The travel industry took a major hit from covid, and business conferences nearly went extinct. But with the world opening up again, they’re coming back. And that’s why I was in Monaco.
It was the Ritossa Investment Summit, a posh gathering of venture capitalists, family offices, wealth managers, and those of us pitching to them. I’d attended three Ritossas in Dubai, as a speaker, a panelist, and an exhibitor, respectively. The networking is world class, the people fascinating, the ideas and information critically useful, and the partnering opportunities endless. So when I heard the next one was in Monaco—and would no doubt involve a completely new cast of characters—I booked tickets early.
With Icecap just coming out of its “beta” period, our contracted sales force already exceeding goals, and with a Series A venture capital financing on the horizon, I was looking for contacts.
Icecap sells diamond NFTs as a form of hard-asset diversification. Anyone who had a business card connecting themselves to the world of finance, wealth management, venture capital, or blockchain—however remotely—I wanted to meet.
The good news is that most everyone at a Ritossa conference (these days heavily focused on blockchain technologies) qualified for my short list. The bad news is that no one uses business cards anymore. I don’t know if it’s a residual effect of covid, or just an eagerness to embrace new technologies, but business cards are out. WhatsApp is in.
WhatsApp is the messaging software that lets you exchange texts, make phone calls for free, and serves up little QR codes to scan.
So I’d go up to Mr. Important Contact, chat for a bit, explore partnering opportunities, and then out would come the phones. I’d scan his code or he’d scan mine, and with a few more taps on the screen, we’d be connected.
Or not. Because here’s the problem with scanning QR codes. All it’s really capturing is the WhatsApp phone number. Maybe there’s a way to do it more effectively, but no one at the conference seemed to know how. We were all struggling with this new technology. So here’s what happens:
- You scan the other person’s QR code.
- You press “add contact”
- The app will now add this phone number to a “new contact” form.
- But then you have to type in their name.
- Which means you have to ask them their name, and deal with complicated spelling issues.
- So you ignore the rest of their name and just type their first name, like “Sam.”
- And by the way, all this is probably happening at one of the cocktail parties so you may be holding a drink in one hand, a plate of hors d’oeuvres in another, while you’re also trying to enter all this information onto your phone—which also requires two hands.
- But it gets worse. Because if you just add this new contact by their first name and phone number, you’ll never find them again. WhatsApp has no means to sort contacts by when they were entered. So you have to use the name field to include some way of finding this person again, for follow up purposes. Solution: Type “Sam” and “Monaco.” Then you can pull up all the Monacos and you’ll know this was someone you met at the Ritossa conference.
- Wait, you’re not done yet. Then it’s good form to send the person a quick text message, like “Hi.” That way they now have your number, and when they reply back “Hi,” you’re considered “connected” in WhatsApp world.
So explain to me again why this is more efficient than just exchanging business cards? With the business card, you have everything: name, company, title, email, etc., all of it spelled out correctly. Then, if you have a pen handy, you can jot a quick note on the back of the card so you’ll remember them: Has art fund in Zurich. That kind of thing. Takes only seconds. You can add it to your contacts database later, and follow-up will be easy.
But in this brave new world of QR codes, I’ve now got about thirty new mystery contacts in WhatsApp. All I know is a first name, and a phone/text address. I have no idea who these people are. My follow-up will consist of a lame outreach message saying something like: “Hi Sam, great to meet you at the Monaco event. But can you remind me who TF you are, and why I’m interested in you?”
Yeah, that’ll make an impression.
* * *
Something that did make an impression, at least on me, was the quantity of unusually beautiful women at an event which you’d guess would attract mostly the wealth-manager-from-London types: people more focused on hedge-fund strategies than in looking fashionable. Why were there so many beautiful women here?
I had two theories. One was that the Ritossa event was sharing the hotel with another conference, perhaps focused on modelling or fashion photography or something. This happened to me years earlier at the New York Hilton: three days of tryouts for aspiring young models, and the place was crawling with glamorous teenagers. Another time, at the same hotel, it was a convention of male body-builders. Ugh. Win some, lose some.
My second theory was that these women were the trophy partners of the well-heeled conference attendees.
Both were wrong. By the end of the conference I’d met most of these women and—despite WhatsApp limitations—discovered they generally were wealth-manager-from-London types. At least they were somehow connected to the financial industry as investors or venture capitalists or high-end consultants, often with PhD’s after their names.
Most were friendly, vivacious, obviously intelligent, and easy to talk to. But not all.
One of the strangest encounters I had in Monaco I’m still trying to understand. An American guy, maybe late forty-something, and a friend of one of my company’s investors who was also at the conference, sought me out after my speech and asked if we could chat.
Well, sure. That’s why I was here. To chat. He led me to a table in the lobby restaurant: a very desirable corner looking out over floor-to-ceiling glass at the Mediterranean Sea and the mountainous landscape of Monaco. The table was already occupied by three women, who now stood up. True to conference standards, these attendees were all beautiful, tall, and thin. They were dressed expensively and heavily made up, as if heading out to a formal dinner party. They each shook my hand while almost managing a smile, and mumbling something about it being a pleasure to meet me.
Once seated, the guy—who I’ll call Jim—asked me to give a quick elevator pitch about my company. Then he started firing off questions. They were good questions, and were testament to his obvious intelligence and understanding of Icecap’s business concept.
The questions, and my answers, continued for a full ninety minutes, while the waiter kept us supplied with sparkling water on ice, plus lemon twists. What I thought was a casual encounter in the lobby was turning into a pretty serious meeting. But I really had no idea who this guy was, let alone who the others were.
They didn’t act like normal women. They didn’t talk. They didn’t smile. Their body language wasn’t hostile, nor were they impolitely glancing at cell phones or whispering to each other. They just sat and watched me closely, with interest, as if I were a new species of insect.
While answering Jim’s questions I included the women via eye contact and my own body language, glancing at each in turn, smiling, and making it clear I was speaking to them as well.
They just stared back.
Finally, almost as one, the mysterious women stood up and explained they had to get to another meeting. More light handshakes, and more almost-smiles.
Jim and I sat back down.
“So, what did you think of them?” he asked, knowing it had been a bizarre social situation.
“Who the heck were they?” I blurted out. “And did you notice all three went an hour and a half without so much as a single smile?”
“They’re Russians. Russian women don’t smile.”
I’d learned this earlier, during the several months I’d been living in Dubai. We’d actually hired a Russian woman as our company’s primary representative. And she almost never smiled. Although she was beginning to. Small steps.
“Why don’t they smile?”
“It’s a cultural thing. They smile if there’s a reason to, if there’s something funny or amusing. But they don’t smile as part of a conversation, to be polite. They consider that to be distracting, and believe it makes them look silly.”
“OK, fine, but who are they? And why were they sitting here?”
“They’re friends of mine. They are each extremely wealthy. More to the point, they each have a large network of friends who are far wealthier.”
“Back in Russia.”
“Yes. Anyway I’m an angel investor, and I only do blockchain deals. The last deal I did, when these women found out about it, and that I hadn’t asked them to participate financially, they told me if I ever did that again, they’d kill me.”
“And with Russians, you don’t know for sure if they’re kidding.”
“Right,” said Jim. “So that’s why I wanted them here.”
“Are you considering being an investor?”
“If you want me to hand you a check right now, the answer’s no. But I’m thinking about it. Your answers were good ones. This is a very intriguing company.”
We crossed paths several more times at the events, but I never saw the three ladies again. I’d have enjoyed a drink with them at the bar—just so I could try to get them to smile. Maybe I could tell a blockchain joke or something. Not that I knew any, more’s the pity.
* * *
There were social events almost every night, and when the three-day Ritossa conference ended, where I’d been a speaker, I was offered another speaking position at the BitAngels soiree, the following evening. And another after that (Swiss Growth Forum). Then: free tickets to yet another (CC Forum). And finally, something called a VIP Closing Picnic Cocktail Party at a villa in the countryside outside of Cannes, the final day for the International Investment Congress, whatever that was. I was going to be conference hopping all over Monaco, although I knew about none of these others in advance. Fortunately my return flight could be pushed back as needed.
Complicating things further, these investment events were occurring simultaneously with the Cannes Film Festival and its lesser-known sister, the Monaco Film Festival. The conference crowd moved between them effortlessly.
The first night at Ritossa I met Ali, a movie director from Tunisia. He was accompanied by (you can probably fill this part in) a fashionably dressed, beautiful woman. Apparently she was a well-known actress in this part of the world. I’ll call her Brigette. Ali confessed he had no films up for awards at this year’s Film Festival, but at the prior one he’d received nominations for three of them. I made the appropriate remarks—knowing how devastating it is not to have your film up for even a single award at Cannes.
I seemed to hit it off with Ali. Either he especially liked me for some reason, or he’s that way with everyone. Much later I realized he probably thought me rich, and was hunting for Executive Producers (the ones who write the checks).
“Hey, would you like to go to the film festival?” he asked at one point.
“Well sure, what is the film festival, exactly? What does one do there?”
“We party. There are several big galas. I can get you a ticket.”
“Um, well, sure.”
He drifted away, leaving me with Brigette.
Unlike the Russians, she smiled a lot, but had bad news to deliver.
“Sorry, speak no English. Arabic. Francais.”
“Je ne parle pas l’arabe,” I confessed. (I speak no Arabic)
“You speak French!” she exclaimed in French, brightening instantly.
I spoke barely more French than she spoke, English. But it was enough to keep a broken conversation going. Between the two of us, we managed.
OK, so some of the women at this conference were Russian investors. One was an actress. How about the others? I met several more that night. There was Yana (one of the conference planners, and the one who kept inviting me to more conferences), Lilliya (a luxury magazine editor), Tara (an investment banker from Montreal), Tatiana (a blockchain entrepreneur), and…Nell, Svetlana, Kim, Ludmilla, Alena, etc.
They were statuesque blondes all, as if somewhere nearby a runway was missing its models. Since no one used business cards I ended up with a lot of names and phone numbers, but no clue who most of these people were.
* * *
Not everyone fit the mold. There were two Africans attending, people I’d previously met in Dubai. Here was Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, of the Bena Tshiyamba people from the Kasai region of the Congo. I’d met her at the last Ritossa Conference. She was heavily involved in humanitarian projects and was a sought-after speaker. Queen Diambi is utterly charming.
The other African was Mamadou Kwidjim Toure, a middle aged guy from Cameroon who was working on a blockchain-based gold fund, and thought Icecap and his company should collaborate. Well, we should! I was very interested in Mamadou, and explained why.
“I’m finishing up a novel, actually a trilogy. And one whole chapter takes place in Cameroon.”
“No way! Cameroon, seriously? You’re the first person here who’s ever heard of Cameroon.”
“Of course I’ve heard of it. Are you from the capital, Yaoundé?”
“Yes, can’t believe you’ve heard of Yaoundé.”
“I’ve even heard of Charles Katanga Park, that’s where the scene takes place.”
“I know that park! I’ve been there.”
“I think I should come to Cameroon to do research for this novel, don’t you think?”
“Of course! You come with me, I’ll take you everywhere in the whole country.”
That sounded like quite an invitation, but I got a better—or at least more feasible—one from Queen Diambi the next day.
“We’re all going to the Buddha Bar tonight,” she said. “You must join us.”
I learned that the Buddha Bar was a posh watering hole and restaurant a short walk from the hotel. I walked alone, and found it was a restricted entrance, like a club. They had a guy only allowing people in after they’d queued up between the red ropes, but it was only a brief wait. The whole thing was patterned after a Buddhist monastery, with lots of Buddha statues, dark lighting, low seats and benches, kind of a sprawling area on the main floor opposite a bar, and regular table seating upstairs on the mezzanine.
The lower area was mostly empty, with only a single group of four in one corner. I chose a fairly central, easy to spot location, and ordered a beer. Almost immediately two attractive young women came over, and took seats next to me. They were obviously close friends and began talking nonstop.
Oh, great. As a sixty-something, it was midlife-crisis time. With unaccompanied women sitting next to me at a trendy night spot, the personal challenge was obvious. If I had any hope of maintaining my image as a suave, hunky kind of guy who specialized in picking up women in bars, it was time to make a move. I’d try out a few clever lines, get them laughing, buy them a round of drinks, that kind of thing. Given my skill set, it would be easy.
Oh wait. All that was my fantasy life. In truth I have no self-image as a suave, hunky kind of guy. I’m the opposite. Heck, I couldn’t even get those Russian ladies to smile.
So I took my attention off the women, looked at the menu, and placed a small order of sushi. Somehow I’d missed lunch and this seemed like a good idea while waiting for the Queen to arrive. I was beginning to doubt she would. A Queen from the Congo must get invited everywhere.
The sushi was delivered, and I was just about to take the first bite, when in came Queen Diambi and her retinue. These weren’t Congolese warriors guarding her with spears and assegai knives. Rather, they were folks from the Congress itself. Half a dozen of them. She spotted me instantly and began issuing royal commands.
“Jacques, come with me, we’ll find a table upstairs.”
I followed her instantly, motioning to the waiter to please bring the sushi. He nodded hastily, eager to serve royalty.
It was crowded upstairs as we began searching for a table. I’d checked earlier and knew there weren’t any to spare. But Queen Diambi was a force of nature. With her suite—now including me and the guy carrying sushi—she moved among the tables, searching, searching.
Finally an empty one was discovered back near the stairs. “Yes, we’ll sit here,” she proclaimed, and the sushi was set down ceremoniously in front of her. But it was too small a table, and not nearly enough chairs.
“We might be happier downstairs,” I suggested quietly.
“Everyone, we will now go back downstairs!” she called. Everyone stood up, and the waiter rushed back over to continue his role—as bearer of the sushi.
Down the staircase we went, and soon were sprawled out on the seats and benches and low tables near the bar. Yes, this was much better. The two pretty women were still there, and the Queen called to them.
“Ladies, join us. I insist.” And of course they did.
Wow, why hadn’t I used that line? “Ladies, join me, I insist!” You always think of the perfect thing to say afterwards. Apparently they were from the conference as well, and now we were a large party, pretty much controlling the downstairs area. And I was sitting next to the queen.
After asking her all the right questions, I mentioned my Forest Creature novel, noted that some of it took place in Congo and Cameroon, and that Mamadou had invited me to come visit.
“Cameroon, yes,” she mused. “I actually know all the tribal kings of Cameroon. All of them. It will be my pleasure to introduce you.”
Wow. I’d never before met someone who knew all the tribal kings of Cameroon. Some of them, sure.
“But you must also visit me in Congo,” she said, and appeared serious. We began discussing dates, and agreed late August would be best. I had no idea how I’d explain to my wife about this upcoming trip to Congo, but I’d think of something. Obviously I couldn’t publish a novel that takes place partially in Congo and Cameroon without some pretty significant field research. Yes, that sounded reasonable. At least it did after my second beer.
* * *
Another guy I met at the conference was David. I never learned his last name, or his country, and least of all what he did or why he was at the event. Perhaps late thirties, handsome and gregarious, he seemed obsessed with women. It’s all he talked about.
“Jacques, I’ve never seen so many beautiful women in one place before. And I’ve been to a lot of places.”
“I’m sure you have. Where most recently?”
“Hong Kong, I’ve been in Hong Kong for ten years.” I didn’t quite catch what he’d been doing there.
Somehow he’d managed to get invited to all the same conference events and parties I did, because we kept running into each other. He was very friendly, and always eager to talk about women.
He did more than talk. At every social event, once the champagne was poured, out would come his roving hands. He’d managed to get close to a woman, no doubt engage her in small talk, and then find an excuse (like he needed one) to move in close. A roving hand would end up on a bare shoulder. An arm would make itself around a waist. Fingers would lovingly stroke the back of a neck. I never saw him actually get slapped. Maybe this was normal behavior in Monaco.
For some reason, like Ali the director, and Mamadou the blockchain guy from Cameroon, David became friends and we often hung out at the parties. I got to know more about all his girlfriends than I really needed, but one anecdote was interesting.
We’d been discussing elevation and lack of oxygen in high terrain. I’m not sure how we got on that subject, but he had a story about it, one involving a woman.
“I was in Lhasa,” he explained.
“Yes, Lhasa, Tibet. It’s over 13,000 feet above sea level.
“I live at almost 10,000 feet, but when I go hiking in the mountains, even up to 12 or 13, I get really tired. Can’t believe the difference it makes.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t just get tired. I, well, you know, I couldn’t perform. You know, in bed!”
“Yeah, and it wasn’t like she wasn’t an attractive woman. She was very beautiful. But I couldn’t just, well, you know.”
“Because of the altitude?”
“Yeah, I was so embarrassed. But she was nice about it and patient, and finally things worked out. But I mean, OMG!”
We were deep into TMI territory. I tried to think of something appropriate to say.
“Well, Monaco’s at sea level.”
I drifted off before he could tell me how his amorous adventures were going so far in the principality.
* * *
Finally, in the “not-a-gorgeous-blonde-woman” category was Claire. As with most, I wasn’t sure who she was, what she did, or why she was here. But I knew where she was from: Vancouver.
Claire was young, Asian, as beautiful as the rest of them but with long dark hair, and devastatingly intelligent. She was also quite bossy.
At one point she saw me in the meeting area, between events.
“You’re speaking tomorrow, right?”
“Yes. I’ve been working on my PowerPoint.”
“Let me see it. I’ll make it better.”
We found a place in the lobby to sit and soon I was reviewing the slides with her. An acquaintance of hers, a middle-aged guy who represented a venture fund in California (he actually had a business card) joined us, and both became obsessed with the task of “making Jacques’ PowerPoint all it could be.”
Claire seemed to come from a world of investment funds herself, as she kept mentioning what investors were looking for, and how to make a pitch more effective, and so forth. The venture capital guy agreed with everything she said. Soon I had a long list of suggestions, and they were good ones.
“I can make these changes no problem,” I noted. “I’m not speaking until 2pm tomorrow. So I have plenty of time.”
“No, you don’t have plenty of time. You need to make the changes tonight, and then send it to me, tonight.”
“I don’t understand, why send it to you?”
“So I can keep working on it. I can add a lot of professionalism.”
“Well, that would be great, but, ‘er, why are you offering to help?”
“I’m very enthusiastic about this business,” she averred. “I think I can help you.”
I learned from others that Claire was somehow connected with rich Asians in China, but—well—probably everyone at this conference other than me was somehow connected with rich Asians in China. Not to mention rich Russians. That didn’t exactly narrow it down.
But the next morning there was no PPT from Claire in my inbox, and I mentally dismissed the idea that she’d actually done work on it. Anyway, I needed to get my USB stick to the tech engineers in the conference center, so they could add it to the program. I was supposed to do that before the conference started, but rarely do I get a speech prepared on schedule.
By the time the techies had it loaded, the conference was breaking for lunch. Here was a text from Claire.
“How much time do I have?” she asked. “My team and I have been working on it all night.”
What?!?! Surely that was an exaggeration. Her team??
“Very little,” I responded. “The speech is in less than an hour.”
Twenty minutes before my presentation a brand new PowerPoint arrived in my WhatsApp inbox. I began reviewing the slides. Holy crap. She’d made it gorgeous. It was if the whole thing had been put together by an expensive, professional, graphic arts company in New York or something. I couldn’t believe it.
But this was a very different PowerPoint, and I’d have to memorize things fast, and learn how to use it as a backdrop for my presentation. That takes practice—what I’d been engaged in for the last 24 hours. Now all that was wasted. But the new PowerPoint was worth it. It would make Icecap look like a far more legitimate company.
I copied the thing onto my USB stick and rushed it over to the techies. In minutes they had it loaded, replacing the earlier version. Whew!
Fortunately the new material wasn’t a problem because I knew the core subject matter, even if it was presented differently. One slide, early in the presentation, featured the Icecap team: the founders: Bill Boyajian, Jacques Voorhees, Erik Voorhees, and Michael Terpin.
Our publicity pictures were on that slide, I mentioned the names in order, and when I got to Erik, a third of the room broke out in applause.
Wow. OK. At a diamond industry event, I’m fairly well known, and Bill would be an A-list celebrity. But here in Monaco, at an investment conference where blockchain initiatives were everyone’s fancy, Erik was the rock star. Over the course of the event a dozen or more people came up to me, just to “meet Erik’s father.” Well, with over a million Twitter followers I guess this wasn’t so crazy. Erik has become one of the true apostles of crypto, one of the champions of the industry, and one of the most sought-after speakers. Of course so many started clapping when I mentioned him. And it was a very strange feeling. Here I was thousands of miles from home, in a country I doubt Erik had ever been to, and yet my speech was interrupted by applause when his name appeared. It was a very cool dad moment.
* * *
At the yacht party that night, where tickets were reserved for VIPs, the scene was chaos.
Yana had texted me earlier. “I got you in.”
“The party on the yacht.”
“There’s a party on a yacht?”
“Yes, you’re on the guest list. But we’re overbooked, so get there early.”
She gave me directions.
Claire decided to go with me to the yacht party, but as I was waiting in the lobby, my phone rang.
“I don’t think I’m on the list,” she said. “I don’t think the ticket I have gets me onto the yacht.”
“I’ll text Yana.”
Yana agreed. There was no Claire Cui on the list.
“And you can’t get her on?”
“Jacques, it’s already way overbooked, that’s why you have to get here early.”
So Claire had to bow out, and I felt bad, after what she’d done for my PowerPoint.
But getting to the yacht early didn’t actually help. Why? Because they weren’t letting people on until the event was to start, at 7:30pm. And by then, a huge crush had formed.
The one time I’d previously been to Monaco, when I was twelve, my only memory was of a huge yacht harbor, filled with sailboats. The harbor hadn’t changed much, but the boats had. The sailing vessels were gone, mostly replaced by huge motorized, mega-yachts. One of these was hosting the party. If we could ever get on to it.
Yana, seemingly in charge of everything, had already made clear to the officials that I was on the list, but that had been 45 minutes ago. Everyone had been sipping champagne and making small talk since then, while waiting around on the dock.
Now it was boarding time and there was no polite queue, or even the kind of line you see at the Buddha Bar, carefully organized with red ropes. No, this was madness. It was the same way Europeans don’t queue for ski lift lines. They just form a big wedge and the rules are you fight your way to the front. Survival of the fittest.
There was a narrow gangplank, wide enough for one person to cross at a time. There were officials at the dockside entrance guarding the gangplank, armed—apparently—with copies of the guest list. And there were over a hundred rabid partygoers determined to somehow get onto this yacht.
And all of us were barefoot.
That was a requirement. No shoes on the yacht. They had a good system to collect the shoes, place them in a bag, and give each owner a claim ticket. Pity there was no such organization at the entrance itself.
Queen Diambi arrived—quite the celebrity—and everything opened up for her as she was whisked on board. The guy from Cameroon wasn’t so lucky, and despite claiming he was with the Queen (he wasn’t) there was no royal treatment for him. Using European ski-lift technique learned decades ago, I managed to get near the front of the queue, sufficient to catch Yana’s eye, and she hurried me aboard. Whew.
But in truth there was no urgency to get aboard the yacht at all. No one should have cared. Why? Because this wasn’t really that kind of yacht party. It was a yacht party where the yacht never leaves the dock. What the hell?
If the yacht doesn’t leave the dock, then you don’t actually need a yacht. There were plenty of outdoor terraces back at the hotel that would have provided just as good a setting. And it wasn’t even like we got to explore the vessel. Everyone was kept outside, restricted to just two decks, so it was a bit cramped, even once on board. But the weather was lovely, the champagne was free, and—with my discount conference ticket—I wasn’t even supposed to be here in the first place.
Two hours later, two hours of making small talk and sipping champagne with all the beautiful people who’d made it onto the yacht, I discovered they were now letting anyone on. As I headed down the gangplank, the next person waiting in line got to board. Etc. You didn’t even need to have your name on the list. But since the boat stayed put regardless, I was happy to give my spot to someone else.
* * *
At another soiree, the diamond scammers arrived. I didn’t know there were diamond scammers. Our agent back in Dubai, Elena (the one from Russia) had warned me about these people. Apparently there are fraudsters who are always trying to sell large, expensive diamonds to people in the trade. But they are merely brokers (or pretending to be.) They don’t own the diamonds. And they don’t even have them. The diamonds are always in some other country, and you need to pay a deposit before they’ll be shipped to you. Of course once you pay the deposit, the diamonds never arrive. And the scammer leaves with the money.
The first one, a woman, arrived with an entourage. She didn’t speak English but one of her assistants did and he was here to translate. Apparently word had circulated on the Riviera that there was a diamond guy at the investment conferences in Monte Carlo. With the help of the translator, the story came out. This woman was well connected with people in Congo who owned a diamond mine. Not only that, but—get this—she could show me a video of the diamonds on her phone. I glanced at the video, despite there being few things on Earth I have less interest in than rough diamonds at a mine in Congo. The video showed: rough diamonds arrayed on a piece of paper, the kind commonly used in the industry for sorting rough stones. What was I supposed to do, appraise these rough diamonds from a video played on an iPhone at a cocktail party in Monaco?
Worse, the interpreter didn’t even speak English that well. My French was better. Best I could, I explained politely that I was not interested in rough diamonds. Eventually they drifted off. But here came another. This was a woman who’d heard my speech at the event earlier in the day, and she had “someone who’s driven here from Cannes just to meet you.”
He also spoke little English, and the woman had to translate. Guess what this guy had? He had friends with a diamond mine in the Congo. Wait, it gets better. He had a video. And he showed me the diamonds on his iPhone. Wow, what a coincidence! These were the same diamonds, the same video, that the woman who just left had had.
I was glad Elena had warned me about the diamond scammers, but even if she hadn’t, I had no interest in buying rough diamonds from Congo. Although I have no doubt it was a very “good price.” They always are.
While there were social events every night, I tried to only attend the scheduled ones, and not get pulled into the late night pub crawls and such that Nell, and Alena, and the others would tell me about. At least Claire was on my wavelength. “8pm’s my bed time!” I heard her explain, in response to one such invitation.
Truly, I don’t understand how people go to these events which start early, involve nonstop networking all day, finish up with cocktail receptions in the evening, and then are able to head out and “do the town” afterwards.
I seemed to constantly be disappointing people.
Mamadou, the guy from Cameroon, found me one night as I was trying to drift off to my room. “Jacques, meet us in the lobby at 11:15. We’re heading out to dinner.”
I declined politely.
The pretty actress from Tunisia offered to show me around Nice, where she lived.
Maybe next time.
Ali, the director, found me the next morning. “Jacques where were you? I arrived from Cannes at 11:30 last night with three beautiful actresses. We looked everywhere for you.”
I’m sure my absence totally ruined their evening.
Even the invitation to the Cannes Film Festival turned out to be the same evening I was doing the speech at the Swiss Growth Forum so there went that opportunity.
* * *
By Thursday night the events were over and many attendees had left. I’d asked Claire if she’d be willing to provide the same talents on our business plan PowerPoint as she’d done with the PPT I’d used for the presentation. She eagerly accepted, and I’d spent two hours in her hotel room the prior day working on it. I was surprised she’d suggested we work on the document in her room, but Claire was 100% professional, and by now I’d learned she had an MBA in Finance and been a partner in a niche accounting firm that advised startup companies. We sat together at a small table, with dueling laptops, as she tore apart my spreadsheet projections and challenged every assumption. It didn’t seem awkward, and who knows what the rules are for men and women in hotel rooms these days? Maybe this was normal.
Quite likely so, as she uninhibitedly invited herself to my own room the next morning before breakfast, as she wanted to see the spectacular scenery I’d mentioned.
While sitting on the deck we enjoyed the view which swept nearly 180 degrees, from a heavily forested park-like headland to the east, all the way to the Royal Palace itself up on a cliff overlooking the water, to the west. This 12th century Genoese fortress had once housed the American film star Grace Kelly, whose son Prince Albert II now ruled Monaco. And in between these two sights was the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea, with elegant sailboats and lofty superyachts anchored near shore.
We moved to the hotel’s outdoor café for breakfast, and knew this would be the last day we’d have to work on the business plan. I’d be leaving for the airport at 4am the next morning and she’d leave 24 hours later.
Spending the whole day, if needed, working on the business plan would be an excellent use of my own time, although I wasn’t sure what was in it for Claire.
Her “team,” I discovered, was a graphic arts lady back in Vancouver who was a whiz at PowerPoints—which is where the professionalism had come from. Well, that plus Claire’s astute messaging, and knowing what points needed to be stressed. Vancouver lady had been working on the presentation during our night-time, but hadn’t yet sent back the polished version. We were stuck until she did.
How to kill time? Renting a sailboat sounded good to both of us, but you can’t rent sailboats in Monaco. Mega-yachts, with a crew of twenty, for a week, yes, no problem. $100k a night. But a simple day-sailor? Nope. Not in Monaco.
Next up, as an idea, was to rent a car, take a quick drive to nearby Italy, and grab lunch somewhere picturesque.
“That sounds wonderful,” said Claire. “A trip to Italy.”
Nope. With the film festival on, the cheapest rental car was 500 euros a day. That wasn’t going to work for either of our expense accounts.
During breakfast my phone buzzed. It was Yana.
“Are you coming to the event?”
“Sorry, what event?”
The reception picnic at the villa outside Cannes. It’s a big deal. All the important people will be there. Really good networking.
“It’s in Cannes? How would I get there? And can I bring Claire?”
“Yes, no problem. I’ll get you both in, and you can ride with me. I’m arranging a car.”
OK, well, so much for working on a boring business plan all day. Claire agreed this sounded better. But we had to change clothes in twenty minutes. We were at the shorts, sneakers, and t-shirt level. Yana said the dress code was “smart casual.”
I have no idea what that means for women but it’s pretty easy for men. A nice dress shirt, a crisp pair of jeans, and a blue blazer. Claire arrived in the lobby wearing a black one piece pantsuit outfit accessorized with gold jewelry. Now properly attired, we stepped outside to the hotel entrance where the bellman was arranging cabs.
Here was something interesting. Four more beautiful women. All blonde, of course, and wearing elegant, brightly-colored, gowns and dresses. Wait a minute. One of them was…holy crap! Was this Jennifer Lawrence, the famous A-list actress? Well, it certainly seemed possible, with the Cannes Film Festival in full swing. Most of the people needing cabs seemed to be heading to Cannes, and these women were dressed for serious socializing. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t get a picture of J-Law, as the press calls her, if I could manage it with my wide angle.
Tapping my inner paparazzi, I eased my phone in position and tried to take the award-winning shot. I wondered how much People Magazine would pay for Jennifer Lawrence in a beautiful red dress, looking glamorous as hell.
Then she took off her sunglasses. Wait a minute. This wasn’t Jennifer. Damn. Just another tall, glorious blonde. And then she spoke to her friends. Yep, no surprise. They were speaking Russian. Between Dubai and Monaco, are there any women actually left in Russia?
And here came Yana, looking fabulous as always. She went directly to the woman in the red dress.
“Svetlana, is our car here yet?”
“No, I don’t see our car anywhere.”
What! So these women were with Yana, going to the same party we were? But how would this work? There was Claire and me. Yana. And four more women? All in one car? Seven of us in a taxi? Here came the car: a Mercedes minivan, with room for seven people plus the driver. No wonder Yana knew she could fit us in.
I ended up in the far back, with Claire on one side, and a different Alena on the other. The J-Law lookalike was now directly in front of me.
Off we roared towards Cannes, already late for an event which had started an hour ago.
I can’t imagine elegant and fashionable Claire was intimidated by any of these tall, glorious women, but I certainly was. I tried to be sociable but most everyone was speaking Russian. I noticed Claire was working away on my business plan with the notebook on her lap. It had just arrived from Vancouver.
Alena, I discovered, was a Russian native now living in Zurich. It wasn’t clear exactly what she did there. Something to do with finance, or investments, or whatever. I’d managed to get her quite intrigued with the idea of diamond NFT’s, just before the fight broke out with the driver..
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON”T TAKE CREDIT CARDS!!!” said the outraged woman in the front passenger’s seat. She was almost screaming at the driver. Everyone began talking at once.
“NO CREDIT CARDS! THAT’S ILLEGAL!” protested Yana. She turned around and whispered to me: “Isn’t that so? They have to take credit cards, right?”
“Probably!” I acknowledged.
Others begin hurling insults at the driver in Russian. At least I assumed they were insults.
He was quite calm about it, and more than a match for his van-load of angry females.
“Monaco law says I don’t have to take credit cards,” he protested. “I can, but it’s my choice.”
“He’s cheating us! We’re being cheated!” screamed Svetlana in the red dress.
“Stop the car,” said the front passenger. “We aren’t going to be scammed.”
“No, don’t stop the car,” insisted Yana. “We’re already late. But we’re not paying cash. We’ll report you to the gendarmes”
Maybe Russian women don’t smile just to be polite. But they sure anger easily. I’d noticed this with Elena in Dubai. Once, at dinner, a nearby table was getting noisy and boisterous. She’d ordered the waitress to do something about it. When the waitress tried—and failed—Elena marched over to the table herself, all six feet of her plus heels, and—with her Russian accent—made clear that if they were going to act this way, they’d all have to leave. The group calmed down quickly.
Now I was seeing that same—determination—on display in the crowded taxi. I felt bad for the driver. He would have been outmatched by just one of these Russians. But five of them? Claire was staying calm in the back seat. Culturally, Asians tend to avoid confrontation, but she was watching closely, to see who would win.
“You can report me to the gendarmes all you want,”” said the driver, calmly, rising to the occasion. “In fact, you can call them right now. I have the number on speed dial. Shall we call the gendarmes?”
“You never said anything about not taking credit cards on the phone,” protested Yana, changing tactics.
“Oh, I think I did, but maybe you didn’t understand me. I’m from America. I don’t speak French that well.”
He was speaking English with a French accent.
“You’re not from America,” I called from the back seat, happy to have something to contribute. “You don’t have an American accent!” Bad luck for him, that there was an American guy here.
“Of course I don’t have a normal American accent,” he protested, squirming out of the trap nimbly. “I’m from New Jersey. I lived in New Jersey for 25 years.”
“Nope. You don’t have a New Jersey accent either!” I shouted.
“So he’s a cheat and a liar!” said Svetlana, nodding her approval in my direction. I beamed, thrilled to be making friends with the red-dress woman.
Things went back and forth for a while, but we all knew he had the car keys and we didn’t. And the party was waiting. Yana began taking up a collection, to see if we could afford the fare in cash. Several people had euros but I had none, nor did Claire.
“Yana, when I get to an ATM, I’ll reimburse you. I’ll cover Claire’s part as well.”
I was already seeking ways to reimburse Claire for all the help she was giving me. I’d certainly pay her share of the taxi. Finally Yana announced we had enough cash.
“OK, OK,” she said angrily to the driver. “We have 150 euros. But I still think you’re a crook.”
“It’s not 150 euros,” he said. “That’s for four passengers. I quoted you the standard price for four passengers. Anything more than four, it’s a 50% surcharge. You owe me 225 euros.”
This time the women went absolutely batshit crazy and I thought a physical fight might occur—the Mercedes van tearing through the French countryside, enraged Russian women in beautiful gowns in the back, violence likely to break out at every turn. All we’d need to complete the scene would be James Bond showing up in an Aston-Martin and trying to force us off the road.
* * *
We finally arrived in one piece, somehow found the money, chose not to call the gendarmes, and exited the van. Now we were at a long entrance drive, a ribbon of asphalt nestled between rows of perfectly manicured tall thin trees, all leading up to a very aristocratic, French villa in the countryside. Stone steps swept upwards to a grand entrance. A Bentley was parked on one side of the stairway. A Rolls Royce was on the other. There was a spectacular stone fountain which the driveway itself encircled.
Free of the cab, the Russian women were eager to arrive at the party, perhaps knowing they’d make an entrance. Svetlana began whimsically twirling and spinning up the driveway, modelling her red gown, tilting her head back, letting the wind blow her hair in cultivated disarray. It was the most photogenic thing I’d ever seen and this time my camera didn’t have to be hidden. She let me play photographer, and soon all the women wanted their pictures taken—individually, in small groups, and all together.
You must send me these pictures,” insisted Svetlana. The other women wanted copies as well. “Sorry, I can only send you pictures if you let me scan your QR codes into WhatsApp.”
Soon I had all their phone numbers and WhatsApp addresses. Might be useful.
The magnificent entryway was the least of the estate. Inside we found beautiful architecture from a bygone era. There was a foyer, a sitting room, a library with books on racks up to the ceiling, a vast kitchen—with a grand fireplace just right for cooking wild boar. An elegant dining room with chandelier, and no doubt many other rooms we didn’t have a chance to see.
Out the back was a stunning vista of lush gardens, a broad lawn, stately trees, marble benches, brick terraces, forests, and all of it sloping down to a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea, with small sailboats moored just offshore.
I wondered if they were for rent.
This was “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and all it lacked was a helicopter landing pad and someone like Richard Branson arriving.
The Russians did make an entrance, but were quickly absorbed into the festivities. At the conferences back in Monaco, fashionable women made up about twenty percent of the group, with the rest being mostly boring guys like me. The ratio here seemed about fifty-fifty, and the guys looked like they belonged with the women. This was the Cannes Film Festival crowd, or at least seemed it. In fact some were heading to the festival after this afternoon garden party was over.
Claire and I separated almost instantly, and it was nonstop socializing and networking thereafter. She was in her element. I was trying to avoid looking like a fool who didn’t belong. I learned some of the women were in fact models. Some were actresses. But most seemed to be connected with business and finance.
There wasn’t an airhead in the crowd, unless you counted me.
I barely spoke two languages. Most of these people spoke four or five. I’d never been to a party at an expensive villa on the Riviera before. I sensed with these folk it was a common event.
If you tried to metatag this affair, and do a word-cloud array for SEO purposes, some of the nouns you’d catch from a distance would be: hedge-fund, charity event, yacht, private plane, venture capital, blockchain startup, 10x multiples on my last deal, Dubai, Switzerland, London, Yes-I’ll-have-another-glass-of-champagne…and the like.
Even though I clearly didn’t belong, I could hold my own respectably when—in response to a query about what field I was in, or where I was from—I’d say:
“NFT’s. Diamond NFT’s. We’re based out of Dubai.”
If those phrases never actually stopped the conversation cold, they certainly got people’s attention. The world of diamonds, Dubai, and even NFT’s was familiar to this crowd, but they’d never heard the words used in the same sentence.
One of the women took my arm. “You’re doing diamond NFTs? And you’re from Dubai? Why, that’s where I live. I must know more about this.”
“Would you like another glass of champagne?”
“Why, yes I would.”
I tried hard to get a sense of who these people were, especially the exotic ones. Most of them seemed to have a Russian connection. If they weren’t Russian they were Ukrainian. If they weren’t Ukrainian they were from Belarus. Or Estonia.
I finally got one alone and blurted out: “Excuse me, but how is it all the women here are from Russia?”
“Ah, it’s kind of a social circle” she explained. “We see each other at events and so forth, and we often come to the same parties. You know, for the circle.”
“OK, I want to be a member of the circle.”
She closed her eyes and waved an invisible magic wand in the air. “Ta da!” she announced. “You are now an official member of the Circle.”
Of course, I’d probably have to learn Russian.
At one point a live band started up, and dancing broke out spontaneously on one of the lawns. Svetlana wasn’t the only guest in a flowing red dress, and soon the level of glamour was enhanced as the women began dancing.
That finally gave way to one of the guests—a professional violin performer—entertaining us with pieces from Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi.
Somehow I made it through four hours of small talk. I’m sure I amassed a vast quantity of business cards and QR codes both—not that I’ll remember any of these folks or who they were.
Soon I began hearing phrases like “I must get back to Cannes,” or “The film festival gala is tonight and I’m still trying to decide what to wear.” Or “Damn, is this bowl of caviar gone too? Where’s the waiter?”
I was talked-out spiritually, and socially exhausted. I needed to return to my hotel quickly, crash, and get up early for my 4am taxi to the Nice airport. But how to manage it? We’d arrived in a taxi, but was there a plan for getting back to Monaco? Worse, it seemed Yana had already left. What the hell? We were out in the countryside of France, surrounded by private Bentleys and Rolls Royces. How would Claire and I get home?
We found each other and discussed logistics.
“I checked with the doorman and—worst case—there’s Uber,” I explained.
“Let me find out what the options are,” suggested Claire, drifting away.
Ten minutes later she had a solution. One young couple I’d been talking to earlier, the woman Chinese, had somehow made friends with Claire. “They can give me ride,” she said. “They can’t fit you in, but David says you can ride back with him.”
Ah, David. The touchy-feely guy. Yep, he was at this party too. Earlier I’d seen him fondling the back of Claire’s neck. And lots of other necks. Riding back to Monaco with David wouldn’t have been my first choice. But Claire and the others were soon out the door and—as events transpired—I never saw her again. (At least on this trip.)
Here was Alena, one of the glamorous Russians, the one who’d been in the back seat with me, from Zurich. I confessed I was trying to find a ride to the hotel.
“You can come with us,” she said. “My car’s here. There’s just three of us. You’ll make four. we can fit you in.”
Whew. I was saved from a long ride alone with David, and no doubt an hour of too much information about his love life. I made my apologies and explained I was going back with Alena. I tried to adopt his leering, sleazy tone, and get on his wavelength, so he wouldn’t be offended. “I appreciate the offer to go with you,” I explained, “but—nodding in Alena’s direction—you can’t blame me, right?” He slapped me on the back softly. “Good choice,” he acknowledged.
I couldn’t imagine he’d be jealous as no doubt he’d already explored Alena’s neck, shoulders, and waist thoroughly. I had no idea that before the night was over, I’d be having a far more up close and personal exploration of Alena’s waist myself. No, I don’t mean that! Things just got—very weird.
Being the one they’d taken pity on, I was ready to consign myself to the most uncomfortable position in the back of Alena’s car. But that was before I learned what kind of a car it was. No, not a Bentley. Not a Rolls. It was a very late model, very opulently furnished, very beautiful…Cooper Mini. A Cooper Mini convertible. It looked like a collector’s edition.
I climbed up and over the side of the car and into the back seat, discovering the problem immediately. The driver’s seat, in its present position, was touching the back seat. No matter how I might twist my legs, there was no room to fit them in. If I’d had the seat to myself, I might have put my legs up on one side of the bench-style backseat. But apparently there’d be four of us. Another arrived, and took in the seating arrangements. She was Nataliya—Russian, of course, and a pretty blonde like the others, but with a short-cropped pixie haircut, very slender, and perhaps forty-something. I was thrilled to have someone here not half my age. Nataliya was friendly, but with a mature dignity. I was ready for some mature dignity after the decadent garden party.
“I’d be happy to go in the back,” she explained. “But I’ve got a trick knee, and I can’t sit in the back. Here came Alena and the other passenger. The other passenger, Onat, was a younger version of Whoppi Goldberg. She wasn’t the only black person at the event, but there weren’t many. Onat was friendly and vivacious and I liked her instantly.
“I’ve had too much to drink,” confessed Alena. “Who’s willing to drive?”
It was a reprieve from the back seat!
“I’d absolutely love to drive,” I volunteered, and the others were thrilled. No one wanted to drive. I was ready to kill to do so. A red Cooper Mini convertible, filled with charming women, driving all over the south of France? Me at the wheel? Could life get any better?
Fortunately, a week earlier I’d visited friends vacationing outside of Nice, and had gained plenty of French driving practice. And I’d probably consumed a total of two light beers over the last four hours, so alcohol wasn’t a problem.
With Nataliya in the front, the other two couldn’t fit in the back either. So they climbed up and sat on the car trunk itself, feet resting in the seat well. Clearly, this was the party car.
“I’m happy to drive, but I have no idea where I’m going,” I explained to Alena. You’re the navigator. You tell me where to go, that’s where I’ll go. Can you provide turn by turn instructions?”
“Easily. I live in this area. I know all these roads.”
“Wait, I thought you lived in Zurich.”
“Yes, but I have a villa in Monaco.”
Soon we’d made our way down the long driveway and out into the streets and tiny roadways of northeast of Cannes.
“Go this way,” said Alena.
“Alena, I need you to say right or left. I can’t see where you’re pointing.”
“Oh, sorry. I mean left. No sorry, I mean right. Go right.”
“Yes, go right. Sorry, I got confused.”
The confusion got worse. There was no doubt Alena knew her way around, but she was terrible at giving directions. She’d mix up left and right. She’d say stuff like “go there” without me knowing what there was. Once, the main road was entering a broad curve to the left, but a side road was continuing on straight. Alena wasn’t giving me the information I needed fast enough.
“Alena, do I go straight or turn?”
“Go straight! Go straight!”
I started to peel off onto the lesser road, to go straight.
“No, not that way! I mean straight; straight on the main road!”
Worse, she’d sometimes reach forward from the back seat, showing me the GPS map on her phone, so I could follow it. But glancing down at a phone between the front seats would take my eyes off the road for several seconds. Doing so would be fatal.
This was not I-70 crossing Kansas. We were on the insane, crazed, chaotic, zero-shoulder, impossible-to-understand, paved-over, goat paths of the French Riviera. The Cote D’Azur is famous for many things. Wide, spacious roads are not among them.
“Don’t show me the map, just tell me which direction!” I’d say to Alena. She’d try. But a few intersections later, she’d have forgotten, and try to show me her phone again.
“Sorry, I have to keep my eyes on the road,” I insisted.
“Yes, you do,” said Nataliya, approvingly. “By the way, you’re doing a magnificent job of driving. I can’t believe you can handle this. I certainly couldn’t.”
“I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” I confessed. And I meant it. I love driving, especially challenging driving. That doesn’t mean being stuck in traffic on a New Jersey turnpike. It does mean zipping all over southern France in a tiny convertible filled with cool women.
I wasn’t the only one who thought them cool. With goddess-like Alena, and that younger version of Whoppi up on the back trunk waving to everyone, and another blonde in the front seat, the catcalls and horn honks from other cars were endless.
And did I mention the weather was perfect?
“It’s so beautiful,” noted Alena. “What we really should do is take the coastal rode.”
“Let’s take the coastal rode,” said the driver, eager for a new challenge plus even better scenery.
“It’s longer, but the views are amazing.”
“Let’s do it!” Earlier desire to quickly return to my room had dimmed.
Alena gave me some more incoherent directions but eventually we reached the coast. Here was the Mediterranean Sea on one side, the mountainous terrain of the pre-Alps on the other, a car full of women waving to everyone, and—here’s the bad part—the car itself stuck in an endless traffic jam.
This was the outskirts of Nice and not only was it Cannes Film Festival time, it was also Friday rush hour. It wasn’t the worst place to be stuck in traffic, but Alena was already fantasizing about being somewhere else. “If only we had a castle,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice? We need to go to a castle. Hmm, who has a castle?”
We all laughed. Then Nataliya said quietly to me. “I have a castle.”
The others hadn’t heard her.
“You have a castle?”
“Where is it? Can we drive there?”
“We could, but it’s a long way. About eight hours”
“Where is it?”
“Well, how well do you know France?”
“Not super well, but I know some places.”
“Well, Lyon, Dijon, Bordeaux.”
“No, farther north. North of Bordeaux.”
She brightened. “Now you’re close. It’s about 100 kilometers northeast of Nantes.”
“Wait, you’re not saying your castle is in the Loire Valley? Northeast of Nantes is the Loire Valley.”
“Yes, it’s one of the Loire Valley chateaux.”
The Loire Valley, of course, is the epicenter, the mother lode, of all the most beautiful chateaux (French for “castles”) in the world.
“You have a Loire Valley chateau? Are you serious?”
“Yes, it’s where I live. I’m just here on holiday. By the way, I’m still amazed at your driving. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Thank you, but I love this kind of driving. Um, back to the chateau.”
“You live there. Who else lives there?”
“Just my husband, and our daughter.”
“Three of you, in a Loire Valley chateau?”
“Yes, it’s more room than we need.”
“I think I should come visit.”
“I insist on it. I’ll send you pictures.”
“Can I bring my wife?”
“Of course you can bring your wife. We have lots of room, at the chateau.”
It took forever to navigate through the tiny streets of inner Nice to the place where we dropped Whoopi off. We were on a small road approaching a t-intersection. Alena told me to stop, and said she’d help Whoopi to the apartment. They started to get out but instantly cars backed up behind us and started honking. I suspected that might happen.
Alena had me pull around the corner and park on a small shoulder. Yes, much more sensible. Whoppi said goodbye and the two of them disappeared for nearly twenty minutes. I talked to Nataliya about her chateau.
Finally, I told her I really liked her name. She beamed.
“I like your name because I’m about to publish a book where one of the characters is named Nataliya, and I’ve never met one before.
“You write books!”
I told her about Chrysalis and the Angel of Death trilogy “I want to read all of them,” she insisted.
“Angel isn’t published yet, but I can sent you the manuscript.”
“Send me, I want to read these books.”
Alena returned and guided me back to Monaco. “Hey, do the two of you mind if I stop at my villa. I need to pick up things for the party back in Cannes tonight.”
“You’re going back to Cannes—tonight?”
“Yep, another film festival party. I need to pick up the right clothes.”
I was confused on multiple levels. The day had started with Alena at the conference hotel, with Claire and me. A car had magically appeared at the villa—her car. She was using it to drive three of us back home. Yet she had a villa in Monaco, and needed to stop there before heading back to Cannes. The logistics were getting complicated but I tried to turn off that part of my brain. The rest of it was being consumed driving the tiny car over tiny roads and around tiny corners.
“This is the corner where Princess Grace was killed” said Alena, suddenly. We’d just turned off a road that jutted out from a hairpin turn.
“That turn is where she lost control of the car. And went off the cliff.”
Alena’s villa was 100 yards from the intersection. She had us park the car in the middle of the road, and then another car appeared. A young man got out. He exchanged packages with Alena. Then he drove off. Alena walked down the 100 yards to her villa, leaving Natalya and me alone again.
“So what was that all about?” she asked, noting the furtive exchanging of packages between Alena and the mystery guy.
“Drug deal,” I said, jokingly.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” she agreed.
“You know, I’m glad you’re here right now,” said Nataliya. “I’d not want to be left alone in this car, on this deserted road, by myself.”
Soon Alena was back, with more things from the Villa.
“I can drive now,” she said, and I was happy to relax in the backseat which I now had all to myself, as Alena took the wheel. At the intersection where Princess Grace died, we almost died too. Alena started to pull onto the hairpin just as another car was coming around it at high speed. She hit the brakes. Then she tried again to pull on to the road, and another car almost hit us. Finally we made it past the lethal intersection, and Alena’s driving became assured and confident. The alcohol must have worn off hours ago—and indeed it had been hours since we’d left the party.
But while I was relaxing in the back, finally content to give up the wheel, Nataliya seemed to have gone white knuckled. Alena’s driving style was a little more…liberated than mine.
We had to go far up the hillside of Monte Carlo itself, to a little pensione hotel where Natalya was staying. Certainly it was a far cry from her chateau. She gave me a hug.
“Thank you for all that driving,” she said. “It was amazing. And send me the book. I want to read about this other Nataliya.”
Now it was just Alena and me in the Cooper Mini.
“Hey, Alena, is there any way you could find an ATM for me?” I asked. “I have to pay cash to Yana tomorrow, and there’s aren’t any ATMs at the hotel.”
“The easiest ATM to get to from here,” she explained, is at the Casino.”
“Wait, you mean the Casino. The one they patterned Casino Royale after, in all those James Bond films?”
“Yep, that Casino. Let’s go there now.”
It was 9:30 pm and the chance of seeing Claire again, and any hope of working on that business plan with her, had faded to near nothing. We’d been WhatsApp texting, but she was now out with others—apparently on a boat, (how had she managed that?) and it was anyone’s guess when either of us would get back to the hotel at this rate.
I might have been jealous of Claire being out with others on a boat, but it was Friday night in Monte Carlo, and I was zipping around in a red convertible with glamorous Alena still dressed in her party attire. I couldn’t be too jealous.
She drove directly up to the Casino front entrance, and stopped the car. There was a broad square here, and the Casino building towered over it like some massive Greek temple. Alena climbed out and tossed the keys to the waiting valet, who seemed to know her.
“Can you leave it right here?” she asked. “We’ll just be inside a few minutes.” He nodded respectfully. Yes he’d personally guard her beautiful Cooper Mini at the entrance to the Casino Royale in Monte Carlo on a Friday night.
Not surprisingly, there was a queue of people waiting to get in. Alena bypassed it entirely and someone quickly opened a VIP corridor for her. She took my hand and led me in, making it clear we were together.
I noticed everyone nodding obsequiously to her, smiling, glad to see her back at the Casino. I got the impression she was a big deal here. A regular. A VIP.
Inside, the Casino Royale (as I called it) was as opulent as you’d imagine. A lot of money had been spent on this place. The plush carpet was red. Dark oak paneling lined the walls. The ceiling itself was breathtaking, kind of a debauched version of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Vast roulette tables were in action, as tuxedoed men spun the wheels. Everyone was dressed up—unlike the seedy shorts-and-t-shirt crowd in Las Vegas.
Out came my phone and I started taking pictures. How could I not?
One of the roulette staffers rushed up, angrily, and said something about pictures not being allowed.
Alena brushed him off. “He’s with me,” she said breezily. “He doesn’t know about the rules. I’ll tell him the rules. Don’t worry. You don’t need to concern yourself.”
He vanished sheepishly back to the roulette wheel.
It wasn’t surprising. These Russian women were like amazons. None was less than six feet, and that’s before the heels. With long blonde hair, perfect makeup, and expensive jewelry, they were not to be trifled with. Certainly this one wasn’t. The Casino staff knew their place.
At the ATM I had to wait for a guy in front of me. A piece of paper came out, he read it angrily, yelled “Merde!” (sh-t, in French) at the machine, and walked off mad as hell. Fortunately the ATM treated me better—one never knows—and soon I had 400 euros in my pocket. After taking a few minutes to walk around and enjoy the interior of the Casino, Alena and I were soon back in the convertible and heading towards the hotel
“Can I ask a favor?” she said.
“Look, I know this is kind of a weird request, and it’s totally fine if you don’t feel comfortable, but is there any way you’d let me use your shower, back at the hotel? I’ve been in the hot sun all day, and I need to change for the party. I’d so love to have a shower.”
“Sure, no problem” I said, trying to decide how appropriate or inappropriate such a thing might be. I remembered conservative Mike Pence had a policy of never dining alone with any woman not his wife. Where would “a woman taking a shower in my hotel room” fall in relation to that standard? But I could hardly refuse. Claire had joined me in the room that morning. This wouldn’t be all that different.
Soon the water was running, and Alena was taking a shower. What should I be doing? I walked onto the balcony and stared at the yachts anchored offshore, their nighttime lights twinkling. Then I checked my email.
Alena came out of the shower just as I received an urgent text from Claire.
“Here’s the business plan,” she said. “I finally finished it. Please give me your input tonight, before you leave.”
Alena was wearing one of the white cottony hotel robes, and searching for her things in the bag she’d brought. Life was getting complicated. Other than breakfast ages ago, and a few bites of caviar at the party, I’d had no food all day. I needed to pack, get some sleep, and be downstairs at 4am, where I’d share a ride with Yana to the airport. She was on the same flight as me to Frankfurt. It was after ten p.m. already
Claire was insisting I look at the business plan she’d just sent, but how could I do that while there was a woman in my room wearing a white bathrobe and starting to dry her hair in front of the mirror on the desk. Yet getting the business plan done was the whole point of today. If I didn’t respond to her, “Type A” Claire might well show up at the door herself just to make sure I’d received the document. She certainly knew my room number. And she’d find Alena here in a bathrobe.
How did I get into situations like this? And it was about to get worse.
Seeing no alternative, I finally texted back to Claire the truth: I needed to pack, and would have to look at the document in the morning. I felt really bad because I knew how much work she’d put into it this evening. Apparently she’d even been working on it from the boat. But I did have to pack. And there was a woman sitting at the desk, drying her hair. How was I supposed to use my laptop?
Finally, her hair done, Alena returned to the bathroom and emerged dressed in a beautiful white gown—just right for a Cannes Film Festival party. She considered herself in the floor to ceiling mirror, turning this way and that.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“It’s beautiful,” I reassured.
“I’m afraid it looks too bridally. You know, like it’s a bridal gown.”
Well, she had a point. The gown had a lace train that came off the waist. With that white train, it did look bridally.
“What do you think? Is it too bridally?”
The rule is, no matter the truth, tell a woman who’s about to go out for the evening that whatever she’s wearing looks great on her. But I couldn’t lie. “I think it is too bridally. That lace train makes it look like a bridal gown.”
“I think it needs to come off. I don’t suppose you have any scissors?”
Well, I always travel with scissors. Tiny nose scissors, the kind with the rounded ends, for cutting nose hair. These are not for cutting my nose hair. It’s because rounded-end scissors are the only ones TSA allows through security.
I found the scissors and Alena tried to manage it, but it wasn’t something she could do herself from that angle.
“Let me help,” I volunteered.
Soon I was sitting on the bed, and Alena was standing there sort of backed up to me—my eyes at her waist level. With great precision and perfect attention to detail, I began cutting her dress apart.
It occurred to me that being alone in a hotel room with a young woman, and cutting her dress apart with scissors, would probably not pass the Mike Pence test. He’d be running from the room screaming. It was a me-too moment in progress. On the other hand, I wondered how David—of the wandering hands—would handle this situation. Certainly there was every opportunity in the world to do more with Alena than merely cut her dress apart.
But I was neither David, nor Mike Pence. Soon I had Alena’s dress sorted, and I was already thinking of how I’d explain all this to Derry, because of course it was hilarious. And I could just imagine her response. “OK, exactly how much of her dress did you cut off?”
I helped Alena carry her things downstairs, but I was already anxious to get back to my room and start packing for that 4am departure. In the lobby even that plan derailed. Yana was at the reception desk, straightening out her bill so she’d not have to do it at 4am. Another woman was with her.
Actually this woman was not a beautiful, glamorous Russian blonde like Alena and Yana.
OK, just kidding. Of course she was. Probably another member of “the Circle.”
“We were just having drinks on the terrace,” said Yana. “You two must join us.”
So we did, with Alena now in her non-bridal gown, me in my “smart casual attire” from the garden party, and the other two women in comfortable clothing. We ordered drinks but I was in the mood for food. I scanned the menu. I didn’t want a full meal since no one else was eating. That meant hors d’oeuvres. The only thing that looked substantive was octopus and I placed an order.
Octopus. The first time I’d ever seen a live octopus was right here on the French Riviera, a few miles down the coast at St. Raphael. A scuba diver had emerged from the deep on the rocky cliffs where I’d been snorkeling at age twelve. He seemed quite overweight, but—unzipping his wetsuit—a dozen live octopus had tumbled out. He’d been catching them. When the waiter brought mine I wondered if this one had been caught the same way—a few hour ago maybe it had been squished inside some guy’s wetsuit. But it was delicious. Ordering octopus on the French Riviera wasn’t exactly getting in touch with my childhood. But it kind of was.
After drinks Alena and Yana drifted off, and I was left alone with Ekaterina, the new woman, who was fascinated with my diamond NFT story. We talked for nearly an hour, made all kinds of plans for collaborating and creating synergy out of our respective business endeavors (none of which I’ll ever remember), and did the QR code thing. But finally midnight arrived and the waiters insisted we leave. We’d actually shut down the bar. Ekaterina had somewhere to go so she gave me a hug and finally I was able to reach my room, this time alone.
It took an hour to pack and I was asleep soon after. Two hours later the alarm rang.
Yana and I sat together on the Frankfurt flight, and I learned more about who she was, the events she organized, and how we could do business together. I was even able to sneak her into the Lufthansa Business Lounge in Frankfurt, thanks to my United Star-Gold status—a small repayment for all the parties and events she’d snuck me into.
Claire and I exchanged more text messages that morning, agreed to reconvene on Zoom and carry on where we’d left off. When I finally said goodbye to Yana and boarded the nearly-empty Lufthansa flight to Denver—I slept most of the way home.
As predicted, I now have dozens of QR codes, names, and phone numbers. I’ll spend the next month trying to sort out who they’re from and what they’re about. Queen Diambi wants me to come to Congo next month. Mamayou is determined to show me around Cameroon. I have a standing invitation to a chateau in the Loire valley. Alena wants to meet up next time I’m in Zurich. I have two zoom calls scheduled with Claire.
But the real question is, will that taxi driver ever be called to account for ripping off his unsuspecting guests? Somehow, I think the law, or at least the Russian women, will never catch up with him.
In any case, my earlier memories of Monaco, from 1964, are now updated. Conferences, receptions, soirees, and garden parties have taken the place of sailboats in the yacht harbor. I guess it’s appropriate. After all, the sailboats left ages ago.
Photo album online: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjzQXb7