Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ghost Walk

   A couple of weeks ago we went back to Paris to see some of the people and places we used to visit when we lived there.  During the day, while the people we knew were at work, we wandered the streets together like ghosts trying to relive all the best parts of old times before having to step off the earth again and go home.  Since it is summer, there was not much going on; many parts of the city had already packed themselves away until autumn.  But all was not lost, of course, our favourite places waited for us, posed so we could photograph them.

In Belleville we walked past the printmaking studio I used to go to most week nights.  The tall wooden doors of the place were bolted tight, the lights were all turned off, and the street out front didn't reek of etching chemicals because it was all emptied out for the summer.  But in the streets around there, paintings grew up the buildings and bloomed in the evening sun.  There were posters everywhere with pictures of CCTV cameras, and beneath the photos there were little messages saying the government is watching you, scratch out its eyes.  And there were sculptures to be seen in the windows of the many studios there.  There were women in lovely head scarves, there was delicious Laotian food, and there were places to sit outside and drink red wine until it was late, time to go. And then there was the group of forty people all on roller skates passing by.

Another day we walked into the little cluster of Russian restaurants and icon shops that sit around the Cathédrale Saint Alexandre Nevsky.  I used to love walking around in the filtered light of this church, full of lovely art nouveau-influenced frescoes, and heaped with icons. But somehow my husband had never seen the inside until this visit.  Not far away from here there is another church that we love, the Église Saint Augustin.  Although it is a little shabby in places, it captures the feeling of being in a train station with its long nave lined in iron lamp posts.  Unfortunately, the photos we tried to take in there didn't really come out.  Inside, I lit a candle at a side altar dedicated to Mother Teresa and thought of an orphanage/school in India I once visited that was started by a man who she had helped as a child.  Although I don't have a religion, I do miss the churches and other religious buildings in Paris that leave their doors open so people can come in to pray or meditate or think freely. 

We also visited La Grande Mosquée de Paris.  In the courtyard garden it is easy to forget that there is a bustling European city surrounding the mosque.  Instead, there are palm leaves and tiles, dazzling geometric patterns everywhere and bright flowers that look as if they should grow some place much warmer.  It was a hot day, and we stopped in the shade of the vine-covered courtyard where sweet mint green tea is served, and sparrows riot overhead. 

It's funny to come home and see the photos that have been waiting inside the camera after being away someplace.  Walking down the street, eating with friends, waiting out a sudden rainstorm under the nearest awning, or talking endlessly on some patio are the sort of things I remember most, but I hardly ever photograph these things.

Instead there is usually an inordinate amount of stained glass...  or old floor tiles with patterns made of grotesques maybe.

But we also visited Brittany.  In fact, the main reason why we went to France right on the heels of all our other visiting, when all we really wanted was to stay still for a moment and pick up the threads our daily lives again, was to have one last visit at my husband's grandmother's house which will soon have to be sold. 

And so we walked the beaches and the rocky shores and stepped out to the ends of piers; we watched the sea endlessly.  At low tide we dug clams and collected the fragile shells of star-marked urchins to decorate the table.  We swam, and we went to markets where each piece of fruit, every cheese, every single thing looked like a piece of art, riper than ripe and ready to eat.  And we passed through villages where all the roofs are thatched and the houses are built with nooks for statues of saints.

We found dolmens in old oak groves... 

... and beside farmers' fields.

We marvelled at these enormous rocks pulled out of the earth and then balanced so precariously, as if they were lighter than air and could float in place.  And then we crawled in underneath them for another look. 

And we floated in a black tar boat through a maze of canals in marsh-land.  White geese honked from the shore, swallows dashed back and forth, and moths fluttered about the tall grasses.  And we knew that we were indeed some kind of ghosts, visiting only shortly... because everything was too good and too beautiful and all that we could have desired to pack into a few short days was there.

Already it seems so long ago.  Right now what is most in my mind is that we are just home after a trip down the street, through the harbour, to the lighthouse that sits surrounded by wildflowers and purple grasses, where cormorants sit on the rocks, holding their wings out to dry and the huge boats of the harbour come and go.  And that is a good thing, I've been writing too much in the past tense in these last few entries, it's time for things here to start moving again. 


  1. What a lovely trip, you captured moments of great beauty. What impresses me most, in the places but most particularly in your observations, is the Everyday Sacred. Certain cultures seem better attuned to that than others (the US being woefully ignorant yet determinidly "faithful'). The images of gorgeous sparrow filled courtyards, little niches crammed with well loved friends, glorious portals , all evoke the divine. You are particularly attuned to that, thank you for sharing that. It is a comfort to me.

  2. you have such an immense talent for making the world stop and breathe and be glorious! i read a post, and i think i will never walk around the block with the same eyes again :) thank you for that :)
    i love the door at the top of this post, what a piece of amazement all on its own. and then to think that probably there are people who walk right by it every day, never noticing, and at the same time think of the people who struggled meticulously to form each bit of it, and that those two things together make the world, until one day you stop and really see it, and are amazed??

  3. My aunt and her husband have a house in Brittany, I think it belongs to his family. I have such a soft spot for it, this brought back some memories.

  4. Leonard, that is the most lovely comment ever. I am so glad you get that from my writing. I do try to keep my eyes open to the Everyday Sacred as you called it... it's very important to me.
    Though, it seems to me that America is a big, varied place, it can't be as bad as all that. There are lousy people everywhere, and every culture that I've encountered has good and bad. (I was so disappointed in France when I first moved there, it took a while before I could get over that.)

    Zoe, thank you for saying that. I really have the best people reading my posts I think! That door leads inside the Basilica of St. Denis... it's actually a door that seems to get a lot of use. Just in front of it there is a gate to close up the church at night (because its a protected monument, I guess) and while it was open there was a whole group of young kids playing soccer and using the opening of the gate as goal posts. We sat and had a coffee and watched them for a while. I wonder what sort of people they will grow up to be, playing every day under such a beautiful place.

    Hila, Brittany is so lovely, I'm happy these photos brought back some nice memories for you. We've almost moved there a couple of times... maybe one day!

  5. No you are correct there is the sacred here, somewhere; i'm reading the "Odyssey" and Ulysses seems aware that miracles are around every corner. I admire that in a culture, the open-ness. Perhaps as the US is such a Protestant country and increasingly conservative at that same sense of the mystic seems far off the radar. Or perhaps the grass in greener...

  6. There's so much beauty in this post! What a joy to read it and travel with you. Thank you. I particularly love the idea of the rocks floating and that you crawled underneath them rather than just looking at them from a distance.