My friend Nicole and I are going to France Miniature, which is, well, a park with France rendered in miniature models.
We have the directions on how to get there but we can’t find the right track for the train. Elancourt, where the park is located, is not linked to the Paris Metro, RER or the rail network that goes to the suburbs. Instead the nearest station from Paris is in the next town.
All in all, the trip is about an hour and half by train and bus from Central Paris.
It occurs to me the folly of this adventure when we get to the outskirts of Paris and there is an interminable wait for the bus in a desolate part of town, and I’m answering emails on my Blackberry (what can I say, I was a Crackberry even as late as 2012).
Why would I want to see a miniature Paris when I am already here…in life-size Paris, in real France?
Because miniatures are so damn cute, that’s why!
France Miniature is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale.
Paris is in the North and Ile-de-France section. The East has the Alsatian villages, Nancy and Beaune, which is the capital of Burgundy wine (a year later, I would be in actual Beaune for the first time). The West has Normandy, Mont Saint Michel and the Breton coastline. The Center has the mountainous region and Limoges. The Southwest is Toulouse, Lourdes and Saint Emilion. The Southeast has the Alps and Saint Tropez.
I haven’t been to all the regions in real life and seeing the country in miniature, I realize that the Southwest was one of the regions I had seen on my first trip to France — on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as we went by coach from Paris; and some years later, on a short working trip, I went to Toulouse (I was on the plane longer coming to and leaving France than I was actually there), where I did a story on the Airbus factory putting together its first jumbo plane, the A380. One of those 24-hour work trips.
The section of the park I love best is North and Ile-de-France (Paris), one that I would grow most familiar with in real life and keep coming back to.
Southeast is a region I also love, having gone on road trips in different seasons to Nice and Marseilles, and last summer to Provence, where three of us friends literally drove across towns filled with lavender blooms.
The West is one I have never been to but I’ve been told by two Frenchies that this is the most beautiful part of France—the Normandy region. It’s famous of course for the Normandy beach landings in 1944, which helped turn World War II in the Allied countries’ favor. In modern life, my friends say, it’s still about fishing, cottages, farms and horses, and chilling.
The miniature models are very detailed, and not just the landmarks, even the small villages. Some vignettes have mini people, cars, boats in the Breton docks and yachts in the Saint Tropez marina—also an aqueduct, and a train line going around the park. They have boutiques and carousels—and children on the horses! Anyone who has ever been to France knows that their carousels are so pretty and fabulous, looking like they were gilded in gold.
By late afternoon, Nicole and I take the last scheduled bus to the next town and catch our train back to Paris.
Easily, this is one of the best attractions I have ever seen in France, but maybe it’s just because I love miniatures.
I never had elaborate dollhouses when I was a kid, but when I saw them in magazines, I always imagined little people living in those little houses with chairs you could push with your finger to rearrange, tiny teacups and plates on tiny tables.
Little people living perfect lives, content in the smallness of their world.
I wanted to live in a dollhouse.
* * *
I am staying in Nicole’s flat for a few days. It’s a walkup in the 18th arrondissement and when I arrived a few days earlier, we struggled to get my luggage up the small winding staircase after she met me at Garde du Nord train station from CDG.
I was jetlagged; she was pregnant.
When she was a teenager, Nicole (or Timmy as she was nicknamed) took care of my young cousins when they were toddlers and then she lived with my lola (grandmother).
In Paris, where she has been living for over 15 years, she has a one-bedroom apartment that’s a good size for the city, where the prices are so ridiculous Parisians actually leave for this reason alone. Like with any other woman living in this city alone, her flat is filled with clothes, shoes and bags. They are in her closet and under her bed, in boxes and unopened shopping bags.
I tell her I’m the same but have vowed to not shop anymore because, seriously, what a waste of money that is.
We have coffee and madeleines, and after I settle in, we look at each other and say, “Shall we go shopping?”
We do this for a few days. We scour the shops on Champs Elysées and La Défense. I go to the museums and parks and walk around the city.
One night we are too tired to find a good restaurant that we simply go to a supermarket and load up on raclette and blue cheese, mushrooms, foie gras, shallots, mini gherkins, tapas, salads and baguettes, and wine (for me).
We sit on her living room floor and put a raclette grill on top of her coffee table. We tear pieces of freshly baked baguette and slide the cheese off from the grill to our plates, talking about our finds for the day and the men and friends in our lives. We finish an impossible amount of raclette cheese.
I wonder if the little people in miniature houses sometimes eat at their coffee table, too.
Who knows about imagined lives? But to this day, in my real life, this is still one of the best meals I have ever had in Paris.