I was 17 the first time I entered Notre, and 28 the last time. With every visit, I stood in the entryway and looked up at the towering ceilings and felt my eyes well up. I'm not a spiritual person, but was always struck by its beauty and size and how timeless this structure felt when standing, almost shrinking, inside it. As cathedrals go, it was one of the most humbling.
Words cannot describe how breathtaking it was, in all of its different aspects. It had steeply sloping stone ceilings of meticulously laid stone, flamboyant flying buttresses bracing the walls, and gargoyles both stoically pensive on their perches and grotesquely sputtering water in the rain. Its massive expanses of stained glass glittered like jewels, a magnet to the sunlight. It was best enjoyed when a choir was practicing hymns. Its bells could be heard echoing throughout the neighborhood, on the hour. It had many faded paintings inside and weathered statues outside, from a millennium of different eras. The copper sculpture of St. Thomas was maybe my favorite, at the base of the spire. The spire's architect somewhat egotistically chose to depict himself as St. Thomas, the patron saint of architects, looking up admiringly at his work and away from the crowds below and the rest of the cathedral, measuring tool draped in hand behind him.
Watching footage of this same spire collapse and cave in through the roof below and knowing that none of it will ever be the same makes me very, very sad.
Thinking of all the people of Paris today.
All travel stress aside, Paris was great. After all the traveling and work, I spent a lot of time that Friday in my hotel room, catching up on some drawings and listening to TV dubbed in French, with the tall windows thrown open to let in the fresh air and sunlight. I can’t believe how early spring came in Paris, compared to New England.
When I did venture out the remaining days, I was overwhelmed by all the spring buds, tulips, and blossoms in every courtyard, garden, and neatly manicured tree. It felt like May, not the first week of April. It was so nice to walk around and not need a coat!
The first evening, after I cleaned up following a long day of travel, I met up with Dave Douglas, one of my best friends, and a world traveler and talented painter. He and his husband have moved around a few times; they started in Chile, spent several years in Haiti, and just got stationed in Paris (tough gig!) Dave’s husband is a Chilean ambassador, so they move around every few years. At this point I think Dave knows Hebrew, Spanish, Creole, and French. Not bad!
That first night, we went to one of the best restaurants in the Marais, Chez Marianne, and ordered as much as we could off of the menu. It was so nice to kick back and hear what Dave had been up to over the last year, and to just spend time together like we used to back in college in between studio classes. We both ordered a Coke - looking to indulge in an innocent way after all the moving around (they were still staying in an Airbnb shopping for apartments after only moving to France the week before). So a nice cold, fizzy, sugary soda was exactly what we needed with our Mediterranean smorgasbord. One of the funnest parts of hanging out with Dave is that we will riff on a funny idea until it becomes completely outrageous and we break into uncontrollable giggles. At one point this was when we discussed what would happen if, when a server came to collect unfinished food, we ignorantly pretended that they actually wanted to eat our leftovers. So when they ask, “Are you all set?” say, “That’s all you, dude.” or “Killlll it!” This doesn’t make any sense and would actually be incredibly rude in practice, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
Other activities that we did together were getting ice cream with Dave’s husband on Saturday afternoon and then hitting up BHV for various purchases, shopping at the Sunday market at Bastille and then checking out a gallery in the Marais, getting crêpes, and shooting the shit on Monday night (my last night there), with (more) crêpes and making fun of the punks zigzagging around on electric scooters. It was so much fun to connect in a place that Dave and I both know intimately, but from different times. I lived in the Marais in the winter/spring of 2011 while I was studying there through Wells College, and Dave spent the better part of a year in the same neighborhood only a year later, doing a residency, where he first met his husband. We had talked about a lot of the same things, and had also discovered some of the same things independently, but had never experienced them together. It was also just refreshing because traveling internationally can be stressful, especially for work and with multiple countries in one trip, so spending time with a familiar face helped me see Paris in a different kind of familiar way.
Dave was also starting an intensive French language course, so during the day, when I wasn’t in the hotel, I ventured out to some of my favorite spots, mostly on foot. I did a long walk by the river on Friday afternoon/evening, and definitely walked along rue du Rivoli for way too long thinking it was parallel to the Seine and planning to cut over to Notre Dame, when I realized I was very far off track and had to make a sharp left. Along the road toward the cathedral, I grabbed a caprese sandwich, had it heated up, and then sat in front of Notre Dame admiring the view at dusk. On a whim, I decided to go inside. There was a service in process, so I only took a couple of covert photos and otherwise just listened and admired.
Another day, I took the train out to Père Lachaise, walked by my old language school, and parked myself in the cemetery to do a drawing for several hours.
On the way home, since I had finally figured out my Navigo pass and had unlimited rides for the week, I got off at Palais Royale/Musée du Louvre. Palais Royale is one of my favorite spots, and it was bumping with frolicking Parisians and tourists alike. I did another drawing, from the vertical striped pillar sculptures, though it got quite chilly and my hands started shaking. On the way home, I soaked up an amazing red sunset, on the river and by the Louvre. From there I headed back to the hotel on the train.
At some point, I sat by my old apartment building and did a drawing of the old water fountain at Square Charles Victor Langlois. Doing a drawing there has become a bit of a tradition. It’s part ritual, and part hope that I will run into my apartment host from back in the day. I always note that her lacy curtains are still in the living room window, but have yet to see her. I lost her contact info, and while I have sent her multiple letters, have not heard anything back. I suppose this is one reason to keep going back to visit the city :)
On Sunday night, I had spent quite a lot of time in the evening working on some drawings and photos, so decided I should go out for dinner. I was a bit homesick by that point, so I went to Breakfast in America, which as you might guess, is a diner based on the American breakfast. They play American rock and roll and have what you’d expect: pancakes, milkshakes, and burgers. I got pancakes and ate by myself, perhaps more quickly than necessary. I was a bit anxious because I didn’t really know what I should speak - English? or French? - and because I was one of only two customers and I hadn’t brought much to keep myself occupied. But it was still good to fill up my stomach and take a break in a place where I could feel some muscle memory.
On my last day in Paris, I had a goal in mind. There are so many parts of Parisian culture that are all about etiquette, and despite having spent 6 months living there at various times, I have never quite mastered the art of cafe culture. There is something very intimidating to me about sitting down at an outdoor table and expecting service, when there are so many little things to mix up. To build my confidence, I read through an article written by a Parisian about all the things to make sure to do and to make sure to avoid, and then decided to test it out at a café down the road from where I used to live, where I had dined several times in a group but never solo. On the way, I bought several postcards, and then made a beeline for a seat that appeared open and set for dining. It’s important to choose a seat that is set with flatware if you are expecting to eat, and not a table set only for only drinks.
Luckily the server was incredibly kind and patient, and he did not once take pity on me and switch to English. At this point, my pronunciation is decent, but my listening comprehension is pretty spotty, so it’s pretty common for someone to expect that I am more fluent than I am, and then the conversation comes to a halt when I have to admit, “Pardon… plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” But getting through the entire transaction without a bump was very reassuring to a person who has not had the occasion to speak French consistently since my last brief stay in France, four years ago. Still got it!
After that, I went back to BHV and bought some colored pencils for Dave and me, and then sat in Place des Vosges and drew one of the fountains until the park closed. It was a whirlwind 2.5 weeks, but by that final evening, I have to admit that I have rarely felt so at peace with where I am, and so sad to be leaving to go home.
Dave and I had our final crêpe that evening, and then said goodbye. I packed up while chatting with Chris over Skype, and then called it quits because I had to leave for the airport at 4:30am. By the way, the prevalence of video calling these days is such a blessing. When I was studying abroad, my family and boyfriend at the time used AOL instant messenger’s video chat feature. This was almost 10 years ago. But it was always such a relief to have and rely on. Throughout this trip, I used Skype in the same way. I looked forward to hearing what was going on at home, and to see Chris every night, hanging out in our living room or lounging on the bed. That level of connection kept me sane even when I was stressed and feeling unusually anxious with all of the pressure of work and solo travel.
The flights home were less stressful than some of the earlier legs of the trip, aside from having trouble updating my family where I was during a layover in Lisbon. This was also my first time in Portugal! I looked for a Harry Potter book in Portuguese in one of the shops but was not successful. The views from the plane were astounding - so many cliffs along the ocean! I’ll have to actually visit one day.
I’m back home now, and unpacked, and happy to be home. Another travel chapter comes to a close!
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Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Mansfield, MA.