I was in Paris with my family in August of 1997, when tragedy struck very near us.
My husband and I and our two daughters arrived from New York in the morning and stayed one night at the Ritz Hotel. The next morning we took a flight to Nice, near Mougins, a quaint village where we had rented a house.
Our days in Mougins were long, sunny and relaxed. When not at the beach in nearby Cannes, we were touring the region in no hurry. While at the local market everyday, I would glance at newspapers showing pictures of princess Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed, who were on vacation nearby. She appeared to be in great shape while diving off their boat anchored near Saint Tropez. But her eyes were sad.
After 10 days our vacation was over. We left Mougins early, and had planned to spend one more night in Paris, before catching our flight to New York the next morning. This time the Ritz was booked solid, so instead we stayed at Hotel Powers, a comfortable 4-star hotel we knew well. Our Colombian babysitter, Tatiana, was with us then and at night we all left the hotel to have dinner at Ma Bourgogne, a bistro a friend had recommended.
Ma Bourgogne was a typical Parisian bistro, with a beautiful view of Place des Vosges, but we were all too tired from the trip to really appreciate it. By eleven o’clock the kids were sleepy and wanted to go to bed. We got into a cab and passed the Pont d’Alma tunnel on the way to the hotel. One hour later, a car carrying Princess Diana would crash right there, causing her death.
We only learned about it the next morning. Tatiana had been out before us, and came back agitated, almost in tears: “Princess Diana died near here last night”, she said. I remember the silence that fell upon us, even the kids were quiet.
The same strange silence continued in the hotel lobby, when we checked out. No one was saying more than necessary, there was a very eerie feeling in the air. The same silence persisted in the taxi going to the airport: it felt like all of Paris was in mourning, even the driver barely said a word. My ten year old daughter commented on how quiet things were, and asked about Princess Diana’s death. I replied with something like, “She was a beautiful person and died in the most beautiful city.” I felt too drained to say any more.
When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we found it crowded with security guards, and learned that Prince Charles’ Royal Air Force jet was landing to claim Diana’s body. I felt a strange sadness, even though I didn’t know Diana personally. Had we stayed at the Ritz, where she and Al Fayed slept the night before, we would have been near her again, like we were in the South of France. I am glad we didn’t, or the whole thing would have felt even stranger. We were still in a state of shock when we got home to New York but nobody talked about it.
The days that followed were almost unreal – her sad funeral, her kids walking solemnly behind her coffin, the feeling that Diana left too early. Some people capture our imagination more than others, and I think she was one of them. Diana had something different – she was real.
Each time I return to the Marais in Paris, or eat at Ma Bourgogne, or drive through the Pont d’Alma tunnel again, I remember the night Diana died.
And I feel that we all lost someone special that night.