Last fall I was struggling to finish writing a book about Paris, a memoir recalling five years in the early 1990’s when I lived and worked in the great city on the Seine as a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion trade publication. My editor was kind enough to give me an extension when my deadline whizzed by in September.
“Go to Paris,” she said. “It will put you in the mood.”
Paris is always a good idea, of course.
As a magazine editor I used to travel to Paris four times a year to cover the fashion collections, always staying in the same Left Bank hotel. When generous expense accounts allowed, I moved to grander accommodations in the Ritz, the Meurice, or the Crillon. All of these places captured the spirit of the city in different ways, but secretly I harbored a fantasy about doing exactly what my editor had suggested: reconstituting my life in Paris by living like a Parisian again.
I wasted lots of time scanning websites that advertised apartment rentals. And then, as luck would have it, an old friend resurfaced in connection with my book research. Nikki and I met in Paris in 1986 and kept in touch long after we both returned to our home cities—she to Sydney and I to New York. Over the years we sent each other news of engagements, weddings, careers, and kids. Then Nikki told me about her apartment. After an 11-year hiatus, she had returned to Paris with her then-fiancé, taking him to see the place where she had lived on the Île St.-Louis, in a sixth-floor walk-up. While strolling down the street, she spotted the advertisement for an apartment at 23 Place des Vosges in the window of a real estate agent. It was the answer to her lifelong dream. She sold her Sydney house to buy the place. Then she went one step further—she is that kind of person—and hired the renowned French decorator Jacques Grange to work his magic on what she would call the Pavillon de Madame.
“Just take it for a week. You can write there,” Nikki said on the phone. It was summer and hot as hell in New York City. Nikki, who still lives in Sydney, rents out the Pavillon de Madame, but she promised to block out a week for me in the fall. By mid-July I was counting the days until October.
Part of the fun was the anticipation. At a cocktail party for a magazine launch, I whispered to a colleague about my Paris apartment plans. She laughed, giddily. “I must see a photo of the view over the linden trees,” she said, barely able to contain herself. I could barely contain myself. In 25 years I had never dreamed of staying on the Place des Vosges, the 17th-century model of urban planning built by King Henri IV beginning in 1605. I had lived in beautiful places in Paris—an 18th-century apartment on the Rue de Grenelle, a studio beneath the Eiffel Tower on the Rue St.-Dominique—but to live in a piano nobile apartment with 20-foot ceilings and views over the pristine red-brick façades and slate mansard roofs is the ultimate in Parisian luxury.
On the morning of my arrival I pushed open the heavy wooden door at No. 23 and was greeted in the cobblestoned courtyard by Christine, the property manager. She helped me lug my bag up the carved limestone staircase. As I gaped in awe at the voluptuous balustrades and newel posts of carved cherubs, I tried to imagine Victor Hugo finding inspiration for Les Misérables in such surroundings (he had lived at No. 6, just across the square).
Christine opened the front door to the apartment and I peered down the enfilade of rooms, past the Venetian mirror and the glittering, glamorous chandelier in the entryway to the salon and the view of the square beyond. There were the famous linden trees. I looked up and saw the original 17th-century hand-painted beams, which had been restored, their colorful motifs brought back to life. The décor was the epitome of exquisite French taste, a perfect paradox: both intimate and grand. Taffeta curtains the color of late autumn skies—the gray that Parisians call grisaille—nearly matched the velvet sofas and the walls. The ceilings were painted Fragonard blue. The walls of the salon d’hiver were lined in silk.
Nikki had stocked the apartment with all the conveniences of a luxury hotel: a refrigerator filled with mineral water and fresh fruit; healthy snacks in the cupboard; Illy coffee. There was free Internet phone service, HDTV, and a maid who came each morning to clean. She ironed the linen sheets. I thought of my colleague back at the cocktail party in New York, giggling about the view over the linden trees. What would she think of pressed linen sheets under the taffeta canopy of a lit à la polonaise?
As I walked from room to room, I searched for a desk, thinking in the back of my mind that, yes, I was here to work. But this apartment had not been designed with work in mind. Each luxurious room—a grand salon with deep velvet sofas, three bedrooms with marble bathrooms, the salon d’hiver with an enormous fireplace, a kitchen with a Lacanche stove, a laundry alcove—I realized that the Pavillon de Madame could easily accommodate a family, but in fact it was conceived for romance. The French have a way of living the past in the present so effortlessly, and the fact that No. 23 Place des Vosges was originally inhabited by Marie Touchet, the mistress of Charles IX, had not been lost on my friend Nikki.
There was no desk. I settled instead for a cobbled-together work space with a small 18th-century marble-topped table and a spindly chair beneath the living room window, overlooking Paris’s most perfect square. During the day, as I worked, I listened to the excited shrieks of children playing in the park, swinging on the rope jungle gym as halfhearted joggers loped by. I watched as tourists entered the iron gates, lurching forward toward the fountains to discover, what? It’s just a square, but what a marvelous symmetrical thing of beauty! Could they see what I saw from my singular vantage? Did they notice the two fleur-de-lis pediments perched on the top of the northern mansard roof? Down in the park, lovers on a bench embraced, oblivious to the raindrops falling through the leafy canopy.
When I lost focus with the distractions below my window, I wandered out to the nearby Marché des Enfants Rouges to buy pasta and salad for dinner. My friends Domitille and Vincent—both Parisians—had never seen an apartment on the Place des Vosges. It was the ideal excuse to cook on the Lacanche stove (a luxury that’s not offered by even the grandest hotels). So I pulled a shopping trolley from the kitchen up the Rue de Turenne and filled it with wonderful fresh produce from the market. Late October is the season for hard cheeses from the mountains. In honor of my stay I bought a Tomme des Vosges.
“Do you even realize that France is in a terrible crise économique?” my friend Vincent asked, jokingly, as he admired the view across the square. We sat around the kitchen table, feasting on homemade pasta with truffles and talking late into the night, remembering our days in Paris 25 years ago when we would do virtually the same thing, in more modest surroundings. Now, sipping a bottle of chilled Brouilly, talking to my old friends, I felt free and elated and lucky—exactly how I had felt when I first moved to Paris after college.
Every day I sat and wrote and watched the cottony gray clouds gambol across the Parisian sky. It was hard to resist the life of the square. When I’d had enough of my own voice, I would grab the brass ring of keys and head out for a walk, exploring narrow streets I didn’t know, shopping for olive oil or a bottle of Brouilly on the Rue de Bretagne, taking pictures of the handsome weathered blue doors and cobblestoned courtyards along the Rue des Minimes, and marveling at the way Parisian café owners provide customers on the terraces with neat plaid blankets to ward off the fall chill.
By the end of my week at 23 Place des Vosges, the tops of the linden trees had begun to turn gold. On my last day I rose early to get a photo of the sun coming up over the square. Hélas, there was no sun, but a bluish-gray light settled over the trees, turning the curlicue wrought-iron lanterns into mysterious stick figures punctuating the square. I took one more walk around the arcade of arches and thought about the world Nikki had opened up for me by handing over her big brass key ring. Living at 23 Place des Vosges was a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. And yet, Paris was now ruined for me forever. How could I return to the life of a tourist in the great city on the Seine? How could I ever contemplate another view? Then I realized as I gazed over the linden trees that even as a visitor I would forever hold the image of the square in my imagination, along with the knowledge that my love of Paris comes from its inimitable juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy. It was the best kind of souvenir.
Pavillon de Madame is available for rent. 23 Place des Vosges, Third Arr.; pavillondemadame.com. $$$$$