To read about the first days in Paris, click here.
For our third day in Paris, we went a little further afield to Versailles. It’s a half hour train ride and quarter mile walk to the palace, and Uncle Rick told us to get there at the opening to avoid the lines. Luckily, they now offer timed tickets so we picked 9AM and promptly passed the 200 person line to walk right in.
This isn’t even a quarter of the palace. It’s staggering in size. The early, cloudy morning hid the gleam of the gold, but not for long.
There’s a show on Netflix called “Escape to the Country” about British retirees buying modest country homes with thatched roofs. This was Louis XIV’s escape to the country, away from his Paris palace, the Louvre; it was known as his little “chateau.”
The interior is so unthinkably ornate, it’s actually difficult to grasp the grandeur. If Les Misérables wasn’t convincing enough, one immediately understands why the French Revolution was entirely justified.
This is King Louis’ bedchamber. Yawn indeed.
The thing about all the extravagance is it just puts you in the mood to enjoy some of your own.
Enter: high tea at Versailles. At this point my parents were deeply, deeply craving enormous cups of coffee. They like espresso, but they were starting to get desperate. The kind waiter brought a porcelain carafe of French press (natch) that was clearly meant for two people, and my parents gave each other the side-eye like “…and where’s YOUR cup of coffee?”
It wasn’t twenty minutes before they ordered another.
Her giddiness made me laugh and laugh.
We walked the gardens, which are so expansive and myriad they offer golf carts to navigate them. There are an astounding 300 fountains, a fraction of the original 1,500.
King Louis XIV (and his mistress), decided they needed an escape from their Versailles escape, so they built a mini version at the other end of the property.
We all have our needs.
The interior is like any decent retreat center.
During Louis XVI reign, Marie Antoinette sighed and said, “you all are too much for me. I need peace, and quiet, and a staff of 40 to myself.” She claimed the retreat from the retreat from the retreat: the mini-mini palace (called, inappropriately enough, the Petit Trianon).
She really turned down the volume on the décor to rustic, austere.
At this point Marie must have felt like the only thing missing from her life was a decent hobby. But what?
Ah! A tiny peasant-filled hamlet to call her own. Finally we get our Escape to the Country thatched roofs.
She stocked it with farm animals, gardens, a pigeon coop, a dairy, and of course, peons to work it. She dressed in a muslin frock and walked around pretending to be one of them, without the helpful contribution of any actual work.
And her hamlet hovel was the largest, of course, with a billiard room, library, dining hall and two living rooms. Super typical of peasant life.
But remember! It’s smaller than her mini-mini palace. She was downsizing.
It was moments like this, in a place so remote and historic and singularly unique, that I would stop for a second and think of the clothes I wasn’t moving from the washer to the dryer, of the fights I wasn’t refereeing, and the naps I wasn’t managing, and I’d grin like an idiot and ask when our next snack was.
When you think about it, I owe Marie Antoinette for giving me an escape to the country.
The train ride back to Paris passed us from one world into another. It’s a bizarre journey to depart Versailles, glamour capital of the world, travel through all the unremarkable towns around it, and end up in Paris, the City of Light.
We walked to one of the most charming streets in Paris, Rue Cler, a true market street with vendors selling every desirable food, wine, produce, meat and novelty one could want.
We had the sort of dinner I’d hoped to have in Paris, where we ordered freely, talked about my parents’ memories of their younger days, shared glasses of wine and laughed as the sun went down.
With a bottle of red in hand, we walked to the Eiffel Tower and sat on the lawn with all the other dreamers, waiting for the spectacular sparkle of the tower at the top of the hour.
We cheered and took photos as she lit up like Christmas, and laughed at the glory of it all, to be sitting outside on a cloudless night, together living a dream God had for us.
The walk to the base was incredible as the tower grew larger and loomed brighter. We said goodbye and hopped in an Uber home, certain to sleep in the next day after the incredible one we’d just enjoyed.
After brunch the next day, we visited the Rodin Museum…you know, The Thinker.
Rodin is such a great place to visit because it’s housed in a mansion Rodin lived and worked in, it has fabulous gardens and grounds where some of his works are displayed, and it’s sculpture — we’d already seen many paintings, so this felt fresh.
This, and it can be done in an hour.
Our bigger goal that day was to visit the artsiest and most bohemian neighborhood in Paris, and also it’s highest, perched atop a hill: Monmarte. We began by touring the Sacre Coeur cathedral at the tippity-top of Monmarte, and then the 900-year-old church next to it (!).
Off we trotted, me reading aloud from Uncle Rick as we navigated his walk through the highlights of the eclectic streets.
We had lunch in the town square, a plaza buzzing with artists called the Place du Tetre.
“HERE they are,” remarked my mom. She had asked me half a dozen times where Paris was hiding all of her street artists.
We munched on crusty bread, ate hearty lunches, and watched as the fifty easels around us filled with cityscapes, portraits, still lifes, and abstract works of art. We mourned not having any way of bringing a piece home, given our puritanical carry-on luggage situation.
Monmarte is its own enclave, bursting with personality and rich with the impressions left by Dali, Renoir, Van Gough and Picasso.
High behind that tree is one of two remaining wooden windmills of the 30 that used to dot the hill of Monmarte. They were originally used to press monks’ grapes (1200s), grind grain (1600s), and crush gypsum rocks into plaster (1700s). Around 1850, once the windmills were no longer in use, this windmill (moulin, in French) became the centerpiece of an outdoor dance hall (the same used in Renoir’s most famous painting, Bal du Moulin de la Galette).
The restaurant above, with the original windmill, is named for the painting and the galettes (crepes) people enjoyed at the dance hall.
We ended the afternoon with a walk down a classic Parisian market street, Rue de Martyrs, lined with traditional cheese mongers, butchers, bakers…didn’t see a candlestick maker.
America has settled on a paleo/keto life of carb-denial, but France doesn’t give a flying fig tarte.
After showers and a glass of wine on the balcony, we walked to dinner at Ile St Louis for our last night.
It was hard to say goodbye to such beauty.
Going all in on the French cuisine felt like a no-brainer, so we did timeless French onion soup, duck confit and crème brulee.
Though it felt like tossing a penny into a marble fountain my parents had built, I treated my parents to dinner for our last night. It would be impossible to thank them sufficiently, not only for their generosity toward their middle daughter, but for giving me my childhood dream of being an only child, just for a week. Of course I adore my sisters, but we middles yearn to bask in the coziness of singular attention. My parents know it’s a trip I’ll treasure the rest of my days.
The next morning I boarded the plane with a happy heart. People balked when I told them I was only traveling from Saturday to Thursday, but it was plenty of time. Two of those were travel days, so we got four full days to explore. Even with the time adjustment, we slept really well each night. If anything, this trip sparked dreams for future trips with Mike, that maybe we can pop over to Europe without needing two weeks to do it.
I expected to dread the return, but instead I felt full, like God had refilled a cup I hadn’t drank from in years, and I was satisfied.
Mike did a fantastic job, twice having to get the kids to preschool at the eye-watering hour of 7:50AM, and even vacuuming the house from top to bottom. Like any dad I’ve ever encountered, he called his sister and mine to pinch-hit dinner a couple of nights, and his mama took them all in for the weekend, but I am really proud of how well he did. He even took them all to the dentist. I mean, really.
Perhaps the sweetest gesture he gave me was what he didn’t do: he didn’t pee on the gift. This is a thing in our marriage that means if one of us takes on the entirety of home life so the other can do something great, we act graciously (even if we’re gritting our teeth behind the scenes). He never called to say, “I’m dying over here. I hope you’re enjoying living the life. WHEN are you coming HOME?” Instead he said, “We’re great! Live it up! Love you, Momma!”
As the plane landed in Seattle from Manchester, I looked over to the woman across the aisle from me, who was journaling furiously. We’d already spoken, so I knew she was British, but then I glanced down at her journal and saw in all caps, “I AM IN AMERICA!!!!” and then “THE TREES!!!” with little sketches of our evergreens filling the margins. It warmed my soul that my unexotic return was her thrilling adventure.
After all, I’d already had my own.