Walter Mitty: When are you going to take [the picture]?
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
I sat with my back nestled comfortably against the wooden bench as I surveyed my surroundings. The sun fought its way through the canopy of trees, eluminating the shaded area with numerous rays of light. Many other people occupied surrounding benches, either sitting silently or conversing with their loved ones. Three of my students sat next to me, silently scrolling through pictures they had taken earlier in the day. A silver-haired man sat alone on a bench in front of me; forty feet or so separated us. He gazed aimlessly at the Seine River. I wondered about his story and what he was doing there. Was he in a somber state or just quietly relaxing and taking in the moment?
I took a deep breath, looked over at my students and smiled for a moment, and then continued to take in the moment. In the background a man was softly strumming a beautiful song. It was a mix between Spanish gipsy music and blues, a melody that fit the setting perfectly. I spotted the source of the sound a hundred yards away. He was sitting near the Bridge of Locks with his back to the water and the guitar on his lap; he was playing the guitar like a piano. A constant breeze caused the leaves above my head to rustle in a soothing manner. The pigeons even added to the chorus, harmonically swooping to and from trees; rythmically flapping their wings to the beat of guitar is it wailed to the world.
I looked up towards the sky at the angry, ugly face of a gargoyale staring off threatenly in to the distance. The gargoyale extended from the cathedral of Notre Dame. The beautiful gothic cathedral has been around since the late 12th century and it was made famous in a book by Victor Hugo. When I was a kid, I only knew of this cathedral because of a Disney movie based on Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Pointed arches extended to the sky and flying butchtresses extended outward, easily containing the weight of the massive structure. The weathered stone of the old church only added to its mistic and beauty. Minutes earler I was walking around the interior of the catherdral. Beautiful vaulted ceilings were surrounded by colorful rays of sunlight shooting down through the staind glass. The shadows created by the ceilings, coridoors, and candle light mixed with the colorful displays of light from the glass, creating a truly unique and inspiring setting. I left some of Dad’s ashes both within the interior and the exterior of the church.
Melissa, my colleague/Spanish teacher at Powell Middle School, woke me from my fixed gaze on the gargoyal. “Would you like to walk over to the musician and see the Bridge of Locks?” she suggested as she walked towards our bench.
I stood and accompanied her as we walked to the bridge. Thousands of padlocks were fastened to the bridge, each representing a timeless devotion to whatever the owner(s) wished. Apparently it is custom for people who are in love to put a lock on the bridge representing their endless love for each other. I watched for a moment as people continued to add to the collection of locks – many were writing or carving messages into their tokens of love before placing it on the bridge. To my right, the guitarist continued to play his beautiful melody. His fingers moved effortlessly across the guitar as passerbyers threw coins into his case.
I turned back towards the magnificent gothic catherdral one last time – I closed my eyes, allowing my other senses to heighten in attempt to etch this wonderful memory into my brain forever – this was a special place and a special moment – Dad would have loved it – nestled away in my backpack, his ashes resting peacefully – this mental image…this brain picture…was ours to share on the day before Father’s Day.
As I walked back towards the front of the church, I caught the sad eyes of the silver-haired man. His eyes told me that the spot next to him used to be occupied by a companion until recently. I smiled empathieticlly and he returned my gesture with a nod. Maybe our stories for why we were at Notre Dame were more similar than either of us wished.
On our second day in France, we spent the morning on a bus tour seeing all of the touristy sites. We drove by the Eiffle Tower, the Louvre, several monuments of Napoleon, the famous square where thousands of people were beheaded by the guillatine during the French Revolution, and many other locations. After the tour, the bus took us to the city of Versailles. My knowledge of the history of Versailles only extended to the fact that it was briefly the French capitol and there was a famous treaty signed there after the first world war. The tour of the palace was neat, but there was an overwhelming amount of tourist and people within the building and I constantly felt myself feeling claustrophobic.
After the tour of the palace, we were given an hour and a half to walk around the palace gardens. The fresh air and beauty of the nature coupled with dozens of benevolent fountains was the cure I needed. I found a bench tucked away along a small path which was carved between 20-feet tall hedges. I sat the the bench and stared at a fountain in the distance. I let out a sigh and again took in the beauty of the moment for several minutes. It was hard to comprehend the fact that French royalty, including the infamous queen from Austria, Marie Antoinette, ventured through these same paths three centuries earlier. I found another fountain hidden away from most of the crowd, sprinkled a few of Dad’s ashes into the water and watched them dissolve as another small piece of my heart was restored. Happy Father’s Day, I thought to myself with a grin.
I took another brain picture, ventured away from my hidden sanctuary, and found our group of 17 students sitting on the steps overlooking the garden. We were only two days into the trip and I already had experienced enough to feel lighter.
Other highlights from the first two days:
– As we were delayed while sitting on the runway at JFK for two hours, I began conversing with a girl sitting near me from Madagascar. She told me about her island – the beaches, city, corruption, rainforest (and deforestation). She spoke of the villages and the people. Briefly learning about her culture and country was a cool experience – there is more to that African island than lemurs and now I would like to go and experience it for myself!
– Teaching the kids how to bargin with the street vendors and souvenir shops has been fun and entertaining. Some of the kids are naturals in the art of negotiation, while others seem to lack any skill whatsoever; i.e. the kids who spent 20 euro each on laser pointers. (Melissa and I have already had to take away these lasers several times…boys will be boys!)
– Taking the French Metro to and from the city center. The kids understood the different lines, stops, and routes rather quickly. Although the metro is not as clean as the London Underground, it is not unbearable (yes, I am talking about you Manhattan). I also enjoyed catching the eye of a couple of beautiful French girls on the metro at various times…boys will be boys… 🙂
– Watching the French national team play their first game in the World Cup, and win! There is a small sports pub across the street from our hotel. After our day at Versailles, I vetured down there for about 20 minutes to catch part of the game. France scored a goal while I was there and it was great to see the locals react in jubilation with air horns, cheers, and songs.
Next on the agenda – The Louvre and Eiffle Tower.