Theadora and pal struggle to stay upright as they follow in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette
There is nothing I can do. Deep in the groves at Versailles, Beth has slipped and is sliding head first through the damp grass toward the rocky fountain of Enceladus. Not even the god’s sculptured hands can save her. In the midst of royal reenactors and fountains gushing to piped-in Baroque remix beats by Jean-Baptiste Lully, I try to catch her by the tail of her Hello Kitty poncho, but miss. Now tangled up in my friend’s plastic cape, I’m about to take a tumble too.
It’s probably my fault. Before hopping on the RER, I’d insisted that we stop by SYMPA’s bargain bins for boxy little rain jackets. The day before, in our haste to get to the Musée de Cluny before closing, we’d left our parapluies at the Brasserie Balzar. It was Beth’s first visit to Paris, so I was trying to share it all. Rain would not become an obstacle.
By the time we boarded the train it was noon. Today was for visiting Versailles, and we’d made a list of statues to see and halls to go to. Friends since working at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, we’re two history buff peas in a pod. And, as fans of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, we were more than ready for some rustic chic escapism. Beth had just hung an exhibition in London, and now was in need of regal inspiration and tranquillity.
WOMAN WITH A PLAN
I had crafted a plan. We’d launch our expedition with a power walk around the entire Domaine de Marie Antoinette. With its seductive cave, mystic temples, tiny village of farm animals, vegetable plots and placid lake – complete with island and lighthouse– it’s no surprise that this countryside in miniature was the ill-fated queen’s favourite staycay retreat from the frenetic life she’d led back at the palace.
But as we exited the station, the skies opened. Buckets of rain revealed that our new raincoats were not even remotely water resistant. Refusing to pay steep tourist prices for flimsy umbrellas at the palace souvenir stand, we settled on two Hello Kitty ponchos with hoods and soldiered on.
Rain has always trolled the vanity of bigwigs. It’s no surprise that one of the first royal patents the Sun King issued was for a folding waterproof umbrella – as protection for his perruque. In 1709, Jean Marius, a master pursemaker (who also happened to invent the portable harpsichord), came up with a design that was water-resistant, lightweight, and practically overnight, terribly chic. Those early parapluies were stylish and sturdy, but expensive. Soon umbrellas were being rented by the hour at hotspots and bridge crossings throughout Paris.
We, however, were trying to make do with our ponchos. Still in our rain gear, we explored Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, tucked behind the Petit Trianon, then splurged on chicken salad sandwiches in the convenient gift shop.
Fully fuelled, I suggested we see a few fountains, which would be turned on during a special Baroque music show. We raced from grove to grove, snapping photos. I increased our speed, possessed by a desire to glimpse all 30-odd fountains before the programme ended. Beth was having the time of her life, at least until we rounded the corner and entered Enceladus Grove. With the sun finally shining and Jean-Baptiste Lully lending pep, I’d forgotten about the slick and uneven stones. Beth made contact with the ground first, but miraculously landed on the soggy grass and not the fountain rocks. I fell next. After pulling my pal to her feet, I offered not only to pay for a taxi back to the train station, but also dinner.
During the ride back to Paris, she handed me a Marie Antoinette compact mirror, oval shaped and covered in roses. How did I miss this treasure?
“You, Madame, were already running to the next gift shop,” she said.
I still have it. It’s a reminder to slow down and savour the moment. But with so much history to explore and all those boutiques to visit, that’s a tall order.
From France Today magazine
Read more of Theadora’s “My Life in Paris” columns here:
My Life in Paris: For the Love of Cheese
My Life in Paris: Girl Racer
My Life in Paris: Fashion Victim
My Life in Paris: Monument Woman
My Life in Paris: Going Down in Style
My Life in Paris: Because She Cancan