Romantic Interlude at Mont-Saint-Michel
Karl M. Petruso
After threading our way through a narrow alley (a de facto gauntlet flanked by terminally cheeseball souvenir shops and fast-food créperies), we climbed endless stone staircases to reach the terrace, from which we could get a view of the breathtakingly dreary tidal flats in the midst of which Mont-Saint-Michel—essentially a storybook kind of castle containing an abbey and a honkin’ big church—was unaccountably constructed.
I gasped for breath and waited for my heart rate to stabilize. I wanted to kick myself for not bringing a bottle of water along. We were told that our guide would appear momentarily.
Then I saw her: a goddess who had stepped out of a dream.
She appeared unannounced and alone, standing at the center of the terrace. As if on cue, our group found ourselves drawn to her, kind of like the way the Eloi dropped everything and marched like zombies whenever the Morlocks sounded the sirens in the movie The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux (George Pal Productions, 1960).
As she gave us the boilerplate ground rules for a guided tour that would be etched into my memory forever (stay together, touch nothing, don’t hesitate to ask questions, etc.), our eyes met. And I had the very clear perception that she was speaking to me and me alone. It seemed as if we were the only two souls on that broad terrace.
This was somewhat unsettling, me being happily married to my current wife Nancy for 34 years and all. But no doubt about it: the experience produced in me what people of the French persuasion refer to as a frisson. We were communicating with our eyes, on a very spiritual plane, and the spectacular, Disney World kind of castle of Mont-Saint-Michel, with all its towers and spires and whatnot, would provide a dramatic, romantic backdrop for our budding relationship. As Kim noted, Walt Disney was actually of French extraction. His family was from Isney in Lincolnshire, England, on land given to the family by William the Conqueror. Hence he was d’Isney (i.e., "from Isney"). It’s a small world, isn’t it?
Anyway, she took us for a hike around the cloister, then the great hall where the senior monks ate, and the room where the rookie monks copied manuscripts. I tried to concentrate on what she was saying, but got lost in her golden hair and her large luminous gray eyes. (One important thing she said that I do remember, though: the refectory is 48.70 meters long.)
I didn’t realize until we were pretty far into our exhilarating but ultimately star-crossed relationship that I had never even actually caught her name. I tried surreptitiously, casually, to read the name printed on her white plastic Mont-Saint-Michel official guide’s badge. But my eyesight is not as acute as it once was, and anyway, it was pretty dark in that castle. It occurred to me that my students might have thought I was staring a little too intently at her left breast. But I was just trying to read her name. Honest. Finally I got it—the name, that is, not the breast: Centre des Monuments Nationaux.
Centre. What an exquisite name. And I’ve always had a thing for compound French names containing prepositions—I find them terribly exotic. They evoke power (e.g., Charles de Gaulle), wisdom (Alexis de Tocqueville), aristocracy (Marie de Antoinette) and fun-loving zaniness (Marquis de Sade). Centre is clearly a woman of breeding—doubtless of ancient Norman stock, from a highborn family that had perhaps recently fallen on hard times and sadly found it necessary to dip into capital. She is a proud woman, though, and I infer that she decided to press into service her considerable language skills and knowledge of Church history and medieval art and architecture. Teaching, after all, is a most honorable way to make a living, even if your “students” are a bunch of middle-aged, philistine, pasty, sunburned tourists who slather their noses with zinc oxide ointment and have absolutely no right to go out in public in guinea shirts, cargo shorts and espadrilles—morons who take thousands of ill-composed digital pictures they will never look at, of scenes they don’t look at even while they are photographing them, and couldn’t distinguish a flying buttress from a squinch if their lives depended on it.
Don’t get me started, okay? Just back off.
Centre spoke in an almost unbearably captivating lilt, using many picturesque anglicisms for which she asked our indulgence and for which I immediately forgave her (actually, as she told us, she specializes in leading Italian tour groups, to whom I assume she speaks Italian, or at least French with an Italian accent). She told us about “William ze Conquerant,” consistently using the French form of the epithet. The final word in almost every declarative sentence she spoke was “why” and the first word of each following sentence was “because.” For example: “Zees room ‘as too many columns, why? Because ze chancel is exactement above, and eet ees very ‘eavy, n’est-ce pas?” Her English was beyond charming: I could listen all day to these question-answer lectures of hers on the finer points of medieval architecture.
Our tour pressed on. We arrived at a room containing a humungous wooden wheel inside which slaves or prisoners or rookie monks (I forget exactly who) were forced to trudge, way back in the 15th century.
They used this primitive mechanism to winch big limestone blocks up a steep external ramp to construct the buildings on the summit. I got distracted thinking about those poor bastards walking inside that wheel like giant bipedal hamsters. As my mind wandered, my ardor for Centre began to cool somewhat. I stepped back and regained my bearings, and decided the time had come to review our lives together, objectively. What, after all, did Centre want from me? A long-term, meaningful, mutually satisfying relationship? A green card? A wild one-nighter? Was her irresistible charm merely cover for an ulterior motive, a darker agenda?
Hard as I resisted, I could not help but consider the painful possibility that there might have been other men before me, and that there might indeed be others after me. How could she treat me so indifferently after all we had been through together?
But we never got a chance to talk through our issues. The tour ended abruptly, a mere hour and a quarter after it had begun, back on the broad terrace; and besides, our group was running behind schedule and we still had a few student presentations to do. I decided to tip Centre generously, which I realized was risky, since she might interpret it as the big kiss-off. As I slipped her a 20-euro note and we gazed into each other’s eyes for what would likely be the very last time, I saw in her tender, vulnerable face a pantload of conflicted emotions. This reminded me of a fascinating article I read years ago in Reader’s Digest about the reason dogs stick their heads out of the windows of speeding cars. It’s because their sense of smell is so keen, and the scenery flying by gives them an ever-changing rush of almost hallucinogenic olfactory sensations. Anyway, could Centre have been panicking, realizing she would ever see me again? She was clearly confused. Tears were welling up in her eyes. Or maybe she just had allergies, it being early summer in France and all.
I turned away and ambled slowly, disconsolately, down the endless stone staircases and out through the castle gate, without looking back. I moped my way out to the coach, and spent a few minutes staring at the incoming tide, which was rapidly advancing into the lowest parking lot. I thought about the many tourists who were proud to have survived their climb all the way up to the terrace, only to gaze down in horror at the saltwater creeping up the hubcaps of their rented cars. It occurred to me that the very funnest thing of all you could do every day, if you worked in one of those cheeseball souvenir shops selling snow globes and cans of foie gras and so forth, would be to watch wild-eyed foreigners loping down the endless stone staircases heading for the gate, hoping to save their cars from being engulfed by the rising tide.
Anyway, back on the coach, I confided to Dale (who has always been there for me in difficult times) the story of my whirlwind relationship with Centre. He was very sympathetic. Our conversation was a profound bonding experience (in a regular-guy kind of way, of course). We talked for minutes on end, and finally I began to feel the healing wash over me.
Dale said, “I hope you let her down easy.”
“Of course I did,” I assured him, “Not only that, but I tipped her twenty big ones. I can’t say that there were no tears…but life inevitably, relentlessly, goes on. I will get past this, and I hope to God Centre will as well.”
Then Dale snorted, called me a big galoot and gave me a majorly noogie. I laughed and I cried uncontrollably as a bundle of intense pent-up emotions just came spilling out of me.
As our crack Arlesian coach driver Dominique sped us on our way, I fell into a deep sleep, emotionally exhausted. Later that evening, after checking into the hotel in Bayeux, I got me a pretty tasty croque monsieur at a créperie, and a tiramisu gelato cone for dessert. Then I went up to my room, watched replays of the day’s French Open matches on the tube, and turned in early. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what new adventures tomorrow would bring.
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