Holy and unholy places

My fascination with the French Revolution started in grade 10. There is a chance that this fascination had as much to do with my very young, cute, single history teacher as it did with the subject matter. Nevertheless, I was hooked. 

On a visit to the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis, located just north of Paris, something bothered me. The cathedral, known for its Gothic architecture and exquisite sculptures, is the burial place of the kings and queens of France. One outstanding sculpture sits atop the tombs of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. But they couldn’t possibly be there. The timing didn’t make sense. They were beheaded and dumped in a mass grave, certainly not at St. Denis, which was almost destroyed during the Revolution. The church was looted, royal bones were dug up and thrown into a pit at the side of the church and the building was left in ruins. So, how did they end up there?

On further investigation, I was lured to a neo-classical structure four blocks from Galleries Lafayette (the upscale department store on Boulevard Haussmann). The Expiatoire is dedicated to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

Dedication plaque
Front entrance of the Expiatoire

It sits on the western edge of a well-used public garden, a quiet respite from the bustle of traffic and tourists. The building marks the place where the king and queen were buried in a mass grave after their executions. Apparently, over twenty years later, after the fall of the First Republic, Louis XVIII exhumed their bones, moved them to St. Denis and erected this extravagant monument to commemorate the royal couple’s death.

For those of us visiting in the twenty-first century, it’s a reminder of the horrors that happened in the place de la Concorde, a kilometre from this restful place. It also stands as a warning. Despots are alive and well and history can repeat itself.

While the building is open only three days a week, the park surrounding it is open daily. When I visited, it was host to a few older men sitting on benches and a family picnic. I could smell the fresh baguettes, spicy charcuterie and stinky cheese as I walked by.

The Expiatoire from the public garden

 Inside the monument, a walled garden lined by symbolic tombs leads to a chapel built over the spot where the king and queen’s remains were found.

The walled garden with chapel at its far end
One of the symbolic tombs lining the garden

The chapel contains an altar and two magnificent sculptures, one for Louis and one for Marie Antoinette. Engraved on a large bronze plaque below the king’s sculpture is his last will and testament. Sadly, I wasn’t mentioned.

Sculpture of Louis XVI with his last will and testament

A similar bronze plaque beneath Marie Antoinette’s sculpture displays a letter written by the queen on the day of her execution. It’s addressed to her sister-in-law, Elisabeth.

Marie Antoinette and below, the letter written to her sister-in-law

Marie Antoinette was reviled when she was queen, as much or more for being Austrian as for being rich and royal. In her letter, she thanks her sister-in-law for standing by Louis and her and for staying when she could have fled. 

Like most mothers, Marie Antoinette worried about her son and daughter and asks Elisabeth to ensure they are brought up loving and respecting one another. She also asks Elisabeth to forgive her son, the Dauphin. I didn’t understand this reference until I learned he was separated from his mother in the last month the queen was held in the Temple Tower. When she was tried in court, letters accusing her of incest with her son were presented in evidence against her. The eight year old child had been coerced into signing the papers. I can’t think of a false charge worse than this. What parent can? Even without these charges, she stood little chance of survival, and she never got to see or talk to her son after her conviction. 

Marie Antoinette’s final letter captures her vulnerability and her stoicism as she faced death. It puts a human face on a woman I had dismissed as frivolous and extravagant. Her missive was never delivered to her sister-in-law and Elisabeth, like the king and queen, was sent to the guillotine. The Dauphin died in prison. The only one to survive was the queen’s daughter, Marie-Thérèse.

So, my question remained. After so many years, how were their bones distinguished from all the others who had been murdered and interred there. 

On a very cool website, “Forgotten Books,” I found a volume entitled The Last Days of Marie Antoinette from the French of G. Lenôtre LR (translated by Mrs. Rodolph Stabbell) and published in 1907. According to an 1814 report delivered by France’s High Chancellor, before the king’s execution the senior curate of the Church of the Madeleine was given strict orders from the Executive Authorities regarding the king’s funeral. Had he disobeyed, he would have been imprisoned or worse. The curate received the king’s body January 21, 1793, having ensured a trench was the proper depth and that there was the prescribed amount of quick lime. He watched the open coffin, where the king lay, head between his legs, lowered into the trench. It was covered with a bed of lime and several layers of earth, each one beaten down. I imagine the authorities didn’t want any royalists digging up the king.

Emmanuel Daujou, a witness to the burial, saw where the king was interred and testified that his father-in-law bought the cemetery, which lay adjacent to his property, and planted two willows and hornbeam trees near the king’s grave.

Beside the wall that enclosed the cemetery, officials found male bones. These were attributed to the king because “the head was covered with lime and lay among the bones of the legs.”

Marie Antoinette was executed on October 16, almost ten months after her husband. Her remains were a bit more difficult to locate. Apparently, her body was left on the grass in the cemetery for 15 days before a gravedigger dug a hole, placed her open coffin in it and submitted this bill for the work: “The Widow Capet, for the coffin – 6 livres; for the grave and gravediggers, 15 – 35 livres.” This is the only record of her burial.

When the search for the queen began, one of the workmen, who said he had witnessed Marie Antoinette’s burial, assisted with locating her remains. They found bones “obviously a woman’s,” along with “two elastic garters in a fair state of preservation.” The servant who had dressed Marie Antoinette before her execution testified the queen had been wearing these garters.  

When the Expiatoire was commissioned, Louis XVIII was back on the throne. This made we wonder, what did the push for a secular republic and the defeat of the monarchy amidst all that bloodshed accomplish? The Expiatoire’s architecture, the money it cost to build, the dedication only to the rich and royal, everything about the space is antithetical to the philosophy of the revolution, a set-back to a country struggling to find a new, more equal political paradigm.     

~                                                       

While reading about the execution of King Louis XVI, I came across the names of two additional Revolutionary burial places. According to Paris’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website, “During the French Revolution, the abandoned quarries [in Montmartre] were used as mass graves for those killed during riots – including several hundred Swiss Guards killed defending the Tuileries on 10 August 1792.” 

Another mass grave, Les Errancis, was used for 1,119 people guillotined at the place de la Concorde (known at that time as the place de la Révolution) in the year after the Madeleine cemetery was closed. The infamous Robespierre was buried in Les Errancis, as were two other famous organizers of the Revolution, Danton and Desmoulins who were betrayed and killed by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror. If Louis XVIII’s sister hadn’t been buried there, this unholy place may have been forgotten.

What’s left of the cemetery is a plaque mounted next door to an upscale bakery on rue Monceau. I confess, I ordered a pain au chocolat and read the dedication while I ate. The irony was not lost on me. The Revolution followed a year of drought and crop failure. In 1789, common people were spending 88% of their income on bread, compared to the 50% they usually spent. Famine was one of the major causes of the revolt. 

The plaque indicating the cemetery of Errancis

Another irony I couldn’t shake off as I read the plaque and devoured my pain au chocolat in this upscale Batignolles neighbourhood was the close proximity of the Nissim de Camondo museum, opened in 1937. Its donor, a wealthy Jewish banker collected French decorative arts from the period of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Had he lived in that time, Moïse de Camondo would not have had the right to full citizenship. It was only after the French Revolution, Jews were given equal rights. But then, when the Nazis invaded France, French citizenship didn’t guarantee any protection, as is witnessed by the tragic end of Moïse de Camondo’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, all born in France, all French citizens, all killed in Nazi concentration camps.


In Retirement, Boredom Has its Place

Have modern retirees fallen pray to the “busy ethic”? In 1986 David Ekerdt observed people carrying the western idea of the work ethic – the virtuousness of being industrious and productive – into retirement. Read any book about retirement and we’re told we need to have a plan in order to stay active and engaged in our post-employment life. My partner, Bonnie’s plan was to see how far she could push her art skills. Some people choose to volunteer, to give back to their community, others, to look after grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And then there are those who decide this would be a good time of life to train for their first marathon.

According to Ekerdt when we are called upon to account for our lives as retirees, those of us still caught up in the vestiges of the work ethic will ensure other people know we’re actively involved in ‘doing things’. “In honoring the busy ethic,” he says, “exactly what one does to keep busy is secondary to the fact that one purportedly is busy.”1

In a recent article for The BBC (http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170719-how-moments-of-boredom-help-us-achieve-more) Vivian Giang investigates the positive impact of boredom on creativity. She writes “The wealthiest among us work longer hours while being busy has become a status symbol and a mark of prestige. Boredom and idleness, by contrast, are for the underachievers, the lazy, the loafers. It is something associated with mental dullness and lacking in aim or purpose.” Echoes of Ekerdt. How often have you asked a retired friend what he or she is doing? And how often have you heard, “I’ve never been busier. I don’t know how I had time to go to work.”

I fell into the busyness ethic immediately on retirement. We traveled, I took up yoga and walking and I started a freelance writing career with some serious beginner’s luck in the first few years. But that was followed by a huge dose of “I-don’t-really-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing-and-everyone-in-the-publishing-industry-knows-it” reality. Six years into retirement, I felt like a loser, an underachiever. All around me, people were happily getting on with their retirements. Bonnie was painting up a storm, an oenophile friend worked part-time in a winery conducting tastings and wine tours, my sister was babysitting her grandchildren.

For me, boredom was not an option. Filling time was the solution. Endless hours of television, more walking, more yoga, more shopping, more coffee with friends. More, more, more. The fear of being alone with my thoughts or letting my mind wander terrified me. What truths might those uncontrolled thoughts reveal?

Giang points to studies in which MRI brain scans have shown “the connections between different parts of our brains increase when we are daydreaming compared to during focused thought.” As her research suggests, had I been braver, allowed myself to daydream, reduced the noise in my brain and the busyness of distraction, I might have been able to free up the creativity necessary to rekindle my desire to write as well as my success.

If, as the studies Giang references are correct and boredom or reducing the noise in our brains increases creativity, how might we think about the activities we have taken on in retirement? How might we think differently about things we’ve read or heard? Why don’t we turn off the phone, the radio, the TV and the computer, sprawl on the couch and daydream more often? Or go for a walk – not a power walk, not plugged into our favourite podcast – and let our minds idle?

Physical fitness is key to longevity, so we’re told. And I see many seniors working out faithfully. Doing repetitive exercises could be the perfect time to let our minds wander. But far from giving our minds a quiet space to wander, we’re watching the television, listening to music pumped through the gym or on our personal headsets. The way we’re keeping our bodies in shape, is adding noise and distraction to the brain.

The aging brain loses its plasticity. Keeping it agile by taking up a foreign language, practicing a musical instrument, creating works of art won’t stop the inevitable, but can help slow the process. Reading Giang’s article, I wonder if encouraging boredom in our lives, freeing our brains to make random connections can have a similar effect.

Honestly, it took two grueling years back at university learning how to write creative non-fiction, before I allowed myself to entertain the idea of boredom as a good thing. I’m writing again, sending off pitches. Sometimes my work gets rejected and sometimes it’s accepted. Overall, my head is in a better place.

Now, I’m going to try doing nothing. It will be tough. But to start my “boredom” practice, I’m going to walk without earphones, giving my brain some downtime, allowing it to go where it wants to go. I will have to hide my iPod and leave my phone at home. I don’t know how successful I’ll be. I’ll let you know.

  1. Harry R. Moody, Aging Concepts And Controversies, Fifth Edition. 
Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2006 p. 256

In the Aftermath of the Notre Dame Fire, Paris

I am not religious, neither am I French, but Notre Dame Cathedral still beckoned every time I visited Paris. What a feat of medieval architecture. Of course there have been updates – the rebuilding of the spire in the 19th century and the addition of rooftop chimera that stare down on the city from dizzying heights. In 2013, we were fortunate to see the new bells before they were mounted. They stretched down the centre aisle, each one shiny new, each one with its own name.

The first time we saw the rose windows in Notre Dame they took our breath away and that feeling never decreased no matter how many times we saw them. But now, and for the next decade, perhaps, none of us will be able to experience the awe this beautiful building inspired.

Visitors to Paris still can see beautiful stained glass in Sainte Chapelle. And of course there are many cathedrals and churches spread across Paris. But if I were to recommend one to see, I’d encourage people to visit The Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis, the burial place of the kings and queens of France.

It’s a bit of a trip to the northern outskirt of the city on the #13 Métro line. But the Basilique de Saint Denis stop is only about 300 metres from the cathedral and if you’re lucky, you’ll go on a day the outdoor market is in full swing. The last trip I made was the most memorable.

The suburb of St. Denis has become a popular place for North Africans, native to France or recently arrived. On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I emerged from the métro into the huge open-air market. I could have turned left and skirted its edges, but it pulled me in. 

Fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, Halal meat, jewelry, fabrics, shoes, and clothes of every description from skimpy lingerie to shapeless, full-length coats drew hundreds of customers to the market. Bumping my way past stall after stall, I was overwhelmed by the smells of spices, the colours of produce, children crying for attention, hucksters barking, and shoppers making deals. Women in full chadors walked with friends in shorts and tees. It was an exotic mélange of culture.

Almost unwillingly, I broke out of the crowd and turned toward the basilica. The front of the church was covered in scaffolding and to the left, a carousel with garish airplanes and boats was playing some English pop tune. The carnival atmosphere of the market carried on to the front steps of the church. I hoped I hadn’t made the trip unnecessarily. Maybe the memory of my first visit could have sufficed.

Inside, the front entrance was definitely darker because the rose window was covered, but the rest of the church was as I remembered it – long, narrow and bathed in sublime coloured light, so different from the riotous reds, greens and yellows of the market. The cacophony of the modern world was behind me, traded for ancient calm. I marveled at the spectacularly high vaults and the whisper thin columns. Because the choir was open to the ambulatory, the altar stood in simple elegance, unburdened by dark wood and gilt. 

St Denis Basilica Cathedral filled with light

According to history, St. Denis was sent from Italy to Gaul to convert the locals in Paris sometime between the first and third century. The most popular tale of the saint claims that, because the Romans weren’t happy about his successful proselytizing, he and two followers were taken to the highest point in the area – now Montmartre – and beheaded. Head in hands, he walked 10 kilometers north, preaching all the way before he died. The Basilica of St. Denis marks the spot where he finally succumbed.

The older, but less well-known record of his martyrdom, written in 500 CE tells a slightly different story. After Denis was beheaded, a Roman woman, Catulla tricked the murderers and saved Denis’ body and those of his two disciples from being thrown into the Seine. She first transported, then buried all three bodies with their heads on her property north of the city. Later, a church was built in their memory.

The first time I visited the cathedral church, in the winter of 2013, I went, not because of the martyr’s story but because the basilica claims to be the first Gothic-style church ever built. In the 12thcentury, architect Abbot Suger replaced his small, dark, rib-vaulted, heavy-columned Romanesque design with a much larger church boasting narrow columns, pointed arches, buttresses, and coloured light streaming through stained glass clerestory, apse and rose windows. I was astounded at its delicate beauty and taken with the splendid sculptural sepulchers. 

If it hadn’t been for one quick thinking man, and another egotist, two hundred years earlier, I might have seen something totally different, a ruin or perhaps an apartment block. 

 In 1793, Revolutionaries decided that because St. Denis was the burial place of French royalty, its destruction would symbolize the end of the monarchy. On orders from the Convention Nationale, the first governing body of the Revolution, profanateurs and pilleurs destroyed the crypts and, starting with the Bourbons, pulled out the bodies and bones of the monarchy (and anyone else who happened to be buried there) throwing them into a pit they had dug on the north side of the basilica.

 The quick-thinking man we have to thank for saving many of the beautiful tomb sculptures was Alexandra Lenoir. During the Revolution, he was placed in charge of the Commission des Monuments. His mission was to protect sculptures and objects of architectural interest removed from churches and nobles’ houses. The appropriated objets d’art were to be gathered and displayed in a museum for all to see.  By labeling St. Denis’ marble tomb sculptures “monuments of architectural interest,” he was able to save them. 

Catherine de Medici and Henri II

It took a brave man to stand up to the pillagers and prevent them from destroying the sculptures. At least one of these thugs kept a souvenir of his grisly work. 

In 2008, a mummified head attributed to Henry IV – one of the kings whose bodies had been thrown in the mass pit – was discovered in the attic of a privately owned house.  In 2010, a team of scientists conducted forensic tests on the well-preserved head and found a mole on the nostril and a pierced right ear, both of which appear in paintings of Henry IV, and a wound that matched one received by the king during an assassination attempt. Doubters claimed, if it was the king, the brain would have been removed, but it was still intact.    

A looter bold enough to hide a head under his shirt was probably not above injuring anyone who tried to stop the desecration of the church.

 Although Lenoir was passionate about saving the art and displaying it for all to see, the artworks were, in effect, stolen. When the monarchy regained the throne in 1816, Lenoir was required to close the museum and return everything to the rightful owners, including the magnificent sculptures I was able to walk amongst and admire.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

The egotist we have to thank for saving the Basilica is Napoleon Bonaparte. The building fell into ruin after the revolution, but in 1806 Napoleon decided it should be rebuilt and become, not only the burial place of kings, but of emperors.

 While most of the stained glass in the church depicts religious themes, like the 12thcentury panes featuring the life of Christ, Napoleon commissioned one window in the transept to glorify his reconstruction efforts. Not only did he consider himself equal to royalty, but perhaps even to God.

 Why would France’s first republican leader spend time and money restoring a church? Hadn’t the revolution tried to separate religion and politics? Wasn’t the wealth and influence of the church in part responsible for the disillusionment of the common people?

There was a time when people thought if they were buried close to a saint, they had a better chance of getting into heaven. Whereas many in France had faced death because of their beliefs, Napoleon was spurred into action as an insurance policy of sorts. Better rebuild this monument to kings and God just in case. He was hedging his bets. Perhaps there was a heaven after all.

Anyone who has visited the golden-domed Les Invalidesknows Napoleon was never buried in St. Denis, but the basilica was the beneficiary of his self-doubt. 

When the monarchy was reinstated after Napoleon’s exile, Louis XVIII exhumed the bodies buried beside the basilica. Without modern day forensics there was no telling one person from another, so he created an ossuary in the crypt into which he placed all the unearthed bones he could find.

Lingering outside that ossuary, reading the names of the kings and queens on the three large plaques, I wondered how many other secrets this basilica holds that none of us will ever know.

sculptures on the facade facing the garden

I strolled outside to the northern garden, where the mass grave had been dug and the bones tossed. It’s a quiet garden and after I admired the buttresses supporting the church, I sat on a bench to reflect on my afternoon. I wondered how many people who visited the garden knew about what had once lay underfoot.

gargoyles overlooking the garden

 Along the path, three women, one with a stroller entered the churchyard from a street to the north. Two wore abayas, the third a long black skirt slit to the knee and a black, long sleeved top. An older woman dressed in seersucker and sandals greeted them on the path, stopped and chatted and chucked the little one under the chin. It felt good seeing these women taking advantage of the garden setting. In this place where once there was tragedy, there was harmony.


Iceland’s Blessed Curse

Big, blond and bearded, our proudly Viking guide, Armann Smarason picked us up from the Akureyrarflugvöllur for our tour of the area around Akureyri, Iceland’s “Northern Capital.” Before he arrived, we ordered a coffee in the airport’s coffee shop. If we had wanted to order anything else, we would have been sorely pressed – kaffi was the only recognizable word on the posted menu. The Icelandic language is indecipherable. It was the first time I understood what it must be like not to be able to read. Although the alphabet is mostly like ours, there are only a few words that have common roots.

When Armann helped us into the spacious SUV, I assumed we must be collecting other customers from lodgings in town, but he informed us Bonnie and I were the only guests.

It was just-spring. Patches of brown earth poked through the snow in the sometimes flat, sometimes undulating, but always-treeless landscape. The raw lunar-like look drew me in, at once forbidding and hypnotic.

“Do you know why this road is in such poor shape?” Armann asked as we hit a stretch of broken asphalt. I’m ripped from my reverie. “It was built by a company from Reykjavík.” He laughs. The northerners and southerners are locked in a friendly antagonism.

We pulled into a parking lot across from a pretty yellow two-storied farmhouse, the first signs of life we had seen in an hour. Our first stop, Goðafoss, is advertised as Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall.

As we walked toward the falls, our guide explained that in the year 1000, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, a Lawspeaker in Iceland’s legislative assembly decided that Iceland should be Christian, although pagans could practice in private. He was a pagan priest, but Ljósvetningagoði reinforced his decision by throwing his own pagan idols into Goðafoss.

Wooden stakes strung with metal cable marked the pathway to the falls. “Please do not step off the path,” Armann warned. “The spray from the falls makes the surface slippery.”

We had come from 12 weeks in Paris, where Bonnie had been studying art and I had been finishing my writing course. Our city wardrobes were almost warm enough. As we stood admiring the force and beauty of the two horseshoe falls, from behind us, we heard Armann’s voice. “Shit.” We turned. He pointed to a tourist in a red puffer jacket who had stepped over the wire and climbed down the rocks on the far side of the falls to take a photo.

“Hey. Hey. Get back from the edge,” he screamed, but his voice couldn’t compete with the crashing water. He tried again, waving his own bright red-jacketed arms.

“Do you mind if, when we go back to the car, I drive around to the other side? I need to see if I can get this guy. I’m the one who will have to go in and rescue him if he slips.”

What could we say?

Armann’s face was a thundercloud when he returned to the car. Although he gave the tourist a good lecture with the full force of his Viking rage, he said the visitor mostly ignored him.

Of course, his first concern was the man’s safety. Armann is a member of the Search and Rescue team and he wasn’t kidding when he said he would have to save the fellow.

But he’s also an environmentalist. Iceland is fragile. Its sparse vegetation, especially in remote areas can be torn out or trampled by those of us who don’t understand its importance to the health and sustainability of the soil. Footpaths are clearly marked for safety but also for the conservation. I’d like to think that tourists who ignore the paths are unaware that the delicate lichens and other small plants that cling to the rocks and shallow earth need to be protected. Of course, we all want to get the most spectacular photos of Iceland’s incredible landscapes, feel up close the force of their unharnessed waterfalls. But in so doing, we disrespect the natural beauty that drew us to Iceland in the first place. And we disregard our hosts, saying with our behaviours “We know better than you.”

If not for the 2008 banking collapse and the subsequent two-year economic depression, Iceland may not have come to rely on tourism so heavily. But it has. Iceland Air offers free stopovers for travellers flying from Europe to Canada and the States. Currently, it’s cheaper to fly to Iceland from Vancouver than to Toronto. Iceland is the place. And Icelanders welcome our Kronas. To a point. Iceland, like many tourist centres in the world is suffering from too little and too expensive accommodation for the locals who work in hotels, bars and restaurants. It was a complaint we heard over and over when we chatted with servers, hotel workers and guides in Reykjavik. Outside the city, the complaints changed with the region.

We parked at a cafe across the road from Lake Mývatn, a natural beauty created by a volcano 23,000 years ago and surrounded by mountains. Although we had stood for only 30 minutes at Goðafoss, our feet were freezing. While our guide got coffee, we bought Icelandic wool socks.

Armann informed us that, unfortunately, the Lake was currently a film set for Fast and Furious 8 and we weren’t officially allowed to trespass on the lot. But of course, he knew the security guard, and we were permitted to hike up to a ridge above the lake to take in the view.

First, however, we walked through all the vans used for filming. There were huge studded tires lying around and fake Russian army vehicles. The area was a sea of muck.

But from the top of the rise, a magical topography greeted us. Several small craters – geologically, pseudocraters – pocked the landscape. According to Armann – who knew this landscape in so many ways – through schooling, from conducting searches and rescues, and personally from growing up on the land – they were rootless. No lava had ever erupted from them. Snow capped mountains, some pointed, others flat-topped created a spectacular backdrop to the ice-covered lake.

lake Myvatn

The only blight was the helicopter buzzing over a car chase scene with a Lambourgini, snowmobiles, military jeeps and a tank. That was cool – but what a way to spoil a natural view.

Fast and FuriousArmann assured us that in order for the film company to use the lake, they had to erase any evidence of being in the area. As well, they agreed to install a proper parking lot so tourists would have a safe place to pull off the highway.

Famous films attract even more tourism. New Zealand is still a magnet for Lord of the Rings fans. In Iceland, other than the Fast and Furious location, you can follow numerous Game of Thrones tours. Lake Mývatn is one of the stops on that tour. Fortunately for us, the Game of Thrones groupies were nowhere to be seen.

Dimmuborgir, also on the tour, is a spectacular grouping of odd volcanic formations reaching up from the earth like hoary, crippled bones. Armann explained the geology (which I didn’t quite understand and even looking up the information now I’m not entirely clear on) and then gave us the option of three different walks, clearly marked.

Unfortunately, he was distracted by someone tramping up a hill not meant for visitors. This man was not the first to go off-piste. There were several sets of footprints in the snow.

“Carry on.” Armann said. “I’ll meet you back here.” And he took off after the fellow. Who knows. Maybe someone in Game of Thrones was killed up there. Whatever the attraction, the three alternative walks were not enough for this guy.

Our guide was strangely quiet about this encounter. Was the person a local? He didn’t say.

We spent six hours in the north, just the two of us with Armann. I’m delighted we had him as our first guide, with his background, knowledge and love of the North. For the rest of the trip we were much more aware of our responsibility as tourists to respect the rules and protect this fascinating and fragile country.

Two days later we started with a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, Alda. Catering to North Americans and Europeans, the buffet included hot cereal, eggs and sausages as well as smoked salmon, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), cold meats, cheeses, fruit and our favourite, beet and ginger juice shots.

We were picked up by our guide, Bjarni, for The Circle Tour, one of the most popular trips out of Reykjavík. Toward the end of the tour, our guide dropped off our little group of six at a café where we picked up some soup to warm us after our glacier snowmobiling adventure and before seeing Gullfoss – two waterfalls that plunge dramatically from different heights into a deep gorge. Warmed and sated, having visited the immense gift shop and taken advantage of the public toilets, we walked down toward the falls. A paved walkway runs alongside the gorge out to a point above the falls. We walked beside the gorge, the sun warming our backs, to a chain across the path with a sign warning “Do not pass this point.”

As we stood there, seven people stepped over the barrier and joined the other approximately 25 people who were heading out to the point where another 25 were standing on the unprotected edge looking over the rushing water. The sign was in English, granted, but I think the chain across the footpath might have given a strong enough indication that the area was closed. Where was Armann the Viking when he was most needed?

Gullfoss people

The unfortunate impact of tourism was reinforced for me in another popular  Icelandic attraction. We were fortunate enough to visit three hotpools – the Nature Baths near Lake Mývatn, Reykjavík’s Laugar Spa and the Blue Lagoon.

At the Nature Baths, there were supervisors sitting at the exit from the change rooms to ensure all bathers had showered. We had done so in the typical North American fashion – stand under the water for 16 seconds, grab our towels and head out. We passed inspection.

It wasn’t until we went to the Laugar Spa – a community gym and spa – that we realized how serious Icelanders are about washing before entering the pools. Graphics posted in the shower area emphasized the cleansing of armpits and pubic areas. Women, without their bathing suits were lathering themselves all over, scrubbing under their arms and giving their nether regions a good soaping, washing their hair with shampoo, all before putting on their suits and entering the outdoor pools. We took our clues from them, scouring ourselves top to bottom. It makes sense. While the water circulates, it is not chemically treated.

The next day we went to the Blue Lagoon, a huge commercial operation catering to tourists — judging by the number of busses and the variety of languages in the change room. We were given a towel and robe. Lockers opened with electronic bracelets and our coloured elastic band entitled us to an underwater massage. The majority of the women twirled in the shower, but did not wash before they ventured out onto the deck. Just like us at the Nature Baths, they had no clue that showering meant cleansing, not just getting wet. I’m assuming that, of course, not wanting to entertain the idea that they were simply ignoring the suggested routine.

The Blue Lagoon’s water is milky. At the swim-up kiosk, we were given silica mud, which we applied to our faces as a mask. When we wanted to try the next treatment, an algae pack, we simply rinsed our faces in the water, as did everyone else. And that’s when it struck me. How many tourists use these pools without washing? What is the effect of the algae and silica along with the oils and skin sloughed from thousands of tourists a day? Spas are Iceland’s equivalent to the local pub. Icelanders go to the spa after work and on weekends to meet up with friends and spend time with their families. I didn’t hear any Icelandic speakers the day we were there. If I were local, I too would leave the Blue Lagoon to the visitors and frequent the many spas off the tourist track.

One of the reasons we went to Iceland was to attend the Iceland Writers’ Retreat. We were fortunate to add on five days of touring prior to that three-day conference. While we saw parts of the island we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, both of us felt there was so much more to this place.

We’re returning to Iceland to drive its perimeter in 2018 – once again contributing to the island’s blessed curse. This time, I’ll be more conscious of the stress we put on the 340,000 (give or take) residents and the sights we will be visiting. I’m going to read up further on the ecology and the geology of the places we’ll stop, arming myself with some facts about the country, about what’s beneath my feet. I’ll scrub before going in hot pools. I won’t stay in any Airbnbs. I can’t change the behaviours of the thousands of others who will be there at the same time, but I can make myself a more responsible tourist.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Road From Here

 DSCN6457I was 54 when I retired. My friends asked, “But what are you going to do? You’re so young.” I always answered with confidence. “Bonnie’s going to paint and I’m going to write.”

Because I had co-authored fourteen English textbooks, taught creative writing and even studied with esteemed Canadian novelist, Timothy Findley – twice – the reaction was most often a nodding of the head and, “Of course.”

My partner, Bonnie always said that in retirement she would pursue her art to excellence, to see how good she could become. When we moved to British Columbia from Ontario, she joined two painting groups and created a studio in our spare bedroom.

How had I missed the fact that art is a solitary pursuit? For 16 years, I had been the one cloistered in my study, writing student materials and teachers’ guides, attending editorial meetings and preparing presentations. Now, both retired, Bonnie had artwork to create, but I had no more texts to write.

Without journalism training I had never pitched a project outside the protected environment of educational publishing. Any name I had made for myself was left in Ontario. Unlike Bonnie, who didn’t care if she sold her paintings, I believed publishing was the only way to validate my chosen post-retirement “career.”

Based on my previously published work, I joined three professional writers’ associations. If they accepted me, I convinced myself, I must be a real author.

I answered a call for guest writers in the local paper, submitted a piece on the popularity of coffee shops and it was accepted. The editor praised the writing and the research. Someone thought I was good. I still have that article framed on the wall in my study.

I sent pitches to two other local magazines. They too were accepted. I must be a writer. My name and stories were in print.

When my queries to larger publications were rejected (and rightly so), I assumed everything else had been a fluke. I wasn’t good enough.

Through a friend, I met an editor hiring advertorial writers for a food and wine magazine. What an opportunity. I was assigned restaurants or wineries where I interviewed winemakers, cheese makers and chefs. Summer articles were the best, especially when the research was accompanied by tastings of the new whites. This was the least risky writing I could do. No queries, no rejection. I looked busy and I could talk a good story.

And then, Bonnie had been accepted to an exclusive nine-week art course in Paris.  I  told everyone (and if I repeated it enough times I would also convince myself), that this 61 year old was following in the footsteps of the great literary travel writers: Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik, Alice Steinback. I was going to strike out on my own for the first time, explore the city, and write. That was what I said. But, I knew I would be discovered, found out. “You can’t do it,” whispered that seditious inner voice. The enormity of that admission was compounded by the fear of traveling alone in a city where my knowledge of French was limited to “Do you speak English?” and “Where is the toilet?” My terrible sense of direction and fear of getting lost, both physically and metaphorically, almost paralyzed me.

But Paris seduced me. She made me forget editors and magazines. She introduced me to the person I was when I taught: a person with intellectual curiosity, a hunger for backstory, and a need to bring everything – even something as large as the Louvre – back to the personal.

Through my daily, sometimes purposeful and other times purely accidental meanderings, I saw the grand and the small, the enduring and the ephemeral. And now, I’m capturing the stories I unearthed in my most intimate encounters with the city. They’re stories I wanted to delve into, know more about. They’re stories I want to share.

I knew if I wanted to pursue a writing career, I needed to learn more about the craft. I applied to the MFA program in Creative Non-fiction at Kings College University, not certain I would be accepted. But I was. I was going back to school at 62 years of age.

More than half of all Canadians who have held long-term jobs return to the workforce within ten years of retirement. While money is one reason, it’s not the only one. According to Stats Canada, even those with pension plans and savings are going back to work. When the last guest leaves the retirement party, it seems, many have trouble letting go of something that has defined them all their adult lives. That was me. I wanted to write again.

I’m one year into the course and I’ve never worked as hard. I’m taking a little time from my travel blogs to write about a new journey, the journey toward completing a memoir, Winter in the City of Light: A Search for Self in Retirement.


University Residence: not so romantic at 62

I never lived in residence in university. Before I got married in third year and moved to my in-laws’ basement apartment, I stayed at home with my parents. Residence always seemed sort of romantic – the first giant step toward independence

Thirty-four years later, I was accepted into a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction at Halifax’s Kings College University and seized the opportunity to recapture my youth, to take a room in residence for two weeks. Following the course, we were flying to France where my partner, Bonnie was enrolled in a life painting course. So, she was along for the ride.

With the time change between BC and Nova Scotia, our plane didn’t land in Halifax until well after midnight. We were ready for bed, even though it was only 9 our time. That was the first difference thirty-four years made. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t arrive with us and standing in line with several other customers waiting to fill out forms, we hoped our clothes would make it the following day.

By the time our taxi pulled up to the front door of the residence, it was 1:45 a.m. I had been assured late check-in was a non-issue, since the desk was staffed 24 hours a day. And it would have been fine had our names been on the check-in list. The security guard finally put us in an empty space and said the day staff would sort out our room the next morning.

It was Halifax hot – that is to say, humid and windless. The twin beds were serviceable but, of course, the washroom was down the hall. Being women in our sixties, we get up at least once, usually more every night. I was so tired, I dismissed the problem – for about two hours. Then I crept out of the room and along the hall, silent until the screeching washroom door broadcast my presence. I prayed those staying near were heavy sleepers and, without thinking, hoped our new room wasn’t near enough to hear every coming and going on the floor.

DSCN8671

King’s College University Residence

Magically, in the morning (cue, the Sun will come out tomorrow…) our luggage arrived, our new room was ready and our internet worked. I got my wish. We were not near the scraping door; in fact, the washroom was down the hall, through two sets of double doors, as far away as one could get. The closer bathroom- the one with the silent door- was labeled “MEN.” I’m so Canadian, although often tempted, I never once disobeyed that sign.

The first thing I wanted to do, once unpacked was to shower. I’m not a modest woman, having spent my summers at a girls’ camp, but, ironically, after years on pool decks, lifeguarding and coaching, visions of athletes foot and toe fungus crowded common sense from my brain. The daily spectre of shared shower floors was even worse than twice-nightly hall walks and attempts to quell the shrieking door. Gold Bond foot powder took pride of place on the shopping list.

Each dorm room comes equipped with a bar fridge. There is a kitchen on the main floor but it was so hot, we didn’t relish cooking and we didn’t want to leave food three floors from our room.

Without a car, groceries were a challenge, one that Bonnie took on with heroic persistence. We ate out until Monday when Bonnie found the grocery store, about a twenty-minute walk from the dorm, and lugged home three over-filled bags. When I arrived back for lunch there were cold meats, cheese, fresh veggies, fruit and yogurt on plastic plates with plastic cutlery. I thought I had died and gone to the Ritz.

Our room faced Coburg Street, a main bus route past the university and the quickest way for police and ambulances to get to and from the hospital. To keep the window open at night, I had to wear earplugs. It was so hot and humid, closing the window wasn’t an option, even with the fan Bonnie had hauled back from Canadian Tire on one of her many trips. Although I lived in Toronto for 55 years, since 2001, we had been summering in New Zealand and hadn’t experienced heat or humidity for twelve years. More showers, and more anti-fungal powder were required.

The joy of residence, of course was its location – 3 blocks from DSCN8610one of the best coffee shops in town and 5 blocks from great Thai food. Five a.m. in residence is also a joy. I wasn’t sleeping well, so I’d get up, shower, and sit in the little common room on the third floor. It was silent with sleep that early, and I’d work for a couple of hours before the floor awoke.

At eight, I’d take the elevator down to the main floor where the smell of brewing coffee made my mouth water. No matter what coffee tastes like, its fragrance is seductive. Every morning, I’d arrive back at our room with two cups of hot, dark-ish liquid and two sugar and modified corn oil treats.

 

Seventy-five steps from our dorm was the spectacular Kings College library. I mention the library, even though I’ve never darkened its doors. Bonnie, however took full advantage of it.

King's College Residence

Being on campus without a car while I was in class, there were only so many runs to the grocery store and walks downtown Bonnie could stand in the heat. So she went to the library and told them she was me. Our class had had difficulties getting student cards so with my name and student number on a piece of paper, the librarians were happy to check out a book for her. I would never have thought to try, but Bonnie has a history with libraries running back to her childhood when she checked out books using other children’s cards, having exceeded the number of books she could have, or owing fines under her own name. While she had no scruples perpetrating this ruse, I was almost catatonic knowing I would be kicked out of the university before finishing the first week.

She assured me there wasn’t a problem. When she returned the book, however, the librarian asked to scan her student card so the book could be entered back into the system. By that time I had picked up my student ID – I was so proud of that card – and, with great trepidation, handed it over to her. We look nothing alike, but she predicted they wouldn’t examine the photo and they didn’t. I kept my spot in the course, although Bonnie’s personality is so memorable, I may never be able to use the library again.

Having experienced student residence, I’m not that eager to repeat the adventure. This summer we’re renting an apartment and a car. I can walk to the university for exercise and Bonnie can drive to the store, and transport her paints, canvases and brushes to capture the east coast views she never got to see last year. I have already romanticized aspects of our stay in residence and they can rest, slightly blurred in my memory while I’m walking only steps to the toilet at night and sharing the shower with only one other.

 

photos by Bonnie Sheppard


Research Paris-style: My first Visit to the BNF

 

One of the joys of retirement is being able to travel slowly, to get to know a place intimately. On my first trip to Paris, I became fascinated with the Nissim de Camondo Museum and knew I wanted to include it in my book. But nine weeks weren’t nearly long enough to learn the whole de Camondo story. In the year and a half interim before I returned, I improved my French (not my spoken French as much as my reading), did a little more investigation on-line and gained the confidence – or so I thought – to apply for a library card at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France or BNF (aka Bibliothèque François-Mitterand).

The nearest metro, aptly called Bibliothèque François-Mitterand is a huge station. Walking up from the platform, I arrived into what appeared to be a giant amphitheatre. Was it designed for performances? If not, the only advantage I could see was that people weren’t restricted to one set of stairs to get to the exits.

Located in the 13th arrondissement the library is part of a large complex, which includes a movie theatre. At first I thought  the theatre was the library, but no such luck. That would have been too easy.

imagesTo get to the library entrance, I walked across a huge open concourse. The wind was blowing, it was raining and the grey concrete didn’t cheer me up at all. There are large concrete shafts, probably for air conditioning, perfect places behind which people could hide and jump out at me. With the elevator to the main entrance broken, I was forced to walk down a flight of open, metal stairs. I was glad it wasn’t snowy, but even the rain made them feel slick underfoot.

I opened my bag for the security guard and walked through the metal detector. I was in.

If it weren’t for Adam Gopnik’s description of the library in Paris to the Moon, I would have been too intimidated to get a card. Although forewarned, I was still terrified. I walked the length of the main hall, went into the washroom, looked in the bookstore and stared at the coat check where people were getting little see-through plastic briefcases and transferring everything from their backpacks into them. I had no idea why.

The previous evening I had searched the library’s catalogue for a book on the de Camondo family. Of course, the only one I could find was in French, but I was determined and judiciously recorded the reference number in my notebook.

I approached the help desk. My saviour, Vincent, spoke English. He explained I had to prove I needed to use the research library. Luckily, to do this, I simply showed him the book I required along with my Canadian, Kings College University student card. He said I would have to undergo an “Admission Interview” with a librarian. In this interview, I would have to describe the nature of my research and, if it were deemed – what – scholarly enough? interesting enough? I would be allowed to have a card. One has the option of submitting a “pre-admission form” on line, but it takes up to five days for the librarians to review it.

Vincent assured me most of the staff spoke English. Once I had purchased my card, I would be allowed to go through the turnstiles at the end of the hall and then through the giant steel doors to the reading rooms. He directed me to the admissions desk.

All went well, and, although the librarian did not speak English proficiently, we muddled through. Unfortunately, when it came time to take my photo, his camera wouldn’t work. He had to ask the woman sitting next to him to assist. She was not happy. They spoke quietly and quickly so I couldn’t understand the conversation, but the body language was unmistakable. After fiddling unsuccessfully with his camera, she motioned me to her desk. She did not speak English and was quite annoyed that I didn’t understand her rapid-fire French. By the time my photo was taken, I’m sure my face was stuck in a permanent rictus.

I walked out of the library that day without having touched a book, but 45 Euros lighter, with a 15 day Readers Card and nerves so jangled, I went immediately to Bon Marché and spent 8 dollars on peanut butter.

I waited four more days before returning to the BNF. It turns out I didn’t need a plastic briefcase because my purse, even though it was large enough for my computer met the maximum size requirement. I swiped my new, red library card and went through the giant metal doors into what can only be described as a spaceship’s airlock. I was pretty sure there would be nothing on the other side but black infinity. But no. On the other side was a long escalator slicing down through a gunmetal gray hallway and then another, just the same. At the bottom was an information desk, the penultimate stop before the last set of turnstiles and metal doors leading into the library.

At that information desk, I asked for assistance, explaining it was my first time. “Welcome,” the woman said with great enthusiasm. Maybe no one ever spoke to her. She put me at ease with a clear explanation of what I must do, once through the doors. I would have to go to the L section, ask for a seat and order my book. L is history.

So I went to L, but it seems I was in L-M and I should have been in K-L. The librarian in L-M was very helpful, ordered my book and said, “It’ll take about 20-25 minutes.” The book I ordered was not a rare book. It was just a normal book. But I couldn’t get it from a shelf. He explained that the books on the main floor were available to the general reader and if the book was labeled, “Access Libre” it was on the shelf in the L section. Mine wasn’t. He also explained I would have to go to the K-L desk and request a seat.

I went to K-L and asked for a seat. The seat assigner asked if I wanted Internet. I said no. She said I’d have Internet anyway because there weren’t any seats without. Fine. When I got to the desk, I noticed my computer didn’t have the Ethernet connection required, and if I wanted to use the internet in the library I would have to purchase an adapter.

I waited about 15 minutes before I returned to the K-L desk and asked if my book had arrived. It hadn’t. “When the book is available,” the librarian said, “a little blue light will shine on your desk.” In the next breath he said, “But they don’t always work.” I waited another 20 minutes, asked again and there it was, Pierre Assouline’s Le Dernier des Camondo, a small paperback I could have purchased (according to the price sticker affixed to the back cover) for 7 Euros 90 in the local bookstore. The blue light never came on.

There is one person who receives the books from the stacks and scans them out. I wanted to find out if the library had documents I might have missed in my search, but I wasn’t allowed to ask the person who checked out my book.

I was directed to a different librarian. After she had searched the library’s catalogue, she started a Google search. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to find anything more at the library that day.

I read my book and took some notes, but the man beside me was a snorter and a huffer and when the sun came through the windows and just about baked me, it was time to leave. I wasn’t allowed to take out the book, so I carefully replaced it on the cart under the sign that said to do so and left.

I found the washrooms, the lunch room and the computer terminals where I could order my books in advance so they would be waiting for me. That was enough. The walls and ceilings, metal and concrete were weighing me down.

When I scanned my library card to take the escalator back to the main floor, it wouldn’t work. The woman at the help desk asked, “Did you take your book back?” I looked at her, at the same time seeing in my head the sign above the cart asking me to leave my book. “Was I supposed to?” “But of course,” she said as only the French can. I ran all the way back down to the cart, picked up the book, saying a small prayer of thanks to the library goddesses and gave it to the woman at the desk who scanned the book and my card.

The next day, I went Gibert Joseph books and bought the Assouline paperback. With the library card and the metro tickets, I figure the information in that book cost me about 55 Euros, rather than 7 Euros 90, and I still had to read it – in French.

 

* photo of library concourse from http://parismyfavourite.blogspot.ca/2010_05_01_archive.html

 


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