The city was shrouded in mist that afternoon we landed in Paris. The cold was not blistering, but you know what happens after a 10-hour flight. Bleary-eyed and shivery, you are properly keyed up for a deep sleep. That’s all. All those plans of showering and taking the city by storm? A big, fat zero.
The flight from JFK had taken us into Frankfurt for a three-hour layover. We discovered a private sleeping pod, but at the tail end of our wait. The irony of it: shattering. There you were desperate for some shut-eye and (huzzah!) you located a comfortable bed in the privacy of a cabin. Ding! went the announcement for boarding. Hardly any time to nod off on the flight from Frankfurt to Paris. So, all you could do was slip into this delicious dream, consumed by the desire for a bed. Soft sheets. Fluffy pillows. Plump duvet to burrow into. Then, oblivion.
A 20-minute cab ride brought me closer to my the object of my dreams.
The InterContinental Paris Le Grand was part of our other anniversary indulgence, in the heart of the 9th arrondissement. Just for two nights, but enough to make the most of a stay conjured by the hoarding of hotel points. When we reached the hotel, I had to crane my neck to take in the view of its old facade. It was the colour of cream, a part of it masked by scaffolding. Neat rows of French windows, slatted louvres, those charming wrought-iron balconies atypical of Paris, and carved stone for a touch of opulence. I was sold. Even the most hardened commie would be — except that he would conceal it beneath a careful veneer of contempt. As if to complete the picture, at the porch stood a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar. Manning it was a guy in khaki with sunnies even on that bleak day. He reminded me of an Indian actor who used to arrive punctually late at press conferences, concealing a pair of bloodshot eyes and a predilection for cocaine behind large sunglasses.
Inside the hotel, we were checked in with supreme efficiency, and at that point of time all that mattered was the bed. The room turned out to be a cosy affair, in the manner of those little pieds-à-terre that they show in the old movies, yet sumptuous in reds and burgundies, a hint of bordello chic. Beneath heavy old drapes, were gossamer white drapes fluttering in the cold breeze as we peeked out of our teeny-weeny balcony to exult at the somewhat ethereal sight of the Eiffel Tower wreathed in mist. A bottle of Champagne had been deposited in our room at some point of time, but I had long passed out. Delicious was that slumber, and by the time I woke up I realised we had slept a hefty four hours.
That evening when we dressed up and headed out of the hotel — before which we peeked at the Eiffel Tower again, this time to catch its hourly shimmering aura — it felt like we were in a dream. Not a bubbly-infused dream, but one sparked off by the very air of the city we were in. The kind of city that makes you gush. Such as I did when I uttered repeatedly to Adi, ‘We’re in Paris! We’re in Paris!’
It must have been the air. It was enchanted.
The Grand was a couple of minutes walk from the Palais Garnier, the iconic opera house of Paris, and so we were ambling past the opera, down the cobbled boulevards of Haussman, bedecked in fairy lights and flamboyant shop windows, mannequins in beautiful dresses and shoes, staring at splendid old squares topped off by gigantic columns, senses reeling at the beauty all around us.
No matter how many times you find yourself in Paris, you are dazed by the elegance of it.
Dinner was at a Moroccan restaurant where an old man in his neatly pressed suit served us Moroccan wine along with snacks of olives and carrots braised in turmeric and cumin. The wine was red and mellow, the carrots spicy. There was lamb tagine, a whole lot of kebabs and couscous, along with more red wine on the house, pressed upon us by the old man with the benevolent smile and wicked sense of humour.
Ah, it was a fine evening that, when we sauntered back to the hotel on the wings of red wine and romance. It was as if we could have only more and the hotel was a big part of this experience. The French empress of the day — that would be the year 1862 — while inaugurating it, had exclaimed that it made her think of home. ‘I feel like I am in Compiègne or Fontainebleau,’ she had remarked. That’s the thing about heritage hotels, they are a window into a world that you will never see, just imagine. To me, it was a window into the world of Josephine Baker, Sarah Bernhardt, Marlene Dietrich…, all of whom liked to be seen at the hotel. I could see why. Its old operatic ballroom was a vision in itself.
The Café de la Paix was yet another visual feast, with its large potted plants, as if to recreate a garden within a café, frescoed and gilded to the hilt. There had sat the likes of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and where people were known to be drawn from all around the globe…’Dark diplomats from Martinique, pale Rastas from Peru/An Englishman from Bloomsbury, a Yank from Kalamazoo;/A poet from Montmartre’s heights, a dapper little Jap’ … as Robert Service noted in his poem, ‘The Absinthe Drinkers’.
‘For has it not been ever said that all the world one day
Will pass in pilgrimage before the Cafe de la Paix?’
(It is a delightful poem, if you are keen to take a gander at it.)
A quick note on the title. A receptionist at the Grand Hotel addressed Adi as Mr. Basu — the room was booked in my name. I startled that man by folding my hands in a ‘namaste’ gesture. And I said, ‘Why that is the best thing I have heard in a long time!’ For a few seconds, he had consternation writ large upon his face. Had he said anything wrong? ‘No, absolutely not,’ I assured him. You see, Basu is my surname. It has cleaved to my person so long that I could not envision being without it. Not to make a defining statement of any sort, just because it is my identity. Naturally, once in a while, when Adi is alluded to as Mr. Basu, fizzy bubbles of joy rise up my chest.