These are the languid, sensuous days of summer, and I’ve had another birthday, which is the bad news. But it’s the silly season, so I’m going to be silly yet again and tell you about Patrick and Isabelle Balkany, a couple who got into trouble last week in the land of cheese. I don’t know them, but I had the bad luck to run into the wife about 20 years ago in Rolle, Switzerland, where the Rosey school is located. It was September, the first day back at school, and my son J.T. was miserable at the prospect of going to boarding school for the first time. He had tried every trick in the book as his mother and I were driving him down from Gstaad. He invented all sorts of illnesses and finally pretended to fall asleep just as we were coming into Le Château du Rosey, where the school has its campus in the autumn and spring. (In the winter months, it moves up to Gstaad.)
Once we had registered him, he was assigned to a brand-new dormitory, which I almost had to carry him into. That’s when things took a turn for the worse. An unpleasant, very short woman with a long cigarette in her mouth was in the room with her son. She looked at us in the manner an Indian maharajah might once have looked at an untouchable. I tried some polite conversation about another Balkany, who was born Robert Zellinger but called himself Robert de Balkany, a man I had played polo with and against in Paris. ‘He’s a relation,’ said the woman, seemingly unimpressed by my name-drop. She kept puffing away, so Alexandra and I had to leave our little boy in that smoke-filled room and beat a hasty retreat back up the mountain. We felt like criminals. Four days later, after countless desperate telephone calls from our little boy, I rang the headmaster and asked him to move our son to a different room. It seems that the boy fidgeted too much at night and J.T. couldn’t sleep.
Two months into the school year, the French minister of culture — Jack Lang, I believe — visited Le Rosey and was taken by the head to inspect one of the new dorms. ‘Monsieur le Ministre, voici une chambre d’étudiant typique,’ said the headmaster, opening one of the doors.
He quickly slammed it shut. Inside he had spotted J.T.’s old roommate lying on the floor looking at an enormous poster of Elle Macpherson and doing what 13-year-old boys do. The story quickly got out and the dining room went wild. My son called me and tried to blame his bad grades on the fact that one cannot study when one’s roommate constantly plays with himself. ‘You were only with him for a few days,’ I spluttered, and then hung up laughing.
Well, last week Patrick and Isabelle Balkany had their passports taken away by the French authorities, who accused them of tax fraud and all sorts of corruption. Patrick Balkany is a very popular mayor of Levallois-Perret, and has been re-elected many times. He is also a member of the French parliament, but his parliamentary immunity has been lifted. He is obviously innocent until proved otherwise, but as far as the short smoker is concerned, it seems she had put grand country houses and other assets in companies that were formed for just such evasions — or so the French papers have written. My son’s ex-roommate of four days and nights has not been accused of anything, thank God, though the children have been called illegal beneficiaries. This story will run for a very long time, so I thought I’d stick in my two cents before the family becomes even more famous — or infamous, as the case may be.
Otherwise everything’s hunky-dory. My son is sailing around the Aegean with his tiny children, my daughter is in Hampshire after flying into Paros for my birthday, and I’m about to embark on a short cruise on a friend’s boat before the Cunard-Spectator extravaganza. Summer can be exhausting. I fell during my own cruise and am covered in bruises. Sailing on old classics is not for the old. One loses balance as the years roll by, and trying to stand upright under heavy winds and under sail was good preparation for the judo world championships in Amsterdam next month. The bad news is the boozing and smoking after the sailing is over.
Here in Athens things are strangely quiet. The calm before the you-know-what hits the fan in a couple of weeks. The capital is empty and the streets I walk at night are devoid of the maddening Athenian traffic. I dine outdoors, can hear myself think, and reminisce about the time Athens was like this all year round. On the night of my return, in an outdoor restaurant in Kolonaki, where a very young Taki used to live, I dined while listening to a pianist play old tunes, songs I remember from long ago. Nostalgia swelled to tsunami levels. Outdoor piano bars can be dangerous things, especially if you are under the influence.
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