Tuesday, March 20, 2007

If these walls could speak

If you spend enough time roaming a city, you are bound to stumble over a stone or two from centuries past. Some walls and streets are more generous with their stories than others. The school where I teach, for example, is in the oldest quartier of Paris. On a daily basis, I wander in and out of a district that is literally bursting at the seams with tales of yore.

It is called the Marais, which means swamp. This always conjures up vivid images for me of a full-fledged, modern Paris emerging from a primordial soup of civilization - some kind of Atlantis in reverse. (Chalk it up to my overactive imagination.) The truth of the matter is, centuries of God-fearing peoples have painstakingly constructed layer upon layer of stone, wood, and iron to turn a slimy, mosquito-infested bog into a functional habitation and great cultural center.

If I take a certain passage to go home from work, it spills out next to this ragged bit of stone wall on the left. Closer inspection reveals a "Histoire de Paris" plaque; these are bookmarks that the French have lovingly placed around the city to remind themselves of their past. In this case, Philippe-Auguste built this fortified wall from 1190-1220, to protect the city from marauding invaders. If you look at a map from 1210, the original boundaries outline medieval life on a much smaller scale, compared to the present-day city.

I remember the distinct thrill I felt the day I matched this wall with another wall on the Left Bank, which I had been walking past every time I went to the library. They are, in fact, two parts of the same whole. That's like finding 2 pieces that fit from a 1000-piece puzzle after you've been staring at it for a good long while. But on a slightly larger scale.

Some remnants are not as obvious. I don't know how many times I walked past this wall before I noticed the traces of previous buildings. If you look closely (ah, so important!), there are outlines of windows that are blocked up and roof tops that lead into thin air. In this case, historical maps will probably not be able fill in the gaps, but imagination should always be at the ready. How many a young man wooed a lady at that window? How many little ones played on the stoop of the threshold?

Historical fantasies (if I may use such a term) are often filled out by the appearance of a sculpture or two.
The guy below appears to be transporting goods and animals about, and the detail in his boots, jacket, and hairstyle are captivating. Before you know it, my medieval walled city is abuzz with gossiping women, pretty damsels, singing birds, mule carts, craftsman, swooning youths, and other figures. It reminds me of the wide-eyed bustle of Victor Hugo's 15th century Paris:

"It was a vast place, irregular and badly paved, like all the squares of Paris at that date. Fires, around which swarmed strange groups, blazed here and there. Every one was going, coming, and shouting. Shrill laughter was to be heard, the wailing of children, the voices of women. The hands and heads of this throng, black against the luminous background, outlined against it a thousand eccentric gestures. At times, upon the ground, where trembled the light of the fires, mingled with large, indefinite shadows, one could behold a dog passing, which resembled a man, a man who resembled a dog. The limits of races and species seemed effaced in this city, as in a pandemonium..." (Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831)

These days, by contrast, the atmosphere of this particular neighborhood is rather solemn, even staid. Rows of unassuming residences line up above a series of minimalist art galleries, pricey clothing stores, and (rather) snooty cafes. It does have a certain, well-contained beauty. However, I am always overcome with an urge here to try to reconnect with the city's wilder and woolier past, and pull it into the present somehow. So, whether it is 19th-century Hugo conjuring up his magically realistic Paris of circa 1485, or just another street-wandering tourist from America with her nose in a guidebook, I guess we all seem to have the need to rebuild.

That's got me thinkin'. If mere earthly foundations can reach such heights by way of our limited human imaginations, how much more amazing will the new heavens and the new earth be? I mean, most of the time, we groan and move laboriously along the face of this globe, trying so hard to make sense of past, present, and future. But it is a immense comfort to know that someday our little efforts will culminate in a Great Rebuilding. We will finally see how the stories, stones, maps, lot lines, frontiers, and people groups intertwine in one great and glorious history. And that will just be the beginning.

"And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in" (Isaiah 58).


Anonymous said...

Your meanderings through Parisian streets reminded me of the trip your Dad and I took to England many years ago. We wandered the byways of London, spying hints of ancient walls here and there, in awe of man's tenacity to make something of himself. But to know that the Eternal City is built on the Cornerstone Himself, who raises us up, a building for HIS glory: such knowledge can only bring us to our knees in worship. Thank you for the glimpse heavenward. Love, Mom/Robbie

Anonymous said...

Hi Abbey and Karl,

Just thought we would let you know we are thinking about you and can't wait to see you again!

This article hit the news: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070327/ap_on_re_eu/france_subway_clashes_3
and it reminded us of our little trip to your neck of the woods...


Kaija said...

I am so completely ecstatic about going to Paris.

I miss you both very much.