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. Reluctantly.
It all started when friends told me that Le Rosey was a good school for girls to learn French fast. Clara had never been away from home, so my husband and I debated the idea before deciding for it, but I was anxious. 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.
Arriving in Geneva, we checked-in at Tiffany Hotel – a charming 4-star hotel close to the city center and to Lake Geneva – and next morning we drove to the beautiful Le Rosey campus, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The atmosphere was festive, children from all over the world, and I felt better about leaving Clara there. Saying goodbye was not easy, though, and I left the school heart-broken with our first 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 a group of immigrants working in Switzerland – all rooting for Brazil – in front of a giant TV screen placed near the lake. But nothing helped that night, 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 on the train. When we arrived in Paris, after a 3 hour ride, the streets were taken up by crowds commemorating France’s victory the night before. I didn’t need that, and asked the driver to bypass Avenue des Champs Elysees, the epicenter of the party, to leave us at the Ritz Hotel, on Place Vendome, where we had a reservation. Normally quiet, even the Ritz was in party mood that day – I had never seen so many French flags on Place Vendome.
But at the Ritz it’s impossible to be in a bad mood for long – its classic elegance, attention to detail and impeccable service seem to have a soothing effect on people’s behavior. It’s as if by passing its revolving front door one is immediately transported onto another world, one that even smells better.
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 hotel doorman called us and got us in a cab, telling 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 very 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 imparted a sense 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 visibly 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 made me think of the 1987 Danish movie Babette’s Feast, about a very special dinner. Leaving that temple of glorious food and getting back to the ‘real’ world, Sally and I took time walking around the Marais, charmed by its architecture and the energy of the place: art galleries, bistros, brasseries, fine boutiques – and tourists everywhere. We promised each other to be back with more time.
It wouldn’t be during that time in Paris. Back at the Ritz, a message from my daughter: she was not happy in the 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 school friends, before returning to New York.
I called Geneva and made a reservation at Hotel Beau Rivage -Tiffany was sold-out – a gorgeous 5-star hotel right on Lake Geneva I had stayed at years before. “I hope I won’t have trouble changing Clara’s room at Le Rosey”, I thought while packing. I was not looking forward to having trouble with the very nice school headmistress there (I ended up having none, she actually gave Clara a room by herself). “But whatever happens, at least I will have the pleasure of staying at the Beau Rivage again”.
Never a dull moment, I thought to myself the next morning, while my train slowly left the gare in Paris, the Eiffel Tower disappearing on the horizon…