Losing in Geneva, winning in Paris

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One of my most memorable events in Paris took place in July, 1998.

I arrived in Paris in July via Switzerland, where I had left my 11 year old daughter in a summer camp. It was the first time she would be away from home, and I was a bit anxious. Friends had assured me that the school was a great place for girls to learn French fast, but I still felt anxious.

Knowing that, my friend Sherry decided to come with me. Our plan was to leave Chiara in Geneva, spend few days in Paris – to make sure she would adapt well to school – then return to New York. That was also a good excuse to see Paris again, of course.

I left Chiara at Le Rosey, a beautiful school on the shores of Lake Geneva, my heart broken with the separation. To make matters worse, at night I saw in disbelief Brazil lose the final match of the World Cup to France. I was born in Brazil, where soccer is a serious business, and watched the nervous match with hundreds of Portuguese immigrants and some Swiss people on a big screen placed outdoors near Lake Geneva. Everybody was rooting for Brazil, but nothing helped. Sherry sat by me and tried to be sympathetic, but being from Boston she could not understand the passion soccer awakens in people – I go crazy when Brazil plays the World Cup.

Needless to say, I was not in a good mood leaving Geneva the next morning. Respecting my mourning, Sherry got a book and sat far away from me on the TGV, the fast train that connects the city to Paris.

We got to Paris in the midst of huge commemorations. Our taxi driver decided to bypass Avenue des Champs Elysees, which – he said – was full of people partying. He took secondary streets to leave us at the Ritz Hotel, where we had a reservation. Normally quiet, even the Ritz was in a festive mood that day – I had never seen so many French flags on Place Vendome.

l ambroisie

Asking the always correct concierge for a place to have dinner, we heard of a restaurant called L’Ambroisie. “It is one of the grandes tables of Paris”, he assured us. They were fully booked for dinner that night, would the ladies be interested in lunch the next day? Yes, we were. Anything to forget my country’s defeat…

I felt better the next morning, a night at the Ritz can cure me of any woes. The perfect doorman put Sherry and I on a taxi and told the driver: “Place des Vosges, s’il vous plait”. I remembered from French classes that Place des Vosges was the residence of French writer Victor Hugo, of Les Miserables fame, but was not familiar with it.

We were in for quite an experience!

One enters Place des Vosges through vaulted arches that separate it from the rest of the Marais area. It is the oldest square in Paris, a perfectly symmetric square surrounded by houses with the exact same facade. The feeling is of being back to the Middle Ages: finished in 1612 to commemorate the wedding of King Louis XII with Anne of Austria, the square and the houses around it were built with red bricks and strips of yellow stone resting over square pillars. For centuries these were the homes of the French aristocracy, easy to see why.

Our lunch at L’Ambroisie didn’t disappoint, either. Starting with the building itself, a hotel particulier facing the square – antique tapestries on the walls, chairs covered in velvet, wood floors – everything reminded of an old-world elegance and a more refined era. The food was extraordinary, each serving opened the way to new tastes and nuances I had never experienced. The plates were so beautifully presented, that at the next table few Japanese  dressed in identical blue suits were filming it all: as soon as the food was placed in front of them, each would get a camera, point it to his plate, and start recording. We were very amused by the scene, even the cooks came out of the kitchen to look.

After dessert, a waiter brought us a tray of cigars. Visibly confused as to whom to offer them first, as cigars are always offered to men, he clearly felt better when Sherry said “we don’t smoke cigars, thank you; our husbands do, but they could not be with us today, someone has to work to pay for this!” We all laughed at the sign of relief on his face.

This was a long, delicious and memorable lunch, never to be forgotten. Leaving that temple of fine food and getting back to the ‘real’ world, we took time walking around the Marais, charmed by its beautiful architecture and surprised at how lively, modern and hip the area was: art galleries, bistros, brasseries, fine boutiques and people from all over. We promised to be back to the Marais with more time.

It wouldn’t be at that time. Back at the hotel, I received a message from Chiara. She was not happy in the summer camp, was placed with a weird roommate and needed to see me. Immediate change of plans: I would be on the next train to Geneva. Sherry decided to go to London visit her Wellesley friends who live there, before returning to New York. We both said goodbye to Paris the next morning.

Never a dull moment, I thought to myself, as my train slowly left the gare in Paris, the Eiffel Tower disappearing on the horizon…

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