*Cities that never sleep*

Cities that never sleep

Last week I went to Paris.

Whenever I say that the reaction is almost universally, “Lucky you!” and I concede that I am grateful that I get to go but I’ve never quite figured out why people get so excited by cities, however famous, beautiful or supposedly romantic those cities might be.

Since I was heading out on an early Eurostar train, I’d been billeted in a hotel next to Euston station in London. I got there in plenty of time so I had a little walk down to the British Library and down to St Pancras also, before heading back to wash my hair, eat my dinner and get an early night. I’d hoped to find some ear plugs but failed. I regretted it. The window in my room was defective and wouldn’t shut properly. It wasn’t a cold night, but the noise never abated to anything less than a dull roar all night. I got up at around 4.30, unable to snooze more than an hour at a time. It’s not so much the noise as the continuous low level vibration. Everything shakes ever so slightly, ALL THE TIME. I suspect you get used to it if you live there. But for a visitor it was unsettling. I felt all the time as if I were shaking, and it made me more nervous and uneasy.

When I left the hotel at 6am, London seemed to be already in full motion. The night buses had been replaced by the normal day ones, the pavement shook with the rumble of underground trains and the constant passing of traffic. There were more people visible on the streets at that time than I see normally in the course of a week or more. At no point did the city ever seem to sleep.

Paris comes to life at night too. As the sun sets, the lights come on everywhere, and people head out. Going up the Butte of Montmartre for a meal at the artists’ square, it was still quite quiet. By the time we came out to do some sight seeing, the place was heaving. The steps in front of Sacre Coeur were filled by people sitting enjoying the view, the company and a drink or two. Inside the basilica, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, the nuns were about to sing the office of Compline, the last office of the day before sleep. But Paris too never sleeps. Even in our quiet hotel at the edge of the city, traffic thundered past most of the night.

I’ve lived in a couple of cities in the past, sometimes close to the centre, sometimes in the suburbs, and while the amenities and so on are great, I’ll never forget when we first moved to deep countryside, miles from anywhere. We’d brought sleeping bags and a few bits with us, ahead of the removals van, and that first night, without a plate or fork to our name, we walked through fields to get to the next village and the nearest pub to get our dinner. The sun set as we ate, and when we got back out, full of dinner and a few drinks, we headed out confidently to follow the little paths back through the countryside to our new house. Half a mile on, it dawned on me that it was VERY dark indeed. There were no street lights in our village at that time, and the fields and copses were utterly black. Above us, the stars shone like diamonds on a jeweller’s velvet, and a sliver of moon. We found our way home, cautiously, and when we crawled into sleeping bags, and lay down to sleep, I realised that with the window open, it was almost silent. It was quiet enough to hear the wind blowing the half grown wheat in the field behind our house. The sound of owls, and once or twice the guttural cries of foxes, and very, very faintly, the occasional car passing. and then close to dawn, cockerels, were the soundtrack of almost every night after that.

I learned to walk the woods and fields in almost total darkness, using the glimmer of starlight on the tip of my dog’s tail as a guide, or the bright white glow of moonlight. I learned to tell different sounds apart, so that the call of one owl was different to that of another of the same species. I listened to nightingales singing, and heard the huff of distaste when a deer came upon my scent in the middle of the night as I walked alone but for my dog.

Some people are city people. Some people are country people. I wonder if you can guess which I am.

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Stepping into the past ~ the Painted Church in Poitiers

 

Stepping back in time ~ The painted church at Poitiers.

 

The air in the square outside the church is filled with the scents of fish from the market stalls now dismantled and gone in the heat of the afternoon, and of soap from the soap-maker’s stall, still with his wares laid out. I buy Alep soap and pure Arabic kohl, and pass the time of day discussing the properties of bay oil and the power of ancient remedies like kohl to restore sight and clear the vision. The stall holder is swarthy, from the far south of France or maybe from the territories of the Moors; he is delighted to discuss his wares and seems free of the habitual disdain many French people have for the English. This far south, this coolness seems to have slowly warmed into something friendlier. Perhaps while he can tell I’m not French, he’s probably not certain I am English. I walk away, drawn by the music that plays now in the area in front of the main frontage of the church.

 www.myspace.com/keening

 

I stand mesmerised as the drone of small-pipes mingles with the guitar and drums beats, and a shiver passes down me. It’s thirty degrees and the sun on my bare arms is reminding me that I’m going to burn soon if I don’t seek shelter. Yet the sound of the music is unearthly and makes me want to dance. Me, dance? Yes, to swirl and twist and stamp in this bright public square, trailing long sleeves along the ground as I spin like a slow Dervish, and feel the swish of silken skirts as they brush the dusty stones.

Looking down, I see my navy blue combat trousers and my arms in white cotton to the elbow and wonder for a second where my gown has vanished to. The neat satin slippers are not there, and my feet are encased in sturdy walking shoes.

Dizzy and a little disorientated I seek shade and make my way into the beautiful Romanesque porch and see that the heavy wooden door to the church stands open and with the music still pulsing in the hot air, I step inside.

A scent of old libraries fills my nose. Parchment and pigment and a hint of mildew, this is how I imagine the Great Library at Alexandria to smell. A faint trace of incense tops the whole aroma off and I take a moment to breath it in, a fragrance of lost centuries and secrets vanished now into the abyss of time.

I gasp, as I glance around now my eyes have become accustomed to the dimmer light. Pillars and walls and ceiling are all painted in intricate patterns of colour and form that defy capture. They’re faded a little now, but for a spilt second I can see them still moist from the paintbrushes of the townspeople and the colour is vivid and startling. Blues like polished lapis-lazuli, crimsons and scarlets like blood and poppies, ochre and white, and greens like slices of malachite and jade. Then the vision fades and like a great old lady whose face holds the memory of the beauty of her youth, the church seems to simply smile at me, and tells me that true beauty is eternal. While paint and rosy cheeks may fade, the loveliness beneath them cannot be touched by time; for those who can still see them, both the realities stand sentinel over this moment in my life.

Talking slow steps that seem to mimic the tread of the processions of the faithful from the last centuries, I walk round, taking pictures to try and capture the feeling and the power. And yet, when I see the photos later, much like the paintwork, the power is faded. You had to be there, to feel and see it.

The music swirls on, little dulled by the heavy walls of the church and as I step back out into the sunshine, I am filled with the desire to capture and retain some of the music. I ask one of the crew if there is a CD I can buy and am brought over to meet the musicians as the finish their set. I tell them their music has touched my soul and that they are like the ancient troubadours who lived in this town in the fifteenth century. They light up with real delight and give me a web address to find their music, and I wander away, thwarted in some way of my desire to bottle this feeling, this moment so that I may uncork it and relive the memory.

Rejoining my group, I sit in the baking sun and drink lemonade and listen now to hip-hop and watch the dancers in the square and the contrast to the grace of the dancers in my vision could not be more obvious nor the centuries gone by more distant from me now. The harsh modern lyrics and the skilled but disturbingly graceless movements remind me that every era has its iconic markers. Perhaps the future will look at this era with the same visionary nostalgia that I felt for the music and the art of the time when this church and town stood as important places.

Too soon, it’s time to leave and I shepherd my charges back to the coach and we drive away, back to our very modern hotel. As I go into my impersonal room, I have a sense of something being very close to me, and I turn to see what is there.

 A breeze touches my face and is gone and the moment passes and I go inside to wash and change for dinner. Yet the distant memory of music and of lights and of dance and devotion haunt me all evening, and onwards into the future.