitchens and animal rescue were set up, counselors brought in to assist those suffering from trauma. Many people who lost homes have been temporarily lodged elsewhere, some in holiday accommodation in the village. People are being very stoic, tearful but moving on, while others have cracked from the stress of losing papers and photos. For some older people, they have lost everything and need to start again.”
For Elizabeth, one thing that has been very noticeable over the past two months is that “the expat community on the Coast seems very unresponsive to the disaster” in a town some 40 kilometres north of Monaco. So how did she end up in this commune on the edge of a glacial plate in the first place?
From City Life To Village Walks
Elizabeth moved to Saint-Martin-Vésubie eighteen years ago from London. “My husband and I and two small children decided to have an adventure and move to France. We looked round all the wine regions and Paris, but a chance discovery of Saint-Martin was a coup de coeur,” she recalls.
She was no stranger to the South of France. Although Elizabeth was born in New York, her mother missed Europe and her parents returned to the U.K. when she was two. As her father was from the Mediterranean and a native French speaker, every holiday they came south.
“In the 1980s my parents bought a holiday home in the Var. I had worked in the theatre, backpacked round the world and was looking for what next. In 1986, I set up my own business representing Provence vineyards in the U.K.”
As only one of 400 people in the world accredited as a Master of Wine (there are three in the Alpes-Maritimes), Elizabeth is an authority on the wines of southern France (and central Europe), and a Provence specialist for the Wine Scholar Guild (formerly the French Wine Society), guiding tours around the region and giving regular webinars on the wines of Provence and rosé. She has written the definitive book on rosé, Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution.
Although she had a strong link to the region, village life was not quite the same as the buzz of London with its large mix of people, museums, and theatre. “95% of people in the Vésubie are local French and we have found it harder to have as active a social life as in London. Still, it is never lonely; every time we walk into the village we meet people we know – so I love the community of a small village. Weekends and summers give wider diversity – a chance to meet some interesting people. Life in London with small children was expensive and my kids have had an ideal childhood here, as it is safe to go out and play, and there is a large garden and woods to explore.”
She says that although her family is accepted and part of the community – they are also very involved in organizing the Marche de la Memoire, the annual walk commemorating the deportation of Jews in St Martin Vésubie in September 1943 – they “sometimes feel, even after 18 years, like outsiders.”
On Top Of The Disaster, There Is Covid And Accusations
In Saint-Martin-Vésubie, the risk of getting Covid has increased as 1,000 workers were brought in for search and rescue of bodies, helping those stranded, building temporary roads and services, and stabilizing risky buildings. (Elizabeth points out that its thanks to Nice mayor Christian Estrosi and MP Eric Ciotti the town wasn’t abandoned and left to die.)
Mayor Ivan Mottet, 73, has not been strict about lockdown, but Elizabeth and her family have chosen to be stricter and remain quite isolated
“Lockdown has been emotionally very difficult. We had a long week of one café being open and it was packed everyday with those of us who had stayed on. We needed the community and to be able to chat.
“The mayor and the municipal were elected in June and were out of their depth at the beginning. The prefecture sent up a crisis management team for three weeks. The town hall is working very hard but communication is not their strong point so there has been a lot of anger. And in the meantime, villagers are discussing plans for the future, which is not always easy as everyone has a different agenda on which direction to go to revitalise a village that was already in decline for various reasons,” Elizabeth says.
She adds, “Insurance companies have ranged from fantastic to real bastards. I heard today that a resident has not been able to get to her house for 8 weeks. All the roads around her home have gone but, miraculously, the house is still standing even though she cannot access clothes or papers or anything. Insurers say that the house is still there so nothing to pay.”
There is concern over the lack of transparency, information and consultation of residents by mayor Mottet (who won with only 59.89% of the vote), and especially his decision, as reported in Nice-Matin, to take away control of the distribution of donations from the non-profit organisation, Secours Populaire. Facing critics shouting cronyism – “all the friends will benefit, the others will have to make do” – the mayor defends his decision by saying the Secours Populaire has overly restrictive criteria for receiving aid: “You have to be below a certain income threshold to benefit from it, so what we’re talking about here is giving out to people who have lost everything.” he told the French daily.
Hélène Martin, who launched a collective in her neighborhood so that the residents “are not forgotten” has said that “between the prefect, the metropolis, the department and the elected officials, there are people who speak for the Vésubie … but inhabitants are afraid of not having their voice.”
Covid And The Wine Industry
With Covid and lockdowns this year, Elizabeth says her “income has been devastated” but she is no longer travelling on a weekly basis, which was part of her work as a senior wine consultant. “I have been very busy working online, writing mostly for trade magazines to support the struggling wine industry and to help vineyards.”
With more people staying put this holiday season, it could be a time to discover local wines. “Of course, a glass of bubbly – a Pink Prosecco has just been launched by the appellation. Villa Sandhi – is lovely. I increasingly find sparkling wines are better if decanted, not too cold and in a normal, not flute glass brings out the fruit.
“I am a great fan of sweet and fortified wines, they feel very special as they are not part of everyday drinking. Although I do not eat foie gras, a sweet wine with cheese, salty nibbles, dessert or on its own really is heart-warming.
“I taste a lot of rosé, L’irreductible from Domaine Bégude in Bandol is great for winter, and if you have leftovers – mulled rosé is delicious – more delicate and the chance for more fragrant spices.”
When The Storm Passes
When the rain stopped at 4 pm on October 4, the main street of Saint-Martin-Vésubie was a flood of water and rocks. “The village square, full of firemen, was strangely silent. My son and I walked to the Vésubia sports centre and saw the size of the muddy torrential river,” Elizabeth narrates.
“I think that was when it first hit us. The park, tennis courts, car park had all gone. We saw the petrol station fall – in my memory in slow motion, none of the panic or hysterics you think – there were about five of us in shocked silence. The gendarmerie has gone, the brewery, builders’ yards… the cemetery is going… someone shouted “GET OFF THE BRIDGE!” …. We were still in slow motion.
“We went home and saw the level of the Madone river at the bottom of our garden had risen dangerously. My husband still thought the biggest problem was water coming into the cellar. Without power, we lit the fire, opened the fridge carefully, ate dinner by candlelight and closed the shutters to hide the noise of the rocks crashing down the river.”
The next day, Elizabeth and the rest of town faced the damage. “The village was completely silent, everyone just looking at the size of the river, the number of houses gone. We had no electricity, no water, no WiFi for texting, no phones … A recently widowed friend lost her house and everything and she and her kitten came to stay with us.”
Four days later, electricity generators were flown in and mobile phones re-connected but they had no water for three weeks. “It will take at least six months to repair the roads and some of the structures of the buildings. “I think the disaster has hit the local French more as many come from arrierè-pays families and have spent childhood holidays up here. The expat community seems very unresponsive to the disaster. I am on many expat Facebook groups no mention while on French groups, people are very involved,” says Elizabeth Gabay.
I first met Keah Lan in person on a hot sunny day in the summer of 2020, in between France’s two lockdowns. I picked her up from the train station and brought her back to my home for a warm “live” conversation over coffee and a couple of slices of a carrot cake that my little girl and her friends had made the day before.
Keah moved near the seaside in lovely Cros-de-Cagnes after the birth of her son Matisse. She and her husband, who is from the South of France, had been living in London and decided to chose a quieter and simpler life with more sun.
In 2018, the couple learned their son had sensory difficulties – sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes can create a feeling of “sensory overload” – which meant that they had to relearn everything they knew from scratch to support him. “Intuitively I knew,” Keah admits, “but it wasn’t until we saw the French doctor that it became real. A period of mourning followed. I think fathers process it much differently as my husband only came to accept the diagnosis one year later.”
In her new life on the French Riviera, Keah, who grew up in South Africa, started spending a great deal of time outdoors and discovered that nature is indeed our greatest healer.
In London, she had set up “Keah Lan Mobile Healing,” a platform to bring health and wellness to busy, stressed and time constrained-city folk. Nearly twenty years later on the French Riviera, she has rebranded the business as SENSES and recently held a reflexology workshop at the International School of Monaco’s wellbeing day.
“I luckily did not have to change my business much but I did have to navigate myself. Immersing into the French community is very important, not just learning the language but also supporting and working alongside other local businesses is key to opening doors.”
Some women leave their full-time job to start their own business to have more time to spend with their children. The reality is that a home business can also turn into a full-time gig and that work-family balance is harder to manage than anticipated. For Keah, being a mom has definitely made her better at being an entrepreneur.
In the year of Covid and confinements, she has learned to prioritise her mental health and wellbeing as a mom. “Far too often we put the needs of our family before our own. We becomeso absorbed by the responsibilities of being a joyful wife, mother, and homemaker that we neglect to adequately tend to our own personal health and wellbeing.”
2020 came with its load of challenges, more than any normal time, and Keah bravely admits that she had a near mental breakdown.
“Have you ever had a panic or anxiety attack? Multiply that by ten!” is how she describes the experience. “Suddenly, out of the blue, it hits you. Recognising the body’s warning signs early on is important but once you reach the point of breakdown, by falling very ill, remember that this is the body’s way of trying to jumpstart the healing process. I work a lot with this now in my offerings to clients and provide tools to help them.”
The global pandemic has not been kind to small businesses, and Senses has had to completely restructure the business, moving from providing at home and outdoor wellbeing to live Zoom classes online. Keah had to adapt and learn quickly. She created a library of classes online (including a Women’s Circle, €8), where workouts and wellbeing help to bring the five senses into harmony to heal the mind, body, and spirit. The classes provide a transformative and sustainable approach that nurtures and, most importantly, leads to lasting change. A lot of her private clients have decided not to proceed with online and will wait until classes are resumed in person. A few still join our mat classes which provide them with a sense of community .
About “failures” and “wrong paths,” Keah talks about trying to do too many things at once, putting too much on her plate, pouring from an empty cup, always saying “yes” and having become completely run down emotionally and mentally. Ring any bells ? A big lesson she learned and is still learning is to ask for help, to reach out to the community.
Keah’s nugget to take away from all of this is that it’s about progress not perfection: to take it one day at a time, to find time to breathe and be grounded.
As researcher and author Brené Brown would say, “We can be courageous through discomfort.”