It was the year of the millennium, and the airplane tickets I placed in the hands of a man on the evening of our anniversary were a surprise that I had planned with the help of his boss and my own supervisor at work. Repeated visits to Pennsylvania that year to relieve his sister in the care of their mother had been taking a toll on my friend. Providing him with his first view of Paris was the relief, the restorative that I managed to arrange for a long weekend in May.
He and I were able to arrange that same relief, that same restorative to his sister the following year. We became her tour guides to a Paris she had never seen. One of her best friends pledged to visit daily the nursing home where their mother had recently taken residence, and another of her best friends joined us for the week-long visit to Paris under grey March skies. Watching my friend’s sister revive – at her own pace, on her own timetable – was a lesson for me of the power of the Paris horizon to open spaces within to face the inevitabilities of life.
I have just sketched what are two key chapters of the interior guide book out of which I advise friends who are about to visit Paris for the first time. These chapters are full of sidewalk cafés and museum strolls and subway tickets and café crèmes, hotel breakfasts and long, long walks and boat rides down the Seine. They are chapters full of postcards and restaurants and blisters and jetlag. In these chapters, votive candles get tenderly lit in the darkness of Notre Dame.
There is another chapter, however, to this Paris guide book, a chapter I seldom explicitly reference when I talk about Paris. It tells the improbable story of a summer month in Paris without one visit to a café or restaurant. It tells the story of a young student for the priesthood whose breakfasts included not croissants but ends of stale baguettes dipped in bowls of café au lait. It tells the story of routines – daily Mass in the community chapel of a residence in the fifteenth arrondissement, responses like “Saint, saint, saint Dieu de l’univers...” and a cycle of readings from the Gospels according to Luc and Matthieu and Marc and Jean. It tells the story of pilgrim places, the tiny church of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre in the shadow of Notre Dame and the chapel commemorating the spot on Montmartre where the first Jesuits took their vows in the sixteenth century.
Paris had been home to me for a summer month in 1974, a month that had less to do with logging tourist sites and more to do with opening my American eyes to a world outside the familiar landscapes of my life. I befriended a Polish seminarian in that residence in the fifteenth arrondissement and wondered how to trust my halting French to communicate with him. There are neighborhoods in Paris through which I remember walking that summer as a young man still mystified by his heart and how it responded to another man and what it longed one day to say to someone, to some man, who would want to hear just those things from me.
I hope one day to walk those neighborhoods again.