France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Stairway to Heaven • Sunday, June 4

In a city with one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, where do you go on Sunday morning? Mass at Notre Dame, bien sur!

Leaving the hotel, DeLinda and I walk the now-familiar streetscape, winding past the shops and cafés we’ve come to know on this daily passage. It is not as foreign as it was that first, map-in-hand day. The pâtisserie, the copy shop, the boutiques. The lovely French women in scarves and heels with wisps of perfume drifting as they pass. The short Napoleon-like Frenchmen, confident in stride and stance. It is the transition that happens whenever you travel, small and careful steps concede to confident stride.

We stop at one of the pâtisseries along the way to sample the morning fare.

Bonjour,” we smile to the woman behind the counter; she reminds me of my high school French teacher, Mrs. Masaccio.

Bon matin,” she smiles back.

In broken French, we make our selections and watch as she wraps our treats in tissue paper and slips them into parchment bags.

She is the owner, and I think of the business owners I know at home. My clients opening their shops on Main Street in the early morning.

“What is it like?” I want to ask, “being a woman business owner in France?”

“I own a business, too.” I would tell her.

“How long have you been doing this? Do you enjoy your work?”

But I do not have the words for the conversation I would like to have, so I just nod my appreciation and give her a knowing smile. I like to think she understands.

The Metro stop is around the corner, and we descend into the winding tunnels of lovely white tile, decorated with bold colored advertisements, and glide along to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

The plaza in front of Notre Dame is early-morning quiet. Instead of the hum of tourists, DeLinda and I are greeted by the glorious sounds of the bells of Notre Dame chiming out the hour. Above us, the three amazing carved portals, the crazy-quilt of architecture, the immense flying buttresses, and the famous gargoyles watching our every step.

Inside, a heavy smoke of incense lofts overhead, the choir sings in French, and a muffled “Amen” marks the ending of the 8:30 mass. It sends a chill up my arms. This place is dark and still, holy and…familiar.

I was raised Catholic, but it has been many, many years since I voluntarily entered a church to attend a mass. I am not prepared for the wave of emotion that fills me as I walk around the tourist perimeter of the cathedral. The tears sneak up on me as if to reveal some past, deep sadness, and they don’t stop.

“Was it a spiritual moment?” a friend will ask me later. Spiritual, perhaps, but in the moment it is quite off-putting, and I wonder to myself, “Am I supposed to be Catholic after all?” The thought surprises me, here in Paris, here on vacation.

Sitting through the 10:00 mass, old memories visit. I remember my Grandmother and her quiet reverence of her faith. I remember my father and his Catholic upbringing. I remember how important it was to my parents that I be raised Catholic. And for a while, it seems like this is an important moment. Perhaps I’d been too stubborn in turning away from the religion of my family. Perhaps I had not understood it enough, not given it enough time or patience.

And then, in a dark and righteous voice, the priest reads the second reading, while I follow along in printed English…

“I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfill the desires of your lower nature. That nature sets its desires against the Spirit, while the Spirit fights against it…. Anyone can see the kind of behavior that belongs to the lower nature: fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who behave in such ways will never inherit the kingdom of God.”

His voice reminds my of my Grandmother’s funeral and the priest who warned us of the error of our ways, the darkness that would come to us in the end. “Beware,” he’d intoned in a deep, ominous voice, “for ye know not when you will be taken.” There had been no celebration of her life, just a dark foreboding of death and damnation. I’d felt alienated then, and again, now, as I sit in this beautiful testament to faith and art and reverence.

“What a shame,” I think, “to use this magnificent creation for the execution of man-made rules of right and wrong. Here, in this impressive space, it should be a celebration of our amazing gifts, the beauty of this place…the magic of this life.”

Then I relax into my seat, tune out the sermon, fold the mass program in quarters, and silently celebrate all that is in front of us. The mass is spoken and sung in French, voices echoing against the immense stone walls, the grand Rose Window glows from the morning sun. Heavenly French perfumes mix with divine incense, and stir the senses.

rule

Click here for a slide show of photos called: The Spirit of Notre Dame

rule

Sitting against our small wooden chairs, DeLinda and I pat each other softly as if to say: “I know, isn’t this amazing?,” “I know, aren’t you so glad we did this?” “I know, it’s almost over.” I forgot how long a Catholic mass can be.

After mass, we wander the grounds of Notre Dame and stop for lunch — French onion soup and croque-monsieur — at a café amidst the sudden flurry of tourists. From our window seats, now, it is hard to believe this space was so still and silent just hours earlier.

Despite our agenda for the day, the café insists we stay a while. It is like that here — sit, stay, relax — not at all like the fast-lane, drive-thru, hurry pace of home. The French, for example, have yet to master “to go.” After lunch, our “take-away” coffees take 10 minutes to prepare and are served in scalding-hot cups sans lids!

Leaving Notre Dame, we make our way across the Île de la Cité to Sainte-Chapelle, a 750-year old Gothic chapel said to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Perhaps this is the reason we encounter the x-ray machine and pat-down security at the main gate. Another sign, like the machine-gun-carrying guards at the Eiffel Tower, that our world has changed greatly since my early dreams of this place.

Saint-Chapelle is a glorious structure that, once inside, appears to be made entirely of stained glass. In the upper chapel, every inch of wall, floor, and ceiling is gilded and ornate. Detailed mosaic tiled floors, decoratively painted trompe l’oeil walls, and elaborate wood carvings set the stage. The King’s throne sits high above; it looks like the inside of a Fabergé egg. And then! The stained-glass windows! There are 15 windows totaling more than 6,500 square feet of glass. With shimmering colors of cobalt and ruby and emerald, you feel like you are standing inside a kaleidoscope.

We stay for a while, then leave and find our way to an outdoor flower and bird market, across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou for a visit to the famous colorful, dancing Stravinsky Fountain.

It has been a long day, but we have one more stop before day’s end — the top of Notre Dame. In preparation, we find a corner café and feast on chocolate mousse, fresh raspberry tart and frothy, decadent hot chocolates! Outside the café window, the Seine and street vendors, and Paris in her Sunday best.

“You should not ascend to the towers if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or suffer from vertigo,” warn the signs at the entrance of the Notre Dame towers, sounding like one of those U.S. pharmaceutical commercials. DeLinda and I, feeling young and healthy — and appropriately nourished with chocolate — walk through the doorway.

As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see a dark column of stone spiral steps leading upward. 387 steps, to be precise. Three hundred and eighty-seven. The width of the staircase is no more than five feet across, and the steps no deeper than 10 inches. Their centers are worn, with smooth indentations marking the millions of visitors who have also braved this staircase.

We hold tightly to the metal railing along the outside of the column and pull ourselves up, step by step, trying to stay at the widest edge. In doing so, we find ourselves looking down, guiding our feet so as not to lose footing. And then, looking up to see where we are…it turns out we do suffer from vertigo after all!

“It’s a good thing,” I wheeze to DeLinda, “we did this for my fortieth birthday. Any later, and I’d be dead by now.”

We would have laughed. We didn’t have the lung capacity.

And so we climb. Around and around. And around. Small windows at each story trick us into thinking we’re almost there. Voices above and behind us encourage the same, “We’re almost there. Almost there.” But we’re not, so we just keep climbing. There’s no alternative, really.

Three hundred and eighty-seven steps and several seated pauses later, we find ourselves at the top of Notre Dame overlooking Paris; it is worth every gasp of breath and aching muscle!

From the top, we visit up close with the gargoyles of Notre Dame, including the famous Stryga. We see the magnificent facets of the stonework and sculptures. We see the details in the city below, the perfect lines of streets and houses and building laid out in geometric perfection.

We can see for miles, and catch glimpses of where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. We watch the tiny specks of people walking in the plaza below, the skateboarders performing on the sidewalk — each of us silently dreading the 387 steps we must now descend to find our way home for the evening. There’s no alternative, really.

Do you know how, when you learn something new or are thinking about something in particular, you see it more often? Notice it more than you would have if you weren’t thinking about it? Well, I will tell you, there are an awful lot of steps in Paris! I had not noticed them before our trek to the top of Notre Dame, but I do now: the steps down to the Metro, the steps from one train line to the next, the steps out of the Metro station near La Madeleine up to Rue Royale, the two stories of mercifully carpeted spiral steps we must climb to our hotel room — the elevator mysteriously out-of-order for the evening.

We settle in to our nightly routine. DeLinda writes quietly in her journal, and pens poetic postcards home. I shuffle through my backpack — dumping everything out on the bed, tucking away the day’s collections, reorganizing the contents neatly for the next. We wash our clothes in the sink, roll them to dry and hang them where we can with hopes they will be clean-enough and unwrinkled by morning.

As we crawl into bed wearily before seven, we look forward to the day ahead, our last full day in Paris.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
L’introduction
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

10 thoughts on “France on Fridays: Escalier au Ciel

  1. You look very Parisienne in your scarf!

    Fascinating account, I was having a conversation with you all along, maybe you couldn’t hear it, but I was —-

    I look forward to Fridays!

  2. I remember how small I felt walking into Notre Dame. No matter your faith, its hard not to be awed when walking into a place like that. :-)

    Of course coffee is scalding hot! That way you can take an hour or more to drink it! The idea of taking your time to truly enjoy a meal or a drink is something I really love about Europeans and the French in particular.

    1. I hadn’t thought about there being a reason for the scalding coffee – now I know. Of course, now I am much better at sitting and relaxing and taking time with life. Hadn’t quite figured that out yet when I took this trip!

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