The famous cemetery in Paris is Père Lachaise, the largest in the city limits and the final resting place for Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, among others. I didn’t make it out there on my recent trip to Paris, but I did visit Montparnasse Cemetery, which is about a 20-minute walk from Luxembourg Gardens, in the 14th arrondisement. It’s split into neat sections by broad avenues, and the whole thing is surrounded by a tall wall, so it’s a nice little respite from the bustle of the city outside.
My friends and I tried to reconcile the two maps provided, which used different labeling systems, and in the end we managed to visit each of the graves we’d hoped to see. We went through and paid homage to some great artists.
And then I witnessed possibly the most French thing ever: two men drank beers and played Serge Gainsbourg songs next to his grave, the quiet guitar and plaintive accordion echoing through the quiet cemetery on a Friday afternoon.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.
Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.
Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.
In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.
Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).
In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.
Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désir. It both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.
I’ve been fortunate in my travels so far–not only have I not had really bad experiences with other people, but I’ve had some fantastic interactions that make me believe in the kindness of strangers. My favorite such story is when I visited my sister Emily in France in April 2008, and it’s my favorite not just because I got out of a jam but because the people who helped me out seemed the least likely to open their doors to a stranger. Preconceptions, what!
I was feeling quite proud of myself for cobbling together an itinerary of two flights from two different airlines to get the cheapest fare to Avignon from Chicago, but that backfired magnificently when my flight to Heathrow was delayed and there was no time for me to get to Gatwick in time to make my connecting flight. (Oh yes, did I mention that the two flights were to and from two different London airports that are an hour apart if you don’t factor in traffic, and that there were only two hours between landing in Heathrow and taking off in Gatwick, and that I’d called a car service the night before to get me to Gatwick on time, but when I tried to cancel after I realized there was no way I’d make my connecting flight, they still charged the full amount and I had to call my credit card company to get the charge removed and I received threatening letters from the car company for the next four months? Travelers, take note.)
After passing several uncomfortable hours in the airport, I was finally able to get on a plane on standby. True, it was going to Nice instead of Marseilles and I’d have to rearrange my train ticket to Avignon once I landed, but no matter, I was on my way to France. I settled in to my middle seat between a teenage girl zoning out on her headphones and an English businessman shaking his newspaper out in front of him. It was a cramped flight and I just wanted to land, turn on my phone (newly enabled for international travel), and call Emily to tell her I was that much closer to seeing her.
But of course that’s not how it went. We did indeed land, but when I turned on my phone, nothing happened. I knew the battery was charged, so who knows why it chose that exact moment to die, but regardless, I had no way of contacting Emily and I was pretty sure there wasn’t much time til the last train to Avignon for the day. So I turned to the businessman beside me and said, “I only have one pound left, but can I give it to you to use your phone real fast to call my sister? My phone seems to have died.” He told me not to be silly, he didn’t need the money, and handed over his phone. I called Emily and sure enough, there was one more train to Avignon and I’d need to hoof it to make it to the train station on time. Even then, I might not make it, so I warned Emily that I’d call her from a hostel if I didn’t make the train, and in that case I’d see her tomorrow. When I handed the phone back to the businessman, he was looking at me with horror.
“You’re going to try to make that train? There is definitely not enough time!” he said.
“Oh, well, I might make it. I’ll give it a shot,” I said casually.
“And what if you don’t make the train?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ll find a hostel somewhere and stay there. I’m sure there’s a listing of hostels at the train station.”
“That’s ridiculous. Do your parents know you travel like this?”
I didn’t care for his condescension, but he seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being, so I gave him a pass and repeated that it was fine. By this point, we had made our way off the plane to the baggage area, and he met up with his wife and son. I went outside to flag a cab to take me to the train station, but the businessman and his family chased after me and offered me a ride to the station instead, to save me money. I said sure, that sounded great, and I inwardly sighed with relief that I’d save that fifteen euros; as European vacations go, this one was being done on a shoestring budget. The man and his wife turned aside and spoke to each other in rapid French, while their preadolescent son and I looked awkwardly at one another.
“Why don’t you come home with us?” the businessman said, turning back to me.
“Um, what?” I replied, a bit stupidly.
“Yes, we will take you home and then tomorrow you can get the first train to Avignon,” his wife said in accented English.
“Oh, well, I think I can maybe still make the train tonight, and if not, there’s a hostel somewhere,” I tried.
“You won’t make that train,” he said frankly. “Come on, Fanette has made a great dinner and you can share our daughter’s room.”
Here is the point in the story where I’m sure some people would back away slowly, or splurge on a cab to a hotel in the city center. But I saw an opportunity not just to save some money but to spend time with new people, people who had just proved themselves very generous. I said yes without any further hesitation.
We drove for about 25 minutes past the city limits of Nice until we reached their house in Antibes, which was oh yes, a small mansion with a pool overlooking the Mediterranean. Did I mention that this businessman obviously did very well for himself?
Paul, as he revealed himself to be, did some type of finance work, and the family owned a house in London, this summer home in France, and also a Swiss chalet for skiing in the winter. Hot. Damn. As might be expected from that description, the house was beautiful, and the wine was expensive. After calling Emily to update her on the situation, we sat down to a delicious meal, and they asked all sorts of questions about my travels past and future. Paul continued to see me as a foolish young woman, I think, but I flatter myself that his teenage daughter might have found some inspiration in my tale. Except for maybe the part where I’d bungled every bit of transportation so far on this trip.
We talked politics over dinner, and it became clear that Paul was staunchly conservative, and didn’t think Bush had been doing such a bad job. Keep in mind that this was spring of ’08, when we were all in a fever about finally getting rid of Bush and bringing in Clinton or Obama. The discussion got quite spirited, but I will say that he kept it civil. We both thought the other naïve and irresponsible in politics, but we didn’t resort to name-calling and we kept coming back to the common ground we did have. It’s the type of political debate I think we all wish could be the norm but has become increasingly rare in the States.
Anyway, I think you can see why this is my favorite story of surprise hospitality. These people were rich conservatives, who saw my whole approach to travel and probably my whole life as dangerously slapdash and unfocused; hardly the kind of people known for helping out travelers in need. And yet they opened up their home to me, made me feel entirely comfortable, and gave me a ride to the train station the next day. What a great example they were setting for their kids, even if they did sit them down after I’d left and explain that there would be no trotting all over and staying who knows where for them.
I sent them a postcard from Germany later in that trip, but I’ve since lost the address, which really bums me out. I wanted to send more inspirational postcards to those kids and Christmas cards of gratitude to the parents. I wanted to keep this tenuous connection between us, to hold on to my own Good Samaritans and keep a tangible link to the kindness of strangers and the fortune of the traveler. Since I can’t do that directly, I do the next best thing to keep that spirit of spontaneous generosity alive and encourage it in others—I tell people this story.