In the three weeks between my first and second covid vaccinations the chestnut trees have burst into leaf, followed in turn by the plane trees, dropping their dusty brown flowers on the pavements like confetti. Now if you could take the escalators up the outside of the Centre Pompidou – something none of us will be doing for some years to come – you would see the city laid out in patterns of grey and green: fresh, frothy April green breaking the lines of the zinc roofs and the stone walls.
Sunny days bring everyone out, confinement or not. Grandparents are everywhere. The unsung carers of the first, second and now third lockdowns can be seen pushing buggies, keeping an eye on little people on scooters and skateboards, commiserating with each other from behind their masks and there is plenty to commiserate about. Young people cluster on the banks of the Seine and the canals like flocks of migrant birds; the bars and cafes are doing good takeaway business even though their terrasses remain closed. ‘New life’ is surging up and out everywhere, unstoppable and vigorous despite the restrictions.
happy hammocking on the canal
I am vaccinated in one of the centres in the 6th arrondissement so, once I have sat out the required 15 minutes post-jab, I head towards the jardin du Luxembourg. At the English end of the garden I step into a world of blossom and scent.
The tables by the tennis courts are full of old men playing chess and chequers and further in, at the very centre, children are leaning out over the water, wielding sticks to poke the toy boats backwards and forwards across the pond, the boats bobbing about above the fish and alongside the ducks.
I am in no hurry to catch a bus back to the hurly-burly of my street so I make my way up the rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon. But my goal is not the Panthéon – it can’t be because like all public buildings, it is shut at present. I am paying a visit to another church, these being open to all comers although most of them lie empty. This time it is St Etienne du Mont, the church on the far corner of the place du Panthéon, a site which has been built on for worship since the early 6th century. Nothing of those very early churches now remains, although you can see the medieval Tour Clovis sticking up on the right in the confines of the lycée Henri 1V.
The church is perhaps best known as the final resting place of Ste Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, despite the fact that nothing except one small piece of her ankle bone has been kept there for some time now. During the Revolution her bones were burnt on the place de Grève and thrown into the Seine - or maybe the sewers, no one’s quite sure. All that remains is the tombstone on which the saint is reputed to have lain. It is housed in an elaborate sarcophagus, surrounded by offerings, candles and prayers of gratitude and supplication.
‘Ste Geneviève, nous vous confions notre fils. Qu’il retrouve le gout de travailler et la pratique de la foi.’ (Ste Genevieve, bless our son. Help him get a taste for hard work and bring him back to God.)
‘Ste Geneviève, je viens te supplier. Aide-moi encore. Donne-moi la grâce de pouvoir jeuner et prié. S’il te plait bénis-moi pour que Madame Sophie touche son cheque.’ (Ste Genevieve, please help me once more. Give me the strength to fast and pray. Bless me and let Madame Sophie get her cheque).
‘Ste Geneviève, aide-moi à avoir mes papiers français.’ (Ste Genevieve, please help me get my French papers).
The church is beautiful, and strange in its layout. Its most dramatic feature is the two intricately carved stone spiral staircases either side of the rood screen
and if you turn your back on that, the oldest and most magnificent organ case in Paris, a chef d’oeuvre built in 1630 by Jean Buron.
But for me for me nothing comes close to what is hidden away in the back of the church, if you follow the signs to the Sacristy. There you can see up close - in a way you never can, given the how high above your head most stained glass is in a church - some of the most beautiful stained glass of the 16th and early 17th century. A whole host of biblical stories right there at eye level, like an oversized child’s picture book done out in technicolour.
We are eleven days into Ramadan. By Eid al-Fitr on 13 May I should be in Scotland for a month or two but tonight the Paris sky is clear and above the empty streets the moon is a bright curve in the darkness.