I went to Europe
this past year--Italy and France
. When I returned home, I didn't understand that I had left part of myself there and I had taken part of Europe with me. Now I'll allow these feelings to transport my mentality to some other place--a street light casting a bent
shadow upon a curved road reminds me of some residential road I wondered onto in Paris
; a full moon only yards from where I stand takes me back to the beach at Nice
; soccer matches at night remind of a dingy hotel in Florence
. Memories of places I visited still manage to creep into my senses at the most inopportune
moments. Some of these memories serve no other person than to teach me a lesson
--a lesson I might have missed when it was first introduced to me. This is one memory I can't seem to get out of my head lately. Perhaps if I write it down it will go away.
Upon arriving in Paris, we checked into a hotel and rested for about one hour. Everyone was barely alive--an eight hour overnight flight, fighting against a time change which held some unknown grudge against us did little to relax our bodies and minds. Now we would go to visit the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
We walked there. Parisians always walk there, here, everywhere. When we first saw the steps leading up to, and obscuring our view of the cathedral, it didn't seem like such a tiring climb. Many people, eager to exercise their atrophied muscles bounded up the first 3 flights or so of steps. A note: The steps in France are different than those in America. In the United States, you can almost always see how far it is you will have to climb--it makes it easier to choose between stairs and elevators. But these steps we were to ascend were not built when there were mechanical devices available to ease the journeys of the travelers. They were built in a way that would cause the climber to assume that the distance to climb is much shorter than it actually is, forcing him make it up halfway and have no choice but to continue or descend (a descent upon these steps is no easier than an ascent, mind you). So we labored onward and upward. Although I'm not in peak physical condition, I'm not a slacker either. However, when I reached the top of the stairs, I felt like collapsing on the pigeons that greated my great accomplishment with nothing but nonchalant coos.
Placing one's eyes upon the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is like viewing, and becoming part of a surrealist picture. It's architecture is instantly captivating, and a carousel to the bottom and left of the cathedral give it an all-too-unreal quality. But it is real. I separated myself from the noisy group and went exploring. There were a number of street merchants, attempting to entice me with their postcards (sept françs, sept françs!), too many tourists taking pictures of the beautiful overview of the city of Paris provided by the cathedral's elevation, and some crippled beggars with assorted maladies and disabilities.
There was a tour you could take of the interior of the cathedral. I decided to enter. This would be the first of many, many cathedrals I would be inside of while in Europe. (You have no idea the power the Catholic Church had on the people in the middle ages until you witness all the wasted grandeur of the buildings that were erected to its strangle hold.) I don't know what I expected when I entered the cathedral. Proabably a few old engravings on the ceiling, some mosaics, maybe a lighted candle or two, but I do know what I didn't expect. I didn't plan on there actually being people worshipping in there; I didn't even think of the possibility that there might be some religious ceremony being conducted; I wasn't prepared to see people kneeling down in front of the crucifix, their hands folded earnestly in prayer while tears streamed down their faces. But this is what I encountered. It was extremely unsettling. I felt like such an evil trespasser. I looked around at the others in line, wanting to catch a mirror image of their horrified expression which was plastered on my physiognomie and which I was certain they shared. But there weren't any horrified expressions--there was just the look of tourism. I felt completely alone, surrounding by hundreds in this place so cold. I wanted to yell out to them, "Stop! Don't you see this means something to these people?" But I knew that even if I could find my voice and give these thoughts life, no one would care. They would all continue in their quest for empty memories. I saw some of them light a candle and place it on a table. I don't understand the significance of this, not being raised Catholic, but I'm certain it was not to count the amount of visitors that day.
The air around me was getting hard to breathe--or was it just my that my breathing had suddenly become sporadic? Whatever the reason, I had to get out of that place. I stepped over the velvet rope which seperated onlooker from participent and somehow found an exit. Out on the street, I had escaped the idiotic faces, the prayers, the guilt. I walked around, allowing my mind to do anything but focus. There was an old woman on the steps to the side of the cathedral playing an accordion, singing in French. I only understood a little, but what I did understand comforted me. I can't remember the words now, but just thinking about her out-of-tune voice and eerie accompaniment makes me smile. Giving her enough money to buy lunch, I walked away. I turned and took a picture of this old soul and that old building. I don't know if it was each other's energies offsetting the other's, but together, they made a marvelous picture.
From then on, I knew what would await me within the confines of each cathedral we visited. Still, I could never overcome that sickening feeling that I got when I shuffled through the line, peering at the praying people. I never saw one of them look at us with disgust, though. Only when I was home did I realize that I was just another distraction in their religious life, just as sin was. For some odd reason, this actually made me feel better.