To haute cuisine and patisseries. . .
From IKEA to Louis XVI; from the comfy lilt of the economic Norwegian tongue to the highly stylized lavishness of le Français; from cooperation to competition. . .
From innocence. . .
To experience. . .
From Eden. . .
Or more specifically, to the old world, since we began our French years in Versailles.
You know of Versailles. I had known, too. I thought. But I had not known that for the French, “Versailles” is as much a concept as it is a city or a château. When the French refer to Versailles, they are referring to la vieille France—the old France—and all that implies; nobility, Catholicism, traditions, and families who today live in the same home their ancestors built back when the Place Hoche had a guillotine for public executions. “Versailles” as concept means both the extravagantly gilded and velvet-heavy furnishing (things overwrought yet serious about it are très Versaillais), and so are the five or six children dressed in navy skirts or knickers and white knee socks, trailing a mother with a practical chin-length bob locked in place by a navy hair band. That phenomenon is also what my neighbor, in a whisper, called très Catho, or übercatholic. Versaillais implies le patrimoine, which has much to do with the preservation of historic France as it has to do with lineage, which is signaled by the family names beginning with “du”. The city’s slogan, if you asked me to come up with one, would be, “What was, is.” As commoner newcomers to the kings’ court, we were about to learn what “was” was.
Around the corner from the rive droite train station, was a renovated turn-of-the-century home with a white stucco facade and an oval window smack dab on its front. If you opened up the navy blue double front door, you could look directly through the depth of the house (it was one room deep) into an enclosed backyard with four small round bushes placed like thumb tacks in each corner of a table cloth of green. The house had a bright white interior with emerald green trim throughout and tasteful tiles in all its four bathrooms, a kitchen with glossy yellow walls that reminded of Provence, a side view straight onto the dome of the Église de Sainte Jean d’Arc, and a back view onto the local synagogue.
It was a fifteen-minute walk to the Place du Marché where the bi-weekly open market had stood since the thirteenth century. And only a fifteen-minute jog down Boulevard de la Reine, crossing Boulevard du Roi, and through the gilded gates of the sprawling Château de Versailles and its even sprawlinger Jardins du Château de Versailles.
Like a movie set. Except for the hoards of white-athletic-shoed tourists who could have been extras out of costume in an otherwise period film. They came directly from the train station or in enormous buses that parked in what used to be the Royal Horse Stables.
With time, everything in Versailles turned out to be a former “royal.”
The home was also directly across the street from the private Catholic (or catho, if you insist) École Hulst. From all appearances, this was the most prim and trafficked preschool in toute la France. Fascinated, I peered through my kitchen window, gulping and plotting, rubbing my hands together guardedly, hidden behind my kitchen window the way I’d been hidden behind the steering wheel of my car looking over Blakstad barnepark. I applied my same methods of observation, wanting to be part of it all and could have sent little Dalton there, until I learned I would have had to have put his name on the waiting list the hour I thought that maybe I might want to get pregnant with him.
Okay, so Hulst was in demand.
But it was also demanding. At least for a loosey-goosey fresh-from-barnepark mother and child duo like us. Watching the children scooting in and out every morning, I could have sworn they all came from the same navy blue gene pool. Dalton, in contrast, (and myself, for that matter), seemed to lack that certain oui-oui chromosome needed to slip in without causing a tide change.
Granted, that could have all been in my perception. But to be honest, I was too intimidated by what I observed as the school’s “was-ness” — its exacting French A-lines, the one boy in a blazer and burgundy velvet knickers, all that crispness — to enroll my son. Not without at least a few months in a preliminary crisper.
I went around the corner and down the Rue Remilly to l’École Maternelle Richard Mique, which was public, ecumenical, and visibly less crisp — comfortably wilted, let’s say — and set my sights on enrolling Dalton there. Following my barnepark method of attack, I stalked the Richard Mique premises in off hours. I then loitered at corners during drop-off and pick-up, noting the habits of local adults. I listed the children’s gear, shoe styles, hair cuts, behavior. I then made eye contact, greeted mothers and fathers, took Dalton there by the hand twice, just to practice the trek. And to build nerve.
Eventually, I dared approaching a real person on the street to question her about the school. I’d selected her, actually, over a few days scoping for The Most Open Face in Versailles. Her name was Rita. She was wonderful. She became a friend. With four young children herself and relatively new to Versailles, too, she could instruct me in Annie Sullivan French about applying a month late to the school, as I was doing. And wouldn’t you know it? Like Johanne from Norway, Rita told me to go directly to the main office the next day and request a place for Dalton. “Mais vite, vite”—but hurry!—her wide eyes insisted.
There was no chain link fence around Richard Mique as had been around Blakstad barnepark. But there were serious-looking walls and gates that were padlocked at all hours but the 15 minute intervals at morning drop-off, lunchtime pick-up and drop -ff, and afternoon pick-up. Timing it precisely, I was able to enter and find the directrice’s office, where I was greeted by a brunette woman who resembled in no way but hair color our dear tante Britt. There was no snow-blown look or red front-zip barnepark jumpsuit. No thermos of coffee. No messy hair and ruddy cheeks. Instead, this delicate woman wore perfume. And pearls. And a fitted skirt. And heels. And she sat behind a large desk sipping a porcelain cup of tea. I felt myself suck in my gusto and make myself as absolutely French as physically possible without turning a shade of puce, and approached her with soft, alluring steps. She was not ready, I’ll bet, for the slaughter I made of French, but she was genteel and was used to working with people a tenth her age, so when she spoke at me with single syllable words and those large semaphore movements, I was able to discern just enough to know what she told me.
Rendez-vouz. Need of one. Speak with school director. Come back with another faith.
Oh. Right. Come back another time.
To this day I still wonder if those red cowboy boots might have grabbed her attention, upped my chances somehow of getting a slot right off.
As it was, I smiled, thanked Madame profusely, scooted spritely on my way, and went home to re-wax my legs and knuckles, starch even my underclothing, and prepare my speech and posture for the next morning’s private audience with Madame directrice.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.