Scandal and Intrigue in the Hall of Mirrors

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A moment in time

Have I ever told you about the one time I lost a legal argument? Did I mention that I was wearing a tutu while stating my case? Or that the litigants had come forward because they caught a glimpse of some heretofore unexposed flesh whilst, I was changing into aforementioned tutu? No? Curiosity piqued? Well, read on.

About two years ago, I was in the midst of dreaming about Scarlett’s bat mitzvah. I have explained in a previous blog that Versailles always held a special place in my heart. My parents took my brother and I there when we were children,  and when I became a mom, there was no greater pleasure than taking our little daughters to Versailles one summer.  We  did Versailles,  ‘kiddified’, Saffron and Scarlett  were dressed in real princess dresses.   This was how we rolled on vacation. I recall visiting  Vaux-le-Vicomte, whizzing around in  little golf carts, their princess dresses flying in the wind. Dress-up is one of my favourite ways to kiddify experiences and palaces are my dream venue for story-telling. The summer I took my kids to Versailles, the palace chambers became our fantasy world. We play-played parties in the Hall of Mirrors, imagined ourselves as Marie Antoinette and her princesses reclining at her weekend house and hatched up funny adventures in the king’s warren of apartments.

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Saffron and Scarlett dressed as princesses at the gates of Versailles with Liquorice and Strawberry in tow
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Saffron, Scarlett and I at the gates of Versailles, years later

We visited Versailles more than once through the years. The dream was always, if I could bring my daughters to Versailles and we could enter a world of history and story-telling together, I could bring Versailles to our home in Johannesburg and make its delights accessible to our community and all their little friends. As my younger daughter’s bat mitzvah approached, I knew this was our chance: using traditional aesthetics with a touch of modern whimsy, I aimed to recreate Versailles in our garden. Except, this was going to be Scarlett’s Versailles.

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Scarlett at the gates of Versailles  just before her bat mitzvah

Wherever possible, the parties in our lives have begun with a reconnaissance mission to the country that is next on our party’s hit-list. This trip serves as the party’s inspiration. We already had the great privilege of more than one visit to Versailles. But as I started to fantasise about a Versailles bat mitzvah, I felt the palace beckoning me like a muse. I needed to see what the palace would evoke now that my girls were a little older. But how does one justify a trip to a place for the mere indulgence of an inspiration top-up? The pieces started to fall into place: I ‘needed’ to go to Italy for a chocolate-enrobing course (I know, I know, a confectioner’s life is tough), and  we all know it is but a hop, skip and a jump from Italy to France. The business trip justified the reconnaissance top-up!   Of course, there was always the chance I would require my daughters’ ‘expertise’ in chocolate matters! And so, I booked our tickets! As the trip crystallised, an image constellated in my mind… Saffron and Scarlett in black tutus, against the backdrop of wooden paneling, ormolu gold and crystal in the ineffable Hall of Mirrors. A bat mitzvah photo shoot such that the Hall of Mirrors had never seen! The idea was playful, outlandish and delightfully mischievous.

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This is precisely the kind of photo I had in mind…

There was just one teensy challenge as I saw it: how to have Scarlett’s bat mitzvah photo shoot in Versailles without five million other tourists ruining the aesthetic. I needed an insider, someone who could lead us to Versailles’ inner sanctum at a moment in time when no other tourists would be there. My extensive research led me to a retired palace official who knew the scoop, and for a Euro or two would spill the beans! Introducing ‘Agent Borris.’ We had a few preliminary and preparatory conversations from  our respective domiciles at other ends of the world. Upon explaining my plan to Borris, he became serious, ‘You are in dangerous waters Karen, the palace officials don’t like any kind of costume.’ Borris was referring to an army of Versailles officials, who march up and down the palace clad in heart-throbbingly beautiful French uniforms, ensuring that utter decorum was impeccably maintained. One never disobeys a Versailles palace official. But, Borris’s warning went in one ear and out the other; I thought to myself, why would the very important officials of Versailles bother themselves with the antics of some girls from Jo’burg?!! I mean, does the fact that I’m carrying a large puffy tutu under my arm in this video below look at all suspicious to you? Oh, and Agent Borris is the dude in the video!

 

Next on my Versailles master-plan was the question of photographer. Introducing Natasha! Natasha had taken myriads of pictures for Ooh La La in our early, start-up days. Sharing an aesthetic vision, we formed a connection early on and my girls fell in love with her too.  It was as if the gods themselves wanted to see tutu-bedecked girls in the Hall of Mirrors for as chance would have it, Natasha had recently moved to Amsterdam.  She booked their tickets to meet us in Paris. Between Natasha and Borris, we felt we were in our own James Bond movie. We packed our bags, complete with tutus, jeans and dark glasses. Meanwhile Agent Borris worked out a secret navigation plan through Versailles antechambers and secret passages. 

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The James Bond sisters prepare for action

When we arrived in the town of Versailles, Borris and I made our plan to meet the following day. ‘You won’t miss us,’ I chimed, ‘we will be the ones dressed in tutus,’ hoping this might lighten him up a bit. He didn’t seem charmed. ‘Prendre garde!’ he cautioned,  ‘they don’t like costumes, Karen.’ By now, this plan had been in the works for months and months. What’s more, I had already taken my girls there in  ‘costumes’  years before- remember the princess dresses? I felt our Agent was over-reacting and behaving like quite the party pooper!!!   I laughed him off saying that tutus weren’t fancy costumes. You will see how this became central to my defence later on.

 

Saffron and Scarlett in Vaux
This is just how we do palaces…
Sffron and Scarlett tutus
…As little girls and as teens

The morning of ‘Mission Versailles’, Borris took us through the backstreets of the town and through a side entrance of Versailles where something was exchanged with someone else and I didn’t ask questions (it might have been one of the Euros we gave him).  Scarlett was already tutu clad while Saffron and I wore jeans and kept our tutus snugly packed in bags. On approaching the entrance, our Versailles Slayer  extended yet a third warning to be careful. I placated our over-zealous agent. Borris’s most important role was yet to come, for he  would be leading us with his considered stealth into Versailles’ most precious chambers…

Scarlett in Purple Princess dress
We always visit palaces as princesses
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Just a little bit older, still in theme, a little more vogue

We arrived before the doors to the palace had opened. When security questioned us about the tutus in the bag, I fobbed them off – ‘those? That’s nothing… my daughter’s clothes for the day,’ I bluffed. We entered Versailles. The first tourists of the day were arriving. But Borris knew what they didn’t. It was a long, long walk to the Hall of Mirrors, and these tourists would no doubt stop to marvel, ooh and aah, in each room. It could take them a good hour before they arrived where we were heading. We, on the other hand didn’t ooh or ah for a millisecond. We ran through a number of secret palace corridors,  up stairs and down stairs, slowing down, nonchalantly like school children, on seeing palace staff in smart navy suits, and then picking up speed up again. It took some considerable discipline for me not to stop and gawk at the marvels in these back chambers. But it was ‘mission on’, so on we sped. The chase to the empty hall was as delightfully wicked as it sounds. The fun of running through the passages and back rooms of Versailles is emblazoned in my memory forever.

 

And then suddenly, there it was. The Hall of Mirrors opened up for us in its full morning charm and sparkle. With not a soul in sight, we were somewhat stunned by the utter beauty of the place, from wood to crystal to gold to sunlight, it was a visual dazzle.  The beautiful emptiness really took my breath away. Natasha set to work taking photos of Scarlett who was tutu bedecked. These few moments, where we were alone in the Hall of Mirrors stand out for me in eternity.  I will never forget them. We had taken a mischievous risk to be alone in one of the most desired locations in the entire world. It was precious and it was priceless.   The whole experience was possibly not more than two minutes. 

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Scarlett in the Hall of Mirrors…a moment in time

And then, I bent down to remove my jeans and get into my tutu. It was at this point, that it is possible that a previously not noticed palace official might have caught sight of some shenanigans which might have come across as unbecoming. ‘What are you doing?’ the palace official brusquely inquired. ‘You  can’t change in the Hall of Mirrors!’  I didn’t quite see the problem, as no one else was there and I had  had the decency to arrive in my leotard.  She came back, ‘I hear what you are saying but this IS the Hall of Mirrors’.   I didn’t pay ‘her’ too much attention and managed to pose with Saffron and Scarlett for one, maybe two photos and then suddenly, it was as if extra reinforcements had been summonsed in the name of ‘Tutu invasion’.

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A quick photo before they officials descended on us

A horde of serious looking palace officials descended on our bat mitzvah party. ‘Where are you from?’  important looking, uniform clad people inquired. They wanted to know which magazine or film studio we represented. Evidently, we looked  to them as if we were in a professional fashion shoot. ‘No,’ I attempted to reassure this grave-faced gathering who looked as if they would take no prisoners, ‘This is a photo shoot for my daughter’s bat mitzvah… in Johannesburg… I am their mother, Karen.’ They then said, ‘But you aren’t allowed to wear anything out of the ordinary in Versailles. The rules are clear.’ At this point, I experienced a legal twitch in my brain. ‘Out of the ordinary? Define out of the ordinary …for tutus are not out of the ordinary…for us!!!!!’ I claimed. While this argument might have gone down  quite well in the Supreme Court in South Africa, advocate’s attitude was not going down rather well with these guys. Borris whispered to me, ‘Karen, this is France, be cute and coy…not cocky and clever… stick with the mom and party story’. We were ushered into a smaller room where even under duress, I couldn’t help but admire the wood paneling. Scarlett was made to delete all the photos on her phone!

Unbeknownst to the officials, Agent Borris had whisked Natasha out of the Hall of Mirrors, with the most precious cargo of all, her camera, with a set of photos of the Lieberman girls in tutus in the Hall of Mirrors, in tact and undisturbed.

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A photo that ‘got out’

As for the actual Lieberman girls, we were rapped on the knuckles for rule breaking and the near shame we had brought on the hallowed Hall. Meanwhile I whispered to my daughters, ‘don’t worry guys, this is a cool story to tell your kids one day.’  The stash had left the castle and we left the palace, mission accomplished and regrouped in the Marble Court with Natasha and Borris. We parted ways with Borris  and then hired bikes and   whizzed off up a long  tree-lined avenue to Marie Antoinette’s  outdoor  home where we frolicked  for the rest of the day. 

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Scarlett escapes
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Joyous Saffron
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Reliving the tale in the palace gardens

 

That night, as we sat at a small French restaurant in the town of Versailles, Scarlett retrieved her deleted photos from ‘the cloud’. We relived the events of the day and laughed till we cried. I realized that I was probably the first person in history to actually get changed in the Hall of Mirrors, and I considered what a show of effrontery it must have seemed to the palace official to observe a tourist’s ‘but’ peeking through in the morning light. It also dawned on me that this was the first legal argument I had hastily surrendered.

We have the most precious memories of those courageous, cheeky, imaginative minutes in the early morning, in the Hall of Mirrors. Our lives are made up of the stories which take our routines out of the ordinary for just a little bit.   More important than the few hours of the parties are the life long lessons we have in the months and sometimes years preceding the events, where we all  learn about the richness of the world together.   In the build-up to Scarlett’s bat mitzvah, we have this most precious story, of Natasha and Agent Borris, of bat mitzvahs and wild photo shoot locations, of tutus and back corridor navigations, and of Scarlett for just a few moments, standing like a princess, in the Hall of Mirrors, on the eve of her bat mitzvah; something magical, something regal and beautiful, something out of this world, as she prepared to enter the world as a young woman.

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Some other photos from the day:

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This is all that matters…

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