Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we navigate a chemist shop, weigh some fruit, climb a hill, and I misplace an entire cathedral.
04: Three Churches and a Heretical Notion
Day Three (Tuesday) started at 4AM. With blisters.
You know, there are some things you can plan for—you can build contingency plans, take preemptive precautions—and then there are just some things that still happen, regardless.
My wife trial-tested the shoes she brought on this trip. She wore nothing but these Clarks for two months. She compared and contrasted the performance of the Clarks against about 5 other pairs and, after weeks of study and trial work, loved them, loved how they felt, and said “Yep, them’re the ones I’m a-bringin’” (or words to that effect). Then after just two days of sightseeing, using the exact same pair of trial-tested shoes, she came down with a massive set of blisters: a whopper on the right foot and two small ones on the left. They started to rise at bedtime and by 4AM they were killers. So, the conversation naturally wound around to one of life’s eternal questions: To pop, or not to pop?
As with most things in life, it’s not a black-and-white issue. It’s a judgment call, the sort of thing that makes Democrats look bad at debates. And as true Democrats, we decided to do both. Pop the right, not-Pop the left. This turned out to be the proper combination of dogmatism and pragmatism. We now had to trial-test our cure, and we did so with some errands.
Errand #1 was simple: go to a chemist and get more of the “helps heal your blister” bandages. These little silicone beauties (ampoules, in French) cover the blister with a skin-tight, waterproof, antibiotic filled sheath that actually does a pretty damned good job of making things better. We took the shortcut between our flat and rue Monge (called rue de Boulangers, although there isn’t a single bakery on the length of it…maybe it’s just where the bakers live) and spotted one of the neon green-cross signs that denote all chemist shops across Europe. Inside, my wife drew her +5 Sword of French Conversation and entered into the fray.
Of course, having the old box of ampoules that began our supply made things go a bit easier. Imagine the difference between describing, in French, what I’ve described above, versus just saying “Do you have anything like this?” and you’ll see what I mean. Not to downplay my wife’s performance, which involved a small sub-encounter involving a choice between ampoules for the heel and ampoules for the sole of the foot; no, she was magnificent, handling it all, and leaving me with the simple task of pulling out a €20 bill from my underpants (for so it must look to anyone not familiar with tourists and money belts).
Errand #2—only embarked upon after my wife said her feet were up to it—was going shopping for food. So far on this trip, we haven’t eaten in a restaurant or bistro, so naturally our supply of food was running low. This being the morning, before any of the “specialty” stands open up, we went to one of the hypermarché stores. Not pleased with what we found in the previous “Franprix” store (a pun on Gran Prix, for those who are playing along), we went to the “Carrefour” store (“intersection”, in French) to see what they had.
What they had was about 28.65 times better than Franprix (I measured), and yet about 18.9 times poorer than what you could find in the specialty shops. Still, that’s a good step upward. Plus, we could tell the paper towels from the toilet paper (we came home from Franprix with the former, when we needed the latter).
To all the folks who’ve come to Paris before me, all of you who said, “Heck, just start with ‘Bonjour, Mme/Mssr’ and they’ll happily help you out by speaking English”: I don’t know who you all were dealing with, but none of those people were in town this April. We’ve obviously got the ‘B’ team on the field, right now, and there’s no English there. They’re happily (or not so happily) helping us out…in French.
The check-out lady at the Carrefour was the worst, though. When we got to her checkout booth, she grumpily rang up our purchases until we got to the bananas. Everything stopped, she snarled something at my wife, and it was obvious we’d really screwed up, though we didn’t know how. My wife paid for what had been rung up, leaving me trapped in the store, just feet from the finish line. Thank heavens she knew the word for “weigh,” or it’d have all ended in tears. “We have to weigh the produce,” she translated.
I retreated into the cave of the store (these large markets in the city center still have a very small storefront, and make up for that by going back and back into the building’s core) and I caught sight of folks weighing their produce. Now, I’m a progressive kind of guy. I’m used to bagging my own groceries, and I’m even starting to remember to bring my own bags to the grocery store, but this was new. I watched. I learned.
The patron goes to the weighing stand, put his/her produce on the scale, finds the picture of what it is, presses the picture, and a label with weight and cost spits out for you to put on the bag. Simple, sure, but just a bit unexpected. When we returned to Snarly Lady, she was no happier (that may have been her default setting), but at least we were able to pay for all our booty and bag it up. And at that point it also became a lesson in just how much (i.e., how little) you can carry in one of those little woven bags that everyone brings to the store. If we wanted a bag from Snarly Lady, it was 3 centimes. We weren’t shopping for a whole week, like we do in the States, but we were shopping for a couple of days (plus some start-up purchases, like TP), and it was a real challenge to handle it all (especially when one of the bags she gave us was torn…I think I got charged for it anyway).
We laughed about the experience (a skill that would prove useful in the future) and scuttled back to the apartment, lugging our provender up the three steep flights.
My wife’s feet were doing okay, so we decided it would be all right to go out and have our day. The plan was to go up to Montmartre and spend some time at Sacre Coeur. First stage: take the #67 bus up to the Pigalle. It was 10-ish, so we actually got a seat and were able to see some of the things we’d missed in the rush-hour press of the previous day. Down in the heart of the city, we were both struck by the view north from Hotel de Ville, where you could see a cathedral just tucked in there amid everything else: Saint Eustache.
The bus continued up to Place Pigalle, leaving the ritzy core and heading out through decidedly working class neighborhoods. This is one reason we like buses rather than subways. In le Metro or in London’s Tube, you’re like a prairie dog zipping through the underground tunnels and popping up at the happy spots on the map. With a bus trip, you see everything in between. It’s slower, to be sure, but no more crowded and sometimes a good bit cooler. Anyway, we made it up to Place Pigalle and looked for the place to make our bus connection. Across the street, a pile of people were filing into the MacDonald’s, which was right next to the Cine X porno theater. (I wonder if the execs at Micky-D’s know about that; it gives a whole new twist to the “I’m loving it” slogan.) We had looked into renting an apartment up here in the Pigalle and the description had said “If you’re uncomfortable with prostitution, don’t rent this apartment.” They weren’t kidding.
From Place Pigalle, we took the Montmartrobus up the hill toward the basilica. We jumped off in Tourist Central, where the streets are lined with artists—some good, some very good, some avant-garde, none really bad—where the waiters see you coming and pull out a chair for you whether you asked them to or not, where you can have your portrait painted in “cinq minutes, just cinq minutes,” and where “Non, merci” does not always work the first, second, or even fifth time. We trudged through the caricaturist gantlet to take in the views of the city below and smell the flower-scented breeze.
Up at the top of the hill is the basilica of Sacre Coeur, and it’s unique. You look at it and say, well, it’s a cathedral—it’s got all the pieces/parts that a cathedral needs, but it is not like any other cathedral. First, the steps leading up to Sacre Coeur are filled with young folks, musicians, artists, and performers. It’s a definite carnival atmosphere (it seemed like Paul Simon day, judging by the selection of songs that were being performed), and this made the transition into the basilica all the more jarring. Whereas all the other churches we’ve visited in Paris allow photography (non-flash) during non-service times (and even during, if you’re discreet), Sacre Coeur requires you to put away cameras and turn off cell phones. (The corn-rowed, sunglassed, batik-wearing Trinidadian who dispensed these instructions was a walking contradiction of celebration and sobriety, and a fitting attendant to mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane.) Inside, Sacre Coeur is a place with little color apart from the windows that have a distinctly 1930s/Labor Movement feel to them. It’s also a place with a single purpose: worship; and it is unabashed in its single-mindedness. But overall, it is not an inviting space. Rather, it’s cold and stand-offish, not with hauteur, but with a lack of confidence, as if, despite its commanding location, it’s not sure it measures up to all its older cousins down by the river.
We left Sacre Coeur and headed away from the “artists,” aiming for the Chateau Rouge station and some bus lines. This took us through a part of town that most tourists do not see. The name of a brasserie we saw said it best: L’autre côté de la butte—The Other Side of the Hill. Here, away from the buzz and barkers, it is a heavily ethnic, densely populated, working class neighborhood where every other shop was a hair-weavery and all the others were importing goods from North Africa. In a city that makes a point of never asking about race or creed on surveys (and therefore can’t tell you how ethnically diverse/homogenous its population is), it was an interesting encounter.
Once we got to the bus line, we decided to change our plan and head back to that church we saw: St Eustache. But instead of a bus, we took the Metro, prairie-dogging our way to the Forum des Halles, where we came up into what, in the past was a massive wholesale mercantile center, and what now is just a cavern filled with tacky shops, and lots of signs that don’t tell you what you want to know. Here, while I was standing in the middle of the commuter hubbub, doing the traditional “American [Lost] in Paris” head-swivel, we finally had a Parisian come up and speak to us in English. He started in French “Vous etes perdu?”—Are you lost?—and switched when my vacant look didn’t perk up. My brain went into overload; suddenly I could remember no English and only a little French. All I managed to say was, “Je perdu Saint Eustache”—I lose Saint Eustache. With the gentleman’s sympathetic help, we found the right exit (during which brief time I successfully remembered not only the verb for “to seek” but “to find”), and I conjugated my way outside, where we found Saint Eustache.
Saint Eustache is impressive from the outside, all buttresses and Gothic arches (it’s the backdrop of one of the scenes in the remake of “Sabrina”) but inside, well, this is a church that’s been rode hard and put away wet. Water damage, frescoes that have literally melted down the walls, wooden doorways that look like they’ve seen fire or at least smoke. This is a church in need of a serious makeover. Struggling, it is limping its way into the 21st century, marking 600 years of service, but even in the heart of this pulsing city, it’s not doing well, mostly because of its location: just a bit too far off the beaten path, and seriously outmatched by its nearest competition, Notre Dame.
We left St Eustache and headed east, past Pompidou Center which looks like it was designed inside-out by the Kirby Vacuum Company. It’s a “pedestrian friendly” area which, in perverse French fashion, means they’ve paved the area with the most pedestrian UNfriendly material: cobblestones. Go ahead, find a pedestrian-only section on your tourist map. They’re all cobbled. I wonder how many folks trip and fall or twist their ankles in these pedestrian friendly areas? Especially those French women in their high heels. It’s a mine-field.
We took a brief stop at home and then headed out again, wanting to catch Vespers at Notre Dame. When we got there, we found that the nave was closed off in preparation of a concert. Vespers was underway, but the only seats to be had were a couple of pews they had yet to cordon off for the concert. A beautiful alto sang in French—the music reminded me of Poulenc—and the organ filled the cathedral. Tourists wound their way around the nave, in back of the quire, snapping pictures all the time. And what struck me was that this church, Notre Dame, was a working church. While Sacre Coeur dictated the limits of what you could do, and while St Eustache prayed that you’d come in to do ANYthing, Notre Dame was performing this weird, tesseract-like inward-folding maneuver where it was simultaneously performing three functions: place of worship, concert hall, tourist attraction. And there are other purposes it fulfills. At this point it became clear that Notre Dame was my favorite of all the churches we’d seen in Paris. She was amazing, inside and outside, temporally and functionally.
Back at home, we made dinner: pork cutlets (local) with tomme noir (cheese from the Pyrenees), fried courgettes (from Bourgogne), with a salad of mache (from Nantes) and Coeur de Beouf tomatoes (from Seville) and some buche de cheval cheese crumbled over, laced with balsamic vinaigrette.
In making plans for the next day (Wednesday) we hit upon a notion that might just be heresy here. We were planning to spend the next four days in museums looking at art, but did we really want to? What if (gasp!) we didn’t go to a single museum, but instead just spent the time learning about Paris and the neighborhoods we’d been enjoying?
Would Paris strike us dead, stabbing us through the heart with a stale baguette?