In the apartment I rent in Paris, there’s cable television, something I purposely don’t have at home. I eye it warily as the woman agent taking care of the rental details turns it on. I didn’t bring my computer because I feared being online too much out of habits from home, for example.
At home, I read the news constantly because for the last 8 years I’ve felt as if I had somehow accidentally accepted a ride from a drunk driver. Reading the news was like looking out the window, to see if we would crash, and not reading the news was lying on the floor of the car, waiting for it to crash.
In going to Paris, I wanted some other options.
The agent leaves, and I watch a few moments of television. Wolf Blitzer is smiling as he says things like candidates, battle, battleground. He sees himself as a postmodern boxing announcer for the Frasier-Lewis fight of this century. I am alarmed that the place he is standing in is my country, the place I have to go back to when the trip is done, so I turn off the television and get to work.
Downstairs on the sidewalk, I use one of the omnipresent glass phone cabins and call my friend Brandon.
Antoine would like us to go to this chateau on Saturday, for a picnic, Brandon says, as we plan the weekend. They light it with candles at night on Saturdays, and open it to the public.
Sounds great, I say. Not knowing quite how much this will be true.
* * *
In Paris, strangers ask me for directions in French. Except for the panhandlers, who speak to me in English or who speak to me first in French, then English, when I say nothing.
The first flatters me somehow, though I’m always asked for directions, wherever I go. My face is such that I could as easily be from the place I’m visiting as not.
For the picnic, Brandon and I arrange to meet at an intersection near the Chatelet RER station. An ancient church sits there, a sand-colored stained Gothic creature, the windows smoked with age and broken. They knew how to build churches like this for a hundred years before they did, Brandon told me the day before. But they thought they were ugly and so they didn’t do it. On this street, it’s like the ghost of old Paris, sternly reviewing the new. It looks like an ancient alien spaceship that landed and then was abandoned, a little aloof from the need to be explained.
Around me, four steady streams of pedestrians meet, each coming from different directions. I turn, surveying them, until I find the one I determine they’ll come from, and sure enough, Brandon and his boyfriend Pascal emerge, a little late, and as we’ve left not much margin for error, we run, navigating the stairs two at a time to the ticket machines, which are mobbed. Brandon is frantically getting the exact train information from Antoine, who is already on the train with his new boyfriend. It doesn’t look remotely possible, and then it’s done somehow, and we are on the train, slack. I pull beers from my bag and pass them out. Pascal exclaims, happy. Antoine and his boyfriend Cédric emerge from the stairs, smiling, and we take turns having conversations mostly in French or mostly in English, until we arrive, and take turns with the one taxi in Melun, getting out to the palace.
The palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, has something seductive about it right away as we get out of the taxi. It is famously the place that inspired Versailles, having belonged to one Nicolas Fouquet, the procurer general to Louis the XIV. He had the misfortune to invite his boss to a party at his house, where he debuted Molière‘s Les Fâcheux, and when Louis arrived, he was so offended at the way it was more stylish and beautiful than the very tatty Louvre Palace, that he had Foucquet eventually arrested and banished, and seized the palace for himself. When it failed to assuage his grief at being outdone, he had Versailles created, using Fouquet’s architect, painter and garden designer.
In the light of this place, Versailles seems tacky and overdone to me, and chilling. I’m in the presence of style. Foucquet, you could say, still knows how to throw a party—whatever it was Louis the XIV wanted to send away, he failed to do it.
I feel things I never feel in palaces. We walk the length of the garden and marvel at how at each major turn the view is composed, like a picture you would make and I want to lie down at the top of the farthest hill with a bottle of wine and look down across the lawns and the moldering fountains into these constructed views and never leave. In the library, under a frieze of Hercules being received by the gods, I want to sit with a snifter of armagnac and read a novel for three hours by the light of a candle-lit chandelier.
It feels entirely reasonable to think about that here. Pascal feels it too, and so we walk the palace, which is lit with candles, joking with Brandon and Antoine and Cédric, about how we would redecorate, where we would dine or nap, what we would keep and what we would throw away. By now it’s dark and we’ve all had some wine, during which we toasted the unfortunate Fouquet.
In the upstairs we stand in front of a statue of the writer La Fontaine, a friend of Fouquet’s and a frequent visitor. The bust changed its expression when you lit it differently, which the palace staff had done, the shifting light on a timer. I found Pascal staring at it. It’s amazing, he said, as I stood next to him and tried to see what he saw.
Both expressions were serious and one was very sad, and it seemed to me that this was too often the mode in which serious literary writers were thought of by their fans. That we were always serious, and sad when we were not grave. I felt uncomfortable as I imagined my face there.
In the hallway around the corner, we are presented with the robes of priests, made from the gowns of brides. Brandon is standing here and points this out to me.
In the 17th Century, the brides’ gowns were always done with the finest embroidery and colors. And after the marriage, the embroidery panel was cut from the gown and then given to a priest, who had it made into his robe, which he wore during ceremonies. I try to imagine being a man of God, wearing on my back the gown of a newly married woman, and then we go down the stairs and walk back, staring at the palace, which is limned in candle flame, the candles set along the trim, before we all climb into the car of the scion of a wine family who joined us and brought some of the wine we drank, and he drives us to the train station for the train back to Paris.