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The International Writers Magazine
Paris: Palace des Vosges

A Secret Garden
Brent Robillard

"Today I will show you my favourite place in all of Paris." Pablo said this to me in the lobby of our hotel – the nondescript, but clean and inexpensive chain Hotel Etap in the north end of the city.

This was no small claim, given that Pablo had been a tour guide in France, Spain, and Italy for almost ten years. And I, who had already been to Paris twice previously as a young man, was excited to discover something out of the ordinary – something more intimate perhaps – about the most heavily visited city in the world.

Pablo was a Spaniard, born and bred in Madrid. A short, stocky, bespectacled character with a flamboyant personality that had already won over the high school students in my charge. He had made every scheduled stop on our tour new to me with his witty asides and intelligent commentary. But that day was to be different. The students were to be set loose upon the city to explore on their own for the first time, which meant that I too was free to do as I pleased.
It is difficult to travel to such a tourist Mecca and not treat it like a list of "to dos," but having visited all of Paris’ major attractions three times over, I felt a certain freedom that day – a guilt-free giddiness at the prospect of drifting through the city like flotsam on the Seine.

We began, Pablo and I, on the Left Bank poking in and out of the shops on blvd. St. Germain, haggling over merchandise we had no intention of buying, soaking up the youthful exuberance of the university, and pointing out the literary haunts of such giants as Apolonaire and Hemingway.

We lunched at an anonymous café, lost in the labyrinth of Montparnasse, where the waiters wore the traditional blue monos of the Paris working class, and the sidewalk tables were so close together conversations could do nothing but co-mingle in a pleasant, if incoherent, babel.

Drawn by our stomachs, we crossed over to Ile-St. Louis for an obligatory stop at Berthillon, one of the world’s finest ice creameries – rivaled only by the gelato of Florence, and even then I’m willing to hear arguments.
The dynamism of Rue st. Antoine – an extension of Rivoli – carried us south where we slipped into the placid pool of Place des Vosges, an architectural study in symmetry, and one-time home to national treasure Victor Hugo.
"Ah, ha," said Pablo. "We have arrived."

I scanned the grand-siecle red-brick facades, the parkland, and the people who lazed about it – the backpackers with guitars lounging beneath the chestnut trees, the businessmen and women eating sandwiches on the benches, and the children who ran about inventing games.
It was lovely, I admit. But deep down I was also somewhat disappointed. I had expected more, or perhaps I had expected less. Something hidden, unknown, and unlisted in any guidebook.
"Follow me," he beckoned after a moment’s hesitation.
With renewed hope I strolled beneath the arcaded plaza to the north-east end of the square, where he eventually disappeared through a portico. And then everything was silenced but the birds. I felt immediately as though we had shed the cloak of Paris for the courtyard of some distant monastery.

Small and walled there was a garden, an olive tree. And there were also relics of medieval architecture strewn about, as though on display. A giant stone rose window from a cathedral. And students. Quiet. Pensive. Sketching in blocks of paper the tiny world around them.

Many North Americans, including me, travel to destinations like Europe for a taste of something they are missing at home. That something is often authenticity – the hope for something real in an increasingly electronic and virtual world. History, we figure, will fill that void. Some old buildings, famous paintings. This is why travel can also disappoint. Museums are beautiful, but you can’t find the authentic under glass.

I still do not know who the students were, or why they were there that day, or even whether Pablo expected them to be part of the landscape. But it doesn’t matter. I knew immediately why this was his favourite place in all Paris. It was exactly what I had been hoping for. It was authentic, and it was happening now. It was Paris. A secret garden.

© Robillard, Brent June 2007

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