travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, Versailles

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

Versailles

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A few days into Paris—before the Australians, the honeymooners, the college kids, and the life-traveller; after the three asshole partiers, Matthieu from Montreal, and the nameless guy from Newport Beach—I decided to check out the Palace of Versailles. It was outside of the city and I was told to set aside a whole day. I took an RER train, nervously, I might add. This was still my first experience in navigating a non-English speaking public transit system that wasn’t as easily colour-coded as the Métro. I had been nervous about following the map from the train station to the palace, even if it was only a few blocks.

I didn’t have to be.

The crowds were a swarm moving down the streets. It was like going on a school trip with a bunch of strangers. The wait to get in was at about two hours but what else was I going to do?

I waited.

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It was almost over-whelming, the sheer volume of human bodies surrounding me. I pressed on until I ended up around the back of the palace, watching the grounds stretch out before me. Long manicured pools ran on for so long they practically disappeared over the horizon. Marble statues carved the way down. Sculpted hedges ran off into the distance. Lines of chalky pink gravel were stuffed with tourists who were oddly quiet. There was such serenity to the place that it amazed me it was so peaceful and quiet even with as many people as there were.

Perhaps is this was a natural landscape, it would surely meet all these ample qualifiers—peaceful, quiet, serene—but something about the symmetry of the artifice was even more relaxing. It was like math meets nature. I can’t help but think of the idea of a beautiful face being a symmetrical one. Perhaps something like that was at work here.

But the sheer effect of it all was… breath-taking. Breath-taking is such an overused word; all hyperbole rendered it meaningless, just like what is swiftly happening to literally.

But it was literally breath-taking.

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My cold, critical intellectual side had been prepared to imagine the palace splashed with red paint, so something just as rebellious and angry. But that fell away. I found it impossible to overcome my cognitive dissonace, so I chose to momentarily ignore it.

The only time up until that where I had experienced anything as breath-taking was visiting the Grand Canyon when I was sixteen. But that was purely nature. I did not know it yet at the time, but a week or two later, I would experience it again seeing Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid. And that would be pure, noble art.

But the Palace of Versailles was something else entirely. It was the most quintessential example of the disgusting excess of the wealthy; it preceded a revolution. Preceded and/or provoked.

Starting out at the grounds, I lost all desire to see the inside of the palace. Could they, in all their simple beauty, be in any way divorced from the absurdity of the gilded palace?

I walked down the steps out past the carved hedges lined with marble statues. I think of the neoclassical movement and how hilariously wrong it all was. There is a definite beauty in the white marble, perhaps one reminiscent of our own uncomfortable ideas of (im)mortality. But in reality, those classical statues were painted with bright and gaudy colours. They probably looked more like Dogma’s Buddy Jesus than Michelangelo’s David.

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People lined the rectangle ponds. A concession stand was even there, but if I remember correctly, it wasn’t open. Perhaps it wasn’t even a concession stand. Perhaps it was something else entirely, but only looked like one. Perhaps that is just something the cynic in me wanted to see.

Past the people and the concession stands were wooded areas. I followed a path through one, curious what I might see. There were people walking in and out, but the crowds were significantly thinner.

What I found was Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. The Queen’s Hamlet, as it has been labelled, was essentially a fake rustic village she built herself, for when she was “seeking to flee the Court of Versailles.” Perhaps this is just a poor choice of words for the official Palace of Versailles website, as this is not only where she went for relaxation and comfort, but where she actually ended up fleeing to escape the revolutionaries. There was a small grotto in the hamlet, allegedly where she hid. I won’t go into any more details about the history of the place. You can read the website or just Google it.

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Said grotto.

Anyway.

I spent most of the day there wandering through what I would have believed was the set of Beauty and the Beast had it been live action. It was still a working farm, with animals, crops, the whole le-bang.

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There was something so ironic, symbolic and tragic about that place. Especially after being so awed by the… (there’s no other word for it) majesty of the palace and grounds. For all the splendour and excess of the palace, the queen required a simulacrum of a modest village. It was like Walt Disney building Main Street, U.S.A. It’s so easy to inject the Citizen Kane narrative, as if this rustic little farm was her Rosebud.

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When I finally felt ready to leave, I made my way back up to the palace. I tagged along with one of the guided tours, really only out of a sense of obligation.

Unlike the grounds, it proved to be exactly what I had expected.

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