We are in Paris, having survived the tender mercies of Eurostar’s ‘special assistance’ (v kind, v helpful, v unpleasant experience of being a kind of disability Prince Phillip), a terrifying cab driver (who, I am sure, called us ‘whores’ all the way to 1st), our equally terrifying German landlord, and the deathspiral that is our building’s staircase.
You reach Eglise Saint-Eustache via Les Halles, which on Sundays is a kind of big abandoned Disneyland, all shiny concrete steps and cheerfully hairy hedges. There’s a huge central avenue which, on entrance, I managed to miss entirely; it’s full of listless teenagers and very elderly French couples, whom I adore because I can actually understand their accents. The church rises behind Les Halles – above and behind, in fact, sunkissed and complacent, beautiful and self-assured in its cloud of pale stone. The rather hit-and-miss English of the .50 euros guide-sheet describes the church as an ‘harmonious edifice’, which I think gets it about right. The southern side of the church (like all of Paris, like the building in which I currently live) is undergoing the inevitable dusty renovations, and so worshippers enter across planks (accessible planks, though, so A+), greeted by an elderly woman (really quite arrestingly toothless) hoping to attract extra communicants for the morning or evening services.
I love big Catholic churches; they manage to be simultaneously cavernous and warren-like. The stations of the Cross and the individual chapels make exploring much more of a journey than the simple, see-what-there-is layout of your average Anglican church. Predictably beautiful, Saint-Eustache foregrounds its vie culturelle and its vie solidaire as much as the usual routine of messes, and the practical opportunities the place offers suggest that the church’s commitment is genuine. As well as confession, you could see the sacristan or a priest for lay counselling, join any number of groups for various secular or spiritual purposes, and, well, there was the free organ recital, in which the organist managed to predict exactly the sounds of the Day of Judgment approximately once every ten minutes. An odd thing, to see people all sitting in a church listening not looking. I started wondering what would happen if it actually were the Day of Judgment, and if the CoE has a contingency plan for such an eventuality, but then I realised I was feeling dehydrated and decided to head home.
France is supposedly a secular state but a Sunday in Paris – the juxtaposition of ubiquitous metal shutters with their ubiquitous aerosol coating of ethnicity-based slurs – indicates that, well, it’s still a country of, er, religious racists. The one supermarket we managed to find (we ended up using a tramp as a landmark, oh dear) was, apart from us, patronised entirely by North African women and incredibly skinny gay men. It had the weirdest vegetable selection I’ve ever seen, but also JAMBISCUITS. I don’t know what these are called, because we’ve thrown away the box, because we’ve already eaten them all. After discovering that they were made with pectin, my vegan-to-the-point-of-obstreporousness companion developped an instant addiction. They come with pictures of kittens on. We’re going to buy more tomorrow. In a shock twist of fate, the French have yet to embrace the ‘free-from’ section of supermarkets. In deference to said militant veganism, no products containing DEATH have been purchased, although I did eat the world’s largest tuna-and-cheese crepe last night, in a move to establish my RIGHTS and personality. Vegan ran from room. Steak-eating friend arrives on Friday; I look forward to sharing some tasty, tasty murder.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.