Winters were colder then, and it had been a bitterly cold winter in Maryland, with piles of snow. I was a senior at Prospect Hall High School, now renamed Saint John's Prep; it was the only even nominally Catholic high school in the area. The school was in the old Dulaney mansion on a hill overlooking Frederick, Maryland. It was a grand old house; unfortunately, most of the classes were held in the gymnasium, which was freezing. We had to leave our coats on much of the time and then avoid slipping on the ice when changing classes.
Therefore it was with great excitement that about twenty of us students prepared for a ten day excursion to Paris, with a stopover in London. Not only were we leaving the misery of school, but, for me, at any rate, I was going to see so many places I had long dreamed of. Among the young travelers were three of the Thomas girls, whom I had known since childhood, but the adventures in Europe cemented our friendship into a lifelong bond which endures to this day. My designated roommate was a sweet, devout Methodist girl named Beverly who had grown up on a farm. Beverly had already been to England as an exchange student and so knew a little bit about getting around Europe.
Nothing can compare with the first experience of Paris. Climbing to the heights of Montmartre and entering the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for the first time was a moment of gravity and inspiration, for I thought of Saint Denis and his companions and their sufferings while at the same time glimpsing heaven. We entered the gothic portals of Notre Dame while the evening organ recital was going on, and all the glories of the Middle Ages unfolded before me. The same at Sainte Chapelle, which encapsulates in wood, glass and stone the love and devotion of Saint Louis IX.
What can I say about the Louvre, except that to walk in and see the "Winged Victory" was pure magic. (It was before those awful plastic pyramids were set up.) I was going through a Raphael phase, and soaked in the radiance of his Madonnas. On the Rue de Rivoli I was thrilled to see Saint Joan of Arc on horseback; anything that had the least to do with that saint was a special delight. Another church I fell in love with was the Madeleine; there were bunches of fresh lilies everywhere in the church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen, almost as if it were Easter.
Of course, I must mention our night on the town. Our teachers took us to the Lido, which was billed "the most famous nightclub in the world." I now question the prudence of taking twenty teenagers to such a sophisticated night spot; it was indeed an experience. Being near-sighted even then, I did not see much when not wearing my glasses. We were each given half a bottle of champagne, and since Beverly was a teetotaller, I helped to finish her portion. It was a bit too much and I was sent home in a taxi rather tipsy. The taxi collided with another one; luckily, no one was injured.
The day we spent at Versailles was especially memorable. I had studied a book on Versailles that my grandmother had in her house but the magnificence of the Sun King's palace was still daunting. It was a soft, misty day, damp but not cold. We walked over to Petit Trianon and I was amazed at how the birds were singing in the gardens of the queen. There was a unique atmosphere there, both haunted and hallowed. It made an impression on my psyche which would linger for years; I did not think that someday I would write about Marie-Antoinette, although the inspiration was planted on that occasion. Share