I will never forget that week in July, 1998, when I left my 11 year old daughter Clara in a summer camp in Geneva, Switzerland. It was the first time she would be away from home.
The idea started when friends said that Le Rosey was a good school for girls to learn French quickly. Knowing how anxious I was about the separation, my friend Sally decided to accompany me to Switzerland “for moral support.” The plan was to leave Clara in Geneva, spend a few days in Paris – to make sure she adapted well – then return to New York. That was also a good excuse to see Paris again, of course.
We checked-in at the Tiffany Hotel in Geneva, a charming 4-star hotel close to both the city center and Rue du Rhone, the main shopping street. The next morning we drove to the Le Rosey campus, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The atmosphere was festive, there were children from all over the world, and I felt better about leaving Clara there. Still, saying goodbye was not easy, and I left the school feeling sad with our first separation.
To make matters worse, that night Brazil lost the final match of the World Cup of soccer to France. I was born in Brazil, where soccer is almost a religion, and watched the nerve-wracking match with a group of immigrants working in Switzerland – all rooting for Brazil – in front of a giant TV screen placed near Lake Geneva. But no amount of rooting would change the outcome that night, it was France’s time to win.
I was still in a somber mood the next morning when we left Geneva on the TGV, the fast train going to Paris. When we arrived, after a 3 hour ride, the streets were crowded with people commemorating France’s victory. I didn’t need that, and asked the driver to bypass Avenue des Champs Elysées, the epicenter of the party, to leave us at the Ritz Hotel, on Place Vendôme, where we had a reservation. Normally quiet, even the Ritz was in party mood that day, I had never seen so many French flags.
It’s impossible to be in a bad mood for long, at the Ritz. Its classic elegance, attention to detail and impeccable service always have a soothing effect on me. It’s as if the front revolving door opens up to another world, one that even smells better.
After check-in, I asked the concierge, always spot-on in his recommendations, for a place to have dinner that night. He mentioned a restaurant called L’Ambroisie. “It is one of the grandes tables of Paris,” he said. “They are fully booked for dinner, would mesdames be interested in lunch tomorrow?” Yes, we were.
The next morning I woke up feeling much better – the soft beds at the Ritz perform miracles. Also, by sheer luck, we had been upgraded the night before – at no extra charge – to one of the best suites in the hotel, overlooking Place Vendôme. Someone else was still occupying the more modest room I had reserved, explained the apologetic concierge. Of course we didn’t mind it at all…
When it got close to noon, the hotel doorman put us in a cab and made sure the driver knew where we were going: “Place des Vosges, s’il vous plait.” I vaguely remembered, from French lessons in school, that the square had been home to writer Victor Hugo of Les Miserables, but was not familiar with it. We were in for quite an experience!
One enters Place des Vosges through vaulted arches separating it from the rest of the Marais area. It’s the oldest square in Paris, perfectly symmetrical, surrounded by houses with the exact same facade: red brick with strips of yellow stone. Finished in 1612 to commemorate the wedding of King Louis XII to Anne of Austria, it’s an elegant and quiet oasis in the middle of Paris, and for centuries it was home to the French aristocracy.
The L’Ambroisie didn’t disappoint, either. Starting with the building itself, a hotel particulier facing the square – antique tapestries on the walls, chairs covered in velvet, wood floors – everything suggested old-world elegance and refined taste. The food was extraordinary: each serving opened the way to tastes and nuances I had never experienced before. The courses were so beautifully presented, that at the next table a group of Japanese men dressed in identical blue suits were filming it all: as soon as the food was placed on the table, each one would get a camera, point it to his plate, and start recording. Even the cooks came out of the kitchen to look, in amazement.
After dessert, the waiter brought us a tray of cigars. Visibly confused, as cigars in Europe are always offered to men, he felt better when Sally said, “We don’t smoke cigars, thank you; our husbands do, but they couldn’t be with us today, they have to work to pay for this lunch!” We all laughed at the sign of relief on his face.
It was a long, delicious and memorable lunch that I will never forget. It made me think of the 1987 Danish movie Babette’s Feast, about a very special dinner. After leaving that temple of glorious food and getting back to the ‘real’ world, Sally and I took time walking around the Marais, stopping at many art galleries, bistros and boutiques. We promised each other to go back with more time.
It wouldn’t be at that time. Back at the hotel, I got a message from my daughter: she had been placed with a ‘weird’ roommate, and needed my help. Immediate change of plans – I would be on the next train to Geneva. Sally decided instead to go to London to visit her Wellesley school friends, before returning to New York.
I called Geneva and made a reservation at the Hotel Beau Rivage -Tiffany was sold-out – a gorgeous 5-star on Lake Geneva that I had stayed at years before. “I hope I won’t have trouble changing Clara’s room at Le Rosey,” I thought, while packing my suitcase. I didn’t want any trouble with the very nice school headmistress I had met on the opening day. It turned out that I had none, she actually gave Clara a room by herself.
Never a dull moment, I thought while my train slowly left the station in Paris towards Geneva, the next morning. With the Eiffel Tower disappearing on the horizon, I could still smell and taste the magnificent meal we had at L’Ambroisie. A taste of Paris, no doubt.