A Key to (an Imagined) Paris

Do not lose the bedroom key of the Grand Pigalle Hotel. There are 37 keys: one per room. They hang in orderly lines on a glass mirror behind the reception desk. The composition exudes an expensive elegance. So do the keys.

The key in itself is rather unassuming. It is old-fashioned and golden, small enough to be clasped in the palm of a hand. What sets the key of the Grand Pigalle Hotel apart is the ten-centimeter long, black and red leather tassel attached to it. It is a fusion of modern and retro. The key is a physical embodiment of the atmosphere that this high-end boutique hotel is cultivating.

Nelson Siba, the new front desk manager, works the night shift until 10 p.m.. Sitting at the imposing, golden desk in the middle of the foyer, Nelson is the guardian of these keys. Like the key, Nelson appears to be a deliberate addition to the interior design. Shrouded in a yellow hue from the reflection of the desk, he radiates the demi-god aura of young Parisian class.

Nevertheless, Nelson is in tune with realities of a high demand job. Aside from being in charge of all the hotel’s bookings, Nelson also has to make sure that each day none of the keys gets lost.

“I have been here only one month. It is very stressful,” Nelson says. He does not look up from the screen of the desktop computer. His fingers fly across the keyboard, as he speaks.

It costs €85 to replace a key. Most importantly, there is only one spare key for each room. Supply is limited. Created by Dorothée Meilichzon, a 30-year-old Parisian interior designer, the key is unique to the Grand Pigalle Hotel. Meilichzon, who has worked in many of the European capitals, designed the key to be a cosmopolitan addition.

Florent Masse, a professor of French theater at Princeton University, describes the key as being caught between past and present.

“Old hotels in Paris used to have keys like this, now most hotels use the card,” Masse says.

The standard key-card is indisputably more convenient but convenience is not what the owners of Grande Pigalle are striving for.

“When I look at this key, I am reminded of silky Parisian weekend escapades,” Masse says holding up his own room key. “The key is Paris.”

The key is a distant echo of the Paris captured in the books of Hemingway. It tells a story of an idealized nostalgia for dreamy cafes, flowing wine and love. In many ways this key and this corner hotel are caught in a theatrical drama of the past. It offers an escape – for the privileged few – from the turbulent present that France currently finds itself in.

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