Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

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They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Grey Heron as Night Falls in Paris

Grey Heron as Night Falls in Paris

The leaping of a fish makes a soft splash that would be inaudible amid the hubbub of the area around the Eiffel Tower, but for its incongruity. It’s that which makes me turn, that surprising sound of a creature entering the water, the caress of murky water on scales. Voices, sirens, footsteps, music and the general loud hum of a huge city do not drown out this silken sound, and I gaze to where ripples in the dark water radiate outwards. This is confirmation enough of the event; a second fish leaps, after insects I must assume, and the falling twilight catches for one millisecond on the slick skin. My tired mind registers the size of the leaping fish, does a swift search for a possible candidate: carp, for sure. These ponds must be receptacles for all kinds of rubbish, and carp are the most resilient of watery beings.

I turn, to focus on what I am meant to be doing, turning my back to the water. Yet as I do, out of the corner of my eye, I see her, perfectly poised and unconcerned by the tumult around:

A grey heron, feathers shades of grey and white, long beak sharp and angled ready to strike.

She watches the water, seeking her meal amid the coffee coloured murk of the city pond. I sense that she is aware of us, but is unconcerned and finds us of no relevance, and she does not turn from her fishing.

I watch for a few moments; it occurs to me that should we all vanish, the herons and the other birds and beasts, would soon take back territories that were once theirs alone.

In a city that is pushing to 11 million people, I cannot help feeling that the flora and fauna we marginalise still have more claim to the land than we do, and they live more lightly than we.

*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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High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

One of the greatest perks of my job working as a courier and tour guide is that I get to visit places I’d perhaps never normally go to. People say when I am off to Paris, how exciting, aren’t you lucky and things like that, but the truth of it is I am not a city person at all. I find cities hard to deal with, and one of the things I do when I don my uniform on the morning of departure is also to put in place what I call my “game face”, which goes deeper than merely my face. I have to adopt a mindset where I can cope with the problems I experience with frenetic places crowded with thousands of people, and the attendant sensory overload that can afflict me. It’s a good job it’s time limited because I can only do it for so long before the cracks start to show. Usually by the time I get to my hotel room at night, I’m longing for solitude and silence like a parched traveller seeking a spring in the desert. It helps when the group are pleasant and the teachers friendly, but even so, I’m so relieved to shed my shell along with my uniform.

But cities have places where the numinous peeps through, and my tours usually take in a few of those. Sacre Coeur in Paris is one of those. Set like a fairytale castle on the top of the Butte of Montmarte, the shining white basilica draws the eye from anywhere in the city. Ascent is either by hundreds of steep steps or, if you wish, by funicular railway. There is no parking up there, so while you can get a car up there, this is simply for deliveries. The stone it is built from secretes calcite constantly, renewing the whiteness in a city of ten million souls and almost as many cars. Built between 1870 and finally consecrated in 1919, the basilica was aimed at expiating the excesses of the Third Empire and the chaos and death of the Paris commune, the church is maintained solely by gifts, and is run by an order of nuns who have had their convent up there for many years. They also have a vineyard that makes very fine wine.

When you go inside, the atmosphere hits you even before you have a chance to look around. Light from a thousand candles flickers, and the scent of hot wax fills the air. Incense has a ghostly remnant of scent. The architecture of the building, the vast mosaic in the central dome, and the hush of people trying to be silent add to it. One night we came in while the nuns were singing night prayer; it was just how you might imagine angels singing.

I take school children there, usually teenagers, and before we go inside I explain that whether they have beliefs or not, they need to be silent and respectful. The guardians will eject anyone inappropriately dressed or who talk loudly after a first warning. Photography is forbidden. Usually I put on a scarf out of respect for older traditions of covering my head. There’s generally not a lot of time so I explain before we go in how long they have. Some walk in and round and then walk out. Others…..well, it has an effect. Once we are outside and on our way, there’s always a kid who comes up to me and says something along these lines: “I’m not religious at all….but…..” and then they grind to a halt and start stumbling over words and similes. During the time that follows, others usually confide in me that they felt something they’d never quite felt before. It also generally defies definition and explanation.

I had an excellent conversation with one of the kids about it, when I was in Paris on Thursday and Friday last week. She thought that the fact that you couldn’t chatter and take photos really made the place extra special, because you could do that everywhere else. Another child told me it was the first time she’d felt safe enough to let go her clutch on her bag. This place is set aside from normal activities. People are at prayer all around. Behind the high altar, the Host is kept, the communion that the faithful believe is the body of Christ. Statues of saints keep stony and stern watch, their faces human and flawed.

Notre Dame, in the historical centre of Paris has a different atmosphere. You can take photos and quiet talking is permitted. Even though it is a far more ancient church, dating from the twelfth century and built upon an older cathedral, itself built upon a Temple to Jupiter, in turn built upon a druid site, it’s atmosphere is not so dense. I’ve never been in while a service was being conducted; while you do see people praying, there are fewer, and those who light candles are often doing so just for the sake of lighting a candle. There is a shop for souvenirs in the main body of the church while at Sacre Coeur the shop is tucked away, in a side room, and not constantly open.

I cannot begin to explain what creates the overwhelming feeling that Sacre Coeur gives to many visitors but I think some factors can be listed. Sacre Coeur is only accessible if you make the effort of climbing the steps. It has a community who live and work there and who also work to aid the many beggars you see in Paris. It guards the sacred space from mindless chatter and the flash of cameras. It was built as a gesture to make right wrongs of the whole city, not to glorify the wealth of one man (Notre Dame was commissioned by Archbishop Sully). And it is a place of constant prayer; open day and night, there is always someone from the community present and at prayer.

Whether you believe in prayer or not, many do, and perhaps the power of that collective belief also adds to the sense of the sacred, the awe-inspiring atmosphere.

You are not here to verify, instruct yourself or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” T.S Eliot, Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

If it is indeed prayer than creates and holds sacred space intact, then there are oases of sacred space tucked away in every city on earth. Many languish, becoming tourist traps like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, losing their numinous atmosphere with the tramp of feet and the mundane chatter and the flash of cameras.

One of my ambitions is to create sacred space in my own home, a place set aside to be a spring of quietness and peace. Perhaps one day I may achieve it. By carrying in my soul the quiet of places I have visited I can one day add my own measure of prayerfulness to the deep well that our collective awareness creates within the wider world.

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

 

A few weeks ago I got to finally visit the Louvre in Paris. A word of warning: this is the second biggest museum in the world. Even knowing this didn’t not prepare me for the sheer scale of the place. It is ENORMOUS. Unbelievably big. I’ve walked round the outside of it several times but it never sank in how huge it is. With this in mind, we planned to go to one exhibit first and see how much time we had after that. I’m glad we made this decision because by the time we’d corralled the group and walked what felt like about a mile (it may actually have been close to this) we were running out of time.

The exhibit was of course the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. We walked past countless works of breathtakingly amazing art. I had to stop even glancing around me. I’m somewhat prone to Stendhal syndrome, that psychosomatic disorder where a person becomes totally overwhelmed by beauty to the extent they can faint or become otherwise incapacitated. So I focused on just getting us all to the painting.

I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. This is the most famous painting in the world:

It’s quite dull, behind bulletproof glass and a horde of people snapping away. To me, it had no atmosphere except that which the long walk and expectation created. It didn’t overwhelm me, even though I was primed to be knocked over. Worth billions itself and worth billions more through related merchandising, I just thought, “Meh!” and turned away. Call me a Phillistine if you like but it did nothing for me.

Later that evening, I finally had my portrait sketched at the artists’ square at Montmartre. The artists were doing good business and one offered to do mine for just 20 euros; I glanced at his work and decided to sit. Everyone agreed that he’d done astounding work for just fifteen minutes sketching.

Art and beauty are very subjective things but I’d rather appreciate something for its appeal to me than be swept along with the hype. 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome

 

The Loneliness of the Not-So-Long-Distance Traveller

 

The Loneliness of the Not-So-Long-Distance Traveller.

Overall, I travel rather a lot for work. But each trip is not particularly long distance, compared with going to say, India or Australia. For one job, I do tours of English locations such as London, Cambridge and a number of other places, as well as my teaching. For the other, I go to Paris, Cologne, Aachen, Lille, and various other places in France.

I came back on Saturday night after my last trip of this year and I decided to tot up how many hotel rooms I have had this year, and it came to twelve.

That consists of 2 in Austria this February, 1 in Paris in March, 1 in Caen(Normandy) in May/June, 1 in Paris also May/June, another 1 in Paris in June/July, yet another Paris one in October and finally one in Lille this weekend. Plus 4 rooms at the Leicester travel lodge at either end of various trips, because since apart from Austria, all my trips are done over land via coach and the early start (1am in one case) mean it’s not feasible to get from my home on the east coast to the Midlands(or wherever) that morning.

Generally, however stressful these work trips are, and however tiring, I do enjoy them but there are moments when I get back to my hotel room at night and just feel so lonely. I’m the odd one out; the kids have their mates, the teachers have their colleagues and usually, the two drivers have each other to share a quick beer at the bar with.

But the loneliness doesn’t last long. In fact, it lasts about as long as it takes me to get ready for bed and fall asleep.

I’m also pretty stoical about the long hours, the delays and the endless small problems that occur en route; there’s nothing anyone can do about this sort of thing and it is pointless to whine and whinge. With one exception, the hotels I have stayed in over the last few years have been acceptable and the beds comfortable, but you know, they are all starting to look exactly the same!

 

Anyway, that’s it for this year, travel wise, and that’s probably just as well with the weather problems. I’m digging in and staying put now for a while!

Sacre Coeur, Paris

This is the view looking up from the base of the Butte, before we tackled the 220 steps to the top.

The building stays this blinding white despite the pollution because every time it rains there is a chemical reaction with the rainwater and the stone secretes calcite and this naturally bleaches the outside.

You can see quite how high we are here; this is the highest natural point in Paris, some 130m up. The Butte is a natural hill and it seems strange that Sacre Coeur was the first major building to be eretced on the very top, though in all probability it was not. There is strong evidence that the Romans had a temple to Mars up here, though the exact location is unknown. For those who can’t face the steps, there is a funicular railway that takes the strain, though it has to be the shortest journey you can take on a Metro ticket.

I wasn’t able to take any photos inside Sacre Coeur so if you ever go, do go inside. The interior is as lovely as the exterior.

Next: the artists’ square at Montmartre and the man who I saved from being run over…..