The Other Side of the Church

As I slump here staring blankly at my screen in the aftermath of another wretched day of immigration procedure at the préfecture, tired but not able to sleep, malnourished but with no appetite, bored but with no motivation, I paradoxically feel compelled to sit up and type a blog post. Maybe it’s exactly the zombie-like fog I’m swimming in that inspires me to write—not about the disillusionment of feeling like a second class citizen every few months, of which I could spin countless yarns—but of something more positive, more “big picture”, in the same way we look back on a historical period by celebrating the wonderment of its accomplishments without being mired down by its quotidian hardships…

June 2009

I felt as if I were inside a familiar dream that day, that anxiety dream where I have only precious few moments to accomplish a task that I know is impossible to finish. It was my third trip to Paris in as many years and to both my despair and delight she was still closely guarding her best secrets, patiently dosing them out to me one at a time like a smart mother who spreads out cookies over several occasions to ensure the batch is appreciated. I was desperate to spend just a few more hours with the city, even if it was too early in my Paris career to know back then what every long-term visitor eventually understands—that the more you learn about this place the farther it gets from you, in the same way each successively larger telescope defines our galaxy’s edge just well enough to realize there are a million more beyond it.

Charlotte had already flown back to wait for me in New York the day before, leaving me alone to whisk through one last labyrinth of streets as the countdown to my departure ticked away as clearly as if I were already in the sterile corridors of Charles De Gaulle terminal A. I snapped touristic photos at every corner: the stalls overflowing with boar sausage and flour-dusted breads along the pedestrian section of rue du Buci, my makeshift lunch on a bench of the Gothic church garden of St-Séverin, and the narrow rue Frédéric Sauton which frames a distant view of Notre Dame’s center spire so effectively you’d think the street had been excavated for that purpose alone.

Time was running out and the familiar uneasy burning in my stomach that I knew so well from my dream had been ignited. I fired off one more exploratory shot, hurtling myself down a final avenue in hopes of adding one more evocative memory to the impressive stash I would be carrying home with me. Given the late hour I promised myself that the next eye-catching monument or street would have to be my last, and it happened to take the form of the understated grace and gestural flying buttresses of an unknown church, of which I took this photo:

My appreciation of having made one last discovery was mixed with the melancholy of an unavoidable goodbye. In retrospect it’s easy to downplay it but back then I felt cursed to have experienced an alternate version of my life with no guarantee that it would ever happen again. The emotion was strong enough to have fused in my mind the image of this church with the disappointment of being pulled out of Paris against my will.

February 2012

A day off work meant a leisurely stroll through the Latin Quarter and I’d decided to construct the day with a usual mix of the well-known and the unexplored. A quick lunch at home followed by this train and that train in a succession of muscle-memory station transfers brought me face to face with the archangel and water-spurting dragons of Place St-Michel, and heading east on foot I meandered to and fro with the luxury of no timetable and no particular ambition other than to see what the day would bring. A stop at a bookstore added to my messenger bag the weight of one new French grammar workbook, which would force me to finally polish some of the linguistic rough edges I’d been getting snagged on so often.

The weather was nice by February standards, just warm enough that sitting outside might be comfortable with a winter jacket and scarf, and I continued my random trajectory along rue Monge while keeping an eye out for one of the few cafes optimistic enough to have dragged out their sidewalk tables. As chance would have it the street led me to the same structure I had known two and a half years earlier, albeit from the opposite angle, and the modest outdoor seating of a cafe located directly across the street made it a no-brainer—this was my afternoon tea destiny.

The meaning was not lost on me. The same stone edifice that had once been the symbol of a tourist’s goodbye to Paris was now the same man’s leisurely spectacle at which he could marvel for as long as he wished to nurse a pot of tea. No impending departure flight, no uncertainty of ever being there again.

Sipping my Earl Grey and reflecting back on that bitter-sweet final day of my 2009 visit, I smiled to think of the bread and sausage on the rue du Buci, and how I now know its name comes from the portal of the city’s medieval wall that once stood there. I’ve since learned how the garden of church St-Séverin where I ate lunch that day has a secret tunnel running deep below it that the early Freemasons used for moving around undetected, and how the spire of Notre Dame which was so perfectly framed by rue Frédéric Sauton has a copper rooster at its peak that purportedly holds a piece of Christ’s original crown of thorns. All of the secrets I couldn’t possibly be privy to at the time now unfold for me like the familiar wrinkles of a favorite piece of clothing each time I emerge from the subway, which is a stark contrast to the uncharted sea of disjointed monuments that once made up the Paris in my mind.

I let the humbling moment wash over me as I soaked up appreciative eyefuls of the church—which I now know to be called Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet—that lay just beyond my tea and my new grammar book. As pedestrians passed with their glances I silently indulged in the possibility that a few of them considered me just another Parisian in an outdoor cafe, the same way they consider each of these beautiful monuments to be just another set-piece of their daily lives. Somehow during the short period of two and a half years the compass of my life had spun around and led me to this side of the church, with them, and in the time it took to finish my beverage there was likely a new dreamy tourist on the other side, feeling the unwanted pull of an airplane determined to yank him back into the real world, to force a goodbye he wasn’t ready to say. ■

So that, in a nutshell, is why the nastiness of being herded like animals in front an immigration building at 5:30am and all the temporary injustices that go with it will never tarnish the rights that this little plastic government ID card gives in return. The chance to continue exploring an incredible city without a countdown, and to celebrate this evening my second year of marriage with the woman with whom the whole adventure started, makes it a price you’d be foolish not to pay over and over again. Like so many other areas I’ve come to know well, this quiet one tucked away in the Latin Quarter will take on yet another shade of meaning and personal significance. It will now be the place where I—literally and metaphorically—moved to the other side of the church.


  • I am humbled by your writing and by the depth of your reflections. You’ve articulated so beautifully how I’ve come to feel about my favorite city: My appreciation of having made each new discovery is always mixed with the melancholy of an unavoidable goodbye. I someday hope to be as fortunate as you are to be “just one more Parisian at an outdoor café.” Even if it means occasionally having to stand in line for 10 hours at the Préfecture de Police — and even though I know I’ll never be a *true* Parisienne. Thanks for a wonderful read, Corey. J’ai hâte de te revoir bientôt !

    • Thanks for a great comment Heather. In fact your experience came to mind during certain moments of writing this and I thought you might relate :) I’m sure you wouldn’t take any of this for granted either. Looking forward to our exploratory walk(s) when you’re here in May!

  • I know we’ve talked about this before but I know that both of us feel that all the ridiculous cr*p we have to go through here in the ways of government waiting just seems to melt away when you can sit and reflect on how wonderful it is to just be able to be here and not have to leave after a few weeks like the tourists do. I, too, have waited countess hours and day after day returns to the precture and those are the days you just want to ring someone’s neck! Thank goodness for the little pleasures of tea, an outdoor cafe and history to look at to make it all worth while and to forget that the guillotine was there for a reason (to get those government people in line!). Life is sometimes grand here and sometime not, thank goodness for the sometimes grand parts or we wouldn’t be writing about those great pleasures we take in being here.

    • Thanks a lot Ashley, I know that you more than anyone gets it when it comes to overcoming the BS and managing to still keep the faith and the end of the day. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    • Thanks! We went to a fancy Thai restaurant near the Bastille part of town and had delicious overly-spicy curry. Yum! Then we came home and passed out from exhaustion, haha.

  • You, and your writing, are magnificent, and I thank you for enduring all that you do so you can bring me Paris with your words. A late Happy Anniversary wish to you and your lovely wife!

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