"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in Notre Dame (4)


A Bell Named Marie


Richard was out shooting peacocks in the Bois de Boulogne, while I was home doing some spring cleaning. We are to meet in front of Shakespeare and Company to witness the first ringing of the nine new bells at Notre Dame, to celebrate the eight-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the cathedral.



As I turn from rue Lagrange towards the Seine, I can see thousands of people here for the event. 

There he is! We embrace, then weave between cars and motorcycles across the Quai de Montebello. Richard finds a spot against a wall from which to record the sounds. I want to see if I can get closer, though the crowd is daunting.

I cross the Pont au Double and follow two teenage boys who part the crowd like Moses. We make our way to a low fence which holds us back from a big swath of grass. You must not walk on the grass in Paris. Pelouse au repos hivernal du 15/10 au 15/04. The grass is having its winter rest from October 10 to April 15.



A Spaniard is holding a black-eyed, black-haired child, a girl, to my left. How do I know they’re Spanish? Because the child is chattering in Spanish with a Castilian accent.

The bells begin tentatively. The first sounds are almost delicate. Bright and clear, bringing tears.

I look around me at the crowd and what this means to Catholics around the world. During the French Revolution, all the bells except one were melted down for cannons and coins. Only Emanuel, the biggest, a 13-ton bourdon bell, remained. Four other bells were added in the 1850s, but they were so discordant that Parisians joked they’d made Quasimodo deaf.  But for years they rang every 15 minutes in Paris, ding dang.



I can see both the front of the cathedral and a huge screen on which Archbishop Andre Armand Vingt-Trois is speaking in slow, clear French. It is a pleasure when the rhythm of speech is slow enough for me to capture it all. That is, if the Spanish child, mouth smeared in chocolate, weren’t asking loud questions right next to my left ear. I glance at her, at her father. It’s written on his face: My child is the exception to all rules. From every courtesy such as silence in churches, films, libraries, my child is exempt.


A family of teenagers with a gray-haired woman elbows through the crowd. Everyone glares. The teenagers muscle their way to the low fence, easily vault it and onto the grass. The woman chooses not to follow. She chooses instead to squeeze in next to me between the Spanish child and my ribs. She has no sense of bodily space (which most French people decidedly do) and keeps bumping against me and the couple in front of her.

At last the bells all ring. I watch the close-up images on the screen. They remind me of something. Yes, the great iron skirt of a woman swinging, her legs rigid, her ankles and feet tied together—no, fused. An eternal virgin. The Virgin Mary. Is this bell the biggest of the new ones, Marie? She is the only new bell which will ring in the Gothic south tower, joining Emmanuel. The other bells—Jean-Marie, Maurice, Benoît-Joseph, Etienne, Marcel, Denis, Anne-Geneviève and Gabriel—will sound out in the north tower, high above the Seine.



My mind floods with images from the film I saw the night before: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. A German film directed by Margarethe von Trotta in 2009, it stars Barbara Sukowa as the 12th century Christian mystic, Benedictine nun, composer, philosopher, playwright, naturalist, scientist and ecological activist, Hildegard of Bingen. It is a great film, a film of beauty and suffering and gravitas. It is gripping for its dramatization of an historical character of visionary brilliance.

And it illuminates the mythical. Hildegard lived during the middle point of the Piscean era, at the beginning of the twelfth century, half way between the birth of Christ and present time, from 1198 to September 17, 1179.

Pisces, the last sign, of dreams, suffering, compassion, final reckoning. Christ, the fish, Poseidon and Pisces. And its opposite polarity, the Virgin Mary, the spiritual body, Demeter and Virgo. The suffering of the monks and nuns, the celibate marriage to the divine—it is all here in its agony and splendor. At that time in Catholic history, the price for a nun getting pregnant by a monk was banishment or often, suicide. And the price for the monk? Nothing.

And so this metaphor of a bell named Mary, Marie, the holy Virgin.



Some around me jostle and eat chocolate. Others film the ceremony on the screen. Others watch, faces uplifted, tears streaming their cheeks. People have come from all around the world to be here for this moment, the first time in over two centuries that the cathedral has had a full complement of bells.

The music ends. One of the artisans of Cornille-Havard (France’s most renowned bell foundry) who made these bells lovingly describes his craft. This is the quality we love most about the French: their exquisite attention to the details of artistic craft.

I make my way through the scattering crowd back across the Pont au Double to meet Richard at his spot along the Seine. There he is! Unfortunately, his video captured mostly the sounds of traffic and talking humans, rather than the new bells. But we were there.

(And here's a link to TV channel BFM, which had better audio than we did.)





So Begins a Trés Bell Year



Our neighborhood cathedral turns eight hundred and fifty this year.

Here on the fifth floor, with our windows open, we often listen to the bells of Notre Dame (Our Lady) from four blocks away, and had thought them lovely each time.

But what do we know? 

Not being experts, we didn't know they were out of tune. After all, the last time the ten big bells were "replaced" was during the French Revolution of 1789, when they were destroyed as part of the wave of secular sentiment. Their eventual nineteenth century replacements were four chimes, which everyone except us knew were discordant.



So, to celebrate Our Lady's birthday, the church hierarchy commissioned nine new bronze bells, celebrated this last weekend amid much pomp, incense, music, and ceremony, including an appearance by Paris Archbishop Andre Armand Vingt-Trois.



Many masses were held, at which the gargantuan bells were displayed in the nave of the immense gothic cathedral. Between masses, the devout and the merely curious mingled together, inspecting, touching, and admiring the huge bronze bells, including the six-and-a-half ton bourdon (great bell) bell named for Marie, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.



Marie will be hoisted to the gothic south tower by herself, and the other eight, Jean-Marie, Maurice, Benoit-Joseph, Steven, Marcel, Denis, Anne-Genevieve and Gabriel, will be mounted in the north tower, joining another bourdon, Emmanuel, which has been there since the seventeenth century. 



The installation is expected to be finished by March 23, when they will ring together for the first time just before Palm Sunday, the beginning of what Christians call Holy Week. Palm Sunday commemorates the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, where, in the following week, he was tried, sentenced, put to death on a cross on Good Friday, and then, the story continues, resurrected on Easter, in the manner of previous fertility gods like the Greek Dionysus, the Mesopotamian Tammuz, or the Egyptian Amun.



Notre Dame itself stands on ground sacred long before the Christian Era began. The Cathedral sits at what Pulitzer Prize-winning architect Allan Temko called "the organic heart of Paris." And, "the eastern end of the island [Ile de la Cite] has been a repository of idealisms since men first built a tabernacle there of branches and reeds. From the floor of the Seine upward, there must be scores of buried pre-Christian shrines: first the fragile Gallic sanctuaries of wood, and then a whole series of Roman temples in stone. Finally, high on the accumulated mound, so close to the surface that they seem incredibly recent, is a collection of Christian edifices, resting directly behind and all around Notre-Dame." (Temko, Allan, Notre-Dame of Paris.  A Time Incorporated book, New York, 1962, page 11.) 

It's a powerful spot. Witness last Saturday, the day the celebratory masses began, which was blustery, with intermittent hail showers. Not quite cold enough to snow, but definitely some bitter winds. Then, as if to signify that somebody up there liked what was going on in the cathedral, the sun came out just long enough to help send this message to the assembled worshipers at the exact moment the afternoon service began.





La Fête de la Musique


Long ago, Ariadne, the Cretan princess, found her way through the labyrinth—where the Minotaur was hidden—with the help of a clew, a ball of thread. The thread changed colors, twelve in all, as she wove back and forth, north and south, east and west, until she reached the center.

I have vague intimations of this mythical life that underlies the present one through all the threads that connect me to memory and the people I love.

Our friend, T., is in Paris finishing up a novel that takes place in France.

She taught at the university where Richard and I got our MFAs in writing poetry and fiction.

Her friend and ours, E., who founded this MFA program, recommended to T. that she go to a Paris restaurant called Le Bouledogue. The owners have two French bulldogs and attract customers who bring their bulldogs to sit at the table with them as they dine.

Though we are Cat People, and T. and E. are Dog Persons, the prospect of seeing a roomful of bulldog diners is irresistible.

And it means we can spend more time with T.

It is not only La Nuit du Bouledogue, it is also Paris’ annual summer festival, La Fête de la Musique. Musical groups from all over the world will be performing all over the city on this longest night of the year.

At 6:00, we meet in front of our building, and begin our meandering towards Le Bouledogue in search of music.

At the Pont de la Tournelle, we descend the steps to the quai along the Seine.

Electronic music booms from a boom box, within view of Notre Dame. Strange dissonance.

Richard dashes ahead, snapping photos.



“Have you seen Midnight in Paris?” asks T.

“Yes,” I say, “have you?”

“Yes,” she says. “What did you think?”

“Since you’re asking, you tell me.”

“I hated it!” she says. “One cliché after another.”

“And we loved it. I walked in expecting nothing, since I haven’t liked his recent films. But it’s what he does best, a light pastry, a chocolate éclair.”

We discuss what she hated and what we loved.

“And The Moderns, she says, “That’s a film I loved.”

“And I hated it!”

“You did? But why?”

“I thought it was pompous, pretentious, static, phony. So did Richard.”

Now we’re both laughing.

We double back to the Petit Pont and cross the Seine.

T. asks me about my first trip to Paris.

I tell her of crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth at the age of 19 with my 18-year-old sister, Jane, and of being pursued by an Italian-American writer on the ship. Of resisting him. Of staying in a pension run by nuns with Jane in Paris. Of the French photographer who chased her all over Paris.

And then I had an experience that blew away the last trace of Christian belief in me, since losing most of it at an Episcopalian boarding school.



We are now at the entrance of Notre Dame.

T. wants to visit Joan of Arc, who makes an appearance in her novel.

We enter the Cathedral in the midst of a service. The priest’s voice has an unearthly beauty and innocence, as if he’s singing of the Christ that St. Francis of Assisi knew, the Christ of nature and kindness, rather than the Christ of torture and blood.

To the right is a transparent wall, behind it a priest sitting at a table, facing a parishioner. It appears that there is a confession going on.

If I were to face that priest, what would I confess?

I can’t think of a thing that I haven’t already admitted to myself or to people I love, whom I might have inadvertently hurt.

The priest’s voice is a poem, in an accent I can’t place, though its origin isn’t in France.

I want to sit and listen to him. I move toward the pews.

A sign blocks the way: Do not sit if you are not here for the entire service, it says.

The three of us walk to the statue of Joan of Arc. I do the math from her birth date to her death. She was 19 years old the year she was burned at the stake.

We turn towards the altar. The priest is a young man; his face and accent suggest that he’s from an African country. His sermon is a song.

The choir is singing now. A soloist in a long blue robe stands in front of the altar, and sings.

Above us are flower-mandalas of many colors, fashioned out of stained glass.



Out of Notre Dame, I finish my story. That summer I spent a weekend visiting Giorgio D’Ambrosio in Zurich, where he worked. There was moonlight. A balcony. And love. I lost what I was ready to lose. And it was ecstatic for both of us. Until he began weeping with guilt. Sex was so wrong! He’d go to Mass in the morning and confess!

I was shocked out of my mind. Instant complete conversion: if Christianity called this wrong, I was no Christian, I was a pagan.

Richard is ahead of us, taking photos. We pass the Pompidou, and arrive at Le Bouledogue. People are seated outside, but nowhere are there bulldogs!

I scan the menu, and see what I’m looking for: salmon with salad. T. orders first, the same thing, and Richard wants duck.



I shudder, though it makes no sense. I eat chicken and turkey. But I couldn’t eat a duck. We’ve had duck friends. Most recently, Grace (Kelly) in Playa del Rey, the white domestic duck abandoned in the lagoon, who soon attracted three mallard suitors, because of her exotic coloring, two of whom lasted through several mating seasons.

T. tells us the story of her novel, which takes place in World War II France. It is a compelling tale about identity, about Christians and Jews, French and Germans.

This is a timely subject, I say. The metamorphosis of victim into bully is what is happening now in Israel.

She agrees.

And one of the worst things that humans do to each other is scapegoating, and witch hunts.

The waiter arrives with dinner.

“But where are the bulldogs?” we ask.

“In two or three minutes, they arrive!” He says.

The salmon has arrived too. And it’s raw. How did I miss the word, “tartare?” Look at this beautifully prepared salmon tartare. And I can’t eat a bite. I substitute for the fish a side dish I wouldn’t ordinarily touch, French fries.

Now, two sturdy champagne-colored male bulldogs arrive with the owner of the restaurant. He ties their leashes to a brass rail at the end of the bar, and they plop down side by side, legs splayed.

But no customers come to sit at the tables with their bulldogs.

We head out to hear “Young Talent,” whatever that is, at the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais. But the line to get in fills half the courtyard.



And so we meander, past a Kiehl’s Beauty Products on rue Franc-Bourgeois, where a French rock band plays “Got my Mojo Working;” past an electric jazz band under the arcades at Place des Vosges, with electric violin, guitar and drums; past a folk duo as we round the elegant square; past a Christian choir singing “Jesus, mon fort et mon Rocher,” and back towards the Île Saint-Louis and the Seine.



On the other side of the Quai de la Tournelle is La Rotisserie du Beaujolais, my mother's favorite Paris restaurant. 

We tell T. about the resident cat, Beaujolais, who sits at the front corner table when three or fewer diners occupy his chosen table of four. Just as there were no bulldogs tonight sitting at the dinner table, neither are there cats. 

Strange how almost nothing I was looking for tonight—bulldogs sitting at the table with diners, cats doing the same, a good salmon dinner myself—has happened, yet seeing T. made it all irrelevant. We go out to explore, and what we find is human connection.

We reach Boulevard Saint-Germain and kiss T. goodbye.



On our block of Cardinal Lemoine, we hear the sweetest sound, and see the most enchanting sight: there are couples dancing to an Irish-sounding tune, dancing in the street! There are women dancing together, children dancing, men and women dancing, grandparents dancing with grandchildren.

A band stands on the sidewalk, playing a gay tune.

Richard kneels to take the right shots.

I stand on the opposite sidewalk in a state of delight.

“Is this Irish music?” I ask the woman standing next to me.

“It’s music from Bretagne,” she says. “It’s close to Irish, though.”

“Of course—it’s so fresh and gay! Like the music of the troubadors.”

“Yes,” she says, “it is.”

The band stops playing.

A middle-aged woman drenched in sweat after dancing with a girlfriend, comes over to stand beside her friend.

Her friend asks her to confirm that this is music from Bretagne.

“Oui! Oui!” says the woman.

We push open the big green door to our courtyard, feeling there’s no place like home.





En Plein Cœur de Paris (Right in the Heart of Paris) 


The ingredients: Beauty. A body of water. Culture. Walkability.

A block and a half to the post office. Drop them in the box.

Loop around rue des Écoles and back down rue Pontoise to the gym. It’s Sunday night and closed. But you take an iPhone photo of the schedule taped to the window. Yoga and Cardio and Stretching and Salsa all day.

Cross Blvd. St. Germain and continue down rue Pontoise past a restaurant with tables outside, which looks inviting. But it’s too close, we wanted a longer walk. Rue Pontoise comes out on Quai de la Tournelle, and Voila! it happens again. We emerge along the banks of the Seine in a state of delight. How little it takes to generate happiness. A river. Evening light. Your hand in mine. The statue of Sainte Geneviève in stone rising above the Pont de la Tournelle and the Seine.

The legend goes that in 451 when word came that Attila and the Huns were about to invade the city, Geneviève held them off with the power of her prayer. And she became the patron saint of Paris. In 1928, the sculptor Paul Landowski was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Sainte Geneviève to rise above this bridge.

“Did I tell you what the sculptor went through with this sculpture?” you say.

“No, tell me!”

“Apparently, Landowski wanted it to face west towards Notre Dame. But the city insisted that it face east as a rebuke to the Germans against whom the French had fought WWI. As a kind of echo of Geneviève’s resistance against the Huns centuries before. You can see who won.”

The statue faces east towards Germany.

“Where did you read that? It wasn’t in the account I read.”

“In Colin Jones’s book, Paris: Biography of a City.

“It’s 8:00 p.m. and still light. I love these late evenings.”

“And soon it will still be light at 10 p.m.”

We cross the bridge. People are lined up with cameras trying to capture the sun setting behind Notre Dame.



One couple, the woman with legs like sausages, is kissing so intensely I have to watch. The man is gripping her jaw with his hand as if it’s a fish that might slip back into the Seine if he doesn’t hold tight. I love to see hefty middle-aged couples convulsed with passion.

We cross into the central street of l’Île Saint-Louis and pass all the familiar shops and restaurants. One more bridge and we’re in the Marais.

We pass a Jewish temple. A rabbi in a fedora comes out and scolds a couple of young male students. His gestures are classic. He holds up his hands to the sky in helpless dismay, but he speaks fluid French; there’s something dear and funny in this combination of the familiar and the strange. Richard asks, “How do you say “Oy veh” in French?

Men walk by on the other side of the street with tefillin[1] and payot[2].

As we turn onto rue des Francs-Bourgeois, I spot graffiti on a wall that I've never seen, an old-fashioned full-length portrait of a man.  "Do you have this one?

"No," you say, and pull your camera from your bag.

"Why does it not surprise me that you just happened to have that camera on you?" I laugh. 


You snap the image from several angles and we continue on. A little lèche-vitrine[3]. Here’s a long dress in a shop window. I don’t wear long summer dresses, but this one I like.

“What do you think?” I ask.

“Nope. It’s not you.”

That’s all I need to hear.

I hoped there would be an empty table outside. There’s a slight breeze but the air is warm. We don’t want to eat indoors. And there is, in the corner against that ancient wall. We sit across from each other, one table away from a young French couple, who, like most French people, modulate their voices so that you can talk without the conversations of others distracting you.

Foiled in our last attempt to have galettes, tonight there are no obstacles. We’re radiating joy and the waitress feels it, comes up to our table and smiles and laughs!

I’d forgotten that they have galettes with goat cheese here, which is better for me than cow’s cheese. And more important, is delicious.

You look flustered. Too many great choices; what will you have?

The waitress laughs. She’s small and dark-haired and possibly Middle Eastern.  She takes our orders and comes back with a big bottle of Pellegrino, pours it for the two of us.  

“I have to tell you one thing about you that I really love.”

You raise your eyebrows. Moi?

“You. I know how hard these first two weeks of French classes have been. I think four hours of instruction in a new language are the equivalent of eight hours of work at anything else.”

You nod in agreement.

“What moves me is the way you put your whole heart, mind, body and soul into learning something new. Your wholeheartedness—you approach everything that matters to you that way.”



You nod.

“The way you disappeared into your office all day Saturday memorizing pronouns and articles, and then practiced them later with me. Really, the French language doesn’t have a chance against you. You will master her. Just like Sainte Geneviève conquered the Huns by her attitude alone!”

You laugh. The galettes arrive. “Bon appetit!” The waitress sings, and swings away to the next table. We hold hands above the meal, thank the goddess Demeter for this food that smells so good we have to cut short our thanks and demonstrate our gratitude by quickly digging in.


“Ohhhh,” you echo.

“No, this is the best place for galettes in town.”

“I have to agree. And this one has goat cheese, which I haven’t found anywhere else. I’d offer you a bite but it’s too good.”

“You can’t have a bite of mine either.”

“I wouldn’t want one, with all that boeuf on it.”

We eat, sighing. “I passed a men’s shop on St. Germain with the perfect black linen jacket for you in the window. That is, if you want one.”

“Let’s go by after dinner and take a look.”

After dinner, we cross the street and Voila! there’s a graffiti image that I hope is… “What do you think that is,” I ask.

“An octopus,” you say.

“I could use that image,” I say. You photograph it, and then as we walk down rue des Francs-Bourgeois, there is another, in orange. And then another green one. You photograph each.


The Missing Star

The restaurants we pass are all wide open now to the street. Many are full of men with men, in groups, in couples, and standing in front of the restaurants, hunting. And very tall, thin black men who look like models, walking arm in arm in the street.

We cross in front of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris. To the right is a long fountain and a carrousel, to the left, the magnificent ancient building.

“Look at the light behind that statue.”

We look, then glance at each other. No words are needed. The joy on your face mirrors what I feel.

Through the Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame, the square in front of Notre Dame. Boys are tossing up a toy lightning bug, which twinkles in the church’s dramatic lights.

Tourists eat ice cream. A Russian family crosses our path.



A girl is draped across a boy’s lap; they’re kissing. The beauty of this city brings out romance.

We look for the jacket, but the shop must be farther up St. Germain. You’ll pass it tomorrow on the way to school.

The secrets of the magic of this city: beauty, the river, the culture, but most of all, that you can walk everywhere. If we were meant to drive every day, we’d have been born with wheels on our feet.


[1] From Ancient Greek phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning "to guard, protect"), are a set of small cubic leather boxes painted black, containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, with leather straps dyed black on one side, and worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

[2] Payot (also peyotpayospayesspeyesspeyos Hebrewsingular, פֵּאָה; plural, פֵּאוֹת‎ At Yemeni jewish it is called 'Simonim' too סִימָנִים) is the Hebrew word for sidelocks or sidecurls. Payot are worn by some men and boys in the Orthodox Jewish community based on an interpretation of the Biblical injunction against shaving the "corners" of one's head. Literally, pe'ah means cornerside or edge.

[3] Window-shopping. Literally, “licking the windows.”