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On These Steps

June 21, 2018

One life on this earth is all that we get, whether it is enough or not enough, and the obvious conclusion would seem to be that at the very least we are fools if we do not live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can.

Frederick Buechner

 

 © Hotel Ritz Paris

 

On these steps,

 

I trip as I rush into the hotel, encumbered by my tattered red suitcase. Underdressed and underrefined and a mortifying five minutes late. The maître d’hôtel who greets me, however, does not seem to notice or mind; as though I were royalty, he takes my rumpled bag and escorts me down the hall.

 

Bienvenue au Ritz, mademoiselle,

 

He may have said that to royalty too.

 

On the couches of the salon to my right, Marcel Proust used to sit and write. The red satin has been reupholstered to velvet, I am informed. On the Mareuil stone floor I hurry across, Napoleon’s men, and Hitler’s, marched. On the base of a colossal jade vase: 1812 - A present from the Tsar of Russia.

 

On the lacquered oak bar of the chandeliered brasserie I enter on the left, the world-famous bartender sets a dry martini, picked up by a manicured hand. He then proceeds to pour champagne in a flute, for me, with the same reverence. On the same bar, decades ago, the French resistance passed notes under the noses of the Germans.

 

On another, smaller bar further inside the hotel, the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway staged stories, got drunk, placed bets, and on napkins scribbled scenes and characters’ names. Cole Porter played on this piano. I hesitate, then dare a few clumsy notes. On the tapestries, on the paintings on the walls all around me, hundreds of hours were spent.

 

On the ceiling of l’Espadon restaurant, a grand chandelier, a trompe-l’oeil painting. On the menu: langoustine, blinis au caviar, pigeon impérial, sole meunière. La mousse au chocolat, I think. Avec granite de vinaigre à la frambroise. Or la crème aux tranches de citron Meyer giroflées. Maybe some day.

 

On the way leading out into the intimate but resplendent Grand jardin, soft lighting, white marble statues, a fountain. The parties that must have been held here. The romances and music pieces played out: Capa and Bergman, Hepburn and Cooper. The scandals: the Windsors, Princess Diana. All the roses delivered to these rooms.

 

Across the courtyard the hotel’s Cambon wing once sheltered wounded World War I soldiers. On the first floor balcony of the main façade, a view of the Place Vendôme. From here Louis XV welcomed the Ottoman ambassador, on a camel. A few stories higher and centuries later, Chanel leaned on the railing to smoke. I lean on it too, to admire the colonne and the réverbères lighting up.

 

On these stones, in this square some men were coronated and others were guillotined or hung. Captured, occupied, liberated. Chopin gave piano lessons across the street. And on a warm June night like this, one hundred and twenty years ago, Ritz gave his first glittering reception.

 

The date is in gold on my now empty champagne flute. In my mind I mark today’s.

 

Back on these steps, where people far greater than me have made history, watching the last rays, the lovers stroll, and the quietly surreal beauty. Yes I know that not far from here, there are people begging in the street. I know that wars are ongoing and that there are refugees drowning in the sea. I know of injustice and suffering, rising sea levels, children going hungry. I know that the sparkling world inside the palace behind me is not real.

 

I know I will probably not make history and these steps will not remember me, but till the end of my Cinderella presence here, I allow myself to dream,

 

of a place where everyone is welcomed like royalty and happiness, not a luxury. Where beauty exists, unashamed, for its own sake,

 

then I request my suitcase.

 

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