what on earth am I doing here
November 2016. The high-speed train arrives at the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. On the train, I did some reading of Margaretha MacLeod-Zelle's letters:
'Why I went to Paris, yes, I had a moment of desperation', she wrote to her husband's cousin in November 1903.
'When the train approached Paris and I was at Gare du Nord on my own for the first time in my life, for one moment I thought, “God, what am I doing here with hardly any money". But at the same time, with that thought came courage and I thought "en avant"'.
I take the bus to the luxurious Intercontinental Grand Hotel, adjacent to the beautiful Opéra Garnier. Philippe Lesigne, the man in charge of the doorkeepers, is ready waiting for me. 'Ah, Madame, you are here for Mata Hari.' I had earlier mailed him and asked if I could see the rooms where she stayed after a great career in the final year of her life, and from where she was shadowed for seven months. At that time, they already suspected her to be a spy.
Lesigne did his utmost best to find the rooms but, unfortunately, the hotel had been thoroughly renovated and the room numbers have changed completely. But he is happy to show me the way to the suites she could have occupied. When my French turns out to be less than fluent, he switches effortlessly to English.
We walk through endless corridors, covered with carpets from door to door for a total length of 5 kilometres, he says smiling. He leads me to the winter garden, where she often used to eat and write letters. To the salon, where she played the piano at times. To the amazing ballroom, which is still fully intact and where some Chinese are now signing up for a symposium. Philippe Lesigne takes his time, smiles when his photo is taken, and answers questions.
We return to the lobby. Here were the two police officers, Tarlet and Monier, who shadowed her day and night with a notepad at the ready. They followed her car through Paris; sometimes they lost sight of her because they could not find a cab or carriage in time.
The letters she handed to the concierge to post, went straight to these two men, and were then dropped back into the mailbox after reading. Every day, they typed out their reports. I brought the reports with me. They show exactly where she went and who she went to see, like a Belgian officer by the name of Fernand Beaufort. The police officers reported: 'Together they hail a ride to the Bois de Boulogne for a walk. After that, they dine at Garnier at the Place du Havre. They return at half past nine. The surveillance is lifted.’
I also read that she takes a cab to the Walewyk jewellery store on no. 8, rue Danou, where she is a regular customer. I walk to this place; it is not far from the hotel. Walewyk moved out a long time ago; the property is empty and abandoned. I continue to rue la Boétie, where she sees a dentist a few times in one week. The dentistry practice is also no longer there; it is a carpet shop today.
From my bag I take a Paris street map, which I marked with everything back in Groningen, and found Aux Mille & Une Nuits (A Thousand And One Nights), where she bought undershirts, corsets and dresses. The bill of 1485 francs is also included in the file. The store is long gone, of course. In my mind, I follow her to her hairdresser in the rue Pasquière and to her manicure in the rue Tronchet. It gives a special feeling to walk around in her neighbourhood, where she felt so much at home.
Living in a hotel, year in year out, is not always easy, especially after being presented with the bill, e.g. from the Grand Hotel for 4352.25 francs, which one would rather not pay. Even without such chores, she has to go to the bank across the street more often than she likes. So, she sees a number of real estate agents and eventually picks an apartment on 33, avenue Henri Martin, in a chic area, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Today, the rent for such an apartment would be around € 6,500 a month.
From the moment she decided to move here, she shops for furniture and sees a number of antique shops. On rare occasions, she is joined by her fiancé Vadim Massloff, when he is on leave. There they go, walking arm in arm, Tarlet and Monier are jotting down.
She will never live in the apartment. She is arrested before she can move in, and will never return to her own neighbourhood.
I walk back to the Grand Hotel. There is suddenly a chill in the air.