For the third volume of our participatory stories “There’s Only One Paris,” we take a trip to the beautiful Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne. Short Stories created based on venues in Paris people from around the world love. Learn more about these participatory stories here and read the first story, revolving around the Eiffel Tower, at this link and the second story taking place at Musée d’Orsay here.
A lot of great “venue” ideas were shared at the beginning of the project and this week I’ve taken on one shared by Amy Reverdy!
The story includes some history about the places and the bookshop actually exists, some of you might recognize it from an article I wrote for Frommer’s about the oldest shops in Paris. Please note though that, like the other stories, the characters and plot are completely fictional.
During a week a number of you put up some nice comments on my posts about these two venues. A shout out goes to Margaret Hope, Catherine Grosset, Janet Conroy, Kirsten Loop, Ingrid Schak and to Sylvaine Lang. Sylvaine shared a great memory of the Galerie Vivienne, so cool that I’ll save it to squeeze into a story as it deserves more attending than a simple mention. So keep your comments coming… with that in mind… let me reveal the topic of the next story…. Which is…
As today is Easter Sunday and because the sad anniversary of Notre Dame’s tragic fire is coming up this week, I thought this could be a touching way for us to pay homage to “la Grande Dame de Paris”. Please share your stories and photos of the cathedral on my posts I’ll put up over the course of the week. I’d love to have you involved in the next story!
In Search of Lost Time at the Palais-Royal & Galerie Vivienne
Although it changed slightly depending on the time of the year, the colonnade’s series of repeating shadows always slanted in the same direction in the morning. This is how Capucine preferred to see this sight she’d taken in daily for the last 30 odd years.
Well, almost daily. If it were raining cats and dogs, she’d forgo her daily ritual. And there were those few short holidays she and Robert had taken, once to la Côte d’Azur (too hot), and another to Belgium (too cold), and then, well, all those months at the hospital, but she didn’t like thinking about them.
It took exactly 262 steps to get there. One day she’d counted. 262 steps from the door of her apartment, down the stairs (luckily she lived on the second floor), along rue de la Banque, to the right into the Galerie Vivienne, then left to reach rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, she’d have to wait for a gap in the steady traffic to cross it so she could enter the hidden Passage des 2 Pavillons, go down its set of steps, across the rue de Beaujolais (always empty), and through the opened iron gate, minding the little step, worn down in a gentle curve after centuries of foot traffic.
A further eight steps would take her to the Galerie Beaujolais, the northernmost covered walkway of the Palais-Royal. On a grey day the play of light was less remarkable, however, the soft sunlight of this late September morning created a domino effect descending the length of the arcade. However, just because she’d entered le Jardin du Palais-Royal, it didn’t mean she’d arrived at her final destination. She still had 27 more steps to go.
Originally built for Cardinal Richelieu in the 1630s, the Palais-Royal was expanded over the years, especially in the late 1700s when its gardens were boxed in by buildings and those covered walkways. Visiting the tranquil gardens today one could hardly imagine that it was once the lively center of Parisian shopping and entertainment.
Hit by the sun’s rays, Capucine squinted as she stepped into the enclosed gardens. After some initial trial and error, she’d come to the conclusion that 11 am was the perfect time of day to come. This would spare her the lunchtime sandwich eaters, the squealing kids racing about after school and the apéro hour petanque players.
The only time of year when the park was uncharacteristically busy in the morning, was late winter when the magnolia blossoms popped out. But this was a relatively new phenomenon. In recent years during that two-week period she’d notice a considerable upswing of people, fancy ‘smartphones’ in hand, taking an absurd amount of photos. She didn’t really understand what the fuss was all about. When the subject had come up last year during one of the few conversations she had with fellow park-goers, apparently those thousands of photos went onto a thing called ‘Instagrin’ or something like that. Anyway, the oh-ing and ah-ing photographers usually flooded the park in the afternoon so she wasn’t all that bothered by this brief invasion.
Almost at her destination, Capucine froze on the fifth to last step. There was something seriously wrong.
There was someone on her bench.
She stood there, as rigid as the manicured trees which lined the garden. Her already squinting eyes were reduced to tiny arrowhole slits through which she was launching a barrage of poisonous evil eyes. Her defensive efforts seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the abominable ‘invader.’
After what seemed like an eternity, the intruder noticed Capucine.
“Bonjour Madame!” He greeted cheerfully.
Capucine intensified her warstance.
“Would you like to take a seat?” suggested the young man, looking over at the rest of the bench.
It was clear that there was ample room on it for this little old lady, nevertheless, he slid over to the edge of the bench and made a Vanna White arm gesture, matched with an equally gleaming smile, over at the five feet of bench which was available to her. Capucine didn’t budge.
“What a lovely day!” he said as he loudly inhaled the crisp morning air. “The park is splendid in autumn, don’t you think?”
No! Capucine thought. It wasn’t splendid at all with this obtrusive man on her bench!
“I almost prefer the park at this time of year,” he continued. “I have to say, springtime is also nice, however, in the past few years the magnolia blossoms have been attracting way too many people!”
“I couldn’t agree more!” the statement hopping out of her mouth, before she could realize what had happened. She couldn’t ‘consort’ with the enemy!
“What’s the point of taking all those photos, when you can sit here, on this lovely bench, and simply savor their beauty,” he said with another wave of his arm, this time up in the air from his seated vantage point. Capucine couldn’t help but follow his gesture up towards those Magnolia branches. It was true, her bench was perfectly positioned to enjoy then, in addition to the whole north end of the park. Capucine scrunched up her toes and shifted her stance. Even if she was going just ‘to the park,’ Capucine still wore her pumps. She was only meant to walk 262 steps, then she would be sitting down. Standing on these uneven pebbles was not part of her usual routine!
“Have you noticed that the leaves on the chestnut trees are starting to turn?” he went on, pointing up at the branches, seemingly oblivious to Capucine’s displeasure and discomfort.
She turned around to check, but with her bad knees she wasn’t able to crouch down to get the right angle. She had no choice but to sit down on the bench so she could see what he was referring to.
“No, those aren’t chestnut trees, they’re lindens,” she corrected.
“Ah ok, thank you!” he said without putting any attention to the fact that Capucine had finally sat down next to him. “I grew up in an apartment, so I don’t know my trees very well.”
“So did I, but it’s something you can learn,” she said curtly.
“Yes, that’s true,” he replied thoughtfully. “Like the saying goes: ‘we can learn something new every day’!”
“I suppose so, but when you’ve surpassed 80, those little details don’t seem to matter much anymore.”
“Eighty?! But Madame, you don’t look a day over 65!” He proclaimed sincerely. She pretended not to be flattered, however, her glacial frown was defrosting and her dagger eyes had retreated.
“My name’s Lucas,” he took the liberty of introducing himself with an outstretched hand. Capucine stared at it for a minute before shaking it with the very tip of her fingers.
“Lucas?” she questioned. “I assumed your name would be… different.”
“Born and raised in la Region Parisienne, Madame…”
“Madame Dubois, enchanté! It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
Well at least he had good manners, Capucine thought to herself.
“Do you work in a restaurant around here or something?” she asked, nodding her head in the direction of two Michelin-starred establishments on the north side of the Palais-Royal.
“No, no. I’m quite fond of Le Grand Vefour, but I don’t work in the restaurant business,” replied Lucas, unfazed by her presumptuous question. “I actually run a bookshop.”
“You run a bookshop?” she said, surprised yet trying not to seem too interested.
“Yes, it’s nearby. I needed some fresh air, so I came to the park for a little break.”
“Which bookshop?” She quizzed. “I’ve lived in le quartier since, well long before you were born… in la Region Parisienne.”
“You’ll surely know it then,” replied Lucas. “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, the bookshop at the end of the Galerie Vivienne.”
“A La Recherche du Temps Perdu?” she said, taken aback. “Yes, I know it, very well.” She added after a moment of silence, turning her gaze back towards the garden. In Search of Lost Time. That’s what Capucine now spent most of her days doing.
It had been hard losing Robert. They’d been married for 51 years. Even though he hadn’t been overly affectionate, he was a good man. He’d spent his whole career working at the central Post Office, a colossal building located a few blocks away. As a fonctionnaire, a French civil servant, he’d been able to secure them an HLM, un habitation à loyer modéré, a state sponsored apartment with low rent, otherwise they would never have been able to afford to live where they did, right in the heart of the city.
They’d had a simple, yet happy life. They had two kids, a boy and a girl. They were good students. They went to university, got jobs, moved out, got married… got on with their own lives.
After the kids had moved out, although Capucine still had the household to manage and meals to prepare, she suddenly had a lot more time on her hands. She ended up occupying these extra hours with reading, a new passion which came about rather by accident.
She usually did her errands along la rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, where one could find the local bakery, greengrocer’s, the butcher’s and other small shops. To get there she would always take the shortcut through the Galerie Vivienne, the same route she would later take to the Palais-Royal. However, one morning, it must have been in 1988 or 1989, she had an appointment close to the Opera Garnier, so instead of turning left down the main section of the Galerie Vivienne, she turned right.
Admittedly, she knew there were some other stores at the far end of the historic shopping arcade, but since she rarely went this direction, she had hardly given them any notice. As she reached the end of the passage and descended the small staircase, her purse caught something resulting in a loud clatter behind her.
Whipping around Capucine was mortified to see a dozen of so books strewn across the Galerie’s beautiful mosaic-tiled floor.
“Oh mon dieu!” she exclaimed, bending down to pick up the books.
“Please, don’t trouble yourself!” called a man’s voice from inside the shop. ”Let me get those.”
In an instant the owner of the voice had swooped down to collect the fallen books. As she looked up, Capucine’s gaze met a set of piercing blue eyes, hovering a mere few inches away from her own.
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Capucine, her cheeks flaring as she hopped up and turned away in an attempt to mask her embarrassment. “If I damaged any of the books, I would happily pay for them.”
“There won’t be any need for that, Madame,” he assured her. “These books are used and have already been knocked about a good deal during their lifetime. They only cost a few francs each… but the entertainment they provide is priceless.” He tacked on.
Capucine dared let her eyes meandered over to the stack of books in his hands. The title Au Bonheur des Dames jumped out at her.
“Ahh, a classic Zola!” enthused the bookseller, noticing her shifting gaze to the cover of The Ladies’ Delight.
“How much is it?” she asked.
“Eight francs,” he replied upon checking the amount written in pencil inside the front cover. Capucine rummaged through her handbag. She pulled out her change purse, but was dismayed to find that it contained only a few centimes.
“I’m afraid I only have large notes, but I live nearby, I will come back another time for the book.”
“Please, take it now!” he pressed, forcing the book into her hands. “Someone else might have bought it before you return. You can pay for it the next time you’re passing this way.”
“But, but, but…”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr…”
“Swann, Mr Swann,” he answered.
“Very well, Mr Swann, à très bientôt.” she said, then she gave a courteous nod and carried on her way.
“With pleasure, Madame. With pleasure!”
That very afternoon Capucine dove into the book. The hours flew by as she devoured Zola’s prose. It took the fading afternoon light to startle her out of her literary trance. Robert would be home soon, she’d better get down to making dinner. The time-consuming boeuf bourguignon she’d intended to make would have to wait for another night.
The next day she couldn’t resist returning to the book, but immediately felt guilty. I should really go and pay Mr Swann for it, she thought. Capucine didn’t like having debts. Before sliding on her coat and pumps, she found herself in front of her dressing table, applying some lipstick, sprucing up her hair and spritzing on a dash of perfume. Was this really necessary to go around the block to a bookstore? She caught herself out. Well, it never hurts to be at one’s best.
Capucine couldn’t explain it, but her heart rate quickened as she walked under the passage’s glass roof in the direction of the shop. Yesterday she’d been too flustered to see what it was called, so when she arrived in front of the shop, she craned her neck up at its sign: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Even someone not terribly literarily minded, like herself, knew the title of Marcel Proust’s epic seven-volume saga, obviously the inspiration for the shop’s name.
The little tinkle of the bells hanging on the door handle announced Capucine’s arrival.
“Ah! Bonjour Madame!” Mr Swann greeted, raising his head from a book. “How nice to see you again so soon!” Capucine blushed. She glanced around the shop in an effort to avoid Mr Swann’s sparkling eyes. All around her were hundreds if not thousands of books. The ones lined the upper bookshelves had worn leather spines, these must be the more precious ones. Whereas on the tables and in the bins were the used, modern paperbacks.
“I hope you are enjoying the Zola.” he said, regaining Capucine’s attention.
“Oh, yes, it’s an excellent book, which I must duly pay you for,” she said. She pulled out her chain purse and placed precisely eight francs on the counter.
“Thank you for your promptness,” he said, putting the money in the till. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
“Why yes. Now that you mention it, spring is decidedly in the air,” replied Capucine, trying to remain formal.
“You could take your book to the park,” suggested Mr Swann.
“That isn’t a bad idea,” pondered Capucine. Le Jardin du Palais-Royal was so close, yet she hadn’t spent much time there since the children were little. Tucked away within those buildings it was so quiet, plus it had plenty of benches. It was the ideal setting to read in peace while enjoying the balmy weather.
“Be sure to come back when you need a new book, Madame…” Mr Swann’s sentence trailing off fishing for her name.
“Happy reading, Madame Dubois!”
And so began Capucine’s daily trips to le Palais-Royal. She always went at 11 am and always sat on the same bench, one which she had carefully staked out. While Robert was still working, these outings were reserved for Monday to Friday, however, when he retired she added on the weekend, her Sunday sessions only shortened if the kids were coming over for lunch.
Her voracious new appetite for literature needed to be fed and Capucine could be found at least once a week at A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. She continued to remain cordial and formal to Mr Swann, however, her fondness for him was growing with her rapidly expanding collection of books.
Of course this ‘crush’ was ridiculous. She was a married woman. She loved Robert and was entirely loyal, nevertheless, it was not with him that she could debate Camus. Mr Swann had first turned her to literature and then succeeded in broadening her scope. After a few years, Capucine slowly left behind Hugo, Sand and Flaubert to enter the 20th century.
“With all the time you’re spending in Le Palais Royal, it’s really high time you read some Colette!” declared Mr Swann many years later.
“Why is that?”
“The writer lived at le Palais-Royal, I think in the 1920s,” Mr Swann elaborated. “She wrote about it in her book Trois…Six…Neuf.”
“Do you have it in stock?”
“Let me take a look,” he said, scanning his tables. By now Capucine knew how the shop’s collections were organized, but she secretly loved how Mr Swann’s face transformed as he concentrated, brow furrowed, on searching for a particular title.
“You’re in luck!” He beamed, producing a worn book with curled page corners.
Six…Neuf. Six…. Nine. These numbers brought no ‘luck’ to Capucine. When she turned 69, her husband, then 72, was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his prognosis, he remained upbeat. It was now the 21st century! They had fancy new treatments these days. The doctors would surely be able to help him. And they did. For a time.
Naturally during Robert’s health concerns Capucine put her hobby on hold. When Robert went into remission after his first chemo treatments, he seemed strong enough for Capucine to have some time for herself, nonetheless, she couldn’t bear to go to the bookshop. Not now.
Robert’s condition did not improve for long and within eight months he was admitted to the hospital.
“Read to me,” murmured Robert after they’d spent the first few days in painful silence, save for the regular visits of the overly perky nurses.
“Pardon?” Capucine asked, puzzled by his request.
“Read to me,” he said, raising his voice to a more audible level. “Why don’t you read me one of those books you always have your nose in.”
And so they spent the next five weeks in the company of The Count of Monte Cristo, Le Père Goriot and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Robert took his last breaths during Les Misérables, Capucine by his side, like Cosette was to Jean Valjean.
One day, in the weeks that followed, Capucine found a small, thick package in her mailbox. As she carefully opened it, a book and folded letter slid out.
Une pensée pour vous / A little thought to you
— C. Swann
She turned over the book to read its title: Voyage au bout de la nuit. Journey to the End of the Night by Céline.
News of Robert’s passing must have spread around le quartier. Although it had never been discussed, she was quite sure she’d caught Mr Swann looking down at her left hand on one of her first visits to the shop. He therefore knew she was married and never made any advances, despite the spark that continued between them. She was touched by his thoughtful gesture, but she was not ready to fill her heart with her favorite pleasure, anything or anyone else, just yet.
“Madame Dubois, it’s been ages!” exclaimed Mr Swann when he looked up to find Capucine at the door of his shop. “I’ve been worried about you!”
Almost a year had gone by since Robert’s diagnosis and her last visit to the shop. Although she wasn’t finished mourning, she had finally got around to Mr Swann’s touching gift which reignited her desire to read.
This didn’t mean that she was completely ready to go back to living. She took her time. Now and then, Mr Swann’s passionate descriptions of the book he was imploring her to read brought a look of joy to Capucine’s face. On another visit, she even laughed. The two of them seemed to be getting closer and closer, however, as the years passed, neither took that extra step in the other’s direction. No invitation for lunch or coffee. No suggestion to meet up at her bench in the Palais-Royal…
“Mr Swann is missed by many,” Capucine eventually managed after several minutes staring at the linden trees.
“Yes, he was a very fine man,” said Lucas. “His sudden disappearance was a shock to us all.”
“The worst was not being able to say goodbye,” added Capucine, somewhat misty-eyed.
“You know, I think I remember seeing you in the shop once,” said Lucas.
“Oh really?” she answered dubiously.
“I did a three-month internship with Mr Swann during my Master’s,” explained Lucas. “It must have been five or six years ago. My uncle was a Tunisian poet, so I had started doing my dissertation on poetry, however, during the course of my time at the shop, Mr Swann slyly converted me to 20th-century French literature. I would spend my mornings at the library and come to the bookshop in the afternoons. One day I arrived early, actually around this time of day. Mr Swann was so enraptured in conversation that he didn’t even notice me come in. He was talking to a smartly dressed woman, about your height, who was holding a copy of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover.”
The memory hit Capucine as hard as Quasimodo ringing the bells of Notre Dame.
Yes. At one point, around five years ago, he had tried to drop stronger hints of his admiration. This was done in true Mr Swann style, through a series of ‘romantic’ book suggestions which culminated in Duras’ The Lover. Mr Swann had just finished a fervent introduction to the book and was about to say something else, something that seemed important to him, when he was interrupted by a cough coming from the direction of the shop’s entrance. Mr Swann and Capucine swung around to find a young man standing meekly at the door and the moment was lost, forever.
Capucine was indeed terribly fond of Mr Swann, but she really didn’t know how to handle the situation. She didn’t know if she was capable of loving him, of loving anyone but Robert. So she avoided the shop for a few weeks and when she did return, Mr Swann pretended as if nothing had ever happened.
“My internship was how I originally got to know Mr Swann and fall in love with his shop,” said Lucas.
“It’s good to know his memory and his shop will live on, through you.” said Capucine. “You seem like a fine young man.” She added, the hostility she unrightfully displayed at the beginning of their encounter had vanished.
“I will do my best,” he pledged. “The shop has stayed pretty much the same, but I’ve expanded with some non-fiction and some art books. We’ve just received a great new release on women artists of the 19th century, in case the topic could be of interest.”
“No, but thanks anyway. I think I’ll stick to literature.”
“Well, we definitely have plenty of that, so I expect to see you soon at the shop!”
Capucine gazed around her park. Maybe the leaves on the linden trees were turning. She thought about the 262 steps it took to get here, and the 148 steps it took to get to the shop. She had spent too much precious energy, these past years and these past months in search of lost time. She could not rewrite volumes of her life, but she could turn over a new page.
“With pleasure, Lucas, with pleasure.”
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:
Episode #1: A View on the Eiffel Tower
Episode #2: L’Age Mur at the Musée d’Orsay
Episode #4: Our Lady of Hope: Notre-Dame
Episode #5: Aux Folies de Belleville
Episode #6: The Magic of Montmartre
Episode #7: The Secrets of the Catacombs
Lovely story but there are errors. ‘Everyday’ should be ‘every day’. ‘Ooh-ing and aah-ing’, not ewing and aweing. Also ‘spewed’ means vomited. The books were ‘strewn’ on the floir not spewed.
Thank you for the corrections! Strew is the word I was looking for (living in France too long!). I have someone editing the pieces for future use but I can’t get the corrections back in time for the weekly publication 🙂
Really great stories, i am looking forward to reading more!
Thank you, Josh! So happy that you like the stories! And thank you for getting involved by sending over an idea! You’ll be featured in an upcoming story!!