(insert "life is a journey" cliché here)
Going to the Grand Casino at Monte Carlo seemed quite a posh thing to do, for a bunch of rowdy Contiki travellers. Not a common backpacker destination, of course we were up for it – but not everyone had something to wear. My backpack attire was of an extremely casual nature, including one lurid polyester ‘maxi-cut-down-to-mini’ op-shop dress for ‘going out’. My footwear consisted of sandals, sneakers and Blundstones.
I’d already ‘disgraced’ myself by acting the typical Kiwi while in Cannes. Traipsing in and out of beachfront boutiques with sandy feet, dripping hair, a bikini top and tie-dyed sarong was not the done thing here, yet I was doing it. Took a while for the filthy looks to sink in, and for me to cotton on that this was not like relaxed beach town NZ. Europe had dress standards that, at the end of the grungy ‘90s, I was vastly under-prepared for. Still, the op-shop frock was going to have to do. (and do, it did).
As in the first photo above, the Grand Casino frontage was lined with the world’s most show-off sports car brands, and a crowd had gathered simply to ooh and ah at these. This is before social media, you understand, yet there was a lot of “real film photography” (24 or 36 prints per roll) going on. Here’s my one; me teetering on some cheap n’ nasty wedge-heel sandals that were purchased at a street market that day.
In this zone of the rich and famous, I hoped to see at least one celebrity. I saw French actor Jean Reno, whom I recognised from the movie The Big Blue. He was semi-stumbling rapidly up some darkened outdoor steps that lead up to the Grand, hands in pockets, frown on face. Turns out, during my whole year in Europe, he was my only random celebrity sighting (apart perving at the red carpet premiere of Titanic from a bar overlooking Leicester Square, and seeing Leo Di Caprio and Prince Charles from a distance. But I digress).
I wrote in my diary later: ‘Monaco: a place that everyone on our bus fell in love with. Cliffs and terraces by the sea, tall buildings perched in pockets and on hill-tops, with views that one pays for. How great to be ordinary old me, somewhere so famous and so haunted by the powerful elite.’
Three of us paid 50 francs to further this experience by entering the Grand Casino (while the rest of our bunch opted for a ‘cheaper’ casino nearby.) It seemed so flash and extravagant to our plebian eyes – though since then I have sighted several far more ostentatious casinos, like the ones in Macau:
In the Grand, we found astonishing rooms with high painted and vaulted ceilings, gold pillars and mirrors. And so very quiet, just the soft murmur of the wealthy with money to burn. Though there were ‘pokies’ machines here, they didn’t ring in that ghastly electronic fashion. We enjoyed a very expensive Coke and did some elite people watching.
At the roulette table, a blonde woman stood with her back to me. Her hair was a long golden mane, her short black dress hugged a slim attractive figure with tanned, shapely legs. When she turned, I got a shock. Her face was like a piece of old brown leather, skin pulled taut, scary and undeniably aged. She may have been in her 70s but possessed of a body that was a miracle of plastic surgery… or in her 40s-50s but with a face displaying waaaaay too many cigarettes and UV rays. Maybe something in between the two. Anyway I have never since seen anyone like her with my own actual eyes.
Side-note: I still have the op-shop dress and still wear it on occasion.