Letter From France


How do you know it's summer on the Riviera? Once upon a time, the season of sweet bliss came with flowering bougainvillea and topless girls on Paloma Beach, a short ogle from chez moi on St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Nowadays it's the chomp-chomp-chomp of Paul Allen's helicopter. Look out to sea, and there he is (or soon will be), the Microsoft cofounder playing hoops on his $200 million megayacht, Octopus, with ex-Navy SEALs standing guard and an eight-man submarine for exploring the deep.

Flagrant displays of wealth are common in the south of France, but lately it's hard to keep track of who's trumping who. Elaborate fireworks are de rigueur at Russian dinner parties and German weddings. Two or three times a week in high season, sonic bursts rivaling anything on Bastille Day send my Labrador quaking in the bathtub.

Usually the festivities begin with the Cannes Film Festival, but this year they kicked off with the British billionaire Philip Green's bar mitzvah for his son, rumored to cost some 6 million euro. The mogul bought out all 44 rooms and nine suites (minimum, $1,655 a night) in the famed Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat for three weeks so that an elaborate concert hall and stone temple could be built amid the swishy palms overlooking the sea. Large blocks of ice were flown in from London, sculpted in the name of the party's petit prince . A chartered jet from GB and a fleet of racing cars from Monaco ferried the 200-plus guests to and fro. Besides choir songs from the Torah, there were enough bands for a Live Aid concert: Andrea Bocelli, Lemar and Destiny's Child singing, aptly, lyrics from Survivor: "You thought that I'd be broke without ya/But I'm richer."

The champions of egalite don't seem bothered by this invasion of nouveaux riches throwing ostentatious balls and closing entire streets for security. Real-estate prices have reached such heights that most French have retreated into the unfashionable inland hills. Yet when 20 German chefs were flown to St-Jean for a villa-renovation party, they were welcomed with "Gutentag"s. Restaurateurs print menus in multiple languages. With France's 10 percent unemployment, who's going to complain when a reclusive German billionaire hires an army of contractors to build an impregnable fortress, complete with a nuclear-bomb shelter?

Much as they love the high-paying jobs, though, few French buy the rich man's mantra: he who dies with the most toys wins. The bazillionaire next door may flaunt his garage full of Porsches wrapped in dust covers. But the French know only too well that, if taken out, they will soon be dinged--or stolen. Those with money would choose a Sunday lunch in the country with friends over a weekend business retreat. As for their social profile, they prefer shabby-chic.

My Cote d'Azur dream house, for example, is the cozy Provencal adjacent to Paul Allen's perfectly perfect Villa Maryland. Fifteen gardeners labor 24/7 to maintain his Edward Scissorhands lawns and hedges and a driveway blown clean of pollen. Next door, his neighbors let the jasmine grow laissez faire. The blue shutters and pale ocher walls are peeling; plastic furniture sits unevenly in the unkempt shade of lemon and olive trees. It's a simple, authentic treasure that says more about France and the French than any opulent chateau.

From my coiffeuse I heard that Allen offered oodles of millions to buy this fixer-upper. He discovered there are some things money can't buy when the low-key Ile-de-France owners politely replied "non." But they did invite him to a four-hour lunch.