Chanel on the school run, £25k children’s parties, infidelity the norm; Jane Neuborn was glad to escape from Monte Carlo.
It’s a balmy April evening and I am sitting on the terrace of the Hôtel de Paris surveying my new home town. The woman on my left, a well-preserved former Russian model in her mid-forties, is parading a diamond of obscene proportions — 20.2 carats, to be precise.
She proffers the jewel-clad hand to me. “Hello, my name is Dakota. Welcome to Monte Carlo.”
Dakota, it transpires, landed herself a wealthy, much older husband and two children 15 years ago. “My oldest is called Winston,” she declares. “Inspired by the man I most want him to emulate.” “Winston Churchill?” I ask ingenuously. “No, Harry Winston,” she says, deadpan.
So began my one-year tenure in Monaco: a place where Benazir Bhutto was once mistaken for a shoe designer, Botox is rushed to the needy in makeshift beauty ambulances and seven-year-old children hold their parties in nightclubs.
It is a place riddled with irreconcilable contradictions: while promiscuity and copious alcohol consumption is socially acceptable, it is illegal to walk barefoot or even shirtless on the pavement.
I have been back in London for six months now, but a report in The Times last week, which claimed that more than 2,000 Britons in Monaco are costing the UK economy £1 billion in lost tax revenue, made me reflect on my experience.
I wondered how those women — many of whom, like me, had followed their husbands — felt about life in the glittering enclave on the Riviera. Did they hate it as vehemently as I did, were they all spending their days plotting an exit strategy? Or was Monaco simply filling up with yet more Dakotas, women who had sold their souls for a diamond ring and a couple of fur coats? I fear it may well be the latter.
As the mother of two boys the school lay at the epicentre of my new life, as it had in London, but nothing could have prepared me for the brigade of designer-clad mothers awaiting me. Cavalli, Dior and Chanel were de rigeur — and that’s just for the children.
On the first day, the head of the parents’ committee stood at the entrance of the school, resplendent in a Valentino cocktail dress, greeting new parents as though she was resident royalty. I was later told that this überMonaco madam had undergone so much Botox that when she received a phone call informing her that her father had suffered a fatal stroke, she was unable to raise an eyebrow, let alone demonstrate any emotion.
The fashion regalia was merely a prelude to the true insanity within.
To my amazement, it was not unusual for parents to ban their children from the primary residence and accommodate them in smaller, less salubrious apartments for fear of having their antique furniture marred by sticky hands. One particular mother, who lived in the prestigious Boulevard de Suisse area, had housed her children in a less glamorous postcode with their nanny. Every morning she met the trio at a top-secret location in order to save face and escort them on the walk of glory to the school gates, as a doting parent would.
A similar handover took place outside Stars ’N’ Bars, the infamous watering hole on the port adjacent to the school, every afternoon when the offspring were handed back to the nanny and discarded for the evening. When I asked her why she had opted for these rather unconventional living arrangements, she retorted that her two-year-old had once soiled her white chinchilla rug.
Parent-teacher conferences at the school were also memorable events. The curriculum was never really the issue. The headmistress was at pains to emphasise that the fruit provided to the children at snack time was supplied by the Café de Paris and my own sons, then aged 6 and 9, became adept at trading Pokémon cards in the playground, knew the difference between a Sunseeker Manhattan and a Benetti Classic (boats, for the uninitiated) and could cite their father’s net worth to within one decimal point.
But they had no clue about Barack Obama or David Cameron. Meanwhile, “playdates” consisted of plonking five-year-old children in front of Sex and the City and leaving them to munch on Atkins-friendly snacks (carbohydrates were a dirty word even for children).
I am not claiming to come from a poor or underprivileged background in any way. Born into a solidly middle-class family and educated at a private convent school (thanks to a father who was a stockbroker), I consider myself fortunate. But my holidays were spent in Cornwall, not St Tropez, my sister works for the NHS and my mother is a teacher. It was only when my husband, a private wealth manager at a bank, was transferred to Monaco that I witnessed the true meaning of opulence. I did my utmost to adjust to the scene for his sake, but it was hard.
Our lives in London are relatively down-to-earth. I had a part-time job as a physiotherapist and our children attended a North London private school but their first cousins go to the local state school. They do not own iPads and iPods and I try my best not to spoil them.
In contrast, Monaco children are raised in a bubble — a champagne bubble — filled with Rolex watches, Van Cleef earrings and lavish birthday parties. One mother at school hired the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club to celebrate her daughter’s fifth, Snow White-themed birthday at a credit crunch-defying ¤30,000 (£24,000). She flew in seven dwarfs from Paris and a miniature Dylans Candy Bar from New York to “authenticate the experience”. Another parent deemed it necessary to host her ten-year-old’s birthday bash at Jimmy’z nightclub, while yet another flew in five Shetland ponies from the Shetland Islands to make her little darling’s day. The £15 book tokens that were my standard birthday gifts in London suddenly seemed achingly inadequate.
Unsurprisingly, fulfilment and life in Monaco do not go hand in hand.
Many of the women I encountered admitted to taking some form of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.
Relationships suffer, too. I was stunned when I was propositioned for a foursome by the husband of a friend one night at Sass Café, the venue of choice for the British expat community. It seems that once you have opted to forgo your tax bills, anything goes. And the first thing that usually does is a marriage. Women would use increasingly nefarious methods in the never-ending quest for the “bigger, better deal”, or BBD as the relationship upgrade is referred to.
A huge scandal erupted during my time in the principality when one woman slept with her husband’s best friend after it was rumoured that he had upgraded to a Global Express, the Rolls-Royce of private jets. Unfortunately, the rumour proved to be erroneous and she ended up with a case of VD instead.
Monaco women will go to any lengths to look their best. I encountered several who retained a masseur five days a week to perform a French technique called “palpa rouler”, which involves violently bashing the buttocks to keep cellulite at bay. Another woman was so determined to have a breast augmentation that she paid a surgeon from Nice to perform it in her apartment. Unfortunately, two nights later, she dislodged her new additions while jiggling to Beyoncé at the World Music Awards.
If the International School is the heart of Monaco, the Monte-Carlo Beach club is its soul. Failure to join this establishment, where a sun lounger costs €75 (£60) a day and a salade niçoise is the price of a three-course-meal in London, spells social ruin. From the moment it opens at the beginning of May, the great and the good of Monaco society congregate at the club to swap gossip or spouses, top up their tans or catch the well-endowed former Playboy model Victoria Silvstedt pole-dancing down the ladder into the pool. But the dress code is more nightclub than beach club — 6in Louboutin heels and gem-encrusted micro minis are compulsory fatigues. Lunch is a meticulously-planned affair — often held at the new Cipriani restaurant — that kicks off at noon and can continue until 9am the following day. Food is rarely consumed; “Eating is for wimps,” one super-slender lunch pro once cautioned me as I tucked into a hamburger.
However, it is perfectly acceptable for your driver to deliver you to the school gates in a state of total inebriation. I witnessed a 45-year-old mother with what a friend described as a “body from Baywatch and a face from Crimewatch” fall face-first, completely intoxicated after one such lunch, into her daughter’s classroom at pick-up.
Her fall was met with uproarious laughter from teachers and fellow parents alike. However, it is a definite faux pas to admit to flying commercial, owning a fake Hermès bag or wearing last season’s fur.
I was quite curtly informed that mink was not worn in Monaco as it was most “pedestrian”.
In London I had always felt moderately stylish and on-trend, but my confidence nose-dived next to these judgmental glamazons. My daily uniform of jeans and biker boots simply didn’t cut the mustard and my size-12 body, of which I had formerly been proud, was positively outsize in Monaco. I was easily the largest lady at lunch, where size 6 was standard.
Topics of conversation at these events ranged from birthday gifts (one woman claimed that her husband had presented her with a Gulfstream) to local scandal — apparently the mother of a child in my son’s class, who had fallen on hard times, had to resort to sleeping with one of the governors of the school to pay the fees.
Another obliging gentleman had consented to pay her rent (most people rent in Monte Carlo) in a similar arrangement.
I once witnessed a fully fledged catfight at the smart Cipriani, which erupted when one woman accused her friend of failing to provide an adequately ostentatious gift for her child’s birthday. The altercation spilled out into the street.
At another lunch I was greeted with a glass of ice-cold pink champagne and a nurse wielding a Botox needle.
For the men, life is one big boys’ club, an earthly nirvana where anything goes. Business takes place over whiskies in Le Bar Américain at the Hôtel de Paris, which is affectionately known as “the office”. Wives, meanwhile, are simply viewed as barometers of their husbands’ wealth.
As a member of the club once noted in a rare moment of lucidity, “the bigger the cleavage and the more dazzling the diamonds, the greater the man”. When the womenfolk show signs of rebellion they are dismissed with the fiscal version of bread and circuses. One particular resident dealt with his wife’s disenchantment by buying her a Fendi fur every time she complained of poor treatment.
She now has a wardrobe full of goodies and a bathroom cabinet packed with Prozac.
Women are certainly regarded as the inferior sex and, while you may have arrived with a perfectly nice husband, within a matter of weeks he will be amusing himself in the playground of fast cars, cheap women and expensive habits. As for me, I was lucky.
My husband soon understood that we couldn’t exist in Monaco.
It was bad for our marriage (I never saw him), awful for the kids (the day my nine-year-old demanded Evian at dinner instead of tap water I knew my time was up) and healthier for my liver — I had gradually replaced my daily herbal tea infusions with vodka shots. It was potentially a real problem.
Strangely enough, it was my husband who insisted we return home and he requested a transfer to the London branch of his bank.
My self-confidence had been rendered so fragile by my time in Monte Carlo that I was not able to function. Nonetheless, it has taken my husband a little while to adjust back to London life.
The daily office grind doesn’t compare to the glamour of casinos, Playboy bunnies and endless, champagne-fuelled soirées.
My children, meanwhile, have happily swapped playdates on yachts for the joy of running around in open spaces and the familiarity of old friendships. Barely any of the women I encountered even registered our departure. People come and go in Monaco, and they are relevant only while they are playing the game.
Monaco life might be perfectly palatable for some, but I could never reconcile myself to its innate hedonism. I strongly believe that, once one forgoes the social responsibility of paying tax, it is a slippery slope to moral bankruptcy.
In the UK we may moan about the weather and the economy, and lament the state of the NHS and public transport, but at least we have an emotional investment in our country and its future.
This lack of accountability lies at the heart of the “Monaco problem” and, in my opinion, regardless of any tax benefits, it is too high a price to pay.