We can hear the bells from our living room. Every time they ring I get a tiny thrill. I glance outside at the pigeons and red clay rooftops and just for a second, it’s another era. It’s time travel (no sacrifice of electricity or indoor plumbing required). Our oldest, grandest neighbor, the collegiate church Notre-Dame-des-Marais of Villefranche-sur-Saône began to take shape in the 13th century.
I’ve visited many impressive cathedrals in many European cities, but I’ve only visited, that’s the thing. This one, in the town where we’ve purchased a home and committed to stay, feels personal. Ours. It’s what I see on my way to our favorite boulangerie, on the way back from Monoprix, when leaving the library, when taking Clara to the playground that’s practically in the church’s shadow. It’s a neighbor, a friend; it’s what makes Villefranche look like Villefranche.
Most probably, it will remain here long after we’re gone. Such a strange, lonely thought. It’s almost as if we are the characters in the church’s drama, and not the other way around. Made by men, yet this place will outlast us all.
We are small in its shadow. I have to crane my neck, up, up, to take in the spire. How indifferent the church seems. How above it all. How outside the cares and constraints of time.
Look how it has loomed here in times of plenty and times of paucity. It has seen horses trot down the cobbled streets and much, much later, twentieth-century trains whistling down the length of the Rue Nationale. Today it presides over a busy shopping street. Drivers blast hip-hop and pedestrians amble, arms full of shopping bags and sandwiches and cell phones. Pampered little dogs in jackets stroll with their smartly-dressed owners. In summer, there are sidewalk sales and gelato stands. In winter, crêpes and mulled wine and Nordmann pines.
What neighbors has Notre-Dame-des-Marais known? Stables, blacksmiths, apothecaries? Today, in a wonderful example of anachronism, the church faces a trendy bagel-sandwich café and an upscale men’s clothing store.
For how many eras will this gorgeous, fearsome thing stand? It has never lived and will never have that privilege…but it has lasted. It has weathered blizzards and heat waves and perhaps provided shelter from any number of storms. It has been a stoic host: baptisms, weddings, funerals–standing strong, immoveable, through all the rites of passage that mark a human life.
I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.
I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans.
It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.
In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.
For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.
Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.
All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention.
Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little.
It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.
Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”
On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.
In 1905, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, heiress to a banking fortune, was so wealthy, restless, and enamored with the color pink that she oversaw the construction of a bubblegum mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
A native Parisienne, Béatrice warmed her new summer home with splashes of her favorite color. It was everywhere: from the eye-catching exterior paint to the marble columns to the roses in the nine surrounding gardens. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was a veritable island of pink: 17 acres of la vie en rose.
Béatrice filled her winter home with art from her personal collections and established a small private zoo, featuring such exotic specimens as mongoose, gazelles, and–naturally–pink flamingos.
The villa sat on a cape, so Béatrice could enjoy a view of the sea from almost any window. The nine gardens were themed in a display of worldly botanical abundance, from Spanish to Florentine to Japanese. No less than thirty gardeners worked to maintain the property. They dressed as sailors to further the comforting illusion of the villa and gardens as adrift on a lazy sea. In fact, Béatrice called the property the “Ile de France,” also the name of a grand ship on which she had traveled.
Béatrice knew how to throw a party. And like the classiest of hosts, she was inconspicuous, though the poet Andre de Fouquières wryly described her fêtes as “generous.” He noted one particular image that stuck with him: that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova dancing in the gardens to Chopin nocturnes, “bathed in moonlight.”
On my visit to the villa, it was tempting for me, a mere peasant, to dream myself into this world. Baroness Béatrice’s pink confection of a house brought to mind the Barbie Dream House I had as a little girl. Complete with a working elevator, it was magic itself. And here I was in the South of France twenty years later, staring at a much bigger pink house, this one a delight to my grown-up heart.
There were no flamingos and I didn’t spy a single gazelle, but there was a fountain choreographed to elegant classical music. There was a café with a garden view, where you could linger over tea and a luscious tarte aux fraises.
I imagine living with so many choices, so much power. I imagine hosting parties lit only by the moon and tiny candles placed in the garden. I imagine swans in the fountain. Shimmering necklaces that lay heavy across my collarbone. Piles of exotic fruit topped with fresh chantilly. A treasured white mare brought by sea.
But I must keep my feet on the ground. On my feet, anyway, are heavy Vans hi-tops. They clomp on the aging wood floors, floors that squeak and tilt just a bit. They slap inelegantly on marble patterned with pink and white diamonds. I walk through intimate rooms where people once slept, now open to me and my camera and my sneakers. The rooms are still furnished with mirrors and bedding and vases of fresh flowers and might have seen all kinds of human emotion: joy or strife or simple boredom–a world-weary party guest staring bleakly out the window. There was life here. What are my Vans doing stomping through this early 20th-century glamour? Suddenly it looked so strange and anachronistic that I laughed.
Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in La Père Lachaise in Paris. She bequeathed her property, all of it, to the Institut de France for the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and wished her home to be reopened as a museum. “It is my wish that as much as possible the museum keeps its current appearance as a salon.”
Would she have been pleased? Here there is dust, there, a chip in the paint. The villa remains grand, but the subtle decay is undeniable. Slowly going the way of all things.
Exploring places where people have lived tends to make me consider mortality.
A palace or villa or château that has outlived its owners does a much better job bringing the dead to life than does a graveyard, with its sober finality. These empty spaces evoke a bittersweet melancholy.
Look at these treasures, stored where “moth and rust doth corrupt,” already succumbing. Look at the owners–gone. Look what they took with them–none of it.
I am again struck by what terrible predictors physical possessions are for happiness.
Who was this eccentric woman, really? Was she happy? What did she long for? Did she know love? Did she find truth?
History remembers her…is that a solace?
History remembers her, of course, because of her father’s wealth, because of La Banque de France. Because she had the whimsy and the means to build a pretty pink house on the sea. Some other facts: she was married at 19 to a friend of her father’s, much older than she. Her husband gave her a disease that left her unable to have children, and his serious gambling addiction threatened the marriage until it broke, culminating in divorce in 1904.
We love to glamorize the wealthy and dead, as if fine clothes and cakes work to redeem suffering.