A Truly Joyeux Noel

France: Paris glistens like a jewel on one woman's utterly perfect Christmas vacation with her son.

October 24, 1999|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,special to the sun

By the time my taxi from the airport reached the Arc de Triomphe it was almost 8 in the morning. Although the Paris skies were still dark I could see the glittering Avenue des Champs-Elysees straight ahead, its famous chestnut trees lit by thousands of tiny Christmas lights.

"Would you like to drive down the Champs-Elysees?" asked the driver, one of the nicest cab drivers I'd ever encountered in Paris. "It's a little out of your way, but there's no traffic now and the lights don't go off until 8 a.m."

"I'd love that. This is my first Christmas in Paris and I don't want to miss anything," I said, rolling down the window to get a better view. Although Christmas was just five days away, the morning air that pushed its way into the cab was surprisingly temperate.

The taxi made a half-circle around the Arc de Triomphe and suddenly the wide boulevard stretched out before me, like a welcoming red carpet. I looked straight down the long avenue and saw off in the distance, near the Tuileries Gardens, the huge, illuminated Ferris wheel that is a Christmas fixture in Paris. Although there were no passengers, the wheel was still turning, its lights radiating out into the indigo sky like small strikes of lightning.

With few cars on the usually gridlocked avenue, we drove slowly under what seemed like two sets of stars: the fading stars of the morning skies and the tiny lights flickering above in the trees. Then, just as we approached the Place de la Concorde, the lights along the boulevard suddenly went dark. I looked at my watch. Eight a.m. on the dot; we had made it just in time. Feeling like Cinderella at the ball, I nestled back into the taxi seat, thinking I would never forget this drive along the Champs Elysees on the morning of December 21, 1998.

By the time we crossed the Pont Alexander III from the Right Bank to the Left Bank, the skies were turning dove gray. Within minutes we were heading down the boulevard St-Germain toward my part of Paris: the 6th Arrondissement. The 6th, by the way, was also Hemingway's Paris -- as well as Sartre's and Delacroix's and the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda. In 1921, when Hemingway was still a struggling writer he, in fact, lived in a small, second-floor room at the hotel I usually book in Paris, the Angleterre on rue Jacob. Once he got rich, he crossed over to the legendary Hotel Ritz on the Right Bank, only to return in 1927 to the 6th again to live at 6 rue Ferou near Place Saint-Sulpice.

I was not staying at the Hotel d'Angleterre on this trip. Because my travel plans were made at the last minute, I was unable to book a room in the Angleterre or any of the other small hotels in the 6th. Finally, I rang up the Hotel Lutetia, a 250-room Art Deco building which is larger (most hotels in the 6th Arrondissement have 25 to 35 rooms), more expensive and in a slightly different neighborhood than my usual lodgings. A voice on the other end said they were solidly booked but could offer me a Grand Suite (very, very expensive) or one of their smaller rooms (expensive). I took the room.

The Lutetia was just beginnning to stir when my taxi arrived at its entrance. Instantly a smiling doorman appeared. "Bonjour, Madame," he said, in as friendly a tone as I'd ever heard a doorman say those words.

He whisked me into a small, elegant lobby, past two more immaculately tapered and festively-decorated fir trees and then into a larger reception area. It was quiet in this room of burled wood desks and Art Deco lamps; none of the guests seemed to be stirring. A man appeared behind one of the desks. Within minutes I was checked in, my fastest time ever.

But the real miracle was yet to come. "Your room is ready and waiting for you, Madame," said the man behind the desk. "Your luggage is already there. Enjoy your stay."

Enjoy my stay! I was already deliriously happy. Whoever heard of arriving at a hotel at 8:30 in the morning, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, to find your room "ready and waiting." Usually, check-in time is between noon and three; how you managed to survive the hours between arrival and check-in was entirely your problem.

The room was stylish and comfortable, on the courtyard with a huge bathroom. Quiet, too. Sure, it wasn't in the same league as some of the rooms I saw through doors left open by the housekeeping staff, but it was perfect for me. I sat on the bed, flushed with happiness at the good luck I'd encountered so far on this trip. In my head I ticked off a list: Plane only half-filled and arrived early. Suitcase first to arrive on the luggage carousel. Great taxi driver. Good weather. Fantastic trip down the Champs-Elysees. Liked hotel. Room ready on arrival. No jet lag that I could discern.

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