Nuit Blanche. It means “sleepless night.”
The beauty of it is, I have never been so happy to be awake.
Briefly, Nuit Blanche is an annual event where the mayor of Paris decrees non-stop 12 hours of culture, music, film, and art; and from 7pm to 7am, the city stays up reveling. Two metro lines connecting the quartiers Buttes-Chaumont, Châtlet-Marais, and the Quartier latin run all night, and churches, museums, pools, monuments, parks, gardens put on light shows, art exhibits, independent films, and music spectacles until the sun rises.
The Parc Buttes-Chaumont was our first stop. The dark park was filled with drunken youth playing on the playground, and a large neon sign greeted us when we entered. “We Must Cultivate Our Garden,” it said. (I like to read that for it’s metaphorical value). Soon along the long pathways, we found the first art installation. A light exhibit created by a Norwegian artist, Rune Guneriussen, the piece was hundreds of desk lamps placed all around the lawn, under the trees, staring at us from various perspectives, giving the entire park spectacular illumination. We sat on the grass and sat on the grass and sat… mesmerized as we interpreted its meaning and posed metaphysical, theoretical questions to each other. Betsy mused, “Someone bought out Ikea.” Rose replied, “They’re just lamps hanging out, doing lamp things.”
The next stop was the Piscine de l’espace Pailleron where the French artist Pierre Ardouvin installed a light work called L’éclair dans la Nuit Blanche (lightning in the sleepless night). People were swimming in the pool below us as we circulated around the second story balconies, flashes of light in the walls going off like seizures. The chlorine clung to our bodies and in our nostrils, though for a moment the hot pool was respite from the cold evening outside.
Next we tried to get into the ice skating rink next door. But to no avail. I argued with the guard, but he insisted there was a long wait (though he couldn’t tell me how long), and he moved me bodily back out into the shifting, waiting crowd. Everyone seemed to want to go ice skating at 1 in the morning in Paris, damn. Another time.
We headed off to our next stop: Châtlet-Marais. We stepped off the train briefly to see the art exhibit at Arts et Metiers, a series of pictures of empty billboards. They lined the walls along the tracks, so we looked at them, mmm intriguing, as we waited to get back on the next train. Empty billboards. A statement about society? One could be so philosophical with this sort of thing.
When we arrived at St. Eustache, I was overwhelmed. This immense gothic church had its doors thrown wide open and the floor was empty of chairs. A wide open space spread to the altar, the stone nave littered with people lying (lying!) on the floor, some eyes closed, some gazing at the film “Threshold to the Kingdom” projected on a screen behind the altar, the music of the Miserere d’Allegri filling the space, filling everyone. We went to the front, and I lay, the vast ceiling above me. If I bent my neck backward, the grand organ floated upside down behind me. The music was all I could hear. The buttresses and soft light was all I could see. I could feel my body responding to some emotion in me, and I felt infinitely …. moved. If God had taken my soul that very second, I would not have felt it, because I already felt like my soul was there with Him, somewhere beautiful, precious, inside me.
I know for a fact the Miserere d’Allegri had something to do with it. The song is also called “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O God”) and was written by an Italian composer Gregorio Allegri under Pope Urban VIII for use in the Sistine Chapel. It was forbidden to be performed by anyone else, anywhere else (Pedro told me this story in the metro on our way there), but when little 14-year-old Mozart went to Rome, he listened to it, went home, and transcribed it entirely from memory. The song became public, and Mozart became even more famous. A feminist side-note: Pedro also told me that Mozart’s sister was a better pianist than him but never had a chance because she was a woman. Sad life. To listen to the Miserere, Youtube it. It’ll change your life.
I left dazed. In silence, I walked through the park outside the church, down to the Seine, and crossed the windy Pont Neuf. Note: It was 3 in the morning, and I was crossing the oldest bridge in Paris, where people were slaughtered in the French revolution, where history was built and people were changed. I had to sit on a bench and soak it in. I waited for our group to catch up and felt the Paris cold blow off the water, into my clothes. This is the good life, I am sure of it.
Our next arrival was Saint Severin, the beautiful church in the Quartier Latin where my parents were married. Like St. Eustache, there were no chairs in the church, but rather a large circle of 40 speakers. Entering into the circle, I was greeted with soaring music. Each speaker played a different singer’s voice. Standing individually in front of one, I could hear that singer and that singer alone. Pass to the center of the circle, and all 40 voices lifted and spread through the church, together, an incredible composition realized by a Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff. This “Forty Part Motet” was a remake of the Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570 for a forty-person choir. Together, we fell into the trance of the music, and listened through the eleven minutes in utter speechlessness and bliss. The song came to an end, and we simply moved to an open area to lie down and listen to it again. Eyes closed, lying on the floor where my parents said their vows, I became weightless, lost. I cannot tell you what it felt like. It’s like you have no body, no soul, no nothing; you are the music and your mind is the music and your feelings are the music. You have no past and no future and you have no thoughts. You have nothing, you are nothing, but you are a song, eleven minutes that disappear tragically, and when the last voice fades, you fall back down to earth and become a person again with a body, a soul, a mind, a past, and a future, with thoughts and things you own and things you are. When it ended the 2nd time, Rachel sat up slowly and said, “The funny thing is, you never want it to end.” I sighed. I could have lay on that floor in that church with that song all around me, taking me away, for the rest of my life. “Quick, let’s leave before it starts again,” while we’re out of it’s spell, “It’s like a siren call,” I said. It seduces; it draws you into something all-together beautiful and entrancing that makes everything but that moment insignificant.
Once we’d hurried out into the morning, 4:15AM hot on our heels, we found a gyro stand and bought cheap drinks and falafel, sitting on the curb in the cobblestones and munched, discussing art (Betsy’s trash became an object of interpretation) and soaking up the night. The metro home wouldn’t start running until 5AM, so we headed off to the Jardin du Luxembourg where Canadian artist Michel de Broin had installed a giant boule à facettes (disco ball) suspended high above the gardens to represent the stars that a city, poisoned by light pollution, never gets to see. Five beams of light hit the giant ball and reflected sparkles into the clouds, across the park; they spattered and spun around everyone and across everything. Music played from a band nearby. Tired policemen escorted a man who’d jumped the barrier into the exhibit out of the park. People leaned on the concrete balconies and watched these stars spin through the sky and through the trees. We shivered in the ever-cold morning and felt satisfied with the monumental beauty of our nuit blanche, our sleeplessness.
A 5:30A.M metro ride home, and I walked through the dead-quiet streets of the 15th back to my apartment. The boulangerie on the corner near my building was lit up with lights as the boulangers baked bread for Sunday morning customers, and I could smell the delicious scent of pastries and baguette drifting across the morning to me. And when I fell asleep at 6:30, I could only wonder when I am going to wake up from this dream.
Lucky for me, the dream continues. I spent yesterday afternoon in Montmartre with that panoramic view of Paris spread out before me, a French man on a guitar singing Imagine on the staircase below Sacre Coeur, a man leaning close and thoughtful, clutching a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I was there was because our French grammar professor issued us an essay assignment– “interview a french person about their job.” I chose the artists at La Place du Tertre, the mecca where Utrillo, Valadon, Van Gogh, Picasso, and many others once walked. Sunday, it is packed with tourists and singers and beggers. I circled the square 3 times, scoping out people– who looked French? who looked friendly? who seemed like they’d be willing to talk to me, a stammering American? I chose well. Jean Jacques was convivial and very Paris, with stories to tell and an interesting life for me to uncover and imagine. We talked for fifteen-to-twenty minutes about his life, his paintings, being an artist, taxes, hardships, and joy. Immediately after, I sat down on the stairs at Sacre Coeur and wrote the essay, the sight of his smile lingering on the inside of my eyelids when I blinked and his idiomatic expressions in my ears.
Finally, today, I woke up to rain. Awful, dreadful, cold, Paris rain. Determined not to let it dampen my spirits, I set out in my best rainy-day shoes and umbrella to explore Montparnasse, or, rather, go on a walking tour of Hemingway’s favorite haunts. I made it to Gertrude Stein’s home first, 27 Rue de Fleurus; this was the woman who encouraged not only young Matisse and Picasso but also 23-year-old Hemingway when he first moved to Paris. A plaque on the old building marks her presence. By the time I made it to Le Sélect (99 Boulevard du Montparnasse) where Hemingway used to drink and where he set several scenes in The Sun Also Rises, the bottoms of my jeans were heavy with the ever-steady downpour. I pressed on. The Dôme, La Coupole, the Rotonde: bars, brasseries, cafés where American expatriates of the 1920’s used to hang out, write, and muse over life. Halfway to my dream of seeing the Closerie des Lilas,
[“Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees on the bronze, and he alone there and nobody behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be and I stopped at the Lilas to keep the statue company and drank a cold beer before going home to the flat over the sawmill. “-Hemingway, A Moveable Feast]
I was standing on a curb waiting to cross the road, and a car flew through a GIANT puddle, sending an immense gushing spray all over me, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. I gasped as the water ran down my face, my hair wet, my jacket soaked through, then I kept on walking. Only, I found the café, and it was nothing like I imagined. So there was romantic me, standing in the street in front of neon brasserie sign, dripping with city water, jostled by Parisians late for work, clutching a damp umbrella in the rain, and I felt acutely Hemingway. This is the rain he always talked about. So I gave up, I went home, changed to dry clothes, drank a hot coffee in my apartment, and decided… I will finish the walking tour when the sun comes back out.