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April in Paris through the Prism of the Marriott Paris Champs-Elysées

Imagine – you enter your hotel suite via a small terrace overlooking a sizeable room. There’s a king-sized bed to your left, a long dressing table to your right, and directly ahead a wall of windows covered with some white gauzy fabric and a pair of French doors. You approach the doors and open them gingerly, stepping out onto a tiny balcony. And there before you, lit by lamplight and a starry sky, is the Champs-Elysées.

Such was our arrival at the Marriott Paris Champs-Elysées, the only hotel in the City of Lights that looks out over the fabled boulevard. And this evening, after delayed flights, missed connections and a landing that was hours past the ETA, no sight could have flooded us with as much enchantment.

The next day we meet Fanny Soulet for lunch at Marriott Square, the canopied café along the sidewalk outside the hotel, a perfect Parisian setting for drinking in the scene and watching the world pass by. The young and perfectly beautiful Director of Sales & Marketing was born and has always lived in Paris; of late she’s been commuting to the hotel from her Montmartre apartment just a twenty minute downhill drive.

We tell her about our response  the previous evening, half expecting her to roll her eyes to what she would undoubtedly file under another “An American in Paris” reaction. But no, she understands. “When I first took on the job, I spent the night in your room,” Fanny tells us. “I opened the door to the balcony, and tears came to my eyes. I had never seen the Champs-Elysées from that perspective.” She pauses, as if reliving the moment. “To step out and see Paris that way. . .”


The young and perfectly beautiful
Director of Sales and Marketing: Fanny Soulet

After that, and although our stay at the Marriott Paris Champs Elysées would be an experience of multiple delights, it was the place itself and its setting that would remain at the heart of what we remember best.  Built in 1914, the seven-story building of pinkish-beige stone has the black wrought-iron grillwork, the arched window frames and ornamental detail typical of Belle Epoque design so prevalent in the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Looking up at the edifice, a rectangular stone plaque beneath a third-floor window catches the eye, spelling out in gilded letters: “Vuitton Building 1914.” 

Fanny explains: “At the start, this was the Louis Vuitton building, serving for many years, as the head office of the famous luggage company. We have a copy of the Plaza Athenée magazine from some time in the 1920’s which has an ad of a girl carrying a Louis Vuitton bag standing outside the front door of ‘70 des Avenue Champs-Elysées.’”

Today the property at 70 des Avenue Champs-Elysées is nearly a century old and a five-star hotel housing 192 bedrooms and suites with every state-of-the-art technical and luxury feature such a designation promises. At the same time, it is a historic property whose facades facing the Champs-Elysées and Rue de Ponthieu at the rear have been accurately and lovingly restored,

One’s first grand impression comes from the lobby, a soaring, oval-shaped atelier of the sort found in many hotels built during the “Beautiful Era,” with a glass roof braced with black wrought-iron that allows sunlight and shadows to flood the interior. Concierges’ and register desks stretching along one wall, a resplendent bar along the other, and an informal cocktail-lounge setting in-between create a more contemporary ambience with the exception, that is, of a stunning mosaic floor.

“When I first came here, the area was covered with carpets,” Fanny had told us. “Just a short while ago, we took them up, and look what we found. It is amazing.”

A gleaming marble floor continues beyond the lobby through a gallery-like, flower-filled hallway, its walls hung with museum-quality paintings, into another section of the Marriott Paris that begins at “Le Restaurant” and ends at the Rue de Ponthieu. The bi-level, neo-modern and always-open hotel dining room where French classics like foie gras, tartare de boeuf, and the heavenly  cheveux d’ange citronnes, mascarpone et fleur d’oranger à l’orientale (citrus-flavored angel hair pasta with a (very) rich mascarpone and decorated with orange blossoms) prepared by Chef Jeremy Touzelet combine with such contemporary Asian offerings as sesame-seed tuna tartar with seaweed salad, and a cold Lebanese mezze – its selections of humus, falafel, babaghanoush, dolmades, olives, feta cheese, souvlakia -- to name but a few – are artfully arranged on an elaborate buffet.  

Front office manager, the gallant Tarek Nassar -- who sent an exquisite dogwood branch we had admired up to our room – was acting as our guide. We passed through a sliding glass door of Le Restaurant into an open-air dining patio, heated in winter and shaded by great white market umbrellas in summer.  We saw conference rooms, event spaces, a pair of ballrooms with gorgeous chandeliers. We entered a courtyard paved with cobblestones.

“This was where horse-drawn carriages would arrive bringing guests into the hotel through the entrance on the Rue de Ponthieu,” Tarek told us. “We have guests today who only want to stay in the rooms that overlook this courtyard. They feel it adds a unique dimension.”

The three of us stood in the courtyard, silent and bare in the early evening light. Before us was the entry where horses and carriages once passed through. Now it is the service entrance to the hotel. It struck us that, like the characters in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” we were wandering through different periods of Parisian time.


Service entry -- once horse-drawn
carriages came through this portal

Tarek is the first staff member of the Marriott family we got to know. He was born and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, lived in Geneva and Houston before moving to Paris with his family. “It was autumn when I first came here,” he said to us. “I felt the romance of the city right away. I expect Paris to be my home for the rest of my career.”

All told, there are 150 people on staff. Representing 50 international groups, they speak a multitude of languages. “Why is this place so international?” we asked Tarek. “More than anything else, because it’s Marriott,” he said. “They encourage this kind of staff. For my part, when I interview someone, the main thing I look for is a smile, a personality. The skills can be learned later.”

He certainly found as much in the pair of concierges who stand behind their desk in the lobby. Both had smiles that could brighten anyone’s day. We asked Oumar Cissé and Abdul Sabara where they came from. “Guess,” they said.

One of us took up the challenge: “Senegal.”

They were surprised. “How did you know?” asked Abdul.”

“Teranga” said Oumar, teaching us our first word in Sengalese. Appropriately, it means “Welcome!”

We were welcomed into Le Restaurant by maître d’ Bassem Al Helalat who comes from Jordan, specifically Akaba (a name immediately familiar to people like us who have seen “Lawrence of Arabia” multiple times).  He guided us through the menu, and after an excellent dinner, arranged a café gourmand: cups of espresso accompanied by delectable miniature desserts: gratiné of strawberry, raspberry, and lemon, miniature pistachio macaroons and chocolate truffles.

In the course of the evening, we learned Bassem is a Bedouin. “My father lived in a tent; he traveled the desert until 1958 when he settled in Akaba with his five(!) wives and their children,” he told us.

“Before I came to Paris, I was the maître d’ in the only five star hotel in Akaba,” he continued. “It was  next to the royal palace. I served King Hussein and Bill Clinton during the 1994 peace talks. I have a picture of myself with the king and Yitzhak Rabin.

“But I was young, and wanted to try something different, in a different place. I decided on Paris. My mother was very worried. I didn’t know anyone here. Then an acquaintance told me about this place; they were looking for someone who spoke Arabic.”

Bassem smiled at the happy ending of his story. “I like this job because you meet a lot of people,” he said. “I met my wife here. She’s Italian. We have a lot in common – both our cultures are very friendly.”

“What about your mother?” we ask.

“She still wants me to come back home.”


Front Office Manager Tarek Nassar


Maître d’ Bassem Al Helalat

For Peter Antinoph, home is where the Marriott is, wherever that may be. Given that there are 3,500 Marriotts in the world and 90 in Europe alone, the possibilities are vast. But when a little over a year ago,  he was offered the general manager slot at the Marriott Paris Champs-Elysées, he felt this would be a home he would never want to leave.

We kept hearing about Peter who would be returning from London the day after we arrived. Everyone seems to adore him. He’s personable, he’s funny, he’s got great ideas, they all say.          

We meet for drinks in the lobby. Immediately there’s a bond (maybe because we’re all New Yorkers; we even know the garden-apartment development in Queens where he grew up).  We ask for his story, and in the swift, smooth, easy-going yet antic style of a Catskill comic, he goes back in time to  1987 when he was  a young man, out of college, fluent in Russian, and  working as a tour guide in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). One day, a friend calls: “Be in Moscow tomorrow. You have an interview at 11 o’clock.”

What followed was Peter’s alternately hilarious and Kafkaesque account of trying to get from one city to another in the former Soviet Union.  He overcomes multiple hurdles, is kept waiting for hours, and finally gets to the interview which turns out to be with a Marriott executive stationed in Moscow. They’re  looking for someone to become director of the company’s brand new airline-catering division.

“I had a kitchen of 1,200 people working for me in Russia,” Peter tells us. “Then I was in China. After some years, I got a job with the BBC and moved to England. But they were impossible to work with. I left after eight weeks.

“At that point, I wrote to Mr. Marriott: ‘Dear Mr. Marriott, I worked for you before in Russia. Would you hire me? I would like to work for you again. Please make it happen.’

“Ten weeks later, I got an interview with the head of Europe Marriott. I asked, ‘Just out of curiosity, how did you find me?’ He said ‘You worked for Mr. Marriott.’  Apparently, Mr. Marriott  had read my letter and set up this interview with the message: ‘See if you can use him,’

“This was 1999. Marriott was opening a hotel in Qatar. It came with an airline-catering unit, but nobody in the company knew how to do this. I took on the job. After a year, they asked me to open a hotel in Egypt. I opened two hotels; one was a five-star in Sinai overlooking the Red Sea.

“I was back in England working for the Marriott Renaissance at Heathrow when the offer came. ‘What would you say if we said Paris?’ the voice on the other end of the phone said to me.

“I said, ‘Okay. That would be nice. Which hotel?’

“‘We think you would be a good pick for the hotel on the Champs-Elysées.’”

“Why yes, I think so too.”

He smiles and takes a sip of Kronenbourg 1664, the leading brand of beer in France, they say. We tell him how much we like the staff. He nods, expecting no less. “You have to have people working for you who fit your vision. I acquired Fanny soon after I came here. I recruited Brenda from Florida.”

The vibrant Brenda Julia Le Moine, Director of Room Operations (who -- on two separate occasions -- sent gorgeous, flower- and delicacy-filled baskets to our room) was working in a Marriott in South Beach Miami when Peter got in touch with her.

“‘I’m stealing you,’” he said.


General Manager Peter Antinoph


Brenda Julia Le Moine, Director of Room Operations

“You have to have people working for you who fit your vision,” Peter says.

He goes on, “Brenda and I work on the flowers together, change them every Monday. When I first came here, the flowers were awful. Now we tell the florist what we want, and she understands. The flowers should be tall, suited to the atelier, and seasonal. I think the white orchids we have for June are the most beautiful.

“There are renovations in the planning stage of some of the rooms, of the ballrooms – we want to put in chandeliers at which have different lighting levels. We want to update the lobby, although, of course, not at the expense of the Belle Epoque features.

“And then there is the view. There is no other like it. You can’t buy it. You can’t recreate it.”

It’s true. You can’t recreate the setting, the wide boulevard, the shops, all the high-end brands, one after the other. Guerlain is right next door, beautiful, pink and frothy as cotton candy; they sell perfumes you can’t get anyplace else. The high-tech Citroën boutique/museum is on the next block; it sells miniature cars, sweatshirts, caps and scarves with the logo, and displays vintage autos that are the real thing.

The Metro is virtually steps away. You can get to the Pompidou in a matter of minutes. You can walk the Champs-Elysées to the Arc d’Triomphe at one end, the Place de la Concorde on the other, to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay. You can stroll on the banks of the Seine.

We think of the famous Cole Porter line “I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.”

 “I love Paris in the springtime when it drizzles” would more accurately describe our state of mind during the time spent in Paris embraced and enhanced by the comforts and pleasures enjoyed at the Marriott Paris Champs-Elysées. 

 

Marriott Paris Champs-Elysées
70 des Avenue Champs-Elysées
75008 Paris, France

Phone: +33 (0)1 53 93 55 00
Web: http://www.parismarriott.com

 Photos by Harvey Frommer

#   #   #

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan and It Happened in Miami , they preach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

As travel writers and food critics, they have published hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet. Their interest in the intermingling of past and present in Jewish communities around the world has led to a body of work whose locales range from New Delhi to Istanbul to Sicily.

Accomplished and charismatic public speakers, the Frommers have appeared before live audiences and on the media throughout the United States lecturing on their books and travel experiences.

Harvey Frommer is an acclaimed sports journalist and historian, the author of 43 books on sports including the autobiographies of legends like Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman. He also authored the highly notable sports oral histories Remembering Yankee Stadium, Remembering Fenway Park and When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl.

Myrna Katz Frommer is a poet and contributor to such publications as The Forward, Ha'aretz, The New York Times, and The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

You can contact the Frommers at: myrna.frommer@dartmouth.edu, harvey.frommer@dartmouth.edu

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2016 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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