It’s the smell of the jasmine that I remember most vividly: powerful, sudden, almost too intense. It hits you before you see the flowers, before you can attach the scent to its name. And, just as quickly, it’s gone. But it always comes back.
We are riding our bikes down a promenade that seems never ending, weaving alongside pale pink blooms and lavender, groups of picnickers huddled together and stretching their legs beneath the sun. Kids ride skateboards next to us, and I can sense I am more wary of them than they are of me. Like the other bikers who breeze by wearing skirts and sandals, looking perfectly poised and at ease in a way that only French women can.
We have been riding for at least 45 minutes, I think. I only know that we’re going to “the park” for a picnic of our own, but I don’t know where it is or what to expect when we get there. I do know that we have now passed miles of beautiful park space without stopping, and I can’t figure out what could be so singular about the park of our destination as compared to these.
“Is this the park?” I yell at Sadie ahead of me as we slow at an intersection, redundantly. She actually laughs. “It’s so beautiful,” I add, almost defensively.
She smiles. “Oh no, the park we’re going to is much nicer than this one.”
And so we ride on, through more picturesque parks filled with more beautiful people sunning. My legs hurt.
Eventually, she stops. “I think we missed it.” She pedals over to a map and presses her finger to the surface, then drags it slowly across the glass. And then, she’s triumphant: “We just passed it right back there!”
We are back on our bikes in seconds, energy renewed, through one intersection and then halfway down the next block until there is a clearing on our left and Sadie points and laughs again. “How could we have missed that?”
I follow her gaze and realize the park is a castle.
* * *
The nice thing about knowing you’re going to be in a new place longer than a few days is the lack of urgency you feel in how you spend your time. That’s what Elissa pointed out when we agreed to join a group of her friends for the bike ride on Sunday, just three days after our arrival in Paris when we should have been at the Louvre or eating crêpes on the Seine. Elissa and I grew close while living in San Francisco, and four years ago she moved to Paris through her job; a two-year contract stretched and bent as she built a life here. Now, she is a local and we are fortunate to be some small step above “helpless tourist” on the visitor totem pole.
Elissa’s friend Sadie runs Fat Tire Tours, a bike tour company for English speakers in Paris. We met the two of them at Fat Tire headquarters around lunchtime, frazzled and running 15 minutes late in an Uber. (Happily, we’re getting better about both timing transit and wasting money on cars.) Inside a storefront lined with segways, rows of identical bikes leaned against one another, blue and red and blue and blue. I watched as Sadie filled her saddlebags with picnic provisions: cherries, salami, crudités and tapenade, my haphazard couscous salad secured with electrical tape, and many bottles of rosé.
Sadie sped off first, leading the way.
“Aren’t we getting helmets?” I called ahead to Elissa.
She looked a little embarrassed for one of us, but I couldn’t tell who. “Um, I’m probably not going to. But you can if you want?”
I commuted to work on a bike in San Francisco for five years and never once rode without a helmet. I love helmets. I shame others who don’t wear helmets and preach the virtue of helmet-wearing far and wide. And still, this time — admittedly in an effort to appear plus parisienne — I skipped the helmet. Throughout all of the treacherous intersections and Peugeots whizzing by so I could feel my hair whip backwards. And I didn’t see a single biker with a helmet the whole time.
In fact, riding a bike really is like riding a bike. I was wary of climbing back on the seat after not having ridden for the past three years, but once we were out of the city and on the promenade I fell into rhythm immediately, hugging the rolling hills, enjoying, for once, the part where you have to stand and pump the pedals and breathe hard to mount the summit. After living in San Francisco, any hill you meet elsewhere will never be as fierce as the fearsome ones you’ve had to accept as part of your daily life.
But back to the park. So often the people, places and events we anticipate are less than our imaginations make them out to be, and part of the pleasure of being surprised at magnificence is the surprise itself. Through the gap between bushes of jasmine, down a very long, very green and very manicured lawn, was the Château de Sceaux, a castle dating back to the 15th century that belonged to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, in the 1680s. In the century following Colbert’s purchase, it was used for operas and concerts and salons frequented by the likes of Voltaire.
The castle was confiscated as a national property during the French Revolution — sold for the benefit of “the people,” in true democratic fashion — and destroyed in the early 19th century. It was reconstructed again in the original classicist style in 1862, and is now apparently three times less extensive than the previous home that stood in its place. Today’s Château de Sceaux is home to a local history and art museum (open to visitors) but for the French in general and Parisians in particular, the real draw are the surrounding parks, designed by the same landscape architect who created the gardens at Versailles. There’s an art deco waterfall with sculptures by Rodin, swirls of waterfalls and vibrant greenery, and, finally, a Grand Canal exactly one kilometer long and flanked by tall trees standing in statuesque military formation on either side.
If the park was magnificent and stately, the people inhabiting it were not. They ground shoes into its grass, threw frisbees into its bushes, ran fingers through the waters of its canal, and filled its serene air with reggae music. They ran shirtless and listened to music on iPhones. They kicked soccer balls with children. They wore yoga pants. They kissed and straddled each other on blankets. They squatted to use the bathroom in its woods. They seemed, in other words — being totally ordinary themselves — oblivious to our extraordinary surroundings. And I felt, for the first time since we left home, truly strange and foreign.
For me (and, I think, many of us in the U.S. of A.) history has always meant a visit to a national monument, a textbook, or a guided tour. History is then and there, and you and I and our daily lives are here and now. The two are separate and distinct, as are our experiences and understanding of them.
But here in France, the past hits you in the face every time you turn a corner. You can’t help but confront it and inhabit it, just like the hipsters inhabit the Parc de Sceaux. They have made it their own with striking intimacy — again, or maybe still, for the benefit of the people.
Next, I think I’ll recline in a chair in the Luxembourg gardens while students play their violins nearby, and go shopping in the covered passage of the Galerie Véro-Dodat, and continue to feel small and humbled by this storied land beneath our feet.