One of the beautiful things about a long trip is that your days are not rushed. There’s no list of must-do’s that run behind you with a lashing whip. Each day gets to pick its own pace, and a little tiredness here or a change of plans there doesn’t matter at all.
I’ve been grateful for this as I’ve picked my way through my last few days. I tend toward the indecisive—not in big decisions, but in the small details. Duck or risotto? Red or white? Musée d’Orsay or Louvre? I can get ridiculously hung up. It’s because there’s so much deliciousness in the world, so much to choose from. Making a choice feels like jettisoning one-hundred other delights.
To structure my days I’ve been starting by looking at the yoga menu from the wonderful studio east of here by St. Michel. I bought a ten-class pass to give myself some wellness anchors during my stay. The space is beautiful. It’s tucked in a little courtyard, and it’s full of light and kind women and warmed ginger water. Both of my instructors so far have been excellent. And there is something classically French in these classes as well. Both of my teachers have been poet-philosophers, taking time to talk about the physical and metaphysical journey of our practice, encouraging us not just to use our bodies, but to use the practice as a gateway to discovery and yes, as one of them said, perhaps even a doorway into the “spirituelle.” This is no fitness club Power Yoga, oh non. Nothing so quotidien as that for the French.
Yesterday, after much indecision, I settled on the Père Lachaise Cemetery as my walking destination. Actually, it was my walking origination. I took the Metro there and then walked through the cemetery for an hour, then back home. Père Lachaise is very famous, first for its beauty, and second for the dozens upon dozens of famous people who are buried there. They include Chopin, Ingres, Max Ernst and Jim Morrison, among others. You can get cemetery maps and spend your time hunting for famous people, but that has never been my style. Instead I just wandered through the aisles and pathways, absorbing what I saw, shivering a little bit in the afternoon chill, and having a solid contemplation of mortality, death, and decay. Acknowledgment of these three things has been jettisoned from our culture, and I find it to be much to our loss. They are powerful, transcendent concepts, and are universal to us all. We ignore them at our own peril. An old cemetery, with its various stages of recency and disintegration, bring these all to mind.
The other thing that brings this kind of impermanence to mind for me is great old cathedrals. When I was 18 and came to Europe for the first time I stopped in Paris for a day with my aunt before continuing on to Scotland. We did a very quick tour of some of the highlights of the city, which included a visit to Notre-Dame de Paris. I remember stepping into the cathedral and looking down at the stones that were grooved deeply with the millions of feet that had passed over them in 800 years. I was hit as if by a bolt of lighting—a coup de foudre—realizing that no matter what hardships or losses or celebrations my life might bring, nothing would be new. I would experience nothing that hadn’t been lived by thousands upon hundreds of thousands upon millions of people who had walked the Earth before me. My experiences might be exquisite in their pain or their joy, but they would be nothing, insignificant, against the weight of humanity. Countless, eternally forgotten people whose own footsteps had worn grooves in those age-old stones.
On the way home the evening light was low but Notre Dame was still exquisite.
Today I woke determined to purchase and begin the clock on a 6-day museum pass. I was fortunate to take many art history courses during the year I lived in Paris, and to be able to go regularly to the museums that held the very pieces we were studying. While I don’t feel compelled to see a gob of museums while I’m here, there are several that I enjoy tremendously. Obvious among these are the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, but also the Musée Rodin and the Jacquemart André. The museum pass lets me go for a few hours or half a day without feeling that I have to see it all. Likewise, it makes it easy to choose to go even when I have just a little time.
I left my house at 9:30 to head to the Orsay, but it’s market day in my neighborhood and I didn’t make it. Even though I have cheeses and vegetables galore, I wanted to walk through the market just to see what there was. An hour later I left with olives, veal, codfish, eggplant purée, green beans (haricots verts—I just love that name), and a little bag of lychees.
I’m so glad I stopped. First, because it gave me a chance to interact with fishmongers and butchers and olive-sellers and practice my French and marvel at their goods. And second, because it was so surprising to discover the prices. I bought a piece of veal big enough for my dinner for less than 3€, the fillet of cod for the same, and all my other vegetables and olives and goodies for less than 10€ additional. I loved queueing with the French grandmothers stocking up on meat and carrots for their big weekend meal with family. And I loved being in a culture that values food so highly, but also keeps it so affordable—even in a market in an expensive neighborhood in the capital city. The marché is such a common, normal thing in so many places. But for an American accustomed to shopping in the sterility and impersonality of a Safeway or Stop ‘N’ Shop, it’s a beautiful construction of a thousand small delights.
Here’s what my total tow looked like, once I was home again. All of this for less than $20.
I did finally make it to the Orsay. And while it’s all magical, I won’t bother to attempt to wax poetic about art. I will only say that it will never stop to amaze me that sculptors can peel away stone to find such softness within.
And that museums hold the memory of a time when we talked more about, and lived more intimately with, Death.