Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A naif in Paris, part 3

For my final days in Paris, the weather threatened to break down into cooler temperatures and rain. This was the forecast all week, but it never happened, as if Paris had an invisible dome covering the city protecting it just for my benefit. Late Saturday afternoon, though, after a trip to Versailles to catch a glimpse of the gardens, the thunderclouds rolled in and I was trapped in a doorway near St. Germain while the heavens belched forth a gout of water. I had brought an umbrella, but it would have kept only my head and shoulders dry while the rest of me slogged through the growing river that the streat was becoming. Ok, I exaggerate a little here, but it was an impressive downpour, ignored by one or two nonplussed French women who pedaled their bikes through the road rapids while soaked to the skin. An impressive display.

I thought that I might miss my Magnificat concert on the Ile St. Louis if the weather stayed bad. But the rain faded and I took the half hour walk briskly to the island as the clouds lifted. Passing diners seated outdoor at numerous restaurants and cafes, I arrived at the church where a line was forming at the entrance. The concert was advertised to start at 8:30, but the doors didn't open until then and it seemed to me a tedious task as each person bought a ticket from a single table near the inside entrance of the church. It took about an hour to process the queue, and the concert didn't start until around 9:30.

While waiting outside the church in line, I noticed a plaque on the church wall, the contrast between the ancient stones of the church wall and the shiny newness of the plack quite evident. The plack was written in French, but I could understand most of it. Paraphrasing, it went something like: "We remember the sainted Jewish members of this school, arrested by the Nazi barbarians, aided by the collaborators of the Vichy government, and taken to the death camps. We will never forget them." It was dated 2004. I stood reading and re-reading the note, surrounded by Parisians who greeted each other in a manner making me think they must be members of this church. If there were other foreigners in line, I couldn't tell. I wondered what politics were involved in the posting of this sign, 60-some years after the crimes of the Nazis and the shame of Vichy France. I kept thinking, "2004. Why the wait?"

I don't spend much time inside of Catholic churches, so I have little to compare with. The church interior seemed preserved to be as old as the exterior, with stained glass windows, painted pictures of saints, and all the accoutrements of the church that I cannot name. The pipes of the organ lined the walls of the back of the church, and while the concert began with a small chorus gathered at the front of the church accompanied by a harpsichordist, violinst and violist, the latter pieces were performed with the organ, the chorus assembled up above the church floor at the rear of the church. It was a little strange. The pews all faced forward, yet the bulk of the concert was performed from behind the audience. About half the congregation contined to face forward, lost in thought with the music, while the other half twisted around to watch the performance. Being an American, I compromised in my end seat by facing the side wall, looking up at the performers from time to time.

It was a valiant effort, but either I'm a lousy critic and it was just less than optimal accoustics, or the singers lacked range and projection. Some in the audience displayed some familiarity, even friendship, with some of the performers, so I assumed this was an amateur performance by church members. In either case, I'm glad I attended, but I didn't stay for the whole thing.

I mentioned in another post what the walk back was like - bright moon, the lights of Notre Dame. It was a night time counterpart to my happy morning walks. I settled in late at a cafe on rue Jacob, where they served me toasted bread covered with melted cheese and ham. A peasant meal, but a pleasant one.

My last Sunday I took a farewell tour of my favorite sights, walking up rue St. Dominique to the Eiffel Tower, crossing the river and climbing the hill to the Champs Elysees. The Sunday morning streets were quiet, becoming a bit busier as time went on and as I approached the Champs Elysees. I passed the Crazy Horse club, recommended to me by a friend who suggested that I would enjoy watching the topless dancers. I laughed when I passed the club, since I half thought that I was having my leg pulled. It really was there, but I didn't regret seeing the city but not its breasts.

The sky threatened again, and I found my way to a cafe off the main street where I found that once again I was too late for what I wanted to order - this time, an eclair and coffee. I could have the latter, but not the former, I was told, so I substituted an omelette, instead, and ate slowly while the storm passed. I had walked by the Gucci store on the Champs Elysees, but it was closed as were all the high end shops in the neighborhood. I asked the waiter if any of them would open later and he shrugged, telling me I'd have to find out for myself. I walked back to the shops after my second breakfast, as Pippin and Merry would call it, and wandered around, considering buying expensive lingerie as a souvenir for a sweetheart I hoped to renew sweetheart status with soon.

I found a very upscale shop that was open, as a matter of chance as it turned out, because the owner decided on a whim to come in and open up for a couple of hours. She was a petite, slim, older French woman with silver hair and a style about her that suggested wealth and an ease around the young, beautiful and sexy. I felt like an American hick around her, and there was a strange, unspoken sort of communication between us that suggested an imagined conversation:

Her: Mon Dieu. I open my store on a Sunday and this guy comes in.
Me: I'm out of my league here, but the girl I want to buy this for is well within yours. Help me out here.
Her: Sigh. He's got money, so I'll choke down my pride.
Me: Sigh. She's going to squeeze me for all I'm worth.

She showed me a few flimsy things that I thought at first were just tissue paper for the gift boxes, but finally found something appropriately inappropriate. Or inappropriately appropriate. Whichever. That part of the story doesn't continue here.

My purchase in hand, or in bag, I completed the circuit of my long, long walk, crossing the Pont Alexandre III again and walking along the river back to the hotel. It was time to rest up for my flight the next morning, and I intended to get up early for my trip to the airport.

I said goodbye to the concierge at five the next morning, and he assured me he had no idea as to when the Metro opened but that I would certainly find out for myself. And I did, sitting in a train with its doors open on the C line for 10 minutes before noticing the sign hanging from the ceiling outside stating that the C line doesn't run until 6:30. I hopped off and did a forced march to the connecting station where I intended to catch the B line north to the airport. Hot and sweaty from my walk hauling my luggage, I found the B line to indeed be open at 5:30.

Unlike my trip from the airport to Paris, the reverse trip was more relaxed. I sat in the train across from a woman hunched deep in her overcoat, her little elf-like face peering briefly at me. I asked her in French whether the train went to the airport, and she smiled, nodded, and went back to her elf-like sleeping state. The sweat from my nervous walk to the station slowly dried off of me and my clothing, and the express train zipped to the airport, bypassing most of the stops I endured on my way in. A cool, grey morning passed by outside as I left Paris and entered once again, those spaces between spaces which are airports. When I got up from my seat, I was surprised to see my elf companion rise to no more than four and a half feet in height. I thought, "Child." But she wasn't. The flight home was easy, though long, with a half-empty flight and a row to myself.

It fades so quickly, they way I felt to be there. Back on the job, back home, it's how I knew it would be: memories like other memories without tangible senses to back them up. Just words and pictures. Not the aching joints from a long walk, the heat of the sun in Tuileries, or the sound of incomprehensible words, slowly building to a language I can think in. I closed my eyes in the metal tube of the airplane, and when I awoke it was again as if it had never happened.

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