“That was travel… A dance across surfaces to see the face of everything and learn the meaning of very little.”
Thomas Keneally has one of his characters think this thought in his new novel, The Daughters of Mars, as she travels by train through Egypt to board the hospital ship Archimedes during World War I. The story tells of Australian nurses who serve at Gallipoli and then at the Western Front, an apt book to read while touring France.
The danger of skimming and never learning is as much a risk of life as it is travel but no doubt the tourist mentality heightens this risk as people skip from one famous site to another, record endlessly on their devices, but take very little time to absorb meaning.
An inquiring mind, open heart and keen eye are as useful in travel as in life to remedy the dearth of meaning that can so often diminish our days. On the other hand, sometimes the constant barrage of meaning in cathedrals and chateaus and cities and coffins is too much and some pleasant moments with a pistachio macaroon are just as important…
On our last day before returning to Paris we visited Francois 1’s château Chambord, possibly built along the architectural principles of the king’s favourite Italian artist and thinker, Leonardo da Vinci. Its central dual staircase which allows people to climb up entwining stairs without ever meeting is reminiscent of some of da Vinci’s drawings which we saw at Le Clos Luce, Amboise, where da Vinci lived and died in the service of Francois.
And the meaning of this imposing structure: a chance for the king to build his own château from scratch, to demonstrate his power and wealth, and to have extensive grounds for hunting. Now the tourist has conquered and at least we are free to share this indulgence and feel a connection with history, such as it is.
Perhaps as instructive as the architecture was sharing a meal in a nearby cafe afterwards and assisting the French waiter with a little English and no Italian explain to some slightly bewildered Venetian tourists with no English or French that the special of the day was fish. We Australians did somewhat better than the French waiter, no doubt because we come from Leichhardt! There was some admirable French indignation when the affable but fiery Italians refused to be served the dessert that came with the special of the day and we came to understand how Europe has so often found itself at war. There’s some meaning for you…
Speaking of war, having solved the riddle which is the location of the Europcar depot at Montparnasse (four levels underground marked by a six inch sign near the Pullman hotel and no where near where it is advertised as being located) we returned our hire car – undamaged but witness to some minor cursing – and after a pleasant evening with friends, went walking the next morning, past the Eiffel Tower, nonchalantly, to see L’Hôtel national des Invalides.
This imposing structure was built by Louis XIV as a home and hospital for aged and infirm soldiers but not content with its pleasing and unadorned chapel, he had a new private, royal chapel built known commonly as the Dome Church. Much later it became the resting place of Napoleon and several other national figures and at eye level is more aptly named (by me) ‘Le halle of massive coffins’. Napoleon is encased in no less than six coffins, the largest exterior one appearing to be the size of a large van but proportions are hard to determine in so grand a space. Much dusting required no doubt.
Having found seats on which we could recline to enjoy the dome ceiling we then toured the military museum which actually provided a very useful and brief history lesson on the origins of WWI and WWII. A group of young Australian men came through and while respectful in a Cronulla beach kind of way, seemed larger than life, loudly commenting and questioning as if the world belonged to them, carrying the same bravado many of our diggers did when they “toured” Europe in the early 1900s. It was impossible not to enjoy their confident if at times misinformed commentary but our national ‘presence’ must still be a mystery to the somewhat sombre French.
Coming out of this other-world towards the Seine, under the still watchful eyes of Napoleon, we walked back to our abode in Paris’ “15 district”, again passing the Eiffel Tower where I paused to trim my finger nails while a bride and groom had their photo taken and a scurry of segways surrounded us.