Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I love Versailles

It was a little over nine years ago that I discovered Versailles.

I was on my first trip to France, and I was visiting Paris on what felt like a whim. I spoke no French, had known my future husband for only a few months, most of them transatlantic, and it took all of my courage to book a ticket from Boston to Paris.

My future husband took me all the places a dashing Frenchman would take a young American he wished to impress: Montmartre, the Champs-Elysées, the Pont des Arts, the Eiffel Tower ("I want to take you to kiss on the top of the tower," he declared one morning), Versailles. Stereotypical? Trite? Sure, but at an impressionable twenty-one years old, I fell for it. And I probably still would.

I knew nothing about Versailles, save a photo of the chateau's facade I vaguely remember next to a discussion of the Versailles Treaty in some history textbook in high school. Yet off we went, one gray November morning in my future mother-in-law's old Peugeot 205. Coming from Paris, we crossed all of town before we actually saw the chateau, so my first impression was of wide, tree-lined streets and prim apartment buildings, not Grand Siècle monuments.

"This is a nice suburb," my husband explained to me, and then tried to explain exactly what he meant. The town of Versailles is a demographic apart, with no analogy in America. Very Catholic, very understated wealth, with a sort of left-leaning propriety. Large families. Long, illustrious last names. Thus is the image, at least, and there is substantial truth behind it. When you wander around Versailles, you are likely to see mothers with three or four children in tow, the girls with bowl-cut hair, wool coats, plaid skirts, and neatly-pressed blouses with half-moon collars, the boys with tiny crew neck sweaters and dark trousers. Children are named Enguerrand and Anne-Sophie; they go to scout meetings on the weekends, and are more likely than the average French child to say "please" and "thank you."

Versailles is a suburb, as it lies clearly in Paris' sphere of influence. Indeed, the major neighborhoods of Versailles are Rive Droite (Right Bank) and Rive Gauche (Left Bank), although the Seine is miles away from town. They're named after the train lines that lead to the capital. Nevertheless, it feels like a city in its own right, with a cathedral, a major food market, plenty of shops and good restaurants, and a mentality of self-sufficiency, perhaps self-importance. It has never forgotten that it, too, was once the capital of France.

If you ask a Parisian about Versailles, you will not get an indifferent answer. Most see it as a bizarre, old-fashioned, ultra-Catholic enclave. Boring. Conservative. When I told people how much I liked it, they shrugged, and blamed it on my being an American.

For some reason, on that day back in 1998, I tried to project myself in the future and briefly imagined living in Versailles with the man I was rapidly suspecting I would marry.

Fast-forward to 2003, when my imagined life in France became real. After we moved to Paris, I fell in love with Versailles slowly. When we started looking for an apartment to buy back in January 2005, I was still on an I-must-live-in-Paris-proper-or-I'm-a-loser kick, and Versailles was the other end of the world. My husband convinced me to consider it, and we started to look seriously. We visited dozens of apartments, including a seventh-floor walk-up with an unobstructed view of the chateau and its park, as seductive as it was impractical. I was just barely talked out of jumping (headlong) for that one, and I'm grateful now when I imagine dragging a stroller up six flights of steps.

We eventually decided that we couldn't yet afford what we wanted in Versailles. Every place we saw within our budget had a significant drawback: too far away from public transportation, too small, too funky, too close (in one case, five feet away) to the train tracks. At the same time, the apartment we'd been renting in a respectable, up-and-coming suburb just next to Paris came on the market at a very interesting price, so we bought where we knew and put our Versailles plans off for a few years. I don't regret it at all -- my husband's office has since been moved to the same suburb where we live, and my in-laws, whom I love and who have helped us immeasurably since le Petit arrived, are two blocks away.

But I still imagine that some day we'll move. Versailles has its gravitational pull on me, I know it. A promenade in the gardens during the Grandes Eaux Musicales was one of le Petit's first outings after his birth, and we've been back to the park countless times since. He's been nursed beside the Grand Canal at least three times, and he visited the Galerie des Glaces in utero. Each time we've been we've discovered something new, some corner of the park or the chateau or the town itself that we didn't know existed, and I can't wait to show it all to le Petit when he's old enough to understand.

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