Skipping ‘the delight fantastic’ along the cobblestone streets of Paris, I must confess that I often find myself seeking out traces from the past. Whenever I can’t seem to find my supernatural powers, I beat the blues with a breathy jaunt around the city. Adding hustle to my bustle, it does the trick every time.
A recent springtime afternoon saw me decide upon a stroll through the Square Louis XVI, where Rue Pasquier meets Boulevard Haussmann. After the Revolution had subsided and the Bourbons reclaimed the throne, upon a spot now practically in the shadow of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, Marie Antoinette’s petit remains were identified by her metal garter hooks and, some claimed, her indelible smile. I not only wanted to pay homage, but also hoped to recover my own misplaced mojo there.
You see, earlier in the day, my coiffeur had just given me the big bang treatment. I had requested an edgy fringe but, at that point, wasn’t feeling the love for my new ‘do’. With Glück’s fiery Iphigénie en Aulide burning though my rose-coloured earbuds and Rousseau’s epic weepie La Nouvelle Héloïse on my lap, I commandeered a bench with a view of a lively pétanque match. For the next hour, I split my attention between game and book. Then, over the clash of the metal spheres, I heard thunder. Looking up at suddenly darkening skies, I could hear my Ange de la Musique sing to me from above, ‘Get thee to the Opéra!’
The mad dash down Haussmann, past all the grand magasin vitrines, left me breathless yet ravenous for the fantastical. Making my way though the doors of the Palaïs Opéra’s Rotunde des Abonnés, I almost wept and, for the first time ever, felt a strong hankering for smelling salts. I popped a mint instead. As I entered the “enchanted cocoon,” flying putti, hunky gods and wooing nymphs shimmered like glittering mirages in the gloom above me.
With fingers wrapped tightly around the rail, I climbed to the landing of the grand staircase and steadied both knees before completing the dazzling ascent, step by step, stopping only to caress the dangling toes of Carrier-Belleuse’s radiant torchères. At the top, with feet planted firmly on the marble floor and back leaning against a massive column, I finally dared look up at the four-ceiling tableaux by Isadore-Alexandre Pils– spotting Apollo gazing down, I felt invigorated.
This was far from my first visit to the Palais Opéra but each time it’s a different experience. Years before, I’d enjoyed all the glamour a box seat can offer while taking in a performance of Debussy’s bewitching L’après-Midi d’un Faune. But this was the first time I’d had the house to myself.
It was mid-afternoon and there was nary a soul in sight. Although tours were offered, I had decided to take this flight solo. For just a few euros, I could explore the ornate salons and reception halls on my own – I was in heaven.
With no-one to stop me, I spontaneously re-enacted Audrey Hepburn’s exit in Funny Face, high-stepping back down the slick marble stairs. Did I just spot Fred Astaire shouting out instructions? “A rendezvous at the opera!” he cries, “When I say go, walk down with fire in your eyes and murder on your mind. Wet your lips… now, go!”
With wings of a syphide on fire, I tiptoed down to the gift boutique, where I pored over books about dancer Marie Taglioni. From a window near the cashier’s box, I could see puddles from the afternoon downpour still glistening as l’heure bleue approached. Catching a glimpse of myself in a bevelled and gilded mirror, I could finally embrace my new look. As Marie Antoinette put it, “Ici, je suis moi” (“Here, I am me”).
In 2003, Theadora Brack moved to Montmartre to write for the travel site Eurocheapo.com. She runs her own blog, a field guide to Paris: www.peopleplacesandbling.com
From France Today magazine