‘Right, that’s it, we’re going on holiday,’ declares Mr Smith one supper. ‘I think we should go to Paris’. Red wine mouths, cheese on the canal, cigarettes, sunglasses and steak…‘Oh definitely,’ I say mid imaginary mouthful.
Leave is taken, trains are booked; then two lunchtimes before we are set to go, Mr Smith rings and announces he has to stay home for work. Ready for our long weekend of balconies, boulevards and boulangerie, and the photobooth at the Palais de Tokyo, I ring my oldest friend and ask her if she will be my stunt Mrs Smith for the weekend. Excited, she yelps down the phone, ‘I’m going to make a mood board!’
Mrs Smith is also a practiced Parisian navigator; we step out of Porte Dauphine Métro station and she turns her nose left. ‘In the pictures there’s a garden, I can’t imagine any of the buildings here have a garden,’ I point out. But the buildings get lower, and apartment blocks segue to chic villas, and there, on a cheese-wedge-shaped block flanked by a high wall, we spy the most perfect little château: tall and elegant. ‘Like the house in Disney’s Aristocats,’ I say in an earnest tone usually adopted by people quoting Baudelaire.
Saint James Paris stands on the site of the first Montgolfier hot-air balloon launch in 1783 – the world’s first ‘airport’. Back in the early days of aviation this was the edge of the city and there was space to build steep roofs, a terrace and forecourt: it is the most unParisian building in the most French way possible. Balloon print wallpapers and colourful curtains in the lobby reflect the building’s buoyant history.
Mrs Smith runs up the grand staircase in swift hurdles while I explore the enfilade of snug but stately public rooms. ‘We need our first glass of wine, mademoiselle,’ I say sternly as her little round face looks down from the balcony in the lobby. Facing out to the garden from the library, we forget that we are in Paris. In fact it is very hard to imagine we are anywhere but a comfortable Loire outpost.
Upstairs, our room is a riot of ruby toile wallpaper, crimson curtains, shutters and bed sheets; the bathroom had brass taps and there is even a wooden brolly waiting for us at the entrance to our boudoir, at the ready should walks threaten to be wet. We’ve never spent time in this part of Paris; it’s popular with diplomats – quiet and leafy but right near the action. The Trocadéro and Arc de Triomphe are but a 10-minute walk in either direction, and after 15 minutes on line 2 of the Métro and we are soon climbing the steep alleys of Montmartre. That brolly comes in useful; it’s probably never seen so much of the city. We try sitting in the Tuileries for a ritual beer and cigarette (recreating a lovely weekend in the final year of university when we eloped to the same spot before finals), but the Parisian monsoon puts stop to this so instead we try on hats in the arcades of Rue de Rivoli.
Getting bored undercover, we peg it over the road for the Métro and, standing in our own little puddles, people point, telling their children we must have been been swimming in the Seine. We laugh and drip and get wet again as we run up the drive to the Saint James. It’s really satisfying drying off city rain in a country house, especially when you have carpet to warm your sodden soles quite neatly.
Kneeling on the floor, blowing our trousers with the hairdryer, a gin and tonic in one hand, we smile. ‘There’s something really glamorous about this whole situation,’ I say to Mrs Smith. ‘Drinking in your hotel room. These kinds of hotels really are the preserve of couples usually aren’t they? Especially Saint James Paris: those big showers…’
‘The giant bed!’
‘That breakfast trolley and the bottle of champagne in the mini-bar…’
I stop and think of Mr Smith working hard back in London. ‘You’re like my mistress!’ I tell her, and we giggle over the last drops of our aperitifs.
Gliding down the stairs to supper arm-in-arm, we must look like Jack and Rose. In the formal restaurant, Flavours, she orders the langoustine starter and steak main, I opt for foie gras and lobster and any romance that might have been in another life is soon smothered with mustard and washed down with wine. The moment du jour is our almost-silent inhalation of pudding: a peach cheesecake, a perfect finale to a meal that is somehow suited to this salon in this hotel.
‘You’ve got a red wine mouth!’ smirks Mrs Smith. ‘As Mr Smith is going to be so jealous of this weekend when he hears about it,’ she adds. As we stroll down the road that night and look back at our darling château; she squeezes my arm with as much effort as you can after a meal that indulgent. ‘I quite like having a Mrs Smith,’ I confess to her, smiling. ‘I don’t suppose your Mr Smith would mind if I borrowed you and brought you back here occasionally?’ Well, look at me with my very own mistress.