Day 6 – Versailles

This is Day 6 of Camp Nanowrimo. Every November, writers all over the world smash out 50,000 words for Nanowrimo, but in April and July Camp Nanowrimo, allows participants to choose their poison, er, project. I am writing 1000+ words a day, reaching back into the recesses of my mind to write about my first trip to Paris in the Summer of 1994. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and no Frenchmen were injured in the making of this memoir.

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The bus drove along the quiet streets of ‘my’ neighbourhood, the same route I had taken the day before. Was it really only the day before that I wandered the streets here, first with Gilles and the tiny baby strapped to his chest and then with the hopeful, slightly manic, Marc? The guide made his way along the centre aisle chatting with each passenger. He stopped in front of me and smiled.

‘Do you two know each other?’ he asked.

I was about to ask something along the lines of ‘do you who know who, what?’ or something equally incoherent when I became aware that there was a whole other human sitting next to me.

‘No,’ we said, in unison, not looking at each other. I didn’t need to look at the person sitting at the window seat alongside me to know whether I knew him or not.

The guide reached across and shook hands with my seat-mate. His name was Jim, or Tim, and he was from Ontario. Those were the basic facts. The other fact is that we ended up, five days later, on the same Seine river cruise boat, together, but not, you know, together. He was a nice chap; he was Canadian after all, but he was as dull as a box of spatulas. Sorry, Jim or Tim.

The guide turned to me and asked me, in French, whether I spoke French.

‘Un peu,’ I said, holding my fingers up to show just how little. ‘Je peux demander du café ou du vin, alors ça suffit.’ I can order coffee or wine, so enough. So droll.

He laughed, bless him. We chatted for a few minutes and then he excused himself. He took his place at the head of the coach and began his spiel as we slowly wound our way through Monday morning traffic, past the Eiffel Tower, towards Versailles.

‘You made quite the impression,’ an American voice said in my ear as I stared out of the coach at the not-so scenic route we were taking.

I turned in my seat. The lady sitting behind me in double denim was sweating profusely in the frigid air-conditioned coach. I wondered how she was going to cope with the rising temperature outside.

‘Pardon me?’

‘The guide seems quite taken with you.’ She winked at me and wiped her forehead.


She nodded at me. We had a little chat about where we came from. She was widowed, she said. It was nearly a year since her husband had passed away from cancer. Their children had organised a trip to Paris for the anniversary, but none of them wanted to see Versailles. They were spending the day shopping. We were both incredulous at that. She spent the rest of the journey telling me about how she had navigated the long months since he had died. I didn’t tell her my story. It would have seemed tit-for-tat and I was happy to listen to her. That’s what people need most when they lose a loved one, especially their life-partner; someone to talk to.

The coach pulled up in the dusty car-park and the door hissed open. As the guide explained the structure of the tour I could feel everyone in the bus either wishing he would just close the door, or wondering how they were going to cope with the heat. It was obvious by the haphazard way we made our way to and from the palace that none of us had listened to one word.

Jean, the American lady had attached herself to me. The guide had pointed out the restrooms and we made a little pit-stop. The bathroom attendant handed us both 4 squares of pink toilet paper. Jean took one look at her allotted amount and told the lady that she better double it. The bathrooms were scrupulously clean and it was almost a pleasure to hand the attendant a 20 franc note for which she thanked me profusely, handing me a wet wipe and showing me how to wipe my face with it, although it seemed fairly obvious. She then offered me a spritz from her personal stash of fancy perfumes. I let her spray some Chanel No.5 in my general direction.

As we climbed the stairs Jean asked me how much I had given to the attendant. When I told her the amount she had slapped me on the wrist. That had come as quite a shock. The 20ff note had been the smallest I had and I did a quick calculation; it was around $5. So it was a little on the high side, considering 5 francs was probably the standard donation but hey, this lady worked her butt off, underground, all day. Halfway up the stairs, Jean mused out loud that the attendant probably made about $100 an hour from all the tourists.

The group milled around waiting for the stragglers; obviously none of us had listened to the guides impassioned plea to be aware of the time. Jim, or Tim wandered over to see if I needed help getting rid of Jean, but I was okay, I didn’t mind her company, and she clearly wasn’t even going to make the front entrance of the Palace left to her own devices.

so many people; thank goodness selfie sticks hadn’t been invented yet…

It was cooler inside but the crowds were unbelievable. Being part of a tour group had its perks; we enjoyed quick entry and had access to roped off access areas that day-trippers couldn’t use. The palace was, is, incredible. What a gift the dastardly French kings had given to the world. Thank goodness the revolutionaries hadn’t burned it to the ground. The Hall of Mirrors was packed but still spectacular. There was so much history in that room. After the Hall of Mirrors, the highlight was the Royal Chapel. It was hard to believe such a place exists and one could see how the French Kings had bled the country dry with their excesses. No wonder they ended up on the guillotine.

The forecourt of Versailles baking under the Summer sun, 1994

The tour ended with a two-hour block of free time to wander the palace. Once everyone had disbanded I asked the guide for some directions to the Queen’s Hamlet, Jean taking a seat in the shade to wait for the return trip; ‘Go on without me’, she said. Save yourself… He was impressed that I, in those days before the internet, Google and online maps, even knew about the Queen’s Hamlet.

‘I’m not as dumb as I look,’ I said, using my dad’s favourite self-deprecating phrase.

‘You don’t look dumb,’ he said, seemingly horrified that I thought I might.

‘I’ll show you,’ he said and led the way.

The Apollo Fountain suffering through water restrictions, Summer 1994

We talked non-stop while we wandered the avenues of the gardens of Versailles, stopping to buy a cold drink, before finding our way to the pond that overlooks the Queen’s Hamlet. His English was excellent and he spoke various other languages, too. I was impressed. I had a decent grasp of English and enough French as I said, to order coffee or wine. A tour guide in Paris must speak at least three languages, he explained, other than French and English. I was amazed. I had toyed with the idea of moving to France to work as a guide, so I was going to have to put my nose to the grindstone if I was going to make that happen. Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic would be best, he said. The fact that at 23 I didn’t know that Hindi was a language would be too embarrassing to explain, so I just nodded and drained my orange pressée.

‘Are you wearing Chanel No.5?’

I blushed and looked down. I was impressed that he knew the scent; typical Frenchman, I thought, but I didn’t want him to know that the bathroom attendant had sprayed me with it when I inadvertantly gave her too much money.

‘Yes,’ was all I could manage.

‘You are far too young to wear that perfume. My mother wears Chanel No.5,’ he said, wrinkling his nose.

Thanks to the bathroom attendant, I smelled like his mother…

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