(photos courtesy of Andrea)
Andrea’s Introduction: Historian. Lecturer. Study Abroad Director. American. Parisian. Ellen Hampton is the ultimate embodiment of an American living in Paris. Her passion for all things French can be seen in her 3 books. Her newest book, Playground for Misunderstanding, centers on an American student’s time in Paris. I really enjoyed this scene you are about to read as it focuses on Nick, the main character, visiting the famous Notre Dame. Although I didn’t have his exact experience when I went, I could easily see this being true for an American student.
This is an excerpt from the novel, Playground for Misunderstanding, a scene where Nick, an American exchange student from New York, goes to Notre Dame cathedral. Nick had promised his mother he would visit Notre Dame, and it seemed as good an afternoon as any. It was cold, but it wasn’t raining. The crowd of visitors was thinning in the square in front of the cathedral, and when Nick stopped to look at the façade he was set upon by two young African men hawking postcards, keychains, and plastic Esmeraldas.
He shook them off and stepped into the gloom of high Gothic, with its incumbent musk of warm wax and cold stone. He did not particularly believe in God and did not like churches; they made him feel like a pretender, an outsider, someone who had wandered into the wrong office. As far as he was concerned, religion was a tribal matter, and if asked, he would say he belonged to the caste of Catholic deserters. For Nick, the high holidays were about food, gifts and family, rather than birth, death and redemption. But he had to pay homage to Notre Dame. For an American Catholic, even a deserter, it was a pilgrimage. There was no other European cathedral that held its cult status. It even had its own musical.
(photo of entrance to Notre Dame)
Nick turned off his cell phone, assumed a pious expression and started down a side aisle. He tried to peer into the chapels but in front of each there was a group of tourists, firing away at the altars and statuary with flash cameras. He wandered on, craning his neck to see the stained glass high above, and bumped into a couple taking pictures of a window 30 meters up with their cell phones. No one was looking at anything, they were
simply recording. Nick bristled. Did they think, like primitives, that they would possess what they photographed? He listened to the present dull shuffle of tourist feet, amplified and intensified by the arched and vaulted ceiling whose past genius had been aimed at songs of praise and words of prayer, and thought suddenly: I gotta get out of here. He dodged around the strollers and student groups and obese retirees and popped out onto the square. The shock of cold air felt good. He saw a sign for the tower entrance and followed it around the corner. The line to get in was just a few people long; it was the end of the day’s visits. Nick joined it and the guard closed the gate behind him.
He climbed the spiral staircase to the tower, its stone steps dipped in the center with the footsteps of the millions that had preceded him, and at the top, felt his heart pounding in time with the distant pim-pan of a police siren, his pulse echoing the muffled roar of city traffic below. He watched the dim and hazy sun crawling low across the northern horizon toward the west, where the mirrored glass towers of the business district rose like the Emerald City across the smoky plain. Notre Dame rode the river like a ship of state, its flying buttresses in full sail, its rose compass set for eternity. Nick stood at the helm, alone.
He thought about Anne-Sophie, and his thoughts became tangled with need and desire. He wanted to know who he was, and what it meant to be him, and he didn’t think he could find that out by himself. He had only questions, and he felt instinctively that she had some answers. He felt that with her, he could become the person he wanted to be. But he had clearly disappointed her, maybe he wasn’t up to her speed. He felt as if he were stuck in some chrysalis state and only by walking by her side could he break the bonds of adolescence.
(photo of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame)
He had to get her back. He patted the head of the gargoyle on his left and whispered in its smooth stone ear: “What should I do?” It was cold and getting dark; he started down the staircase. Half the way down, the lights went out. He stopped, and then continued on slowly, feeling his way along the stone wall in the dark. At the bottom, the door was closed and locked. Nick banged on it and shouted. No response. He kept pounding, outraged fury leapfrogging irrational fear at the looming spectre of a night locked in Quasimodo’s tower. Finally he heard a voice, a rattle of keys, and the door opened. A security guard opened the door and stared at him.
“What are you doing there?! The tower is closed. You have no right to be inside!” the man barked. “Get out of there!” Nick yelled back. “You locked me in there! You didn’t even bother to check if everyone was gone!”“It is not my responsibility. It is your obligation to leave when the tower closes. Now go!”Nick walked across the square, shaking with cold and anger, but eminently relieved that he was out. “So fucking typical,” he muttered. “They lock me in, and it’s somehow my fault.” He headed towards the nearest café and a badly needed cup of hot chocolate.
Ellen Hampton is a writer, historian, lecturer at Sciences Po and resident director for the CUNY New York-Paris Exchange Program. She has been watching American students take to Paris comme des canards dans l'eau for many years, and she thanks them all for sharing their adventures for this novel. Please visit ellenhamptonbooks.com, or look for Playground for Misunderstanding on amazon.com or smashwords.com, in e-format only.