(Can we all just pause for a moment and bask in the alliterative glory of that title? Okay, thanks.)
So two weeks ago we visited Paris. It was entirely spontaneous, and I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that it actually happened. I was going to do a big picture & general itinerary post for it like I did with London and Scotland, but while there, my thoughts kept running off to deep pools of metaphysical musings. Maybe the spontaneity shook up my linear thinking or it’s just the effect of Paris. For whatever reason, I’m glad, and I figured I’d share some of those thoughts with you. Whether they all constitute poetry or not you can decide. And never fear, I included plenty of photos as well. I couldn’t resist. =D As always, click on one photo in the slideshow to see them all bigger.
The Trip Itself
We were planning on visiting Paris
But then we found out that train tickets for seven people
__Were way too expensive
____And we figured that London was more than enough
But then my mom was reading a book about the Impressionists
__And she mentioned to my dad how sad she was
____That she wouldn’t get to see their paintings in person
So then my dad started thinking that trains aren’t the only way to go places
__And how maybe driving for six hours would be worth it
____And we could stay at a cheap military hotel
And then my dad remembered that he had a long weekend
__And our plan-a-year-in-advance mom suggested
____Why don’t we go this weekend?
And just like that
All of a sudden
We’re going to Paris!
There is so much about my life right now that hurts,
So many dreams in little piles of ash around the perimeter of these past two years,
But don’t let me forget this,
That we can just drive—
* * *
Before heading into the city itself, we stop at Giverny, the home of the famous Impressionist painter Claude Monet. We’ve been here before, nine or ten years ago when we were living in Germany for the first time. We took photos of my mom on the green bridge in his Japanese garden––you know, the bridge that’s the subject of his most famous painting. The bridge over the water lily pond. My mom loves that painting so much she has a tapestry of it. So anyway, we uploaded those precious photos onto the computer and then–– you guessed it––the computer crashed. We couldn’t salvage anything, and all the Paris and Giverny photos disappeared into the void of irretrievable computer data.
But now we’re back, this unexpected gift, and the sun is shining on this late April day. Tulip season is almost over, but there are many, many more flowers in Monet’s gardens than tulips. I’m snapping pictures madly, feeling that familiar frustration of not being able to capture what my eyes see. I want to remember—but if that whole losing-the-photos fiasco from last time taught me anything, it’s that you can remember without any pictures. Still, I rush around to record what I can. Photos may not be necessary for memory, but they sure do enhance it. And this time, we’ll back them up in iCloud.
In Monet’s house, we step into the room where he painted many of his works. I get a little chill, inhabiting the same space he did as he brushed into being such masterpieces. Maybe some spark of his genius and creativity still resides in these walls. Maybe some of it will rub off on me.
Back in the gardens, the sun is bright and the colors brighter, and I grab my phone to record the words spinning around in my head. A riot. A riot of—of color, of beauty. A riot of life. A celebration of life. I’ve been to many gardens in Europe but I’ve never seen any like Monet’s. There is something special here, in the long rows laden with flowers upon flowers of all different kinds. It was like he couldn’t get enough, like he just kept tossing seeds, wanting more. More color, more variety, more beauty, more life. I keep coming back to that word riot. And the word celebration. Something not quite tame and certainly not prim and proper.
I tap onto my phone: exuberant, not taming nature but doing just enough to bring out its fullest potential. If I ever have a garden, I wanted to be like this: Nothing manicured or pruned to perfection. I want my hand be barely visible. I want the plants to dance together in this wild way. Exuberant. Joyous.
* * *
Musée du Louvre
At the Louvre I walk around and look at all the paintings. Duh. Of course. What else do you look at in an art gallery?
Ah, well, there’s the question. I find myself looking at far more than paintings. My attention keeps getting drawn away from the people in the portraits to the people in this present moment, pressing around me. Sometimes, I’m aware of them because of how they annoy me. I mean, you are at least six feet tall, what on earth would possess you to stand in front of the pygmies like me?? If you stood behind me, you’d be able to see the painting just fine. And so would I.
But other times, when I’m tucked away in a corner and safely out of reach of bumping bodies, I feel kinder. I notice their faces, I notice who is in a group and who is alone. I try to notice, at least. It’s hard to truly notice anything.
Forget the mysteries behind Mona’s smile and the backstory to that crumbling statue over there. What I want to know is:
Which paintings catch your eye?
Why do you stop at the pieces you do and what do you see there?
How will what you see here change you, inspire you?
What other pieces of art will be birthed from this experience?
How will you remember this place?
What kind of mark will it leave on you? Will it leave a mark at all?
I want to know the story behind every closer look, behind every brisk gait, behind all the glazed tourist eyes, the rapt expressions, the bored-to-tears slouches. I want to know what you will do when you leave this place, out to a nearby café, back to your hotel room or house, into the coming years.
I want to know if any of this matters. I want to know how these smears of oil and chunks of rock touch living beings and invisible souls. I want to know what it means to leave a legacy, to change the world, to live abundantly.
I keep looking.
* * *
Dôme des Invalides
It is starting to drizzle when we enter the lofty church that houses Napoleon’s tomb. Inside, it is like most cathedrals—a soaring dome, grand pillars, smooth marble floors, a gold-encrusted alter at the back. But right beneath the highest point of the dome in the very center, where ordinarily rows of pews would sit, the floor gapes open.
We lean against the railing and peer down into a large circular pit, a well from which you can draw not water but history and legend. In the center of the crypt is a huge wooden coffin on a granite dias, all of it probably more than twice my height. The tiles around it are painted to look like a laurel wreath, and twelve tall statues of Grecian-looking figures face the coffin with somber, reverent faces.
I’m not prepared for how massive the coffin is, for how massive all of it is. Four huge, winding pillars of blue and white marble that looks like foam tossed on a windy sea surround the altar in the back, gold gleaming from their tops and bases. It’s just so…much. I hadn’t realized how highly the French people still hold him.
My shoes make small noises on the marble floor that get lost quickly in the vast dome above me. The weight of history hangs majestic here in the spaciousness. There is a reason why the Latin word for serious—gravis—also means heavy. We mortals rush about in jeans and sneakers clutching our Nikons and Canons, wondering what makes a human worthy of these tall temples, worthy of remembering in this way, worthy of remembering at all.
Napoleon is still very much remembered. Will he still be in 500 years? Does he deserve to be? Do I want to be remembered like this? Will there even be 500 more years?
We long for splendor, for legends, for heroes. I do not think those are wrong desires. But we also long to be gods. To be God. Do we know when we have crossed the line?
We exit the hushed solemnity, crawling like ants under the looming doors. No one pressed about the wall staring into the crypt notices us leave. Outside, rain stains the streets, and we hurry to catch the metro to have dinner with some friends who happen to be staying here for a while. They are studying the language to be missionaries here. We talk about what it’s like to live overseas and how God has a habit of disrupting our plans, to our discomfort—and to his glory.
Maybe Napoleon was glorious, but even he could not weave the fate of the world into a banner that displays his glory forever.