July 23, 2019

Little Details

Just go

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

The first time I saw Paris I ran out of money. My sister Jane and I found ourselves with little more than loose bits of change jangling in our pockets on our last day. We fancied ourselves ultimate budget travelers — eating baguettes and brie in leafy parks and ascending the Eiffel Tower only halfway, because it was cheaper. We lingered at a historic exhibit amid the steel tower’s midriff, Edith Piaf crooning via Muzak. We sipped café au lait in cafés; coffee was far cheaper than multi-course meals.

It was the summer of 1985. Jane and I were backpacking around Europe armed with Eurail passes and a “Let’s Go Europe” travel guide. In our youthful exuberance, we aimed to visit as many major cities as possible, as long as cash held out. Budapest, Rome, Vienna, Munich and Paris beckoned.

Memories of that long ago trip populate hazy corners of memory. I remember Gustav Klimt paintings at Belvedere Palace in Vienna, seemingly dripping with gold and mosaic paints. Sampling genuine Viennese Tort was high on my gustatory wish list. To save money, I dipped into a creamy slice with a plastic fork on a park bench. Images of filigreed wrought iron and impossibly dazzling crystal chandeliers at the Hofburg Palace made me wish I’d been a friend of the Hapsburgs, invited to tea.

In Munich, my sister ordered a beer and I sipped Coca Cola at the Hofbrauhaus from which Adolf Hitler launched his ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Rome may be for lovers, but it certainly wasn’t for pedestrians back then. I have distinct memories of being trapped on tiny islands amid multiple horn-tooting Italian Fiats, desperately trying to cross the street.

Visiting Vatican City and witnessing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was, for me, the ultimate art experience of my life — so far. Head tilted Heavenward, my jaw dropped as I embraced the artist’s manifestation of God barely touching Adam. The collection of elaborate papal wardrobes and jewel-encrusted chalices, reliquaries and papal jewelry prompted some pretty serious soul searching.

Jane and I called home mid-way through our trip.

“Where are you?” my mother asked, concern in her voice. “Don’t you know there are bombs going off over there and there’s been a hijacking?”

Nope. We didn’t. We were too busy traversing rail lines. Plus, the Internet and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. We somehow missed news of recent bombings in Frankfurt, Geneva, Rome and London as well as the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens. Detached from daily news, we filled our minds with art while pushing our bodies to the limit with mile upon mile of exploration. News of the terrorist actions rattled us, just a little.

Paris was our last stop before my sister and I split up to catch separate flights home from Frankfurt and Brussels. The City of Light enchanted me. I finally got to see DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. Her stunning eyes and teasing smile drew me in, but I found myself distracted by the crowd of tourists pushing and pressing to get close to her.

My eyes swooned in another gallery. Standing before me, regal in her marble state, the second century B.C. sculpture “Venus of Milo” exuded exquisiteness — despite her lack of arms. Curvaceous and seductive, her beauty was freed by the artist’s hand.

Notre Dame’s magnificent Rose Window reminded me that when sand meets fire and pigment, beautiful things happen. Sun streaming through stained glass brought an array of color and illumination to the sacred space. Construction of the gothic cathedral began in 1163 and, following a series of architects, was completed in 1345. It is believed that the consecrated ground on which the building lies was once the site of a pagan temple. Missionaries were smart. Creating new churches on former pagan sites meant that the newly-converted were already in the habit of “stopping by.” Sitting in the wooden pews, I felt the weight of history, but did not spy a hunchback.

My sister and I soaked up Paris’ art and architecture. Evening strolls yielded minstrels plying their craft — on accordion or guitar or brass — along the Seine. We watched couples embrace as the sun set, taking care to avoid crusty older men inebriated by more than warm night air.

We’d soon part ways for our respective flights home to Boston. We used our last bit of cash to buy two liters of purple grape juice — sustenance for our journeys — until we were fed on our planes. Plane food was pretty good, with generous portions, back then.

My sister was carrying our grape juice when we decided to stop in just one more church before bidding the City of Light a sweet adieu. Churches were like free museums, offering up peace, quiet and sacred art. We typically tossed coins into collections bins, but this day our pockets were empty. Jane and I were well on our way to the train station when we realized our precious juice was forgotten, left to ferment in a wooden pew. Too late to turn back, we boarded our trains, suffering in silence as we awaited that blessed airline meal. I’m heading to Paris soon. This time, I’ll bring a debit card.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com or editor@willistonobserver.com.

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