Wednesday, October 04, 2006

You're always looking up, you're never looking down

Right, ok, where was I? Oh yeah.

Earlier in the summer, on one of the many rainy Sunday afternoons this summer had to offer us, I wandered after brunch over to one of my favorite little nooks of Paris, the crypt underneath the parvis of the Hotel de Ville. If you've never been, and if you can look at Gallo-Roman and medieval ruins without declaring them as nothing more than a pile of rocks, I do recommend this place. I have had an inexplicable fascination for late Roman, early Christian and medieval ruins since as long as I can remember. This must stem from having grown up in a town where 1950s tuck-and-roll diner booths are considered antiques.

Anyway, as I was wandering through the damp, dark coolness of the ancient walls, cellars of sixteenth century houses, and Gallo-Roman heating rooms, I came across a little booklet on a chair that an English speaking tourist has discarded. Judging from its water drops, I suspected an attempt had been made to use it as an umbrella outside. The booklet contained little maps and an explanation of the what used to be on the parvis, what was torn down in the middle agaes and then again in the Renaissance. Upon reading this booklet, I learned something I did not know: on the parvis, there is a cobblestone line that marks what used to be the rue Neuve Notre Dame, the part that splintered off into the rue de Venise (which was, as a sidenote, really tiny! It sort of reminded me of the actual size of pathways in Venice), and a round set of cobblestones marked where the former Eglise Ste Genevieve-des-Ardennes had been, and the sixth century Eglise St Etienne, which was torn down when construction began on Notre-Dame in 1163. Alongside the cobblestones that mark the rue Neuve-Notre-Dame, there are written indicators of what shops lined them.

As I followed these markers up above, taking care not to bump into tourists squinting upwards for a glimpse of Quasimodo, it occured to me that Paris is a city where you are constantly looking up. Although a seasoned Parisian will always keep an eye on the sidewalk to avoid stepping into a pile of, ahem, le chocolat, it's the buildings that one's gaze always soars up to. The cathedral. The Pompidou center. Sacre-Coeur, high up on the hill in the distance. The wrought iron balconies on the fifth floor of the Haussmans.

But we don't realize that there is a whole other history at our feet. I was reminded of this a few months ago, while strolling with my friend Dina around the Bastille, when she mentioned a documentary she had seen and pointed out that on the busy place de la Bastille, a line had been drawn on the road and sidewalk to mark the original fundations of the dungeon of the Bastille.

And so, there it was. There it was, once again. That feeling, that rush that just keeps returning, even after four years in this city. I was standing in the parvis of Notre Dame Cathedral, a place I have now crossed possibly a thousand times, and I was standing in the rain surrounded by tourists, them looking up with their wide eyes and dropped jaws, and me looking down, but still with wide eyes and dropped jaws. There it was. Four years, and once again, this rich city has rendered me speechless in awe...


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