June 12, 2019
The rain in Spain fell mainly on the Seine. Flouting geographic sense, the sentiment stemmed from the unplanned detour in my 50th-birthday European trip. The Spanish Embassy in Manila denied my travel partner a Schengen visa, which struck Spain off my itinerary. Instead, I ended up in Paris, a city I wished not to see. Twenty years or so before, the same partner erupted into a diatribe against the travel goals of my youth, triggered as he was when I expressed my Parisian reveries. Weaponized words could pierce and leave a scar even decades on. Paris came to represent a dashed dream. That was how it rained on my parade along the Seine.
Matters escalated quickly on my second day in Paris. I was assaulted that morning and scammed that afternoon. A tour booked and paid online left my sister, nephew, and me high and dry, not to mention feeling low and wet, at Place Monge. Steady rain trickling through the trees further put a damper on the sorry state of affairs. We felt as abandoned as the steel skeleton of that morning’s makeshift market around the central fountain.
But no rain, literal and otherwise, could put out my sister’s spark of ideas. With our plans dashed and pants damped, she marched DJ and me through Rue Monge. I was clueless that we were walking through the Latin Quarter, the city’s oldest district of 19th-century buildings. We cut through a residential ‘hood where Parisians went about their business in and out of boulangeries and boucheries. The quartier turned out to be the Paris of my imagination. Puddles in the pavement and pedestrians in parkas imbued our urban trek with cinematic realness, a feeling of déjà vu resulting from watching too many movies.
Passing a corner, my sister stopped us in our tracks. She pointed at a domed Roman building majestically marking the end of Rue des Carmes. DJ and I shrugged in clueless wonder. “That’s the Panthéon,” she offhandedly said without the solemnity befitting the burial place of French historical who’s who. She did name-drop some, which may have included Voltaire, Hugo, Rousseau, Zola, Dumas, and the Curies. We realized this was the etymology of the word in Hiligaynon (our native tongue) pantiyon or panchon, meaning headstone. The gloomy day and my melancholic mood lent themselves to a visit to a burial monument but not so late in the day. The dead would have to wait.
We moved along the rue until we reached the main artery of the very heart of Paris: the Seine. My sister had set out to take us to Quai de Montebello for a wet stroll by the river that wound through iconic Parisian landmarks, including the Louvre Museum, Eiffel Tower, and the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris. From the paved riverbank, we looked out to Île de la Cité, an island in the Seine, where one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in the world was built almost a millennium ago.
Notre Dame de Paris witnessed momentous historical events, such as the coronation of Napoleón Bonaparte, the beatification of Joan of Arc, and the coronation of Henry VI of England. History lived on, but the church building almost did not. Just two months prior, a conflagration gutted much of the roof and the main tower. We stood across the river frozen in awe, not so much of the sight of Notre Dame, but of the fact that its Gothic grandness was still standing. Defiantly. It was not lost on us that we were so close to seeing the historic heart of Paris in ruins.
And I was so close to squandering the Parisian reveries of my youth. I had felt rather detached even when I first glimpsed the Eiffel Tower through the cab window. Paris was burned in my mind before I came, then a series of unfortunate events in the city added insult to injury. But on that bank of the Seine, with incessant rain sprinkling my face, a wave of catharsis washed over me. I came to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a moment of clarity. In the fiery aftermath, I found my Parisian reveries turning to reality, defiantly surviving like the Notre Dame.
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