Friday, May 22, 2009

Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres

One of the least risky things I did with my friends as a teenager in southeast Missouri was watch Saturday Night Live, and one of the ritual pleasures was the coneheads' robot-voiced declaration "we are from France." My friends and I felt so ironic and sophisticated because, you see, we got it. They were, like, ALIENS and they were just PRETENDING to be from France, because France is a far-away place that people never really get to.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park, I used to host a tea and poetry reading every winter, and when we got to the point where all we were reading was the silly poetry, we'd read one or two selections from Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes. One of my favorites was "Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres" read in a robot-like monotone:

Mr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company. The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job. He started work early on a Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February, began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral of Chartres.

The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.

Like all graduate students, we were full of self-importance and fell over ourselves laughing at the clueless tone of this piece.

Now, at long last, I'm planning a trip to France. I'm going to boldly go where few other southeast Missourians have gone before. I'm really going to see the Cathedral at Chartres, at least if nothing happens to it before I get there. I'm going to ask another tourist to take the ritual picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower, so I can send it to my cousin who sent me one just like it in last year's Christmas card. I'm poring over guidebooks to Paris and Nice, and looking for suggestions of things I shouldn't miss when I'm there from armchair or--if there really are any--actual travelers.


Harriet M. Welsch said...

When are you going and where and for how long? I have been to France many times and lived there twice, although I was last there nearly 20 years ago, which I find alarming. Spend an entire day at Versailles -- make sure it's a nice one -- walking around the gardens. In Paris, get a map and metro fare and walk until you get tired, then find the nearest metro and get yourself back where you started. All of the tourist attractions that you've ever heard about are totally worth it -- unlike most places, I think. But the best things you find will be the ones you're not looking for, the things you discover yourself. They'll be the sound of the metro pulling into a station or the sight of a market closing up for the night. It will be drinking a double espresse in an out of the way cafe, or the old painted sign for a music shop in a dark alley. At least, those are the things that I love best about Paris. The Louvre is incredible. I never get tired of Notre Dame's windows or organ. Ste Chapelle is a holy place. But it's the little things that will make you fall in love. We used to stay at a hotel on the Ile-St. Louis (this one, although it looks much fancier now) from which, if I remember correctly, you could see the back side of Notre Dame on the adjacent Ile de la Cité. Outside of Paris , I love the Dordogne river valley. We used to spend summers there when we lived in England. You could rent houses called gites through the French government for not much money (it looks like you still can). We would stay in cottages on farms and walk to the river to swim and get our milk and eggs -- still warm -- from the farmer.

Can you take me with you?

Jeanne said...

Harriet, we'll have six days in Paris and six in Nice. So knowing that Versailles requires an entire day is a good thing. I like hearing that all of the tourist attractions are worth it. That's also true of Washington, DC...perhaps it's the influence of L'Enfant.

Harriet said...

You could probably do Versailles in less if you had to, but I don't recommend it. If you do it right, you'll be tired. Plan a nice dinner out when you get back to Paris.