It's hard to believe that it's been fourteen days since I've written in this journal. I started out with such promise, so determined to chronicle every moment of this month studying in Paris. That all went out the window once the jet lag cleared up and the culture shock wore off. I've been riding a roller coaster these last two weeks, speeding from high to low to high again with no time to breathe, let alone put it down in writing. These last few days have been the lowest yet, although that's not why I chose tonight to return to my journal. Everyone seems to be sick of each other by now. Ben and Janelle have split again, and each one will complain about the other to whoever they can latch onto. Mark doesn't leave his room anymore, except to eat and jog and go to class. Also, he refuses to speak anything other than French. I had a brief thing with a girl named Kira – we met on the excursion to the Musée de l'Orangerie, went out once, drank too much absinthe, danced in Ben's dorm room, and I tried to kiss her. Badly. After a couple days of mixed signals, she's decided to settle on the cold shoulder. I wish I could say this was the first time I've done this routine, but at least I'm getting used to it by now.
Today, the tension in the group was unbearable. All morning, I was hounded by a paranoid impulse to retreat from the world. If I were home, I could hole up in my room and recharge my batteries, but in Paris, I have nowhere to go but the creaking ancient dorms I share with these strangers I'd come to think of as friends. Plus, I had classes to go to and an excursion in the afternoon to the Quartier Latin that I didn't want to miss. As a temporary measure, I decided to retreat into myself, like a sea urchin.
As such, my classes and the excursion that followed were all a blur to me. I remember regretting my decision to soldier on as Madame Whiskey-Voice herded us around the Latin Quarter, since I hadn't absorbed anything throughout the day beyond Kira's silent disdain and Janelle's complaints about her “type” (apparently men who love musicals and have deep-seated anger issues). I needed to be alone. So, when the excursion broke up at the edge of the Seine, near Notre Dame, I didn't follow any of the splinter groups. I headed for the cathedral.
I've seen Notre Dame by now – couldn't avoid it – but none of us have been inside yet. I needed a place for silent reflection, and although the religious significance is meaningless to me, I can't deny that there's something transcendent about the peace you can find in a cathedral. Last week, we visited the Church of Saint Germain, a vast empty space where the air was thick and the silence coated my body with a morphine stillness. I'd felt my mind beginning to open up. Into what, I don't know, but the sensation was exactly the opposite of my current sea urchin retreat, so I was hoping to recapture the feeling at Notre Dame and check a world-famous cultural landmark off my bucket list as a bonus.
I crossed the square before the cathedral, stopping once to lean over the crowd for a better view of the carven front doors. All I could see was an unbroken, undulating sea of human heads stretching into the darkness of Notre Dame and beyond. It would have taken several minutes of swimming just to reach the doors, and then, what kind of solitude could I find with endless ribbons of people circling around me? What could that circus have in common with the meditative St. Germain?
There are too many people. This is something my father declares regularly, and I've never found it to be more true than when I saw that mass of them swarming the cathedral. In despair, I walked to the other side of the square and saw that, along the side of Notre Dame, there was a somewhat orderly line wrapping around the faded stone walls. They were waiting for a tower tour, which cost five euros (or, in the mind of a visiting college student, two and a half bottles of wine). I still wouldn't find any solitude on a tower tour, but I was determined at that point to get something out of my expedition, so I headed for the back of the line.
On my way, I passed a trio of homeless men sitting between the cafes across from the cathedral. The youngest looked to be almost my age, with dirty blond hair and a patchwork guitar clutched to his lap. He was strumming out a quiet melody that didn't quite fit the crushing humanity all around him. On his right, an older man in a turtleneck was leaning back with his eyes closed, tapping his fingers to the beat. The younger one was pretty good with a guitar, but there are street performers around every corner in Paris, and I probably wouldn't have noticed them if not for the third man, who sat on their left and stared straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. He had this intense aura of melancholy around him that sucked the color right out of the air – his skin was pale as death and his shaggy hair was black as coal. In spite of his cold energy and thousand yard stare, the other two seemed to be perfectly comfortable sitting next to him.
Laid out in front of them was a guitar case containing a few lonely coins. I took a 1 euro piece and dropped it into the case as I passed, hoping to counter at least some of my selfish introversion with a basic act of charity.
“Thank you, tourist,” I heard someone say in English behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and the man in the turtleneck was watching me go. My ears burned, and I felt suddenly self-conscious about my decision to settle for the tower tour. Even a hobo on the street could tell that I was a tourist – and an American one, at that. I was beginning to think the entire trip had been a mistake. Then there was the line, which I could now see in its entirety. It stretched all the way to the back end of the massive cathedral. I'd come for silent reflection, and I was about to settle for a tourist trap instead. I turned away, disgusted with myself and with those like me, who had made Notre Dame into this carnival.
On my way back, I passed the three hobos again. I tried to avoid making eye contact, but the man in the turtleneck spoke again. “That was fast.”
I said nothing, trying to rush past them without further incident. Then, the guitar suddenly stopped.
“Arrêté!” the younger man said. “I'm sorry about my friend.”
I was compelled to stop. His English wasn't bad, but he was clearly making an extra effort to communicate, and I would have felt like a complete asshole if I had ignored him as well. I turned to face him.
“I can speak French,” I said. “A little.”
“A tourist who can speak!” the older man shouted, clapping his hands. “Very good. You must be a student.” After three years of French, I can understand the language most of the time, and I can infer the rest. I'll try to copy down our conversation as accurately as possible, all things considered.
“Yes,” I said.
“You won't learn anything in Notre Dame, except what the back of somebody's head looks like,” he told me. For the first time in several days, I smiled.
“That's true. My name is Mike,” I said.
“Ricky,” the older hobo said, patting himself on the chest. “The boy with the beautiful guitar is David. That gargoyle over there is Lev.”
“Good afternoon. How's work?” I asked, nodding at the guitar case. To my surprise, Ricky burst into laughter, and David scratched the back of his head. Lev continued to stare straight ahead, sucking all the life out of his immediate space like a human singularity.
“Not so good,” David said. “We make more money in the metro, but we wanted some fresh air for a change.”
“You think the metro smells bad too? I thought it was just because I'm American,” I said.
“Shit stinks no matter where you're from,” Ricky said, laughing again. “Mike, you're not bad for a tourist. Do you know what would make you even better?”
“What?” I asked, preparing for some further insult. Strangely, I wasn't shrinking away from it. On the contrary, I was curious to see what he'd throw at me next.
“Buy us a round of beer!” he bellowed, slapping David on the back. The boy smiled sheepishly, passing the gesture between Ricky and me. I noticed Lev was now staring across David's shoulders at Ricky with that same inscrutable expression.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because we know where to find a better view of Paris,” Ricky said. “We'll show you. That's fair, right?”
I didn't know if buying beer for three strangers and then allowing them to lead me somewhere qualified as “juste,” and my hesitation must have showed. I glanced at Lev several times, considering the possibility that he might be a serial killer and the others were his accomplices.
“It's Lev, isn't it?” Ricky asked. “I know he looks scary, but he's harmless.”
“Ricky was just joking,” David cut in, seemingly embarrassed by my reaction. “You don't have to buy us anything.”
That settled it. Whether by reverse psychology or my own self-loathing, I was hooked in.
“What do you like?” I asked. Ricky burst into laughter and stood up, hauling David to his feet as he did so. David packed up his guitar, and Ricky led us to a liquor store down the street, with Lev following behind like a shadow. I bought four bottles of Kronenbourg 1664, all while enduring strange looks from the shop owner. Store employees in Paris don't generally take kindly to me anyway, so this was nothing new.
Once we were finished and out on the street with bottles of beer in hand (yes, you're allowed to walk around with uncovered bottles of alcohol), Ricky started heading for a restaurant across the way. My apprehension came back suddenly as I wondered if I'd accidentally offered to cover dinner as well. The building above the restaurant was wreathed in scaffolding, and although the doors were open, the place was mostly empty. It was a little after 17:00, so we were early for a Parisian dinner. However, Ricky walked right past the cold fondue pots and bustling waitstaff, turning left through a side hallway that led to a poorly lit stairwell. Ricky took the stairs two at a time, with David hefting his guitar case in close pursuit. I slowed down, looking up at the old stairwell. There were hallways at each landing, but they were all dark and strangely barren.
I was no longer worried about paying for multiple six-course meals. I was now worried about being mugged and left for dead in an abandoned apartment building.
“Can we be here?” I asked, looking down the hall on the first landing. There were paint cans and tools lying on the floor, and several doors left wide open. Lev bumped into me from behind, and I jumped against the railing. Without a glance in my direction, he continued on. At the next flight, Ricky stopped and looked at David.
“I think he's worried they will tell us to leave,” David explained. I nodded. Ricky shook his head in disapproval.
“Americans. I don't understand. You're all so...ehhh,” he said, wincing dramatically and tucking his hands up to his chest as if he'd just touched something nasty. With another bark of laughter, he returned to normal and beckoned me up the stairs. “Come on, this is France. No one cares.”
This struck me to the core. I'd been feeling very “ehhh” lately, and I was determined to prove to him and to myself that I could overcome my uptight tendencies. Plus, with the three hobos in front of me, I felt distinctly safer.
When we reached the top of the stairwell, they all filed into one of the open doorways and I found that it was an unfinished apartment – little more than four plastered walls with a balcony lying just beyond. There were no doors or windows between the room and the balcony, so we walked straight across and into open air. Running along the balcony was the scaffolding I'd seen from outside, and as I watched, Ricky plopped down at the edge of the wooden boards and pulled the bottle of beer out of his coat. David did the same, after laying out his guitar case as carefully as a Ming vase.
I waited on the lip of the stone balcony, taking in the jagged Parisian skyline. From this height, I could see Notre Dame across the square, and all the city laid around it in an exquisite impressionistic sprawl. Every building was an individual work of art, and the cobblestone streets were one great canvas. Steeples marked the afternoon sky with dark fangs, and far off to our right, the Eiffel Tower's Olympian magnitude could truly be measured against the low rooftops around it.
“What do you think?” David asked me. “Better than the tower tour?”
I returned to Notre Dame, facing us with its etched facade. I could see a line of people shuffling across the roof from one tower to the other, closer than chained prisoners. “Yes,” I said, struggling to find the right words in French to express my gratitude for this moment. “Much, much better.”
“Fair is fair,” Ricky said. “Thanks for the beer.”
Lev stood next to me, watching the tourists and Parisians scurry below us. He no longer seemed threatening. Just sad. I hoped the beer might bring some color back into his world, but I knew deep down that whatever had done this to him could not be undone by a bottle of Kronenbourg. I took a seat next to David and leaned against the steel safety bars, sipping my beer and wondering if anybody in the square could see us, or if we had become invisible up here in this remote place.
As we drank, I told them all about my trip. I told them everything I should have been writing in this journal over the past two weeks. They listened attentively, in spite of my limited vocabulary. Ricky particularly liked my story about the shirtless construction workers, who'd been standing on a scaffolding just like the one we were currently perched on. Some of the girls in our group were taking pictures of them, so they leaned over and shouted in English, “I am on your facebook!”
I asked if it was really that easy to spot Americans. Ricky just took a drink and raised his eyebrow. After I'd told them my story, I asked for theirs. I regretted it almost immediately, because they all clammed up. David was the first to speak again.
“My parents kicked me out,” he said.
“I couldn't find a job.”
“If that happened in America, half the country would be living on the street,” I said.
“It's not normal here, either,” David said. “But my parents expect so much...they think I should have a career by now. All I can do is play guitar, and not very well.”
“I hope they change their minds. They can't do this to you forever.”
David grunted and turned away, nursing his beer. I looked at Ricky, who shrugged his shoulders.
“What do you want me to say?”
“If you don't want to talk about yourself, what about Lev?”
“Oh, him? He was abducted by aliens,” Ricky said. I thought I had heard him wrong, so I asked him to repeat himself. “Aliens!” he shouted in English, making a hole between two fingers and inserting an index finger, what I assumed to be an anal probe, into it.
“So that's why he doesn't talk.”
“Sure. Why not? Nobody knows his story, so we just make one up for him. He's lived on the streets longer than any of us.”
“Yes. Maybe. I tell everyone I know what he's thinking, but I can say whatever the hell I want and make it sound true. That's my talent. Only Lev knows what Lev is thinking. Maybe we're friends. Or maybe we're just a wall for his shadow to live on.”
I mulled that over as we sat on the scaffolding, enjoying the view and the beer. It seemed too coincidental that I had thought of Lev as a shadow earlier in the day. Perhaps that's what he really is – a silent reflection of a man, cast by an absence of light. We drained the rest of our bottles without speaking again, taking on his meditative shadow-silence. When we'd finished, I was struck with an idea.
“Have you ever been inside the Church of St. Germain?”
“I know where that is,” David said. “But I've never been inside.”
“Then maybe I can show you something too.”
“But then we'll have to do you another favor,” Ricky pointed out with a smile. “Fair is fair.”
“You can take me there,” I said. I'd forgotten the way to the church, since it had been just another stop on one of our excursions.
“Then let's go,” he said, getting to his feet. We descended the stairwell and slipped out of the fondue restaurant, which was now beginning to fill with customers. As we walked through the streets, I stopped us for sandwiches, which I bought with the last of my euros. It wasn't a long walk, but we took it slow and savored our sandwiches (my companions moreso than I). True to his word, David led us to the old church, framed by a gentle sunset.
“This place is over one thousand years old,” I said.
“Oh, Mike learned something in Paris after all!” Ricky teased.
The jokes ceased as soon as we entered the hushed nave of St. Germain Church. A solitary clergyman bowed to us as we approached the pews, but we were otherwise alone in the room. We took our seats, with Lev sitting on the pew behind us, and we allowed the weight of history to blanket us. I don't know what it is about that church, but there is a subtle otherworldly sensation in that nave, and my companions could feel it too. I'm probably the last person on Earth to believe that any one religion could have some sort of connection to a distant higher power, but there is at least the illusion of such in St. Germain. Whether the particular vault in the ceiling or the quality of the stone in the walls, something about the construction of this building is as humbling as it is empowering.
I knew I couldn't give those three men a future, but I hoped this would provide them with some kind of comfort. Unlike me, they could return if they ever needed sanctuary. They sat until the sunset through the stained glass began to turn a deeper orange. Then, Ricky silently rose and shuffled out of the church, patting me on the shoulder as he went. David stayed for a few more minutes, and then he got up as well. He shook my hand, shouldered his guitar case, and walked away with a heavy load on his little shoulders.
I thought Lev had gone with them, but when I stood up a few minutes later, he was still sitting behind me. When I noticed him, he turned his head and looked into my eyes for the first time. There were volumes of tragedy written under that shaggy mane, and if I were a better writer, I would be able to copy them down here, but I can't. Maybe I don't want to. I left him in the church, the silent reflection of a man who faded long ago into an absence of light. There was nothing else to say or do for him, except to try and preserve this story. I'm not going to say that meeting these three men changed my life – it's too early for that. I am going to say that I won't ever forget them, and if I find myself being “ehhh” in typical American fashion, then I'll just think of Ricky, barging through a restaurant and a construction site to get a better view of Paris. If I find that my life has gone wrong, I'll think of David plucking gently at his guitar by the side of the road. And if I catch a glimpse of my own shadow, I'll think of Lev, and the darkness that he cast on the walls of St. Germain.