travelogue: paris - part 1: sacred heart

Arrival

When we arrive at the hotel, we throw the windows open wide. The gray sky is dotted with the white rooftops of the city. It is morning here. We have flown all night.

As the city awakens, we sleep. Hours later, we stumble into the street, dizzy with hunger.

How is it that the sky is more expressive here? you ask, the clouds seeming to form patterns we have never seen before.

Along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, you buy oranges from a stall on the street. We take the bag to the park and sit on the bench facing the building that is soon to be demolished. A grand brick structure, its windows boarded. From the green bag, you take oranges, one after the other. We let the juice run down our chins as if we have never before known any fruit so sweet.

What are you writing, you ask. Why are you writing everything down?

I say: I don’t trust my memory and more than anything, I want to remember this.

Sacre Coeur

The crowds at Sacre Coeur are not the faithful, it seems. They sit in the pews and tap on their phones, the screens glowing in the dim light. We sit for a moment, whisper about what we know and do not know about god. I have seen one too many cathedrals in my time.

We pay for access to the crypt and the dome, slide crisp bills under the plexiglass shield. The woman behind the glass asks: Where are you from? in only slightly accented English. Aux Etats-Unis, I say. Ah, tres bien.

The air in the crypt is cool. It is dark and quiet. Its objects and artifacts laid out in an odd pattern. There is little explanation for what we are looking at, save the stations of the cross, recognizable to me, even in a language I don’t fully understand, engraved in my memory as they are.

Three hundred steps to the dome of Sacre Coeur. When we reach the top, we are winded. The city is laid out before us in all directions – white and glittering – as far as we can see.

All around us, in the stone, the hundreds of thousands before us have carved their messages into the wall and the benches. Their declarations of undying love. As I sit there, catching my breath, do I scratch your name in the ancient stone? I do not. But with the taste of sweet oranges still on my tongue, does the memory of your mouth on me, the heat of it, overtake me for several moments, lightheaded as I am from the climb, so that I find myself falling back against the wall, which is cool and rough on my skin?

Yes. Even here, in this place of the sacred. Yes.

C’est ici l’empire de la mort

The line for the Catacombs circles around the gated park and we stand there, for hours, to view the bones of the dead.

I point out a tiny bird on a tree branch. I can’t see it, you say. I point again. It is there, right there.

We talk about the last time we were here in this city. About the cold rain. About how little we knew of each other. When we are quiet again, I put my hand to the back of my neck so that I can remember yours there, just moments ago.

The sky is gray, there is no sun this morning. It is mild though and we are grateful for it.

To talk about the sky, to talk about the light – the gray streaks of it across our faces – is cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.

Through the fence and through the bushes you can see a train car moving beneath a steel grate. You talk about the funiculaire that will take us underground. It will take us down, you say, a few of us at a time. You say: I am only speculating. I am making this up.

No matter, I say, it is the way I will remember it.

It is only the subway after all, but I will remember it in the way you described.

You point out a pigeon with a broken leg and I think what an odd kind of sadness that recognizes this.

To look away and then to look back is the only way to truly see a thing. This is what you said when you first spoke about my photograph. This is what you said when you first spoke about my face.

The walk to the ossuary seems endless. Dark and without markers, each hallway the same as the last in its dimness, in the endless walls of stone. At the entrance to the burial chambers, engraved on the archway: Arrete: C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

What is it that one can say after walking through corridors of death? Hundreds of thousands of bones. I will not attempt to describe the experience of it, but I will only say this: After the last burial chamber, there is a stone wall covered with graffiti – most carved into the rock itself. On this one wall, not an inch of space uncovered. You can imagine the rush of it, feel the urgency of scrawling your name on the stone as if laying claim to vital, blood-filled life. What relief to feel one’s own hand making marks, one’s own bones moving under the skin.

To see a thing, to look away, and then to look back again.