Sunday, December 04, 2005

Christmas at Chartres, 1000 Years Later

On a cold grey winter day, with my gimpy mother in tow, we made a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Chartres, 100 km from Paris. As befits any true pilgrimage, ours was a journey filled with surprises, adversity and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over the petty worldy snares that the French seem particularly adept at weaving.

1000 years ago, pilgrims from all over Europe streamed to Chartres to invoke the help of the Virgin Mary by means of the holy relic on display at the cathedral - a piece of the garment Mary was wearing when she gave birth to baby Jesus (good story for the Christmas season, no?)

Our pilgrimage was no less focused – to learn about the famous stained glass windows of Chartres from the world’s foremost authority on the subject, Mr. Malcolm Miller. That part of the experience was not supposed to be difficult, as Mr. Miller gives tours every day at noon.

On the big day, we got the kids off to school and then headed off to fetch a rental car, which was where we hit the twilight zone. The Hertz location nearest us hadn’t gotten delivery of any cars the night before, but sent us to another location, where we were assured our reservation would be honored. We then trooped over to the second location which had no trace of our reservation, nor any available cars, nor any apparent interest in helping resolve our predicament.

This was when we adopted the sure-fire, rarely-fails formula for transforming the word “non” to "oui" with a French functionary. The steps are as follows:
1. Immediately upon entering any business establishment, wait patiently until you establish eye contact with an employee and issue the only words of French that you ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW – “bonjour monsieur” or “bonjour madame." If you did not perform this critical, relationship-building task before the employee told you “non”, abandon hope, turn around and walk out, come back on another day and start with step 0.
2. Understand that the word, “non,” when uttered by a French person in a position of power, really translates as “I have the power to say no.”
3. Smile politely, thereby acknowledging their ability to arbitrarily consign you to one of the lower rings of hell, and wait expectantly them to demonstrate just how vast their powers are by miraculously discovering a hitherto-unexpected-even-to-them means of overcoming the objection that they themselves just raised.
5. Repeat as necessary.

One very frustrating hour later, we were on our way to Chartres where, despite the efforts of our peerless driver, we showed up at 12:15, to a bone-chillingly cold and empty church. We then had another typically French conversation:

Me: “Bonjour madame. Did we miss Malcolm Miller?”
Nice French gift shop lady: “Oh, he doesn’t come in the winter.”
Me: “That’s funny, I sent him an e-mail and he said he would be here at 12 today.”
NFGSL: “Oh, he was here at 12, but there was nobody here for the tour so he left.”
Me: “That’s too bad, my aged mother traveled all the way from Oregon to see him.”
NFGSL: “Oh, his number is listed on the bulletin board just outside. If you call him he would probably come up and give you a private tour.”

20 minutes after that exchange, the famed Mr. Miller arrived. He was much more sensibly dressed for the cold than we were, and so was able to conduct the tour in relative comfort while the rest of us checked one another periodically for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.

In one hour we were only able to scratch the surface of the church, its art and its history. The most interesting feature of the church is its 170 stained-glass windows from the middle-ages, each of which is a mini-sermon delivered in symbols and light. The most interesting windows drew parallels between the story of Adam, the man who brought death into the world, and Jesus, the man who vanquished death.

After our much too short tour, we shivered our way back to the nearest café for sandwiches and tea, then hurried back to Paris for the 4:30 kids pickup.