I wonder if Hany has arrived.

            The curtains are still drawn. It’s a little after nine. There’s something I sense about the atmosphere outside that is just a guess. I reach over in the twilight and find my iPhone on the nightstand. It lights up. I get the weather app up. I burst into a chuckle: It’s going to get up the 20 C. today. I can tell from the light sifting through the drapes that it is a bright and sunny day, just like they say in songs.

            If I remember, flights from New York to Europe usually arrive at the crack of dawn. But of course, Hany has chartered his own jet.

            I should get up. This is going to be a major day.

            Breakfast, again, is in Bill’s suite, or rather Bill’s and René’s. Today it’s at ten. I’ve decided to shower and shave. I’m not going to greet Hany in that bathrobe.

            I knock on the door and step back. I’m dressed for the day, whatever it holds. Nothing. I wait a few seconds and then press my ear against the door. The door opens. I nearly fall in. Hany bursts out laughing. “Sorry. René was going to get the door, but I stopped him. How are you? You look great!” We exchange the French bisous as I step inside. Hany shuts the door behind me. He startles in a near skin-tight long-sleeved white shirt. I would have expected him to look tired, but he doesn’t. Of course: private jet, nice big bed. “Émilie?” He asks that in a low voice, almost a whisper, as he follows me into the living room.

            Bill, René, Janine, Serge, and Émilie are sitting around the breakfast table. They’ve already begun. Janine stands up and gestures for me to come over to her; kisses on both cheeks: “So, don’t you look dapper! Sit down next to me.” She points out a chair between herself and Serge. Seated, Serge gives me his bisous.

            Bill was saying something to René as I sat down, but now: “You’re late, but you’re dressed.” Bill is in his Coromandel splendor. René is in jogging pants and hoodie. Janine and Serge, of course, are dressed in the same clothes they arrived in last night. How long did they expect to stay here? And then I remember that they only packed for an overnight at Place Saint-Georges. Émilie eyes me and nods.

            Hany takes a seat. “I told Bill that I need to make a few phone calls. I thought I’d wait until I was here before I made any real appointments.”

            “And, as you see, Hany is off and running.”

            “The comfort of a private jet, Bill. Slept like a baby.”

            Émilie’s eyes are on Hany. I think I see confusion there, her lust wrestling with her bigotry. If she had gathered earlier, she seems now to also be taking into account his wealth. Or maybe I’m getting it all wrong. She throws me a glance that says, back off.

            I ask Hany if they know the sex of their child yet. “Oh, it’s way too early for that. Sad, though, isn’t it? If Maman were only here to share in the good news…” He looks more like he’s flabbergasted at the vagaries of fate rather than mournful. That’s not to say that Hany is not mournful; I know he had a very strong bond with his mother. Her pride in him and his accomplishments must have been a driving force in his life. And then the way she had accepted Bill when “he brought him home”… This still startles me. It was so out of sync with the times. In other respects, yes, she seemed very pleased that he had married, especially that he had married Maryse, and of course she was looking forward to grandchildren. On the other hand, she could throw tradition out the window. Once again, I regret the days at the Cataract that are not to be. “Oh! Here’s some news for you and you only, not that everyone else can’t know. I found diaries in my mother’s boudoir. I have them with me. And… lucky for you, they’re written in French, with a few passages in English. I don’t think she ever knew how to write fluently in Arabic. Speak, yes, of course, but write? No. She could read, but writing is something else. Anyway, they are for you. A farewell gift from Maman.”

            Hany’s eyes grip me. He is reading the chaos of contrasting emotions shaking me. My throat tightens; my eyes are filling with tears. And then so do his. Only for a minute, or even less. We both feel all eyes on us. We both feel the imperative to stop, to control ourselves. I manage to loosen my throat and then thank him.

            “You will do something marvelous with them. I know you will,” he turns,  “right, Bill?”

            I don’t dare look over at Bill. I feel him staring at me. “He will create a masterpiece.” Does he mean that? Bill does not seem to joking. I meet his eyes; they are commanding me. I mutter, I’ll do my best. And then a weird-sounding chuckle comes out of me. Embarrassment. Fortunately, Bill continues, and no one seems to hear: “This is great good news, Hany. Future offspring and the memoirs of Madame. I would normally insist on popping a cork, but I’m no Winston Churchill.”

            Janine chuckles, “You don’t think those stories of Churchill having champagne for breakfast during the war are… apocryphal?” She has paused to summon up that word. I sigh to myself: If only my French were as good as her English.

            Bill smiles back: “Oh, no, I think they’re quite true. It’s no urban legend in the UK, I can tell you that. People seem to know as if they were there themselves.”

            “So,” says Serge, “champagne is also good for winning wars. Let’s hope you win this one, Monsieur Bill. With the help of Hany.”

            “She means the Villa Belza, Hany. It’s a fantasy we seem all to be sharing. You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

            Instantly we can all see that Hany does know. “You scare me, Bill. How do you know about this place?”

Nothing changed at first. We were all very excited. The King was gone. What next? A year went by, I think – my father would know exactly how long – and then one Jewish girl I had known since kindergarten left the university. Oh, of course. There was the Palestine thing: Israel. But then another girlfriend, mother Egyptian, father Italian, told me they were moving to Milan. And then it began accelerating. One after another the big flats were empty. Landlords tried renting them but with no success. Soon whole buildings were empty. My father told me that non-Egyptians were informed that their shares in certain companies would be seized unless they became Egyptian nationals, or something like that. We were soon the only occupied flat in our building. That situation lasted about a year. The landlord soon was in arrears on taxes. Next, the empty apartments were seized by the State. We wondered how that would help. And then strange people began moving in, not strange in the sense of foreign. No, they were all Egyptians. Their faces were wild with delight. Before long, there was trash everywhere in the stairwells. Our street had a lot of shops – grocers, butchers, greengrocers – all of them rented by people who had come from somewhere else: Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, France. These were not rich people, of course, but one after the other the shops closed. They stood empty for a year or so, and then an Egyptian would move into them selling odds and ends, used clothing, and then came subdivisions of shops, half butcher, half fruit stand. Things would break, windows shatter, and they would be repaired by these new people with what they could get their hands on. Most of the repairmen, it turned out, had been Italians. They were gone…

I read this page that has slipped partly free of the folder before putting it carefully back inside and sealing it with the string; I can hear her voice speaking. There’s no one here. I’m alone in my room. I just let myself weep.

Yevgeny will be home to show us around his ten-room apartment in the Villa Belza at four. The light as the sun heads down into the Bay of Biscay will be dazzling.

He’ll send his limousine for us. We’re all invited, which of course includes Émilie. “It’s an American car.  Yevgeny loves American things.”

“A Lincoln Town car?” asks Hany. I have a feeling he doesn’t care; he’s bantering with Émilie.

“I don’t know. I don’t know American stuff. You do. You live in New York. Are you an American citizen?”

“Oh, and proudly so. Proudly American, proudly Egyptian.”

“Then we should think about lunch. I don’t think I should see the future house of my dreams on an empty stomach.” Bill pulls out his iPhone. “Anyone have any objections to going back to Pim’pi. It’s an easy walk, an easy walk back here to the hotel, too, easily in time for our rendezvous with an American limousine. Is the chauffeur Russian, Émilie?” Bill seems to have caught her, at least that’s how she’s reacting.

“I never spoke to him.” Ah, the disdain in her voice, which I imagine is completely fabricated. Émilie has not struck me as someone who has grown up with servants.

“Oh, shit, Émilie. You couldn’t get enough of Jean-Pierre.” René is enjoying making Émilie squirm.

“Is that the lovely Jean-Pierre we have met, Bill?” Serge is wide-eyed but ready to burst out laughing.

“It is indeed.” And then Serge does burst out laughing; Janine has an eye on Serge as if afraid she’ll go too far somehow.

Hany has turned from Serge to Bill: “Ah, so when am I going to meet this Jean-Pierre? You’re such a man of mystery, Bill.”

“You know you’re invited to the Place Saint-Georges any time. Goes without saying: Maryse too. Jean-Pierre occupies the pied-à-terre upstairs. He’s our driver. And a PhD student.” I wonder why Bill added that. And then I see one reason why: Émilie is startled at this. Bill sees that. “You didn’t notice all the books then…?” Hany is enjoying Émilie’s reaction with increasing amusement and probably curiosity, but of course he doesn’t know about the infamous dick pic.

“That said…” Bill pulls out his phone and calls the restaurant.

“Émilie?” Serge startles Émilie. “I think you are the only person amongst us who has seen this apartment in the Villa Belza. What is an oligarch’s apartment like?” Bill has picked up on Serge’s question while still on the phone; he thanks whoever has taken our reservation – I’m picturing the woman we all found memorable – and slips his phone back into his pocket.

“Oh, don’t bother Émilie. It’ll only spoil it for us, Serge. We’ve all seen the outside. In just a few hours we’ll be wandering around inside…” Bill then turns to Émilie, “Except that, Émilie, you could tell us which part of the Villa the apartment is in.”

“Madame Serge…” Émilie pauses to let that title register in the room. “Yevgeny is very generous.” She turns to Bill. “It is not in one of the turrets. It is two floors, front on the ocean and back on the street. I was not given a tour of the apartment.” I’m probably not the only one who wants to ask her what then she was doing there. “Olga wanted me to meet Yevgeny. There was more caviar and lots of vodka.” I’m puzzled how a vegetarian, maybe even vegan, can be so blasé talking about caviar. What does she think caviar is?

It looks like René is about to call her on that. “It must have been some party. You spent the night.” Now Hany, Serge, and Janine have perked up and are smiling at her as you do someone who might have spent the night in a partouze.  But Émilie? Why would Olga find her attractive? – as if I know anything about lesbian tastes.

Émilie whips back at him: “You sound jealous, René…” I look at René; he definitely does not look jealous, more bitchy. Ah, poor Émilie has lost her touch. René chuckles: Sure.

“Émilie, you know so much about me, but I know so little about you. You’re Russian then?” Hany sees her hesitate at his question. “I like that you have adopted a French name. Very pre-1917. Aristocratic of you. Émilie, is that the name you were born with?” I’ve thought to ask her that question myself but couldn’t think of a neutral way of asking her. I see that I was right not to ask. Émilie’s eyes are blazing.

“I was born in Russia, yes. But I grew up in Tel Aviv. I’m Israeli!” She asserts her nationality like a slap, eyes blazing with pride, and then she sits back and waits for Hany’s response.

“Oh? Interesting. I would never have guessed.” We’ve all stopped eating. And then Bill picks up his coffee cup and takes a sip. Good idea: I do the same. René, Janine, and Serge sit back and wait.

“I don’t look like a Jew to you?”

Hany smiles: “What does a Jew look like? No, it’s just that you’ve talked about your connection with the wife of my Russian oligarch friend Yevgeny. Well, friend. Not a close friend. A few years back he was in Manhattan looking to make a real-estate investment. We’ve stayed in touch. And so much has changed since then. Putin. Ukraine. Where do you stand on all that?”

“With Israel.” I think we’re all scrambling to understand. I guess Israel backs Ukraine and is against Putin. I look to Serge to see if he knows: nothing.

But Serge immediately says: “Putin is KGB. He has the soul of a killer.”

“Interesting.” Hany smiles at Serge. “You…”

Monsieur Hany, j’ai été conçu sous l’Union Soviétique. Je connais bien l’espèce. Et ces oligarchs? Peut-être pas… killers like Putin. But mafia. Thugs.” She smiles then at Émilie first and then is back addressing Hany. “Vous parlez le français, Monsieur?” Hany smiles and nods. “Votre Yevgeny, c’est un tueur ou un simple escroc?” Killer or crook.

Hany bursts out laughing. “Spoken like a true communist. No, I would say that Yevgeny is a businessman. A very wealthy one. I never ask how a wealthy man has earned his wealth. Sometimes, I just know.” Hany turns a grin towards Bill before returning to Serge. Bill does not like being included in all this. “But since Ukraine I know that Yevgeny has needed to make some adjustments.”

Ah, votre ami qui n’est pas un ami, il continue de se retrouver parmi les amis de Poutine?” Your friend who isn’t a friend: rather prickly of Serge.

“As I said, Yevgeny has needed to make some adjustments. He and his wife are Cypriot citizens. When they sell here in Biarritz, they will move to an estate near Cannes. Yevgeny has told me this. He would seem to have no problems keeping assets in the European Union.” Hany is enjoying himself. And actually, so is Serge.

Monsieur Hany, vous êtes un homme de discrétion, un vrai diplomate. And where do your sympathies lie, with Ukraine?”

“Oh, most certainly. I’m no friend of a murder.”

“But you could be the friend of someone who is the friend of a murderer?”

“I would hope not. Just like I don’t ask Émilie if she is a friend of Netanyahu, like so many Russian Israelis seem to be.” Hany is guiding Serge’s attention to Émilie and now watches Émilie, waiting. How does Émilie do that? She concocts a smile befitting the Mona Lisa.

Bill stands up. “I think everyone’s had enough coffee.”

The way the woman at the Pim’Pi Bistro’s face lights up when Bill enters assures me that he’s found an equivalent of Le Bon Georges here in Biarritz. The menu on the chalk board is almost totally different. Bill can eat here every day if he likes.

Il a déjà trouvé sa cantine,” chuckles Janine to me as she makes sure her seat is next to mine. I tell her Bill couldn’t do better, that we ate here yesterday. “Ah, les Basques. Mais mieux l’autre côté des Pyrénées?” I suggest we not compare. “You men in this little family are such diplomates, just like Serge says. But you’re right, I’m sure. We’ve been to San Sebastián but, oddly, never to Biarritz.” She studies the blackboard. “It all looks good. They made something for Émilie?” I nod. “She’s a vegetarian…” Vegan, I correct her. “Vegan, and she eats caviar?” I smile and shrug. I look away and see Émilie looking at us. I smile back. She reproduces Mona Lisa’s smile. No, Émilie, once is enough, I think: not working anymore. Émilie turns to René and says something to him, which makes him chuckle. Not to forget: They bond on some level, which is why she’s here. Hany is describing to Bill what he knows about the logistics and the apartment. It does sound like that plain-façade wing running from street to ocean on two floors. I hear Bill tell Hany that the woman here in the restaurant knows quite a bit about the Villa Belza.

Serge is seated between Janine and René. She asks René about his school. “Émilie goes there too. She’s studying cinematography. I might switch. I played around with a TicToc video from Egypt.” Serge nods; she’s seen it. “Right. And…”

Serge interrupts: “If you or Bill or Hany were my guides, I might overcome my little fears.”

“Little fears? A group of Israeli tourists were murdered there by a cop in Alexandria, didn’t you hear?” barks Émilie. She knows Hany can hear her but doesn’t look his way.

Serge counters Émilie: “Oh, yes, terrible. I think this was in reaction to Gaza. You know, my dear, violence begets violence. Still.” Serge shakes her head in sympathy, but it’s not clear sympathy for what or for whom.

The waitress from yesterday arrives all smiles for Bill.

Yes, Janine is right; Bill has made an impression. Bill’s face lights up at the sight of her. It’s then that I realize that Bill has been scowling off and on since breakfast. He hasn’t appreciated all the political banter and innuendoes.

Bill now gathers us together and gets us ordering. He’ll order another bottle of the Irouléguy, but this time white. Most of us are having fish. Bill ignores Émilie. I suppose he figures that, like yesterday, she can get something from the kitchen to her liking, all on her own. Or maybe he just wishes she’d vanish.

On the way walking back to the hotel, he gets his wish. She won’t be going with us to the Villa Belza. She’s already seen it, been inside. “Don’t you want to see your friends again?” She is obviously annoyed at René’s question. She shrugs and stops in front of the window of a shop selling shoes.

“You all go ahead. I’m going inside to see if they have anything I like.” She gives us all a little wave and is gone inside.

  As we approach the entrance to the hotel, we see a black Lincoln Town Car limo parked nearby. “Are we late? No. But I think that’s the car.” Hany takes the lead and peers in through the driver’s seat window. The window comes down. He turns toward us with that master-of-ceremonies smile of his. “Does anyone need to go upstairs to their room? Because this is our car.”

In the next few minutes, the driver has gotten out and opened the doors for us. He is tall, blond, and wears a uniform much like Jean-Pierre does, except that he is icily serious and deferential. We are six now and take up opposing rows, three abreast.  The door is shut behind us, and the driver gets in and starts the motor. It is very quiet. Soon he is taking the route we know well on foot. What would take us a half hour is now reduced to… we are already driving up and are nearing the curve in the road. And there’s the Villa Belza. Bill has chosen to sit between René and Janine, his back to the driver, and facing us. I announce to him that the Villa is in sight. “Do I look calm to you? I haven’t been this excited since Christmas morning in Pride’s Crossing, age six, wishing for… I can’t remember anymore.” He starts chuckling. Bill is all nerves. Hany is sitting beside me and opposite Bill.

Pas de soucis.” Hany reaches forward to gently drub Bill’s knee. Bill smiles back. Bill wants this place in the Villa Belza. Has he seen pictures I haven’t seen? Hany hasn’t seen it inside.

“I just hope I’m not disappointed. I dreamed about the place last night.” Bill looks at me. “You remember when I first talked about Biarritz? I know, you thought I was crazy and stoned. I was stoned.” Bill glances towards Janine then and sticks out his tongue. Does she know he likes a joint and doesn’t approve? She smirks at his tongue.

“I seem to remember you talking about Biarritz back when you had the Dalí Suite in the Meurice. It’s your old-money predilection, I suppose. You could opt for La Baule.” Janine has gotten Bill smiling.

“Maybe it’s Coco Chanel that steered me towards Biarritz.”

Janine chuckles: “I guess you are too young to have been influenced by the Empress Eugénie. By the way, I like our hotel, but have you been inside the Hôtel du Palais?”

“Only on their website.”

“But you say you have rented a suite there once they reopen. I’m sure there’s someone there who could give you a look around.”

“That’s a thought. But as you can see, I’ve been busy.”

The Town Car pulls up before a large single door and stops. We’re here. Yes. There is no driveway up to a ceremonial entrance.

Bill puts his hand down hard on my knee. “Out! It’s time to bite the bullet. You go first.” The chauffeur has already gotten out, come alongside, and is opening the door. I’m hit by a blast of sea air. I’m first out.

The great wooden door, carved in thick shallow panels and armored against medieval assault with iron strips bolted into the oak, opens. A tall man fills the space. He has Slavic good looks (there is also something about his complexion, his skin, that seems familiar but that I can’t place), and is dressed elegantly in black from cashmere turtleneck to the tips of brightly polished black shoes. He’s holding his hand out to greet me with an oddly languid smile. No, I think. And then Bill comes up from behind me and steps ahead of me to take the hand, with Hany next, as I step back quickly. I fold into the group of Janine, Serge, and René. Janine saw what almost happened and is grinning at me. “Milliardaire? Ce n’est pas toujours évident…” I grin back. No, I say, billionaires can’t be spotted from Beelzebub’s branding-iron mark on the forehead.

Bill turns around toward us, just in time: We’re about to start laughing.

We are now all introduced to Yevgeny Beliankine Grudmilov.


I was reading a bit last night. Grégoire Beliankine was the White Russian brother-in-law of Stravinsky who rented all of Villa Belza in the early 1920s and created a restaurant and wild-party venue that he named “Le Château Basque.” Who knows, maybe Edward VII met the American divorcee Wallis Simpson there. Maybe not. There were rumors of orgies, Russian-themed soirées to make the Russian émigré nobility faint with nostalgia, and lots of wild dancing of the Charleston. I filled in the blanks too. The era had virtually no drug laws. Not only did Freud laud the benefits of cocaine, but in France the latest theory is that Proust drugged himself to an early death. Anyway, I pick up on the Beliankine.

Surely, “our” Yevgeny couldn’t be related to a White Russian, drawn to Biarritz because of its status as a colony of Russian émigrés in the twenties or as a place where Russian aristocracy built villas in the nineteenth century? Yet, I saw on BBC where London’s Russian oligarchs gave grand balls emulating those of the Russian aristocracy, even reviving their names. Russian oligarchs are nostalgics?

Now I remember who he reminds me of: Trump’s son-in-law – what’s his name? – Jared. An alarming thought, but then it’s only Yevegeny’s complexion.

Yevgeny doesn’t strike me as particularly slippery, so he’s no Jared. He does, however, strike me as a man of massive, controlled power, a kind of clenched fist, which would instead put him in the boa-constrictor category. Yevgeny is the epitome, in my mind, of what a Russian oligarch is like, not that I’ve ever met one before.

We’re now following our host, Hany, and Bill down a dimly lit hallway to an open elevator. “Please,” says Yevgeny with a smidgen of the roughness of a Russian accent and, still, that languid smile. I’m thinking the smile is the velvet glove of the oligarch’s iron fist. He presses the number five. The doors close. Already I no longer have any sense of direction about where we are going inside the building or what section or wing we are in, except we are now going upward.

“There are ten of you co-owners,” says Hany to Yevgeny. Yevgeny nods and emits a vague and emotionless sigh. “Bill would need to meet with them?” Yevgeny smiles. I’m thinking that this is no answer at all, but Hany lets it slide. Of course, Hany handles that side of things, everything that is legal and business, including the coop board. I know in my building the coop board doesn’t have any say over who buys into my building. But with such a famous and prestigious building like Villa Belza that is probably not the case. What does it matter? I can’t imagine any circumstance where Bill wouldn’t be welcomed into the building with open arms. As the door opens onto the fifth floor, I realize that something has shifted. Hany and Yevgeny are engaged in the transaction; Bill is the bride not too involved in the amount of the dowry.

I step out and realize that we are in the apartment.

I, along with Janine, Serge, and René, am looking up and around. We are bathed in the glow of a skylight high above us. We stand in a large area, octagonal. I expect to see, high above, a great orthodox icon of Christ Pantocrator or Zeus, for the matter, reigning over us. There is nothing of the kind. Next we are following the three of them into the apartment. We are in a massive two-story living room facing a bank of windows onto the Bay of Biscay, the Côte des Basques. There is a long and easy staircase up to a loggia and the second story of this apartment.

I know from just the view of the ocean in front of us that Bill will buy this apartment. I can’t even guess how many millions of euros it will cost. Bill will not care. I can’t see the play of his expressions on his face, his reaction, as he joins the conversation with Yevgeny and Hany, but I can feel the purring of great pleasure and satisfaction emanating from them. It’s a done deal.

The apartment is indeed huge. The number of bedrooms, all ensuite, is unknown to me; I jokingly think you could turn the place into a pensione like the one in Room with a View. There is a library facing the sea. There is a pantry facing the road and cliffs. The kitchen is larger than that of most restaurants, certainly larger than that of Bill’s favorite eatery Le Bon George. There are two dining rooms, one for intimate gatherings and one for hosting twenty or thirty people or even more. I know from googling that the Villa Belza has suffered several fires since it was first built in something like 1889. Parts of this apartment could have some original detailing, but as a whole the apartment has been modernized in a way that emphasizes function over design. There is no art war between the inside and the outside. On the other hand, I don’t feel anything particularly neo-medieval inside the place. All of that remains outside in turrets and steeply sloping roofs.

The apartment is supremely silent, not that you can’t make out the gentle sounds of the sea and occasionally a sound of traffic from the road. I think it’s the expanse of the rooms and the all-pervading light from the sea. It has the feel of an ocean liner. The kid who grew up in Pride’s Crossing and could cycle to the beach is more exuberant, triumphant, than I’ve seen him, maybe in years, maybe ever.

I remember him mentioning Biarritz right off the train and beginning to feel his joint in Rotterdam. At the time, I thought the idea was charming but a bit crazy. Neither of us had ever been there, been here. But our first meal in that Basque house, the drive through hills and up steep streets to arrive at our hotel, which was all about looking at the sea, these past few days have changed all that. We are beginning to know Biarritz. Biarritz makes knowing itself, herself, easy. Perhaps in high season and full of beach people and tourists we would not have been so quickly seduced. But this is February. I’m thinking if you can love the winter skies of a place, you’ve fallen in love.

Olga appears as we cross the small living room. She stands smiling for us to reach her. “Bonjour!” she chirps, that to Bill, René, and me, who she’s already met. We get a very elegant and relaxed set of bisous. Yevgeny introduces her to Hany and Bill, and Bill introduces her to Janine and Serge. Serge greets her in Russian, which results in a smile but one lacking in surprise. I assume Émilie has briefed Olga. Olga doesn’t ask where Émilie is. She turns to Yevgeny: “Let me offer our friends some refreshment. You don’t need to discuss a bit of business?” If she is looking for a signal from Yevgeny that all has gone to plan, she receives it in another of his languid smiles touched then with a bit of sparkle in the eyes.

Messieurs,” Yevgeny turns to Bill and Hany? He places his hand on each of their shoulders and orientates them toward another entrance to the room.

Olga looks at Janine and Serge: “I thought you might enjoy a little caviar. It is Russian,” she adds as if apologizing, while surely knowing we would be surprised, because of the embargos, and thrilled. “There is a tin of Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga. They were gifts from old friends who passed through yesterday. It’s very, very mysterious how they came to have these lovely tins.” Her eyes sparkle with mockery. If Yevgeny has something of Jared, Olga has something of Melania. Why are these unpleasant people coming to mind, and why doesn’t that mean I dislike Yevgeny and her? I don’t. I find them both elegant and charming, as well as fascinating to watch, to be around. Billionaires. Of course! I had never meet, let alone known a billionaire before Bill turned into one. Janine was right: Hany was a barracuda, a wannabe billionaire, a very different experience. Olga and Yevgeny are the first “real” billionaires I have ever met, ones who exude the massive power of having made those billions happen and who command the empires they create.

Olga leads us into the smaller of the dining rooms. My sense of orientation comes back, a bit; I couldn’t find my way out of this apartment and back on the street. The table is ovular and mahogany. There are place settings for eight. There are two elaborate chandeliers with candles lit and reflecting off the dangling shards of crystal and the faceted cut-glass arms. The table is a fury of light. In three great bowls of ice is set a large open tin of caviar. It’s to be a tasting. Five places are set with porcelain bowls set in ice. I suppose when the others join us, someone will arrive with bowls of ice for them. In our tour of the house, I’ve seen no servants. There are none now. Olga moves toward a chair at one end of the table. “Please sit down,” and pulls out her own chair. We go to chairs, two places set on either side of her. In seconds, we’re all seated. And then I notice: a glass ice bucket with a bottle of something, no doubt vodka, sticking out of it and then another with an unopened bottle of champagne. I wonder if Émilie was so regaled. Somehow, I think not. I can picture her around a coffee table in the smaller salon. And then I can’t. I can’t picture Émilie as part of any of this or as even being in this house. And yet she says she was and passed a whole night here. My imagination jumps to the insolite: Now that I’ve seen Yevgeny, can I picture some kind of partouze with the plumpish Émilie? As the expression runs: Let’s not go there.

“This is a display that brings tears to my eyes.” Serge’s eyes are wet and glistening. “It has been decades and decades…” Janine takes hold of her arm. The gesture seems familiar, automatic, a comforting one that she often gives to Serge. And it feels so right. Which leaves me with a disoriented feeling; I know almost nothing about either of them, and yet I’ve grown to think of them as family.

Olga now reaches out and gives Serge’s hand a little pat like you might give a young child or, on second thought, a grandparent. How old is Serge? During this encounter with Serge in Biarritz, I have never seen her once without her great broadbrimmed fedora. Serge has transmuted into a woman of a past generation where ladies sat sipping tea with their hats on. Black-and-white photos flash before my eyes. And then I see the famous twenties photo of a woman in a cloche hat smiling at her beau with the Villa Belza on its precipice in the background: an advertisement for chic and romantic Biarritz circa 1928. On second thought, maybe it was a photo advertising the Château Basque restaurant in its heyday, not just one of many tourism photos from the time. Deco posters of Biarritz are ubiquitous.

The other aspect of this culinary display is that it’s contraband. Or so Olga would imply. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, importing of most things Russian has been proscribed. Gone is Stolichnaya from our shelves. I’m not a vodka drinker, so I’m not affected, though actually I’ve been told that Polish potato vodka is the best of all anyway and still available. The lids of these tins have been removed. I take Olga’s word for it that all three kinds of caviar are Russian then. That’s sort of the point of this gustatory event, right?

“You are the friend of Émilie?” Olga has startled René. So, another elephant-in-the-room moment is going to be dispelled? René just nods. “I see she has not come with you. We will not be saying goodbye then.” René says, no, making a sad face. Olga turns away from René. “Shall we begin with the best, the Ossetra?” She stands. “Please take up your spoons.” We all have white spoons. Are they bone or china? I suppose china. She takes a larger spoon and scoops out a nice mound of tiny grey and black eggs and looks at each of us, before serving Serge. A bright and surprised “merci” comes from Serge’s lips as she sits back slightly in her chair to welcome the offering. Janine is next, and then comes myself, followed by René. Olga serves herself and sits down. She takes up her small spoon like the one we each have. “Bon appétit!” her accent is flawless. But then, who can’t say “bon appétit?”

Oh, buttery, nutty, and of course fishy. The tiny eggs burst on my tongue. I look toward Olga and nod my appreciation. She jumps up. “Oh, I forgot. Let’s have some vodka.” So, we get no choice. She grabs the bottle – it is Stolichnaya, export quality, no doubt, even when there is little export – and fills our small shot glasses. “Santé!” She downs it and sits down. I take mine and down the hatch it goes, magically combining with the taste of the caviar. I’m far from an expert, but I think this works better than champagne. I scan the others. We’re all tasting and drinking pretty much at the same pace. The bottle is being passed around. We are a coordinated machine of gustatorial pleasure, no doubt an amusing spectacle to watch. Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie is being filmed. The vodka goes straight to my head. I take another spoonful of Ossetra. Imagine: eating caviar with a spoon!

I hear something and look up. There they are: Bill, Hany, and Yevgeny. They are watching us. They are not smiling. Olga sees them: “Asseyez-vous, Messieurs!” Now I hear an accent in her French, a bit coarse but not without charm. Yevgeny smiles his languid smile at her, and ushers Bill and Hany to the table.