14.  A Dip in Denial

Despite having trouble getting to sleep the night before thanks to clueless loud American goons in the next room who stomped down stairs like elephants and talked like sportscasters to each other despite being in a room barely ten feet wide (I know this because I’d stayed in that room myself the last time I’d been in Paris), I was in a fairly good (if wistful) mood the next day…Wednesday, the 3rd of May, and my last day in Paris for probably a long time.

Ironically, I left town.

I’d been intending to rectify a faux pas I’d made in 2003, when Ian and I had decided on a whim to hop a train to Chartres only to realize en route that in order for him to be back in Paris in time for an important appointment we’d have a whopping 50 to 60 minutes to spend in Chartres before heading back. So I went to Chartres now to make up for that and to get a less rushed experience of the place.

On the train to and from Chartres I noticed that lilacs were now bursting in full bloom, and I thought back to the tentatively opening buds I saw in Clermont-Ferrand. It didn’t even feel like it was still the same trip, in some ways, possibly because of the weather hiccup in Charleville-Mézières but more because returning to Paris had once again reset my heart’s clock to the correct time and all other places and experiences were merely distant memories. Among these was Rambouillet (“rahm-boo-YAY,” pop. ~25,000), the little town that was the scene of the last bit of diplomatic brinksmanship before all hell erupted in Kosovo in 1999, which this westbound train passed; for some reason I’d always pictured it being just east of Paris, not out there in the middle of nowhere…with this perspective in mind, I may have to read about those negotiations afresh for the sense of ambiance and context.

I really took my time in and around the cathedral at Chartres (“SHAHR-trh,” pop. ~41,000); the place was mercifully not awash with tourists or even locals, and they were infrequent enough that if a group did noisily descend I could simply step back into a quiet niche and calmly study upper architectural features until they moved on and the cathedral’s pungent serenity retook the forefront of my impressions. It would be ridiculous to describe the cathedral, with its statuary and stained-glass windows, as anything less than magnificent, and as countless people have already done it justice I’m not going to try. I’ll just say that unfortunately some of the windows were undergoing restoration, thus I didn’t get to see them all, but what I did see I savored at length. And by this time I’d seen enough lives-of-the-saints tableaux and other illustrations of Biblical history in churches in France and Switzerland that I was able to “read” them more easily than had been the case at the start of this trip.

Afterward, as I wandered around the town, I bought a copy of Malcolm Miller’s richly illustrated, well-designed, and very informative (if not quite exhaustive) 96-page book on the cathedral; it’s a marvelous supply of explanations and close-ups which already make clear to me that a return visit to the cathedral will be in order after I’ve had time to study the entire book. As it was I’d taken note of the observations made in the Rough Guide to France, which among other things included the floor’s curious labyrinth “comprising a path over 200m long enclosed within a 13-metre diameter, the same size as the rose window above the main doors.” Details like that fascinate me, and I appreciate that someone has noticed them and brought them to others’ attention.

Lunch was a local bakery’s sandwich eaten in the long, tree-shaded park between the cathedral and the train station, along the boulevard de la Résistance, before the train trip back to Paris.

Somehow I managed to pass the afternoon, though honestly I don’t remember any of it distinctly now, only the end of the day. I do recall that the day was a scorcher and that I simply lay on the bed in my hotel room around 18h00 while my clothes ran the wash and dry cycles at the laundromat down the rue Caulaincourt. After that I sauntered very casually up the north flank of Montmartre to sit & read in the parc de la Turlure, the little public patch of green behind Sacre-Coeur; it has a remarkably no-frills waterfall but somehow is a nice place to just hang out, and a pleasant number of locals were doing so until we were all abruptly kicked out for the park’s closing at 20h00. Hmph! The noive!

With a fond memory of a subterranean dining experience I’d had in 1998 (one of two, actually, in the same neighborhood) I took the Métro to the Parmentier station, emerging at street level just at the end of dusk and the onset of night proper. I didn’t see anything that appealed, and I wandered in what I vaguely intended to be a north-northeasterly direction along sparsely populated avenues, not quite side-streets and not quite dangerous; still, it didn’t matter where I went as long as I did get food and drink eventually, so I didn’t rush any decisions at first. However, Paris’s street network being the curious convolution it is, I was quite surprised to find myself emerging onto the place de la République…from the back side, which I’d never even strolled through in any of my many prowls around Paris.

By this point I decided it was time to get food, despite the dodgy feel of the neighborhood (I’m not a snob when it comes to Parisian quartiers, but even I would have to characterize the République area that way, even by day), and I quickly settled on Café Ruth…a choice most unlikely for my personality and tastes. Café Ruth is located either below or adjacent to some kind of club, and its clientele seemed to ebb and flow between the venues over and over again; the “music” here was solid and explicit American rap, the lyrical content being largely about black sex (and I can attest with absolute certainty that I had never heard the word “nigger” so many times in one night…it was amazing, I never stopped flinching). That I’d been reverently appreciating the Chartres cathedral only hours beforehand struck me as a quite droll perspective on this scene.

On the other hand, there was an odd range of patrons in the place; in addition to the aforementioned denizens, who were clearly happy to have all that rap thumping away the whole time, and myself who wasn’t so keen on it but found the experience fascinating to see from within, there were Parisiennes of a certain age and a few other somewhat incongruous types, but overall the average age in the place was 22, maybe 23. The interior was dark but open, with bright splashes of light on a few tables and discreet ambient light on the rest.

I dined on a strictly adequate bit of lemon chicken with rice and a passable Médoc and spent an hour or so there, writing and people-watching from a cozy table between a large staircase and a column (my choice…I didn’t want to stand out, which clearly I would have done if I’d been in full view). I was struck by what a funky hangout the place was—not just Café Ruth, but rather the whole intersection at which it was located—and that the night was hot enough to encourage mingling on the sidewalk around the entrance, that the staff mixed with their friends throughout, that I had my copy of Histoire de la Musique Européenne on the table in front of me as sex-obsessed pornographic rap hammered my ears, that through the windows of the café I was seeing 19th Century buildings….

It all added up to something Parisian…just one of the myriad, improbable cocktails of history, modernity, diverse cultures, and above all vitality that you can find just about anywhere in Paris. These are what I love so much about the city: the mixture, always juxtaposing unlikely elements and never having a definite recipe. I dreamily returned to Montmartre by Métro, thinking about how this was one of the only kind of hot nights I enjoy enduring: those Parisian nights that absolutely refuse to end but finally peter out after you’ve somehow drifted off.

On the #4 Métro line heading for Clignancourt, one of the only other people in the car was a guy idly tapping on his tambour, which given our subterranean journey brought to my mind the “drums, drums in the deep!” line from the “Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” chapter of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I laughed…and I rested my head lovingly against the wall-mounted handrail of the Métro car as we gently rocked along the rails in the timeless, fluorescent-lit night.

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