Sweet Hours Have Perished Here

How many vaguely unflattering things we say about time: “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and “all good things must come to an end,” and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Significantly, nobody has ever said that time flies when you’re miserable, or that all bad things must come to end; probably because nobody wants to sound like an idiot.

What a callous master is time, and all of us his slaves. How long he protracts our tortures, and how swiftly he steals our joy! I would like to protest that it shouldn’t be permitted for life to change so quickly as it must now for me, but if I am being honest I came to France because it wasn’t changing quickly enough. Well if we wanted quickly, we got quickly! Quickly now I have lost my warm bed, my beautiful view, the bakery, the cathedral and all of France. Too soon!

However I am nothing but profoundly grateful. I chose to live in Amiens for one reason only: to visit a cathedral I’d seen in a picture book. The list of bad endings such an uneducated and random start could have led to are probably infinite, but instead I was blessed in every possible way. The town was clean and beautiful; not so big as to be unmanageable on foot but neither so small as to ever be boring. From Amiens I could be in Paris or any number of other interesting towns in not much more than an hour (when the trains were running), so it is ideally situated geographically. Even though I came in the middle of winter the weather was never too cold to be outside, and consequently I was also able to experience the profound delight of Christmas in Amiens, a seemingly communal affair that bears little resemblance to the invasive commercialism and cheap decorations of the American style.

After much anxiety, uncertainty and several indecipherable phone calls before-hand, on my second day here I waltzed right into probably one of the best apartments in town. All utilities were included, even WiFi, meaning I never had to trouble myself with calling utility companies and obtaining service in a foreign language, nor did I ever have a problem maintaining my day job. My building had laundry in the basement saving me from walking my clothes to the laundromat. Literally across the street I had the largest Carrefour in the downtown area. I had no less than 5 boulangeries within minutes of my door, in fact I purposely took to walking circuitous and indirect routes to the bakery just to prolong the pleasure of my morning stroll. Actually I ultimately just started going to the cathedral in the mornings before the bakery, and sitting in the chapelle du sacré-cœur, and wondering how on earth life could ever have taken such a turn for the sublime.

As for the cathedral, I had no idea if a mere building would turn out to have been worth it for a cross-planet move, but it was in the end after all far more than a mere building, and yes, it was worth it. Being so close I could walk there at will and did so virtually every day, usually multiple times a day. In the span of three months I must have passed into that transcendent space a hundred times or more. I was there on the few occasions of sun, and many times with rain beating on the windows. I was there completely alone and at other times with thousands of people. I was there at dawn and once at midnight for Christmas mass, when out of the dark alleys in the middle of the night came hundreds of people dressed in suits and evening gowns.

People leaving after midnight mass, Christmas Eve

I attended Sunday morning mass whenever I wasn’t out of town. The services follow a traditional Catholic format but the music was unlike anything I have ever heard at church before, and I have been to more than a few. I won’t even attempt to describe it. There are two scripture readings during the service, one is always done by a small child of about the age of ten, standing on a tiny step-stool to see the Bible, and speaking clearly and slowly into that echoing cavern. We may all have been bundled in our coats and scarves, sniffling our noses and watching our breath in the cold air, but if the voice of a child in that place did not warm a heart nothing could.

Not many people in France attend church, but the ones that do seem sincere. During various services I saw babies christened, couples recognized for years of marriage, others for having been accepted into the volunteer program, and other engagements on stage that I didn’t understand. Each week the priest announced prayer requests. Individual members were spoken about by name and prayed for by him and others during the service. There is a classical music concert scheduled at the cathedral for March. The church has organized trips to both Lourdes and Le Puy for this summer. I saw also two funerals at the cathedral on weekdays. It may be a historical monument owned by the state, but it is also still a very functional and active Church.

Not just the cathedral but churches all around town, not to mention the belfry, all chime the hours from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, plus special announcements for services, vespers and other events which I never figured out. You don’t need a watch to know the time; anywhere in town, even indoors you can hear it sung every 15 minutes. This becomes part of the fabric of daily routine and I think it is plausible to suppose that it also contributes in a subtle way to creating a sense of community.

Sadly each toll of the bell reminds us that another grain of sand has slipped through our fingers. In the last week especially each chime has intensified my heartache and dismay. Moving across the globe to France may have been a trial, but leaving will be a tragedy.

Tonight is my last night in France. I turned in my keys to the apartment this afternoon and experienced my final language disgrace as I failed to comprehend the kind things my manager was telling me. It’s for the best, if I hadn’t been so ashamed I would have wept.

Tomorrow we are heading to Winchester in the UK, a journey which will only require five different trains. Even though I sent an entire suitcase back with my brother, dragging my remaining baggage to the hotel today reminded me that I am likely to be in for a full measure of ecstasy tomorrow.

But we are trying not to prejudge the future…

On the last day – snow

Thoughts on France

I really didn’t keep up with filming the way I thought I might before I came here. Making videos is ridiculously time-consuming and to do any more would have just robbed me of time to actually see France.

Nevertheless, I threw together some random footage for one final brief remembrance of Amiens.

In addition to random footage I possibly have acquired also a few random thoughts about France which I will now blather on about; some of which I suspect are applicable to Europe more generally – and none of which are going to sound very original to anyone who has been to Europe, or read about it.

I saw a lot of people on crutches, as in daily. I’ve tried to decide if French people break their legs more often than Americans, or if I just see a lot more people every day on the street than I would in America. They do have mountains here, maybe everyone went on a ski vacation over Christmas and crashed into a tree? But I sort of think it must be the second explanation.

Cities here, even large ones like Paris, are (or were) designed around the concept of the human being, whereas in America they were designed around the concept of the car. This has a million ramifications that alter every aspect of daily life. For example and on the one hand, everyone possesses less personal space, but on the plus side no one is wasting summer evenings mowing lawns. Without a garage to fill with pointless junk consumption is inevitably different, and I think also must simply be less overall. People spend their time and money at the cafés with their friends. I don’t see many Furniture Marts and Home Depots, but there are countless fine clothing stores even in a small town like Amiens that my large town in the Midwest could never hope to have. Not to mention chocolate shops, jewelry stores and every other sort of place selling small, fine things.

People dress better here than in America. Of course it is winter but even in winter going to the grocery store or Wal-Mart in America is to be confronted by late stage clown world. And come summer you wonder if Americans have even heard of clothes. Certainly no one seems to have heard of shoes.

Women in France are not afraid to wear perfume and it is absolutely marvelous. In America in recent years wearing fragrance has been actively discouraged at most places of work, and banned outright at public places like hospitals. Here you walk down the street and if you aren’t smelling fresh baked bread you are smelling perfume (ok, occasionally you may be walking down the street and smell something other and less delightful than those two things). Many times have I stepped into the elevator at my building and lingering within is a divine fragrance from the previous occupant. Billboards at bus stops all over town advertise the latest perfumes; that or American movies.

Billboards here are also people-sized, not Everest-sized and incandescent to the point of blinding you, as they must be in America to attract the attention of all the drivers texting on their cell phones as they speed down the highway.

Spoiled by technology as we are it would take something truly exceptional to impress an American abroad, but the public transportation system here is definitely one such exception. Trains are even better than magic carpets. You amble down to your local station, step aboard and take a seat the likes of which no airplane has ever seen, read a book, browse the internet, or chat with your brother, and a short while later you step off hundreds of miles away as if by teleportation, conveniently in the very middle of whatever town you are going to. It requires no effort on your part, no map-reading or getting lost, no paying for gas, you don’t even have to keep your eyes open. The whole journey is smooth and quiet (well the train is quiet, certain passengers may not be). If you are lucky the car is filled with French women and you can smell perfume the whole way.

Heated towel racks are a thing here, and they should be a thing everywhere. Maybe Bill Gates has them but I’ve never seen one in my life and I’ve been all over America. My humble apartment in Amiens, which doesn’t even have an oven or a toilet paper holder, has a massive heated towel rack with multiple electronic settings. Several hotels I’ve been to have them as well. Not only is your towel hot when you get out of the shower, but the rack will heat the whole bathroom (I’ve left mine on for three months straight, hopefully that is allowed). There is nothing better than stepping into a hot bathroom after waking on a cold winter morning (I also haven’t shut my window in three months). Did you come in with your coat soaking from the rain? Hang it in the bathroom and it will be dry in no time.

Speaking of toilet paper, an unusual and it seems to me altogether unnecessary “feature” of toilet paper rolls here is that they will supposedly disintegrate in water. Just throw the tube in the toilet! it says on the package. Really, you’ll be fine! Needless to say I wasn’t about to take that chance, it’s bad enough I brûlléd my couette. Although it’s true trash cans in France are sized for miniature fairies, I think they still have enough room to throw away a toilet paper tube the old fashioned way.

Public bathrooms are not a thing in France, although you can find them in some places. Otherwise you really need to think ahead if you are going to be travelling around all day to this or that small town. Conveniently most of the trains have bathrooms (most of the small train stations do not); oddly there are signs that say you shouldn’t use the train bathrooms when the train is stopped, though of course while moving poses its own challenges.

My brother and I tried to use a McDonald’s bathroom in Paris late one evening. Being an experienced traveler by then I didn’t really need to myself, having already spent the entire day on the brink of cardiac arrest from dehydration to avoid just this contingency. But my brother had indulged in the authentic French experience of drinking coffee all day (and we had failed to use the bathroom at the cafés, which I’m sure is what the French do).

It was not like McDonald’s in America. First of all, no McDonald’s is like any in America, in so much as they occupy the bottom corner of some centuries old building. The bathroom in this one was down an unlit stone staircase into a dark basement that would have made the perfect set for a horror movie. As with many public restrooms in France, it is unisex so men and women can be in a stall next to each other. There were only two stalls in this one, and a couple sinks, and a crowded line in the dim hall outside. One of the stalls was occupied and whoever was in it was still in it when we finally got out of there an eternity later. Some elderly woman was hovering around the sinks doing I know not what for that same eternity too, and might still be there to this day for all I know. People were shoulder to shoulder muttering to each other down in that foggy dungeon and the whole thing became a very confusing experience.

The eggs at the grocery stores here are not refrigerated, instead you can find them sitting on the shelf with all the other dry goods (actually refrigerating eggs for sale is prohibited in most of the EU). It is interesting to read the different approaches to combating salmonella that Europe and America have taken.

All the other differences with regards to food and eating between France and America are too vast to describe, but are well known by everyone. We could continue ad nauseam.

I am not going to say that either France or America is better than the other, but they are surely very different, and might as well be on different planets. I hope it stays that way.

Compiègne

For my last outing in France I took a day trip to Compiègne, about an hour away from Amiens to the south-east. I hope you like pictures because I took plenty.

Compiègne looking towards the modern Louis XV bridge

It was at Compiègne that Joan of Arc was captured, as mentioned in my last post. Of this event there is not much left to see. A small portion of the bridge she tried to retreat over can still be seen, it now serves as the foundation of an apartment building, hidden down a dark alley (which through the artifice of photography we can make look brightly lit).

Remains of the old Pont Saint Louis
“And I, while withdrawing from the field on the Picardie side, near the boulevard, was taken.”

She was actually captured on the other side of the river from where this remnant exists, in a place now called Generic Parking Lot.

Near this bridge are the remains of la grosse tour du Roi or the “large tower of the king” dating from the 12th century. In May 1430 the captain of the garrison one Guillaume de Flavy stood on the upper section of this tower observing the battle across the river and ordered the gates shut as Joan tried to retreat across the bridge.

La grosse tour du Roi

There are also two churches in town which she was known to have visited. There are statues of her in both today (I won’t bore you with pictures). The first church is Saint Antoine where Joan came to pray when she traveled through town with the king after the coronation. Today it features a half-dozen large stained glass windows installed in the 1920s that illustrate her life.

Saint Antoine
Saint Antoine interior
The taking of Joan of Arc outside Compiègne, stained glass at Saint Antoine

The second church is Saint Jacques. It was unfinished in Joan’s time and still had a temporary thatched roof over portions of the nave. She came here multiple times for mass including on the morning of her capture.

Saint Jacques
Saint Jacques interior

The inside of this church is incredibly beautiful and features an unusual mixture of stone and wood decoration. There were several priests here this morning, on their knees praying before the altar in the front row. I don’t know if I have ever seen anyone on their knees in my entire life until I started attending Catholic mass. It is a humbling sight.

Nearby is the 16th century town hall, usually called Hôtel de Ville in all the places I’ve been so far, but here called the Mairie. Just when you think you’ve learned a word for something, you realize there are also any number of synonyms… In front of city hall is a statue of Joan of Arc carrying her banner. Guys believe me when I tell you I am not posting pictures of all the Joan of Arc statues in this town! There are a lot, including another replica of the Frémiet equestrian statue that we saw earlier in Paris.

Mairie de Compiègne

I also wandered about two small parks in the downtown area, the first is the Jardin de Senteurs (garden of scents) just next to the dilapidated tower and right along the banks of the river (the Oise). Even though it is still technically winter there were flowers blooming here, and I’ve recently seen them being planted around Amiens as well. It would seem the weather here is mild enough, or maybe we are close enough to spring, or maybe they just like things to look nice even if they have to replant them again in a month after they freeze.

Jardin de Senteurs

Right next to this garden is a small museum which I did not go into but which had this interesting statue on the back wall.

On the back wall of the Musée Antoine Vivenel

The second garden is tucked away in the middle of town and is called the Jardin des Remparts (garden of the ramparts). It is nestled within the remains of the 9th century city walls and is the kind of place I would like to spend my last moments on earth.

Jardin des Remparts

Probably the best-known attraction is the large Palais de Compiègne. A royal palace has existed here from the 7th century but the current château dates from the 14th. It was one of the three seats of royal government, the other two being of course Versailles and also Fontainebleau. It was gutted during the revolution but Napoleon had it refurnished.

Palais de Compiègne

You can tour the building but I had arrived so early it wasn’t yet open. I decided to pass the time wandering the immeasurable and limitless gardens and woods to the rear of the residence. As at Versailles, the palace looks out along a perfectly straight boulevard plowed through a never-ending forest. Versailles has a massive water canal along its “royal alley,” something Compiègne lacks, but what it does have that Versailles does not is a large hill at the very end of the lane called Beaux Monts (beautiful mountains). The alley at Compiègne is also a full three miles long, whereas the one at Versailles is only two. I wasn’t planning to walk the whole distance but after traipsing around on forest paths and finding myself about halfway there I decided to just do it.

Avenue des Beaux Monts, Palais de Compiègne

The only other people I saw were joggers and I wondered what they thought about some weirdo walking along in polished shoes and an overcoat. But if they thought “that’s a dumb American tourist,” well then they were right.

Finally after ten eternities we made it to the top of the so-called mountain. I’ll let you judge whether the view was worth it or not (but I thought so). The palace is the white thing at the end of the boulevard.

At the top of the “beau mont”

The only problem with walking is that every step you take away from somewhere, you also have to take again going back. I’m sure my legs and lungs could trudge along all day but my feet are known to have limitations. In the back of my mind I knew I was taking the stupid risk of finding myself immobilized with pain miles from the train station. But you only live once, and in that one lifetime there are not many days you get to walk in a royal garden.

By this point we have shed the long coat

On the way back I skipped the woods and just took the straight alley, which I found creates an unusual illusion of nearness. You can see your destination clearly from the very beginning, yet after an hour of walking towards it you still aren’t quite there. But to make a long and very uninteresting story short, I obviously did make it and by some divine miracle my feet held out.

In all I did over 11 miles on this day which is by far the most I’ve walked in a single day since my injury over a decade ago. My feet are not in great shape, every morning before I put my shoes on I put on half a dozen band-aids and moleskin, and many days my left (bad) ankle is swollen beyond resemblance to its twin on the right. How I survived this trek when lesser exertions have previously bankrupted me I don’t know, but if I had divine assistance then I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience such a beautiful morning in nature.

Afterwards I toured the palace which I can say is nearly as good as Versailles, and a lot less crowded. In one section they did have some kind of car display going on, and while I do like fancy cars I’m not sure I think it’s necessary to put them in royal castles. I also don’t know how on earth they got them in there in the first place.

A Jaguar Series 2 E-Type in the courtyard
Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider in the emperor’s dining room

Thankfully most of the palace was still sans-voiture. Here is the ballroom built by Napoleon (he didn’t personally do the work), used as a dining hall and during the first world war as a military hospital. Try getting the entire hall of mirrors to yourself at Versailles!

Galerie de Bal

At one end of this large room stands a statue of Napoleon which my earlier American Amienois twin took a good picture of; at the other end we have a statue of his mother. Her name was Letizia Ramolino but after Napoleon became emperor she was known as Madame Mère.

I tell you what, we need more statues in America.

Madame Mère

And here is a bust of Marguerite Bellanger, one of Napoleon III’s many mistresses. It is said he met her while on a carriage ride and saw her standing under a tree in the rain. He had a reputation for picking up chicks anyway, but with a face like that who wouldn’t have stopped?

Marguerite Bellanger

So ends the final field trip of my stay in France; my visa is about to expire and I need to be out of the country next week. I have traveled every weekend for the last two months which for a guy who doesn’t even like to go to the grocery store, and I mean even in America, that is quite a lot.

It has all been worth it.