Monday, September 11, 2006

Paris Journal, Part 4 (November, 1955)

Somehow, by blind luck & a little homing pigeon blood, we found our way back to the hotel. Dinner set the pattern for all meals thereafter—first, soup; next a salad (or fish, or spaghetti—most often spaghetti). Then the main course—meat (roast beef or veal slices), potatoes, a vegetable (green) & more bread, which we ate in amazingly large quantities. After the main course, cheese, many varieties brought in on a platter by the waiters, who served whatever cheese you selected. Next, fruit—oranges & apples, probably more in the summer; and then, desert. To drink—wine (coffee only at breakfast) or water (bottled). We’d always order two bottles of wine at 300 francs (50 cents) a bottle.

Immediately after lunch we went out to the busses. I ran upstairs for my camera, though the sun still wasn’t out, & off we went.

Unfortunately, I do not have the elephantine memory seemingly required by writers—there is a pamphlet tucked away somewhere, outlining our tour point by point, but it is, for all practical purposes, lost.

The Place de La Concorde is a wide, flat space without much purpose that I could see. Scattered around it are tomb-like structures with statues upon them representing 12 of France’s leading cities. On this square, Louis the Fifteenth (?) lost his head, as did Robespierre, the power behind the thrown, Marie Antoinette, & some 3,000 assorted noblemen & commoners. Here also died Dr. Guillotine, who lost his head in his own invention.

To the right can be seen the Eiffel Tower—directly behind is the River Seine, which is disappointingly just exactly like every other river in Europe, with the possible exception that it has more water. The Louvre Museum & several other official buildings stand guard over another square on the other side of the river; I forget the square’s name, but it is much more park-like. All these buildings are the color of dirty cake & of the rather cold architecture of the Revolutionary period.

The tomb of France’s great humanitarians, including among them Victor Hugo & Louis Braille, is housed in the Church of the Madeleine; the exact replica of the Parthenon. Napoleon had intended it to be a temple for & to his men, but somewhere along the line it became a church, & the burial place of France’s great humanitarians.

Napoleon’s body lies in the gold-domed church of Les Invalides, in five successive coffins. The outermost one is of highly-glossed ebony, fashioned on top like an open scroll. It is at the bottom of a large rotunda, from which you look down on the tomb & the twelve winged statues around it, representing Napoleon’s twelve great battles. I stood on the same spot another sightseer had been, sixteen years before—an obscure upstart named Adolph Hitler.

Directly across the rotunda from the entrance, and on a raised terrace in the highest part of the church, is a copy of the altar in St. Peters in Rome. The altar is covered by a high vaulted canopy, supported by four of the most beautiful columns I’ve ever seen. Though the imitations are wood, they could easily pass for marble. They are not straight, but twisted like taffy when both ends are twisted in opposite directions. The originals are of dark & light marble; the canopies are of red silk. The church has no electricity; all light enters through two tall yellow-glass windows on either side of the altar, which even on the gloomiest of days, as this one was, the entire building is filled with a soft diffused light.

A glass partition behind the altar closes off the chapel from the rest of the church, which is now a national museum. What the Church of the Madeleine is to France’s humanitarians, the Tomb of Les Invalides is to her military heroes. Besides Napoleon, the church also houses some of France’s most renowned military dead. Marshall Foch, leader of the allied forces in the First World War is guarded over by eight French soldiers, pallbearers in bronze, carrying his coffin. A wreath had been recently laid at the base of the monument, and our guide told us there is never a time when there are not flowers of some sort placed there.

Many others are there; generals & admirals unknown to us, but remembered with pride by the French. Six of them have their hearts enshrined here while the rest of their remains are buried elsewhere in France. Napoleon’s son Joseph is in a small room off the rotunda in a heavy, barbed steel coffin—brought from Austria as a gift to the French people by Adolph Hitler.

While we were gazing down upon Napoleon, Roge & Jim discovered two American girls from Minnesota. While the rest of us moved reverently about from body to body, Roge & Jim, like Napoleon’s twelve guardian angels, helped hold up the rotunda & discussed the American scene with the girls. They were, it turned out, a schoolteacher & a stenographer in Minnesota, had been in Europe three months, had wandered all over, from Greece to Germany, & were leaving for the States the next day. They had spent their last fifty francs getting in to see Napoleon, who didn’t really care much one way or another.

They were lost someplace in the shuffle, & we left without them. It had started to drizzle again, very lightly, as we got on the busses; when suddenly somebody spotted the girls, half a block down. Commander Miller, in charge of the tour & in civilian clothes, took out after them. After a few minutes of talking, interspersed with glances toward the bus (everyone had their noses pressed to the windows) they started walking toward the bus.

They were hustled to the rear by a group of officers (also in civilian clothes), which Roge took as rank discrimination, & there they stayed, while the enlisted men up front sulked.

Next on the agenda came Notre Dame Cathedral. It lies on an island in the Seine river. From pictures & postcards, I’d assumed the island was just big enough for the Cathedral. Hah! I wouldn’t have even guessed it was an island if I didn’t know.

The first impression I had was that it was a lot smaller than I’d ever imagined it. Not small, by any means, just small-er. It’s about the same color as Illinois topsoil, surrounded on one side by the Seine, in front by a park, & on the other two by the city, which crowds up irreverently close. It is magnificent, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a delayed magnificence—it gets better the more you think about it, but standing in front of it on a miserable day, it’s just a building. The arched doorways are works of art, covered with carvings of saints & devils—one saint, I forget his name—is standing there holding his head in his hand, which is at his waist. He was decapitated by the Romans or someone. The great central doors have been closed, I believe, since Napoleon’s coronation, when he went in a general with his wife, & came out Emperor & Empress.

Inside, the most impressive sight are the Rose Windows—North & South. 300’ in diameter, they are a kaleidoscope of color. Taken out piece by piece during the Second World War, it took several years to put them back.

Frankly, not meaning disrespect & realizing that it took several hundred years to complete, I think Washington’s National Cathedral will be much more beautiful when finished.

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