I replaced a nineteen-year-old New Zealander in Le Perreux Sur-Marne. She told me she was simultaneously ready to go and in disbelief she would be leaving. I understood. She told me I would see how the romance would grow old, how I would forget to take pictures and towers of industrial-strength beauty would become mundane. I knew it wouldn’t be the case.
I first saw Montmartre on film, through the skipping stones and plotting eyes of Amélie Poulain. Her fabuleux destin reaffirmed my Parisian plans in the pre-departure period of ever increasing doubts. The nineteen-year old showed me Montmartre on a Sunday evening.
Underground transportation journeyed to art nouveau metro openings and a red windmill glowing in the night. Up a steep hill, and there it was: Le Café de Deux Moulins, the café ofAmélie fame and my next chocolat chaud, hip waiters, Nirvana and Camille’s Ta Douleursomehow mixed musically, the decreasing bowl of oranges, the increasing quantity of jus d’orange, the beer-drinking Germans, an electric radiator and chipping floor tiles. It wasn’t exactly Amélie’s café, but it would certainly become one of mine.
The chocolat chaud decreased, but the hill continued. A thin waiter skirted inside the warm, window view of a restaurant whose patio tables and chairs remained empty. The city twinkled in the narrow space between buildings. The hill had seemed steeper from down there. The path meandered until I was pretending to smell a fake flower at a peninsular, green marché It was as green as its limelight in Amélie, but the grumpy produce man and his slow but endearing assistant were nowhere to be found.
We picked apartments as the path and imaginations continued to meander. If I lived there, I’d wake up and buy a fresh breakfast baguette there, my farm-fresh cheese there, my bright orange there, my table-top flowers there and live happily ever after. When I live in that apartment…or that one…or THERE!!! We stopped. Our eyes rose, mouths dropped.
Hovering above the numerous steps and monorail, a loft apartment glowed in the night. The lofted corner apartment could gaze over stepping locals, tourists and Eiffel-Tower-keychain salesmen, to Montmartre’s white, sacred heart, Le Sacre Coeur. Would the spacious loft, elegant, expansive window and romantic view be worth the voyeurism of hundreds of steppers? If my bank account allowed, I too would vote affirmatively.
Another fortunate resident leaned out his stair-level window to watch the night as he smoked his cigarette slowly. Perhaps the voyeurism worked both ways. I wondered if he owned any neon-glowing, mini Eiffels. The smoking observer’s gaze indicated that he still shared my excitement. Bitter, hungry searches for bakeries on closed-down Sundays aside, these sites do not fade into the background. They are forever anew because the flux is constant. Maybe he had seen the church one hundred times, but it would be a new Sacre Coeur on the hundred and first smoking break or baguette-donning walk to his stair-level apartment; just as my second Montmartre would be a new Montmartre, a Montmartre to charm me anew.
On a sun-setting Saturday evening after a traditional terrace lunch, I needed to be in the city, to see more of the city, to ascend, to descend, skirt and frenzy through underground labyrinths. Too late for museums and too early and solitary for the night life, I recalled the art noveau, the cobblestones, the white sacred beacon and the coveted apartments of my vicarious arrondisement, but I had already seen it. Shouldn’t I explore a different point on the zigs and zags of red, blue, olive, fuchsia, pink and yellow lignes? No. My spirit knew where it wanted to wander, so why let the analytical mind trap it? I didn’t. What I found was an entirely new place in a new flux.
The metros are underground museums where the displays are self-curated. It seemed I had missed the performance piece when I arrived at the blue connection of Charles de Gaulle Etoile. A crowd had gathered in a semi-circle around a train car. Police emerged from the scene. What had I missed? An accident? A fight? A purse snatching? One time, in one of my metro lives, an older lady fainted. Was there an old woman at the center of this crowd? The people dissipated. Any one of my queries was viable because I had missed it. Doors open. Trains go on, but sometimes doors open, and the train holds steady.
“Quand vous etes calmes, on marchera.”
“When you are calm, we will go,” announced the conductor’s projected voice over and over again while some mysterious rowdiness occurred farther down the platform. Newcomers scurried to catch the open doors then realized there was no rush, no movement at all. The transit had halted. Heads began to peak out windows. Other doors opened.
Grumbles of impatience and disbelief circulated. It’s not Paris without these flares of reactivity, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to deal with confrontational French. Did I want to risk entering the platform controversy instead? I sat and sat. The commotion quickly came closer and closer, occasionally announcing its presence on various cars. I imagined the physical dread surging through the conductor’s body. How secure are those front cars?
A feisty female objected from the platform. “Let it go! Everyone is waiting. All the world is waiting!” She critiqued with a raised hand of disbelief as if to say, “Are you completely mad?” I admired the security of her stance, the judgment of her eyes and her intrepid protest.
The projected commentary continued. The crowd grew. The on board frustration augmented and my imagination whirled around situations of confrontational French, exposed Americanism and becoming a new target. The growing platform crowd offered enough of a cushion for escape, so I resolutely stood, scurried and then departed. I looked at the approaching commuters and tourists with a glimmer of warning in my eyes, “you don’t know what you’re in for; better just to leave.”
Instead, I left, and as it turned out, the mayhem was perfectly aligned with my plans. I had intended to go farther than necessary. The spectacle was a mere theatrical bonus to my destination. As I stood amongst the red-windmill-photo-snapping tourists, three police officers rushed to the underground. Maybe the conductor’s racing heart would finally return to a normal rhythm in the threatened seclusion of the front car. Maybe I had actually been on a different metro system entirely because as I stepped into the scene, the Montmartre around me came alive in a completely new way.
The Amélie café glowed against the setting sun and bustled with people, but there was no space for a sole, dreaded wanderer. I meandered more. I took a new cobbled route and found the tree-lined plaza positively alive. A hanging palette glowed and visually announced entry onto a square of portrait painters and cafe money makers. Sidewalks were either lined with tables of winers and diners or sandwich boards of quintessential French imagery: Le Chat Noir, a café kiss and the tower that only grows old if you let it. A quieter cobble rue led me to the white beacon.
I escaped the dimming sunlit evening into the dim lighting of evening mass. While I sat to sketch the repeating arches of the rotunda and the open arms of the mosaic Christ, French voices offered songs and recitations until the walkie-talkies communicated to dispersed sacred security that mass had concluded. A light turned off, but it only made the purchased candle redemptions more impressive. Two euros for a shimmering place holder on earth and perhaps a foot into the shimmering doorway of heaven. The circumambulation led to glimpses of stares from heavenly beings and prophets illuminated by pardons and electric tithes.
Various languages floated with the current of the procession. Despite France’s reputation for its arrogant expectations for the world to join its francophone family, the church offered more universality- an open door to the weary, a haven for the heavy hearted and pamphlets in French, English, Spanish, Italian… asking for money. Although these were tokens of business, the Louvre could stand to take note of the hospitality of polyglot pamphletizing and maybe pick up a few extra “friends of the museum” in the meantime.
The dimming Cathedral guarded its walkie-talkied solemnity with the closing of its tall, solid, wooden doors. Outside was a rejoicing of a completely different spirituality, albeit one with similar monetary pleas. The steps from Le Sacre Coeur were buzzing with life. I found a step that put me into the energy of the gathering. On an intermediary landing, one man played a guitar with the percussion contributions of a friend. With an African-French twinge, the duo offered their amplified interpretations of “Billie Jean,” “Proud Mary,” “She Will Be Loved,” “American Pie” and “Talkin’ About Revolution.” On the same landing, a man with a painted face gave life to the painted face of a marionette. What appeared to be the closer inner circle of the performers showed off Sacre Coeur soccer skills while lending their support.
Asian cameras flashed into the night. German and French lingos mingled in front of me. Les Tissus de Qualité glowed red where the church’s meandering pathway met the road. People sat. People swayed. People sang. People smoked. People created an entirely new Montmartre from my previous experience, and even though I sat alone, it felt good to be alone together.
How many other corners and steps and monuments were transforming on this twinkling night? As I descended the steps of voyeurism and neon-glowing Eiffelettes, French twinged Bob Marley made its quintessential appearance on the playlist. I left not because it was cold or old but because it just felt like the time to change my step for a metro seat.
I replaced a nineteen-year old. She was right when she said, “it’s just time to go,” but about this place growing old, she had missed the way steel can change when you sit on a step and hear, “and them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, singin’, ‘this will be the day that I die.'”
Saturday in Montmartre is a winding spiral staircase of murals,
is a mix of Spanish and French directions to hill top holiness,
is a number 24 corner bakery,
is climbing to a bust with an orange painted bosom,
is chancing upon a windmill that misses grain,
is glimpses of steeples through all the peoples,
is twice synchronized locks.
Satuday in Montmartre is running toward textiles from all directions,
is broken glass, “please don’t open the box” open-boxed offers and near anxiety attacks,
is a cigarette dangling from the mouth of an off-duty clown.
Satuday in Montmartre is little pickles and sausage between French controlled tradition
is arriving at the butter,
is a green park bench over peeking cobbles.
Satuday in Montmartre is watching the hunched woman wander amongst those who have ceased to hunch,
is a yellow balloon chasing a red beret,
is a bridge that says “to eat meat is to kill” and “feed my body to the poor” while cars cross over sepulchered serenity,
is a man, a watering can and a bouquet of roses,
is Crime and Punishment amongst the dead.
Satuday in Montmartre is an overpriced date-filled Moroccan delight
is an overpriced date-filled delight that’s worth the extra centimes.
Saturday in Montmartre is a distant sparkle of industrial-strength beauty
Saturday in Montmartre is a parting glimpse.
Saturday in Le Perreux Sur-Marne is one last bite.