Archive for August, 2014

Une personne

I’m starving, so I stop at Le Zimmer on the place du Châtelet. This café is next to the Théâtre du Châtelet. I have no idea whether this café is good or bad; it’s here and I just can’t walk anymore. Standing at the entrance, I pray that I won’t have to stand here so long that people begin to look at me. I hate it when a group of people turns and looks at me.

A waiter is walking toward me. He comes into my personal space, his dark eyes on me. I can barely breathe. He’s about three inches shorter than me.

Bonjour, monsieur,” I say timidly.

Bonjour, madame,” he says with a smile, then quickly he turns and walks away, expecting me to follow him. He stops at a nice table at the window. He’s standing there, waiting for me. I try to look blasé as I thread myself through a very narrow aisle between the tiny tables on this enclosed sidewalk cafe.

I go slow and take small steps so if I do hit something, less damage will be done. How in the world did all these people get in here? After I finally arrive at a table the size of a laptop, he gives me a sideways glance with a coy smile.

Une personne?” he asks. (One person?)

Oui, monsieur, merci,” I say.

I’m sure he knows English but since I started this game off in French, he’s going to play along.

I slide my rump down onto the small, straw-woven chair, negotiating my belly around the tabletop, praying that I tip nothing over. I put my purse down and pray I don’t forget it. I take the menu from him. He nods and moves away. I exhale. I may never be able to get out of this tiny chair, but I’m here and I’ve got a wonderful place at this window to watch the parade of people on the sidewalk.

Return

 

I walk just a few steps away from Notre Dame, then notice beneath my feet a burnished brass star set in the pavement—Le Point Zero des Routes de France. This spot has been the beginning point for the measurement of all distances from Paris to all other cities since the 1100s.

Point Zero

Point Zero

They say if you touch the star, you will return to France one day. So, like millions have done before me, I lean down and rub the star.

 

 

 

 

Communication

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Now I’m on rue de la Cité, a street that runs across this island in the Seine River. I’m walking along, my head down, when I realize there is an open area to my left. I look up and there, about five hundred yards away, stands beautiful Notre Dame, her two massive towers jutting into the sky, and three huge doors set into an intricately carved façade.

It’s Sunday afternoon and the parvis, the broad plaza in front of Notre Dame, is humming with activity. Some people are staring up with mouths open, awestruck. Some are laughing and hugging.

I walk across the parvis carefully because of the rough, irregular stones. I look down and take notice of the street names on the ground in front of Notre Dame; streets that were once here three hundred years ago, like rue de Venise, but the entire area was cleared to create this wide-open plaza. I imagine the barking dogs, noisy children, shouting merchants and the lovers who once lived their lives on rue de Venise, but now all that remains is a line of white stones in the pavement.

I sit down on the concrete bench amid the manicured hedges and I watch the old man who lets the birds perch all over him. Tourists take their photos with him and he asks for a coin.  To my right, a Japanese family is happily jabbering away and taking photos. To my left, a man is kissing a woman.

Just then a girl, with a skinny boyfriend wrapped around her, walks right up to me as if someone sent her to me.

“Bon jewer,” she says.

I look at her in shock. I’m surprised she took notice of me, and I have no idea what she just said to me.

“Oo ehst luh con sear garee?” she reads from her phrasebook. I realize she’s saying “Where is the Conciergerie?” in French and I detect the long vowel sounds of an American. Then it dawns on me that she thinks I’m French, which is even more shocking.

“You speak English?” I ask, standing up.

“Yes,” she says.

“Ok, you go this way, and then turn right at the first street,” I say, pointing with authority and feeling like a tour guide. “You’ll walk a few hundred yards, then it’ll be on your left-hand-side.”

“Is it very far away?” he asks.

“Well, no, not really. Hope you have fun,” I say, wondering if they ever unravel themselves from each other.

“Thanks!” they say, in unison as they turn and walk away in tandem.

 

 

 

Rebuilding

I walk onto the bridge that’s called Pont Notre Dame. The dark waters of the Seine roll beneath me. And there before me lies the heart of Paris. My eyes follow the massive Conciergerie that dominates the bank of the river, the Palais de Justice, and the delicate filigree spires of the medieval Sainte-Chapelle. I stare at the scene that has enchanted so many for hundreds of years, but I feel nothing.

La Conciergerie

La Conciergerie

I can’t believe it. I came here to soak in the beauty of Paris, and let Paris make me feel alive again.

My eyes are drawn to the three circular towers further down the river. In the Middle Ages, those towers stood as lone sentries on this riverbank—the Tour Bonbec was built in 1250 as a prison; Tour Cesar and Tour d’Argent were built by King Phillipe le Bel in the 1300s. The black pointed roofs, which look like witches’ hats, were added during the Renaissance era.

This was the site of power in the beginning of Paris. If I were standing here in the fourth century after Christ, I would have seen the Roman palace of Emperor Julian spreading along the riverbank instead of the Conciergerie. After the fall of the Roman Empire, King Clovis, the first king of the Franks, lived there. Years later, after the royal palace fell into ruins, the stones were taken away to build Paris.

The Conciergerie was built in the 1300s, but what we see today is refurbished because, after imprisoning Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, and enduring the tumult of the 1700s, it was rebuilt.

It isn’t by chance that Paris is beautiful today. If she had not renewed herself after each tragedy, Paris would look like a bombed-out wasteland today.

And standing there, I realize I haven’t rebuilt.

Beginnings

At least, now I know how to pass through these tiny green gates, and this makes me feel a bit more like une parisienne than before. I walk along, falling in love again with Paris.

From La Tour St Jacques, I follow rue Saint Martin and instinctively I know I’m going toward the Seine. I am walking south toward the very heart of Paris—a destination if there ever was one. This road, rue Saint Martin, will become rue Saint Jacques on the Left bank.

This was a thoroughfare long before the Romans ever paved it with stones. This is an ancient footpath carved several millennia ago by people going to the river to get water, to wash their IMG_0189clothes, to meet an incoming shipment of goods, or to see who’s hanging in the village square.

What do historians say inspired the growth of Paris? It was just one special moment.

Almost two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar invited all of the Celtic tribes of Gaul (ie, France) that he had just conquered to a sort of “getting-to-know-you” mixer in 52 AD. But the tribes from the southwest and the north refused to participate.

Caesar gave this some thought. If they met in the city of Lyon (known then as Lugdunum, the capital of Gaul) these rebellious warriors might have the chance to unite against him and push him out of Gaul.

So Caesar chose a spot between them—the land of the Parisii on the Seine River. Paris in 52 AD was nothing but a collection of huts on a small island in the midst of a slow-moving river.

“OK, guys, we’re going to meet in Parisii,” Caesar undoubtedly said.

“Parisii?” his men probably whined. “That mud hole? There’s nothing there! Why don’t we gather in Lugdunum where, at least, we could get a decent goblet of wine?”

But they did convene in Paris, causing a huge influx of traffic toward that tiny village. Over the years, Paris became a natural stopping point for merchants, pilgrims and warriors traveling through France. Then it grew to be that magical place where priests built their cathedrals and kings built their palaces.

The butchers’ tower

I know I will never tell anyone I hung out at Starbucks in Paris, but everyone is speaking French here, so this counts as a French café to me. Nibbling on a delicious chicken curry baguette, I check my email. I can’t eat this whole thing so I wrap it up and stash it in my purse. With the coffee coursing through my veins, I’m soon ready to venture out again.

I walk past rue de Sevigne then rue Mahler and it occurs to me—in Europe there are streets named after authors and classical composers, but in America, you never see Ernest Hemingway Boulevard or Leonard Bernstein Avenue. We have names like Hickory Road, Third Street and Jefferson Avenue. Do we respect trees, numbers and presidents more than literature and classical music?

There’s a tall, weird-looking tower far in the distance. It dominates the eastern sky on rue de Rivoli. I decide that’s my goal—to find out what that thing is.

La Tour St Jacques

La Tour St Jacques

Continuing down rue de Rivoli, I walk past a street with an interesting name, rue des Mauvais Garçons. That means Bad Boys Street. Can you imagine saying you live on Bad Boys Street? I read that Les Mauvais Garçons was the name of a tough gang of murderous thieves during the 1500s in Paris. But it’s just not a very frightening name— it sounds like a boy band from Orlando. I glance down the street to see if, in fact, I see any “bad boys.” No, just an old man sweeping off the sidewalk, and a cat staring at me.

I walk past more cafés, lots of shops, and past HMG, the huge five-floor department store on rue de Rivoli. A homeless woman is huddled against the wall with her little daughter and when I give her some money, she smiles up at me and whispers “Merci.”

Finally I’m standing at the base of the strange tower. It’s called the Tour St Jacques. There’s a little park around it. I go to the gate, but I don’t know how to open it. It seems to have three sections. I push on the center part. Nothing moves. I push on the left side. Nothing. I push on the right hand side and it swings open. I look around to see if anyone saw me fumbling like this.

I walk around the tower and read in my guidebook that this tower is all that remains from a church built in 1508. The oddly named Eglise St Jacques de la Boucherie (The Church of St James of the butcher shop) was built by the butchers of Paris to be a starting point for Christian pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostello in Spain. I can just imagine the signs: “Start your fun pilgrimage here! Buy beef to enjoy along the way!” Those butchers had it built in the Flamboyant Gothic style that was already passé in 1508; that’s when the Renaissance style was the hot, new thing.

I sit on the green bench looking up at the Tour Saint Jacques, shielding my eyes against the bright sun. Gargoyles stick out on the top, against the brilliant blue sky. It’s amazing to think how many centuries this tower has survived. I dig in my purse, find my baguette wrapped in a paper napkin. It’s a little stale now and hard to chew. I look around the park. I feel lonely and scared and I don’t know why. It’s broad daylight in a nice part of town.

When did I lose so much self-confidence? Did it happen all at once, or little by little?

My heart is beating fast, but it can’t be because I’m alone. I’m OK with being alone because I love to read. When you read, you don’t feel lonely; you’re busy seeing all these characters and places in your head.

A guy in sloppy brown clothes with a long beard is walking toward me, looking right at me. Time to get up and walk away! He might be a harmless old man or he might just be a serial killer loose in Paris.

Probably everyone knows about the killer, but I don’t because I didn’t watch the news last night. Or maybe I did see the news, but I don’t know the French words for “serial killer” (Is it L’assassin encore encore?). Why am I being so paranoid?

 

 

 

 

Obsession

I began my obsession with France when I was nine years old, and I blame Paul McCartney for it.

Just like millions of other young girls in February 1964, I watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show like an egret watching her nest.

I fell head over heels in love with those Liverpool boys, and Paul was my favorite. In the 1960s, the local newspaper often published photos of the Beatles coming out of hotels, in restaurants and walking through airports, so I pounced on the paper when my father was done with it.

I loved everything Paul loved. If I had ever seen a photo of him knitting, I would have knitted an afghan for our ’57 Chevy. Then, as fate would have it, in the newspaper there was a photo of Paul wearing a French beret.

Paul's beret

Paul’s beret

When he sang “Ces sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” in his song, Michelle, I reasoned that Paul McCartney would have never written that song nor worn that beret if he didn’t love France. Therefore, I loved France.

(Of course, as I grew older, I realized there were other valid reasons to appreciate France—the food, wine, art, literature, music, architecture, exciting cities and beautiful countryside.)

When I got a kitten at age ten, I named her Chat, which is the French word for “cat.” I had no idea the French were so vague about their final consonants. I should have pronounced it shah, but I pronounced it chatte, which means something naughty in French. Fortunately, no one in my neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia knew French slang.

My mother encouraged my obsession by buying me a beret and informing me that the President’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, spoke French. She said all sophisticated people knew how to speak French.

When I got to high school, they offered Spanish and Latin, but not French. So I went to the principal and asked why. He told me that no one would take French, so I gathered a group of friends to prove him wrong. We sat in the library after school, reading from a French book I found. We said sentences like “Je voudrais une tasse de thé” which came out like “Jee voudrash uni tassi duh thee.”

After a week of this, I went to the office where the gray-haired secretary was staring at her typewriter.

“Would you please let the principal know we’re studying French in the library?” I asked.

“Tell him yourself.” She sucked something out of her teeth while nodding toward his office. I went in. He was sitting behind his old metal desk, leaning over a copy of Deer & Ammo magazine.

“We are meeting in the library every afternoon to study French. You should come see us,” I said.

“I believe you,” he said, never taking his eyes off glossy photos of deer carcasses. But he did hire a French teacher the next year. They voted me President of the French Club and we put on a cabaret to raise money to buy a cassette player. We sold Sara Lee pastries and Sanka coffee in white Styrofoam cups.

I dressed up to look like the French cabaret singers I had seen in old movies. I was supposed to be Edith Piaf, but actually I had no idea what she looked like. I put together an outfit while rummaging in my mother’s closet–a tight black dress, black fishnet stockings, spiky black heels and a red feather boa. Hmm. Maybe I was channeling Leslie Caron from An American in Paris when I lip-synced a French song about needing my lover tonight.

When I danced and slipped the red boa around the principal’s neck, he blushed and tapped his foot nervously, knowing he would undoubtedly go to hell for having allowed this kind of thing in North Cobb High School.