You can hardly believe the beauty of the Grand Canal of the Versailles gardens just at dawn.
If you come right at gate opening to take a long jog, as I did this one Saturday morning in early September, you can jog right past the grazing sheep of Marie Antoinette’s faux Austrian village Universal Studios stage set on your right, past the turn where you could go right into Le Petit Trianon, the private mansion built for this Louis’ mistresses and later furnished by that Louis’ reclusive queen, and after a broad colonnade of trees, you can then hop off the cobblestones about where, on your left, the public toilets and bike rental place are set up. Then you take a sharp right past La Flotille, the outdoor restaurant (still lifeless at this hour), and whooshk! You lose your breath at quite a sight indeed.
It’s the perfect symmetry and stillness that gets you, the great gray sheet of water like a liquid landing strip, with one swan here, a mallard there. Oh, and the enormous fountains back there since you can’t help but turn completely around and jog backwards with baby steps just to take in the panorama. The magnificent gardens lead up to the château itself, which comes into view, rising from the earth, as it was designed to appear to be doing, either ascending to or descending from heaven as its Sun King claimed he also had. The biggest monument to vanity till Trump Tower.
Yet with much better jogging possibilities. And, if you ask for my opinion, much more beautiful.
Back to those paths, I make it all the way around the Grand Canal that spreads its arms in a crucifix and, passing back out the big golden garden gates, check my watch to make sure I’ll hit our neighborhood boulangerie as the pretty ladies there open its doors. Hot baguettes. Warm croissants. Millefeuilles aux amandes. We’ve already got our list of favorites.
La boulangerie Jean Michel Bigot in the Rue du Maréchal Foch is soberly majestic. It has golden doors, a deep purple interior, quietly attentive women behind the big glass counter, and, as I was to learn that day, a versaillaise clientele. There can’t be better tradi to be found, (the sourdough loaves made according to some “traditional” recipe, hence, their name), especially when found in that freshly- birthed state, crust perfectly dense and the sourdough insides a mass of spongy comfort you can’t keep your hands out of. Tradis became our daily staple and we became daily customers at what was an impeccable and addictive house of carbs.
Tradis, specifically, are all I’m after at the end of my jog, when I run right up to the door in the same get-up I wore just a few weeks previously to jog the loop around our island in Norway: my favorite Yankees baseball cap over an unwashed ponytail, its brim tugged down snugly over an unmade-up face; black Lycra leggings; a neon yellow long-sleeved T-shirt; an old blue nylon jacket tied around my waist. (I was so hot, I’d tugged the jacket off over my head and tied it tightly over my hips at about the third bend around the canal.) My shoes are muddied because I’d not been able to resist the forest, (typical), but they were at least still tied with their fluorescent green laces and were holding up with my pace as I sprint to the shiny golden façade of Bigot.
I’m also listening to music. It’s happy and loud, an energizing program of Duke Ellington, The Style Council, Garth Brooks, and Placido Domingo doing Verdi arias. I’ve timed my entrance well by sprinting full throttle the last block or so, and am panting as I tug out my earphones and shake out my legs in front of the polished glass doors. You know how it is when you run and only start to really sweat like you mean in when you stop. Well, this is where I start to sweat in earnest. The doors are sweat sensitive, I gather, because it’s right then they slide open automatically, which I hadn’t quite wanted yet, since I was gasping and this was so early and so quiet and so French. And I hadn’t yet silenced Placido (or was it Garth?) who was slung over my shoulder inside these earphones of mine, still making loud music like a drunk, hanging around my neck, wailing away. Everyone within a given radius hears him.
And that is maybe why a lady, the last in line and dressed like a clear-cut Madame du Quelque Chose, turns slowly toward me. I can feel her swift censure like I feel the swiftly closing glass boulangerie doors barely miss my head. Swush. I scoot back, fumble to turn off my music, lick my lips for moisture, swallow, try to draw up a bit of spit. I reach in my jacket pocket for gum, pop in a piece, and chawnk on it like any good trucker, hoping for some juice, then, still chawnking, trot merrily into the shop. I fais la queue behind not only one Madame du Quelque Chose, but four of them.
How four middle-aged women can look so meticulous, smell so fragrantly feminine, be so coiffed and have manicures, too, at an hour when I still have bed sheet road maps on the side of my face, is sobering. One is wearing pearls. Another, matching shoes and handbag. Another, patent leather heels. In midnight violet. She’s dressed to match the bread shop interior? And it’s with that thought and while standing right behind them, trailing crusts of mud from my raggy Nikes and wiping drips of sweat from my jaw line with the sleeve of my scratchy nylon jacket, that I then realize that without knowing it and certainly without wanting to do so, I have morphed into The Spectacle.
The sweaty, stinky, Spectacle. The muddy, Lycra-y, Garth-y, Yankee, boulangerie Spectacle. The one who thinks she’s just going to crash this joint and be allowed to buy, like these four powdery Mesdames, a tradi or two.
Upon my bee-bopping entrance, these elegant early birds drop their quiet conversation mid-sentence like they’d all flown beak-first into a plate-glass window. It is so quiet, and I am so loud (or at least I feel I am) and immodest, and foul-mouthed even with my wad of Wrigley’s Extra Ice, and they look mildly traumatized or entertained, I’m not sure which. But I am the newbie again, unaware, still, of all the codes. Just want my fresh French baked goods, s’il vous plait, if I might grab some. And run.
So I shuffle, head down, to the gilded counter, grab my baguettes from a blonde woman with movie star beauty complete with a manicure that still looks wet –– just your average bakery gal! — do the required flourish turning to all sides, to anyone who would hear my muffles: “I am so sorry, Mesdames, please excuse me, please forgive me, I apologize, Thank you so kindly, Madame, yours are the best tradis in all Versailles. Have a lovely day. Everyone. Tout le monde. I am a beast.”
Actually, je suis bête was the phrase I used, which means, roughly, “I’m a ding dong.” But bête, besides meaning ding-dong, also means beast. I knew this already because I’d ordered Disney’s La Belle et La Bête for language practice the day I found out we were moving to France.The fact that Disney’s beast was not a le and was a la, by the way, and therefore feminine, not masculine, caused some consternation for Claire, which we ironed out over time. But that whole tangent is beside the point here. What I’m telling you is that in that embarrassing culture clash moment, I did in fact feel 100% — no, 200% — bête.
© 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.