Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Cathedral

I don’t go into churches in the U.S.. It’s probably because I’m tainted by dealing with Baptists, but I’m generally repelled by the sight of a cross, and when I see large droves of people walking into what could double as a sports arena, a shiver runs down my spine.
However, when I’m traveling, that reservation disappears, flinging itself into the wind, like a rabbit caught in Canterbury wind. I’ve been in cathedrals and megachurches in every city to which I’ve traveled, and even a giant synagogue in Manhattan. That was a pretty cool experience, but fundamentally different from the megachurches sprinkled around Nashville.
It’s because I view these churches and cathedrals as exhibits in a museum. They contain the heart of every city, and, in doing so, create a form of their religion infinitesimally different from other versions. If I’m lucky, I’ll be in the cathedral during a service. Once I wandered into a service in Canterbury Cathedral. It wasn’t much different from a Roman Catholic service, but the bishop did mention that he was always available for a chat over tea and biscuits.
In this vein, before I go about laying detail about the cathedral in Lille, here are some observations I gathered about the city:
·     While small, Lille has a vivid tourist industry. The amount of people wandering around the cathedral with giant cameras was staggering.
·     The city prides itself on multiculturalism. All the signs in the cathedral had several different languages printed on them. (Of course, this is par for Europe. It’s still jarring when you come from a red state that has a “If you don’t speak English, you can get out!” mentality.)
·     There’s a lot of pride in terms of the city’s history. Well, at least enough pride in its history to not allow a renovation on the Cathedral to take a decade due to lack of funding. (Ba-zing, for those in the know.)

The interior of the cathedral was spacious, but fairly modernized. In front of the entrance were rows of pews facing the apse (the main hangout of the high priest) and the ambulatory behind it. As in Canterbury’s Cathedral, the apse in Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille featured both the altar and a gated-off section with what I’d like to think of as the cathedral’s mascot: in this case, a large and ornate cruciform. Behind and around that, in the ambulatory, were several small chapels featuring important saints. The space was lit by huge stained-glass windows that we hadn’t noticed outside.
We entered the cathedral a few hours before one of the masses, and, off to the side in one of the aisles, in a glass room, a red-robed priest studied a book. There were a few other glass rooms, but these were empty. Further up the aisle were a few confession booths. These were not glass, but wooden. Part of me was glad that these weren’t glass, but another part of me was thinking up ideas of a reality TV show that just might rescue a floundering Catholic church’s reputation.
The Student dashed off to the left aisle and began lining up shots on his point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t bother trying to engage him in conversation, as his mind was probably looking at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille in relation to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame or some such thing. Thus, I decided to go for a meander around the building and take thoroughly less detailed pictures of the chapels, maybe read some plaques, stare at a wall, have a sit on the pews.
I meandered down to the apse, glanced at the altar and took a blurry picture, then walked around the ambulatory. As I stood in front of a statue that I took to be Joan d’Arc, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand straight and heard some light breathing to my right. I turned, slowly, and there, standing and looking straight ahead at a wall, was The Stalker.
“Er,” I said.
“Hello,” he said, continuing to look at the wall.
“Something interesting there?”
“Did you tell him?”
I cocked my head to the side. Part of me started to pray to whatever saint stood in front of me. “Tell him what? That you have multiple personality disorder?”
He turned to me. The black contacts were back. “That’s not something to joke about.”
Silence. Time passed.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. I see you avoided getting thrown in prison for exposing yourself.”
The Stalker nodded. “Le Gendarmerie and I came to a mutual understanding. One that involved them understanding my position that a) I did not expose myself to anyone, and was merely licking my lips because there was capuccino residue, and the girl happened to be in my line of sight at the time and b) it would be a terrible thing for all those involved if I was to wind up incarcerated.”
“How’d you come to that conclusion?”
He turned back to the wall. “Through calm, intelligent discussion.”
“For that matter,” I said, “how did you avoid the border control folks way back in September?”
“Through calm, intelligent discussion,” he said.
I nodded, went, “Hmm,” and snapped a picture of the saint in front of me. “So how are you liking Lille, then?” I asked. I turned to my right and saw that The Stalker was no longer there. I looked around and saw no trace of him, no lingering possible psychotic/sociopath in a black trench coat. Only tourists taking pictures.
The Student made his way over towards the ambulatory and took around fifty photos of the statue I was looking at. “You see The Stalker?” I asked.
“Did you know that the representative style of this particular statue was prominent around the time of the Revolution?” He asked, clicking away. “Apparently, the face is replicated on every female saint statue created during that time; the sculptors were typically in the same, ah, cadre—is cadre the same word?—and it is posited by several art history scholars that the model was an oil painting of Bonaparte’s wife.”
“No kidding,” I said, blinking rapidly at this onslaught of supposition. “And who are these art history scholars?”
The Student lowered his camera, checked through the pictures he’d just taken. “Some absolute nutcases at Berkely. Had to read one of their articles for a Hugo paper last year. Worst drivel I’ve ever seen—then again, it’s art history.”
I nodded. I knew nothing about art history, other than there was a history of humanity creating works of art. “Quite. What’s the plan for tonight?”
The Student took out his phone and pressed a few buttons. “Looks like we’re going out to a bar to hang out with a bunch of Pascale’s friends from journalism school.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Sophie going to be there?”
The Student raised an eyebrow.
“You know,” I said, “just wondering.”
“Is there something I should know? Are you going to try anything on her?”
“What?” I asked. “No. No that would... that would... No. Come on, man. I mean, she’s pretty and all. But, I mean, cause I can’t speak French, right?”
The Student shut his eyes and gave a kind of shiver that only took up his head. “That was complete nonsense. But I gather that you think she’s incredibly attractive and would totally ‘hit that,’ in your almost impossibly awkward way. Right? Look, man, as long as you don’t put this up on your blog for the world to see and embarrass the fuck out of me, I don’t give a damn.”
“Ha!” I said, pointing at him. “That’s where you’re wrong! Only eight people visit my blog a week! Three when I don’t post anything.”
The Student raised an eyebrow at me. I thought for a moment that, since The Student was such an academic individual, the muscles right above his eyes got the most workout in his body. “Okay,” he said.
“I think,” I continued. “I’m not entirely sure. Blogspot’s stat counter is kind of confusing and strangely detailed. Especially compared to WordPress, which is really the Mac of the blogs, if you ask me. It’s really user-friendly and easy on the eyes, unlike Blo—”
“Shut up, please,” The Student said. “If I wanted to know about the differences and pros and cons between blogs, I’d just research it myself. Hearing about it, you see, is incredibly annoying, as it calls to mind the days of yore when everyone in my high school was on livejournal.”
I hung my head.
He checked his watch. “Let’s head out, I’d like to check out the rest of Vieux Lille before we go out tonight.”
I shrugged, buried my hands into my p-coat, and shuffled along behind The Student. We walked up to the entrance of the cathedral, put some coins into the donation box, and walked out. (In light of all the odd things I might have said about religion, this may or may not seem like an odd thing to do. My thoughts on the matter boil down to 1) Don’t fuck with the metaphysical and; 2) it’s best to build up what I like to think of as a karma buffer – donating to all sorts of religious institutions in order to placate the various deities. That way, I figure, if one religion turns out to be right, and it’s not mine, then I’ve got at least something going for me.)

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