Walled Cities and Blind Saints
I’m not sure if I mentioned, but the campsite where I stayed, run by the city of Rennes (almost every french city has one, and they’ve all been rather damn good), is utterly over-run by rabbits. Hundreds. Step out of your tent and there they are, glaring back at you as if to ask what you’re looking at.
I’m looking at hoardes of rabbits, that’s what.
It took little time to leave Rennes in the morning. In fact, I’d gotten so good at packing up my stuff by the end of my Bretagne journey it seemed almost a shame not to need to do so before sunrise, with the stars still out and the moon just setting, again.
In France, all grandes lignes (major train-lines) pass through Paris. It isn’t that Paris is central to France, but mostly because Paris considers itself to be. And as much as I adore the city, I’ve utterly dreaded it equally. Imagine the most graceful people you’ve ever met, wearing clothes which fit precisely perfectly and are always precisely the exact weight and coverage required for whatever the weather. Now, imagine they built a city that extends near infinitely in all directions, with a transit system with precisely the amount of space required for said graceful people, tunnels through which they seem to glide effortlessly (yet expending enough energy to remain sleek). Meals which are precisely the perfect size for their bodies and incomes (which are gracefully significant), doors dimensioned according to their needs, and toilets so discrete they don’t need to sit, only bend their slender but well-formed legs slightly, nor use paper to clean themselves afterwards because, well, Parisiens are perfect.
I dread Paris for all these reasons and more (including the fact that respiration seems to require money, the city is so expensive), and I had forgotten that, in order to change from a train coming from the west of France to a train going to the east, you have to go to a different station. As a matter of fact, I realized this pretty much 10 minutes before arriving in Paris, and found myself, my graceless, maladroit self navigating the Paris metro between Gare Montparnasse and Gare d’Est.
The French metro has these bizarre pneumatic turnstiles, precisely timed and sized for a Parisien to pass through. Fail and you are trapped, embarassingly, with all your bags toppled upon you as strange tubes attempted to close around you and the sleek and near invisible Parisiens suddenly become quite visibly present, as they’re trapping you against the turnstyle which won’t open for you any longer and oh! you forgot to take your ticket back out of the machine.
Actually, that was last time. Maybe one of the greatest accomplishments of my adult life occured this day. I wasn’t trapped. I found my way immediately through the Metro. Only one parisien dog barked at me. I even exchanged kinds and humorous words with some Parisiens, who laughed at what I said. I was all grace, all sleekness, all…Paris.
For, like, 15 minutes. Then I spilled some coffee when I got on the train for Strasbourg.
In Strasbourg, I was met by my friend Duf at the station. We met 9 years ago, through a punk friend of hers who grabbed my then-lover and I along on a drinking binge our fourth day in Strasbourg, eventually inviting us to the house of his friend (who unknown to me until a few days ago, had explicitly asked him no longer to bring home strays just before he brings us home) to await her return.
She’s, like, pissed. Dead silent. Our french sucks, he’s unhelpful, and she’s eating with an aura of contemplative rage. And I’m a bit drunk. And when she’s finished eating, she asks, “who the fuck are you?”
Such events, you should know, are precisely how to make good friends.
You would think it would be an utter relief to be inside of an apartment after so much camping. And it is, actually, but there’s a bit of adjustment required. Sleeping under stars and trees, rising and sleeping when you awaken and when you pass out, and, you know, pissing wherever’s convenient–all rather liberating habits. Not so good for being in-of-doors, and it took me a while to re-civilize. I felt a bit like a savage wild wood-man, unsure what to do with himself.
But society’s got it’s benefits. Clean clothes, showers, not needing to haul water, and, fuck– the food’s been damn nice. The night before, we ate a Raclette, a bit like a reverse fondue, or think a chinese hot-pot except with meat and cheese–one melts ones own cheese over a burner, scrapes it over potatoes, and eats. Simple yet utterly profound. We ate this with Duf’s two neighbors, and one of them was assigned to babysit me today. Where do you take a man uncertain what to do with himself in a city after the forest?
To watch monkeys, of course.
He and I spent most of the day watching animals, playing music (I’ve got like 8 new songs I want to learn, mostly yiddish) and hanging with Czech punks in a city square. The city is like a forest, without trees, a world full of animals who talk (in a language that isn’t quite mine yet, but a little easier than willow or birch).
I’m not quite in order here, as there’s much more to tell than I’ve got the mind for at the moment. I feel I should tell you about Strasbourg and its history, or the epic sandstone cathedral, or the old mills and gorgeous canals, the alsatian architecture and the insane food.
What I really want to talk about, however, is Keups, Duf’s dog. Or, that is, animals in general. It’s strange to say, but I think I can say it honestly–I never really noticed animals until this trip. I’ve given attention to certain birds who seem to try to tell me something, sure, or to my former cat, or to the occasional racoon, but, really, never to this degree.
I woke this day remembering a dream I’d had in the night: I was surrounded by animals who spoke a language I understood, that I’d had to learn, and they told me something both relieving and obscure: “we’re glad you’ll take our side.” A friend mentioned an animal spirit had prompted him to write me. Another who works with that same spirit praised my writing. And I’d sensed that same spirit at my back (I’m not much for animal guides, or wasn’t until…now, I guess).
I’ve held a toad for the first time in my life walking down a chemin. A boar ate my salami (which, someone recently pointed out, is a bit cannibalistic). Ravens have stared me down, as have rabbits (and I’m not sure which is more fierce). I watched a mole play by a holy well. I’ve finally seen magpies, and a large hawk relatively close. And, well, there’s Keups, the dog, who’s more fun than you can imagine.
Strange, though, to realize I’ve never given attention to what the animals are really on about until now. Certainly studying druidry has given me a prompting for this, but for the most part I’ve just been out (sometimes literally) hugging trees. But I’ve been out-of-doors for several weeks with no internet, no phone, and no companion, in a foreign country. This, certainly, has helped too.
Oh, and Keups is damn cool. There’s a running joke now that we’re in love and going to get married.
Strasbourg is a walled city, walled also by a fortresses. Strategic, and all that. Massive cathedral on an island made by canals (really, I could show you photos, but why bother? Come see it yourself, please.) Full of people, absurdly full of life. Gorgeous, enticing. Precisely the sort of place in which one wants to lose oneself. Good friends already, fascinating sights, more than enough to permanently distract.
Cities are like this, and European cities much more. For a gay man, a city’s pretty much essential to survival, but for a druid or any other spiritually-incline person, it presents a massive problem. Not so much forest, not so much nature, and almost no quiet.
I think most spiritual people face this, and it’s recently become a more looming difficulty for me. When you start giving attention to intimations and intutions and spirits and such, downtown’s an almost painful place to be. All the reasons why cities are alluring to those seeking culture and freedom become distractions and barriers to spiritual pursuits. The choices are typically: lose oneself in the everyday and its demands and sacrifice the voice of the soul, or cloister oneself away from everything in order to listen to the soul but sacrifice the ability to manifest any truths thus gleaned into the world.
Balance is near impossible. Coming out of the intense silences and whicpers of Bretagne to the life and press of Strasbourg has been a bit difficult. To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed what was happening to me, until my host stated that it seemed like I needed time alone.
After six hours to myself, thinking, writing by a river, reading, watching the world from an attention less direct, I felt eminently better. Returned, drank with Duf and her neighbors and another who’d I’d met with her 9 years before, more alive, less torn between the now and the eternal.
So, huh. Again, wasn’t sure if I was still on pilgrimage until today.
For not having seen me for 9 years, my friend certainly divined the utterly perfect place to take a whimsical, melancholy student of druidry just out of several weeks in Bretagne, having a bit of trouble adjusting to society again.
We left near 9 in the morning with her friend Guillame, driving a bit north of Strasbourg to an alsatian mountain named for the patron saint of blindness, Sainte Oidele. Story’s rather simple–sometime in the 7th century, a blind girl was baptised and found her sight returned to her. Her father kills her brother by beheading him, she brings him back to life, and then her father’s okay with her becoming Christian instead of pagan, like him. The story’s a bit different from St. Barbara (only one of two saints I seem to get along with so far), who’s father built a tower to keep her from marrying a christian and then God struck him dead with lightening.
And, like all kinds of other Christian saints, she, of course, decides to build a monastery on the site of an ancient pagan mountain, where there’s a holy well. And, interestingly, parallel to the story of Saint Gwenole and Saint Corentin, she builds her holy place on the top of a mountain already ringed with strange, ancient fortifications.
That is, Mont Saint Odile is not very different from Menez-Hom, the visions at which still haunt me severely.
One of the stone-stacks of the Druid’s Grotto
Ringing the mountain, towards the top, are strange fortifications with unknown purpose. Called Maennelstein in German and Le mur de Paien (The Pagan Wall) in French, it crowns the hill just under a site called Le grotte des druides (the Druid Grotto), the holy springs (there are several, one of which is said to cure blindness), and the summit where Sainte Odile built her monastery.
Guillaume changed to mentioned the Dahu, a mythical beast like a goat except with two legs longer than the other two so it can ascend sideways. There’s another connection between Mont St. Odile and Menez-Hom: Dahut, the sorceress who drowned the city of Ys and who was said to have been drowned in turn by St. Corentin, is also said to have been turned into a Dahu, and if my memory serves me correctly, St. Odile in at least one place I’ve read is one of the saints said to have done this.
I need a library, like, now.
Also, not that I’ve been necessarily keeping score, but I’ve gotten to see two saint’s relics now, the skull of a franciscan saint in Quimper (said to bring fortune, of all things) and the sarcophagus of Saint Odile.
I leave Strasbourg on Monday for Berlin. I’m not yet certain what I’ll find there. More than likely, just as now and before, more questions I never thought to ask.