On Monday, after my disturbing appointment with Dr. Porsche, I spent the rest of my day off wandering around Paris. Though I trek through the Paris Métro every weekday on my way to and from work, unfortunately spending time above ground in Paris has become somewhat of a luxury.
It was a beautiful day, clear and hot. I went to the BHV first, the venerable department/hardware/everything store on the Rue de Rivoli across from the Hôtel de Ville. Only an American in Paris would hit the annual sales exclusively at the BHV, the opposite of chic -- and leave with lingerie and a new bathing suit, no less.
Leaving the BHV, I crossed the esplanade of the Hôtel de Ville, headed toward the Seine, my target the tourist heart of the city. I fished my pocket map from my purse, since my memory of Paris geography is still approximate. Sure enough, if I walked straight, I'd arrive right in front of Notre-Dame.
I joined a long line of tourists snaking out from the entrance. It was moving quickly enough and I was in no hurry. I'm always a bit overwhelmed by Notre Dame de Paris; the crowds and the souvenir shops for blocks around, the feeling that you can't move but blunder into someone's vacation photo. I prefer churches where, outside the hours of mass, footsteps echo and dropping 50 centimes into an old automatic light switch will let you admire some sculpture overlooked by the Michelin guidebook. In Notre-Dame, there's no silence, and you have to fight for room for quiet contemplation.
But I suspect that an empty cathedral would be more of an anachronism. This urban Gothic monument was probably mobbed even before its construction was completed, and although the 12th century crowd wore more clothing and fewer Gucci sunglasses than the crowd in June 2009, the press of tourists and the murmur of innumerable foreign languages was the same.
Two American college students joined the line behind me.
"Is this the line for tickets to get in?" one asked.
"It's the line to get in, but it's free."
"That's too bad. They should make people pay," said one of the students to the other. "It makes no sense. How are they going to pay for the upkeep if everyone gets in free?"
"You're always thinking like an MBA," said the other with a laugh.
"Yeah, but the business plan makes no sense."
"Don't worry," I turned to add, "The French government more than pays for it, I'm sure."
"But that's the problem."
"Well, they do charge to go up to the tower," I offered.
"And if only the people who were willing to pay could go inside," he continued, "then everyone else would get out of my way."
I should have pointed out that the Louvre is just as packed with ambivalent tourists more than willing to pay for an expensive ticket just to check the Mona Lisa off their to-see list, so his reasoning may be flawed. Instead I protested, "But it's a church!"
Then I admitted than in Spain and Italy you sometimes did have to pay to visit churches, except, of course, to attend mass.
"Hey, that's what we need. I could go for free! I'll just let them know I'm part of the club," said student number one.
"That's right! You're Catholic!" said student number two. "Don't you guys have, like, a secret handshake or something?"
"If we do, we wouldn't learn it until confirmation, at least. I dunno. I don't remember. What would a secret Catholic handshake be like? Two hi-fives over the head, maybe?"
More like a secret genuflection, I thought with a smile, but said nothing. We separated as we reached the entrance and, ducking into the sombre stone interior, were greeted by a flurry of flashbulbs.