Today is the birthday of ma belle Christine and I thought I’d dig out this short piece I wrote in the MANDATORY creative writing class I took during the Print Futures Professional Writing Program back in the day (2003-2006). As you can maybe tell from my tone…creative writing isn’t one of my strong suits. This was about 17 years ago so Karis was four and just about to start Mulgrave; my lovely godchildren were aged seven (Georgia) and ten (Dylan).
Yep, it’s a bit cringey and yep, I edited it to the best of my ability because I am just not that person who can or will publish really cringey work and be OK about it — maybe it’s a thing if you’re famous? I also had to correct the tenses so it makes sense now. It’s still unsophisticated but it’s about CHRISTINE (and today is her BIRTHDAY—December 9th) so I’ve gotten over myself and I’m posting it! As you’ll see…this type of writing isn’t really my forte.
For years, every Christmas, Christine and I used to have our Book Exchange. In place of trivial knick knacks that were expensive to mail (she was living in Nelson at the time), I suggested a book exchange. The rules were: one book only, no boxed sets; hardcover or paperback; a novel you have read and loved. The book she chose for me for Christmas 2002 was Sandra Gulland’s the many lives and secret sorrows of Josephine B. (And yes, that is how the author wrote it…sans capitalization…see image.)
The exchange of books is not merely an easy out for problematic gift buying. We choose our books with care. She chose this book for me because aspects of Josephine Bonaparte reminded her of me. Another reason why she chose this book is because we are both Francophiles. We met in Europe in 1989 on a six-week Art History tour through by Langara College and have been kindred spirits ever since. We both love Paris, its people, history, buildings, museums, and that certain je ne sais quois that other cities don’t seem to have. Also the bread. From this book, an idea took shape that resulted in a trip to Paris, a visit to the Chateau Malmaison and the gift of time.
PARIS: August 2003
Paris via Manchester. Air France flight 403 was carrying Christine and I and only ten other brave souls flying to the ‘City of Light’ to experience the soaring 40° plus heat of August 2003—it was actually a significant heat event in that over 15 000 people died in Paris alone and temperatures hit 111°F! Christine and I were so thrilled to be away from our respective husbands and children that the heat barely dampened our spirits. Yet.
It had all started with our Christmas book exchange. Christine wanted to break one of our “rules” to give me a boxed set of “the best books she had read in a long time.” I stood firm though; one book only (we’re both known for excess). I received the many lives and secret sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland, the first in a trilogy. Little did I know that this innocuous trade paperback would lead us to Paris to walk in the footsteps of Josephine Bonaparte.
Christine and I met in London in 1989 on a three-month European Art History Tour (this tour was actually awesome and so valuable and pivotal to my life and I’m SO GLAD I did it even though I was enormously opposed to ‘group travel’ at the outset and only went because Tracey made me) and knew instantly that we would be friends. Though our lives have taken very different paths, we remain close. Her children are my godchildren and mine is hers. She lives in Nelson and we get together about four times a year, which is not nearly enough. (UPDATE: She lives in VanCity and my godchildren are now adults 😱 and I don’t see her very much because she works in the film industry and the plague.)
I had had the good fortune of traveling quite a bit in the early 2000s and every time I went anywhere, especially Paris, I always asked, “If you can buy the ticket, I’ve got the hotel room anyway…”
Little did I know that this particular time she would pause and say, “You know…, I think I may be able to swing something this time. I’ll talk to James and get back to you.”
I was elated. This had never happened before. It was always “maybe next time when we have more money” or “when the kids are older.”
Christine belongs in Paris. Armed with her eyelash curler, red lipstick, and nail polish, she always looks classic and elegant. She is that person who wears clothes well as my mum would say. She’s got an eye for fashion and always has whether it’s an outfit from a high-end store or a thrifted vintage piece. She is a gourmet cook and she believes that life is too short for cheap chocolate and Costco bread. Her formal education is incomplete as she dropped out of college to give birth to my godson; however, the nuns taught her well and she is one of the cleverest, well-read people I know. She can speak knowledgeably about art, architecture, films and politics AND she actually looks at all the paintings in the museums. When I picture Christine in my mind’s eye, she is sitting at a sidewalk café with a cigarette (not anymore though— qu’elle horror!) and a café au lait.
We decided that Josephine’s life would be the theme of our trip to Paris with the highlight being a visit to the Chateau Malmaison — not the best name as it means ‘evil house’ — see here for some history —which is kinda like the Milan airport being called Malpensa which can be roughly translated as ‘bad air’ and doesn’t sound very auspicious for an airport in my opinion. ANYWAY, this comparatively small house on the outskirts of Paris was the last place Napoleon and Josephine lived together. Malmaison was also where she died just five years after Napoleon has their marriage annulled to marry Marie-Louise of Austria in order to provide a legitimate heir for the French Republic. Which he did.
As our plane touched down and taxied to the terminal we could feel the heat even though it was the middle of the night. We entered the terminal and retrieved our luggage in relative comfort; however, as soon as we went outdoors it felt similar to Bangkok in June — hot, steamy and polluted. Weather like that was unusual for Paris. We cared little though; we were together in Paris, we were there for a week and there were no children or husbands! What utter bliss.
The city was buzzing, even though it was well past one am and the temperature had only cooled to a mere 38°C. The taxi driver drove with the windows open as his air-conditioning could not keep up with the heat. He told us this temperature was average in his home country of Nigeria and assured us that we would acclimatize. I seriously doubted it.
Our hotel, which was just across the street from the Pantheon and was appropriately named Hotêl du Pantheon, was beautiful and quaint, though the staff looked harried and hot and were seen muttering “…fait chaud, tres chaud” under their breath. It was slightly cooler inside than out, though the continuous stream of water from garden hose rigged over the air-conditioning unit in the inner courtyard was slightly alarming. The clerk informed us that the air-conditioning unit had a “petite” fire as it was unused to coping with 40°C+ heat, but was now fixed (it was not). Since it was still so hot and we were too excited to sleep we decided to go out.
We wandered down the road towards the Luxembourg Gardens. The gardens were locked (I believe they did end up leaving the gardens open as the heat wave continued), but the roads were still busy with people out having drinks, smoking, and walking their dogs, still formally dressed despite the heat and the fact that it was the middle of the night. Christine lit up a cigarette and decided that her self-imposed limit of one cigarette per day did not apply while in Paris. As we wound down toward the Seine we saw the last Batobus leaving. “Should we go for it?” I wondered out loud. (Cringe. Dialogue is challenging to write naturally.)
“Why not? We’ll never sleep anyway and maybe there’ll be a breeze on the boat.” The sea breeze we had hoped for more closely resembled being blown with a hair dryer and was not remotely refreshing. We didn’t care as we sat on the top deck in the front row, half listening to the garbled four-language commentary while checking out our fellow sweaty, tired passengers.
Just past Pont Neuf there were four grandstand areas that opened on to the river. Each one had music and people dancing on the stage—just regular people, not professional dancers. One stage had an actual band playing big band favorites and people were jitterbugging! In the middle of the night! Another one had ballroom dancing and yet another had break dancing. (I often wonder if this still happens.)
Most of the buildings along the Seine were floodlit emphasizing their Gothic, Napoleonic, or Art Nouveau origins. The Eiffel tower twinkled in the distance. People who lived in houseboats along the river were out on their decks, smoking, drinking, and calling out to each other. Strangely enough, on this polluted grey river the air smelled like summer and there seemed to be music everywhere. Reluctantly we headed back to our stuffy hotel room around 4 am. (And sat with our feet in the bathtub filled with ice drinking Champagne because it was too hot to sleep. Ever.)
The next day we got down to exploring the Paris that Josephine would have known. It was so incredibly hot that it worked best to keep moving very slowly and never stop because the momentum necessary to start moving again was too much to summon in the heat. We checked out all the “Napoleonic” sights: Les Invalides (Napoleon’s tomb), La Madeleine (church inaugurated during Napoleon’s reign), and the two Arc de Triomhpes: Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (the BIG one) and Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (by the Louvre). The heat sapped our strength and our initiative and we ended up spending a lot of time exploring Les Galeries Lafayette, Paris’ oldest department store, as it had the best air conditioning in the city. And it’s really quite something to see anyway—the lingerie, linens and children’s wear are epic. We ate breakfast at the hotel because it was free and served in the cool basement (la cave) and mainly ate ice cream for the rest of the day because it was impossible to sit at a cafe and eat with sweat pouring off your body.
During the next few days, we did the run of the tourist gamut, maybe more so because Christine hadn’t been out of the country for fourteen years (aforementioned children). We signed up for the “Eiffel Tower at Night/Moulin Rouge” tour and had dinner at the restaurant on the premier étage, of the Eiffel Tower, with the senior tourist set. It was actually fun and the view was stupendous. In the spirit of never-having-done-it-yet-or-again, we took the stairs to the bottom of the tower and forfeited our “transport to the famous Moulin Rouge.” We caught a cab with our new friends from New York to Montmarte to rejoin our group of blue-haired American tourists and claim our complimentary glass of champagne at the Moulin Rouge (where one of Karis’s jazz teachers danced for years) before the show started. Kinda cheesy but fun to be honest.
We went to Versailles and Giverny in pursuit of art and flowers. The heat was mind numbing; Christine slept on the way to Giverny and I took an abbreviated tour of Versailles in order to sit with my feet in one of its numerous fountains. The Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay and the Musée de la Mode et du costume de la ville de Paris (now the Palais Galliera) were enchanting as well as wonderfully cool—gotta take good care of the art. The numerous tiny galleries in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area were not so cool, but were equally enchanting.
The pinnacle of our trip was to be a journey to Château de Malmaison — Josephine’s last home. We kept putting off this excursion in fond hopes that the weather would cool down as the journey involved the Metro, the bus and a bit of walking—formidable in any temperature—but over an hour in 40°+ is daunting. We asked our sweaty, yet chic hotel receptionist how we would get to Malmaison if we should decide to brave the transit system. “Hmm, Malmaison, ce n’est pas possible…trés difficile… peut-être un taxi?” We explained that we thought a taxi would cost over 200 Euros and that would be too much. “No, No, I will telephone Maxine, she will come—100 Euros only!” I wondered who Maxine was—her mother, her sister, a friend? Maxine—who turned out to be a bona fide cab driver—subsequently arrived and drove us to Malmaison, puzzled that two Canadian housewives would have such an interest in an obscure and not particularly well-kept chateau outside of Paris. We haltingly explained about Josephine and the books in our very basic French. I think she thought we were writing the books ourselves.
Malmaison was a charming house set on once-beautiful grounds. The grass was dry and long and the famous rose garden was faded and brown from the heat (reminded me of the BC Heat Dome in summer 2021). These minor details did not detract from our excitement at actually arriving at our destination—the end of our odyssey (so dramatic). As we wandered through Malmaison looking at the very rooms that Josephine had lived in, the view she saw from her morning room, and many of her clothes and personal effects, we were awed by a sense of history that was tempered with sadness. This was the house of a woman who had died alone because her husband had put his duty to the “Republic of France” before his love for her. A man who insisted she change her name from Rose to Josephine because “she looked more like a Josephine.” This was the house of a woman that would have been ordinary would it not have been for her extraordinary life.
Our pilgrimage to Malmaison was the pinnacle of what was really a journey about us and our friendship. Having a week to ourselves to talk all night, eat whenever we wanted, shop to our hearts content and be responsible to no one but ourselves was the real journey. Our busy lives, husbands and children took our time and energy, which we freely gave; however, this time was just for us, no responsibilities, no ties, no “Mummy do you have my hat?”; “Honey, where is the map?”; “How much is that in dollars?”. It was a break from being the holder of the map; the tour guide; the carrier of band-aids, money, cold drinks, sunscreen, bus tickets, guide-books, crayons and paper, snacks and sundries. It was a respite from being responsible and in charge, in short, from being a mum. For eight fabulous days we had the freedom to walk out of the hotel room whenever we wanted, completely unencumbered, to do whatever we chose in our favorite city and that was our ultimate homage to Josephine.