The night is cold, wind blowing up from the far away sea and hitting our faces as hard as waves. Although no children are in sight at this hour, the carousel on the main square, Place de l’Horloge, is still lit up, emitting its glow of pink and jewelry box music into the air. Laughter punctures the calm that has settled over the city’s center. Footsteps hitting the medieval cobblestone lanes serve as the only indication that behind the closed doors and glowing windows of cafés, up the narrow staircases of homes carved into this ancient center’s walls, is life and merriment. There’s nothing flashy about an ordinary Saturday night in the city of Avignon. Unless you know where to look.
Around the corner of the Palais des Papes, immense fortress of papal authority, a twisting passage cut into the foundation’s stone and snaking under a single buttress leads to a dimly-lit side street. Up the pebbled incline and across the street sits a demure yet refined building, its sand-colored facade taking on the autumnal glow of the night. Leaving the darkness and crossing the threshold, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a party that seems to span from the foyer to the shadowy yet warm recesses of the inner courtyard’s upper balconies. Surrounded by tuxes and coattails, silky gowns and heels, we shed our bulky layers at coat check and look down at our jeans and sweaters. But the concierge pretends not to notice our attire.
“Welcome to La Mirande,” he gushes.
The celebration is in full swing, people congregating in every lushly decorated alcove over a colorful variety of liquids, the waitstaff rushing about with bottles and trays of this or that, and a band playing in the veranda. Every detail has been thought of and I try to take it all in but its richness is dizzying: lanterns hanging at alternating lengths from the glass ceiling, candles on the windowsills, and inviting sitting rooms off the central courtyard. Not one space remains unfilled.
Just as we begin to make our way across to what appears to be the dining area, a four-tiered cake with sparklers ablaze is rolled in and the band begins playing “Happy Birthday” as the crowd crushes into all the doorways and chimes in. I join in, though I don’t know whose birthday we’re celebrating, and I feel my stomach growl with disappointment now that all access to the dining area has been cut off. The chorus is sung twice, once in French and once in English, and then someone who I cannot see above the top-knotted and high-heeled crowd begins to make a speech. It is quite long, especially considering my lack of affiliation to anyone at this establishment, but at least I learn that I am attending this five-star hotel’s 25 anniversary party.
Feeling like less of an impostor, I scan the crowded veranda for a route to the dining room. Still no escape.
Trays of champagne are now making their way around, and then back around, before the speech comes to a close. Finally, the throng disperses back into their corners and we are able to cross the veranda. As I pass the towering cake, I discover that it is completely fake while a smaller one sitting next to it has been set aside for the most eminent guests. In the dining room now, a room that I remember only as being entirely covered in wood, various buffet stations have been set up offering different aliments: sausages with sauteed vegetables, poached eggs served with cream of mushroom, sweet potato and tabbouleh, smoked salmon with herbs, cheese with bread. My uncle and aunt leave us to meet up with whomever they happen to know at this sumptuous affair, and my cousin and I have no problem filling our plates, given the hour, and the distraction that dessert has created. An array of mini patisseries are being laid out for the majority of attendants who will not be getting a slice of that cake. Let the French take over the American concept of a buffet and this is what you get.
There’s no room to sit down so we eat standing up. I want to savor each bite of this five-star quality food but there’s so much to try and what if they start taking it all away?! After tasting a little of each dish, I’m ready for that cake. I weave my way around the coagulation of guests, eyeing plates to see if anyone has managed to sneak a piece of the coveted dessert. Nothing. Not in any of the rooms have I seen a trace of the berry-filled cream or doughy crumbs. The band has started back up again, people are dancing and chatting around little tables and the cake just seems to have vanished. Giving up, I return to the dining room where I find my cousin shoving little pastries into his mouth.
“I was trying to find a piece of cake,” I explain when he asks where I went.
He nods in sympathy and pops another bite-sized delicacy in his mouth. I resign myself to the idea that this will be my dessert and try one as well. They’re actually pretty delicious but it’s a birthday party, after all, even if I don’t quite know how I wound up here. We wander around the rooms of the first floor until we get to the terrace and slip past what appears to be a barricade of chairs to prevent people from coming out here. Despite this and the chill, I follow him to wherever he’s determined we’re going. Down into the deserted garden and to the right we go, where we find my uncle and aunt seated at a table absorbed in some kind of tête-à-tête with an older woman. And on the table is a single plate of cake.
My instinct is to back away and leave them be but my cousin walks right up and takes a seat, leaving me not much choice but to stand there until I’m invited to pull up another chair. Introductions are made but I still don’t really understand who this woman is or why we are sitting at her private table. “Koko,” as everyone seems to be referring to her, is reclined on a lounge chair wrapped in a red and black tunic and many scarves, framed in the background by the palace wall’s battlements. Her voice is deep and gravely, and not just in the chain-smoking kind of way. It has a raw power which she has clearly mastered so that every inflection and turn of phrase hits its mark and whose impact ripples long after its initial strike. Her speech is saturated with phrases like “you understand chéri” and “but of course chérie.” Everyone is “chéri.” The longer I sit there listening to the conversation the more I am given the impression that I am watching a scene in a play unfold before me.
My first indication that this woman is really someone and not just playing out a charade is the way the staff dotes over her, regularly coming to check on the state of her champagne glass. And it’s clear that they all love her and the attention she pays to each of them. “Chéri do you happen to have a cigarette I could borrow?” she asks multiple times in the course of an hour and every time, a cigarette is eagerly presented. She speaks to everyone in the same even and assertive tone, from the barman to the hotel’s owner and my uncle, her artistic protégé. Later, this is one of the main qualities my uncle attributes to her incredible persona. No matter who you are, she is Michelle Kokosowski and she holds you to the same high standards of authority and mutual respect as anyone else. There is an aura about her that speaks of a glamorous past filled with many soirées of this sort, as well as of heartbreak and perhaps a deep knowledge of the worst qualities that exist in human beings. In all her splendor and almost aggressive confidence, there is also a sense that her time has past, her greatness no longer appreciated for what it was. From the abandoned terrace cordoned off to the public, she watches the night’s festivities of the hotel that her patronage helped bolster throughout the years. She is of another time.
When she finally addresses me in more than just an introductory way, it is to find out what I want to drink and what I do for a living. My answer to the latter is not as important as my decline for more champagne. Do I want wine, coke, coffee, water, of all things? I hesitate, wondering if I am pushing my luck by asking for what I really want, but she is so persistent to fulfill any request I may have that I feel obliged to be honest.
“If it’s possible, I’d really like a piece of cake,” I admit, trying to pretend like I haven’t been eyeing the lone slice, whose defector remains unknown, this entire time.
“Well then you shall have cake, chérie,” she responds, looking right in my eyes.
“Mathilde,” she calls over the nearest server, “four slices of cake please. Do you think you can find some?” This is less of an inquiry than an expectation.
“Of course, Madame. I will go look.”
Mathilde is gone for at least twenty minutes and I begin to feel bad for having caused the lovely Mathilde, who is probably around my age, so much trouble. Where she’s going to be able to track down a slice of that mysteriously vanishing cake, let alone four, I have no idea. In any case, I’ve had my five minutes of fame with this elegant French dame and it all revolved around cake.
“Good going,” I think to myself, “What an adult you are.”
But I feel less guilty after I take the first bite upon its arrival. It is everything I imagined it would be and more, with chunks of strawberries in the handmade cream in between the spongy layers. In this other world, I feel like Edmund from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lost in Narnia and tasting Turkish delights from the evil queen.
After more silent shivering and a couple more cigarettes, it’s decided that midnight is the perfect time to tour the hotel’s reputable wine cellar. We are all exhausted but there’s no arguing with Koko. We proceed behind her back into the welcomed warmth of the hotel and wait patiently as she stops to say hello to at least five people before we descend into the basement. The cavernous space is as incredible as the first floor, with racks filled of aging wine from every region of France and a fully equipped kitchen used for their cooking school. We also get a quick tour of the upstairs and one of the bedroom suites. Think silk. More presentations to other big names dressed to the nines follow before leaving kisses are finally exchanged.
And just like that, we are back in the street and the cold greets us as if we had never left. But our stomachs are fuller and our eyes aglow with enchanting images of an extravagant world that weren’t there before. The next morning, I realize that in my half-frozen, sleepy stupor, it never crossed my mind to take pictures of this magical night, almost as if it had never happened. All I have as proof of my brief entrance into this glittering oasis is the hotel’s brochure, an afterthought as we collected our coats at one in the morning, along with the memory of radiant eyes and a firm handshake accompanied with the words, “Be happy, always.”