Paris Pleasures

Every journey must have a beginning and, for me, no trip to Europe would be complete without a foray into this most glorious city…

It is my first morning. Last night, I slept like the proverbial dead – less graceful than a sylph, more like one of the mummies from the Louvre, curled up, jaw clenched, traumatized by events preceding the exact moment of my demise. For me, there was no swift garrotte like the bog-men of northern Europe experienced but the slow, drip-drip-drip of torture – prolonged sleep deprivation and discomfort on the long journey from Australia and my entree into Paris via Charles de Gaulle airport and the public transport system.

I had booked a shuttle bus into the centre of Paris, but confirmation proved as elusive as the shuttle itself. My options seemed few indeed. Be resilient, I told myself; you’re in Paris; how hard can it be?

I swear the contents of my case turned to granite in protest, the further I dragged it up and down elevators, along endless train platforms, on and off trains. Then came the cruelest trick of all – the metro stairs. Oh, so many stairs!

As if I had dug my way from the Antipodes, I rose up like some subterranean creature into the light, blinking myopically, to find myself on the Boulevard St Michel. Ironically, an Australian came to my rescue and heaved my convict sack of rocks up the final few steps. For a single heartbeat, reality lurched sideways before irate blasts from the Parisian traffic reeled me back from the brink. I was free at last…except for the last kilometre to my place of rest.  As I fell through the welcome portals of the ancient hotel, I swore an oath to myself. Next time, no matter the cost, I would take a bloody taxi!

But the Paris Gods can also be kind: an unexpected treasure awaited weary limbs and spirits. Squeezed into the corner of the tiny marble bathroom was a bath. The hotel room was simplicity itself – white, embossed bedspread on an old brass bed with the lovely door-length windows swathed in a heavy fabric scattered with huge russet flowers. A glass of a rich, red wine from Languedoc, a hot bath and the world, once more, took on a rosy glow.

During the night, jittery replays of the day’s events breached the heavy fug of sleep. I woke, startled by the sound of something metallic dropped in the street below and male voices, loud in indignation followed by hearty laughter. It was 3am, crisp and dark outside. Craning my neck out of the tall windows, my efforts were rewarded. The moon, full and round and steeped in wisdom, watched over me from its strange, night sky vantage point at the end of my street. In the otherworldly light, the apartment buildings glowed a warm, silvery pink. Could anything be more perfect? I forgot to pinch myself and crawled back into the warm, comfortable space of the grateful dead…
My first morning and I am sitting alone in the hotel dining room with a discrete view out to the street through a delicate voile curtain. The room is a wonderful mix of old and new: ancient beams, patterned wood flooring, art deco lines and fresh, white-painted walls. The light fittings and furniture are elegant and bright in shades of tangerine, electric blue and purple. Am I dreaming?

Nestled within a small basket, a crisp, puffed croissant lies beside a crusty roll and a tray of tiny jams – ordinary enough objects, but their fragrant perfection brings a sense of bliss. Surely such offerings deserve to be savoured. A cup of delicious coffee with warm, frothy milk served in a separate little jug awaits my attention. It was even delivered by a smiling waiter. I now know the truth of the matter – I have died and gone to heaven!

Paris tugs at the heart strings. It pulls me back time and time again. Some call it the city of lights: I call it the city of shadows. Always, I am drawn to the Left Bank, home to scholars and priests, a place where sinewy alleys ripple with echoes. Footfalls, ancient and new, shuffle softly beneath the peaks and dips of voice.

It is summer – high season – and very busy, but I do not care. I’m on my way to the oldest church in Paris. Some say the symbol of Paris is the Eiffel Tower, but its heart must surely lie within the lovely old church in St Germain, witness a millenium ago to Viking raids. In the cool, quiet aisles, it is easy to imagine the bowed figures of Scottish priests praying for the safety of their countrymen…but I get ahead of myself.

Paris is awash with humanity. Flowing rivers of French, Italian and Spanish stream over the guttural notes of German. Flocks of affluent American teenagers line the streets. Their strident calls fly above the occasional shoals of greying couples, middle-aged retirees, who deliver their Australian drawl with slow, discrete smiles. Most evocative of all are the deep, silky notes of African French flowing stronger, older even, than the Seine. Jet-haired young women from Japan sprinkle the lanes with staccato giggles whilst the hooded expressions of older family members offer eloquent, silent discourse.

The fabric of Paris life floats before me – a rich, shimmering brocade: tawny yellow, mottled beige, the sheen of black velvet and swarthy tang of olive. Tropical citrine and turquoise adorn the regal African couples ambling beside birka-clad women whose kohl-rimmed eyes hold such a breadth of expression – mirth, derision, confusion receding into a secret, smoldering world.

For those in comfortable track pants and joggers, Parisienne high chic offers an aspirational vision. Jaunty hats are worn for fun rather than the vagaries of solar conflagration. Leather man-bags hang with elegant disdain, whilst fine-boned hands clasp the perpetual mobile. Most noticeable of all is the cigarette dangling casually from the lips – a necessary fashion accessory. And then there are the dogs, elegantly-leashed, looking even more petulant and precious than their owners.
An endless human stream flows around the bowed bodies of the homeless – dreamers, who refuse to be abandoned or fraudsters. Take your pick!
Along the tributaries of traffic, horns blast forth, spewing polluted globules of sound. From those hardy souls on bicycles, exclamations of disgust spike the atmosphere. Weaving in and out of the busy lanes, an elegantly-dressed woman rides past me, balancing on her stilettos; helmets, it seems, are optional. Sirens slice through the roar of traffic.

Next stop, Notre Dame but the queues rival a Chinese New Year dragon parade, curling in a continuous stream up and down and around the great courtyard. I give up the idea and decide just to wander.
Paris architecture continues to excite and reassure. Apart from the most poignant reminders, wars and revolutions have left few visible scars, but at what cost. Discrete signs alert the passer-by to a moment in time; the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen. A resistance fighter met his fate in a hail of SS bullets on this very spot. Before me upon the ground lies an ugly stain of splashed coke where blood was once spilt. Further on, a plaque records more tragedy: Jewish families, taken forcibly from their homes. I look up at the building. A question mark curls around my heart: a momentary freeze frame of horror that I can neither comprehend nor forget. I walk on relieved at the babble and chatter around me. In the banality of our times, I find unexpected comfort.

French Connections: Aside from refreshing old memories, I plan to explore the historical links between medieval Scotland and France and the Popes of Rome and Avignon – to give purpose and direction to my troubadour wandering. No, I’m not busking, but there is a poem of sorts in my heart and a saga taking shape.

In the thirteenth and fourteen centuries, the prelates of Scotland travelled across the seas endeavouring to turn the winds of war in Scotland’s favour. The Auld Alliance was at once real and token, and the Scots sought to gain the support of the king of France to halt the expansionist actions of King Edward 1 of England. Below are some examples of these ancient links.

  • During one such expedition, Sir William Wallace offered his passion and acumen. I hope he found a much-needed sanctuary here, given the terrible fate that awaited him.
  • Young James Douglas was sent to France for his safety after his father, Sir William, was imprisoned in the Tower. He became the squire of Bishop William Lamberton – a supporter of Scottish independence who made several lengthy diplomatic excursions with other leaders of the church. The Black Douglas later became famous for his role in the Scottish Wars of Independence and his stalwart support of Robert the Bruce. He carried his friend and leader’s heart in its lead container on crusade as requested by the dying king. Along with other members of the party, James died in a skirmish in Spain enroute to Jerusalem. This story will feature in Book Two.
  • The bishops sailed in galleys over the rough North Sea dodging the English blockade. At Quai des Grand Augustins, they moored their vessels, no doubt looking up in awe at the sight of the king’s palace. In the shade of the old trees above the Quai, I wondered at the fortitude of these forgotten heroes. Bishop Lamberton forged a strong accord with French royalty but, in the end, France formed an alliance with England to suit itself and Scotland had to look to its own devices. For Robert the Bruce and the people of Scotland, this translated into years of excommunication by the Popes under pressure from the English kings. To read more of this, ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ follows the vagaries of international diplomacy at the time.
  • Much later in 1323 before Robert’s death, Bishop David of Moray (1299-1326) endowed the lands of Grisney-Suisnes just outside of  Paris upon which Scots College was built. King Robert would have been in agreement with such an accord. Collegium Scoticum came into existence in 1325, initially to assist poor students from the bishop’s northern diocese. A year later, the French parlement confirmed its foundation by King Charles le Bel. There were many colleges attached to the university in Paris, which became known as the Sorbonne, in the Latin Quarter. The Scots were reported to be so numerous they numbered the third largest college after the Danes and Germans. Many Scots came to Paris – also to Bologna and Padua in Italy – to widen their intellectual horizons. The life of a student was spent wandering between institutions and was limited only by available funds.
  • Robert the Bruce died of natural causes in 1329 at his manor in Cardross in Scotland. His original marble tomb was made by Thomas of Chartres in Paris and transported to Dunfermline via Bruges.
  • The Treaty of Corbeil, another aspect of international diplomacy, took place in 1330. Book Two will explore these developments.
  • Robert’s only surviving son was married as an infant to Joan of the Tower (sister of Edward III). In 1334, David was sent to France with his queen because it was believed Edward III was going to mount an offensive. The  couple remained the guests of King Philippe at Chateau Galliard in Normandy for over seven years. Some years back, I visited the castle and was stunned by its fabulous location, overlooking the Seine. It was built by Richard the Lion Heart, his pride and joy. His brother, King John, later lost the castle to the French. At the time of my previous visit, the castle was closed, but its romantic grandeur remains fresh in my mind. During the course of this research, I was amazed to hear of King David’s connection.
  • As time went on, the Scots maintained their connection with France. In 1418, the Scots Guard was founded by Charles VII of France: those in the Guarde Ecossaise fought alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. (References- Electric Scotland and Scottish Education websites)

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