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April 1, 1994

And now I'm back in Paris . . .

To wrap up with yesterday, I found happily that the train station, in a part of town that looks like it must have been flattened in 1944, is well walkable to the old downtown, and that Ouest-Atlantique is in that general area only a coupla hundred yards further; impressive but not particularly nice-looking castle, big round towersº a deep moat and a drawbridge;a a rather more attractive cathedral, gothic with nice flying buttresses but the front towers truncated, as often, presumably when the money ran out, with resulting harm to the overall proportions, but still very pleasing perched on a height.

Odd thing about Nantes: no hotels, or so it seems. A couple of nasty modern things with stars but 1980's concrete, only one small hotel, but looked yucky and only one star. My ideal being 2 stars in a medieval quarter, I held out for whatever O‑A might advise me, and rolled in around 12 with luggage in tow.

Nasty concrete building, horrible halls, but nice offices some with terrific views. I waited a bit in a hidden reception area, then Brigitte Le Masne met me, [. . .], quite likeable, as I expected. She toured me thru the offices, I met Estelle Leray (small, young, cheerful, slightly plump) and Philippe Yvergniaux (tall dark and ruggedly handsome, taking a Japanese lesson in his office) and some others, all women: Catherine & Dominique working together in one office; an accountant whose name I can't rem.;1 also a young woman who is singing E. European music in a few days with her choral society, we talked music a bit.

Lunch at La Cigale, an extravagantly decorated brasserie of La Belle Epoque, neo-Turkish tile, including grasshoppers as ballerinas in tutus — overall, rather stunning; food good. I had 6 huîtres plates, 2 of each of the only 3 kinds Brigitte told me exist, the best I think were the Pat-ar‑Poul if I didn't mangle the name, with a bottle of Gros Plant Nantais, unusually good, not the stuff we get elsewhere by the same name. Then a second hors d'oeuvre, the idea is excellent, the execution indifferent: a 'baluchon' or little package of raw trout surrounding a saladlike filling. A remarkable Sole des roches de l'Ile d'Yeu following, with an excellent lemony cream sauce. No dessert, after all Brigitte had to get back to her office.

Intermittent rain, some of it cold. Five-minute participation in a business meeting, then hit the street armed with a loaner umbrella, Exhibit #1, from Brigitte.

To the hotel, actually called 'L'Hôtel', my window with a view over castle and cathedral —,2 out quickly to look at the cathedral and wander a bit. The inside of the cathedral is wonderfully clean and white, due to restoration after a major roofing fire in 1972; this draws the lines out. Also a crypt of sorts, but apparently like at St. Germain in Auxerre, noone was ever in it, despite a (martyred, I think) St. Evhemerus in 407. Part of the upper and oddly older crypt set out with the treasury of 17‑19c silver gilt stuff, nothing of beauty or consequence; a little ivory virgin of the 16th, and a roughly made processional crucifix ugly but most unusual in that Christ is represented with the nimbus basically, but not quite totally, slipped off from behind his head, upwards: suggests (intentionally?) trains of thought on the crucifixion.

Then I bumped into, and after slight hesitation joined the demonstrations, about 15,000 kids, a very slight smattering of adults, mostly CFDT organizers. Newspapers say 20,000. Orderly, happy sort of demonstration, but a bit nervous: at one point, on the place du Commerce (where the trouble was last week) someone threw an egg at a bus near us, and the group was visibly shaken, and moved away from the bus as they walked, a case amusingly of пуганая ворона куста боиться. . . .

Once we all got there, I went away. Not a very interesting demonstration, other than lots of singing (Piaf, Brel and folksongs hijacked to new words), and it seemed to be largely against Balladur personally, who seems to be haughty and it serves him right. Most characteristic chant was "Balladur, ordure! Pasqua, fumier!"b

Demonstration apparently continued with maybe 400 people vs. the police, for something like 5 more hours — minor breaking and bashing.

I sat in a neighboring café, unpleasantly cold wind, and drank a hot coffee with mediocre brandy and joined in the communal discussion of the demonstration. People seemed very mildly for the kids, and irritated with the 'casseurs'.

Feet hurt (odd, since not that much walking); found a copy of Iamblichus's De Mysteriis in a bilingual Budé; found what will pass for my birthday gift for Bunny, a 1905? pair of sheep grazing, a weighted base metal object made to look like bronze, but only halfheartedly: a good deal of character tho'.

To rest a bit at hotel, then back out for dinner at the Pont-Levis, a block from the hotel, across from the earlier-mentioned drawbridge.

Pretty good meal [. . .] Waiter warmed up as he realized I was going to eat (spend) but I think some extent that I know what I was eating. Which was: potage au cresson, 12 huîtres creuses, escalope de foie gras aux choux, anguille à la provençale, gratin aux agrumes au sabayon. Wine: Savennières Chau de Chamboureau 1989 which was a 14/20; côteaux du Layon with the foie gras; coffee & marc de bourgogne & also vieille prune.

The owner, first name Philippe, talked volubly on the phone from an adjacent room: horseracing tips, various gossip, business; several incoming calls. Was much like going to see Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, the last other couple and I chuckled about this, the lady in charge of the diningroom did too. . . .

The meal was uneven (the marc was good, the prune very, the dessert negligible; the foie gras stunning but its cabbage accompaniment didn't work or meld, a textural problem, also too salty; the watercress soup was good; the oysters fine — but noone could tell me what variety; the eel not as good as my reference eel, roasted on a stick at summer camp fresh out of the Chesapeake Bay thirty-five years ago.) The Layon by the way didn't work quite as well as the Monbazillacº I wanted or the Sauternes the waiter, Stéphane, should for once have pushed me to. The Savennières was not up to Coulée de Serrant, but was excellent with the oysters.

Long friendly discussion with Stéphane and Mrs. diningroom, left with umbrella Exhibit #2, this one lent by the Pont-Levis. Seems to be a Nantais trait, along with men, dark and tall and somewhat fleshy in the face, which rectangular: Celtic blood? will out — like the black Irish to me.

To bed and sleep quickly.

April 1, 1994 actually today — Good Friday

Up at 0645, minimal repack, [. . .] down the elevator to dull breakfast (good coffee), up to room, down to checkout [. . .] Left umbrellas at hotel for pickup.

Mild scare in the street, couldn't find my plane ticket, Booby unpacking bits of suitcase on someone's doorstep, found it finally. Case wouldn't open, then wouldn't close, typical Booby stuff.

Train station, 2 lines, 1 went down ahead of me due to computer failure, rude little jerk in beret and overalls rude to the ticket agent then telling her he had powerful friends — I got my TGV reservations in time by 2 minutes; typical Booby again: could have left earlier.

Spent the train ride filling up diary, ignoring the green countryside, flat for my taste but lovely, and talking with a young man doing his masters in public works engineering in Nantes, taking advantage of a student & teacher strike to go home in Lower Normandy. He was much impressed as I narrowed in on his home town as he played hot and cold, I got to Pont-de‑l'Arche, he's 10 km away at Louviers, he said even Frenchmen don't come up with Pont-de‑l'Arche. (Gratifying uses of geography, of the).

Recognised, am almost positive, Mme Joly's monopole before arriving at Angers, landform matched map I remember from a wine book. Some flooding in the Loire Valley.

At Montparnasse, subwayed it to the Tulipe, cleaned up & changed, walked to Invalides and subwayed it to Notre-Dame for veneration of the Crown of Thorns.

The weather had changed during the short trip; pleasantly cool and sunny had shifted to overcast distinctly chilly drizzle. The cathedral felt relatively warm for a while.

The church was set up basically with a temporary roodscreen but more like a picket fence, tourists on the outside, Christians inside, Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in white robes (cloaks clasped across the breast) blazoned with scarlet cross potencée and crosslets over the heart, and on closer inspection a shell-shaped badge pinned to the center of the cross, itself again blazoned with Jerusalem gules. The scallop threw me at first, since equal- but later-ranking Compostela would hardly be expected adopted by an order guarding Jerusalem, but then of course the association is with St. James, brother of our Lord, who after all was 1st bishop of Jerusalem and who had oversight first of the tomb etc. (Not quite convinced, actually)

Directly under the crossing of the transept, a large (3.5 m?) ugly blocky undecorated freestanding cross that looked like it was made of styrofoam, spotlit rather evenly from afar, surrounded by kitschy 1960's-liturgical sculptuary mercifully unobtrusive still. In front of this, a low rectangular table placed altarwise, with behind it, standing, two Knights and in the center a red-stoled priest; in front of whom on red velvet cushions about 16ʺ square, three objects. Pilgrims steered stage left to kiss the three in turn from their right to left.

When a pilgrim shows up, the objects are picked up, still horizontal, and presented to be kissed. At no time while I was there did they present them holding them up for example picturewise to the view of the faithful. The dexter and sinister objects are glass or plexiglass cases with I believe chased metal ends, containing a piece of the cross traced back to Helena and a nail respectively — I saw nothing, since reflex took over and for concentration (and alas! now purely optical reasons) I closed my eyes. Item sort of with the Crown in the center, although the eye caught on my descent a fleeting impression of cream-colored braided twigs but I didn't see the whole thing by any means.

Back to a seat — modernity has the presentors of the objects wiping after each pilgrim, with white surgical pads. A blue-overalled sampetrino, this being France with a bulge at the crotch you could see halfway down the church, later on in the proceedings moved the table and other items (which refreshingly included folding metal chairs like the yucky things I've been feeding people on at dinner parties for years), and one of these other items was a chair used to cast away the used surgical pads. A priest but too late moved the chair again to behind a pillar. . . .

The veneration was intercut with prayers in various languages (French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian and German at least) and technical instructions aimed at getting the pilgrims to the right place and shutting up the tourists. Occasionally and ineffectually, microphoned shhh's, mildly irritating since worse by far than the organic and rather reverent buzz of humanity around the center.

Flow of people varied with the weather outdoors, unpleasant cold draft hugged the stone floors, small caned chairs uncomfortable after the first hour. The faithful were 35 to 60 pretty much, some in tears, some with rosaries, very few out of tourism or curiosity. A young deaf-mute near me with probably his mother.

Then an hour's worth of music, beautifully sung, some of it good, for varying groups of voices. Sung by members of the collegium of the church I think, in azure robes to the feet, young men and women all in their mid- to late twenties. No real basses, the music was modal and slow, very dissonant in spots, the tenors as a group were strong, a magnificent high soprano who looked like a young version of Diane, an equally magnificent male alto; a very pretty and oh‑so‑serious little blond (not many blondes in France) singing baritone. Everyone rather casual; one piece of music they apparently realized they couldn't do I think because a key voice was missing, they all discussed it to finally alert someone to distribute other music, disbanding with only a quartet for the new stuff.

For all this the Crown had been placed behind the tall Cross, and altho' they called it an 'office', it had turned into a concert; with the Knights and the priests, joined by 5 knightesses in their 50's and 60's in black robes also Jerusalem gulls,º with mantillas, taking their places on folding chairs left and right of the cross and the singers. The last music was a long tedious hash of modern pseudomodal wailings accompanied by a string trio.

Quite inappropriate, even if Josquin des Prés or Mozart, to have music on Good Friday. My thighs hurt and I was glad to leave at the conclusion of this part of the veneration at 3 when the priests filed out.

Stunning, bitter cold outdoors and 40‑mph driving wind and rain the two blocks to Cité metro station. Down the stairs, always found this visibly shaftlike station rather impressive, and out at the Maison du Dictionnaire (M° VAVIN) to finish dictionarizing.

Three and a half long dull hours, but I believe I now have the basics I need. Of course, there are many other possibilities, and if I have a problem for a major translation (say I need to use the normative EU vocabulary in welding, etc.) I'm only a round-trip fax call and a FedEx mailing away.

Embarrassment when my Merrill Lynch card, gold etc. . . that it is, with $[. . .] of my Mom's money behind it, was refused — fortunately my normal VISA Gold worked.

They boxed my books to airline standards, i.e., it should be 32 kgs max (but no large scale available and the sum was close, so we'll see at the airport). Mr. Feutry and his wife and his daughter and their wonderful dog, a very affectionate German shepherd named Dico, then drove me back to my hotel — super-nice.

It being Good Friday, I didn't have dinner, I changed into pajamas [. . .] Did have 2 fizzy waters and a beer, and slept quickly.


Notes in the Diary:

1 Béatrice

2 Reserved by O‑A, I got their special rate, 250F —


Later Notes for the Web:

a The perils of traveling too fast! What I saw, and still remember fairly well fifteen years later, was only of very mild interest and attractiveness; but, as with every other tourist who zooms thru some town or country in much too much of a hurry, what I didn't see is the story. Cross that drawbridge, and you will be rewarded with a vision of a dreamlike late Gothic castle of gleaming white stone, all turrets and Flamboyant tracery; the visitor to Nantes should not miss the castle, in sum. Now I was in something of an unavoidable schedule, but here's no substitute for taking things slowly and actually seeing.

b On inputting this later (October 1996), I noticed this reads almost as if I were a bystander. I wasn't at all, I marched happily with everyone, right in the midst of things, chanting "Balladur, ordure!" with the rest of them. Although I disagreed with the students (it seemed to me just wanted one more handout of the type every sector of society by now seems perniciously used to) and told them so, I also dislike governments in general, and the entire world structure in which we're all in thrall to the nation-state system, no matter how different the component states seem on the surface; and will happily demonstrate against almost any of them: mine or someone else's makes very little difference. . . .


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