Maureen Emerson

Maureen Emerson at the English Bookshop in Valbonne.

“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.

For more on Maureen Emerson, see www.rivieradreaming.co.uk. Copyright reserved.

Follow Maureen Emerson on Facebook for more fascinating tidbits.

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.

Monica Huszcz Delevaux

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.”

Photos courtesy of Haute Wedding.

Elizabeth Gabay

“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.”

A formidable tambola (raffle), running until December 16 in
aid of victims of Storm Alex, has been set up by French singer Julien Doré, whose grandparents were from the Vésubie valley.

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.”

She launched a weekly Instagram live chat with a wine colleague called #iloverocknrosé.

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.

All images are courtesy of Elizabeth Gabay.

Keah Lan

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 become so 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.”

About Caro Cuinet Wellings

Kerri Moss Beaumont

New Yorker Kerri Moss Beaumont ran her first business at the age of eight. “I was desperate to buy Jordache jeans and my parents were having none of it.” So she started Radio Red, selling homegrown tomatoes over the summer. “I’d fill my Radio Flyer red wagon and walk around the neighbourhood pitching my grandmother’s Italian pasta sauce recipe that needed $5 dollars worth of tomatoes.” Sales were so good that Kerri bought buy two pairs of jeans – at $42.99 each.

From a young age, Kerri understood sales was about knowing what the consumer wants and needs and then working out the difference. “You could say this stuff is in my blood. My Dad was Director at British Airways for Sales and Marketing for years and we used to go and look at toothpaste and figure out the trends on packaging and how they would shift product using discounts. To this day, I’m obsessed with stalking supermarket shelves.”

Kerri launched her “second” business, Naughty + Nice, in France in 2018, although she’d been toying with the idea of an organic juice business for a while.

Since 2013, she had been giving juice to her yoga clients on the Côte d’Azur when she was visiting from London. “Many would joke about throwing in some tequila post-yoga. And so the seed was planted for a ‘Detox, Retox, Repeat’ idea of a cold pressed organic juice that doubles as a cocktail mixer.”

Then in 2017, Kerri and her “very English” husband, Ian, took their four daughters – Lauren is now 14, Daisy 13, Coco 11 and Tallulah 9 – sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a small sailing yacht. “During that year, we were fortunate enough to enjoy loads of fresh produce and cold pressed juices and it highlighted the importance of nutrition for the whole family. From travelling, we also realised how cocktails are made of processed junk and most drinks on the supermarket shelves are also pasteurised and full of additives.”

The following year, the family relocated permanently to Valbonne. In May, Kerri was on Eddie Irvine’s yacht during the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix for the official launch of Naughty + Nice. “Nothing can wholly prepare you for starting your own business, especially in France. A director of Carrefour who is a client and now a friend told me that in the U.S. people would say Naughty + Nice is delicious, whereas in France they say ‘That’s not bad’ even though they mean the same.”

As a woman running a business, she finds the French “slightly antiquated and old fashioned but once I realised I wasn’t going to change the system, I worked out how to make it work for me.”

With a busy household (there is a boy dog to keep Ian company), you’d expect lockdown to be tough but Kerri admits, “It was similar to being on a 60-foot sailing yacht for a year as a family. When you are in ‘isolation’ – our longest sail was 15 and a half days from the Galapagos to the Marquesas – your emotions are on high alert and anything that has been repressed will rear its ugly head. On the boat, and during lockdown, we encouraged the girls to journal and to talk to us. And we reverted to the sailing attitude Chez Beaumont, getting up with the sun, eating healthy food and listening to music with lots of nice wine and good films.”

During the first lockdown, Naughty + Nice was delivering every day, which Kerri shares was a lifesaver. “Being out and making people happy was divine. For example, we delivered to Bill in Monaco who turned 100, that was a very special moment indeed.”

The fruit and veg organic juice company also donated drinks to the Lenval Children’s Hospital in Nice, and in Cannes and Mougins. “I thought that those on the front line would really benefit from a natural energy boost and immunity protection. Word got out … so we ended up shipping to hospitals up in Paris, too. In Monaco, the hospital wasn’t accepting donations due to Covid restrictions but the Red Cross team was great and we gave when we could over several months.” When Kerri received a letter in July from Prince Albert thanking her for her initiative and support, she “immediately called my Mom.”

For Lockdown 2.0, Kerri says she’s using food as medicine and doing a juice and raw fruit fast for the month of November. “Well … until Thanksgiving! I figure a whole body and mind reset is the best way to approach the restrictions.” She adds that as her family has been separated from most friends and other family members, they are hugging at home even more. “This habit started on the boat and is really in full swing now. It lifts the spirit like nothing else.”

Kerri is also using lockdown to work on expanding her business across Europe, starting with the U.K., and will be fundraising in early 2021 through Crowdcube. “My solid education and undoubtedly my ad agency days at TBWA\Chiat\Day in NYC and M&C in London have given me skills that enable me to get the marketing sorted in an efficient and effective way. And I think that Naughty + Nice has taken off so quickly because we are relatable, fun and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. In today’s world this can be worth its weight in gold!”

On top of raising a family and running a business, Kerri is dedicated to sports “I’m pretty sure my Dad had me throwing and catching a ball before I could walk.” At 11, I started running before school with my yellow Sony walkman and a tape of Tracy Chapman and Paul Simon. I would get out before the sun was up. I’m the oldest of five kids and the house was always mental in the morning – so this was my way of finding peace.”

Kerri has run a few marathons – “there’s nothing like London” – and recently entered the world of multiday stage racing, competing in the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica and training for the Everest Trail Race, which was cancelled this year. “The way the body can adapt is all about the mind and I absolutely adore it. The 250-km Marathon des Sables was a beast … I was that person in the First Aid tent on the first day as I forgot my inserts for my trainers so I had blisters all over both feet. And I mean all over. On the second morning I could barely walk to the open air loo and I remember thinking not crossing that finish line wasn’t an option. So I put mind over matter and pushed on.”

As a young girl, she always wanted to run marathons. “And I wanted to be a pilot. One down, one to go!” Kerri Moss Beaumont laughs.

Photos byTatiana Trunova and art direction and stylist Sam Lord.

Juanita & Taylor Viale

We have spent the better part of this year staring at Covid figures and graphs, and hearing about how care homes have been particularly vulnerable to the virus. It is easy to forget that it is not just the elderly living in assisted accommodation. The story of Juanita Viale and her disabled daughter Taylor is one of hope.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Juanita Viale was working for a Stanford-funded startup in San Francisco when her dad passed away. She decided to relocate to Costa Rica and settled in Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast, known for surfing thanks to the 1966 Robert August documentary classic, Endless Summer.

By 2007, she was living in San José when her youngest daughter Taylor suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth leaving her permanently disabled. Juanita and her husband decided to move Taylor and her older sister Isabella to France the following year. “My now ex-husband’s grandfather welcomed us with open arms to his 30-hectare vineyard, Coteaux de Bellet, behind Nice, and I stayed there for the next nine years.”

Taking care of the girls, especially with Taylor’s needs, was a full-time job but after a four-year hiatus from the work force, Juanita managed to land a gig in her field of communications and marketing.  “On my second day of work I was already in Monaco on the air at Riviera Radio giving weekly property reports, a vast contrast to being a stay-at-home-mom.”

While her marketing consulting and coaching business grew, her marriage, unfortunately, did not. By the autumn of 2019, Taylor moved into a center for severely disabled children in Saint Antoine Ginestiere, in Nice, operated by the Lenval Foundation, coming home on the weekends. During this same period, Juanita moved around 40 kilometers behind Nice to live in a forest.

“I found my French version of Costa Rica! As I live on a 7-hectare forest my lifestyle is pretty isolated, so when the first lockdown happened, nothing really changed for me since I live and run my business Marketing & Mindset Coaching from home anyway.

Taylor is allowed to come home weekends for this second confinement.

“However, the challenge was with Taylor. Under strict confinement restrictions she was not allowed to leave the center since they were all vulnerable. I didn’t see Taylor for two months with the exception of daily Facetime calls. She held out fine for the first month, but showed signs of depression the second month, which is when Facetime calls became a lifesaver.”

While this weighed enormously on Juanita’s heart, the good news was that it was clear that her daughter Taylor was more aware of her surroundings than the family realized.

A few days prior to France’s second lockdown announcement, Taylor was hospitalized during the weekend for fatigue and no appetite. She was tested immediately for Covid with a negative result.

Juanita wasn’t allowed to visit because she hadn’t had a Covid test. Rapid testing is reserved for the patients only so when the hospital offered to give her a regular test, the results wouldn’t be ready before 48 hours. By that time Taylor would already be out of the hospital.

While Juanita “completely understood” the situation, this was the first time Taylor had to be alone in the hospital. “Even though I have full confidence in the nurses to be with her, knowing she was alone did not sit well with me. However I had no other choice but to surrender that worrying thought and replace it with the gratitude I have for all those doctors and nurses who take such great care of the children at Lenval.”

With this second lockdown that took effect October 30,, Taylor is able to come home on the weekends. “Such relief! But for Isabella, 18, who is going to school and doing her internship in Nice, it will be her first lockdown alone. Facetime it is!”

If there is any lesson Juanita Viale has learned from “The Year of Staying at Home” it is to be adaptabile.

“The more willing we are to live out of our comfort zone, we strengthen our adaptability skills. It is imperative to keep working on ourselves, challenging ourselves, checking in with ourselves, loving ourselves and developing a positive mindset that will serve as your anchor in a sea of uncertainty.”