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  • Jude Polotan

La Fete de l'Assomption

The church bells are ringing as I write this, but then they've been ringing all morning. I'm not sure which eglise the gonging is coming from, but they seem fairly close by. Of course, there's a church close to every place in Paris.


The 15th of August is a national holiday in France, the day commemorating the Virgin Mary's ascension to heaven, and it's apparently celebrated with feasts and jubilant parties. Perhaps that's why walking back to my place last night, the cafes and streets were jumping, despite it being a Tuesday past 11 p.m. Today, what few stores and restaurants are open in August are even fewer.


Last night, I went to watch the "procession aux flambeaux" at Notre Dame de Paris. The candlelight procession circling around the cathedral on the Ile de la Cite was scheduled to begin at 9:30 pm and though I was feeling tired, this wasn't something I could postpone for another day and so off I went.


There was a throng of us waiting for the procession to begin, with a heavy presence of police, soldiers and another security detail I couldn't figure out. Thank goodness I'd brought a sweater because the wind was whipping around and it was quite chilly (the weather here is so capricious!). I arrived at 9:29 p.m. and after a flick of a flashlight inside my bag by the police, I stationed myself at what I thought to be a good viewing spot. I was stationed there for about 45 minutes before the speakers finally blared to life, only to recite a multitude of prayers in (1) French, (2) English, (3) Spanish and (4) Italian for perhaps 20 minutes. But finally one of the massive portals gaped open and out came the clergy in white robes, led by a man carrying a giant cross and another behind him swinging the incense.


I love the smell of incense and I closed my eyes to breathe it in, because even though I'm not Catholic, it has many associations for me. It always reminds me of how hard I wished I were Catholic when I was a little girl. Though we were not at all religious, I was born and raised Lutheran in a city (New York) where virtually everyone I knew was either Catholic (Irish, Italians, Latinos) or Jewish. Most of my friends were Catholic and they got out of school early on Wednesday afternoons to go to confirmation classes, but that wasn't why I wanted to be Catholic; rather, it was all about the props. The font of holy water near the entrance, crucifixes, rosaries, incense, candles--oh, there was nothing like walking into a church and smelling that burning wax smell! (So sad to me that it seems most churches don't use real candles anymore.) More recently, incense perfumed the air in Sevilla, when Ken and I visited during Santa Semana in 2014, and memories of that stunning city always make me smile.



After breathing in a lungful of incense, I opened my eyes again and here came the men with the Virgin Mary on their shoulders--a gleaming silver Mary holding baby Jesus and adorned with white flowers and green leaves. All of this was accompanied by a blaring hymn that many in the crowd sang along to. And behind Mary, hundreds...maybe a thousand?...congregants carrying paper torches streamed out through that enormous, intricately carved door--the entire parade heading in the opposite direction from where I stood. The real irony was that they passed by a cafe across the street that would have been the best seat in the house--an up-close view with coffee! If I ever find myself in Paris on 15 August again, I'll have to remember that.


But was that really all there was? Not everyone dispersed and I overheard people questioning a particularly smiley police officer (he looked to be about 22 years old); putting together the snippets of French I could understand and aided by universal hand gestures, I learned that the procession would go around and come back into the square. Chilly as I was, I'd walked about 40 minutes to be there, so why not wait till the end? Pourquoi pas? It turned out to be a long wait, but it was one of those things where if you'd waited this long, you passed the point of changing your mind. And there were some things to entertain me, too, like the police tackling a man and arresting him. Good for them--the policemen, that is--because they were looking bored managing these church-going types.


What happened is, a broad area in front of Notre Dame was cordoned off for the procession, but after the last of the congregants had trickled out, somehow a disheveled, wiry looking man (possibly homeless, possibly crazy or on drugs) appears out of nowhere walking through the restricted area. He's followed by a young couple and they're having an argument with the man who's yelling back at them. When the woman suddenly notices all the cops around, she catches the eye of an officer and points to the (allegedly) crazy man and says something I can't hear. I can only think perhaps he stole something from them, but at any rate, the policeman gave chase and grabbed the guy pretty easily, several of his colleagues running to his side. A little scuffle ensued, the perp resisted pretty mightily for someone so skinny, but they finally got him on the ground, got the cuffs on and stood him up again to escort him to a squad car.


The whole incident took probably five minutes and I was impressed by the efficiency and kind of hush-hush nature of it. The police went after and subdued the man almost as it they didn't want anyone to notice. Indeed, when the man was shuffled away, each of them resumed their post with their blank expressions as if nothing at all had happened. All in a day's work!


(Incidentally, the church bells have ceased now and from my window, I can hear people sining a hymn somewhere that can't be too far away...)


Knowing in advance that today's a national holiday, I got enough food yesterday so I don't really have to go out at all (I'm not sure what will be open, but I know the Monoprix and some local cafes are not) and I'm hunkered down here to be productive on the writing front.


I've got my huge windows wide open and there are voices filtering up from the street mixing with the whizzing sound of traffic on the avenue de la Republique a block over. The stores that line my rue are all closed, as are the two restaurants nearby, so there is a rare quiet. Someone in the building across the way has a radio playing, but low enough that I just hear that tinny register that reminds me of the transistor radios of the 1970s. A young man with rusty hair and glasses in another apartment in that same building leans over the railing outside his own window. He has put on a tank top since he last appeared in the window, and the young woman who was walking around his apartment half-naked this morning seems to have left now.


(Ah, more church bells are ringing...)


In the mornings now, the air is fresh and cool and it carries that cozy whiff of autumn--a smell I miss, even if it also means we're that much closer to winter. If the weather remains cool this afternoon, I will take a break from writing to go for a run. Most importantly, though, I'm summoning the gods of writing and creativity and productivity. That's what this grand adventure is supposed to be all about.


Oh, and I almost forgot. On my walk home, waiting to cross the street, it was 11:00 pm and here's how I knew:





 

About Jude

Jude was born with wanderlust and a love of language running through her veins. No wonder then, that she grew up to be a fiction writer with a passion for traveling the world and experiencing other cultures. While in Paris, she'll be working her way into a brand new novel (her fourth), taking a break now and then for runs along the Seine, attempts at French conversation at cafés, and strolls on the Left Bank, channeling the ghosts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all their creative genius pals.

You can search out more of her writing on www.medium.com

 

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