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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Day 3, On the Way to l'Ile de Paris with Nima

I wake up when I hear the church ring nine times. My roommates are still asleep and groan when the bells won't shut up, but I tell myself I can only feel so bad for them. They made a hell of a ruckus when they left and came back last night, so my sympathy is gone. As I dress and pack my stuff, I hear snoring. Today I want to pack light, so I only have my jacket, my camera, and my notebook & tour guide. As I open the door I have to pull back the blackout curtain. I look back to my roommate on the bottom bunk and he’s wincing like a vampire at the light. I apologize in French and close the door after I’ve made sure the key is on the sink.

Down the stairs I realize it’s too warm for my jacket, so I take it off. It’s too cold to be without it. I enter the bar area.

An early 40s French woman with long dirty-blonde hair asks me if I want jus d’orange or coffee. I take both. She hands me half a foot of baguette, split open with butter smothered inside, more than I’ve ever seen an Englishman put on. I smother at least that much more orange marmalade over it and begin to eat. I can’t believe the lightness of the bread, the crispiness of the crust. Even in a pedestrian place like this they get bread that would be called “superb” in the US. Amazing. The coffee, however, is horrible. I sit at a table and get out my tour book. I grab a Galeries-Lafayette map from the display and open the book. I look for rue Mouffetard and the Censier-Daubenton stop on line 7. Nima appears in a black sweater, wide headband, and black jeans, looking fresh as the baguettes. She grabs breakfast from the lady and sits at my table.

“So what’s it to be today? I’d rather like to see Notre Dame.”

“I can do that. I was planning the Hemingway walk, but I’d really rather do that on a day when everything is open.”

“Good, then. I think I’ll come with you.”

Just then two guys come in, an Aussie and an American, Paul and Justin. They say they’re leaving as though they expected her to jump up after them, then look genuinely sad when she tells them about what was evidently a change in their plans. I can’t help but feel a small victory, like the one I got I won a bet with a bunch of guys from my youth group--we were in Colorado and wanted to see who could get one girl’s phone number. This victory is much more hollow. Nima tells them she’ll meet them under the Eiffel tower at 5 and they’ll have a run.

“Do you run, Marcus?” She pronounces it, “Maa-kis”.

I decide to dust off an old chestnut, “Only when I'm being chased.”

She laughs.

I don’t let her laugh long, “that’s not original... it’s from a movie a long time ago.”

“Well I don’t care, you could have put anything by me I think.”

We eat and drink and finish breakfast. She offers to carry my notebook in her little backpack and I let her, with vague trepidation, but ultimately deciding it’s worth the slight risk of my bad memory.

We walk up Commerce to the Commerce station, get on the Métro, and get off at Cluny-La Sorbonne. At street level we’re completely disoriented. We stand for a while in a large square, trying to find the streets and the metros and the monuments. Our maps aren’t good enough. We see a dome nearby and this turns out to be the Panthéon. The streets here feel more metropolitan than homely. In the 15th arrondissement, near the hostel, it has the feel of a neighborhood, but this feels more like London near Big Ben. The buildings are taller and more formidable, each one looking like it’s under armed guards and surveillance cameras. One building is a little more gray than the others, and I’m able to confirm it’s the Sorbonne. Nima has no idea why I want to see this building. It’s at least 4 stories, with small windows and thoroughly locked doors. We’re on the Boulevard St-Jacques, and if we go around to the other side (I don't find out until the next day), we probably won’t want to leave the area at all.

Anyway, we walk around r. Soufflot to the Place du Panthéon, and we see the dome. Nima can’t believe the size of it. Like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, it stretches impossibly high, supported by columns and perfectly straight stones, capped off in stone that’s almost black. I offer Nima my binoculars so she can see the detail: around the rim of the dome there are carved vines like laurels and wreaths, probably no more than several inches across but lovingly detailed. The craftsmen obviously didn’t care that the audience for these touches would be more than a hundred feet away, unable to appreciate the craftsmanship.

Nima is fumbling with her digital camera--she just bought it and has no idea how to use it. She begins to explore the features like black & white exposure, sepia tone, and shallow vs deep focus. I look around me to confirm that yes, of all the people near the Panthéon, only the two of us are looking down at a camera instead of up at the dome. I have a sudden fear that I’ve chosen the wrong travelling companion for the day, but I decide I need to give her another chance. If it goes on much longer this is probably a fine place to split up, and I already know she's fine travelling alone.

We move to the church right behind the Panthéon--l’Eglise de St-Etienne-du-Mont--and she’s never seen anything like it. It is a Gothic church, but it doesn’t have the flying buttresses like Notre Dame, so I tell her she hasn’t seen anything yet. This seems to excite her. We take a few more pictures, then head up r. St. Jacques again, passing the Sorbonne on our left this time. We still don’t have a great idea of where we are in relation to Notre Dame, so I ask a random passer-by, one of a group of French schoolboys.

Excusez-moi, c’est probablement une question stupide, mais... où est la Seine?”

The kid smiles, I think without irony, and points down r. St. Jacques, in the direction we’re heading.

Et voilà, monsieur,” he adds, “Notre Dame--elle est là!

Merci,” I say as he bounds off to join his friends.

“What was that?” Nima asks.

I explain, and we head toward the river. I don’t know why, but I actually expected to see water. I expected a bank like the Mississippi, and boats and a small church sitting on a small island. As we got closer it started to feel like something you’d call the Latin Quarter. Restaurants are popping up everywhere, the buildings are demonstrably shorter, and the smells of a thousand cuisines saturate the air. Nima starts shaking her hands up and down rapidly, a habit I would get to know well when she was excited about a new find. She charged ahead of me and went around l’Eglise de Saint-Severin. It’s another Gothic cathedral, slightly larger than the last one, and I'm really starting to appreciate her enthusiasm. If this is "excitement", what will her reaction be when she sees the two main churches? Her energy could power the lights of a large suburban village!

We walk in to Saint-Severin, and already she can’t believe the columns, the capitals, the ceiling lines, the small chapels that line the outer edges of the nave. She wants to read every plaque and photograph every statue. I'm not going to use any film here, and I don't have an agenda, so I tell her to go nuts. She does. When a crowd begins to form in front of the alter, she wants to go have a sit and find out what’s going on. It’s 11:00am and I’m in a Catholic Church. I’m about to attend my first mass!

We take our seats and the priest begins. Nima wants me to translate, but I can’t... he’s going too fast. They've left hymn lyrics all over the place, however, so I can translate the words to the songs. As a kid, I never sang in church, to the chagrin of my family. I couldn't do it. They're all singers. I have an okay voice, but I always felt self-conscious. I've sung maybe a half-a-dozen church songs out loud in all my life. But somehow here it's different. We both sing them with the crowd. It's inspiring. I begin to feel that electricity I felt when I was a child and my faith was, well, like that of a child. It’s almost an endorphin high. Nima wants to leave after about ten minutes of the mass, and I confess to her that I enjoyed that a lot more than I would have had I been alone.

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