Sacré Cœur

I admit I’ve been unfaithful.Carelessly, frivolously un-remorseful.

For years now, I’ve declared steadfast, undying love for London. I’ve called it my favourite city in the world. When I was away, I missed it. When I returned, it was there, steady, waiting.  Unwavering as the moon.
Then Paris came along.
That beautiful, boozy ruffian.
It took gut-wrenching willpower (and an un-refundable train ticket) to leave.

What can I say about Paris that others haven’t said before?
Not much, I suppose.
Yet that would be like brushing away love or Shakespeare ~ for even though they’ve been repeatedly plumbed through the ages, they continue to yield delight and renew themselves like rare, raging phoenixes.
Needless to say, the most popularly iconic book linked to the city is Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast,yet the Paris I arrived in belonged more to Henry Miller. In his little-known memoir Quiet Days in Clichy, he says, “Paris is pre-eminently a grey city…the range of greys is seemingly infinite…gris, to the ears of a Frenchman, is capable of evoking a world of thought and feeling.” And so it was ~ an overcast sky brooded over the city as it slipped into the shadows of a summer evening.
My guide (and partner in crime and general revelry) was Lara, an old friend who I was staying with in Maison de l’Inde at Cité Universite. Our quest for food and liquid sustenance took us to the Latin quarter, the city’s oldest, liveliest neighbourhood, where the Panthéon loomed in colossal secular splendour. Behind it, Rue Mouffetard caroused in a winding chain of bars and restaurants. It was lovely and lively. It was Monday and no one seemed to care. The air hummed with chatter and clinked with glass and cutlery. Somewhere, a snatch of muffled music. The sizzle of ham and chorizo at a crêpes counter. 

Then Lara suggested we leave.
“Leave?” I didn’t think it could get any better.
But her favourite drinking spot was elsewhere in the city.
That was where we were headed.

We took the metro to Saint Michel, lovingly cradling our cigarettes and bottles of cheap red wine. Then we reached the river, and across the bridge was Notre Dame. I had seen it before, on a trip with my parents a decade ago. I remember it was a cold, rainy day, most of the structure was under renovation and a group of American evangelist schoolchildren were joyfully singing hymns outside. Now, the universe seemed to be apologising. If the Notre Dame looks stunning by day, it is nothing less than dazzling by night. We sat ourselves down, dangling our feet above the rushing Seine, just where the river divided, with a view that beat anything Rue Mouffetard could have offered.
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We then proceeded to get terrifically inebriated.
The next day – let’s just say it rained until noon and we couldn’t head out until much later. A lazy saunter across Rue de la Huchette (very close to where Lara and I were making rude gestures at tourists on boats the previous evening), took us to the very famous Shakespeare & Co., a quaint labyrinthine bookshop that has been frequented by the likes of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and William Burroughs.
Yes, it also  features in Before Sunset; it’s where Julie Delphi encounters Ethan Hawk nine years later. (Perhaps this explains why the place is staffed only by Americans?) I already own a copy, but I asked for Quiet Days in Clichy merely to test the mettle of the bookshop’s collection and the smart-alecky girl at the counter.
Blank stare.
“I’ve never heard of that one before.”
“Really?”
“We have A Moveable Feast; it makes a great present.”
Life is sometimes full of small, completely unimportant, victories.
Our next mission – because I am a huge fan of Hemingway, and because he also owned a Moleskine – Lara and I set off down the spacious Boulevard du Montparnasse to look for La Closerie des Lilas, a cafe which the writer frequented. On cue for the annual midsummer Fete de la Musique, the skies cleared and a warm sun shone down on the city like a benevolent god. Bands set up on every corner, and music filled the air  – some decidedly lacked talent, and a Vietnamese group performed a bamboo dance without dancers – but what counted was the effort and enthusiasm.
 
When we finally reached Lilas, we were hungry, but there was no way an art student and a struggling writer could afford a meal there. Hemingway clearly wasn’t as down and out as he made himself out to be, we muttered darkly. Or perhaps Lilas had undergone startling transformation over the past ninety years and made a quantum leap from decrepit to super posh. Yet we were seated and caught like two cuckoos in the wrong nest. We lugubriously sipped on juice and hot chocolate, all the while eyeing the splendid seafood platter on ice that a more financially advantaged group behind us were feasting on. The highlight of our soiree there was a conversation with two gentlemen on the next table ~ one was a book dealer from Folio and the other a rare and antique manuscript bookshop owner. Feeling suitably culturally revived, we then headed off to Saint Michel for a hearty, inexpensive meal of mussels and fries.
On my last day there, I spent a quiet few hours alone with Paris. It was a particularly beautiful afternoon, and the walk along the river, on Quai des Grands Augustins, Quai Malaquais and Quai Voltaire, perfectly sublime. The city played quite the coquette – throwing up one spectacular sight after the other. This bank was far less crowded and touristy than the other where the Louvre is located. Or so I thought, until I reached the Musee d’ Orsay. A line from here to China snaked its way in front of the building and onto the road. I spent a large chunk of my time standing in the queue, listening to bothersome chatter and craning my neck to see Impressionist paintings above a sea of heads.
Not really.
A friend once remarked how the entire city is a museum and it’s true, I didn’t need to be indoors to appreciate great art. I picked up a baguette, headed across to Port des Tuileries, and sat on a bench right by the water’s edge.
The only thing to distract me from this, and the collected poems of Sylvia Plath, was a couple, well into their 50s, who sat a few benches away and draped themselves all over each other. Kissing without coming up for air. For an hour. If you visit anytime soon, they might still be there.
What finally captured my heart, completely and forever, was Montmartre. Our bus ride there took a long, picturesque route, and you could tell we were headed out of manicured, bourgeois Paris by the way cafes and shops transformed into little shadowy dens of vices. By the time we got off, the shop in front of us was called Sex-o-drome and boasted three floors of titillating props and drama. The Moulin Rouge, across the road, with its famous red windmill facade, seemed demure without its flamboyant lights – and I was more than a little dismayed to discover that far from cheap, raucous entertainment (the kind we were treated to in the movie), the shows are supremely expensive and include fine eight-course dining. Wasn’t the crowd supposed to be misbehaved and disorderly? Shouting out expletives like the groundlings at the Globe. Tres sad.
Yet there was much else to amuse us. We wandered into a sex shop, giggled like schoolgirls at the amazing range of dildo sizes, marvelled at the S&M material – and then, in a daring move of theatrical spontaneity, we tried on a variety of wigs. Plasticky pink tresses, impossibly blonde locks, cropped manga-style waves. It was fun because the space allowed us to be whoever we wanted.
If the Moulin Rouge beats like a vibrant scarlet heart at the foot of the hill, the white-domed Sacré Cœur at the top, is its spiritual, virginal other. Even Miller, that most profane and sacrilegious of writers, found it inspiring:“Looking towards the Sacré Cœur from any point along the Rue Laffitte on a day like this, an hour like this, would be sufficient to put me in ecstasy. It has had that effect upon me even when I was hungry and had no place to sleep.”You can walk up any number of routes; on every winding road there’s something to discover – an exquisite bakery, an amateur theatre, an ancient piano bar – and the view keeps getting better. This is where a number of artists have lived and worked including Picasso, Monet, Dali, Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh. Despite a heavy influx of tourists, the place still retains its artistic Bohemian air. Street performers fill the streets, as do portrait painters with their easels and colours. The view from the front of the Sacré Cœur, the highest point in the city, is lyrical and melancholic. It lays there before you ~ a divine gift, a languorous prostitute, an endless, sprawling feast.

You may fall in love, once, twice, a million times over, yet Paris always remains the one you lost, the lover you think of while lying awake beside someone else.

Sketch © Silvia

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