A story for November
The flight to Paris itself was uneventful, not so the taxi trip to my hotel. The first driver pulled away from the taxi rank in Charles De Gaulle's Terminal F, but immediately pulled in behind as parked truck in order to punch my hotel's address into his navigation system. While he was ensconced in this, I watched in disbelief as the truck parked in front of us backed up in order to pull out from its parking space, crushed the bonnet of the taxi, and pulled away, blissfully unaware of the terrible wrong done. My taxi driver looked up from his screen, cursed, and got out to chase after the truck that was now speeding away. Realising quickly that this was futile, he returned to his seat, assured me that he would deal with me in due turn, then drove off after the truck. I felt a sudden thrill from being caught up in this farce, then worried where this vengeance-obsessed taxi driver would take me. Luckily the truck was apparently delivering to all the terminals at Charles De Gaulle, so it was a very short journey before it stopped again, having looped around the access road to be only a short distance away from the taxi rank we first left, before the taxi driver was able to jump out and seek justice. Once he had informed the truck driver of his wrongdoing, he returned to his vehicle, presumably to get his paperwork, and as an afterthought told me to get another taxi. He popped the trunk for me to get my own suitcase, and as I walked back towards the terminal again, the truck driver was protesting his innocence, or ignorance, of the incident. Caught by a sudden urge to do the right thing, and get away quickly, I called out to him; "Oui, c'est vrai! J'ai vu!" telling him that the taxi driver's allegation was true, and I had seen the whole thing.
My second taxi driver did not have a navigation system, so I was assured that no such accidents would occur again, but this should have sounded other warning bells in my mind. As we left the airport he seemed as if nothing was amiss, but once on the motorway into Paris, he seemed ill at ease, eyeing me through the rear view mirror. He eventually asked me to point out the exit at which we should turn off. I had traveled this route many times before, but since it was clear I would never drive it myself, I never bothered remembering the exact route. We both agreed to guess at a particular exit that looked familiar, (and included the name of the suburb, Argenteuil, where I would stay but it soon became clear that it was not my usual route. We then followed road signs, and eventually found ourselves in the right suburb, but apparently on the wrong side of it. Since I had never ventured more than 500 meters from my hotel on previous trips, other than to get on the metro to go into central Paris, I was unfamiliar with this part of town and our confusion was compounded by the evening darkness. After a number of wrong turns, u-turns and the interrogation of a few locals, we finally found the hotel. A few extra Euros of my company's money found its way into my taxi driver's wallet, and I went to check in.
After a week of the usual business meetings I found myself alone on Saturday morning, waiting for my flight back on Sunday evening. Having been to Paris more than a dozen times before, I had pretty much done the tourist trail, and was ready for something new. During previous projects on which I had worked, I had been given the opportunity to visit cities like Munich, Brussels and Gothenburg on multiple occasions, and had learned that to get a better feeling for a city and its culture, it is best to step off the beaten path, and see the everyday life of its citizenry. I had already toured the streets of Paris' city centre, and the locality around my hotel, but I had now discovered that the local town was much larger than I had previously thought. I had undiscovered country to explore!
Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast watching TV news where they spoke French too fast for me to understand what exactly it was about the (apparent) pop star being interviewed that was deserving of so much attention, I set out to retrace the roads the taxi had plied on my journey from the airport several days before.
My hotel was located on Boulevard De General LeClerc, to the north east of where I was doing business, and, it turned out, to the north west of the center of town. Up until that visit, I had assumed the small group of shops, congregated on the street leading to the hospital and what appeared to be a community college, constituted the commercial centre of that suburb. However my taxi ride the previous Sunday night had opened my eyes to the existence of a larger town centre beyond the hospital, with department stores, a larger range of shops, and a reasonably posh looking hotel that looked like it was once some nobleman's stately home.
As I turned right at the crossroads where usually turned left, my exploration began. That beginning was not auspicious, however, as my first encounter with a local was a mother, shouting something in some Arabic language at her little girl, who ran in front of the baby car she was pushing. As we closed in on each other, I was surprised to notice that she was now shouting the same words at me. Some seconds later, too late, in fact, to take any avoiding action, I realised she was warning both of us not to step in the large pile of dog poop that decorated the pavement. I spent the next few minutes doing a Michael Jackson style moonwalk on the grass verges by the roadside to clean it off my sole, but my journey continued undeterred.
It was warm for November, and the clear sky let the heat of the sun through sufficiently that I did not need a coat. I walked past the hospital, or more accurately, around it; and down past the back of a graveyard. Passing quaint old houses and small shops, I headed for the spire in the distance that stood over the town's church. While I lost any last trace of religious belief in my teens, I have in recent years come to cherish churches, for their architecture, and the sense of calm repose that their interiors provide, swaddled in the timeless craft of masons, carpenters and other artisans from decades and centuries past. It was a Saturday, and there were no services that day, but the doors were open. I stepped inside, to a world of silence, dimly lit by small electric lights presumably emulating the candles that would have been the only source of light when all of this had been built. Stained glass windows allowed sunlight to illuminate spots of floor and the occasional pew, like some archaic attempt at disco lighting. While I have no god to pray to, on such occasions I do take a few moments to think of my departed mother, and to be thankful for the many good things I have had in life. That done, I returned to the less serene world outside.
Another brief stroll found me at a small roadside cafe which provided an excellent lunch; baguettes still warm from the oven, and the Kronenbourg beer chilled just so, to complement the brisk sting in the air that hid in the shadows of buildings, evading the warmth of the sun.
A few more hours spent at a roadside bookshop, looking at hundreds of titles I had never heard of and would most likely never read, and the sun had started its slow slide down towards the horizon. I had one evening left in Paris, and wanted to spend it in the city, which I had not actually gotten in to see yet on this trip, so I would have to make a move towards the hotel some time soon to get a coat, without which I would not enjoy the night in comfort. I started back towards the hospital, this time aiming to pass by the front of the graveyard rather than behind it, as it, too had piqued my interests.
I reached the gate of the graveyard just after three, as a cloudy dusk overtook the sky. It gave the graveyard a maudlin atmosphere, as I wandered among the rows of stones engraved with the names of loved ones, long gone but forever immortalised, with occasional flowers and other trinkets to show which ones still had someone to care for them.
The graveyard was a rectangle, arranged quite like a concert hall. Rows of headstones sat like seats in an auditorium, and the stage was occupied by a large, walled enclosure which I approached last, having weaved my way through its captive audience. On entering the enclosure, its purpose was immediately clear to anyone who did not already guess. Along the back wall was a large memorial depicting soldiers, their bleak, still faces bearing the timeless, blank expressions often seen in depictions of those who go to war, a poor substitute for the real emotions those young men must really have been feeling. The names of sixty or so men decorated the simple white stones around the enclosing wall, with dates and place names, all of them clearly lost to the Great War.
I stood for a long time there, thinking of those men, what they were like when they were alive, what they did before going to join that vast madness, and of the families they left behind. Such time had past that it was unlikely that all these souls still had some relative to tend their resting places, but the entire enclosure was in good upkeep. All the headstones were clean and free from moss, and the flowers were fresh. Someone, presumably an association of some sort like the local Lions Club, or some arm of the local government, was taking responsibility for the care of the last resting place of those who had paid the price for their current prosperity. It felt proper to me that someone was doing this: Many times as I have wandered around graveyards, reading the short descriptions of various peoples' lives, I would wonder if any one still appreciates those persons and their efforts. Even if someone was not famous or notable for the achievements of their life, they were most likely an honest, hard worker; a father or mother who raised their children well, a brother or sister, or friend to others, who played some part in their community, made some contribution; touched the lives of others in some way. It is for such reasons that people are memorialised in this way, by marking the spot where they lie, so that people have somewhere to come to where they can take a moment to pay their respects.
And so it was with the wall of faces before which I stood now, and the rows of stones that surrounded it. These young men had given their lives to help defeat tyranny. (Whether that was achieved or not is another day's discussion...) It is right that they have a place to be remembered, and honoured, by those they left behind.
Then it dawned on me! The following day would be Remembrance Sunday, a day dedicated to the memories of these men and the millions of others like them, who gave their lives so that their country could be free. All across Europe, families, widows, friends, would gather at such monuments, to mourn their brothers, fathers, husbands and comrades, and pray that their sacrifice would never be necessary again.
I began to wonder, as I walked back toward my hotel in the growing darkness of the early evening, what an unusual sequence of events it was that brought me to that place on this day. That evening, as I rode the train into the City of Light and walked its illuminated avenues, I thought of how I would feel if called upon to fight for my freedom, for the safety of my family, my country and an entire continent. I realised that I would be willing to fight for what I felt to be right, if faced with a situation where I would lose everything if I did not. I also realised that facing such a choice would be unlikely in this modern world, as we have learned much from the mistakes of the past, and our leaders are trying, at least, not to repeat them, if only because they know their people will no longer blindly follow them, or forgive them.
After dining, I retired to an Irish pub near the Arc De Triomphe and decided to treat myself to a Cognac, rather than my usual twelve year old Jameson Whiskey, Standing alone at the counter, as I usually did on such trips, I silently raised my glass to those brave souls who answered the call some ninety years before, and to the kismet that brought me to them, reminding me in the process of how lucky a life I lead.
Copyright (C) 2011 A.Keyes All Rights Reserved.