The pastoral heaven of this place can get very dull during the summer months. Green hillsides, neat farmsteads, pleasing breezes, meadows bright with wild flowers amid white-capped mountain peaks; these are no substitute for pretty women or intellectual company. That is the bad news. The good news is that the nouveaux riches and terribly vulgar do not appear during the summer. They’re too busy sweating it out in the south of France or in Marbella. They do show up during the winter months, alas, but the low temperatures keep them covered in chinchillas. To see them in bathing costumes would be too much, even for someone like me who has witnessed some pretty gruesome sights in his lifetime.
It is now 60 long years that I’ve been coming to Gstaad, and the place sure has changed. For the better as far as the locals are concerned; for the catastrophically worse from the point of view of yours truly. There is no doubt that the locals have benefited greatly from the arrival of the moneybags, just as there is no doubt that most of those moneybags are vulgar and ugly. I say most, not all, as two or three of my closest friends in this place would be considered very rich even by Saudi Arabian standards. (Speaking of which, that wicked regime has targeted and murdered innocent children with its American missiles. It has starved thousands, and facilitated the spread of cholera in Yemen. But because they’re rich, we genuflect and look the other way.)
Which is what I do — look the other way, that is — most of the time when I’m in Gstaad. The hordes arriving in southern Europe from Africa have nothing on some of the throng coming up from Geneva. The difference is that the latter have lotsa moolah, and there is nothing worse, as far as I’m concerned, than lotsa moolah and no manners. Mind you, the locals have had very good years: their shops are thriving, there is full employment, and the real-estate market has gone through the proverbial peak of Mont Blanc. The man who has made all this possible, and has been instrumental in ruining my life, is Marcel Bach, richer than Croesus and Midas combined, and the person Swiss legislators are seriously contemplating naming the country after: Bachland.
Marcel started out as a ski instructor, a fresh-faced kid I noticed because of his pleasant manner and brave downhill technique. He also had an eye for the ladies, which made him stick out among the locals. He married a pretty English girl, had two daughters, went into real estate, and out of the blue was the first local man to conquer Everest. Everything in Gstaad — wives, children, mistresses, chalets, ski runs, mountains, restaurants, hotels, cable-cars — all belong to Marcel. But unlike the vulgarians he has done so much to attract, Marcel lives very simply in an unostentatious apartment. He does not drive a flashy car, is a very good father and friend, and is very helpful to people like me who are always changing their minds about where they should live. He is the one who found my present (perfect) chalet, having managed to sell my old place for a fortune to some fool from Monte Carlo.
Old Gstaad was a tiny village with shops on its main street that sold cheese, meat, cigarettes and skis. There was also a very quaint shop that sold books, but that was the first to go once the locals realised that the new arrivals could count but not read. All the above have now disappeared — like ugly children in bygone days hidden away in attics — to be replaced by Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Graff, Ralph Lauren and various boutiques that sell expensive junk. The Gulf hordes that appear in the summer keep those shops busy, although they do very little to embellish the picturesque village that has now grown and grown. There is an apocryphal story doing the rounds that once Marcel had conquered Everest, he came down a roundabout way in order to check out a southern slope as a possible location on which to build apartments.
And build the locals have done, and continue to do so. One of the reasons I am so happy to be living on a mountaintop is that those who reside lower down risk ending up in a cement mixer. Every single inch of Gstaad has been built on. I hate to think how many grannies who failed to get out in time will one day be discovered when the chalets are torn down in order to build bigger ones in their place. The indoor pool, cinema and gymnasium are now de rigueur in modern chalets, as are Filipino maids and white chauffeurs where African potentates are concerned.
It is all a far cry from when a fresh-faced Taki first arrived and was greeted by an oompah band and taken up to the Palace Hotel, which was full of beautiful women with pedigrees. I often wonder where all these women have gone. Were they as beautiful and refined as I remember them, or was it inexperience on my part? Has society changed that much? The answer is: yes, it has. But is it possible that people have got so much uglier? Well, I’ve never seen men uglier than those from the Gulf, but back then they were still in the desert eating their dates.
I’m off to Greece once again and will report from there next week.