C’est la rentrée. It’s official. The world -- this world, ce pays-ci -- went back to business-as-usual Monday morning, in a big way. La rentrée is more than students and teachers returning to the classroom; there is a sensation of everything starting up again, and with renewed vigor and purpose. So added to the tang of freshly sharpened pencils and the crispness of first-day-of-school outfits, there is overall a feeling of do-overs, resolutions, and from-this-moment-forwards much like at the New Year.
And because there’s lots of media hoo-ha accompanying it, and because many people do wish each other “Bonne rentrée,” there is a kind of festivity in the air. Though this implies great optimism, for some it implies, rather, great skepticism: this rentrée is the first under the stewardship of a new president, a white tornado of activity and industry, an early riser and a jogger, a fellow who promises a nation where people are permitted to “work more to earn more.” This doesn’t always go down easy in a country whose citizens are accustomed to a 35-hour-work-week, five-weeks’-vacation-per-annum, and generous social benefits, and who see the topic of money -- at least as far as income and personal wealth are concerned -- to be vulgar. So the fall palette this year, in addition to magenta and electric blue, includes a shade or two of ambivalence.
In Paris, traffic bulked up as if on cue, abandoning its more svelte summer dimensions. 95% of the shops and establishments that had been closed opened up again and the remainder will come back next week. Most folks -- many of them looking tanned and well-rested -- returned to work. The week presented time for nice visits with the grocers on the corner, the produce folks up at the Place Monge, Madame Coach (a.k.a. Bela Karolyi), the pharmacist, the dry cleaner (who also kindly and as if by magic managed to make my two-seasons-old wool coat look brand new). Farther from my neighborhood, the Prime Minister turned up bright and early on France Inter’s “7-10” (the French analogue to NPR’s “Morning Edition”) to field calls about the merger between the state-owned gas company and a private entity. (Funny: as if in response to the president’s mandate, the news got longer over the summer. Back in July it was merely the “7-9:30.”)
And on Monday, for his part, Monsieur le Président headed out to Orly to greet Nelson Mandela and to escort him to his hotel. Which is nice because the A4 headed into Paris can get sticky. Anyone would appreciate a motorcade at just such a time.
Here at H.Q., we have our own do-overs: not only a bit blonder and sun-daubed for our three weeks in California, but also with a newly minted immigration and work status, that of travailleur indépendant, i.e., "independent worker." So though I am ineligible to work as a salaried employee at a French company, I may be hired, as they say in French, “freelance.” This change is absolutely vital to my staying in Paris, not only in terms of supporting myself, but also in terms of integrating myself more fully into the life I have chosen. It's the only way I know of to make clear to Paris that I am here.
And what a "here" it is. I was walking through the lobby of the Hotel Meurice yesterday, after enjoying a cocktail or two in honor of Richard’s birthday. The Meurice is grand, period. Possessed exactly of just the hush and swoop you would expect of a hotel of its stature. I admit that I was a little high, not necessarily on the champagne I had sipped, but on the fact of being there in the first place -- in new clothes, at the start of a new chapter, in the company of good friends, certain if only for a moment of just where I was going. (In this case, through the Tuileries, across the river, and through Saint Germain to my home in the fifth arrondissement. To my home.)
I could see a small knot of bodyguard-types clustered around a black Citroën and assumed that some Russian oligarch or another was soon to emerge from the hotel. Wrong. To the right of me, hardly ten feet away, not one person standing between us, emerged from the elevator Nelson Mandela, supported on one side by his wife, and the other by a cane. He was frailer and thinner than I would have guessed. They walked together slowly, and with great effort. Time slowed as if to match his pace. And for an eternity, I stood there, wondering if I should say something to him. Should I call him “Sir”? I had no idea. And even then, what could I possible say? “Mr. Mandela, did you know that we almost have the same last name?"
The front doors were open onto the rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Tuileries, and the sun had dropped low enough to light up the foyer of the hotel. It also hit just-so off the tops of the trees in the distance, a mellower light, and cooler, than before. A small crowd had gathered and applauded gently as he emerged onto the sidewalk.
I watched him get into his car and thought maybe I ought to say that thing that was really on my mind: “Welcome to Paris. It's even more beautiful with you in it.”
It's in a nice quiet corner of the seventh, just a few doors down from where Edith Wharton lived. I happened to drop by on one of those first-Sundays-of-the-month when (most of) the museums in Paris are free.
"Free" is good. "Free" is likely to dispose you in an even kindlier fashion to things you knew you already liked. Like an after-lunch espresso that has not one but two chocolate-covered almonds sitting patiently on its saucer.
It was late-afternoon and the dome of the Invalides was glowing like a spaceship about to descend directly onto the gravel-pathed gardens of the museum.
So Rodin worked in what we can think of as pretty much a semi-permanent medium. None of that stuff is fading or going away anytime soon. (Contrasted with the problem a friend had just been sharing with me: i.e., that some of his favorite pieces from his photography collection couldn't be hung on just any wall of his house -- and therefore easily enjoyed -- because they had to be protected from the light. I suggested, in all seriousness, that he hang them on the walls of his closet. At least he'd be sure to see them once a day.) So in the midst of all this solidity, several tons of marble and bronze, I found it funny that the thing I should find most beautiful that particular afternoon would probably be gone in a day or two. Carved in air as it was.
Certainly the ant would be gone in a few minutes.
As a child, my days of fantasizing about being a princess were relatively brief, lasting only until I was about six, when I discovered the Patridge Family and decided that I wanted to be a red-head who played the tambourine.
Up until then, my interest in nobility was taken up primarily with the not-insignificant amount of time I spent listening to my “Sleeping Beauty” album. Putting a 33-1/3 rpm on the phonograph, and sitting next to the speaker, turning through the pages of the accompanying picture-book was the late-sixties equivalent of popping in a video or a DVD. I spent a lot of time puzzling over certain details in the illustrations. The Wicked Queen, for example. What was she wearing on her head? A bathing cap, perhaps? And what on earth was going on with Aurora’s dress? (Cleavage, I later realized.) And of course the terrifying thorns on the vines that grew all around the tower.
Not so long after that, I discovered Sonny & Cher, and along with them a rabid interest in gowns designed by Bob Mackie, and in false eyelashes, and in platform shoes. (The trajectory of my childhood fantasies is either very sordid and sad, or merely represents the fine line between princess and drag queen. Your call.)
Which makes it a little funny or perhaps just ironic that despite never having asked for the keys to the castle, I ended up with them anyway. Friends rent a beautiful home in Courances, a village 50 km south of Paris named for the chateau adjacent to it. Though the house is not on the grounds of the chateau, it is part of the property itself.
Accessing the chateau grounds is as simple as unlocking a small door, hidden in plain sight, at the back of the chateau wall. (Perhaps, as I was, you were expecting a rusted, heavy skeleton key. A relic that carried with it a whiff of several hundred years of secret comings and goings, and midnight assignations. I do not like to disappoint, but the key was…just a key.)
And with this just-a-key in hand, I crossed the little rue de Petit Paris and let myself in. Because it was mid-week, neither Monsieur nor Madame le Marquis, nor their children’s families, were on the premises that day. I had the grounds to myself. Which was altogether pretty fabulous for a Tuesday morning.
Fabulous, yes. But I do like to imagine how prettily the hem of my beaded evening gown and matching feathered head-dress would have slid across the grass as I walked.