The theme for Scarlett’s bat mitzvah was Versailles. Versailles is known for its breathtaking aesthetics. But it’s so much more: Versailles is about history and love stories. Books have been written about how Versailles sets the benchmark for modern design and architecture. That’s the overarching frame. But what you might not know is that Versailles is our family story too.
Ever since my first steps through the golden gates of Versailles, I have been enraptured with this standalone castle that was built originally as a hunting lodge by King Louis the thirteenth and then transformed by his son Louis fourteenth into the great cultural and aesthetic icon of Western civilization. As almost newly-weds, my husband David and I were lucky enough to walk into what is now our home, while romantically house-hunting. Those of you who have been lucky enough to fall in love, might know that moment of instant recognition. Just to be clear, I’m referring to the house (I’d fallen in love with David long before that). As I walked in, it was like meeting my soul mate. When I look back, I reflect that the house in its original form was already French farm-esque, with an intrinsic style both elegant and surprising. Thus began a journey that lasted years, transforming this farm house into something je ne sais quois. I dreamed of the homeliness of the country combined with the slick style of a Parisian apartment with hints of the stateliness and romantic embellishments of Versailles. To be honest, and to my husband’s relief, I was realistic: I imagined it as the Versailles servants quarters. Talk about aspirations!
There were many phases of the house journey. One of the many stunts I pulled was to place myself at the proverbial feet of an interior designer in Paris to study French design. You know…the stuff of Louis 14th vs. Louis 15th aesthetics. His name was Didier Benderli and like a sponge I absorbed his teachings and applied them to our home. I learned that depending on the way the mistral wind blows, you might paint your shutters either celedon green or duck-egg blue, that it matters which way your shutters close, that door handles require niche ironmongery, that wooden floors need to be arranged in reverse herring bone, down to the specific colour of ormolu gold. Call me obsessed but when I gave birth to my first child, we had to extend my hospital-stay because my architect husband was fulfilling his pregnant wife’s nesting craving by putting down reverse herring bone floors. I mean what’s a French-crazed girl to do!
From Didier the designer to dabbling in French flea markets, I spent many a morning while holidaying in France eagerly rising at five am to be at little flea markets for opening time. Dragging my husband David and our half-asleep little girls, I would befriend niche antique dealers, one who specialized in 18th century chairs, another who specialized in reclaimed architectural French paneling, one who dealt in ironmongery and another whose specialty was a well-organised multitude of chandelier crystal pieces. Most of us can survive with a single crystal missing from a glorious chandelier, but not the French.Antique sellers are cut from the same soul cloth as story tellers, they will make an object come alive through sharing the trail it has travelled through time and space. I can still hear their voices in my head and picture the dignity with which at lunch time, each antique vendor would set up a table with a Provencal traditional cloth and lay out a fresh salad, baguette and red wine in a glass. At the holy hour of lunch, nothing would distract them, not even my gushing offers to buy their entire stock.
For a while antique dealers and auctioneers were my tribe. I frequented the small, flea-market Vanves in Paris with its temporary stalls selling smalls such as cutlery and tablecloths and I was a regular at the labyrinthine, permanent St. Ouen on the outskirts of Paris, a gigantic market which divided into antique-era specific marches. My favourite was to go by train to the quaint and delightful L’isle sur la Sorgue in Provence, a beautiful little village situated alongside a stream that is turned on a wheel – this village is the secret source of all French antique dealers. The countryside, my kids frolicking in Provence, the best food imaginable, an endless supply of Provencal antiques: I was in heaven. Creating our home became as much about the search in the markets themselves as about the people I met and the engaging conversations. I was a girl on a treasure-hunt. As I slowly populated my home with precious items acquired along the way, it was as if my home filled up with stories as much as objects, with people whom I had formed connections with as much as the furniture they sold me.
More often than not, I would find things I was not looking for. In one market while furniture shopping I came upon a delicate, filigreed golden crown. I decided this was an object I wanted my daughters to have and when I gave it to them, I concocted a story about a long-ago princess who used to own this crown. My daughters attached to this story and the crown filled their hours of imaginative play. All of this weaves into a tapestry: a crown that fills our play time, antique objects retrieved from French markets that start to populate our home, French meals cooking on our stove and French culture adorning our coffee tables: Our home acquired a French way and France in all its cultural glory found its way into my family’s consciousness.
My girls knew Paris backwards and they loved their trips to Provence and the French countryside. As their toddler years passed I became more and more excited to take them to visit the cultural icon of Versailles. On my first visit to Versailles with Saffron and Scarlett (with their beloved dolls Licorice and Strawberry in tow), my heart skipped a beat as we held hands and walked through the imposing golden gates. Not unexpectedly, my girls noticed eighteenth century kids’ princess dresses in the Versailles gift shop. I knew that the girls would be that much more enthusiastic if Versailles felt like a fantasy-land for them… Introducing shopping segue way! Twenty minutes later, we re-enter the gates, this time the girls are transformed wearing little matching French frocks with oversized royal shoes. This image is etched into my mind forever. Crossing through this gate evokes for me a crossing over into another world, of imagination and delight. After visiting Versailles in this way, it became easier to take them to other castles and so we went to Voux le vis Compte. But we visited every chateau ‘Saffron and Scarlett style’, dressed up as princesses and queens. The kiddification of royal French history grew as a possibility in my mind.
I continued to keep Versailles in a special place in my mind and heart, knowing that it was reserved for a special party one day. If I could bring the girls to Versailles and kiddify it for them, I could bring Versailles home and render it accessible for children. The question was when. We inaugurated my children’s parties with Paris and the Moulin Rouge, then we moved onto Spain and Hawaii which rolled into Japan and Venice, Russia, Mexico and the Arabian Nights. Then for Saffron’s bat mitzvah we created a European village in the prime of the saffron harvest festival. Still Versailles hovered as a waiting treasure. As we approached Scarlett’s bat mitzvah, we all knew that this was it. The theme was going to be Versailles, but with a difference…it was going to be Scarlett’s Versailles.
As I write this blog, I still wonder to my self, why? Why did I, a born and bred South African, living on the southern tip of Africa, have this fascination with France? I have a very close relationship to my father and since I was a young girl, he inculcated in me a great love for culture, language, travel and stories. The passion and the tragedies came alive for me. I found a certain eros that stirred the depths of my imagination. From Edith Piaf to Hemingway’s Parisian haunts, from the vendors at the food markets who took pride in every chicken and courgette to the confectioners in every village who became my mentors. Versailles was yet another dimension. The stories of Versailles, its style and grand dreams, flickered to me something about the great possibilities and invitations of life itself. And so it was that mid 2017, the dreaming and planning for Scarlett’s Versailles began. Except, as you can see from this blog, it had begun many, many years before….
Stay tuned for French Fairytale Unfolding: Scarlett’s Versailles