Sunday, March 16, 2008


Up in Paris last weekend, we took the baby to visit Montmartre. I hadn't been in years. L. and I wandered up the back side of the mont, stopping for lunch in a cafe well away from most of the tour busses (we ate omelettes and salad, and drank hard cider, sitting at a table on the sidewalk, alongside a cobbled street). Then we wound around, behind the great giant Orientalist wedding cake that is Sacre-Coeur. We dove briefly into the Place du Tertre, where I ate lunch with my family 25 years ago, and then came around to the front of the basilica, to its immense parvis with its view out over Paris and its hundreds of stairs descending to the city below.

We found a place to stand along the railing of the church square and looked at Paris spread before us. There were our favorite landmarks : Saint-Sulpice, and Val-de-Grâce, and the Pompidou, and the Louvre. As interesting, though, were the sights just around us. Hundred of people milling about, enjoying the absence of rain. Students, tourists, even some ordinary middle-aged French people, out to watch the street entertainers on a Saturday afternoon.

The stairs were crowded with people sitting, some of them finishing sandwiches, others just perched. On the first landing below the square a busker had set up his microphone and was singing and strumming Tracy Chapman's Talking 'Bout a Revoultion, which seemed like fittingly studenty background music for the moment. He finished singing, and the crowd on the steps clapped perfunctorily. We were walking down the stairs when the busker started his patter. It was in accented but not bad English.

Now I want to sing a song and I want all of you to be singing with me. I do not want you to be singing like you are singing when you are outside and people are hearing you, and you are singing soft. I want you to be singing like you are singing when you are in the shower, and no one is hearing you. And we will all sing together like that, and it will be good, everyone singing.

We stopped midway down the second flight of stairs and turned back. I wanted to see what he was going to sing. He played the first few chords and then sang out the first line: Imagine there's no heaven / it's easy if you try... He was calling the lines out, then singing them, nudging the stair-sitters to sing along. No hell below us / Above us only sky. We watched the crowd, laughing, listening, and then, slowly, quietly, a few started to sing. Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.

More people were singing now. We looked at each other and smiled a little. The baby slept in his carrier. People walking up and down the stairs, like us, were beginning to stop. Everyone knew the song. The Asian tourists, cameras slung round their necks, were still. A French couple in their 50s stopped just before the top of the stairs, startled out of their nonchalance, and turned back to watch and listen. After a bar or two, we saw their lips start to move as they sang. On the other side of the staircase, a man in late middle age, with an immense cleft in his chin, serious five o'clock shadow, and the bearing of a steel mill worker, was smiling and singing out. An African man in soccer clothes stopped doing tricks with his soccer ball and his lips began to move, too. Living life in peace...When the busker got to the woo-hoo at the end of the verse, he stopped, and waited a moment to see if the crowd would come in without being given the line. They did.

Now it was a full-fledged singalong, and the crowd had become an audience. They were swaying, singing, and over the staircase we felt blossom this great feeling of guarded, cautious, slightly embarassed optimism. One time I heard Wynton Marsalis say that we are obliged to hope--that hope is barely rational, like love, that feeling it is part of what makes us human--but that what we must strive for is optimism. Optimism, he said, is what you feel when you know that things look bad, but you can see a way for things to improve. The busker was still calling out lines, but the audience seemed already to know them. Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man...

Yesterday, back at home, C. and the girls and I went to lunch with a Bulgarian family. Their daughter is a friend of E. and G.'s at the College des Vignes, and she has spent a fair amount of time at our house recently. Wanting to thank us for taking her daughter here and there, the mother invited us for lunch. Weekend lunch here lasts for the entire afternoon, and sometimes into the evening, so we had plenty of time to talk and listen. The family had left Bulgaria for South Africa in the early 90s, when the hope of democracy that had existed after the fall of the Eastern bloc was fading in the light of a rising Mafia and a deteriorating economy. They lived in South Africa for ten years, and then the husband's work as a yacht engineer brought them to France. He is at sea six months of the year, and his wife and three daughters live in a mostly-finished house high up in the hills. She devotes herself to the children. Someday she hopes to go home to Bulgaria, after her girls are grown and have lives of their own. But she doesn't imagine that her children will ever live there, and seems only to want to go back because she doesn't really belong anywhere else.

Listening to her talk, we assumed that our hostess was considerably older than we are. She had a weariness to her, a heaviness, that made it hard to imagine that she had ever been young. Towards the end of the afternoon, though, she asked us our ages--when you are communicating across so many different languages and cultures, questions like that are okay--and when we told her, she said she was only five years older. Which meant that the wall fell in her mid-twenties, which meant that she came of age in the last years of the Soviet-sponsored regime, when we were choosing between hiking trails in sunny California. She was brought up by working parents who sent her to the best school they could, a French lycée, and to state-sponsored camps in the holidays. She rarely saw them. She and her husband went to South Africa because it was a country that would take Bulgarians and her husband could get work there. And then they came to France for the same reason. She seemed so much older to us because she is carrying the burden of history.

Last weekend, L. and I had laughed at what a perfect study-abroad moment our interlude on the Sacre-Coeur staircase had been. The Hollywood, Coke-commercial aspect--the swaying, the crooning, the lovely young students and the old people in their heavy cloth coats--made it easy to dismiss. Looking down at our new baby, though, we didn't want to dismiss it. We wanted it to be true. We wanted everyone to mean it. Imagine all the people / sharing all the world...

In the shuffle of the week I had forgotten our moment on the stairs. Today when I was thinking more about our lunch yesterday, though, I remembered it. Our Bulgarian friends are here to try to give their girls more hope than they have had. We all want our children to live in a better world, a more peaceful world, and if it sounds like a Hollywood moment, then maybe that's Hollywood at its best. Anyway, it was a hopeful moment, there in front of the basilica with John Lennon's song, and it made us feel optimistic. Maybe what we need--besides an economic policy that consists of something more than tax rebates--is more international singalongs. More lunches. More talking. More healthy sleeping babies. More hope. More optimism.

1 comment:

  1. What a great day it sounds like you had in Montmartre! I went back there this week through the movie, Amelie :)