Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Material and the Spiritual

The streets of Paris were filled with shoppers on Christmas Eve. It was difficult to herd yourself onto the escalator to go from floor to floor of the Galleries Lafayette. Lee was shopping for clothes since her baggage had not arrived. I was shopping for myself. I began in the basement. Surely the best bargains would be where the ceilings were the lowest. The basement of this old department store housed mostly shoes; beautiful boots, sexy heels, and more sexy heels. The first lovely pair that I examined was 900 euro. This was definitely not a bargain basement. I began to look at each pair with a different eye, the way you look at art in a museum.
The shoes were displayed in sections according to the designer. To me it looked like the United Nations, shoes were from all over the world. The siren began her song at the red carpeted area designated for the Spanish designer, Pura Lopez. It sat on the top shelf with its friends, sleekly architectural. With a four inch heel, the slender black pump called to me to pick it up, feel the silk, admire the gold leather lining, and ask if anyone, anyone could speak French and find my size. Et voila! It fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper. It was so tall and sexy, and it made my legs looked tall and sexy. Anything that makes me look tall and sexy is difficult to resist. These shoes were in my price range, so the deal was struck. I was handed a large black shopping bag with long black ribbon handles.
On the main floor with the dresses, I knew to avoid the designers whose names I recognized; Chanel, Gautier, Gucci, Hermes. I came across an unfamiliar French designer where the dresses hung between gold silk curtains for dividers. Again I heard the song of seduction, and I wandered in. It hung on the bar, and like the shoes, was simple, architectural and black. It was a sheathe that Audrey Hepburn would have worn in a classic movie, a romantic film from France about a passionate affair. It had long narrow sleeves, a tapered waist, and a neckline that would reveal collarbones. The skirt flared just a bit, and the back plunged tastefully. I looked at the tag, and the clerk smiled. 1900 euro. Goodbye siren dress. You are not in my budget today. I did find a very reasonable Italian bolero sweater with black beads to cover my arms when I wear my strapless dresses. I had two bags in tow, and rendezvoused with Lee who has had a wonderful time with her English speaking VIP attendant.
We gathered her bags and headed to the Champs des L’Elysee, where we walked along wide sidewalks with pink banners and white lighted chestnut trees. This is the most expensive strip of real estate in Europe. At one end of the boulevard stood the Arc de Triomphe and at the other rotated a giant lighted Ferris Wheel, La Grande Roue. This was definitely Paris. We reached my now favorite street, Avenue Montaigne. Many of the chic avenues are decorated for Christmas with unique lights. Avenue Montaigne is lined with orange lights in the trees that rim the sidewalk. The lights are modern and shaped like a cone. Other streets are lit in red, with the twinkling lights that follow the branches of the trees. Others have blue garlands or white snowflakes cascading across the road. As long as it is Christmas and the lights are illuminated, I will be able to reference my location from one Versace store to another. I saw the stylish boutiques that I had previously admired as I made my way to the Hotel Plaza Athenee. Lee and I walked in as if we were staying there, past several doormen who stood in attendance of anyone needing assistance with the revolving door. We strode past the lounge where couples enjoyed tea and fancy pastries to the bar.
The bar at the Plaza Athenee is a place to be seen in Paris. It is a delightful mix of traditional old architecture and hip modern design. The walls were dark oak with carved flowers forming the cornice at the ceiling. Through the sheer window coverings, the orange lights of Avenue Montaigne provided a warm glow. The bar looked like ice lit in florescent blue. The same blue light fell from modern ceiling fixtures, causing a blue atmosphere to dominate the scene. The chairs were covered in pewter silk or leather. They were either a modern design or a French antique. I was fascinated with the niches along the oak walls of the bar. Soft silk pillows on sofas were nestled in Magritte style vignettes of pewter grey clouds. Couples sat close together and enjoyed cocktails in long stemmed crystal glasses. Lee and I ordered our champagne with raspberries and feasted on a platter of appetizers with caviar and lobster. Our French is not good. We ate what they suggested, and everything was sumptuous. We dined by the digital fire with digital smoke that projected on the mirror above the antique mantel at the end of the bar. We were two modern day Marie Antoinettes, stuffing ourselves with the best that Paris had to offer. Let them eat cake. We left the Hotel Plaza Athenee for Notre Dame. It was time for church.
Notre Dame was just as I had remembered, a breathtaking masterpiece of Gothic architecture shining in the rainy night sky with yellow gold lights. A large Christmas tree with blue lights stood between the two towers of the cathedral. Police with machine guns observed the worshipers that filed in through the heavy wooden doors. Christmas Eve services run each hour. We had come early to try an acquire seats for the midnight mass. As we entered, I ducked into one of the many side bays with candles to say a pray on this holy evening. French carols reverberated around the nooks and arches of the church, and the smell of melted wax filled the air. I prayed for peace, for my sons who were not with me, for the blessing of my friends who stood beside me every day, and for the good fortune to be in Notre Dame for Christmas. Lee and I were lucky to find two seats together on the center aisle of the cathedral. As people continued to enter, worshipers had to stand in the center and side aisles, as well as the crosswalks. Eight flat screen televisions allowed all viewers to see the grand altar with the marble figure of Mary weeping at the base of a large plain cross. Carved marble, soaring ribs supporting medieval, stone vaulted ceilings, flat screen televisions, and Renaissance carols added to the unreal atmosphere of this night in Notre Dame. Perhaps worshipers throughout the centuries have felt the same mystery in this cathedral.
Just before the service began, the smell of incense filled the air. The center aisle was cleared and the procession began. The large grand organ bellowed and continued to crescendo. The great bourdon bell, Emmanuel, rang out. I was reminded of a Rolling Stone’s concert where the sound entered your body and vibrated every cell. I shut my eyes to allow the music to overtake me. The Notre Dame organ could nearly levitate your from the mosaic floor. Bishops, the arch bishop, crosses, the gold holy bible and security guards processed down the main aisle to the apse of the cathedral. Discordant notes blended with the Christmas hymn, while the worshipers sang in French. There was no doubt to the people present, who had traveled from all over the world to be in this grand and important cathedral, that on this night Christ was born, and they were there to celebrate the joy of Christmas Eve. I closed my eyes again to feel the service and prevent distractions in my mind. Just before communion, the crowd prayed the Lord’s Prayer. It sounded like the Tower of Babel, each worshiper praying in his native language and understood by all. Peace was exchanged from person to person in English, French, Chinese and Russian. It had now become Christmas Day. It was time to leave, photograph the altar and say one last prayer.
Lee and I headed into the streets for the metro. The wind was now blowing as it rained, and the temperature dropped. I was thrilled to have entered the metro tunnels. As we inserted our tickets into the turnstile, a man in an orange vest barked French to us. We did not have money to give panhandlers. We kept telling him in our broken French that we only spoke English. He threw his hands in the air, proceeded to the entrance that we had passed through and locked the gate. We were locked in the tunnels. We followed the smell of urine to the train tracks. There on the benches were huddled the homeless who had come into the warm tunnels for the night. They were lying down with dirty dark blankets to keep them warms and newspapers and their arms for pillows. No one approached us for money. They were tired and ready for sleep, for a respite from the cold and the rain. I wondered if they were hungry too.
The meaning of Christmas was clarified for me in that tunnel. The bustle of Christmas shopping, the champagne toasts to the season, and the glittering gold of a cross, all pale to the vision of lonely and hungry people, searching for what little warmth they could find in the tunnels beneath the street, the tunnels that lie under the shadows of one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals. If the Christ child that was born on the evening over two thousand years ago could look with love to the inhabitants of our earth, these would be the people he would embrace. I felt fortunate to remember a lesson that should always stay at the forefront of my mind, a lesson never to be forgotten.
Lee and I found a stairway that led to the only exit not gated and locked. We took a cab back to our apartment along the Seine. We looked forward to our Christmas Day dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel and the famous Le Cinq restaurant. And, I hope that we not forget the souls who sleep beneath the streets of Paris, and in the streets of every city. Blessings to everyone. Merry Christmas, 2009.

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