Moules Frites Part Deux

From Wikipedia: “The floorplan for the cathedral is a cruciform. A two bay narthex at the western end opens into a seven bay nave leading to the crossing, from which wide transepts extend three bays each to north and south. East of the crossing are four rectangular bays terminating in a semicircular apse. The nave and transepts are flanked by single aisles, broadening to a double-aisled ambulatory around the choir and apse. From the ambulatory radiate three deep semi-circular chapels (overlying the deep chapels of Fulbert's 11th-century crypt) and three much shallower ones. Of the latter, one was effectively lost in the 1320s when the Chapel of St. Piat was built.
The elevation of the nave is three-storied, with arcade, triforium and clerestory levels. By eschewing the gallery level that featured in many early Gothic cathedrals (normally between arcade and triforium), the designers were able to make the richly glazed arcade and clerestory levels larger and almost equal in height, with just a narrow dark triforium in between. Although not the first example of this three-part elevation, Chartres was perhaps the first of the great churches to make a success of it and to use the same design consistently throughout. The result was a far greater area of window openings. These windows were entirely glazed with densely colored glass, which resulted in a relatively dark interior – but one which accentuated the richness of the glass and the colored light that filtered through them.
Increasing the size of the windows meant reducing the wall area considerably, something that was made possible only by the extensive use of flying buttresses on the outside walls. These buttresses supported the considerable lateral thrusts resulting from the 34m high stone vaults, higher and wider than any attempted before in France. These vaults were quadripartite, each bay split into four webs by two diagonally crossing ribs, unlike the sexpartite vaults, adopted in many earlier Gothic cathedrals such as at Laon.”

The Road Is Long...

Piece of cake I thought. And brilliant logic and economics, at least to my mind (think 8th grade) – save a bunch of hassle in the long run, and arrive everywhere with a certain je ne sais quoi. Seriously, buying a Carte D’Orange was half my monthly allowance, just to take the subway underground or buses in traffic all over the place like a compliant Gallic capon? Forget that – I’d buy a motorcycle and ride around Paris breathless, like Belmondo, with a petite copine on the back. What does that certain je ne sais quoi mean when riding a motorcycle? In Paris, it turned out to mean soaked to the skin and miserable, all in the name of fashion. So, very French, actually.
I was going to buy a Vespa but somehow ended up with a Honda CG 125 – the details of the purchase, and the reason why escape me. The CG model was identical to the CB series except it had an overhead cam whereas the CG had overhead valves since most people in third-world countries performed little or no preventative maintenance. Not to say France was a third-world country, but the ignorance of preventative maintenance angle will come into play later in our story… idiotically. I was going to write “…to my diminishment” but at this stage of the game that’s absolutely impossible.
So the history of French architecture class that I taking at the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III) was going on a field trip to Chartres and I decided to ride the motorcycle instead of hopping on the culture bus. Hardy wanted to come along even though I didn’t want her to because the whole point of a motorcycle is to seduce women, not haul wifey around. But she swung a leg over “St. Pauli” (You Never Forget Your First Girl) and off we went anyway. I’m kidding!
For those readers already unamused or bored I’ll fast forward through to the end – we made it to Chartres, and then decided to just keep going and ended up in Venice. We never made it back to Paris, on the motorcycle anyway, or together, but I’m not sure I’m going to have the time or mental energy to explain the sorry coda to our tale. Not to belabor the point, but my patently-obvious low self-esteem issues make tackling the rehash of that extended botch-job journey too traumatic.
It was early-ish morning, so we stopped at a small café outside of the Bois de Boulogne and had a demi and a croissant. Heaven. We popped back on board St. Pauli and had a marvelous drive through the French countryside. Just wanted to mention when we walked into the café Frank Zappa’s King Kong was playing on the stereo, which was Twilight Zone surreal. It made me think about what fame really means: obscure nowheresville non-mother tongue tree falling in the forest and making an ungodly racket, which everybody heard but nobody understood or really liked. I was reminded of a story Sting told once about when he finally realized how famous he was: not when he was playing a concert in front of 60,000 screaming fans, because you’d expect that, but in his hotel room the next morning hearing the window washer outside his room humming Roxanne.

Back to school.

We eventually arrived wind-blown at the cathedral and spent the morning immersed in the history and detail, courtesy Madame Lensky, a francophile from Mississippi of all places. Things that stood out that I can still remember vividly: the sancta camisa, Mary’s tunic when she gave birth to Christ, given to the cathedral by Charles the Bald. I think I read somewhere recently where the relic was carbon-dated to 1st Century Lebanon, so not too far off – but believers don’t worship facts or place much faith in tell-tale time machines. Theirs is a different truth, not about matter but about what matters. Isn’t that the crux of the biscuit – science vs. humanism? Isn't it true that both are valid, useful, and necessary?

Stained glass never interested me, but I was intrigued by the Tree of Jesse, the theme of the north rose window. The tree springs forth from a reclining Jesse of Bethlehem, father of King David, and the trunk rises straight up, with horizontal branches and offshoots, and then is crowned by Mary and Jesus at the top. Although not the absolute original, this depiction is the first genealogical representation of ancestry and has since become a central motif in Christianity, and the standard and easily-recognized blueprint of modern Family Trees.

It was time for lunch, and as everyone left, I sat there by myself in a pew, awed. I had gotten an autographed copy of David Macauley’s masterful Cathedral as a teenager, and my fascination with that terrific book continues to this day, undiminished, especially since it was this cathedral he based it on. But it was D.H. Lawrence’s visit to Lincoln Cathedral in The Rainbow that came to mind:

“Here the stone leapt up from the plain earth, leapt up in a manifold, clustered desire each time, up, away from the horizontal earth, through twilight and dusk and the whole range of desire, through the swerving, the declination, ah, to the ecstasy, the touch, to the consummation… the timeless ecstasy… to a space where stars were wheeling in freedom, with freedom above them always higher.”

Hardy and I ditched the Sorbonners and wandered the streets of Chartres looking not too hard for a place to eat that wasn’t touristy. It was a wonderful wander. I was going to try to weave the meandering streets around the cathedral, called the cloitre, and the enigmatic and sometimes criminally-attractive Hardy, and the French language and me into a powerful mosaic of literal and figurative mazes and labyrinths of chaos and order, of life and mind, which I would navigate beautifully and emerge on the other side the King Theseus hero of my own blog post. Try is the operative word in that last sentence.

First of all we did eventually find the perfect café and sat down in the slant shade of the flying buttresses, as I said before, and had a glass of wine to start. Hardy, in perfect French, asked what the house special was, and the waiter said “moules frites.” I had never heard of them before, but she said I’d thank her for the rest of my life after the meal and ordered for the both of us. Her French is so flawless I was reminded why I thought she was a native the first time I catastrophically met her.

Not too long ago my host family in Paris was invited by one of their aristocratic friends to a lawn luncheon (dejeuner sur l’herbe?) and they asked me if I wanted to come along. They were descended from aristocracy themselves (their name is de Rouvre) and they owned the entire building at 57 Avenue de Villiers where we lived. I was tucked up under the mansard roof in the chambre de bonne, but I had a view of the Eiffel Tower, a big new bed, and a separate entrance. A recalcitrant black alley cat completed the tableau. Fabulous poverty. Anyway, we go to this glamorous affair in the stunning and immaculate back garden a la francaise of the de Rosiere’s mansion in the 17th arrondissment. I get a little tipsy right away at the open bar and start shoveling in amuse gueulesand canapés like an uncouth, epileptic orangutan, while massacring the French language and reassuring the Parisian quality present that the ugly American stereotype they’d all heard about is way worse in the flesh, as it were. As it were, I’m happy to say, because I did manage to keep my clothes on.

Out of nowhere two beautiful young women sidle up to order drinks, and one of them asks, with naked disdain, which I somehow missed: “Que-est-ce que tu fais?” I think she’s asking me what I do, meaning what is my profession, not what the hell am I doing, so I say “Je suis un gynecologue… amateur.”  The other one smirks and says: “Tous les hommes sont.” Exactly how I ended up with Hardy’s phone number after that disastrous display of joke ineptitude I’ll never know.

A sidebar note about 57 Avenue de Villiers – the de Rouvres lived in the grand, ground floor apartment just off the entrance on the right; on the left lived a good-looking a somewhat serious French guy who I’d see from time to time and stop to chat up. His name was Pierre, and he invited me in one day to have a glass of bubbly together. He said something like: “To understand beauty, and to consider yourself sophisticated, you first must know how to properly drink a glass of champagne.” I pleaded ignorance to all of the above, but tried to seem to follow the conversation while drinking the champagne as carefully as I could. I asked him where he was from, how he ended up in Paris, and what he did for a living. He said he was a doctor and had invented a new medical procedure called “liposuction”. I asked him what that was since I had never heard of it. He told me – you basically make a hole in a fat person and hook up a hose to vacuum all the blubber out. I told him I couldn’t believe people actually had that done, voluntarily. He said that it was going to be huge. No lie: google Dr. Pierre Fournier.


I think I’ll write a separate blog post about moules frites, or just leave it to the epicures and poets to describe the ecstasy, but I will say that meal was, and still is, one of the two or three best of my life. Afterwards, I light up a Galoise and tell Hardy about my inspired moment in the cathedral and say it’s almost equaled in sensuousness and transcendence by this heavenly dish. She agrees, picking a small sliver of tobacco from her lip. I tell her after experiencing the beauty of both (and holding up the cigarette) um, of all three, I don’t see how anyone can think God is Dead.

We head back to the cathedral. “What do you mean, exactly?” Hardy says. I ask if she has ever heard of Nietsche. She says, yes, of course, and there’s a “z” in his name. She says she read Ubermensch in college. I ask, “In the original?” She starts to say yes but I jump in – “Don’t answer that. Really… in German? Damn.” She tells me that the Abrahamic god may be dead, as Nietzsche knew in his bones, and the thousands of years of the vitalizing transcendent morality that was christianity’s gift to the world is also mostly and sadly gone, ruined by secularism and, ironically, by the very scientific inquiry the church itself had cultivated and perfected. He feared, and rightly predicted half a century before it actually came to fruition in the Soviet Union and China, that nihilism would be the new religion, and that tens of millions would suffer cruelly and die piteously by its hand. And they did. That’s a pretty pessimistic message, I counter. No, it’s not – it’s a very positive warning and a challenge – are we going to have the will and fortitude to resist the easy nothingness and abdication of self?

We see our group gathering around Madame Lensky in the narnex, but we walk past and through to the crossing, which features the most famous labyrinth in history. It’s a timeless and justly-celebrated depiction of the metaphorical Christian pilgrimage to faith – sometimes on one’s knees, rosary or prayer book in hand – an 11-course, multi-cursal masterpiece that has rightly influenced most subsequent labyrinths all over the world. And which will finally and deftly bring us back around to the beginning of our narrative – see the neatness of that?

Except we didn’t see it – there was some kind of stage set up over the 272 or so stones for a weekend concert or ceremony, and makeshift seats in diagonal rows covered almost the entire dynamic whirl. We could see some of the pathway peeking out between, over and there, and since Hardy had been here before, she laid it all out for me, so to speak, and showed me where to enter and how to get to the center. Which I did. And then back out again. I did it a second time alone to try to cast my mind back a millennia, to when this literal and figurative journey would have fulfilled a lifelong dream, and been a truly religious experience. I mean this sincerely.

We continued exploring the cathedral on our own, walking along the ambulatory around the choir and the apse. We saw hundreds of lit votive candles shimmering in all of the semi-circular chapels, each with its own locked offering box winking. I was particularly impressed with the pipe organ, since I had apprenticed with a master pipe organ builder when I was a kid, and had a working knowledge of the guts and glory of the thing: four manuals and 67 stops (stops stop air from entering certain rows of pipes, that when pulled open up the air flow and thus increase the sound) is a tremendous box of complicated, powerful wood and metal harmony.  Actually, the idiom "pulling all the stops" comes from huge pipe organs just like this blasting the congregation with everything they've got.

We went down into the crypt, which I thought was going to be a small cave with a couple of sarcophaguses side-by-side, but was surprised to find that it was essentially the same floorpan as the cathedral above. I had two thoughts: the first one was that the underworld is a big place, maybe even as big as heaven, and there were tons of seemingly happy tourists passing through appropriately enough, chattering and normal. Not a dragon in sight – and where’s the haunting truncated spirit of Osiris I had heard so much about? Second, and probably more important: this would make one hell of a wine cellar/bar, pun intended.

We arose from the depths, and then took another set of stairs up to the triforium, or maybe it was the clerestory. Can’t remember. Anyway, we eventually came upon a “Ne Pas Entrer” sign hung in front of a narrow arched doorway, and we decided we didn’t speak French, so we hopped over the chain, climbed up the winding mystery spiral steps, and found ourselves almost at the top of the newer, flamboyant north spire. The view was an almost perfect Breugelian landscape – the town, the tilled and tiled fields splayed out in a colorful, mathematical Euclidian patchwork, with Paris just barely visible in the distance – was something that hadn’t changed much in time or art. We stood and watched as the darkening night started slowly disembarking onto the golden sky.

“You know what Nietzsche said about churches, don’t you?” I ask Miss Know-It-All. “No,” I think she says, but I can barely hear her because she’s on the back of the motorcycle now, and we’re flying down the road toward home, both French fried and tired. She’s holding me close around the waist with her head resting on my shoulder, a fragile, breathing backpack, with her hair, like a flag between my eyes and the rest of the world, waving.

“Everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash,” I say, but by her languid and lovely slump I can feel she’s not listening. “We’re all going to die.” The Honda doesn’t miss a beat, and neither does Hardy. “Actually that was Orson Welles in F for Fake.”

Chartres, still literally in the rear-view mirror, gleaming in the gloaming, already seemed farther away than it appeared.

October 08, 2018 — Johnny Mustard