Friday, February 27, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Eighteen

Friday, 23 December, 1988
Dijon to Pontarlier to Bern to Löhenthal*

Got up at 4:45 like a good child. Good thing I didn’t rely on the wakeup call the desk lady said she’d give me. It never materialized.

Dreamed again of doing backflips all night. Must be something about the bed. Too soft.

Down to the hotel lobby by 5:20. Nobody was there, there was no sign of any number to call for a cab, and there was no switch for the hall where the phone was. Wasn’t even sure what to do with the key. Decided just to hang it on the hook under my room number, and get down to the street.

No sign of cabs there. So, again, I carried the bags. At least they were lighter now. One cab I saw, passed me, going pretty fast. Everyone in Dijon drives fast, it seems.

Anyway, made it to the 5:58 train in decent time, thank God. First change in Dôle, about thirty-five minutes later. Had a bit of anxiety when the train stopped at another small town two minutes before due time in Dôle and I couldn’t see the station sign. But I decided Dôle had to be bigger. And it was.

Train to Pontarlier from there. Hour and a half ride. The conductor or whoever he was joined me in the 1st Class coach (I was the only one there) and wanted to talk all the way in. At least he was friendly and soldiered on despite my bad French, even though he kept me from working on my journal. He says they're planning to build a tunnel under the English Channel (La Manche). First I've heard of it-- I hope it won't mean the ferries will stop running. He also told me there was snow on the ground at Pontarlier. Oh! I hadn’t considered that possibility.

And as the sun began to rise I could see out the window that lo, he was right. First real snow I’ve seen all season.

Over two and a half hours to while away in
Pontarlier, and that worked out all right. I left my bags in the ticket agent’s office (gratis) and headed for town. Found a patisserie open and went in and had fresh warm rolls and a pot of tea, sitting down like a civilized person.

While in the washroom there I noticed on a town map they had posted on the wall that this town sports a Rue Berlioz. This I had to see. So I hiked over across their bit of river, on sidewalks that had either been shovelled or else on which the snow was good and packed.

Rue Berlioz is residential one side and has the town swimming pool on the other. Not terribly relevant, but not so different from Rue G. Fauré or Rue Moliere a block or so over. I did admire the street sign, the very fact of it, though. If I were into kiping street signs that’s one that would disappear fast.

Yes, and I’d violate at least three of the Ten Commandments in the process, too.

Well, time for me to turn to more uplifting things. Back to the commercial part of town and searched for a place to sell me some ribbon for that bottle of champagne for Lukas’s* family. The fabric kind would look best, I decided. So I got a meter of red sateen and a meter of nice white cotton lace, which would do nicely.

Back towards the station then, but got rather turned around because the street where I’d gotten the ribbon diverged away from my goal. I was across the river again and over by the local Nestlé plant when I realized this was getting me nowhere. Backtracked, found the signs, and decided I had time to go to the last patisserie I’d passed and spend some of the last of my French coinage on a Jule log cake and one last meringue. Would’ve spent more but thought I might need some money for Customs.

Turned out I didn’t. The inspectors came by on the train. I told them about the champagne and they asked, only one? I said yes, they asked if I had any tobacco, I said no, and that was that. Bon voyage.

Takes no time at all to get into Switzerland from there. Very beautiful today with the snow on the mountains and fields and trees. And the black crows flying across added just the right touch to the monochromatic scene.

The people on the train were obviously Swiss and I could discern the difference from the French. More athletic-looking, less consciously fashionable.

As for marking my national origins, not one person in the last two weeks has nailed me for an American. English, Dutch, or German, but never American. Funny, especially after the Coverdale*

Snow disappeared by Neuchatel and Bern. Pity.

Bern train station is very big and very busy. Had a devil of a time finding the WC and then it was all pay toilets. Forget it.‡

But the currency exchange was easier and I got change for the phone from the Swiss money I’d brought. And I was able to exchange my French money, from the half-franc pieces on up. Didn’t think I’d be able to.

Swiss franc is about $1.47 these days. Bit different from France.

Called Lukas. I’d planned what I’d say in German if his mother had answered, but he did himself. I was speaking French and English and German all jumbled up together but he said from now on I was to drop the French (though he understands that language quite well, too).
He gave me directions on the best train to take and told me he’d meet me on the platform at Olten, especially since the exits lead two different directions.

All the places on the train that goes through there were reserved. But when I told the conductor I was getting off in Olten (told him in very bad German, I’m afraid) he let me stay where I was.

Did the bow for the champagne just before I got off. No time for it to get too squashed that way.

Lukas was not right there when I got down. I got the feeling he was probably down at the other end looking among the passengers from the second class cars. I looked a bit and thought I saw him, then he turned and saw me and came back down the platform.

And it hit me that I’d forgotten how damned good-looking he is. I admit that just now anyone familiar would seem good looking to me but I think a great deal of this perception was objective.

He hoisted my bag and carried it out to the car. But before he closed the trunk on it and my backpack I produced the bottle of champagne. He seemed well-pleased.

I did not give him a hug on the platform. I wanted to and felt somehow the decision was up to me. But I was too shy and the critical moment passed. What I did do is talk too much. I did not tell him that I’d gotten so depressed that being anywhere sometimes seems pointless or that occasionally I’ve taken out my surreptitious store of photographs of Nigel Richards* just to remind myself that there are such charming and intelligent people around to someday again enjoy. But since he asked I did tell him I was rather tired of travelling and wouldn’t mind going back to Oxford early.

As for him, he’s been seeing his friends since he’s gotten back. I told him to be sure and go anywhere he’d been invited in the next two-three days and never mind me.

I told him about various things that’ve happened to me in France and he pointed out salient features in the landscape. If I had to capture it with anything I’d say the country around Löhenthal is like central Missouri near the Ozarks, except that the hills are more rugged here. But the village itself is built on rolling hills.

The Renzberger* family house is a compact modern place with the main living spaces on the second level. The room I was given is off the entry hall, downstairs. Lukas’ mother keeps talking about how small it all is, though, but it doesn’t seem as crowded as my mother’s place in Houston.

Almost as soon as I arrived, Frau Renzberger said to me, "You must call your mother in America and tell her you are safe."

I was perplexed. Why should I call Mom? I’m over thirty; I don’t normally report in to her whenever I go from place to place. I said, "Uh, thank you, but my mom knows I’m travelling in Europe during the vacation."

"No, you must call. She might think you changed your mind and decided to come home for Christmas."

"No, I’d’ve told her if I was doing that."

"But you must call her. She might worry you were on that airplane that crashed on the 21st."

Now she had my attention. "What airplane?"

Hadn’t I heard? And she told me about a PanAm jet on its way to America that started out in Frankfurt and picked up passengers in London and then was blown out of the sky over Scotland. Terrorists, they think it was. Everyone killed, of course, and a lot of people on the ground. A terrible thing. I must call my mother.

"All right," I agreed. "I’ll call her collect."

"No, no, you just use our phone. Just call."

So I did. Mom had not been worrying that I might’ve changed my mind and planned to come to Houston for Christmas and she hadn’t even thought of me in connection with the airplane bombing. But she was very glad to talk to me and know I was well. I told her to expect the postcard and rang off. Didn’t want to run up charges on the Renzbergers’ dime.

Lukas’ mother fed me a nice lunch of eggs and ham and stollen. As she began to cook she said, "Don’t worry, these aren’t salmonella eggs!"

I was perplexed yet again. "What?"

"Salmonella," she explained patiently. "They have found salmonella in the eggs in Great Britain. It is a very big scandal. It is on all the news. Haven’t you heard about it?"

No, I had not. Something else I’d missed, wandering around the provinces of France!

After I ate Lukas and I talked a bit in the front room. He’s going back to Coverdale on the 6th.

We took a walk around the village as the sun was going down. We still managed to see quite a bit. His church (Reformed) and the Catholic church and the antique houses and the new modern-style apartment project that nobody likes. I was sorry to have to tell him it did have its good points architecturally and could be a lot worse.

Talked some more back at the house about Swiss environmental controls and so forth. Very strict, you have to turn off your engine at stoplights.

Then his father called and asked him to come fetch him, since it was nearly 7:00 and he’d missed the last train. So Lukas’ mother, Greti*, came and told me about her husband’s job at the surveying instruments plant. He’s a personnel manager and has a very stressful position.

Supper was boiled potatoes with all sorts of cheese. Quite good, and there were Christmas cookies after. Both of Lukas’s parents know English and they made an effort to speak in that language. I found myself conversing with them a great deal.

Nevertheless I feel a bit ambivalent about being here, especially as Frau Renzberger, Greti, is one of those people who insists she can and will do all the work, you run along and play, and you wonder if she really means it. And of course, I want to do everything right and be liked and don’t know if insisting or retiring gracefully is the better tack.

I tell you, I just can’t relax anywhere. Which maybe explains why I had to listen to Schubert on my headphones in order to relax enough to get to sleep tonight . . .

†The parody lyrics to "Three Little Maids" that my two fellow-students and I had sung in our panto bit were all about the characters' being boastful, obnoxious Americans.
‡As far back as high school I'd developed an antipathy towards paying to use the restroom. Seemed immoral somehow. Like making people pay to breathe.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Seventeen

Thursday, 22 December 1988

Took the day off. First thing I did was rifle my suitcase to pull out everything I’d decided I could do without. And guess what I found in the bottom? Right. My NatWest chequebook. Oh, well.

Out for pastry for late breakfast. Got a fascinating cake-like thing called a peche, and it really did look and taste like a peach. I think I could reproduce it once I get back to my own kitchen in Kansas City. It’d be fun to try. Yesterday I got a gougère at the same place. It's like a cream puff-- choux pastry-- except savory and made with cheese. That’d be easy to make, too.

Then did some shopping: tape for the package, new batteries for my flash, another box for the post office, and a jar of real Dijon mustard as a Christmas present for Mom. And I bought some fingernail polish, thinking it would help with the fact that I just can’t keep my nails clean in this blessed country, but I can’t always be digging under them. Got pink to match me. How conservative.

Came back to the hotel to find the management had hoisted everything off the floor-- bed tables, chairs, end of the bed and all, preparatory to vacuuming the room. Oh. The woman at the desk said it was all right for me to put everything back down if I needed the room. Thanks.

(That bed was jolly heavy.)

They didn’t want to vacuum yet anyway. This was a good time to sit down and make myself do that pen and ink drawing I’d been planning as a Christmas gift for Lukas’s* family. And you know how that can generate eraser dust.

Didn’t think I’d be able to do it at first. Kept getting the image too large for the paper. But I finally got into it and though I wish I had left more white space around, it came out a lot better than I had expected and I felt better doing it than I had thought I would. Why do I have such a hangup about doing artwork?

It’s of that cottage (the one I call the Hobbit House) on Parks Road on the lefthand side as you go towards Bodley. Thought it’d be nice to give them a souvenir of Oxford but not something terribly typical. The drawing is gray in tone-- can’t help it, it’s the color of the ink. Now I just need to resist the temptation to work over it and ruin it.

That took till after 5:00. Got up then and packed up all the books, my jeans, and other things in the two Post boxes to send back to Coverdale*. Put the bust of Hector in, too. Wasn’t sure how to label it, so that box just said, "Books and Personal Effects," in English and French.

Took those to the P.O. Both went book rate, despite how I’d labelled the one. 67F total but worth it for relieving the agony.

Mailed postcards to Prof. Kay, Darla Dawson*, Regina Carroll* [a friend at my home church], Francis and Penelope Warner [the couple who ran our year abroad program in Oxford], and Mom, and so much for ones from France.

Didn’t want to spend too much on dinner so tried to find something cheap. Not much available, since I was trying to reserve at least 50F for cab fare tomorrow morning. So I ended up using the Visa at Nouvelles Galleries and bought some lox, some cheese, and some chocolate and took it all home to eat in the hotel with a bit of bread I bought earlier today.

Packed everything up then did my nails before I went to bed. Took longer than I’d hoped, but I’m out of practice. Lights out by 10:15, though.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Sixteen

Wednesday, 21 December 1988
Dijon to Autun and back to Dijon

Last night as I was getting ready for bed a scene from Hector’s L’Enfance du Christ kept running through my head. It’s the part in the Flight into Egypt section where Joseph is trying to find lodging for the Holy Family in the town of Sais.

"Ouvrez, ouvrez, secourez-nous!
Laissez-nous reposer chez vous!
Que l’hospitalité sainte soit accordée
À la mère, à l’enfant!
Hélas! De la Judée, nous arrivons à pied!"

Mon Dieu! did that fit! I about felt like I had come all the way from Paris on foot!

Train to Autun this morning. Was onboard and rolling before it occurred to me to see when I’d have to return.

Oh, great. I had just under two hours there, total, or else not be back in Dijon till 10:00 PM. Not quite.

Day was acting rather like the one when I went to Conques, but the fog settled into Autun and stayed. Meaning I couldn’t follow the steeple to St. Lazare because I couldn’t see it. And the signage wasn’t as good as in some other towns I’ve visited. I knew where the cathedral was supposed to be, generally, and kept walking up and up through the fog. I soon knew I was in trouble--I was exhausted and it was not my arms or back, it was my legs. First sign of rebellion there.

Finally made it and thought I’d come to the wrong church. Hadn’t realized how Gothicized the exterior is, especially the east end. But I proceeded around and down to the west front and, fanfare, please! there it was: Gislebertus hoc fecit. Good.

I was able to spend seventy minutes or so, only, with Maitre Gislebertus’ work, and of course there was no way I could absorb or commit to memory all of it. It must be fun sitting there on Sunday mornings, contemplating those capitals during Mass. Though of course the best ones are towards the side aisles.

Climbed up the tower stairs to the Salle Capitulaires to see the originals of many downstairs. I love that Adoration of the Magi, with the Baby Jesus reaching out to touch the one gift. It’s sweet in all the best ways.

And of course there is the wonderful tympanum, with the otherworldly Christ disposing all and the angels sheltering and aiding the little saved souls, who hide in their skirts like children.

What must it be like to live in a town that has such things in it?!

Milk run back to Dijon. Beaucoup des estudiants again. So odd looking at them. Miniskirts on the girls, long hair on the boys; they could be my crowd sixteen years ago. I feel as if I were caught in a time warp.

Back in Dijon, I found that the train I wanted to take Friday to Bern is booked solid. And that the only possibility of my getting there before 11:00 PM is to get up for one that leaves at 5:58 AM. Ouch.

And that the train and bus connections to Cluny are impossible, considering how eartly I’ll have to get to bed tomorrow night. Never mind the way to Vezelay. It’s only by bus and I could never discover which ones.

So regrettable as it may be, I think tomorrow we are going to punt. We do not want to be the world’s worst bitch with Lukas’s* family.

Took myself to dinner this evening. First time I’d sat down for a meal since Toulouse; about time I did. After wandering around a bit, I came back and ate at the restaurant across the street from the hotel, the St. Jean.‡

75F menu. Had escargot for the first time ever; I recalled Miss Manners says you order escargot for the sake of the garlic butter, but the butter for these had parsley. Oh well. I learned it is expected that one will dip bits of bread into the melted butter and thus get it all.

As for the little boogers themselves, in that juice they’re just another mollusk. I prefer oysters but they’re good enough.

The entree was trout in a wine sauce with whole mustard grains. Waitress did a decent job of deboning the fish, though of course eating trout is always an ossic adventure-- which I always forget.

Service was attentive, almost too much so. Server kept wanting to talk but I disliked feeling that my eating habits were being inspected.

Ordered a demi bottle of white wine with the meal, of the same sort as was in the fish sauce. An aligote, I think it was called. I probably didn’t need 35cl of wine but I drank it anyway. I can’t say I was drunk thereafter but I was glad I only had to cross the street to return to my hotel.

Dessert was pears in cassis juice, aka the omnipresent blackcurrent. Pretty and nice.

So. There, I have Dined.

Back to the room and wrote postcards, including one to Prof. Kay [my Medieval history professor] at KU.

And listened to French radio. They played a new cut of The Band’s "The Weight," which I’ve been singing in my head, among other songs, since Moissac:

"I pulled into Nazareth,
I was feelin’ 'bout half past dead.
Just needed a place where I could lay my head.
‘Hey, mister, can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed?’
He just grinned, shook my hand,
‘No’ was all he said."

Sounds familiar!
†Roughly translated, "Please open the door! Help us! Let us come in and rest in your house! For holy hospitality's sake, be kind to a mother and her infant child! Alas! all the way from Judea we have come on foot!"
‡This establishment continued with a good reputation presumably till sometime after the turn of the millenium, and was reopened in 2007 as "Pourquoi Pas?"

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Fifteen

Tuesday, 20 December, 1988
Paris to Reims to Paris to Dijon

PARIS-- Was supposed to get the 8:30 for Reims from the Gare d’Est this morning. But due to not figuring in Paris rush hour on the Métro and having to figure out a strange railway station, I just missed it. First time I’ve missed a train so far. Funny, as I discovered later, I might’ve made it if I’d remembered to look for the train on the board for "Grands Lignes" instead of trying to find it on the one for "Banlieu." The difficulty was that there was an 8:30 to the suburbs, too.

Nothing to do at that point but use the time I had. So I reserved a place on the TGV for Dijon tonight.

Then I boarded the Métro and almost went out to see the abbey church of St. Denis. But the word was that the Métro there was running at 50% only and I had two more transfers to make. And if I was going to Reims today I needed to make the 11:05 train and it was heading towards 10:00 as it was.

So I stayed on the subway to the Invalides stop and walked over in the Paris sunshine to the chapel of
St. Louis des Invalides.

This church witnessed the first performance of my Requiem. They were about to hold a funeral service so I couldn’t linger, but it was good to see the place and wonder exactly where Berlioz had placed his four brass choirs.

I could see the Eiffel Tower’s top over some buildings near there. Closest I’ll get this trip . . .

Shocking, isn’t it? But this trip to Paris has primarily been a Berlioz pilgrimage for me. And even though I couldn’t find the Conservatoire day before yesterday and didn’t get the chance to visit his old street in Montmartre to see where he lived or go and "eat bread and salt on the Pont Neuf" as he did in his poor student days, I found he was more present here than he was in La Côte St. Andre. It’s given me real perspective on why I felt so empty about things there.

Paris was the city he flew to, to do and dare and struggle and use the talent God had given him. Even when Paris put him down and refused to rightly estimate his brilliance and talent, it was still the crucible where his musical skill was refined, the fertile field where his mind was sown with the strong seed of Gluck and Spontini and Beethoven and von Weber, the arena where he fought his battles for his music and for the music of the great ones who rose with him.

Whereas La Côte was the place he had to escape from, the place he feared being stifled by.

You know what it reminds me of? La Côte, I mean? Especially seeing the substantial, upper middle class house where Hector was raised, it reminds me of
Mission Hills, with all those respectable and prosperous doctors and lawyers and stockbrokers, all proudly expecting their firstborn sons to grow up and become doctors and lawyers and stockbrokers just like them. That’s what Dr. Berlioz wanted Hector to do. He wasn’t a hick country practitioner. Dr. Louis Berlioz was a scholar and a scientist of note. He published esteemed medical papers and had a name among his colleagues. He always thought his eldest would follow in his footsteps, that playing the flute and scribbling music for local string and wind ensembles as Hector did was just a civilized pastime for after hours. For his son to throw over medical school and tell his parents to hell with it, he was going to the Conservatory of Music and become an opera composer, was like a kid from Mission Hills informing his folks he was abandoning Harvard to play in a rock and roll band.

There was so much inertia pulling Hector to accede to his father’s wishes! It was always expected that he'd get his medical degree and return to La Côte and join the family practice and become as respectable and prosperous as his father. It went without saying that he'd inherit that fine house and live out the rest of his days as the esteemed physician of the Isere region! The only thing that could break that inertia was the musical fire within him and his conviction that he had to let it blaze forth and Paris was the only place he could begin to do that.

And that is why I couldn’t find or feel mon cher Hector in La Côte St. Andre. He wasn’t there. He left. He came to Paris and got away.

REIMS-- Made the 11:05. Contrarily, the weather clouded up again as the train travelled east. Of course.

The sculpture on both the west front and the north transept portals of the
Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims was being restored. Scaffolding everywhere. So for this one I spent the most time circling the flanks and the chevet. I do like the angels up in the buttress piers. And of course anyone who’s anybody is featured up on the west front.

They don’t have much of the medieval glass left at Reims. What they do have is the axial chapel windows by
Marc Chagall (interesting place for a nice Jewish boy) and some very harmonious but quirky windows by Jacques Simon. The latter included one dedicated to the making of champagne.

It’s a pity so much of the cathedral sculpture has been destroyed. It’s very effective the way it continues around to the screen on the interior of the west wall. One of my favorite scenes there was of Abraham offering a tithe of the spoils to the priest-king Melchizedek after the battle of Sodom. Abraham is dressed in full chain mail like a medieval knight!

It looked as if the weather might-- just might-- break enough for me to get some sunlight on the west front sculpture this afternoon. So I decided to go get something to eat while I waited for it to do it. As I wandered through the streets of the town, I found a shop that actually had little busts of mon cher Hector, in alabaster on a marble base. The one on display had the sculpture and the base a little out of kilter . . . In a good cause I can be pretty bold, so I asked the clerk in my best fractured French if they had any more to choose from. He got a ladder and reached down a couple more from high off the shelf above. Examined them . . . ah, yes, one of these was definitely better.

This set me back 72F but I’ve done so little souvenir acquiring so far (books don’t count). Had the store pack it in a box so it won’t get hurt in transit.

The skies did clear up so I returned to the cathedral and took some more photos of the statuary, with the west front all golden. It was a fun getting angles where the scaffolding was least in the way. Thanks to the telephoto lens on the Olympus I think I was able to get some good shots of the kings on the archivolts. Then I popped back inside and admired the sunlight streaming through the medieval glass, especially the west end rose window. What a blessing the sunlight can be!

I thought I’d read that the tomb of
Hughes Libergier, a medieval architect, was in Reims Cathedral. But I couldn’t find it. And I didn’t ask the man at the bookstall. This is dumb, because on the train back to Paris I read in the guidebook I bought that it is there somewhere . . . and now it’s too late to see it.

Before I left Reims, since I was in one of the major cities of the
genuine Champagne region, I decided to do something gracious for a change. I bought a bottle of champagne for a hostess gift for Lukas’s* family. I think I can carry that bit more . . . Have no idea if the vintner is any good. It’s just what they had on Christmas special at the Monoprix. Really wanted one of those pretty Art Nouveau bottles from Perrier but at upwards of 220F there was no way.

PARIS AGAIN-- After the return from Reims got off the subway at the Bastille stop to admire
Duc’s column and see the place where the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony was first performed. There were a lot of other places here I wished I had time to see but there was no way-- I had to find something to eat and pick up my bags from the hotel and make that train for Dijon.

Around that area, though, I found something else I was interested in-- one of the famous Art Nouveau
Métro stops, by another Hector, M. Guimard. Glad I caught that.

DIJON, THE HÔTEL MONGE-- Not a good time getting here. First of all, I cut it a little short on time in Paris. Second, with the bust and the bottle and the books and all, and with me being in general fatigued, the bags were miserably heavy to carry. And then the lady at the hotel, who’s known nothing about it so far, so why did I take her advice now? told me (in English, since she had no patience with my French), oh, the slowdown strike is still on, don’t take the Métro, take the #63 bus to the gare de Lyon.

So instead of schlepping one and a half blocks to the Métro stop I lugged everything, feeling like the Ride to the Abyss, four long blocks to the corner where, according to the concierge’s sage advice, I could get the right bus. But when sweating and panting I arrived there, I found that no one on that corner had any idea where any such #63 bus stopped.

So I took the Métro anyway. And yes, it was a bit slow, not being full service, but at least I did get to the station and onto the train with ten or so minutes to spare.

I feel like I spent most of the short time on the TGV catching my breath. I pulled into
Dijon, feeling about half-past dead. Blessedly, a man, a fellow-passenger from the train, carried my blue and heavy bag for me from the platform to the outside of the station.

Well, it seemed that since I had to use my Visa, being short of cash, and not liking to check into hotels sight unseen anymore, I thought I could just walk into town and check a couple of possibilities. The distance didn’t seem far on the Michelin Guide map.

It was excruciatingly far. It was 10:00 PM and Dijon isn’t as well populated at night as Paris or Toulouse. The streets were dark and empty and I thought, wonderful, someone could come right now and bang me over the head and steal me blind. But I was so close to the end of my rope, only able to stagger a few more steps before I had to set the bag down and rest, that I didn’t care. I couldn’t hurt worse than I already did. I almost wished someone would come along and run off with my luggage. I’d be free of it then.

Fortunately, one of the Let’s Go hotels , the Hôtel Monge, did take Visa. And they did have a room. And it’s actually not decorated too badly. Usual chenille bedspread but the wall paper is good. And it overlooks a charming courtyard and has a view of the steeples of two churches.

Also has a view of the apartment opposite, whose occupants were engaging in something I’m sure was its own absorbing reason for their forgetting to pull the shades or extinguish the lights. That’s all right, we’ll assume they’re married and leave our own curtains closed. MYOB.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Fourteen

Monday, 19 December 1988
Paris to Amiens and back to Paris

Did not get up for the 8:48 train to Beauvais. Sure, I wanted to see la Cathédrale de St.-Pierre de Beauvais, but not while I was feeling like hell and not caring all that much.

I’ve figured out by now I’m suffering from intestinal troubles, not That Time of Month. No other sign of flu, so I guess the laws of sanitation or physics or whatever you want to call it do operate in France after all, and that unrefrigerated coquille au saumon the night before last got me. If it’s food poisoning there’s nothing I can do but wait for it to blow over, so I went back to sleep.

When I did get up, I went through my things to make sure I had everything ready to go to Amiens. I was also searching to see if I could find my NatWest checkbook-- last night I discovered it was missing. I made another search of everything this morning and still couldn’t find it. I know I took it out of my purse at Toulouse to lighten the load there; I must’ve left it at the hotel.

So what morning I had was spent trying to get ahold of the National Westminster number in Oxford (a very trying experience) and then calling them to cancel my remaining cheques. They said ok and they’ll have a new book waiting for me in Oxford.

Kept having to feed the payphone francs. Ate them like candy.

Caught the 1:12 train to Amiens from la gare du Nord. Looking out the window at the landscape made my stomach feel better. It reminded me of Kansas. Isn’t that stupid? Anyway, the sun was peeking out now and again and the wind was blowing the clouds along like 70.

I’m finding it’s generally easy to find where the cathedral is in a town like
Amiens. One heads out the front door of the station and heads in the direction of the largest visible steeple. Standard Operating Procedure here.

I liked the
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame d’Amiens. I liked its height and its variety and its black and white marble floor, which you could see because the chairs were all pulled back. I even liked the fact that it’d lost a lot of its stained glass-- the clear kind lets the light in.

And maybe I liked Amiens because the skies made a strong effort towards clearing up there. It had been actively raining on my way from the station and now I went out the northwest portal and stood there, watching the sky which was full of blowing clouds, to see what it would do. There was a thin greenish strip of blue sky over to the north which looked like it might get bigger. Meanwhile I could enjoy the sight of
gargoyle waterspouts actually in operation.

Went back inside and wandered around the nave some more. Some workmen were repairing the metalwork on the north transept chapel and I noticed they had some music going. I hoped it wasn’t secular. But then I listened better and realized it was a tape of Mass being sung, and then I discovered it was emanating from speakers in the nave itself.

More restoration work was going on in the apsidal chapels. One of these had wall paintings that were covered up by scaffolding and drop cloths to the shoulders of the saints depicted. But the light was very bright on the heads, which I could see. Which was good.

Stepped outside to check on the skies again; much better. The sky had turned blue and the white clouds were racing by towards the east, so that if you looked up at the west front it looked as if the entire facade were tipping down on you. Vertiginous and exhilarating, all at once.

No direct sunlight on the sculptures yet but one can admire anyway. That
Beau Dieu is so wonderful. I wish I could get up and look at it straight in the face, though. Though I suppose looking up to Jesus is most appropriate.

No card stand in the church so I went up the street to a librairie and bought some cathedral postcards and got some change for the guidebook the church did have (honor system). Went back and got that just before the cathedral closed for the afternoon.

The southern portal is the one with the Vierge Dorée, which is up again after recently being restored. (Some of the postcards for sale show the doorway without it.) I didn’t spend much time contemplating that ensemble, though, because there was a drunk hanging around there being rather obnoxious.

(Interesting, how I thought of him as simply ‘a drunk,’ and not as a ‘drunken Frenchman.’)

Train back to Paris at 5:57. In the meantime I wandered around Amiens a bit and stopped for supper provisions at the usual patisseries. Bought a cheese crepe affair that apparently is a specialty of Picardie.

Back in Paris, coming from the Luxembourg Métro stop, I noticed that Penguin has an English language bookshop along there. Pity I didn’t notice it sooner. I’m dying for something besides
Geoffroy de Villehardouin to read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Thirteen

Sunday, 18 December, 1988

Woke up around 7:00 AM with a stomachache. It was either food poisoning, indigestion, the flu that’s going around, or the approach of the wrong time of month. I chose to believe the last, having pills on hand to throw at that condition. So I took them then went back to sleep.

Nevertheless I did not feel too wonderful all day. Considered not getting up for Mass (à la Mexico City, 1970†) but decided I’d regret it if I didn’t.

So I put on my gray dress and went to Mass at Notre Dame. It’s rather odd-- the organ plays and they have readings and so forth between services. Meanwhile people are walking around taking pictures-- with flash-- and it’s a real zoo. Fortunately things calmed down for the service itself.

There was a copy in French and in three other languages of the readings. What I need is that and the actual eucharistic liturgy, in French. A copy of the sermon wouldn’t hurt, either. The priest spoke, I believe, on not making Christmas a surface thing. Very edifying, I’m sure, if I could’ve understood it.

I still did not feel at all well and hoped to gracious I would not have one of my famous Raging Hormonal Imbalances right in the middle of the service. But I survived to go up and take Communion (one kind only), and to come back to my seat and lose it.

Emotionally, I mean. It wasn’t being there, per se, that did it. It was more the feeling of oh, God, what am I supposed to be doing with my life, and if You don’t let me know, who will? I asked Him to give me some kind of sign as to what He wants me to do . . . somebody bringing something up in a conversation, maybe. I don’t know. What did He give Jim Leffel*‡ when he was struggling over accepting the call to Wilkes-Barre*?

Outside afterwards there was a rather ragtag group in front of the cathedral singing Christmas carols-- in English-- for the Armenian earthquake relief (and that’s what happened there, on top of the delicate political situation).

I headed north and had a bottle of Perrier at the first café I found open. I needed the bubbles. Stomach lousy. Between the Pompidou Center and Les Halles I made myself buy a crepe and eat it, but I wasn’t too happy about it.

Still, there were things I had to do today so I pushed myself. Had to find a florist to sell me some real flowers, for one. And as long as I was fairly close, I thought I’d go up to the Boulevards and see where Berlioz went to music school.

Found the fleurs first, near the rue Montmartre. I had to decide what he would like. I settled on a bunch of those small tulips, yellow and white and dark pink and variegated, with their green stems and leaves. Freesias would’ve done well, too, but the only ones they had were all yellow and looked like cheese popcorn. Definitely wrong.

Walked on over to where the Conservatoire is supposed to be, but unless there is another place in Paris with streets named rue Bergère and rue Faubourg de Montmartre, they’ve demolished the building that was there in the early 19th century and moved the school elsewhere.§ Still, to think that he walked there once, on that pavement, and passed through that air!

Took the Métro to Havre-Canmartin, where I encountered a check. The #13 line, which I needed for both la Cimetière Montmartre and for St. Denis [to see the famous abbey church] was closed. Went on to Villiers to at least reach the former and discovered the #6 line wasn’t going today, either. Transit strike on. So I went back to the Place Europe stop and walked it from there.

The cemetery is under the Rue Calincourt overpass, unlike what is shown on my map. Found the entrance down below, though, and inquired of the uniformed porter where to find it . . . Hector’s got a lane named after him there. And he’s not under the viaduct, thank God.

French urban cemeteries aren’t like American ones. They don’t go in for green grass and well-tended plots. They tend to be little necropoles of miniature chapels and temples all jumbled in cheek by jowl with only drear, sandy soil between.

But thank God, somebody has done something about that ghastly Beaux Arts horror of a tomb that Hector originally had, the picture of which I saw in a book in the Philadelphia Free Library. It was all redone in 1970 in black Andes granite (or something similar) with gold in the incised lettering. The portrait on the medallion isn’t as beautiful as it should be, it doesn’t properly convey his character, but everything is very well tended, there are cyclamens, the pretty dark pink kind, and healthy-looking shrubbery growing in pots that are an integral part of the monument, not like the desiccated chrysanthemums on some nearly tombs, and-- oh, God, Berlioz! Berlioz! I can’t-- I wish-- Oh, Lord, I-- and he’s-- I can’t express it!

One doesn’t go to pieces totally. One mustn’t. There are other people around every so often. And it’s not like he died recently or anything . . . let us be sensible.

I could take refuge in activity. I could at least give him what I brought him. Someone who came earlier had left him a bunch of white chrysanthemums (I was glad to see that); I unbound my tulips and laid them across the other flowers. And I knew I’d chosen the right thing. They’re like him, in a way. Straightforward, unpretentious, colorful in their way, but still sensitive to the rigors of the mundane.

There’s a tree there . . . its roots probably grow down into his grave. It’s very handy when you have no other shoulder to cry on . . . Though I’ve cried on his shoulder often enough, figuratively, singing his songs and reading his memoirs and his letters, taking comfort in knowing there was one who has been through it himself, who could express it all so as to draw it up into ineffable poetry and beauty, one who despite his sins and failings took the gift that God gave him and used it, sublimely . . . I couldn’t help it, I prayed again the prayer I’ve said for the past eleven years, that please, God, in Jesus’ Name, if he can’t actually be saved-- and if there’s any proper way he could be, please effect it!-- please allow his faithfulness to his gift and all the good he’s done through its fulfillment speak grace and amelioration for him in the judgement! Please!

There’s a cross engraved above his name on his monument. I hope it is not there for naught. I wish I could believe the Roman Catholic doctrine that you can be saved by being baptised as an infant. I cannot, but it would be a comfort.

I tried to sing the Te Decet Hymnus for him but my voice broke-- "Ad Te caro omnis veniet!" Yes, but how-- and in what spirit?

There were some fuzzy cats roaming around (none of them black) and one approached now and sat a little ways off, preening herself. I went over and patted her, and, unusually for a French cat, she responded to it. If she’d been [my own cat] Didon I’d’ve picked her up, but she was not.

Then I went back and stood once more before la noire tombe-- mon pauvre Hector! Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine!-- kissed my hand to him, and departed.


Found la Square Berlioz after that, not far from la Place Clichy. The statue there is of him as a younger man than on the medallion of the tomb. It was not carved out of very high quality stone-- it has deteriorated badly. I dislike seeing that. And somehow, though I’m glad he is honored in public sculptures like that, somehow seeing them makes him seem more distant, unlike the portraits. I’ve read that his portrait by Courbet is said to be the only one by that artist that has a spark of life. If so, I’m glad it was Hector’s. Nothing can portray him that does not give you those piercing, wonderful eyes.

The square is largely given over to a large sandbox where children play, and sandy paths where the kids were kicking around a soccer ball. I wonder what he’d think of having his statue placed in a playground. He wasn’t much good at children, except for his son Louis.

Since going to see the abbey church of St. Denis was a bust and it was getting on towards 4:00 anyway, I took the Métro back downtown and got off at the Opéra stop. Had to look at the building which, while not the one that Hector knew, yet houses the institution that only opened its doors to him once.

Ironically, they did the Damnation de Faust, as I saw on a poster in the lobby, on the 8th. If I’d known that I could’ve come in from Chartres, no problem. Damnation, indeed.

They had tours but I just didn’t feel up to it. Browsed the gift shop; they had enamelled composer pins, even one of Hector. But they were just too expensive: 70F.

Over then to les Galeries Lafayette to see if maybe they were running the same sale on slips their branch in Toulouse was.

They weren’t; moreover the only suitable kind of slip they did have was running 225F each and was made in the good old USA. I think I’ll wait till I get back to Oxford.

Close one on the escalator there. It was full of people and as we rode upwards, a fairly good-sized man in his 60's lost his balance just ahead of me. Only my never-that-strong and presently very fatigued left arm and hand desperately clutching the rail kept him and me and everyone else from falling like dominoes. I don’t even think I was holding the righthand rail. I just stiffened up and hoped he’d get his balance before I gave way, too. When he made a grab for the rail he pushed into me worse and I had to step back, crunching the toes of the guy behind me (who wasn’t being any help, I might add). Fortunately the older man regained his footing at that point and aside from a little soreness, I was ok.

Still can’t figure out how I did that. I was feeling extremely yucky. Thank God I was able to, though.

The store was packed with Christmas shoppers and decorated to the hilt. (It’s the same all over, isn’t it?) And then it has that immense stained glass dome over the central court.

Back towards the hotel on the Métro (I might use the busses if I had a bus map. But I don’t, so I don’t). Really dragging by now. Figured I’d better find some food though so I got some junk at a croissanterie on Boul. St. Michel.

Got it and me up to the room-- and just couldn’t face it. Changed my clothes and climbed under the bedspread. Was not going to make it to the organ concert at Notre-Dame at 5:45. No. Listened to the radio, BBC World Service. They were airing their worldwide request program, and played the Hallelujah Chorus. And for the third time today I broke down and cried. Oh, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Made myself work at train schedules for the next two days but other than that accomplished nothing but sleep all evening.
†I was part of a high school group that took an Easter weekend trip to Mexico that year. On the Saturday, I, like an idiot, Drank the Water, and woke up the next morning too sick to go to the American church for Easter service. Happily, it was a mild case of MR and passed off by late that afternoon.
‡The immediate past pastor of my home church in Kansas City.
§Turns out I'd come up with the wrong address. The old Conservatoire building was and is still there, three or four blocks away from where I was looking for it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It Will Be Interesting to See

. . . How I do for ten days to a fortnight without a computer.

Late last month, I established with the HP phone tech support people that my CD/DVD drive is toast. They sent out a guy to put in a new one, but alas! my processor is one of those skinny Slimline models without a lot of maneuvering room, and somehow the cable between the CD drive and the motherboard was broken. The only way for me to get it fixed is to send it to the factory repair facility in Indiana.

It was still under warranty-- just-- when this happened, so that's all right. HP has sent me a prepaid box to send the processor to them in. I waited two weeks while Carbonite backed up my data-- the repairs shouldn't affect the harddrive, but you never know. I've dealt with my online banking through the end of the month. I've taken care of some volunteer work that I needed the computer for. And tomorrow I'm going to pack it up and send it away.

I'll try to get over to the public library from time to time to check my email. Ideally. No guarantees of regularity. Maybe I'll post a line or two on my blogs, sans photos.

Otherwise, I'm going to party-- I mean, function-- like it's 1992. That's the last year I had no word processor or computer. In the coming days when I am not sitting in front of the monitor writing things or tarting up my blog entries with pictures and links or looking up interesting facts on the Internet (like this one I came across last night. Hey, I was in the middle of that and never realized the phenomenon had such a distinctive name!), how will I occupy my time?

Will I write letters by hand, or will I be stymied because most of my friends' addresses are on my computer?

Will I work like a Trojan on the house remodelling, or will I listen to what they told me at the chiropractor's office, that I'd exacerbate my accident injury if I do that?

Since I won't be able to download them, will I control myself as to taking digital pictures, or will I max out all my storage cards and buy more?

Will I build my plant-starting frame and get some seeds in against the Spring? Will I get some old sewing projects done, or will they continue to sit where they are?

Will I read the important books I ought to be reading, or will I let my trips to the library to check my e-mail give me the excuse to check out and read mystery novels and other frivolity?

One thing I'm pretty sure will happen, I won't be drying out my eyes staring at the screen till all hours of the night.

I've scheduled some installments of "My Cut-Rate Grand Tour" for publication in the interim. Comments always appreciated, even if I may not respond to them very quickly.

But it's been a long time since I've been computerless. I truly will be intrigued to observe how I take it. Will I suffer IT withdrawal, or will I experience almost a sense of back-to-the-simple-life freedom?

We shall see!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twelve

Saturday, 17 December, 1988

Night on the train from Toulouse wasn’t bad, once I got the guy who was standing in the vestibule to turn off his ghetto blaster and more or less stopped the squeak my suitcase was making.

They wake you up by intercom fifteen minutes before arrival. I took their word for it when they said they wanted everyone ready to get off by the time the train got in.

La gare d’Austerlitz is pretty bleak, especially at 7:00 AM on a dark winter’s morning. Had a cup of hot chocolate for the warmth and for change for the locker, then stashed my gear and headed for the Métro. Bought a ticket good for four days straightaway.

Decided to take the easy way out and headed for the Latin Quarter to look for hotels. Cluny-Sorbonne stop, Boul. St. Michel. Used the Paris section of the Frommer guide.

Almost settled on staying in this one place on the rue de Sommerard, which was cheaper at 115F, including breakfast, and has a staff that spoke quite good English. But the only rooms they had faced into the interior courtyard, and they didn’t take Visa and my traveller’s cheques are running obscenely low already.

So I ended up on the fifth floor of the Hôtel St. Michel on rue Cujas, where I am paying 170F largely for the view of the dome of the Sorbonne from the little balcony overlooking the street. And it does have a little bathroom with a shower and a toilet (no bidet) right in the room (though it smells a little; tolerable if I keep the door shut). It also has ghastly green and gold flowered wallpaper, reminding me yet again that Americans have no monopoly on bad taste.† And it has the inevitable ripple chenille bedspread. No way around those, here.

Afraid I didn’t get a heck of a lot done today. Spent the entire morning just being tired. Oh, I did eat the pastry I bought in Moissac, and the rest of the cheese from La Côte last Monday. And I made a list of places I wanted to see here and studied the Métro map for the correct stops. And finally I lugged myself out of the desk chair and took a shower and changed my clothes . . .

Over to the Musée d’Orsay after that. It really is as odd as it appeared in Progressive Architecture. All that 19th Century Beaux Arts statuary cluttering up the main hall.

Wasn’t there to see that, though . . . Wound my way through the pre-Impressionist and Realist paintings till I found the hall devoted to Courbet. And there, on a side wall, not at all well-lit, but what do you expect in this blessed country, there it was-- Courbet’s portrait of Hector. It was darker than I’d expected, but the eyes were still burning, stern but sad and very honest and frank. God! I could have loved him! I suppose I do love him, as much as one can love a man who died eighty-five years before one was born.

I have to visit his grave before I leave this town and I’m not really looking forward to it. As mad as it sounds, I don’t want to have to admit that he’s really gone, that there isn’t somewhere in this world where he still might be.

Oh folie!

There was nothing to do now but look at his portrait and try not to weep publicly, or at least conspicuously (too late to prevent the former, I’m afraid). And to apologise to him for not having my part in the Te Deum down better and to promise him to always perform his works better in the future.

Then I stepped back and watched the others who so heedlessly or negligently passed by . . . If I were Hector and that were a portrait of Gluck or Beethoven and I heard people make flippant remarks about it as two teenaged boys did, you can be sure I’d have something very decisive and to the point to say about it. But I lack Hector’s confidence.

Looked at some other things while I was there. I’m sorry I spent so much time on the early 19th Century folks and none on the Art Nouveau artists. The Museum closed early today (they were bringing in and mounting an exhibit in honor of Mozart) so there was just no time. But I did go see the Impressionists, the Renoirs, and the Monets and Cezannes and Van Goghs. Had to, even if they weren’t Important. I needed the sense of illumination after the murkiness of the paintings done earlier in the century.

Happily, the skies were trying to clear up a bit outside. But it was a bit surreal how it was doing it, the sun gold-edging the clouds and delicately washing the domes and rooftops and the girders of a nearby Ferris wheel.

5:00 PM and trying to get dark by then so I only went over to Notre Dame and noted the time for High Mass in the morning. There were people all over the church even at that time on a Saturday evening.

Headed back to the hotel, picking up a bit of dinner on the way. Got it at a large charcuterie where they sold all sorts of prepared food from attractively lit display cases. As I waited for my order to be wrapped I noticed that the case didn’t seem to be refrigerated, even though it was full of cooked fish and seafood dishes. Seemed weird to me, but I reminded myself that just because we Americans are into refrigeration and keeping everything bone-chillingly cold, that doesn’t mean everyone else in the world has to be. They can have their own customs if they want! They probably make everything fresh and sell it fast enough that it doesn’t matter.

Trying to walk back to the rue Cujas, I learned the hard way that the Galeries Lafayette map they gave me at the hotel wasn’t worth a poop-- leaves out half the streets. I got good and turned around and good and tired before I discovered, oh hell, I’d gone two Métro stops the wrong direction along the Boul. St. Germaine. So I got on the train and came back the easy, if not so scenic, way.

On the way from the Métro stop I did something I’d sworn the other day I wanted to do as soon as I had the opportunity-- I bought a copy of one of the London papers. Paid 9F for the Independent (don’t know what that says about me or my politics-- something ominous, I’m sure) and took it back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening reading it and eating my coquille au saumon and my piece of triple-reinforced gateau de chocolat with the blade of my Swiss Army knife. Civilization.
†They've done some serious redecorating since then, as you may see here. And some serious price increasing, too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Eleven

Friday, 16 December, 1988
Toulouse to Moissac to Toulouse and on to Paris

Found out last night I’d have to skip Souillac-- the train schedules were impossible. So I spent the typically-gray morning getting traveller’s cheques changed, picking up my Youth Hostel pass at the Poste Restante window, buying a new battery for the Olympus, and trying to find 36-exposure slide film. Very difficult-- and very expensive when you do find it.

I've got enough French to clearly ask a passerby where the nearest camera store was; my deficiency was in understanding the answer. In France they don’t tell you to go right or left so many blocks or streets. No, they tell you how many meters away the place is. But I've got no ear for high numbers in French. And even with me being an architect, I'm a lousy judge of distance. So I'd go whichever way the person was pointing, walk down that street to the next intersection, ask someone else the same question, and repeat and repeat till at last I made it to where I needed to be. No hope of comparison shopping at more than one camera store under those circumstances! I had to take what I could get.

As I was on my errands I noted something worth mentioning. It’s odd how you’ll see different sides of a town on different days. Last couple of days it’s seemed as if the streets of Toulouse were populated by nothing but tres chic upper-middle class types, but today, it seemed as if I noticed a homeless or impoverished person lying in two or three doorways per block. Of all ages and both sexes, too. I never know quite what to think of people my own age or younger who do that. You’d think they’d be able to find something . . . but maybe they’re too depressed.

At the last I decided to go say goodbye to St.-Sernin. When I got there I realized I’d never gone round behind the basilica and looked at the chevet. So I did and mon Dieu, it’s the prettiest thing! Those cylinders just build and build in that rose brick with the white trim, up and up to that fabulous tower. And I hadn’t brought my camera this time!

After that, back to the hotel at Place Wilson, picked up my luggage, and snagged a taxi. I was running close on the time for the train at 1:50 to Moissac.

At la gare Matabiau I put my baggage except for the cameras into a locker and caught my train. Not a terribly long ride. Arrived; followed my nose and the signs to the abbey church of St.-Pierre.

Saw the cloister first. As is becoming customary, I was the only one there, except for the nice young man selling billets at le guichet.

Sun did not cooperate aujourd’hui. Still, I took my time going around and examining each and every capital. It’s much easier recognising the ones with the parables or other Old or New Testament themes. I’m afraid I’m not as firm on church-age iconography as I should be.

The sculpture is in various stages of preservation. There’s obviously been some restoration work done in some cases, in materials with worse wearing capabilities than parts that look to be original. The plaques of the apostles, which I take to be 12th C., are in very good shape.

It was pretty cold there and I got to thinking about the monastic vocation. I could see how you had to have one, a vocation, I mean, to put up with reformed Benedictine conditions (the refectory† didn’t even have a door on it! At least, not fitted into the doorway arch, since that had been frescoed, which I hadn’t expected to see, and there was no sign of hinge mortises in the stone surface). And I could understand how the Cluniacs‡ could slide into luxury. The alternative was there, and not particularly attractive.

As for me, I haven’t much endurance at all. I spent some time figuring up how much more time I have to go on this exile and wasn’t too pleased to find I wasn’t even halfway through. Twenty-three more days.

Well, I can always kill time looking at late Romanesque capitals.

Around to the south portal of the church after that. Discovered it’s on one side of a southwest corner porch. There is a west door, too, but I suppose it’s not as often used. I think the porch does go most of the way across the west front of the church.

Anyway, everybody was there in that portal just as they were supposed to be: Jesus in glory with all the Twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse around Him (I love it when translations put that as ‘old men’) and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the lionesses (they are all lionesses) on the trumeau and Peter and Paul on the jambs. It wasn’t exactly St.-Denis but it’s getting there.

There’re even little bits of carving up the outer jambs and continuing into the archivolts. Mostly naturalistic, shells and flowers and things.

Inside, the church is-- different. Very mural, no side aisles, and it’s all been frescoed-- so that it looks as if it’s been wall-papered.

(I was amused by the big furnace installed in one of the side chapels, with its blower aimed into the nave.)

One of the main streets of Moissac extends out of the plaza in front of the south portal. There was a little shop just a few yards up from the church where I finally fulfilled my craving for some jewelry. Bought some earrings with abalone shell inserts for 40F. Trouble was, when I looked at them outside, out of the warm showcase lights, I saw they were vermeil and not the silver I thought I’d gotten. Almost wish I’d gone back and spent the 10F more on the ones that were.

The town seems pretty lively. Wandered around until time for the train, which wasn’t due till 7:10. They have an exhibition hall donated in 1930 by the city of Paris, all decorated in Art Nouveau. Too late to get any decent shots of it, though.

Cold, so I ducked into a salon de thé and had some hot chocolate. Bought a pastry (a jesuite) and a piece of pizza to take with.

Only 5:30 by then so I took my time heading back to the station. Moissac’s streets are all strung with Christmas lights, too. Into a bookstore for a minute and glanced at a French news magazine. More on Armenia, but I’m not sure what the problem is there. Surely the rioting hasn’t broken out into civil war!

About three blocks from the station I stopped for another hot chocolate. Interestingly, here in France they serve that with the sugar on the side. It comes somewhat bitter, more akin to coffee than to a dessert drink.

To the station a little after 6:00. Ate the piece of pizza (turns out "pizza nature" means without meat) and waited for the train. There were a number of children in the station, too, and the father, as I supposed, of two of them was saying something about Montauban (an intermediate town) and Toulouse. So it seemed the kids were going there.

It seemed odd, then, that everyone but me went out on the platform along about 6:20. I began to wonder, so at 6:25 I went and asked the counterman. He told me, as far as I could make out, that the 7:10 train to Toulouse wasn’t running and that one had to get the 6:30 to Montauban and change for Toulouse. Well, that wasn’t what the printed schedule or even his departure board said, but I guessed I’d better take his word for it.

So I did.

The station at Montauban was really full of kids, of all ages. I’m not sure if it was the usual weekend exodus from country boarding schools or perhaps the beginning of the Christmas holidays. They all had their nylon duffel bags and backpacks in tow and occasionally a parent or two. Too many of them were smoking but they all had that cocky, confident look that thinks it can go out and lick the world. I don’t say they made me feel old, exactly; just as if I’d taken a wrong turning someplace.

I know, they’re all just as insecure as I was at their age (and still am!). But I could never fake the opposite like that. It all comes down to wishing I’d been born pretty . . .

The next train to Toulouse was listed at 7:04. When it came it was two cars, period, for all those kids and a few stray adults. I ended up standing all the way to la gare Matabiau.

I can’t say much for some of the kids’ manners. They strewed their gear all over adjacent seats, depriving others of a chance to sit down. But the way the seats were arranged, tête à téte, it might have felt odd to sit there anyway. Like horning in on someone else’s conversation. And they did have to courtesy to get up and fight their way to the smoking car when they wanted a cigarette.

The train was a milk run and stopped at every small town between Montauban and Toulouse. I noticed there was a first class section at the front of the car where I could at least stand without being subjected to the smoke emanating from the vestibule immediately behind me, but I decided not to be such a frigging capitalist and stayed where I was.

It was around 8:00 when we arrived back in Toulouse. The train to Paris wasn’t until 11:00 so I set off back to the basilica.

Yes, they do light it up at night. Shot the rest of the roll on the chevet and we’ll see how those come out.

I seemed to recall there being a concert tonight at 8:30 but couldn’t think where. I knew there was a poster over by the Capitole so I made my way there. Yes, at the Eglise St. Etienne, which could be reached by the rue Alsace-Lorraine, where I was. So I headed down to the church-- and after about ten minutes discovered I’d turned the wrong way and was back to la rue de Strasbourg! It was 8:40 by then so I decided to chuck it.

So I went into a café there at the rue Bayard for their 35F poisson plat du jour. Sorry, pas de poisson, pas des plats du jour ce soir. But as by then I’d already consumed half a carafe of their water I felt obliged to order something. So I got a "steak-frites" which comes garnie with nice greasy fries, even though I wasn’t really hungry, I just wanted some fish. Oh well. Got some protein into me.

Back to the station around 10:00 to sit and wait. A good complement of winos and weirdos to keep things lively. But the oddest thing was a mezzanine overlooking the waiting room, where a dance was going on. You could see the couples waltzing by through the half-curtained windows.

About fifteen till 11:00 I decided to go retrieve my stuff, but noticed that there was something on the board about the Paris train being twenty minutes late. So I checked on the platform and they told me the one sitting there was the one my reservation was for. Went and got my bags and had my reservation confirmed at the proper guichet, though I still wasn’t utterly convinced that this wasn’t the train scheduled to depart at 10:55, not 11:00. But they all said no, this was it.

And I guessed it was. Found my couchette compartment, first one in. After Carcassonne I was a little leery of being in with some strange man, as I hear sometimes happens. But there was only one other young woman. Locked everything down even so, as recommended.
†I've recently read on a website or two that the refectory was demolished in the 1800s to make room for a railway line. Huh. I wonder what large room attached to the cloister it was that I saw!
‡Actually, at Moissac it was the ordinary Benedictines that went flabby and undisciplined, and the Cluniacs who came in in the 11th C. to knock them into shape and build the new church.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Finding My Strengths

Awhile back I bought a book called Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Backed by the Gallup Organization, the authors promote the hypothesis that people are most likely to succeed and excel in all areas of life by determining and honing their talents or strengths, not by trying to correct their weaknesses. After years of research involving surveys of literally millions of people, Buckingham and Clifton established a list of thirty-four strengths. What's a strength? It's a positive theme of talent marked by "spontaneous, top-of-the-mind reactions, . . . yearnings, rapid learnings, and satisfactions."

Included in the price of the book was a log-in code which would enable the purchaser to take the online StrengthsFinder Profile. This is a paired statements instrument reflecting the survey responses the authors had received from literally millions of people and calibrated to replicate how successful people with various talents had tended to answer. Not opposites, not right-vs.-wrong; rather, designed to reflect predominant patterns. Eighty-five questions ranked from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree, with an option for "Neutral" in the middle.

For various reasons I put off taking this instrument. But a couple nights ago I finally did. My top five out of the thirty four are listed above. The only ones that I think need explanation are "Context," which has to do with finding understanding and foundations for present action in historical realities, and "Input," which doesn't mean I like to put my oar in with other people, but that I revel in collecting input and information of all sorts, whether I need it right now or not.

I can see myself in these . . . There are one or two other themes I really thought I'd come up with instead or too, but maybe they're my No. 6 and No. 7. I can't find out, though--unless and until I pay a healthy chunk of change to the Gallup Organization for a consultation with a strengths coach.

Buckingham and Clifton make a good point in that strengths are not weaknesses. If say, my Input strength seems to be leading me astray as I stay up half the night looking up random facts on the Internet, it's because I lack the concomitant strength of Discipline. This is good for me to remember, because I've had authority figures in my past who have made out that my signature strengths themes are really failings and deficiencies. Especially in terms of pastoral ministry.

So what do I do with this knowledge now? I guess that's what I should learn, put into context, get an idea about, gather input, and then go on to chart a strategy.

No, seriously, if I trust this StrengthsFinder instrument and its results, maybe the first thing I have to do is accept these qualities about myself and embrace them as useful, valuable, and good.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Ten

Thursday, 15 December 1988
From Toulouse to Conques & back to Toulouse again

Rented a car from Hertz and drove up to
Conques today. Only way practicable to get there. Hertz was the only one with unlimited kilometrage for a one-day trip so they actually came out the cheapest. 490F, meaning about £49, meaning . . . †

Oh, well. Always wanted to go to Conques.

Kind of a dumb joke here: The rental agent at the Hertz place was the first one since I’ve gotten to France who has attempted to speak any English with me. And I suppose he thought he had to, since I was allowing myself to become self-conscious over the differences between the Toulousain accent and the Parisienne one I was taught and was mispronouncing things and generally tripping all over my mouth. And this guy had the charming cheek to say to me-- in English-- "You know, if you want to learn French, you just have to practice and just try to speak it!"

I refrained from telling him I have been speaking nothing but French for the last week and a half and that when I get into stressful states I can’t even speak my native tongue properly, let alone a foreign one.

Beside, I was going to have enough fun with the car anyway. It was not a Ford Fiesta, it was a mini-Peugeot. I never did get the trunk lock to come open--well, once, to put my stuff in, but then couldn’t get it out; had to get into it through the back seat, but never mind that.

First real issue was not being able to turn the key in the ignition. Clerk came out and showed me how the steering wheel locks and you have to turn the one to free the other. Oh.

Then I worked the little car out into traffic-- where it promptly died. Tried anew. Died again. At which point the clerk came running out and showed me how this car has a manual choke and you have to pull it out till the engine warms up. Oh.

By that time I had a nervous cramp and a bad case of the shakes in my left leg and it was dancing all over the clutch. But fortunately I’d worked out the route so I knew where I was going and knew that if I just kept driving I’d get over it. And out of the major city traffic.

This was not a good day to drive near Toulouse. Extremely foggy but try telling the truck drivers that that makes a difference. I got passed a few times. Great. Let them.

French roads really are those long straight affairs with ranks of trees on either sides, like you see in pictures. Plane trees in this part of the country. Pity I couldn’t see more than a few yards of them at a time. The fog was very poetic but I could’ve done with less romanticism and more visibility.

By the time I was driving through Albi, though, it was just gray skies.

I got a bit turned around there. The signage was great to that point, always telling you in each small town that the N88 traversed which turn to take to get to Albi. But once I reached
Hereticville I lost my signs. Ended up in the middle of town, pulled over, with my Michelin.

Got out of there and on towards Rodez. Fog closed in again, as the road reached higher and began to curve around the foothills.

Rodez is very prettily sited, all on a hillside. Church prominent at the top (cathedral, maybe?) with all the buildings ranked down the slope at its feet. Kind of place you’d want to pull off the road and photograph-- if the whole town visible from the road wasn’t modern. Wonder if the Germans had something to do with that . . .

Found the D901 to Conques off the bypass; no trouble this time. Fog continued in drifts on up into the mountains. But it was the sort of thing that just maybe might disappear up higher and give place to sunlight.

Then I got to a scene I wish I could’ve captured on film, if I’d had a place to pull off. The mist became suffused with radiance, which glinted off the trees and hedgerows covered with white hoarfrost. And just a little farther on and higher up-- voilà! there it actually was-- blue skies and sunshine. Thank you, Jesus!

Whatever else that little car had, it had good interior acoustics. First time I’d gotten to do any real singing in a week and a half.

Conques, as I’d remembered reading in Gourmet Magazine, is on a switchback road. Paved, not gravelled, happily. Put her into second and had fun with it.

Conques was kind of strange, as a town. I got there around 1:30 and so it wasn’t surprising that everything was closed. But nothing ever opened thereafter. More people around than in old Carcassonne but nothing like the bustle of even La Côte (There’s a thriving village. They even have an architect’s office). One wonders what it must be like to live there. The major activity in sight was repair work. There were trucks back and forth all afternoon redoing the paving in la rue Charlemagne.

I approached the pilgrimage church of
Ste.-Foi-de-Conques from the east side, having left the car at the carpark near the new cultural center (they have concerts there in the summer). It was below me as I came upon it and I could see the chevet and crossing tower. Steps lead down to the place at the west front, and there she was, that wonderful Last Judgement tympanum, with the antique polychrome showing pastel pink and blue. The sun was shining on just the lefthand side of the embrasure and I decided to hold off on too much photography there till the light was hitting the tympanum more directly, from the west.

Into the church through the westward side door of the south transept. First thing I noticed was the fresco that occupies a wall blocking off the far end of the south crossing arm.

The second thing was that the crossing itself was filled with scaffolding. They were repairing the lantern. Oh well. It apparently needed it. The vaults in the side aisles definitely do. If one had the money that would be a good place to throw some.

Even with the scaffolding in the way I could see up into the lantern. It was very beautiful and filled with golden light. And I could just see the carvings of the angels and apostles in the corners.

Walked around the ambulatory to the north transept. The apse chapels were filled with dismantled woodwork. But the transept was free of emcumbrances and yes, the Annunciation relief was where I’d guessed it was, in the center of the north wall.‡ It forms a kind of column at the meeting of the two blind arches under the tribune there.

nave was radiant, especially in its upper reaches, with winter sunlight. And, more considerately than at some other places I could name, the historiated capitals are illuminated. You could actually see the carvings.

Unfortunately my Olympus battery had managed to run itself down again so I didn’t feel safe using that camera. Did what I could with the Minolta. Ate lots of film as the sun kept moving around and striking the sculpture and columns at new angles.

After I’d seen all I could inside, I went over and learned where to buy a ticket to see the treasury. You get it from an old Augustinian (Premonstratensian) monk, and I’ve never learned yet how one addresses such personages in French these days.

The treasury was certainly impressive, especially when you think of all the donations, all for the sake of that
little girl named Faith martyred in the 4th Century. And for Jesus’ sake, too, one hopes. The funny thing is that the whole cult of relics got started because it made people feel closer to heaven-- here was physical evidence of someone who had lived a saintly life on earth and who now was united with God’s holiness in heaven. But it’s been so long since all that that it’s lost its power. The risen Christ seems closer.

From the standpoint of liking it, though, I think my favorite was the crystal on the back of the
statue of Sainte Foi, with the Crucifixion showing through it. Rather ghostly, but effective.

The fee for the cloister treasury also affords one access to the
museum in the Syndicat d’Initiative. Most of the work here is from a later date, except for the artifacts in the downstairs room which are fragments of capitals and other carvings salvaged when the cloister was demolished in 1830. Does that mean the cloister that’s there now is only 140 years old?

Otherwise, there was a great deal of 16th and 17th Century work, painted wood statuary and most importantly, a series of tapestries recounting the life and legend of Mary Magdalen. Like a lot of others, this artist makes her identical with Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister. I wonder who’s right . . . I really liked the scene of the supper at Bethany with Christ dressed, from the waist down in the typical 1st Century flowing robe, and from the waist up in a doublet like a 16th Century noble’s.

Over to the abbey magasin after that and bought the obligatory postcards and guidebook. They had one in the same edition as that for St. Sernin. Does Dr. Gendle have one? Should I have picked one up for him?

Wrote him a postcard, at any rate. Don’t know his postcode but figure the British postal service can find Oxford . . .

Sunlight on the tympanum was better by now. The blessed look pleased as punch to be in heaven, though one little soul gives an apprehensive look over his shoulder at a leering devil, as the angel leads him into himmlische Reich . . .

The sun was setting all pale gold and I took advantage of the rest of the light exploring the town, with all its little cobbled streets and stairways. But damn! it was quiet! People were there, though-- you could see the smoke coming out of the chimneys. And occasionally someone would peer through a window as I passed.

Shot several very antique-looking houses. I realize that if I were being really scholarly I would’ve documented their general appearance and location, street and so forth, for future reference. But dammit, it was cold.

Ran out of slide film there. I mean completely. I’ve shot all ten rolls I brought already.

Decided to use the final frame on a view of the town from the west, with the light on the houses and the towers of the church. In order to save my feet and not lose the light, I made up my mind to drive over to that end of town.

Wrong. Got about three blocks worth and ran into the repaving work, blocking the way completely. Big red dump truck and a backhoe. No place to turn around so I had to take the car in reverse-- uphill-- all the way to the carpark (the black exhaust was shocking). Ended up walking back that way after all.

In the process discovered something else interesting about that little Peugeot. Not only will it not work if the choke’s off when it’s cold, it also won’t work with the choke on with the engine warm. Until I discovered that too much gas was the problem I thought I’d done something highly regrettable to the car.

The road from Conques looks west for awhile. And I was privileged to see a real live honest-to-God sunset, my first in a long while.

But, as didn’t greatly surprise me, the clouds closed in as I drove lower, and with dusk returned the fog. And if you don’t think that was enough fun on that curving mountain road you can also figure in the aggressivity of French drivers who don’t think 40 mph (or 65 kph) is half fast enough, even under those conditions. I had a whole string of tailgaters. They were perfectly free to pass if they dared but me, I was going as fast as I could.

I had gotten a taste of the daredevil passing habits of the French on the way up, so it didn’t surprise me greatly to come around a bend and see two pairs of headlights coming towards me in tandem out of the fog. I hit my brakes just enough to give the passer leeway to get back in and kept on singing Berlioz: "Elle s'en va seulette; L'or brille à son bandeau . . . "†† That’d be heart attack city in the USA, but here it’s business as usual.

Fog lasted all the way to Albi. If the drivers didn’t care for what I was doing, I wonder what they thought of the slow-moving trucks doing 20 mph? I know my thoughts weren’t particularly patient or kind.

Had hoped to go a different route on the trip back, maybe even make it up to Aurillac, but decided that under the circumstances I’d better go a way that was at least somewhat familiar.

Found the bypass around Albi this time. The way between there and Toulouse took a much shorter time this time around. I still didn’t go much over 100 kph.

Finally got back to Toulouse and the rental agency a little after 8:00, without having struck any dogs, pedestrians, trees, or other cars. Dropped the key in the slot after parking in the only available spot. Discovered later that I was supposed to drop in some copies of the rental agreement. Well, I’ll do that tomorrow.

Went over to a café at Jean Jaures and rue de Strasbourg and had
cassoulet and an Abbaye de Leffe beer. The beer was good. I suppose the cassoulet was, too, if you like the idea of spending around $7.50 for what is essentially baked beans with assorted cured meats.

Well, it’s Famous and now you can say you’ve had it.

Back to the hotel by 10:00 and washed my hair. Stayed up too late waiting for it to dry. Which was dumb, because I do have my blowdryer and a converter with me.
†The exchange rate at the time was around $2.00 US to the pound sterling.
‡This had been in question for me. The previous term in Oxford when I'd decided to do an essay on this church, the only book my Medieval Architecture History tutor could recommend to me was a 1939 guidebook held by the Bodleian Library. It was completely in French and had no pictures at all. To make things more interesting, some of the pages had never been cut and I had to get permission to do it with my new Swiss Army knife! You'd think I was the first one to read it in almost fifty years!
††Hector Berlioz, La Belle Voyageuse; words by Thomas Gounet, after the Thomas Moore poem "Rich and Rare." Literally (with poetic license), "Travelled she alone, with gold her circlet shining . . . "