I come from a family that goes to church only on occasional Christmas Eves, but somehow, I have come to love the feeling of being inside a church. I like the high ceilings, the wood and the stone and the gold leaf, and I like them best when they’re empty. There’s no other silence like it. My favorite church is in Paris, and it’s called Saint-Sulpice. I first loved it because my grandmother loved it, but now I love it because I do.
I never forget to go to Saint-Sulpice. I usually go on a weekday, when it’s quiet, and I make sure that I have some coins on me, so that I can light a candle. My grandmother used to ask me to light candles for my uncle Jerry and my aunt Millicent, who both passed away when I was a kid. This time, I lit a candle for her.
I don’t use the word majestic often, but Saint-Sulpice is majestic. I’ve seen it described as gloomy, but it’s never felt that way to me. I like that the walls are gray. When the light from the windows hits them, they give off a soft, humming glow. It always feels warmer in Saint-Sulpice than I expect it to. It also has a nice smell. Does it mean anything if I say that it smells like rocks? And very faintly, the incense from the Sunday before.
In my normal life, I don’t think a lot about my grandmother, but when I’m in Saint-Sulpice, I feel close to her.
My mother and my grandmother took a trip to Europe together in 1986. They were in Paris for a few days, and they stayed at the Hotel Recamier, on the Place Saint-Sulpice, next to the church. My grandmother had stayed there before, and she liked it because it wasn’t overly touristy. She thought the area felt neighborhoody, like someplace you’d want to live. Of course, it takes real means to live on the Place Saint-Sulpice; I’ve heard that Catherine Deneuve lives there, or once did. But the rest of us can visit, at least. My dad once took a picture of my mother there, near the fountain. She’s wearing her hair down, which she almost never does, and it’s held back with a wide headband. You can tell she felt very chic.
The summer that I was 18, I went backpacking around Europe with my cousin Katie, and in Paris, we stayed in a hostel near the Jardin du Luxembourg. I think it was on the boulevard Saint-Michel. I helped Katie to dye pink streaks in her hair in the bathroom. One day, we went to Saint-Sulpice to light our candles, and there was a flyer on the door for an organ concert that was to take place the following Sunday afternoon. We decided to go, and when the day came, we put on skirts. I remember feeling very grown up about it. But the chairs in Saint-Sulpice are very small, even for teenage girls, and we were antsy and bored. At some point, we started whispering to each other, and then the whispering led to giggling, and then an older woman in front of us turned around and, with immense scorn, told us to be quiet. We agreed later that she had been unnecessarily mean, but I felt bad about it. I thought about it for a long time afterward.
In any case, I always go to Saint-Sulpice. I went there two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, and then I went back again that Friday to sit on a bench by the fountain and have a solo picnic. I brought bread and cheese and Alain Milliat‘s pêche de vigne nectar. (Winnie introduced me to it, and it’s incredible. You can buy it at La Grande Epicerie de Paris.) There were two young Frenchmen sitting on the bench behind me, and they had a bag from the Pierre Hermé shop around the corner, on rue Bonaparte. Though they looked like a couple of American pro football players, they daintily passed macarons and a 2000 Feuilles back and forth, taking studious bites, analyzing. “The caramel flavor is good and deep, but also light somehow!” “It’s amazing how delicate the pastry on this millefeuille is! So caramelized!”
I ate my lunch and listened.