Euro stories: Le Chat Noir in Renoir’s Garden

Day two in Paris and I have a plan to see the Musee d’Orsay, Pompidou, and Notre Dame. I plot my route and take the Metro following every last instruction on Google maps, like I always do. When I emerge from the underground station and I’m greeted, not with impressively grand museums, but with svelte buildings of near gothic design, narrow streets, and chilly rain. A sign points to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and I follow the crowd by instinct.

Solo Travel Tip #3: The famous stuff is generally surrounded by lots of people. Simply follow the pack. Of course, you’re a unique snowflake and march to the beat of your own drum, but when in Rome, follow the massive groups of tourists.

The path to the church is lined with souvenir shops on both sides. Sure, the French hate tourist, yet there is money to be made from the hordes of visitors passing through the small streets. I see it, well, the top of it from my vantage point at the foot of 225 steps. I didn’t know I was to climb that many steps. I didn’t know that when I finished climbing 225 steps I would be at the highest point in the city with a breathtaking view of Paris. The rain slowed to a light mist. The clouds thinned just enough for little pockets of sunlight to peek through. I stand at the summit panting for air with rubbery legs and feel right where I need to be. For the first time in my life I’m at the exact right place at the exact right time.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is big and bright sitting proudly on top of the world. A sermon is taking place inside. I slip into a polished pew and take a much-needed rest. The sermon is in French, of course. I don’t understand all the words, but I feel them somewhere deep inside myself, a place so vulnerable and raw that I locked it away years ago. The padlock melts and the floodgates open, and for the first time during my trip, I sob. I weep in the literal heart of Jesus. Big messy tears roll down my face and suddenly I remember buying travel tissues. I go through an entire packet of Kleenex. When the service ends I light a candle. I’ve never lit a candle in a church before. I never felt the need to. I didn’t understand why I’d ever want to. But that day something happened, something changed. I lit a candle for Aunt Chris, Anne Frank, my beloved Oliver, nana and nano, and grandpa and grammies – for those who are no longer with us. This candle. This silent prayer. These tears in this glorious church atop Paris are for those who never made this trip in life. Your spirit is here with me. I do this for all of you.

For the sake of symmetry, I walk down the other side of the church, another 225 steps, an internal strength brewing a permanent change. I watch my feet take each step and I see “Oliver Olivier” carved into one of the steps. The silly name I put on Oliver’s birth certificate is Oliver Olivier: for Oliver Twist and Lawrence Olivier, a regal name for the Prince of Cats, my Oliver. I was meant to see this etching that much is clear. I am supposed to be in Montmartre on this day. Paris was always apart of the plan.

12 rue Cortot is nearby. Today, it’s a museum dedicated to the city of Montmartre but during its prime, it was the residence of Renoir and other artists of that era. Renoir’s garden is next door. The swing from The Swing is in that same garden, sure it’s securely bolted to the ground, but it’s there. The descendent of the black cat that inspired the unmistakable signage of Le Chat Noir resides here. Her name is Sully. If you are lucky you will get to see her. Generally she finds a warm safe spot to nap during the day. But on this day, Sully appears before my eyes. She doesn’t make a peep. She sits stock still with bright amber eyes waiting to be praised. I pet her for a long time. She purrs under my hand. “Thank you, Sully. Thank you for being here today. Thank you for revealing yourself to me on this cold day. Thank you letting me pet you,” I quietly coo to this magnificent animal.

I learn about the history of this town, before, and after the gay ‘90s. From windmills to the Can-Can, this city radically evolved, or devolved, from agrarian landscapes to fauvism inspired art. Light and dark right next to each other in grotesque harmony just like Toulouse-Lautrec’s garish signature style. The singers, writers, painters, and poets of Montmartre live on. Not just in cheesy dorm room posters and hip artisanal cocktails, but in the wander’s bones, deep in the rich marrow. Each step is ancient. Each step a gift. Van Gogh and Picasso walked these steps. They worked here. They lived here. They ate and drank here. This was mecca for turn of the century artists before two world wars. There is an edge of innocence to their overindulgences like a child getting sick from eating too much ice cream. I feel it, in Renoir’s garden on this steep street, I feel a thousand bleeding hearts.

I walk around and see a mixture of old and new. Street art covers every inch of Montmartre from Banksy and Space Invader to anonymous stencils and political posters. This is truly a blessing to be in a place that once was, and still is, a hub for artists. There is a low hum of creative energy. I write a poem in my mind and never write it down. It was a temporary daydream meant only for Montmartre.

I make my way down the hill and see a tiny pink building. There is a plaque in French but I can make out two names: Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. La Maison Rose was a regular haunt of some of my favorite artists. The small bistro is outfitted with four tables outside and three inside. I’ve had bathrooms bigger than this entire establishment. There’s one cook and one server. It doesn’t get more authentic than this joint. The scent emanating from the small restaurant causes my stomach to growl with hunger. I stare at the menu handwritten in feminine flourishes. I figure that if I stare long enough the words will begin to make sense. Sadly, they don’t. An older couple sitting at one of the four tables outside of the miniscule eatery calls me over. I recognize the woman from the museum. I let her pass me on the narrow stairs not even an hour ago.

“Do you speak English?” the woman asked with a bright red lipsticked smile.

“I do,” I reply, whilst staring at their amazing lunch, my stomach lurching with desire.

“Oh, thank God! Would you please take our picture?” the woman asked with a giggle and handed me a fancy DLR camera when I nodded in agreement. I took a few snaps and found myself seriously enjoying taking photographs of other people for a change. The weight of the black plastic felt good in my cold hands. My imagination was running wild with ideas. Alas, I returned the beautiful camera to the lovely couple.

We talk for, what seems like an hour, their food slowly getting cold as they ask about my adventures and I ask about theirs. They are kind and affable Australians. Married for many years with grown children. They are finally living their dream of traveling all over the world. I instantly feel comfortable with them and share some of my sillier stories. I make them laugh, not to win them over and people-please like I used to do, but to share this joyous moment. This is the kind of relationship that only travelers know: instant friendship that comes in a flash and leaves just as quick. Its just as meaningful as longstanding friendships but the shelf life is only as long as your paths cross, which can range from a few minutes to a few days. This is my favorite instant friendship thus far. This couple shows me a future that I want.

After a decent chat, they wish for me to return to this very spot with a partner. We shake on it. It’s a done deal. All I need is the guy, a minor detail, to be sure. A table opens up inside and I grab it before anyone else can. They wish me good luck and I do the same. I order a cheese and mushroom omelet and a bottle of beer. The food appears with a much-appreciated quickness and I immediately begin to shovel the piping hot goodness in my mouth. I smile with every bite. This is the life I’ve always wanted, one of adventure, kindness, gratitude, and delicious food. I am satisfied and in that moment a large hand claps me on the shoulder. It’s my new Australian friend.

“We’ve got your lunch, love. Enjoy the rest of your trip and look us up if you find yourself in Melbourne,” he said, as if, he would have given me the coat off his back. This unexpected gesture brought tears to my ears (typo but I’m keeping it). That’s the second round of tears of my whole trip in the same day. I thanked them profusely. I was in shock. But mostly I was grateful for whatever force brought me to Montmartre. Something magical and strange brought me to this moment. It was meant to be.

In my time in Paris, I never make it to d’Orsay. The universe had other plans.


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