After enjoying the bustle and glory of London, the pastoral beauty and awe-inspiring history of Normandy, and the slower and thoroughly French and barely-touristed cities of Bourg en Bresse and Beaune, our trip finally brought us to Paris. Paris, the city of lights. The city that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world. I admit that I have not seen all of the cities of the world, and if my travels ever bring me to Rome or Vienna, Beijing or Buenos Aires, I may perhaps change my mind. I have been to Paris, Kentucky and to Paris, Texas, but they just don’t measure up. For now, the most beautiful city that I have ever seen is Paris France.
As soon as we possibly could we checked in to our hotel on the Rue de Bac, deposited our gear, and hit the streets. Within an easy walk was the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides where Napoleon lies entombed, the monument where Princess Diana had her tragic accident, and a little further down the Champs Elysees the Arc de Triomphe. We took in all of these sights and more in the five days that we were in Paris. A full recitation of those excursions would require a story of its own, and a long one at that. I will set the table for this story of watching a movie by recounting only a few of the highlights of the week.
The most stunning moments for me happened at the Louvre and at Chartres. The Louvre is the former palace of the French kings and is now a gigantic art museum. The building is so enormous that on gray and rainy days, when it was engaged in its kingly duties, there would sometimes be hunts organized, horses and all, in wings which were cleared out for that purpose. My wife and I walked together for a while, but as our tastes differ and she wanted to see wood cuts by Albrecht Durer while I preferred to see Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts we split up with the agreement that we would meet at the snack bar at a certain hour. We both knew that I would get there early to enjoy a glass of wine and a crepe.
It took me a good while to find the Mesopotamian room but only a moment to see that for some reason it was closed. This put me in a somewhat sour mood and I began to wander the halls of that cavernous building, passing here an exhibit of central American masks, baskets and sculpture, and there passing Japanese Samuri figures in full dress. I was walking through a section of renaissance paintings of David; I was completely blown away to learn that Hebrews in the ninth century BCE, their kings especially, wore little or no clothing, and saw a sign which read “Mona Lisa” and pointed to a stairway. I determined that the Mona Lisa was something entirely worth seeing and began to mount the broad stairway which led upward to the next floor where the painting was alleged to be waiting. Halfway to the top I reached a landing where I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and prepared to climb the remaining set of stairs but was stopped dead in my tracks. I just stood on that landing looking up and struggling to breathe.
There at the top of the stairs, bathed in light which may have come from artificial or natural sources (I could not tell then, was too stunned to think about looking, and wouldn’t have been able to remember such an odd detail anyway), stood the Winged Victory. For those unfamiliar with that piece of sculpture it is of a winged female humanoid figure. The head is missing (which prefigures my trip to Chartres Cathedral) but the rest is intact, and it is a marvel in marble; perfection in form. I am not an aesthete by any measure, and cannot tell you clinically why this sculpture arrested my attention while time stood still. The beauty of the detail in the feathers on her wings, the ripples of her clothing, the feminine form which projected regal, even divine strength, and the fact that she still possessed the power to awe an admirer over two thousand years after an unknown Greek artist liberated her perfect form from a marble prison, held me captive.
After staring at her for a good long while I continued down the hallway to where the Mona Lisa rested hanging from a wall behind velvet security ropes and with an armed security guard present, presumably instructed to shoot anyone who should try to steal, disfigure, or take a photo of the famous lady with a flash camera. The Mona Lisa is indeed a phenomenal piece of work, and if I would have seen it first I would surely have been even more impressed than I was at the time. The afterglow of my introduction to the Winged Victory was strong however, and even the Mona Lisa played second fiddle to that magnificent lady.
the next day we went to Chartres Cathedral, which is about 50 miles southwest of Paris. It was a gray day and we arrived a bit early for the tour. Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and one of a select number that remain standing after the insane wars of the twentieth century. We walked slowly around the cathedral while sipping coffee and hot chocolate, inspecting the exterior of the building and the landscaping, the labyrinth in the garden behind the cathedral, and the statues which surrounded it and which were, like the Winged Victory, missing their heads, or most of them anyway. At 10 o’clock the doors opened and a guide bade us enter and showed us around the inside of the building.
There was much to see and much history to learn, but the gloom of the interior was an impediment to seeing the pictures, the wood and stonework, and the historical objects that filled the place. The gray, overcast sky did not permit very much light to penetrate the unrivaled stained glass windows. Usually, when the sun is full, the play of light and color within the cathedral is breathtaking to say the least. On this day we were forced to enjoy the cathedral as a work of art rather than as a place of living beauty dedicated to reflecting glory to the God who was the inspiration for this place. At the conclusion of the tour and on the way out I remembered the headless statues and asked what was the story behind them. It turned out that in the days of the French Revolution the removing of the king’s head was an event much approved of by the common folk of Chartres. These good folk, having never received much of an education and having probably slept through many a long and boring sermon in the cathedral, believed these statues to be of the kings of France, while in fact they were of the kings of Judah. Filled with ardor for the revolution and being sadly bereft of real kings to send to the guillotine, they gleefully decapitated the statues of the kings of Judah. Ah, well. From what I know about most of the kings of Judah, they probably had it coming too.
On the evening before our departure from France we took a barge trip up the Seine and ate at a restaurant who’s name I have forgotten but who’s food I will never forget. It was beef bordelaise with caramelized carrots and a wine that was like drinking warm velvet. My wife and I returned to our quarters exhausted from five days of walking all over Paris and twenty days of walking all over southern England, western Switzerland, and northern France. We decided to retire to our room where we took our showers, packed our luggage, opened one last bottle of French wine and turned on the television.
Just as it was in Bourg en Bresse, we saw mostly the same slime which oozed out of our American television sets (shout out here to Frank Zappa and the Mothers). There was one movie which attracted my attention however. It was “The Eiger Sanction”, a thriller staring Cling Eastwood in which he climbs mountains, kills bad guys, and generally does all of that Clint Eastwood stuff. My wife was as interested in this as she would have been in examining stool samples in a medical laboratory, so once again she was quickly curled up by my right side and snoring peacefully.
I watched that movie to the end and drank that bottle of wine to the end too. Clint and George Kennedy climbed a volcanic chimney which I had seen in Monument Valley in Utah and so the movie had a little personal interest for me, but by far the most interesting part of the movie was the fact that it was in French. Try to think about that; a Clint Eastwood movie in French. The fluid, melodic, slightly nasal quality of the French language simply does not lend itself to a Clint Eastwood movie. German maybe, Arabic is a possibility too, Klingon absolutely! But French? Imagine if you will Clint with his face hard as stone, his eyes squinting with malevolent intent, his teeth gritting like two boulders grinding living bone between them, and then: “Je bleh bleh bleh. Sui le Bleh du bleh, etc., etc., etc.” Really? I almost laughed loudly enough to awaken my wife.
Turning out the lights I reflected on the wonderful things we had seen and tasted and learned on this trip. Perhaps I will write of them some day. Many things filled my soul with awe, and many filled my head with new facts and understandings. My stomach had been filled with some of the most amazing food on the planet and my heart filled with affection for wonderful people whom we met in three countries on a different continent than our own. But as I drifted off to sleep on that last night in beloved Paris I couldn’t empty my head of the image of Old Clint growling at his enemies with a voice meant for poetry, not mayhem.