Essay: In Europe, Sharing Moments With History

Written By wartini cantika on Kamis, 11 Oktober 2012 | 17.35

Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

The Hameau de la Reine in Versailles, where Marie Antoinette played milkmaid.

IT'S common enough to get lost in European cities, with their narrow, winding streets that seem to have been traced by dazed sheep long before mass tourism; those confusing signs in strange languages; and locals who sometimes make a point of pretending not to understand, even when they do. But wandering aimlessly can be a goal in itself. How else would one stumble upon that extraordinary bakery, that antiques shop full of peculiar dolls, that amazing bistro and the occasional memorable scene — a real Italian drug deal, a couple deep in the shadows, the perfect round Chinese face aglow in front of a poster of the Mona Lisa?

I've been fortunate enough to have been a foreign correspondent for most of the last 30 years — in Europe, Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and back to Europe again, where I am now the chief of the Paris bureau. I've always tried to find a few spots of respite and contemplation that I can think of as my own. No one ever really stops being a tourist, I'm convinced, looking for that unique memory or connection that makes an iconic city seem personal, at least for a little while.

In cities like Paris, Berlin and Prague, I have been happy to find places where the urban buzz and crush of big crowds fades slowly away. Places where I can lose myself, that is.

That can happen in a park or garden, and in the middle of a city, too. But usually, for me, these moments of connection come from a confrontation with the past that produces a shock of comprehension, a sense of what an earlier world called "the great chain of being."

A fond memory: wandering around Versailles at closing time — well, past it, actually, with the sun setting over the extraordinary gardens — and stumbling upon the Hameau de la Reine, the bizarrely beautiful hamlet Marie Antoinette had built for herself. It was also a working farm, a place where she could pretend to be an ordinary milkmaid.

At the time, I wasn't sure where I was, and there was no one around. It felt both private and stolen: the beauty of the gardens; the absurdity of these mock-humble buildings in such rarefied surroundings; the tragedy of the queen, dressed as a peasant, with her milk buckets of Sèvres porcelain painted with her coat of arms. It's hard enough, no matter how much one has read, to get one's mind into the habits and patterns of someone so distant, so privileged and so thoroughly despised by history, her head cut off in the Place de la Révolution, which was renamed Concorde only as a gesture of reconciliation.

I have found a similar sense of peace and history in the Basilica of St.-Denis, in a busy, noisy, multiethnic northern suburb of Paris far from the embellishments, tourist crowds and hawkers of Notre-Dame. The church dates from the 12th century, and its beauty stems from the transition of the Romanesque to the Gothic. But my attraction is not to the architecture, but to the collection of royal tombs. This is where nearly all the kings of France and their families are buried, and where the headless corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette also, finally, came to rest.

The tombs and sarcophagi are beautiful, in their way, but also serve as a kind of memento mori in the largest sense. These all-powerful individuals, who were thought to have been invested by God, were in death treated worse than peasants. During the revolution, the corpses were dug up, buried in mass graves and covered with lime. Napoleon reopened the church but left the bones where they were; only in 1817 were the pits opened and the bits of royal skeletons, all jumbled together, moved to an ossuary in the church. And only in 2004 was the mummified heart of the dauphin — who was to have been Louis XVII, but was imprisoned from the age of 7 until his death at 10 — brought to rest in a crypt in the church.

During the revolution, the tombs themselves were saved in the name of art, while the bodies were desecrated in the name of equality, fraternity and liberty. Worth a thought, perhaps, and worth a visit, especially when one emerges to see a more realistic contemporary Paris: poorer, more ethnically diverse, more Muslim and in most ways more vivid than what one encounters on the Rue de Rivoli or in St.-Germain.

STEVEN ERLANGER is chief of the Paris bureau of The Times.

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