I will never forget that week in July, 1998…
I had left my 11 year old daughter Clara in a summer camp in Geneva, Switzerland. The idea of Le Rosey started when friends told me the school was a good place for girls to learn French. But Clara had never been away from home before, and I was anxious about the whole thing. Knowing how I felt, my friend Sally decided to come with me on the trip, for moral support. We would leave Clara in the school, spend few days in Paris – to make sure she would adapt well – then return to New York. That was also a good excuse to see Paris again, of course.
I left Clara in the school – a beautiful campus on the shores of Lake Geneva – my heart broken with the separation. To make matters worse, that night I watched in disbelief Brazil lose the final match of the World Cup of soccer to France. I was born in Brazil, where soccer is almost a religion, and watched the nervous match with many immigrants working in Switzerland, all of us rooting for Brazil in front of a giant TV screen placed near the lake. Nothing helped – it was France’s time to win.
I was still in a somber mood the next morning, when we left Geneva on the TGV, the fast train that goes to Paris. Respecting my mourning, Sally got a book and sat far away from me. When we arrived in Paris the streets were taken up by crowds commemorating France’s victory. I didn’t need that, and asked the driver to bypass Avenue des Champs Elysees, the epicenter of the party, to leave us on Place Vendome, at the Ritz Hotel, where we had a reservation. Normally sedate, even the Ritz was in a festive mood – I had never seen so many French flags on Place Vendome.
But it’s impossible to be in a bad mood for long, at the Ritz. Its classic beauty and understated elegance seem to have a soothing effect on people, as if by passing its revolving front door one is immediately transported into another world. Even the smell there is different.
After check-in, I asked the always correct concierge to suggest a place for us to have dinner that night. He mentioned a restaurant called L’Ambroisie. “It is one of the grandes tables of Paris”, he said. “They are fully booked for dinner, would mesdames be interested in lunch tomorrow”? Yes, we were.
The next morning I woke up feeling much better – the soft beds at the Ritz have that effect on me. Also, by sheer luck, the night before we had been upgraded – at no extra charge – to one of the best suites in the hotel, overlooking Place Vendome. Someone else was still occupying the more modest room I had reserved, explained the apologetic concierge. Of course we didn’t mind it at all…
When it got close to noon, the doorman called a cab and told the driver “Place des Vosges, s’il vous plait”. I vaguely remembered, from French lessons in school, that the square was home to 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 separating it from the rest of the Marais area. It is the oldest square in Paris, perfectly symmetric and surrounded by houses with the exact same facade – red bricks with strips of yellow stone. Finished in 1612 to commemorate the wedding of King Louis XII to Anne of Austria, it is an elegant and quiet oasis in the middle of Paris, and for centuries it was home to the French aristocracy.
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 old-world elegance and refinement. The food was extraordinary: each serving opened the way to tastes and nuances I had never experienced. The courses were so beautifully presented, that at the table next to ours a group of Japanese men dressed in identical blue suits were filming it all: as soon as the food was placed on the table, each would get a camera, point it to his plate, and start recording. We were all 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 in Europe are always offered to men, he clearly felt better when Sally said “we don’t smoke cigars, thank you; our husbands do, but they could not be with us today, they have to work to pay for this lunch!” We all laughed at the sign of relief on his face.
This was a long, delicious and memorable lunch, I will never forget it. It made me think of the 1987 Danish movie Babette’s Feast, about a very special dinner. Leaving that temple of food and getting back to the ‘real’ world, Sally and I took time walking around the Marais, charmed by its architecture and the lively area around: art galleries, bistros, brasseries, fine boutiques – and tourists everywhere. We promised each other to be back with more time.
It wouldn’t be then. Back at the hotel, I received a message from my daughter: she was not happy in the summer camp, had been placed with a ‘weird’ roommate, and needed my help. Immediate change of plans: I would be on the next train to Geneva. Sally decided instead to go to London visit her Wellesley friends, before returning to New York. We both said goodbye at the Ritz the next morning, each on to a different direction.
Never a dull moment, I thought to myself, as my train slowly left the gare in Paris on its way to Geneva, the Eiffel Tower disappearing on the horizon…