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Authors: Nicolas Barreau

Paris Is Always a Good Idea

BOOK: Paris Is Always a Good Idea
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All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.

—M
ARTIN
B
UBER

 

One

Rosalie loved the color blue. It had been like that for as long as she could think. And by now it had been twenty-eight years.

That morning, as she did every morning when she opened her little postcard shop at eleven o'clock, she raised her eyes, hoping to discover a streak of blue in the gray Parisian sky. She found it, and smiled.

One of Rosalie Laurent's earliest and pleasantest childhood memories was an unbelievably blue August sky over a turquoise sea bathed in light that seemed to extend to the end of the world. That was when she was four years old, and her parents had left the heat of Paris with its stony houses and streets to take their little daughter to the Côte d'Azur. That same year, after they had returned home from that light-drenched summer in Les Issambres that seemed never to want to end, Aunt Paulette had given her a box of watercolors. Rosalie could remember that equally clearly.

“Watercolors? Isn't that a bit excessive, Paulette?” Cathérine had asked, an unmistakably disapproving note in her thin, high voice. “Such an expensive box of paints for such a small child? She'll have no idea what to do with them. We'd better put them aside for a while, don't you think, Rosalie?”

But Rosalie had not been prepared to give up her aunt's precious present. She threw a tantrum and clung to the paint box like grim death. Finally her mother, with a sigh of annoyance, gave in to the defiant little girl with the long brown braids.

That afternoon Rosalie was utterly absorbed for hours filling page after page with brush and watercolors until the watercolor pad was full and the three little pots of blue paint in the box were nearly empty.

Whether it was because that first view of the sea had burnt itself into the little girl's retina like a metaphor for happiness, or because she had developed early on a desire to do things differently from other people, the color blue enchanted Rosalie more than any other. With amazement she discovered the whole gamut of the color, and her childish thirst for knowledge was almost unrestrainable. “And what's this called, Papa?” she would ask again and again, pulling at her good-natured and indulgent father's sleeve (which was, of course, blue), pointing at everything blue that she could find. She would stand in front of the mirror for hours, her brow wrinkled in concentration, studying the color of her own eyes, which at first glance seemed to be brown, though if you looked at them carefully and for long enough you would realize that they were actually deep, dark blue. At least that was what Émile, her father, had told her, and Rosalie had nodded with relief.

Even before she could read and write properly she knew the names of the finest distinctions and shades of blue. From the lightest and most delicate silken blue, sky blue, gray blue, ice blue, powder blue, or glassy aquamarine, which gives wings to the spirit, to that powerful, radiant azure that almost takes your breath away. Then there was also invincible ultramarine, cheery cornflower blue, cool cobalt blue, greenish petrol blue, which conceals the colors of the sea within it, or mysterious indigo, which almost shades over into violet, on to deep sapphire blue, midnight blue, or almost black midnight blue where blue finally reaches the end of its spectrum—for Rosalie there was no other color that was so rich, so wonderful, and so multifaceted as this. And yet she had never expected that she would one day encounter a story in which a blue tiger played an important role. Even less did she expect that this story—and the mystery that lay behind it—would change her life completely.

Chance? Fate? They say that childhood is the ground we march on our whole lives long.

Later, Rosalie often wondered if everything might not have turned out differently if she hadn't loved the color blue so much. At the thought of how easily she might have missed the happiest moment in her life she almost panicked. Life was frequently so impenetrable and complicated, and yet surprisingly everything always made sense in the end.

When, at the age of eighteen, Rosalie—her father had died a few months before of a protracted bout of pneumonia—announced that she intended to study art and be a painter, her mother nearly dropped the Quiche Lorraine she was carrying into the dining room in shock.

“For heaven's sake, child, please—do something sensible!” she shrieked, inwardly cursing her sister Paulette, who had obviously put these foolish ideas in the girl's head. She would never have cursed out loud, of course. Cathérine Laurent, née de Vallois (which gave her a somewhat exaggerated idea of herself), was a lady through and through. Unfortunately the wealth of this once noble family had been seriously reduced over the last couple of centuries, and Cathérine's marriage to Émile Laurent, a clever and lovable, but unfortunately not very assertive, physicist, who ended up stranded at a scientific institute rather than producing the hoped-for success in the world of business, did little to improve matters. In the end they didn't even have money for proper servants anymore, apart from the Filipina cleaning lady who was hardly able to speak French and came twice a week to the old Parisian house with its high, ornate plaster ceilings and herringbone parquet flooring to dust and clean. Nevertheless, for Cathérine it was out of the question to give up on her principles. If you didn't stick to your principles, everything would go to the dogs, she thought.

“A de Vallois doesn't do that sort of thing” was one of her favorite phrases, and of course she also sent her only daughter, who was regrettably developing in a totally different direction from the one her mother had marked out for her, on her way that day with this phrase ringing in her ears.

With a sigh, Cathérine put the white porcelain dish with its steaming quiche down on the grand oval table that was set for just two and thought once again that there was hardly anyone she knew for whom the name Rosalie was less fitting.

Back when she was pregnant, she had in her mind's eye a delicate girl, blond like herself, polite, gentle, and somehow … delightful. But Rosalie turned out to be anything but that. Admittedly, she was clever, but she was also very strong willed. She knew her own mind, and sometimes she said nothing for hours on end, which her mother found peculiar. When Rosalie laughed, she laughed too loudly, and that was hardly elegant, even if other people assured her that Rosalie had something so refreshing about her.

“Let her be, her heart is in the right place,” was what Émile always said as he gave in to yet another of his daughter's whims. Like the time when, as a child, she had dragged her new mattress and the expensive bedclothes onto the damp balcony to sleep out in the open air. Because she “wanted to see how the world spins!” Or the time she baked her father a disgusting blue birthday cake colored with food dye that looked as if the very first bite would cause fatal poisoning. Just because she had this thing about blue. That was really taking things too far, thought Cathérine, but Émile naturally thought it was great and insisted that it was the best cake he had ever eaten. “You all have to taste it!” he shouted and served up the spongy blue mess on the guests' plates. Oh, good old Émile! He simply couldn't refuse his daughter anything.

And now this latest idea!

Cathérine wrinkled her brow and looked at the tall, slim girl with her pale face and dark eyebrows as, lost in thought, she played with her long, brown, carelessly braided pigtail.

“Get that idea right out of your head, Rosalie. Painting will never pay your way. I cannot and will not support anything of the sort. What do you think you'll live on? Do you think people are just waiting to snap up your pictures?”

Rosalie carried on twisting her pigtail and gave no answer.

If Rosalie had been an enchanting Rosalie, Cathérine Laurent, née de Vallois, would certainly have had no worries about her daughter's livelihood. After all, there were enough well-heeled men in Paris—and then it would not matter if their wives did a little painting on the side, or had any number of passing enthusiasms. But she had an uneasy feeling that her daughter didn't think in those categories. God knew whom she'd finally end up with!

“I'd really like you to do something sensible,” she repeated emphatically. “That's what Papa would have wanted, too.” She put a slice of the steaming quiche on her daughter's plate. “Rosalie? Are you even listening to me?”

Rosalie looked up, her dark eyes unfathomable.

“Yes, Maman
.
I should do something sensible.”

And that is what she did do. More or less. The most sensible thing that Rosalie could imagine, after a couple of semesters studying graphic design, was to open a postcard store. It was a tiny establishment on the rue du Dragon, a pretty little street of medieval houses in the heart of Saint-Germain, a stone's throw from the churches of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Saint-Sulpice. There were a few boutiques, restaurants, cafés, a hotel, a
boulangerie,
and Rosalie's favorite shoe store; Victor Hugo had even lived here at one time, as a plaque on house number thirty showed. If you were in a hurry, it didn't take many strides to pass through the rue du Dragon, to reach either the very lively Boulevard Saint-Germain or—in the other direction—the somewhat quieter rue de Grenelle, which led to the elegant houses and palaces of the government quarter and then ended on the Champ de Mars beneath the Eiffel Tower. But you could also, of course, just stroll aimlessly along the little street and stop again and again because you'd seen something nice in one of the displays—something that cried out to be tasted, picked up, or tried on. On those occasions it could take quite a while to reach the end of the street. That was how Rosalie had discovered the
FOR RENT
sign in the empty antique shop whose owner, feeling herself too old to continue, had given up her business a short while before.

As a rule, the more slowly you walked, the more you actually saw.

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