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.
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…