The first glimpse I had of her was the elegant, white sloping shoulders of the Sacre Couer. Rising up from the hill upon which she stood, since 1875 when her foundation was laid. I know now I have come to expect this first visual promise of Paris every time I’ve returned. I was on the RER, the suburban train line that connects Charles de Gaulle airport to the city. I met a wonderfully vivacious young lady from Laguna Beach and we instantly connected. In the course of half an hour, she managed to crack me up several times. Again, a good omen. We exchanged info and are still in touch.
I was quite knackered by the time I settled in but got into the swing of things after spending quality time with my host. We watched the sun set over the Seine and cast it’s golden hue over the towering Eiffel while eating a home cooked dinner. All around me were the constant life that’s Paris – the special sirens of the emergency vehicles and the police; the constant honking of passing cars and the occasional “merde!” or worse heard from a passer by. The were also giggles of children, chatter of young adults and the sound of the Bateaux-Mouches with it’s touristy information being repeated every half an hour or so in the background.
It’s been over a year since I was there. Many of you have asked why I have not written about this particular trip as I usually do. First I thought, too much happened over such a short period that it was too personal and no, I can’t relive it again in my thoughts. But now, I do realise that regardless of the good, the bad, the beauty or the ugliness, Paris is still Paris. As the saying goes – We’ll always have Paris!! I got scammed by a gypsy, so shell-shocked by the experience that I did not move from my spot in the Musee D’Orsay for over forty minutes, with tears welled up in my eyes. I felt so violated, so used. I had just had a rough night, and then this! Ohh, how stupid could I be?! As I beat myself over and over in my head, my eyes laid rest upon the beauty that surrounded me in that place of wonders.
Soon, I forgot that bit of ugliness of human nature and got caught up in the restorative beauty that is art. I was mesmerised by the different methods and periods; each brush-stroke held its own meaning and message. The following days were chock full of art, art and more art. I used that museum pass like there was no tomorrow. Never mind that I was practically limping by the time I got back – I couldn’t care less! Why? Because I had stood an inch away from a Van Gogh painting; because I sat for more than an hour staring at every angle of the circular walls of the Orangerie where Monet’s wall to wall paintings are housed; because I found the obscure little museum off the beaten path from the Opéra Garnier that so, just so, happened to have a special exhibition on Modigliani. It was as if Paris was slipping me an exquisitely wrapped, decadent chocolate truffle under my pillow at night so that my dreams of her will always be rich, beautifully experienced and seemingly created just for me. Because when I limped up the stairs, saw a bench, sat down, took my water bottle out and as I took a gulp of refreshing hydration, my heart beat faster – there she was. Right across from me in the next room, but looking at me squarely in the eye was my favourite Modi painting. ‘Jeanne-Hebuteme-au-Collier’. It was one, if not the only, painting of his great love, his wife with soft blue eyes and adorned with a strand of jewelry. Were those pearls? Something he picked up at one of the marché aux puces? I can imagine him bargaining with the vendor because is pockets were light. Or was it a wish, a dream painted onto canvas and brought to life? At least he could paint her with one perfect strand – he could give her only that. Sigh.
At night, I could hear revelers from the nearby cafes, bistros and pubs – Irish pubs were a big thing, next to American style cafes serving classic burgers – and fell asleep dreaming of the myriad of colours and the imaginations behind those works of art I saw during the day. How could a mere mortal sculpt such beauty out of a gigantic slab of stone?! How many bottles of wine were broken upon these cobble-stoned streets I walked on by the temperamental artists like Modigliani and Picasso, his rival and sometime friend or writers like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Hemingway and James Joyce? What were the thoughts pondered upon the steps of the Sorbonne where I sat to eat my crepe?
Although some of my initial plans had fallen through and I almost gave up the whole trip, I stuck it through and decided, heck, I waited six years to return, I am not going back home before I have to! I poked around and found a room with on airbnb which ended up to be the apartment of a young lady I had met in the summer of ’04 at my friend’s wedding! So, from St. Germain des Pres, I moved to Les Halles and into all it’s crazy vibrant energy. Celine and Vincent were wonderful; the apartment was old, with creaking floors but bright sunlight flooded through it’s single paned windows. I cooked them a simple dinner and had one of the most interesting conversations I had in a long time! Perseverance sure pays off! I planned a trip to Chartres, the famous medieval cathedral with it’s equally famous indoor labyrinth. Oh, I am so thankful and grateful that I did. It so happened that the day I planned to go, a Friday, was the only day of the week during summer, that the church-keepers remove the chairs from the sanctuary to reveal the said labyrinth and you can walk through it! I was a little delayed and missed my train. No worries, said the guy behind the counter. He came out of his cubicle/counter place out to the waiting area, took my tickets, helped me manuever them on a machine and voila! I was on the next train. Just like that. And they say the French are rude! Pah! The train took me south west of Paris, lasted an hour and I saw the beautiful wheat and rapeseed fields of the countryside. And here I thought I could not love the country more – ha!
But then, upon existing the gare and entering the town of Chartres, I felt like a Hobbit. Like I was in The Lord of the Rings movie and was supposed to speak the Elfin tongue of Sindarin or something. Before me towered the steeple of the cathedral, built high on a hill. I made my way there as though in a trance by the sheer magnificent majesty of the structure. Along the cobble stoned path I walked and came to the garden in the front of the cathedral. It was as though the ground-keepers in their wisdom, made the quarry-stoned gravel pathways between the rectangular wicker-weaved planters filled with hydrangeas, roses and various herbs, so simple that it gave a respite to the eyes from the glorious behemoth that arose from the ground past them. It was the yin to the yang of the cathedral. I did all I could to keep my jaw from dropping. Holy Mother of Christ! Seriously. Who were the men who imagined, drew up the plans and built this cathedral??! I entered in awe, each step with increasing reverence. I saw the labyrinth; laid my bag on a chair, took off my shoes and stood in line to enter the maze. I walked. Each step a prayer. A confession. A surrender. I reached the center. Peace. I knew then, this was meant to be.
I walked around the cathedral and left to go check into my simple room at the hotel run by the church. Free wifi! I washed up, took a nap and heard the bells ring for vespers. I went to the sanctuary and sat as I listened to the prayers and songs. At the end, one of the deaconesses began to sing a hymn attributed to Mary. All I could think of was, she is no deaconess, she is an angel. Who could sing like that?! And with the acoustics of that fantastically high ceilings…. my heart felt it could burst! When it ended, some of the people shook my hand and I walked to the chapel of Mary. This was yet another one of the “Black Madonnas” as the one I encountered in Brussels. They had printed out example prayers to help those who were lost for words (like me) and I just knelt there in silence for awhile. I made the sign of the cross, put in a small donation into the box, took a votive candle and left to find me some dinner. I had dinner with Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Strange combo? I think not. I walked around the town a little and really began to fall in love with it’s charm. When I got up the next morning, I searched for a famous creperie down the hill, past the bridge but, alas, they were closed. I walked back, run smack into a farmers market and found a little cafe. Stomach filled with good local ham, cheese and strong coffee, I headed back to my room to pack up and check out. I still had an hour before my train arrived, so I walked the ground of the building and found a gorgeous little nook – a ruined old archway, covered with vines and ivy, leading to what used to be the Bishop’s residence. And to my right, several good meters below, was an outdoor labyrinth. I watched as a man and his dog played fetch. Past them was the city of Chartres, centuries upon centuries old. The air was so pure, I felt so alive! I sat at one of the little bistro tables in the courtyard and made some notes of my thoughts. Then I bid it adieu. I boarded my train, settled into my seat and a thought hit me like a tonne of bricks: my limpy, wonky leg had not hurt me since the night before. Even with all the walking, climbing up steep streets etc, no more pain!! Blessed be the Mother of God!
I returned to Celine and Vincent’s apartment happy, fulfilled. But I only had one night to rest as I was to leave for Lille to visit my old friend Nil and her husband Eduoard. This time I headed northeast and the landscape slowly changed. As I got out the train, there was my sweet Nil with that smile of hers!! I was just delighted to see her again, especially to behold her pregnant! Being with them was like coming home. They made me feel so welcomed, so loved that it washed all the nastiness of the week before away. I hated having to leave the beautiful town with it’s Flemish influenced architecture infused with doses of modernity here and there. What I hated more was leaving these friends, this warm, wonderful woman who I first met as a fresh faced university intern in Kuala Lumpur way back in the late 90’s. And here she is, a graduate of Sorbonne, and one of the youngest associate professors in the University of Lille. So very proud of he!. I knew her mum (her zucchini fritters are to die for!) and her sister, Asli, who dropped in on me in Seattle a couple of years ago on her way to Vancouver BC. As I write this, my tears are pooling up in remembrance of those mere hours spent together.
After a day in Paris, I packed up once again and left to Wales to see my Malaysian friend, Josil, who I had only met once and it was of course over dinner – how else would Malaysians meet?! Her gracious mum had cooked a wonderful Malaysian feast and it totally filled Brett and my cravings for Malaysian food. The company of friends, old and new, was gregarious and fun while Josil had a warmth to her that I instantly took to. I had reached out to her when my initial plans had fallen through and she was in Italy with her fiance. She invited me there but I chose to wait to see her in Bangor, Wales. I arrived past ten at night in Liverpool airport and hauled ass to get to the bus Jo said to get on to get to the train station. I panicked because when I looked at my watch, it seemed like I was too late and missed the bus, hence the train. My brain was cooking up a back up plan with a hotel in sight across the bus stop, when I hear a hearty male voice, saying, “Allo there, dearie, you who-kay? Need ahyneeethin’?” I looked at him and said I was meant to catch the number 5 bus. He said ‘not to worry my pretty head’ because he was the driver of said bus. Talk about serendipity! When he came around with the bus, I told him, quite in a panic, that I suspected I had missed the train, so won’t it be better if I just stayed at the hotel for the night? He said the train to Bangor, via Chester? “you alright there luv, I’ll get ya there in time – remember there’s the time difference!” Silly dang goose I was! Phew. Then it struck me I’m now in the UK, and I only have Euros. Once again my knight in not shining bus driver uniform gallantly saved me. “Name’s Paul, you get in my bus for free anytime there, luv!”. Oh lawd, did I want to chuckle out loud. Thanking him profusely, I took a seat and began to breathe normally again. Crisis averted! Yay! I realised the stewardess had mentioned the time change but her Liverpool accent was so damn thick, I didn’t understand what she said! Paul dropped me off at the train station, told me a shortcut to get into the station faster and fared me well.
I reached Bangor way past midnight and there was my kawan (friend) waiting for me with a cab 🙂 It was so good to see a friendly face again and we got to her ancient stone walled cottage where she made me an impromptu pasta primavera. Ohh, it felt so good to have a hot meal! The sweet thing let me sleep in the next morning and left me a note saying we could meet up for lunch. We went to the pier, where we looked out onto Snowdonia, the highest peak in Wales. I was back on British soil after fourteen years. The rolling hills, the misty early morning fog..and the scones!!! We had our scones and tea and later I met Jo’s housemate and other friends. These young people really grew on me, like super duper, licketty split quick! They were so hospitable that they broke all the stereotypes you’d have of people their age. Then I realised it came from they themselves having been the stranger, the sojourner in many foreign countries. James lived in Bangalore for a tad bit, loved making curries and would go for long runs, to come home completely soaked in sweat and get ordered by Jo to go straight and have a shower! Jo and I cooked almost everyday, we made Malaysian food in that tiny weeny kitchen and I felt so much peace. There was also Geraldine, the soft spoken gal from Montpellier, James’ girlfriend and Jo’s best friend. Sabrina was the vivacious Italian who they teased was more German than Italian because of the locality of her hometown. She kept me in stitches. We welcomed Claudia who was on scholarship from Malagasy. There were many food oriented meet ups – group steamed mussels lunch on the pier; there was Malaysian night at the cottage and a bbq out on the slate stones that surrounded that quaint cottage. I found myself writing during the mornings, making espresso on Jo’s well used Bialetti stove top espresso maker. I had my writing spot, in a chair by the lace covered window, looking out to the wet/dry little pot of garden the kids had going there. These young’uns saw me through the last day I was there, all converging together for a last meal before I left for the train ride back. I miss Jo and her sweet smile and her sass. I miss us cooking together, our talks and her graciousness. I will forever hold this group of young, genuinely good hearted souls within mine for they have blessed me without even knowing they did. Which is the beauty of it all.
I had one full day in Paris before flying out the next morning back non-stop to Seattle. The spunky gal I met when I landed, she was gonna be there too. So we hooked up, got my bag from Celine’s apartment to my hotel room, I changed clothes and we walked across the street, got a bottle of red wine and made our way to rue Bonaparte to get me some macaroons to take home to my honey bunny. I got Ali and I a gigantic salted caramel one, we went to the cafe across the street, looking out to the St. Sulpice square and church (made famous by the Da Vinci Code), split our macaroon into equalish proportions and drank kir royales to celebrate. There were gusts of wind and unfortunately for the lady sitting beside us, Ali’s wine glass toppled right onto me and the woman! She glared at us as though we controlled the wind, but whatever.
We walked through St. Sulpice and I showed Ali my favourite Delacroix painting in one of the naves. This was one of the things I so loved about Paris. That anyone could not just walk into any church at any time of the day but many of these churches had exceptional art in them. Then, we were off to Trocadero to drink wine and eat crepes and do what girls do best – talk!! We shared the wine while having the best view of the Eiffel Tower and ate crepes. Most of all, we shared us. Ali became the perfect bookend to my trip. Viva la Paris!!
Anne Bronte said in The Narrow Way, that “He who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.” I craved the rose. The Rose. Granted my hands did get somewhat bloodied in the process. But in the end, I have the Rose, she is mine, held firmly in my somewhat bloodied fingers. Her fragrance will fill my nostrils with the heady fragrance of her inner sanctum; her petals will caress my cheeks with velvety softness and her Being will always remind me of lushness and womanhood. Always and forever.
And I will always have Paris!! Je’ taime.