In the Court of the Sun King
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine I couldn’t open, and nobody singing beside me in the wilderness, outside Versailles castle.
MY ALLEZ-RETOUR TICKET IN HAND, I found my way to the quay for that Iron Path to Versailles. On the train, I pressed my temple against the window. In the dark underground tunnels, I had only my own reflection for company. We finally emerged into the honeyed September sunlight outside centre ville. The train described a northerly route out of the city, crossing the Seine twice, before bending south, following the river out into the banlieu. That French word derives from the Latin for “league mile,” which instantly sets these neighborhoods apart from American suburbs, which are by definition beneath something much more interesting.
As my train rolled silently through Chantiers on the way to the Gare Versailles, I caught my first glimpses of equivalent French towns to the Connecticut village that raised me, within envying distance of New York City. French village squares aligned themselves around life’s necessities: bread, cheese, a fountain, and a cafe, providing opportunities for residents to gesture at and complain to one another.
The 7–11, it’s not.
I was disgorged from the train, along with a polyglot group of day-trippers shambling toward the court of the Sun King. I’d already had enough of them — maybe I wasn’t so special, being here? — so I headed toward the village square, to lay in a supply of wine, cheese, bread, and chocolate, so wonderfully available here and everywhere in France.
Add sunshine, and what more do you need?
Through the gate finally, with the gendarmes of the day unconcerned that I was carrying red wine, in a backpack, into the vicinity of known art masterpieces, plus a hall of mirrors.
It was a simpler time.
I was barely interested in the chateau, unable to identify with all those dandies in curly wigs and satin pants, the silk cushions their privileged bottoms farted into. Versailles Palace is, above all, an enormous vacuuming challenge.
So I skirted Louis’ place and dismissed the mythological scenes in the elaborate fountains. As a recent student of romantic poetry, I sought Wordworth’s “sportive wood run wild,” visible in the distance, beyond the fountains and the fluffery.
I settled at the base of a plane tree — Napoleon, the famous arborist, planted them all over France, to shade his soldiers — and was dappled by the Sun King’s favorite celestial body (aside from himself). I conked out beyond the long arm of the “pelouse interdit” (lawn forbidden) enforcers, and dreamt that I was at Versaille.
Upon awakening, I was still in the dream, pulling out a knot of cheese and loaf of bread. I’d forgotten my corkscrew, so no wine that day. But oh, for a Victorine Merseult1 to déjeuné sur l’herbe with.
I wrote in my journal that day: “The circumstance of height is a matter of quantity, the choice of intensity is a matter of quality. Discovered upon waking up to the forest ceiling in the fall, while in the intimate companionship of V. Woof.”