Sunday, January 27, 2008

First Trip to Paris

Twenty-eight years ago this very week, I made my first trip to Europe. 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. 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 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 it was thrilling 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 La Madeleine; there were bunches of fresh lilies everywhere in the church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen, almost as if it were Easter.

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


julygirl said...

What a wonderful and memorable experience for you, and how lucky to have been able to take a trip like that while still in high school. I'm sure you made a promise to return when you were older.

Alexandra said...

"It made an impression on my psyche which would linger for years..."
Me too! Versailles was magical for me as a little girl. We lived next door in Germany when I was between ages 8-12, and my mother would take us at least once a year. That was between about '73-'78. I liked France(around Paris) much better in the 70's before Europe became so homogenized and less charming.

I can see the influence of Versailles and France in general with my decorating choices. I'll never forget how good the food tasted, and when I went back in the 90's I could die for the red wine. Nothing at all like that in the U.S. for a small price.

elena maria vidal said...

That's very interesting, Alexandra. Isn't it amazing the impact that a place like Versailles can have on someone when young?

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, julygirl, I promised to return, and I did.