By N.S. Racheotes
Take some friendly advice: read this accompanied by George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and by the light of a scented candle that can rock the room like French perfume.
After an all-night flight, bumpy enough to have our airline dinner dancing sur la table, Air France 333 landed at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, a facility as disproportionately large as the man for whom it was named. The minute we scored touchdown, out came the perfume bottles and on went the glamour so that disembarking passengers were accompanied by the aroma of a night at the opera and not a workout in the gym. Only a corpse could miss the message: this is a city overflowing with women (and men for that matter) “just right for the kissing” and with food there for the tasting—we’ll get to the noise later.
We quickly stashed our bags in the hotel that could have come out of one of those Honoré de Balzac novels that nobody reads anymore; near the rail station and a sex shop (a combination which speaks for itself), quiet and hot, it featured an elevator which must have been used by Rastignac (see Père Goriot), and breakfasts to die for, at least if the bread and cold cuts, to say nothing of the bacon, were any clue. The hotel staff was so kind, as were the heroes of the Métro trains who rivaled one another to offer seats to anyone in need.
We were immediately off to the Latin Quarter. There, we circled the University of Paris. If you recall from the history course through which you dozed, Erasmus dropped out of that institution only to become the most learned man in sixteenth-century Europe. Outside its courtyard, where the Curies were all aglow with the discovery of radium and polonium, the sirens of the speeding police cars dragged my mind toward the sounds of the Pink Panther movies.
Next day, two friends and I walked this most walkable city. Despite being repeatedly misled by the GPS, we still managed to blunder into the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Listen carefully and you will hear the echoes of the sixth century because that was when Childebert, son of Clovis (the first Frankish Christian king) built this monument to the power of religious conversion. Childebert’s remains were entombed there along with those of many other illustrious medieval personages. As the cigarette smoke curled over the animated political talk boiling in one café after another, I again realized that the desecration of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was but one of many instances in the history of France when political grievances would overwhelm magnificent art and architecture. After four or so miles of Parisian sidewalks, and even at more than fourteen euros per, the thick cheeseburgers and large cold beers were more than well worth the cost.
It filled our spiritual ears with the sounds of the Western magisterium and reminded us of what splendid things humanity has done for God.
In an uncharacteristic display of our own religious exuberance, we decided to attend the Gregorian Mass at Notre Dame. It filled our spiritual ears with the sounds of the Western magisterium and reminded us of what splendid things humanity has done for God.
The spiritual vibe continued, despite the fatigue, the squalling of various adults amidst extraordinarily well-behaved children, and the multilingual observations of tourists as we sat before Monet’s Water Lilies. He painted them while Western civilization was attempting suicide on the battlefields of World War I. If you listened really closely, you could detect the stream caressing their stems, unheard amid the guns of the Marne, Verdun, Ypres, and the Somme. I know the sound from languid summer afternoons where the lilies carpet the Charles River on the Watertown side. Apparently, I am beyond cure. Boston is always in me.
Flocks of tourists cooed beneath the Eiffel Tower, encircled with the names of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Repeatedly, we floated on the river in the BatOtaxi, not to be confused with the autObus or the dessertOcart.
Unless you learn to block out the dance music blanketing Bastille Square, the complaints of pseudo-art lovers in the churches and museums (“Whose idea was this!”), and the omnipresent white noise of the passing traffic, you’ll miss much. You’ll never be swept away by the scriptural messages in the priceless stained glass of the Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte-Chapelle. You’ll fail miserably to contemplate what price France has paid for her many wars as exemplified by the Arch of Triumph and the Invalides. You might even miss eavesdropping on the conversational intimacies exchanged in the restaurants and pastry shops.
Our next strategic victory came when we kicked our way down the Champs-Élysées on a sunny afternoon. There, on either side, we discovered the glamour, the shops, and even the car dealerships, which all meant Paris. Here was the mob, Napoleon’s armies, the liberating Allied forces in 1945, the fugitives from injustice who lifted Paris in the 1830s and 1840s, the dazzling musicians, and benches, trees, and broad sidewalks teeming with creativity, love, and heartbreak. While people watching from one of these shaded benches, one might be excused for marveling at the fact that one could walk away from the splendors of French womanhood to the horrors of battle. Where does temptation truly lie? Give me, as the old joke goes, an apartment on the Left Bank, a mistress who knows all the tricks, and the comfort of knowing that you don’t have to get up for work in the morning, and you can keep the horses, braid, and other accoutrements of cavalry life. How does it go?—“I would have liked to go to war, but, sir, I was prevented. Instead, I have to stay at home and keep the girls contented.”
All too soon, we’re clearing customs at Logan airport. Not soon enough, we’re hearing from the passport officer: “Welcome back home.” Forever after, we’ll be musing over the truth that unless you’ve heard Paris, you haven’t seen Paris.
— V —
Nick Racheotes is a product of the Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time among Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.