Le Hippopotame Henri
DATELINE -- Paris
It was easily the most enchanting toy store I’d ever seen.
The doorway looked like something out of “Les Miserables” and the low leaded glass windows on either side of the door, along with the exquisite parquet floors, made me feel like we’d stepped into Paris circa 1840. Wide ceiling-to-floor shelves painted the color of rich vanilla were lined with dolls decked out in their Parisien finest and an array of fluffy stuffed animals of all colors and sizes. There were orange tigers, grey elephants, speckled dogs, white cats, ginger lions, multi-colored Toucans, blue parrots, steel-colored dolphins, orange-and-white giraffes, black-and-white penguins, ebony panthers — and one small brown hippopotame.
He was on the highest shelf in the most remote corner of the store. From his aerial perch, he looked down on every visitor who entered.
But it seemed that no one had noticed him.
He was very small and not nearly as impressive as the brightly colored Toucans or the porcelain dolls decked out in their finery on the shelf below him. In addition to being very, very small, he was brown. And brown isn’t really a color that draws children.
But my daughter, Madeleine, noticed him right away.
Our planned destination that warm summer afternoon had not been toy stores and expensive handbag shops. The only reason we had wound up on this street was because of its name: the Place de la Madeleine. My daughter thought it was pretty cool that there was a street in Paris named after her.
“Mom. Look up there at the hippopotamus,” she said, pointing a stubby finger upwards. “Can I get him, please?”
I looked up. Everything in the store was staggeringly expensive. It was, after all, the Place de la Madeleine. Before entering this shop, we had visited a handful of stores along the way: Hermes; Chanel, a purse shop with only one purse in the window for 15,000 euros; Boutique St. James. You get the picture.
“Please, he’s just small,” she pleaded.
He was cute. And she had been having nervous episodes on the Metro this trip. I asked the lady behind the counter to bring him down. She reached up and handed him to my daughter. He was small enough to fit easily into her 11-year-old palm.
“How much,” I asked. I held my breath. Madeleine seemed to want him so badly but I wasn’t willing to break the bank for a stuffed animal. She quoted a price that made me gasp only slightly. It wasn’t enough to send us home penniless.
“Wrap him up,” I said.
My daughter was ecstatic. She lifted him out of the very fine bag, unwrapped the vanilla tissue paper and held him tight. We had to travel back to our hotel on the Metro, and she whispered to him that she’d keep him safe as she tucked him protectively into her jacket. All I could see was the very top of his head peeking out of her collar.
Rumbling along on the Metro, I asked what she would name him. She didn’t hesitate. “Henri,” she said. So, we had added Henri the Hippopotame to our trip.
This adventure had begun more than a week ago in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France in a lovely fishing village that was the home of a family friend. These amazing, warm gracious people invited us into their home and their lives. And what a life they had. They’d owned the property since the French Revolution. It was, as far as I could see, paradise. A lovely French home a few steps from the Atlantic in a tiny, ancient fishing village with small winding footpaths leading to the ocean and no one — absolutely no one — spoke a word of English. Neighbors and friends drifted in and out to share a glass of wine and trade stories they’d all heard over and over again. Needless to say, I’d begun to plot a scheme to hide out in their barn for the rest of my days.
We’d spent a week there, walking up the ocean path for afternoon swims, sitting at the long picnic table in the yard shelling peas from the garden, staying up late while I tried out my broken French on the wonderful family who were our hosts. I spent several afternoons languishing in the yard, reading “Mystic River” on an ancient chaise lounge, watching the snails move lazily across the sidewalk. Absolute bliss.
Chateaus and sheep
At the end of the week, our hosts deposited us on the train for the Loire Valley. I felt a little sad leaving such a beautiful place, but I’d rented a 17th century villa, so I figured we’d have a wonderful time once we got to the Loire Valley. And, lovely it was. The chalet was magnificent. Originally a summer home for French royals, it was nestled in what I would describe as an enchanted forest high above the winding Loire River. Now, I’ve seen lots of forests in my time, but never have I seen anything like this. The inky blue and green colors of the trees and the sheer density of the forest was like something out of a fairy tale. You would think a forest that thick might be frightening, but it wasn’t. It was wine country and everything about it was inviting and lush. It seemed like Robin Hood (well, Thierry la Fronde to be French) was lurking behind every tree.
We stayed in the carriage house, which was up the cobblestone path, past the pool. It was an enormous room, complete with a massive chandelier fit for Louis XIV, an enormous four poster bed and leaded glass windows that looked out onto the winding path.
That wasn’t all. On our first morning, I was awakened by the sound of sheep making their way up our path. I peered out the window and saw that we were indeed staying above a hamlet populated by a herd of sheep. Every morning, they’d make their journey up the path for breakfast.
And we would make our way down the path to the big house for cafe and croissants. We spent the next four days exploring this breathtakingly beautiful place. We attended outdoor theatre at the famous Château d'Amboise, swam in the infinity pool, explored famous castles and took long walks on what seemed to be never ending paths through the valley.
Henri on the Metro
Paris was the exact opposite. Bustling with activity, people, noise. This wasn’t Madeleine’s first trip to Paris, but this was her first real taste of the city and I realized that she was spooked by the Metro. This is where Henri comes in.
Every time we got on the Metro, she’d whisper to Henri that she’d keep him safe. He was particularly helpful on Bastille Day. We were in Paris that year for July 14 and I took her to the very crazy, very French celebration at the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I don’t like noise, crowds, or public celebrations. But, she wanted to go and we were in Paris on Bastille Day.
It seemed that all of Paris had turned out for the celebration and when it was over, all of Paris attempted to board the Metro to get back home. To my surprise, my daughter was terrified. She clutched Henri and begged me to get a cab. I would have, but it was impossible. The streets were so clogged with people, you could barely move. It was Henri that gave her the courage to board the Metro that night and get back to our hotel. He was only 3 inches high, but he was mighty.
Those two weeks my daughter and I spent in France together are unforgettable and I will always treasure that time. We had lots of adventures, in the countryside and in the city. And Henri was there for us. And so, we returned home with a very small, very French, very protective hippopotame.
Final Note: Henri now spends his days on my bedside table. Much quieter than his perch in a snooty Parisien shoppe, but it’s OK because we know just how mighty and brave this little hippopotame can be.