A couple of weeks ago we went back to Paris to see some of the people and places we used to visit when we lived there. During the day, while the people we knew were at work, we wandered the streets together like ghosts trying to relive all the best parts of old times before having to step off the earth again and go home. Since it is summer, there was not much going on; many parts of the city had already packed themselves away until autumn. But all was not lost, of course, our favourite places waited for us, posed so we could photograph them.
In Belleville we walked past the printmaking studio I used to go to most week nights. The tall wooden doors of the place were bolted tight, the lights were all turned off, and the street out front didn't reek of etching chemicals because it was all emptied out for the summer. But in the streets around there, paintings grew up the buildings and bloomed in the evening sun. There were posters everywhere with pictures of CCTV cameras, and beneath the photos there were little messages saying the government is watching you, scratch out its eyes. And there were sculptures to be seen in the windows of the many studios there. There were women in lovely head scarves, there was delicious Laotian food, and there were places to sit outside and drink red wine until it was late, time to go. And then there was the group of forty people all on roller skates passing by.
Another day we walked into the little cluster of Russian restaurants and icon shops that sit around the Cathédrale Saint Alexandre Nevsky. I used to love walking around in the filtered light of this church, full of lovely art nouveau-influenced frescoes, and heaped with icons. But somehow my husband had never seen the inside until this visit. Not far away from here there is another church that we love, the Église Saint Augustin. Although it is a little shabby in places, it captures the feeling of being in a train station with its long nave lined in iron lamp posts. Unfortunately, the photos we tried to take in there didn't really come out. Inside, I lit a candle at a side altar dedicated to Mother Teresa and thought of an orphanage/school in India I once visited that was started by a man who she had helped as a child. Although I don't have a religion, I do miss the churches and other religious buildings in Paris that leave their doors open so people can come in to pray or meditate or think freely.
We also visited La Grande Mosquée de Paris. In the courtyard garden it is easy to forget that there is a bustling European city surrounding the mosque. Instead, there are palm leaves and tiles, dazzling geometric patterns everywhere and bright flowers that look as if they should grow some place much warmer. It was a hot day, and we stopped in the shade of the vine-covered courtyard where sweet mint green tea is served, and sparrows riot overhead.
It's funny to come home and see the photos that have been waiting inside the camera after being away someplace. Walking down the street, eating with friends, waiting out a sudden rainstorm under the nearest awning, or talking endlessly on some patio are the sort of things I remember most, but I hardly ever photograph these things.
Instead there is usually an inordinate amount of stained glass... or old floor tiles with patterns made of grotesques maybe.
But we also visited Brittany. In fact, the main reason why we went to France right on the heels of all our other visiting, when all we really wanted was to stay still for a moment and pick up the threads our daily lives again, was to have one last visit at my husband's grandmother's house which will soon have to be sold.
And so we walked the beaches and the rocky shores and stepped out to the ends of piers; we watched the sea endlessly. At low tide we dug clams and collected the fragile shells of star-marked urchins to decorate the table. We swam, and we went to markets where each piece of fruit, every cheese, every single thing looked like a piece of art, riper than ripe and ready to eat. And we passed through villages where all the roofs are thatched and the houses are built with nooks for statues of saints.
We found dolmens in old oak groves...
... and beside farmers' fields.
We marvelled at these enormous rocks pulled out of the earth and then balanced so precariously, as if they were lighter than air and could float in place. And then we crawled in underneath them for another look.
And we floated in a black tar boat through a maze of canals in marsh-land. White geese honked from the shore, swallows dashed back and forth, and moths fluttered about the tall grasses. And we knew that we were indeed some kind of ghosts, visiting only shortly... because everything was too good and too beautiful and all that we could have desired to pack into a few short days was there.
Already it seems so long ago. Right now what is most in my mind is that we are just home after a trip down the street, through the harbour, to the lighthouse that sits surrounded by wildflowers and purple grasses, where cormorants sit on the rocks, holding their wings out to dry and the huge boats of the harbour come and go. And that is a good thing, I've been writing too much in the past tense in these last few entries, it's time for things here to start moving again.