February 19, 2007

Gstaad. There’s more happy dust to be found indoors around here than powder on the slopes. Last week I drove to the Diableret glacier and skied my legs off trying to catch up. At 3000 meters—the maximum height the old prop planes used to reach when crossing the Atlantic—and upwards, the white stuff was perfect. (I mean the snow on the ground).  Although I smoke non-filter Camels and drink the heavy stuff, my lungs felt perfect. My feet hurt like hell, however, and I became convinced while skiing that I had gangrene, or something equally disgusting. After two hours I could bear the pain no longer. I stopped and took my boots off. Eureka! They were not mine, but my son’s old ones, when he was sixteen and at the Rosey. No wonder I thought I had gangrene.

But I had to put them back on and ski down for another twenty minutes non-stop, twenty minutes which felt like five days in the company of Paris Hilton and her distinguished family. Never mind. The greens are having a ball with the surrounding greenness, and as the temperature rises daily, so do the predictions that soon Switzerland will be rivalling Palm Beach for beachwear in winter. Mind you, many of the ecologically minded folk, at least here in Gstaad, drive Porsche Cayennes, Range Rovers or the disgusting Hummer.  And speaking of the unspeakable, the nouveau Russkies are capped at 10 percent in Kitzbuhel, one of the most gemütlich resorts of the alpine persuasion. Bravo Kitzbuhel. I wish the Swiss would do the same, but I won’t hold my breath.  I know it sounds racist, but billionaire Russian kleptocrats are not as yet classified as victims, so one can let em have it.

Courchevel, the French Riviera, even St Moritz have been Dresdened by the Russians, their obnoxious spending and lack of basic manners amounting to a grotesque deformity. Here in Gstaad we live in fear of the coming oligarch invasion. When I say we, I don’t mean the locals.  Sublimely blind to the disaster of Courchevel, the Bernese would welcome them with open pocketbooks. And why not? They see us as one and the same. Foreigners, with lotsa moolah, flashy cars, pulled women and incapable of yodelling.  One of the reasons Sarkozy will be the next French president is because Johnny Hallyday, the Gallic equivalent to Elvis, has moved to Gstaad for a favourable tax deal. Sarkozy has defended him by saying that Johnny has worked hard all his life but the state has taken most of it away. The notion of a French symbol decamping to a Swiss resort has had an incendiary effect on French politics.

It’s worse over here. Johnny has applied for a season’s membership to the Eagle club.  Forty four years ago to be exact, the rocker and I had a terrific punch up in the Palace bar. He had come over to sing, and after the performance, he sent one of his minions to ask my then soon-to-be wife, Cristina, to join his table. She politely declined. The gofer insisted. That’s when I said “elle ne danse pas avec le personnel.” You’d think I told him his mother was a hooker. All hell broke loose. He went back and reported to the star, and it was October 1917 all over again. Even back then, in 1963, pulling rank was a no-no, but five against one was okay. I lost, but what the hell. Some 44 years later I am not about to blackball anybody, especially an aging rock star who is quite lovable because he looks so awful.

Eagle Club aside—next week it celebrates fifty years of existence with non-stop parties which I will report to you, as boring as it may sound—my worry is that the country which invented tax shelters for the rich might pull a Marx, and I don’t mean Groucho. (A very long time ago, in these here pages, I revealed that I was related to the great Marx by marriage. My wife’s sister, Princess Victoria Schoenburg, is married to Harpo Marx’s grandson, which makes me Harpo’s grandson-in-law. So there.) If we poor little rich are not allowed to do a discreet let’s-make-a—deal with the Swiss tax authorities, the result will be worse than the tsunami of two years ago. This time it will involve poor little Greek, Italian, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Scandinavian victims.  No one will come to our aid. The hacks will cackle with glee. And the Swiss peasants will finally smile. (Not for long, mind you).

Here’s Henry James on the Swiss: “The want of humour in the local atmosphere, and the absence, as well, of that aesthetic character which is begotten of a generous view of life.” I should not go on. I’ve always got along fine with the locals, and I count some of them as good friends, but however hard I try to warn them against being Coucheveled, their answer is always the same: “Would you refuse to sell your chalet if someone offered you five times what it’s worth because he’s a Russian?” Alas, so is mine. “Do you know of any Russian who would offer me five times that for my wife?”

Spectator, February 11, 2007.


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