The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life Is Hard, But at Least There Are Castles.

A lot of bills came in this month (in France they come bi-monthly, not monthly), and the end result is that I have no money. I don't mean that in the general sense either, as in "I don't have very much money," or "I have money, but I need to save it for other things." I mean I have about 15 euros to last me between now and when I get my salary, which should be anywhere between 7 and 15 days from now.

It's not as bad as it sounds, because I eat lunch at school every day (fortunately I topped up my meal card before I realized how broke I was) and I bought a lot of groceries last week. I will, however, be eating mostly potatoes between now and then. Besides having difficulty feeding myself, life is improving here. My friend Juliette was kind enough to introduce me to the other teachers at the middle school, which is next door to the high school where I work. She works at both, so she knows everyone there. The teachers at the middle school are generally younger and more sociable than the ones at the high school, so I've been receiving a lot of invitations.

On Wednesday, the middle school's art teacher, Clotilde, offered to take me on a little tour of the region. We first went to Montreuil, where she lives. It's a famous walled city with huge ancient ramparts. You can walk on top of them and there are great views of the countryside on your right, and the old walled city on your left. It was absolutely beautiful. As I was walking, I suddenly realized that I felt an unexpected sense of peace. It was a feeling that I didn't even know I was lacking until it was there again, like when you don't realize how cold you were until you walk into a warm room and feel relaxed and comforted again. I felt something similar when I went home for Christmas. It was like relaxation, but more powerful. It was a sense of well-being, that I didn't have to worry about anything anymore. Thanks to my visit home, I now have a strong concept of what heaven must be like. For me, home *is* heaven now. There, I am surrounded by people who love me and whom I love. I belong. I am embraced. Food and warmth are plentiful, everything is taken care of, there is no need to worry about anything. I can hardly imagine heaven being any better.

On the ramparts, I didn't experience the same thing as I did at Christmas, but it was a piece of that feeling. At first I thought it was because of the view. I always love views, especially of landscapes. There's something about seeing the earth spread out in front of me that gives me a sense of connection and purpose. It wasn't the view, though. It took me a few moments to realize that it was actually the trees. There were trees along the path, and small patches of a thin forest at intervals, below the ramparts. Being near trees calmed me in a way I wasn't even aware of. I had felt it once before here, when I went for a walk around the Bay of Authie, which is on the edge of town, just past the school. Behind the dunes, farther inland, there is a small forest. I came upon it unexpectedly, while I was following the path through the dunes, and the peace came with it. I was so drawn to it that I stepped off the path and went down a little slope to stand beneath them, on a bed of pine needles. The light was fading, and I knew I should make my way out of the bay, but I felt so at home in the trees that I didn't want to leave. On the ramparts, I wasn't even surrounded by trees. They were just near, and I felt more at ease. In Berck, there are no trees. There is the beach, which is beautiful in its own gray, desert-like way. There is the town, which is just concrete and scatterings of washed-around sand. There are the dunes, which are also lovely, and there is the bay. Trees are hard to come by, unless I follow the bay path inland, in which case I will likely get lost (again). I've always known that I loved forests, and I didn't understand why some people are afraid of them. To me, there is no safer place.

After Montreuil, we went to see a friend of Clotilde's, in a nearby town. I don't even know the name of it, it seemed to be just a collection of houses. Then we went to Boulogne, which has a walled city of it's own. The old city is enclosed in ramparts as well, and it also contains an old chateau (castle) and Notre Dame Basilique, a 19th century domed church. It was surprisingly huge, another unexpected joy. It is in bad repair. Most of the paintings are gone, destroyed or aged so that they are hardly recognizable. Compared to other large churches and cathedrals, it is austere and dilapidated. I found it charming. It seemed more real that way, to see the decay of things, the truth of the stone behind what would have been a bright edifice. Clotilde and I were the only ones there, and when we stopped speaking in our hushed voices, it was silent. The bright dome, the worn Corinthian columns, the long, empty nave were all unpretentious, guileless. They seemed dignified in their simplicity, as if to say, "Here we are. This is just what we are."

We watched the sun set from the ramparts, then went out of the walled city and into the new town ("new" here still means several hundred years old, however). We went and met another teacher from the middle school at her apartment, which she was having renovated. Men were heating copper pipes with blowtorches when we arrived. The three of us went out, and since Clotilde and I were mostly starved from our long marches, we stopped at a patisserie for pain au chocolat. It was the best pain au chocolat I have ever tasted. It had not two but three legs of chocolate running through it, and a sweet crackling crust that must have been specially sugared. We ate our pastries as we walked towards the shopping district, where we intended to "faire des soldes," or "shop the sales." In January, all the stores have huge sales with big markdowns. I was looking for a cache-coeur, or wrap sweater, but ended up just buying a pretty T-shirt. It was a good thing, too, because later that night I checked my bank account and realized I was out of money. The sweater will have to wait.

That night, Juliette called me just to talk. She confessed that she was having a hard time as well. Berck is not an easy place to live. In the summer, it's is merry and open and teeming with people, but in the winter it is asleep. We can feel the heavy resistance of its hibernation pushing against us, shutting out life. Sometimes everything feels so empty here, shuttered up like all the houses and seaside shops. The only thing for it is to be together, and drink lots of tea.

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