“Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good…”
Such fortune: the president of the squash club my friend plays at offered to take her and two of her friends to Versailles for a private tour, because he knows one of the few conservators of Versailles. Being a conservator at Versailles is probably one of the most prestigious titles in the historical and art historical world – so much so that he has his own private garden within the Versailles gardens.
The conservator Eric first showed us around the restoration studio, since he is a conservator/restorer who specializes in wood, where we got to see real furniture straight from the chateau being restored and copied – very rare sights. They don’t use machines and do everything by hand or with the tools that would’ve been used in the Versailles era because the work requires such precise, subjective measurement. This is a really useless, but awesome little artifact that they uncovered as well, that they restored.
He then took us into the chateau itself, where we got to go through secret doorways and see rooms and hallways that the public will never see. He and the squash president Bob then took us to lunch at the restaurant in the gardens, where I had a delicious pizza and hot chocolate, which was especially comforting since it was pouring rain and freezing outside.
We then continued our tour of very private territory, some of which included going into the the Opera Room, the Chapel, going through hidden doorways in bookcases (like in the movies!), the Crusades room and stepping into Marie Antoinette’s private quarters. We even got to see the culmination of some of Eric’s personal work in the old wooden dressers and desks and the paintings and floors and ceilings of Versailles. It was also an interesting experience because we were seeing Versailles through the eyes of a restorer and conservator, someone who was more fascinated by the old chairs and furniture than the history and glamour of the old chateau. (In the Hall of Mirrors, he told us not to focus on the mirrors but the little stools and their restorative quality).
After the private tour, Eric had to go do some work, so we got audio guides and did a more touristy version of our Versailles visit, which was informative, but obviously nothing compared to Eric. We then met up with Eric again and grabbed a final coffee before heading off.
My friend had told us that we would probably be at Versailles for no more than three hours, but we actually ended up being there from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM. But I never got bored. I obviously learned a great deal about the history of France and Versailles itself, but I learned much more from just being in the presence of Eric and Bob.
I was with the two most passionate people in the world I had ever met. Eric has the most beautiful, kind, blue eyes and a delicate voice and smile, while Bob, half-Laotian and half-French, has such energy and said of himself that he has never liked sleeping. They are the closest of friends but very different – one much more reserved and the other having a much stronger personality. It’s like Eric absorbs the energy of Bob, creating a perfect complement.
But what they do have in common is their passion. I have never met somebody so knowledgable, hard-working, and passionate about their work as Eric is. He knew every little detail about the art and historical world, every detail about Versailles, and pulled me into his passion for Versailles and its history. He was just so enthralling and honest about his knowledge, but only with the utmost modesty, that it made me want to find work or a subject that I’m passionate about and just love it and share it. Bob is incredibly passionate too, but passionate about the world, about traveling, about meeting people and about just people in general (honestly, his name doesn’t do him justice). He said that he has lived such a fortunate life that he just wants to share his fortune and meet new people – so much so that he invited my friend and the two of us, people he doesn’t even have any strong connection to, to experience this unforgettable and rare opportunity. And he said that honestly, squash is obviously a great sport, but he said there would be no point in being part of the squash community if it weren’t for the people he gets to meet. Everything he does is about the people. They were just so inspiring and have intensely motivated me to appreciate life and the world and knowledge and find something I’m passionate about or take the passions I already have and cultivate them.