I am going to surprise Mrs Smith.
Mrs Smith really hates surprises.
These are the sentences wrestling in my mind. Every time I do this, I think it will be fun. Every time it’s about to happen, my face starts to sweat.
Sunday is date day, but this Sunday’s going to be different. I force Mrs Smith out of our 20th arrondissement apartment two minutes ahead of me so I can sneak out a few overnight essentials. Because little does Mrs Smith know – and I wish I could make this sound less sinister – she won’t be coming home tonight.
We métro it to the Champs-Elysées, and walk, arms tangled, past the stately greenhouse of Le Grand Palais and Chinese couples taking elaborate pre-wedding photos on the Pont Alexandre. Then we stop for a quick Martini blanc. I hope that if she’s a little drunk, she will be easier to manipulate.
‘Where next?’ asks Mrs Smith.
‘To the Musée des Beaux-Arts!’ I say breathlessly. (My nerves are soaring. That’s not where we’re going at all, at all. If she hates the surprise, will she hate me?)
It’s at the tip of Rue de Verneuil, a quaint Seine side street, all antiquarian piano shops and appointment-only galleries, that I angle Mrs Smith through the heavy glass door of Hôtel Verneuil. ‘But what are you doing? Where are you taking me?’ Mrs Smith thinks I have gone temporarily mad. ‘Trust me,’ I say. A line that usually has the reverse effect.
We take a seat in the dark, velvety reception and I check in for two nights. All the while, Mrs Smith has nervous giggles. ‘Why?’ she keeps on saying ‘Why?’ She is almost vibrating on her chair. I put my hand on her knee to steady her.
We’re handed a heavy gold key and take the snakeskin-lined lift to the third floor. The lighting is low and rich; we feel like we’re entering a broodier, soft-focus world where anything might happen. And it does. One of the first things Mrs Smith does when she enters the room is jump on the bed. Jump. On. The. Bed. Mrs Smith – a mature and cerebral writer-editor – is jumping on the bed, with her arms in the air, grinning and squealing ‘wheeeeeee’. Wow.
In Paris, the sweetest things come in small packages. Macarons, madeleines, caramelly canelés. The same can be said for Hôtel Verneuil. Don’t expect a Versailles-sized room, but hey, look how badly that ended for Louis XIV. Our room has whitewashed exposed beams and neutral walls, with cash injections of orange and turquoise. To the left of our bed is a Jenga-like stack of old French books with beautiful dip-dyed page ends.
The toiletries are L’Occitane, the sheets are silky, and out of our tall window we have a view of Serge Gainsbourg’s former home. No. 5 (that classic Parisian number) is adorned with a black-and-white airbrush mural of Serge’s jolie laide face as a 20-year-old. I ask Mrs Smith if she is happy. Normally, I’m banned from doing this. She thinks it’s a rude question laden with pressure. But this time, she just slides her arms around me and says ‘yes’.
Hôtel Verneuil sits at the centre of everything Paris is famous for. It’s sandwiched between the Seine and Saint Germain, at the heart of a formidable art-triangle: the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre and the independent galleries off Rue Bonaparte. You can walk anywhere that’s anywhere, in Eiffel Tower-high heels, and not feel the pinch. That first night, we vogue back from famed art deco bar La Palette in 4.2 minutes. We fold ourselves into thick starched dressing gowns, then into bed, and take photos of our feet for a friend starting – I kid you not – a hotel slipper Tumblr. The street below is dreamily peaceful, and the next morning, riding high on a wave of 10 hours’ sleep, we start the day with Dominique Saibron pastries in the 17th-century vaulted breakfast cellar.
Like I said, Mrs Smith and I live in Paris. Mrs Smith is a true old-timer: six years and counting. But that’s why going for a mini-break on the other side of the river is, well, important. We remember why we live here. It’s like being back on Erasmus, but better. We window-shop – in French it’s lèche-vitrine, to window lick – on the Boulevard, get crêpes to go and eat them leaning against Haussmanian limestone; we sneak copies of the IHT out of the hotel and into the Jardin de Luxembourg, and catch Annie Hall at Le Champo.
It’s a great place to burn through any bucket list. You can lock your love down on the Pont des Arts (though padlocks are old hat, so take a rugged bike chain or, as Mrs Smith suggested, handcuffs), or visit the Maison des Millésimes wine lair, manned on most days by a charming British boy called Daley. He can send you off with anything from a 10 euro Bordeaux to a 1,000 euro-plus Pétrus; and if you fancy bubbles in bed, he can put Billecart-Salmon on ice. There’s the triptych of great restaurants on the rue de Seine (Fish la Boissonerie, Cosi and Semilla); alternatively, you can have a liquid dinner at Paris’s first NY-style cocktail bar Prescription. After that, there’s always Montana’s, a nightbar with a notoriously strict door policy, where we ended up power-dancing until 4am. On, rather shamefully, a Monday.
After all, there was no need to worry about getting home. We tumble back as the birds start to sing, tip imaginary hats to Serge as we go past, and retreat into our sumptuous, Paris-in-a-heartbeat Hôtel Verneuil hideaway.