Sunday, August 01, 2010

let us eat cake, too

If you’ve seen the Sophia Coppola Marie Antoinette, you’ve really only seen half of the story. It’s a great movie, or perhaps I should say a divisive movie – you love it or you hate it, and I love it – but it finishes just when the story gets good. Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, are fleeing the angry mob of Parisians who want their heads. They say goodbye to Versailles, waive their fans, and cobble off in a carriage. And there the film ends. The history, however, is a little more brutal. In reality the mob caught the carriage, imprisoned the king and queen, and Marie had to listen to her children being whipped and beaten in adjoining prison rooms. The severed head of her best girlfriend was put on a pike and waived at her through her jail window. And then, you know, they chopped her head off as well.

I only tell this story because we went to Versailles today. It’s easy at Versailles to think of it as this beautiful and romantic period of French history. I imagine it probably was in the beginning, but it also feels stained with arrogance and blood. So there’s a lot going on, and you definitely get a sense of that.

Versailles is beautiful but it’s always really packed. I think it’s something you need to do if you go to Paris, just to say you’ve done it. But it’s difficult to get a sense of the history when you are jostling with other tourists to get a shot of the royal chapel, or you get elbowed in the Queen’s bedroom by some lady who really, really wants to push to the front of the line, or you go to the hall of mirrors and see some grown man pick his nose and eat it. Sir, you were busted. And it’s impressive and amazing and opulent, but it also becomes a little overwhelming. Because how could people live like this when so many other people were starving? It’s strange and hard to reconcile. Ah, what do I know, I’m a democrat.

I do love the gardens, though. After we had a light lunch in town (OK, it was McDonald’s and I WILL NOT BE JUDGED) we headed back to the gardens. I love the Queen’s Hamlet, and even though it takes 25 minutes to walk there, it’s worth it. You pass some amazing fountains – we were there as they were all on and it was breathtaking - through the Petit Trianon, past the temple of love, and into the hamlet. I know the history of it; she built it so she could live like a shepherdess. She had elaborate costumes made and she walked around with goat crooks and picked eggs. It’s really gauche and ridiculous. But she sure built a beautiful little village to play-act in. We sat under a large oak tree by her pond and took in how picturesque it all was. We played with ducks and fed the carp. None of us can relate to her lifestyle or her wealth, but everyone loves a little village.

On the way back we found the little grotto, and I heard thunder in the distance. I was hoping for rain, but it never came. The clouds were great, though, and kept us cool as we wound our way through the garden paths.Back in Paris we split our separate ways for dinner. I split off by myself, with the blessing of Alta Stringham, and ducked into a Chinese Restaurant (no pun intended) I found on Avenue de Washington. It was nice to sit quietly by myself and eat chicken chop suey. It was a little hole in the wall, but the staff was so happy to have me. They were very kind and gracious, and this kind of service is a hot commodity in Paris.

We finished a busy day atop the Arc de Triumph – meeting at nine so we could watch both the sunset and the 10:00 Eiffel Tower twinkle. We took a lot of pictures for a lot of people. We also managed to stake some for ourselves.