Gounod’s Faust was the first opera I ever saw, and I saw it at Palais Charles Garnier in Paris in March 1970. As we ascended the massive stair forty-eight years later, studied Marc Chagall’s rainbow of a ceiling and gazed out over the loggia outside the ornate Grand Foyer, it all came back.
I was agog that long ago evening when the DuPotets and I threaded through the crowds, up that cascade of steps and settled into amazing seats where I felt I was an arm’s length from the stage. My host Bernard DuPotet had been friend to my Pop since June 1917 when Bernard was an impressionable child of ten and my grandfather an eighteen-year-old ambulance driver absorbed by his service in World War I. The music transported me and Bernard, next to me, hammered time on the velvet rail in front of us and hummed the arias.
That was an amazing, unforgettable, life-changing week. Annie, the daughter still at home, took me to movies and took me to see Chartres cathedral and the palace at Versailles. Madeleine, Bernard’s wife, took me shopping. I have loved Paris ever since.
In 1999, my Dear One asked me, one evening when I got home from work, “Should we go to Paris?”
“Well, yes,” I replied. “Yes, we certainly should.”
We joined a travel group, stayed in the Grand Hotel there on the Place de l’Opéra. It was a chance for me to share with him all that the City of Light meant to me. We have been back a couple of times, just for a few days. On this occasion, saturated with all that glory, we wended through the various boutiques that constitute the exit from the Palais Garnier and circled across the Place to the Café de la Paix, a location writer James Thurber named “the center of the world.”
We reviewed that moment eighteen or fifteen years ago. Was it in 1999 or in 2002 when we were nearly mowed down in the Place de la Concorde on route to the Orangerie, which turned out to be closed for renovations?
After a glass of rosé and a most excellent sandwich of ham and cheese on fresh baguette, we strolled past display windows glittering with diamonds and colored gems, across the rue de Rivoli into the Tuileries Gardens. We paused by the carousel and again to watch children bouncing on trampolines near the monument to the founder of the Cinderella fairytale, Charles Perrault. Purple allium bloomed in garden beds and roses faded. The Bassin Octagonal reflected the blue of the sky and was surrounded by sun worshippers and workers brown-bagging lunch; our eyes, however, were drawn to the Place de la Concorde and the immense Ferris wheel now installed there.
We took a spin, seeing the city from Sacré-Coeur on the Butte Montmartre to the Musée d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, a spin that lasted not nearly long enough. If you are sixty-five or older, bring your passport. We could have save eight euros, but the harridan and the ticket booth refused to believe, without documentation, that gorgeous folks such as ourselves could be that old.
Then we worshipped at the altar of Claude Monet’s nymphéas now that the Orangerie is once again up and running. Monet is okay but it was the collections amassed by dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934) two floors below that really knocked my socks off. Rooms of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, Maurice Utrillo and Henri “le douanier” Rousseau. More Renoir than I might want. A group of Marie Laurencin paintings in pastel colors that did not make me think well of her. Way, way too much late André Derain. Way, way too much stuff that reminded me uncomfortably of the pedophilic works of Balthus.
Not everything had been purchased by Guillaume himself, but how the heck did he amass such treasures in a life that lasted only forty-three years?
Our plan was to picnic in Batignolles Park, a casual dinner of leftovers, wine and pastry, a high note on which to end a day that left us high indeed. Turns out that our neighborhood greensward is gorgeous, lousy with kids, and unwelcoming of meals accompanied by bottles of wine. Never mind. We found an unfamiliar street to lead us home and laid out quite the spread while we watched a French travel program with an adorable photographer-host, Emmanuel LaBorda. Truly, truly adorable.
Just one thing after another, never too much, never too fast.