Le soleil.

17 Mar

If you are going to Versailles, go. But be advised, you will not be on horseback as young Marie Thérèse would have been to take in the 37,000 acres of gardens, paved in ankle-turning cobblestones or unpaved in the fine dust of lime and sandstone. My valiant parents made it as far as The Grand Canal, then set me and my brother loose to explore the Trianon Palaces in the back forty.

The thirty-five-minute train ride there is delightful, as picturesque villages swirl by. The fifteen minute walk to the Chateau gates is marked by a rising pulse as the gilded edifices and golden suns come into view. The wait to enter moves quickly, and the woman at the information desk, should you get her in particular (I called her “Sabine” in my mind) is my newest best friend. No sooner had I begun to order the English tour at 3:30PM after patiently waiting my turn, in my carefully considered French, when a woman waddled up to the desk pushing me aside to ask some burning non-flammable question. Sabine, who had taken a fancy to me, yelled at her, “Can you see I am helping someone? Go to the very end of that line!” Me like. Another young American boy next pushed ahead of me and garbled some question in the lazy-speak of the playground. Sabine tilted her head, speechless, as if he were a dog, until he faded away in embarrassment.

“You are American, no?” she asked of me.


“Did you understand a WORD he said?”

“Pas une chose,” I replied to her delight.

Greg and I grabbed our parents and headed to the western side of the Chateau in heady anticipation, only to find that the hundreds of fountains I had dreamed of for decades were all turned off for no apparent reason whatsoever. I was crestfallen. In my imagination, a golden sun fell off a fence somewhere with an attendant rusty swinging sign sound effect.

But we plodded through the Upper Terraces anyway, grabbed a sandwich in La Forêt du Dauphin, and settled Mom and Dad on the shore of a grand canal to see where Marie Antoinette set up her little puppet court to avoid the scrutiny of the cruel and witty counterpart on the hill. The little chateaux are enchanting, set far away, and filled to the rafters with billiard tables. These people played pool. These people were always playing pool. Shall we eat? Yes. Then? Pool. Having drunk in a few hundred pool tables, Greg and I returned to pick up the folks and headed in for our tour.

We were a group of thirty and were all handed the newest rage for tours in Europe (and it has crept into NYC lately, I’ve noticed): Personal headsets to hear the guide. Me want.

No sooner did we all have ours on our heads when the docent came back around with a basket to collect all of them, the false smile of one in customer service plastered on her face, “I’m sorry, your guide does not like to use these.” Perhaps an intuition of the trade, but I immediately, in a nanosecond, knew: This guy is going to be a freak. He did not disappoint.

A small, lithe, elegant man swept into the room with a mop of crazy hair, like a graying James Frain, wearing noisy pointed shoes that amplified his efficient military quick-step. Without any introduction, he marched us across the courtyard to begin the tour of the private rooms of the Chateau, all of us straining to keep up. His air of superiority dripped and drizzled from his thickly accented tongue and I christened him with no less than two nicknames: Le Grande Pretendant and Le roi dans sa tête.

He was terribly difficult to understand, but extremely well-versed in his subject matter. His manner was positively religious as he spoke of the three Bourbon kings who called this home. Distinctions were paramount to this man, and you may have noticed, I’ve adopted one. “This is not as palace. A palace is in a city. This is a chateau. A chateau in the country, a palace in the city.”

“Cutlery always on the right, never the left, you understand? Never drinks were placed on the table. No! Never. Never kiss the hand of a lady. This is so important that one never laughs, never to show the teeth. Ever. Such bad manners. No one knocked on doors, but lightly scratched and a ‘lackey’ would quietly swing the door open wide. DO you understand? Such bad manners to show any emotion. Applause? Forbidden. Clapping of the hands? NO! Do YOU understand?”

He punctuated nearly every point with “Do YOU understand. DO you understand.” Statements, not questions, warnings, not nearly open for debate. We were all thirty of us terrified within moments under his spell, as though any misunderstanding might open one of the five false doors in every room and any one of us might be whisked away to a dungeon before those left behind were the wiser. At one point, he did start to entertain questions in the most peculiar way I’ve ever encountered. After a lull in his precisely rehearsed presentation, replete with photos of paintings of the main players, he interjected a dejected, “No questions?” I know I speak for the entire group when I say not one of us knew that was even an option.

One woman muttered, “I have too many!” but I seized the opportunity to play my inside joke and ask, “Are there Bourbon Pretenders to the crown today?” He turned on his heels to me like a lieutenant in the Royal Corps du Ballet and lashed “Of COURSE.” Every answer to every question after that was preceded by “Of course.” The subtext was so dense I’m still parsing it out in my head two days later. “You idiot.” Or “How don’t you know this?” Or “Jesu, these Americans.” In any case, the greatest claimant to the thrown is Juan Carlos of Spain. In fact, Spanish kings must renounce the French throne upon ascendancy. Me learn.

Le Pretendant was worth the price of admission. A control addict, he would open and close shutters to every room we entered for optimal lighting effects like a loony sprite. He drooled over objets d’art recently reacquired after years of haggling with ancient families and auctions. He showed us private apartments not open to the general public. And la piece de resistance, he brought us into the private opera house that had been closed for a decade. I was in heaven.

And, like a puff of pastry, he was gone and out of our lives forever. Me m’ennuie.

We were left on our own to see the more famous rooms, the bedchambers, the king’s dinner table, antechambers, and the two jewels of this bejeweled crown, the Chapelle Royale and The Hall of Mirrors. There is no describing the Hall of Mirrors at sundown. The room seems to capture every photon leaving our star from 93 million miles away. I had seen a thousand pictures, but I will never forget standing in the reflected glory of the most elegant court the world has ever produced.

It was not easy living there. Nothing was private, nothing, everything open to ridicule, and enemies lurked around every hedge. But, and of COURSE, more importantly, the millions who died in abject poverty while all this was going on, on top of a golden hill, for no other reason than the accumulation of power under the guise of national identity, they, the suffering, sing a song of sorrow so haunting in those vaulted damasked rooms it is nearly audible. I left feeling as uneasy as much as I felt a little titillated imagining myself dressed in silk brocade and ermine while stepping up to a throne of my divine inheritence. Strange and timely, I thought, how the illusion and allure of the possibility of grandeur might make us vote away any of our hard-fought and blood-soaked privileges, any one of them, even, under the sun.


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