Our Lady, Notre-Dame

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After living in Paris for much of 2017, my last week was the one between Christmas and New Year’s. On December 22, I stayed out all night with a couple of new friends and we bar hopped from speakeasy to speakeasy. I meant to post about it here but I never did (maybe I will get around to it one day…).

The idea to visit a bunch of speakeasies in one night came to us after we discovered a shared passion for exploring the city. The challenge to stay out all night was my addition to the plan. I believe that spending 24 hours wide awake in any given city reveals otherwise unknowable things about it and also inspires high-on-life-low-on-sleep euphoria that forever solidifies one’s connection to it.

That’s exactly what happened on that night in Paris. We visited four or five speakeasies between 10pm and 4am. After we decided we had had enough of bars, we made a last-minute change of plans and wandered around until we found a 24-hour brasserie close enough to the Seine to hop out at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river.

The brasserie happened to be just across the bridge from Notre-Dame, and as we walked across the plaza in the first hints of light, I realized that the cathedral would open to the public in just fifteen minutes. Nobody was waiting outside, so after another last-minute change of plans, we were the first to go in when the small entrance within the huge wooden doors opened.

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I had passed Notre-Dame many times during my nine months in Paris, but I had only been inside once before, on a family trip to Europe when I was 13 or 14. It was so packed that I could barely see a thing, and I was therefore underwhelmed. This time, the cathedral was nearly empty, very dark, and decorated for Christmas.

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The stained glass in the rose windows looked black; it was still too dark outside for the colors to shine through.

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Although the light inside came from electricity, there was so little of it that the cathedral resembled how it must have looked when candlelit hundreds of years ago.

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The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps falling and snatches of a hymn being sung by choir members near the altar. Maybe they were practicing for the next night’s midnight mass, or maybe they were getting ready for the first mass that morning. I walked through the nave feeling the sacredness of the space, the peacefulness of the moment, and a deep gratefulness for having visited Notre-Dame in such a special way.

Watching the cathedral burn this evening was heartbreaking. Notre-Dame connects millions of people who have been awed by it for over 850 years, and if that chain is broken it would be a tragedy for all of humanity. But it would especially be a tragedy for all those who have not yet visited and felt its power.

That goes for people of all religions or none at all. Notre-Dame belongs to all of us – the “notre” is everyone’s “our,” not just Catholics’. I’m not a religious person, and if I were it would be in the Jewish and not the Catholic faith. Yet cathedrals move me in a way that feels unexplainable, given my lack of belief. Actually, it is entirely explainable. Gothic architecture objectively evokes an emotional response, a sense of wonder and holiness. While cathedrals hold a special purpose and meaning for Catholics, they are special, full stop, for everyone.

In my opinion, Notre-Dame is not among the most beautiful of Paris’s cathedrals, but it is one of the most magical. It has towered majestically over the banks of the Seine since the 1100s, when Paris was in its infancy. Created by humans in a remarkable feat of engineering and ambition, it has witnessed and outlasted countless other human dramas including the Revolution (and all those other counter-revolutions and rebellions I once learned and have since forgotten about) and two World Wars. It was around before the plague! Almost every important figure in French history must have been inside at some point.

It is a beloved fixture of the Paris landscape, at its heart and in its heart. As I said, I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic, and if I had to choose one way or the other, I’d say I don’t believe in God. But in spite of that, I found myself praying this evening. “Please, God, in whatever form you take, let there be some sort of miracle that allows Notre-Dame to escape nearly unscathed. Please let nothing truly irreplaceable be lost. Please let it be possible to rebuild so that people still feel connected to humans who lived a thousand years before them. Please let Notre-Dame continue to survive threats of destruction, just as it has done before, as a testament to the sacredness, ingenuity, resilience and beauty of humanity itself.”

That December morning in Notre-Dame, we only spent a few minutes inside, because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise entirely. I took for granted that the cathedral would always be around, but the dawn would only last a few more minutes. We quietly left the cathedral and walked around to the back of it, where these views awaited us.

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My heart aches to think about the view looking back at the people in those buildings tonight.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Paris

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When I arrived in Paris in mid-April two years ago, I assumed I was in for a lovely spring in the City of Light, followed by a graceful transition into a pleasantly mild summer. I had left both my early winter and deep winter coats behind in New York and packed only a leather jacket, a light puffer jacket, and a wool sweater to keep me warm. I figured that would be enough. I was wrong.

I spent the first two weeks of my time in Paris waking myself up with my own shivering, running to the space heater to turn it on, diving back under the covers with my sweater on over my pajamas, and curling up in a fetal position until I summoned the courage to get out of bed a half hour later. Leaving the house wearing my sweater, puffer jacket, and leather jacket one on top of the other made me look like an Oompa Loompa and yet did not keep me warm enough, even in the sun, which rarely made an appearance.

Most days, the default Paris setting was gray skies, punctuated by maybe an hour or two of sunshine at some point in the morning or afternoon. I started thinking of the sun maliciously, like it was a stuck-up tease.

When summer came, not much changed apart from a slight increase in the temperature and a toning down of the sky’s tint from gray to milky beige. The sunny days lasted longer but they were still too few and far between. Everything just felt… bof.

I realized then that Paris has somehow avoided the reputation that London has for cold, rain, and gray, but it nevertheless follows the same general weather patterns. And I am not a fan of those weather patterns in the least.

Until the fall.

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Though the scientific data does not in the least back me up, I remain certain that there are far more clear blue skies from September to December than there are during the spring. And even when it is objectively cold and gray, Paris paradoxically wears its shitty weather so much better in fall and winter. It’s not a popularly held belief, but I truly believe that the off seasons are the best seasons. Continue reading

I’ll always have Paris

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I cannot tell you how many times over the past nine months I was about to quit Paris. I was only originally supposed to stay for a month, and then one month morphed into two after I was given an amazing Montmartre house-sitting offer I couldn’t refuse. And then two months turned into four when I had no better plans and found a cool place to stay in Belleville. And then four turned into five when the house-sitting opportunity came up again… And so on and so forth, and now here I am on month nine. It feels like an eternity since I arrived.

Back in the day, i.e. around month three, I would joke about the probability that in 30 years I would find myself still living in a country I never really liked and never really chose, through stasis alone. As it turns out, the universe had a different ironic twist in store: I fell in love with the city I hated just as I realized I would soon be forced to leave. Continue reading

joyeuses fêtes

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Last night I walked ten minutes through the nearly empty streets of Montmartre to experience midnight mass in one of the oldest churches in Paris. Paroisse Saint-Pierre de Montmartre dates from the 12th century and is about 870 years old, which never ceases to amaze me.

I’m not Christian nor a believer in general, but there is something about the loftiness, beauty, age, and cool stone of cathedrals that quiets my mind. And there’s something about midnight mass that I find particularly cozy.

As the organ echoed through the space and the singer’s voice rose to the heavens, I finally felt calm and self-possessed about leaving Paris in a week. The memory of the day I arrived popped into my mind and tears – of wonder, not of sadness – sprung to my eyes. Then an elderly, hard of hearing couple a few rows behind me started muttering about the service.

I moved on to Sacré-Cœur Basilica next door. I noticed camo-clad soldiers with machine guns patrolling the cobblestoned streets, and I had to show the contents of my purse before going inside. There’s the romance of Montmartre and then there’s the reality of life in 2017. 

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While Saint-Pierre was loosely filled with almost 100% locals, Sacré-Cœur was overflowing with both devoted churchgoers and gawkers like me. It was a lot less hushed and still, but when the choir sang “Silent Night” the voices filled the space with as much peace as in the parish church next door. 

I tiptoed out early so that I could have the streets all to myself on the way home. I caught snatches of revelry from open windows here and there. There was a spirited French-accented singalong to “Hit the Road, Jack” that I found particularly adorable.

And then I was back at my apartment that is not really my apartment, in a country that’s not my country, on a holiday that is not my holiday, feeling like a zen ethnographer rather than a lonely stranger. And that was really alright with me.

Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noël to all those celebrating today!

a small but significant epiphany

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Since writing my blog post about French new wave music, I must have listened to “Paris” by Taxi Girl a hundred more times. Sometimes I hear it in my head when I’m walking through the streets of Paris and I smile so hard I start to laugh.

I’ve been reflecting upon why I love this song so much, and I think I’ve figured it out. This understanding in turn feels like the missing piece to the puzzle of why I had such a hard time falling for France. Continue reading

Have a fun weekend.

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I have just over two weeks left in Paris. On New Year’s Eve, I’m heading back to New York, because apparently I like symbolic departure dates. (Nearly two years ago, I flew to Dakar on Valentine’s Day.)

I haven’t found a way to make living in France sustainable, and the past eight months have been some of the toughest of my life, for multiple reasons. I need a break, and while NYC is also a struggle for me, it’s my best option right now.

That’s why after months of getting to know Paris at my leisure, I’ve suddenly gone deep into tourist mode and am trying to cross off as many things as I can from my long list of places to see and things to do. Today was fairly epic. Continue reading