Once upon a time it was the Americans, but now its the super-rich Russians who are providing all the hot-gossip and people-watching opportunities on vacation, says Anne McElvoy
Once upon a time it was the Americans, but now it’s the super-rich Russians who are providing all the hot-gossip and people-watching opportunities on vacation, says Anne McElvoy
‘Devushka!’ I am pottering absent-mindedly up a cycle path at dusk in a Greek resort when a man holding a very large umbrella swerves narrowly past me. Very unfairly, I think about poison umbrellas and poor Georgi Markov, RIP.
On closer inspection, the man is (probably) Kazakh. He leaps off the bike and stands by the gate holding the umbrella at the ready. A few seconds later out of one of the largest hotel suites swaggers a tiny man with swept-back black hair. Towering a good foot over him is a freshly blow-dried, honey blonde creature from the Elle Macpherson school of high-stepping, glossy looks, sheathed in a gauzy pink Versace dress.
We reach the gate at the same time. Not that she’s stopping in her gold Jimmies. She and her companion, in regulation blinding white open-necked shirt and matt black suit, rustle by and the valet opens up the umbrella as two warm drops of rain fall. Then they slide into a Mercedes with blacked-out windows. It is the last we see of them all week — apart from the helicopter on the nearby green on standby.
This, in a nutshell, is why I like holidaying among the New Europeans. Just thinking about this scene and what lies behind it keeps me in daydreams for days. Who is Mr Helicopter Owner? Is Elle-Macpherson-from-the-Steppes his wife? I doubt it. His car has that extra heaviness of the bullet-proofed: why? Where is he going by car in the middle of northern Greece in a holiday resort when everyone else walks or cycles to the nearby restaurants? I’ll never know, which makes it all the more tantalising.
I am not alone in falling for Russians abroad. Look at the trouble it landed George Osborne with, after he succumbed to the lure of Oleg Deripaska’s yacht while staying with Mr Deripaska’s internationally-inclined associate, Nat Rothschild. A New Russian for a business partner or social friend is the must-have social accessory. I sat next to one mysterious property magnate at a recent dinner at the Walbrook, who was given pride of place next to the hostess in a room full of big City names.
The abiding lure is the mystery of how they got there. ‘You know, he was brought up in Noweherevostock, and now he owns two-thirds of the world’s magnesium and has the biggest yacht in St Trop.’ I can’t say it worked out that well for George, but the rest of us can afford a bit of idle curiosity.
At the swish Sani resort in Halkidiki, as in the other Greek luxury getaways, the pre-communist links have asserted themselves — Russians and Serbs gravitate to Greece, rather than to Catholic southern Europe. Its cosmopolitan owner, Andreas Andreadis (partly educated in Russia himself), tells me the newcomers are the Bulgarians, who generally do what the Russians do a few years later, though there is also a smattering of well-to-do Poles and now even some Romanians, the poor relations of the old Comecon.
Every year things move on a little. I used to gawp at the sight of Burberry-clad families with tractor factory mamas in tow (Russian families always take a mama on holiday as the unpaid nanny). There is still a mystery for me, as someone who last lived in the Motherland in the Wild West years of the 1990s, that such stolid parents — what Russians used to damningly call Savoks, an insult meaning both ‘Soviet person’ and ‘shovel’ — manage to produce such lissom and adaptive offspring.
These were still the nouveaux riches, hiding uncertainty behind their braggadocio. The men sang loudly along with the Sinatra songs at a Twyla Tharp ballet. Perhaps we might have asked them to pipe down, were it not for their companions wearing Death’s Head T-shirts.
But sophistication is fast rubbing off the old edges. The smartest Russians have ditched the logos, though they still have a fondness for spending on the old favourites. So in the middle of Greek boutiques in Sani marina is a shop entitled simply ‘Furs and Leathers’, where you can pick up a mink coat regardless of the season. I’m told it does well. ‘Even if it is 90 degrees outside, they shop,’ says the assistant.
Then there are the women in the spas. Lordy. They arrive looking like most of us would dream of looking on leaving after three hours of grooming and a face transplant. The most beautiful are always from St Petersburg — fiery green-blue lynx eyes, blonde hair in ponytails, tiny jeans glued to tiny frames. They tell the assistants long stories about imaginary skin problems: Russian speakers are in demand in top spas.
I launch into conversation with them, to revive my flagging Russian. ‘Why did you choose this resort?’ I ask one of the beauties. ‘Because my business partner told me to try this one for a few days and see if it would be suitable for our project at home,’ she says. Nice work if you can get it.
Later she sends me a note: which are the best spas in London to visit? And which is the best hotel? And the best hairdresser? Post-Soviet Russians with means don’t bother asking what’s good value, or convenient, or your personal favourite. They just want to know what’s best. After decades of the worst of everything, why not?
I tell her that the best foot-man in London by far is the Bastien Gonzalez, handsome pedicurist to what remains of monied London. She perks up and demands his private number (no point in telling New Russian to call an office). Anyway, Bastien has beaten her to it and will add Moscow to his New York-Paris-London nexus of premier cru pedicures and nail buffing, working out of a base in GUM every few weeks.
I call my old assistant to ask when Russians, whose feet inhabit boots for chilly swathes of the year, discovered the joy of feet. ‘In about 1998,’ she says precisely. ‘Now everyone with money has a pedicurist.’ Will Bastien be able to charge his €200 in Moscow? ‘Oh yes, but they will be very shocked that he doesn’t use pink polish.’
It has its disadvantages, this relentless, exclusive quest for excellence. We have come to live in fear of a small boy called Sasha whose impassive father block-books the best tennis coach at the resort months in advance. We point out that we could do with some early-evening coaching, too. ‘Believe me,’ says the tennis boss, ‘you would not want to argue with Sasha’s father.’ We decide that 9pm would be just fine for our boys and leave Sasha training to succeed Marat Safin, with his silent dad watching every foot fault.
Wealthy Russians never compromise. One hotelier told us that a client wanted to book three suites for his family — and was told that one was usually big enough for a family. ‘Not for mine,’ came the reply. Still, I like having around me the tiny signs of the past beneath the showy present. The little girls with their smooth faces, pale eyes and bunches worn comically high on the head and giant rosettes from the Olga Korbut era, the grannies making up complicated milky potions for their charges in the swanky dining rooms.
My rouble is on Russian women to emerge as the newly impressive business class. Back in London I have acquired a beautician who hails from the Urals and ended up working in Wales and married to a local. One day she upped and offed to London to join a top-end Notting Hill salon. ‘What about your husband?’ I ask. ‘Oh he was holding me back,’ she sniffed. ‘So I left him in Wales.’
Idling by the pool I read a piece in the Telegraph on how the Russians are spoiling resorts with their vulgarity, and I want to leap to their defence. Shame on the old money for sneering at the new: the new mingling of East and West Europe offers people-watching on an Olympian scale. If it was good enough for Thomas Mann — who was inspired to create Mme Chauchat, the elusive symptom of desire in The Magic Mountain, and his Platonic pubescent hero Tadzio from watching the Eastern Europeans at play in the South of France before the war — it’s good enough for me now.
Even our children have come to share the fascination, after a succession of heavenly creatures descended to babysit. ‘Can we have Katya?’ they ask every night. Heavens, boy, what first attracted you to the slinky, six-foot blonde who can do charades of Mary Poppins in the style of the Kirov Ballet? Are they watching us with the same critical eye? You bet. I dare say Ms Versace-Choosky turned to her diminutive boyfriend in the back of the Merc that night saying, ‘God what a mess these English women are. Who wears Birkenstocks in the evening?’
It cuts both ways, when East meets West.