Learning to Live

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I've been back from my Great London Adventure for a few days now, and it's amazing how quickly things return to normal. Within hours after arriving back in the States, I was already feeling as if I'd never left, just as within hours after arriving in London, I felt as if I'd never lived (or belonged) anywhere else. Today I'm working on my summer syllabus, proofreading the latest issue of The Scriblerian, and reviewing a fellow contributor's essay for a collection on travel/tourism coming out next year. Tomorrow I have a list of wedding-related errands to run (including picking up my dress, which came in three months early!) and paperwork to complete. In other words, things here are just as I left them at the beginning of May. Part of me might even be tempted to believe the whole trip was a dream if it weren't for the little mementos I come across throughout the day: my British Library reader card tucked into a pocket of my backpack; a receipt from Sainbury's folded in my wallet; a Bath train ticket being used as a bookmark; an open bag of Haribo Hari gummies in my purse; the last two lemon macaroons chilling in the fridge. Despite these reminders, it is still hard for me to believe that a week ago I was at Versailles, fighting the palace crowds; wandering through the endless gardens; lying in the grass by the Grand Canal, eating tomato pizza and scoops of pistachio and mango gelato; and peeking through the dust-coated windows of Marie Antoinette's Hamlet.

The Queen's Hamlet has always been my favorite place at Versailles, and one of my favorite places in the Paris region.  I've often heard it spoken of snidely, as the place where Marie Antoinette went to play farm girl, to pretend peasantry when palace life got to be too much for her--an idyllic charade that made the French populace even angrier and more resentful of the royals during the Revolutionary period.  But when I'm at the Hamlet, I tend to see it the way I think good ole Marie did--as a perfect escape, a breath of fresh air when the rest of the world gets to be too imposing, chaotic...noisy.

The first time I visited the Hamlet was in 2005.  I'd spent the previous seven days running around Paris, dragging my friends through museum after museum, hopping from Metro line to Metro line, climbing staircase after staircase to take in wide, sweeping views of cityscape--concrete, plaster, asphalt, and brick stretching all the way to the horizon. Yes, there were occasional patches of green, and every once in awhile we'd stop to rest our feet by the fountain pool in Luxumbourg Gardens or bask in the sunlight on the Sacre Coeur steps, but even then, the city was always breathing, panting all around us.  There was nowhere we could go to escape the sounds of city life: the car horns, squealing bus brakes, non-stop chatter in more languages than I could recognize.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a city girl at heart. I love the speed and energy of city life, the constant movement, the surge of adrenaline I feel every time I run to catch a train or cross a busy intersection or fight my way through a crowded plaza. I need the chaos in order to, occasionally, appreciate the calm, the quiet, the peace of green spaces. And that's exactly what I found at the Queen's Hamlet--calm, quiet, peace--all things I didn't know I missed or was looking for until I had them. And then I never wanted to leave.

Visiting the Queen's Hamlet is now the thing I look forward to most at Versailles--it's the perfect escape after fighting the palace hoards to see the thrones or Marie Antoinette's bed chamber or the Hall of Mirrors.  It feels so remote, tucked away in its little corner of the estate, acres of fields and pastures and streams and lake. It's still a working farm, with donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, and the fattest rabbits I've ever seen.  And even though I had to share the experience with a much larger crowd of people than I had previously (everywhere I went this trip felt more crowded than before), I still felt a sense of calmness descend over me when my eyes first swept over the hills and saw the moulin.  It's the same feeling I get every time I see one of Monet's Nympheas, the feeling that compels me whenever I'm in New York/Paris/London/San Francisco, and feeling stressed or tired or overwhelmed, to go to the Met/l'Orangerie/Tate Modern/Legion of Honor and sit in front of one of Monet's numerous water lily paintings, focusing only on the swirling pools of blue, green, and purple oil and tuning out everything else. In those moments, the city is silenced, the chaos stilled, and nothing exists for me except Monet's thick, broad strokes and the soothing colors of his palette. This is the feeling I get when I return to the Hamlet.

Having so many other tourists around this time had an interesting effect, though. It actually pushed me closer to the buildings, forced me off the approved paths and into the little nooks and hideaways Marie Antoinette once sought. All of the main buildings at Versailles are open to the public--the palace, Petit Trianon, Grand Trianon--except those at the Hamlet. These are all closed up, emptied of their furniture and decorations, of any sign that someone once lived in them. And yet, they feel more alive than any other royal residence. Although all of the other buildings are full of original furnishings, artwork, drapes, and even table settings, it is difficult for me to imagine people (namely, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI) actually eating at those tables or sleeping in those beds or sitting in those salons, entertaining company. The furniture looks too perfect, too staged, too much like what I've seen in a dozen other museums.

In the past, I've also had a difficult time imagining M.A. (it's okay if I call her that, right?) at the Hamlet, but this time--peeking through the unwashed windowpanes of her house into empty rooms, seeing the late afternoon sunlight slanting across the unswept black-and-white-tiled floor--for the first time, I could see her there. I looked straight through the house (there are windows on the front and back, and it's only one room wide) and saw what she saw--the tranquil oasis she had built. The grassy hills and grazing cows and blooming waterlilies on the pond. The open verandas and giant flowerpots and vines of flowers creeping up outdoor staircases. The way the light refracted off the green water. Unlike all of the amply furnished palace rooms I'd passed through that day, this barren room spoke to me and said, Someone lived here. Someone's skirt swept along this floor. Someone pressed her face to this glass and admired this view. Someone lived here.

Sometimes I think I get it all wrong when it comes to "living." I tend to think that if I'm not filling up my hours and days with activity, if I'm not doing something, then I'm not living. As if collecting experiences and stories as if they're Girl Scout badges is what life is all about. But maybe Marie Antoinette had it right. Sometimes in order to appreciate that kind of living, we have to take a step away, have to stop moving altogether. We have to press the pause button on our busy lives and embrace the stillness. We have to empty our minds of all thought and just feel the sun on our faces, the breeze on our skin. Breathe deep breaths of cool, honeysuckle-tinged air. Just live.


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